For perhaps the first time in a career spanning over two decades, guitarist, singer and Canadian legend Devin ‘HevyDevy’ Townsend is on the verge of an epiphany.
With his latest album from the Devin Townsend Project, the 44-year-old has grown closer than ever to both his bandmates and his audience, with the latter group rapidly expanding.
Transcendence is seeing the kind of success rarely reserved for music in Townsend’s ‘genre’, whatever the hell that happens to be at the time. It’s already reached number ten in the ARIA charts locally, and soared as high as number two in Finland’s national charts, where Townsend is touring when he speaks with the BRAG.
“I wonder if it has a significant amount to do with the way that it sounds,” he says, his voice heavy with all the sleep he’s not properly caught up on thanks to his intensive tour cycle. “I’ve honestly thought that if you wrap up the way you’re thinking or your aesthetic in a covering that is current, you can basically say whatever you want. Years ago with City, with Strapping [Young Lad], we had an engineer and mixer who was doing all this hip stuff at the time, Daniel [Bergstrand] – it was popular because of that, at least in part.
“With this one, maybe it’s just the old adage [that] you just keep showing up and eventually they have a seat for you,” he laughs. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, buddy: maybe people overall are like, ‘OK, this fucker’s not going away, let’s listen to it, see what happens.’”
Since Townsend’s emergence in the music scene in 1993 – he toured with the legendary Steve Vai before forming metal overloaders Strapping Young Lad – his one reliable trait has been his unreliability. (That and a consistent output, given the 23 studio albums he’s released across his career.) As such, while he’s ready to admit the potential necessity of anniversary shows, there are parts of his discography he’s unlikely to revisit in a live space ever again.
“I feel bad being so resistant towards Strapping, but it’s two things,” he says. “First off: Alien, The New Black, all that stuff was so important to me. It’s not something I resent or reject, [but] these records to me are of very little significance. They’re just the exhaust of a process. Strapping was something that I wrote about and solved, in a lot of ways.
“If I just go out and start doing reunion shows and that sort of thing, that’s what my life is gonna become again, and I’ve got no time for that, dude,” he laughs. “I would rather dig a ditch than impose that negative environment again, one that caused me a lot of fucking problems at the time.”
As an artist, Townsend has two driving factors: honesty and impulsiveness. He has flirted with genres as diverse as extreme metal (SYL), country/folk (with Casualties Of Cool), ambient/new age (in solo album Ocean Machine: Biomech), and the epic, symphonic prog rock of DTP.
“Two things have remained consistent amidst a barrage of inconsistency, and that is I do what I want to do, and if I’m compelled to do something, it’s coming from a place of authenticity,” he says. “As a result of that, even if it has a different face, it’s the same shit.
“There’s not a lot of honest shit going on right now, and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here, but I’m not trying to feed you a line. It’s almost clear to me that DTP is flirting with an expiry date, so as much as Transcendence has been a successful effort for us, it also took a tonne of effort for me to care about this direction still.”
The focus of Transcendence is itself a duality – the artist transcending himself and his former processes, and humanity’s transcendence beyond religion. Generally, politics and religion are “shit” that Townsend doesn’t want to get into, focused as he is on entertaining, providing an escape and putting out positive energy. But, given Transcendence’s album cover – a mesh of diverse religious icons – it seems an unavoidable part of the conversation.
“People have asked me for years, ‘Are you religious because you’re singing about all this stuff, the divine or the infinite or whatever?’, and I think it really loses what it is I’m trying to do if it adheres to anything,” he says.
“The different metaphors in all this stuff – even in the stuff that I’ve done – leads people to divisiveness. [There are] all these wars and all this shit based on something that’s just fundamentally awesome and beautiful: the universe or nature or death, birth … All these big things are the only things I’m interested in writing about, really. That and coffee drinking aliens, but even that is undoubtedly a metaphor for it in some way. It’s the only thing that interests me, or has interested me. Even before acid.”
Naturally, he’s come up against resistance from the faithful – one particularly cruel example saw Townsend receiving hate mail from an anonymous Australian. “I was working on Epicloud and I had a gospel choir, and I was trying to make something beautiful and heavy and I had this random package come from Australia,” he says.
“It was somebody who had printed out a tonne of stuff from the Bible and sent it to me, and they basically said that everything that I do is a sin, [that] anybody that I love is fucked.
“I went back to the studio and I talked to the choir … and the guy who ran the choir had this great story. He said, ‘I’m a black man, I’m gay. I’ve spent all this time hiding my sexuality, but when I finally felt like it was important for me to let it out, I was just so hurt by [how] this congregation that I’d spent my entire life devoted to reacted.’
“So he said, ‘I didn’t know what to do, I just wanted to hurt in return. But this is where I learned about the concept of grace: you’ve gotta forgive people for their cruelty towards you or else all you’re gonna do is carry that energy.’
“So then we tracked the song ‘Grace’. It was a cool moment, because they knew that I wasn’t a religious guy necessarily, but it doesn’t matter. I think that’s what the concept of transcendence is.
“I want people to be nice to each other … I want to be conscious of things that I say and I do, and I want to help people: but it has nothing to do with religion.”