DEVIN TOWNSEND On Performing Acoustically: 'It's Helped Me Confront My Fear'
September 14, 2019
Devin Townsend (STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, DEVIN TOWNSEND BAND, DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT) recently spoke with Australia's Heavy magazine. The full conversation can be streamed below. A few excerpts follow (as transcribed by BLABBERMOUTH.NET).
On why he decided to embark on acoustic tours:
Devin: "Over the past few years, I began to view live performance as more of replicating music than playing it. To be honest, it got to the point where I started to not resent it, but start to feel disconnected from live performance in a lot of ways. I think it became overly automated for me — there was a lot of backing tracks and click tracks and computers and all these things. It was a really cool and, in my opinion, effective performance tool, but the vision that I have for music is one that is important enough for me to try and get right in this lifetime, and I haven't gotten it right yet. It's as simple as that — I haven't gotten it right, whether it was STRAPPING or DTP or DTB or these records, anything. It's all a work in progress, and I just feel like it's important enough for me to pursue it. I basically stripped it all back — I broke up the band; I made the record 'Empath', which allowed me to do a whole bunch of different styles, mix it myself and really analyze my relationship with every component of my musical identity. The acoustic shows act as the equivalent way of me stripping it back in a live venue. By just showing up with an acoustic guitar, as much as it may imply, like, folky, 'Kumbaya' sort of goings-on, it hopefully proves to the audience — because I know it does to me — that these songs, whether or not it's DTP or STRAPPING or 'Empath' or whatever on acoustic, have the same emotional impact. Without having all that stuff to hide behind, it really allows me to perform and sing and play and be present in a way that, when I finally get to doing 'Empath' in its entirety and then what I hope to do in the next few years, I will have had that experience. It's been invaluable to me thus far."
On what he's learned from stripping down his songs:
Devin: "I think the thing that I've discovered more than anything else is that the emotional component of this music exists regardless of how it's decorated. Whether or not it's got choirs and orchestras and 400 tracks of crap on it, it's like with just an acoustic guitar and some reverb and my voice, I feel very similarly about this music. I think the most enlightening thing about that to me is it made me recognize that all this music is written like that. However layered these albums end up being — and admittedly, some of them are incredibly layered — they all started with me and a guitar... Some of them simply don't work on an acoustic. I might have written them with a guitar, but it's with a mind towards the layering. A lot of times, people have been critical of my work because of my use of reverb and echo. They think, 'Maybe you should just take all that off. Maybe you just strip it back.' My argument with that is that echo is more than an effect for me. It's a compositional tool. I use so much echo, but for a very practical purpose. If I hit a note and it sustains with the echo, I can hear how that note interacts with the next passage... With that, some of the songs that are more difficult to articulate, the echo is what allows me to pull it off in this format."
On crafting his acoustic sets:
Devin: "It's a combination of what I wanted to play and what I thought would work well in this format, but also to take in requests from people. It's a good problem to have, but when you've got as many records as I [do], we're looking a catalog of 300 or 400 songs. You can choose 20 — go. You're like, 'Wait a minute — I don't know what will work.' There's a bit of trial and error in it, and fortunately, you can tell pretty quickly if a song is going to work or not in that format. I've been doing these acoustic shows now for about a year, and it's gotten to the point where I've got a much better understanding of what works and what doesn't."
On how he's changed from playing acoustically:
Devin: "It's helped me confront my fear... Being an adept performer, I can get up on any stage, basically, and do my thing, but I think what ends up happening after a while with the level of production that I've been carrying and the parameters the live gigs were working under with click tracks and lights being synced up and video and backing tracks and all that stuff, is that it gives you something really to hide behind. When you get out on stage, if you're afraid or you're socially in a position where you don't feel like being around people, it's much easier to phone it in in that environment. You do your rock moves, one through forty-three or whatever, and you say those lines between the songs that you know work or the joke between this little bit here and that one particular movement. It become a pantomime in a weird way, and I think anybody who's toured as much as I [have] would agree with that. By doing this in a more intimate setting, it forces to me improvise more. It forces me to be more present with people, because if you're not present, it's clear as day. There's no hiding a bad mood, no hiding social anxiety when it's just you and a guitar. What I have learned is that by and large, the audience that I'm fortunate to have are good people... I think because the function of my music is to try and help rather than hinder. I try to make music that is of some value to people's day rather than just abstract complaining or brutal ugliness, although there's a place for both of those things. The foundation of my music is still rooted in, 'How can I help?', as opposed to cause more problems. There's a real symbiotic thing that I have found that has happened as a result of doing these more intimate shows, where you are really in connection with people and you realize in a lot of ways there's nothing to fear. When it does take the next step, once I'm through this phase and I finally do 'Empath' in its entirety with three drummers and orchestras and choirs and all these things that I hope to achieve in my career that I'm really excited about, having had this experience really helps. A lot of the 'Empath' tour cycle and the 'Empath' cycle in general is about facing these fears — just getting over it — and I guess that's been a fear of mine, the audience."
Joining Devin on "Empath" is Frank Zappa alumni Mike Keneally as music director, as well as Morgan Ågren (MATS AND MORGAN, FRANK ZAPPA, FREDRIK THORDENDAL),Anup Sastry (MONUMENTS, PERIPHERY),Samus Paulicelli (DECREPIT BIRTH, ABIGAIL WILLIAMS),Nathan Navarro, Elliot Desagnes, Steve Vai, Chad Kroeger, Anneke Van Giersbergen, Ché Aimee Dorval, Ryan Dhale and the Elektra Women's Choir.
"Empath" was released on limited 2 CD digipak (including an entire disc of bonus material),standard CD jewelcase, gatefold 180-gram 2LP vinyl + CD + LP-booklet and as digital album.