Devin Townsend, Interview – The Story Behind ‘Empath Live’

2020-10-20

Interview: Devin Townsend discuss his new live release, "Order Of Magnitude: Empath Live Volume 1," and more.

Devin Townsend – Story by Anne Erickson, photo by Tanya Ghosh

Devin Townsend joins Anne Erickson to discuss his new live release, “Order Of Magnitude: Empath Live Volume 1,” and more in this in-depth interview

Canadian metal guro Devin Townsend is never one who lacks inspiration to write. Now on his 18th studio album, Townsend released “Empath” last year, a sprawling, layered beast of a record brimming with creativity and a range of instruments and sounds.

After releasing “Empath,” Townsend embarked on 2019 European tour in support of “Empath,” which saw him and his band performing the album in a more spontaneous, stripped-down way that typical on his tours. The result was hearing the songs off “Empath” live never before.

Townsend will release “Order Of Magnitude: Empath Live Volume 1” on Friday (Oct. 23), documenting his 2019 European tour in support of Empath. He spoke with Anne Erickson of Audio Ink Radio about the release, new music in the works and the true meaning of an “empath.” Read the interview below, and watch the full chat via the YouTube player.

Anne Erickson: Hi, Devin, it’s great to talk with you. How are things in Canada right now with the coronavrius craziness?

Devin Townsend: It’s the same as anywhere. I was doing some interviews with some friends in Sweden and the U.K., and I think it’s all just varying degrees of the same thing. There’s a lot of division. There’s a lot of anxiety. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and that results in a kind of undercurrent of oddness that permeates all aspects of life.

But, I also feel that when this first happened, I feel like I was fortunate enough, in a strange way, way back in the beginnings of my career, to be forced into having to learn all these aspects. I had to learn how to produce and edit and mix, and that has served me well. Then, when we got to this point, all of a sudden, I had to learn how to do video, and I had to learn how to do OBS and all the aspects of how to make the streams and Twitch and everything work. As awkward as that was, I think it’s another cool thing to have under my belt, because it gives us the opportunity to do it like this now.

Congratulations on the new record on the way, “Order Of Magnitude – Empath Live Volume 1.” This was a really unique tour. Tell me about kind of the spontaneous aspect of this tour and what made it so different from what you’ve done before.

Well, what made me do it, was a lot of things, I guess. I guess the best way to preface it would just be to explain that the methodology of my entire career has always kind of revolved around trying to uncover where I’m at, at the time, and then learn from that and move on. So many records into it, it becomes clear to me once a record is done that you have a chance to sort of sit with it, and you have a certain perspective on it and analysis of it, I guess, in a sense that so much of my work in the past has been and continues to be so layered, that the only way I’ve been able to do it live has been to do it with backing tracks and click tracks and lots of computers. In my defense, that’s really the only way I felt like I could represent it with any degree of accuracy. But, there’s really something that comes with playing the computers, that it gets old after a while. So with this, I wanted to try it a little differently, and I wanted to try differently in a lot of aspects. So, we had this really interesting visual component to this show that was important for me to do, but I also wanted to try and represent all that layer and complexity without the computers, which required 10 different people on stage for once.

Then, the visuals had to be sort of real time with the performers, and the performers all come from a walk of life and a background that’s not rooted in heavy music, which was a whole different thing there, as well. But I guess, long story long, the reason for doing it that way is it gave me a chance to sort of try this stuff without that safety net of the computer and see if it would work. I think it did. It was a fascinating experience and one that I’m now got under my belt. It’s interesting to see where that has led.

Do you think that live music will forever be changed because of what we’re going through right now with coronavirus?

Yes. I think everything will forever be changed. I can’t think of anything that won’t be. That’s not necessarily to say that it will be bad, but, even last night, I had two separate dreams about being in crowds of people. The year before last, I had a couple of really exciting experiences, and I went and spent a bunch of time in India and I went and spent a bunch of time in China. Both those places have a population density that is crazy. Last night, I had a dream that I was back in– two separate dreams, one that I was in China, one that I was in India. In both of the dreams, I was panicking, because there’s too many people around. I was just like, “Man, how do I find a way to function with this amount of people?” And I think that maybe all of us have got that kind of internalized sense now, to a certain degree, at least, depending on what your view on this scenario is of what is a safe environment to be in. I think, at the very least it’s going to take a while to shake that.

I feel like even if tomorrow, everything was fine and the virus disappeared, it would be so hard to jump back into that mentality that we had before.

Oh, yeah. And, you know, as extroverted as my career tends to be portrayed as, I guess, by my own hand, I’m not a big fan of being around people. I like my friends. I like certain situations that require other human beings, I guess. But, in general, I’m just not a huge fan of being around people. So, this scenario has also given me some time away from people, which amidst all the anxiety, has also been kind of nice sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes.

You have the new live set on the way. Are you working on a new studio record, as well, with the extra time?

Yeah, I’ve always got more projects than time. So, I’ve got an album. I’ve got several albums I’m working on. I’ve got live records, I’m working on. I’ve been doing podcasts and quarantine shows and all sorts of things. There’s never any lack of projects for me. I was saying on the last interview, some friends of mine have been– they’ve voiced concern that I work too much. But, my answer to that is like, “Well, what else am I going to do?” This is what I bring to the table. Even the days that I take off, I like to go for a walk or read a book or do some meditation or do some exercise, but that’s only a certain portion of the day. Then, you’re just like, well, I’m not going to scroll through Twitter for the rest of the day, so I might as well do some work.

I saw your session with Sepultura and loved it. Tell me how that came together.

I have no idea. I mean, I knew the drummer. He’s a fantastic drummer. I knew Paulo, because when we were in Amsterdam, he has a bar there, and the sound man that I’ve been using for several years now, Stanley, is from South Paulo, as well, and he was one of the original dudes with the Sepultura crew. Then, he did sound. So, through Stanley, I met a bunch of people from Brazil. Eddie, who also ended up being the tour manager, and then Roger, who did guitar teching for Motorhead. But, they all know each other, and they all worked with Sepultura. So, I guess when Sepultura was doing the thing, you sort of go into each other’s radar. I knew Derek, as well. A friend of mine, Tanya has a a vegan thing she does with Derek, and they’ve got this interview thing they do about veganism, and they had actually interviewed me for that, as well. So, I think, even saying this out loud– I think what happens with this industry is eventually you just don’t know how to do anything else, and then you all get to know each other.

That’s great. I thought it was so random. I didn’t expect to see you at the weekly session that they do.

It’s random, but it isn’t. I mean, regardless of the type of music you do, again, I think you just become a lifer. I think, as much as maybe I’ve got a certain amount of a career, and as much as maybe Sepultura has got a certain amount of influence, I think if everything went south tomorrow, none of us are qualified to do anything else. Like, what else are we going to do? I worked at restaurants, and I did some sheet metal fabrication poorly and made some surf boards. I polished surf boards for a while, and I worked at an industrial bakery, and none of those things are going to be able to keep me sustained at this point. So, I think it’s probably the same for them. So, after a while, they’re like, “Oh, you don’t know how to do anything else, either. We should do a show together!”

I think a lot of people are like that though, when it comes to their major career.

I agree.

Has anything positive come out of the coronavirus situation for musicians?

Yeah. I’m trying to figure out what. My knee-jerk reaction is just to say yes, but I don’t know why. I think there’s something to be said for the tenacity that it requires to maintain a positive frame of mind through an environment of relentless negativity that benefits us as people and as artists, because I think you can kind of take one of three paths with a scenario like this. You can either run with it and try and pivot your life so that you can continue to create, or you can be resistant towards it and go at it from the angle of fear and, who knows, victimization. Then there’s the other side where you just– it sweeps the legs out from underneath you, it can be the end of you to a certain degree professionally or otherwise.

I think that it gives the industry an opportunity to see how much can be done in the face of this sort of thing. It was a lot. And I think that it ends up that we, at least I, didn’t recognize the amount of things that I was capable of doing when the chips were down. That will benefit anyone who takes that point of view in the future, because all of a sudden, we got all this new skill set, like OBS or Twitch or podcasts or streaming or concerts or any of these things. For me, it was like having kids, as well. Prior to having kids, I didn’t think that I’d be able to do it. I’d be like, “There’s no way I could be a father. There’s no way.” Then, I found that it was just– I guess you, you don’t give yourself enough credit sometimes for the things that you’re capable of. A lot of times, the ways that that is tested is through adversity. When things are going great, there’s no need to see how you’re going to rise to these occasions. It doesn’t have to happen. The obstacles create the need for solutions, and those solutions are interesting.

So, are you an empath? Since that’s the name of your tour and album.

I read something interesting about people who consider themselves to be empathetic. One of the opposing viewpoints to people thinking that they’re empathetic is that maybe either they’re dealing with PTSD and they become hypervigilant in terms of micro-signals from other human beings and situations, so that you interpret what you’re feeling is being that of what the other person is feeling, when in actual fact, you’re just on Amber alert all the time. I guess one could argue that that’s a form of self-absorption rather than true empathy. I guess to answer the question is, I don’t know. I’d like to think that it’s empathy over self-absorption, but I think part of my creative process is trying to figure that out.

That’s fascinating. You’re so creative. Have you always been this way, ever since you were a kid?

Well, I’ve always been in my own head, and I’m creative in the sense, when I was younger, that if there was something that I needed to find a solution for, I could. But, to a certain degree. I think maybe as time goes on, I’ve allowed myself to be more creative, just because I care less about what people think. Maybe when I was younger, I cared more, so it didn’t come out as much.

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