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INTERVIEW: Devin Townsend
Tom O'Boyle , October 24th, 2014 11:56

Tom O'Boyle talks to Townsend about his upcoming Ziltoid opus, double album Z² released next week, which finds him combining his twin penchants for pop-metal and extraterrestrial operatics

Ziltoid the Omniscient is not only a fourth dimensional extra terrestrial-cum-hand puppet hell-bent on claiming Earth's coffee as his own. He was also, at his inception, the embodiment of Devin Townsend's existential frustrations. The first Ziltoid record heralded a sea change that saw him distance himself from the extremities of his former band Strapping Young Lad, launching him into his most successful and sonically diverse period to date, culminating with the recently-released Casualties Of Cool, a cosmic blend of country and the blues. The forthcoming , divided across two discs, is the sound of an artist torn between satisfying himself and commercial expectation. Its first disc, Sky Blue, delivers yet more of the glossy, epic pop-metal he pioneered on 2009's Addicted and perfected on 2012's Epicloud, pristine prisms of crystal clear riffing through which rainbows of surging choral harmony refract. There is the distinct feeling you've heard it all before, but his knack for a hook and melody, and the surging rushes of sheer, joyous positivity that they engender are undeniable. The second disc, 'Dark Matters', sees the return of Ziltoid in an expanded narrative, full of scatological humour and operatic histrionics. So far, so Ziltoid; but not quite what fans of the first record may be expecting. This is Townsend's War Of The Worlds; not so much songs as themes bolstering the unfolding melodrama. They are some of his most ambitiously elaborate compositions yet. There is no one else making music that sounds like this, because no one else could. On the eve of approaching intergalactic war, the Quietus opened hailing frequencies and spoke to humanity's last best hope for salvation, finding a hero more reluctant than his many adoring fans may imagine.

It feels like the concept has evolved since the first Ziltoid record. What does the character represent now?

Devin Townsend: Something much different. In the beginning it was a personal trip based on life changes in many aspects. Ziltoid became a way for me to personify and exaggerate an aspect of my personality that I was conflicted about. Plus, it was exciting to me, puppets and sci-fi; it was something different. Now, more than the story having evolved I would just say that it's expanded, because I'm crap at writing stories, and that is painfully obvious. I really like writing this type of music; it's random and [uses] musically liberated ways of putting harmonically different elements together and forcing them to work. However, the limitations commercially of that, and the knowledge that it's pretty wanky stuff compels me to put a story on it, because then I feel like I can illustrate a story with the music; it gives it a reason to be.

Is this where Sky Blue comes in? As a commercially viable companion?

DT: [laughs] In light of being honest with you, when I first proposed Ziltoid 2 to the label, they askedm "What's your plan?", and I'm like, "Well, we're going to follow up Epicloud and the five years of touring we've done in support of that style with an incredibly expensive puppet show about farting aliens…"

And they didn't want to go for that?

DT: Well they didn't, to be honest.

I'm somewhat perplexed by that -

DTL Me too, me too.

- your discography is diverse and pretty 'out there'; surely Casualties Of Cool recently achieving 546% of its crowdfunding target is proof that there is an audience out there interested in hearing whatever you do.

DT: That's how I feel, but there it is. But here's the other thing, it's not me against the conservative curmudgeons at the label. At this point I am part of a team and as much as I am a figurehead, the success of it is also based on the other people. There's an element of compromise. The end result is finding a way to retain my newer audience, interested in the Addicted/Epicloud material. So Sky Blue started life as a compromise, and I thought I'd be able to phone it in, just shit out another Epicloud so that I could do my Ziltoid thing. After I'd committed to it I realised it was just not resonating, but it ended up being something I'm incredibly proud of; even more so perhaps than Dark Matters. The process forced me to really think about where I was in life.

All of your records feel like you have been through that process. They feel like a document of where you were at that moment in time - how you feel really translates.

DT: I hear you, and I think that's why is what it is. I'm really happy with it for reasons beyond whether it's the heaviest, or the best thing I've ever done, or whatever, more because it's a completely accurate representation of the chaos of the past year. It's a conflict of many different emotions. For example, amidst its writing, a bunch of people I knew died -

I'm sorry to hear that.

DT: It's life, right? Everybody has that. It can be grim, but amidst that I'm trying to write a follow-up to something as positive-sounding as Epicloud, and I hated it. That's why Sky Blue ended up about being depressed. The whole point of the record is that you get through it, don't you?

How do you feel about the industry's portrayal of you these days?

DT: Well, I'm paying my rent, you know what I mean? However people choose to portray me is okay because I'm being honest with my work and I try and be as honest as I can with my words, so if people want to think of me as the crazy mad scientist guy, fuck it, I don't care. I know I'm not crazy, as romantic an image as that is. There are so many bands in the world that people have to find an angle, so I understand it.

It feels like there is a tonal difference in your music these days, like you've progressed from an exploration of personal catharsis to a generalised manifesto of positivity. To what extent would you agree with that?

DT: There are records like Epicloud that are exceedingly positive and intentionally so, but I would question it only based on the fact that my process is so instinctive that there's never really a purpose. I don't have a message. I'm totally oblivious. It's less about promoting an agenda as it is about articulating the theme that I find myself in. I think that becomes confusing for the people that ask me, "Why can't you do Strapping again?", and my answer is because the function of how I do things is about resolving them and then moving on.

Do you feel obligated to write a certain style of music to satisfy your fan base?

DT: Yeah, sure. I appreciate the fact that people want to hear stuff like Strapping because I like it, I loved it. It was exactly what I wanted to do at the time, but how do you explain to people that there are physical and mental limitations that literally prevent me from doing that? It's exhausting in ways that I don't want, and don't have, to do anymore.

There are still elements of it in what you're doing though, right? The track 'Ziltoid Goes Home', for example.

DT: Sure, but I can't do that as ferociously live as I once did - it took me ages to record that song. I had to stop in between takes to clean the shit out of my underwear, you know?

Let's talk about the term 'cheesy'.

DT: [laughs].

It's a term I've heard used in criticism of you, but it's also a term you use self-referentially at the end of .

DT: I tried cheesy on for size. There are elements of what I do that are really fucking cheesy, like really fucking cheesy, but it serves a purpose - it's what I felt like doing. Dude, I came up in the 80s! I love Def Leppard, I love 70s musicals - it's all cheesy as shit, but as a method of understanding my motivations musically and personally, sometimes that's what appears on the plate.

Is it true that you plan to take an extended hiatus after Ziltoid?

DT: The other day I got interviewed by a bunch of people in the Czech Republic when I was fucking shot. had tons of problems, I had a week to deliver it, the mix sucked; it was all just chaos, and someone said, "What are you going to do after?" and I said: "Honestly, I'm going to take a fucking year off, fuck this." But I can't take a year off, holy shit! I've chosen a genre where I can't afford to! If I've learned anything from it's to be a little more reserved when it comes to committing to things just by saying them out loud. What I need to do is try and a find way to combat my propensity for deciding to do a million things and having them all snowball at the same time!

Z² is out on October 27 via HevyDevy; head here for the album's website