Music by VICE

Devin Townsend and the $10 Million Penis Symphony

The progressive metal icon spills the details on his wild new orchestral project, 'The Moth,' and reflects on naps, Judas Priest, and why there'll never be a Strapping Young Lad reunion.

by Alec Chillingworth
Jan 5 2017, 4:42pm

"I like going to bed, I like having baths and I really like the TV show How It's Made." Progressive metal has never been cool and Devin Townsend does nothing to help the situation; at 44 years old, he's come a long way from his days as the snotty-nosed, hallucinogen-huffing frontman of his former band, Strapping Young Lad. Since dissolving that group in 2007, the multi-instrumentalist and puppet enthusiast has cut his hair, become a dad, and mellowed out, and is in a fine mood when I show up to interview him. We start chatting about tortoises. He shows me a video of a tortoise. He fucking loves that tortoise.

Whether it be with his space-country outfit Casualties of Cool, the aforementioned industrial death metal of Strapping Young Lad or the disparately dizzying breadth of work in his solo canon, Townsend is probably best-defined with this one word: feel. Even though he caught his break singing on Steve Vai's Sex & Religion record in 1993, he felt stifled as the conduit for someone else's words, thoughts and feelings.

Since then each of Townsend's albums, no matter what the quality, have been honest snapshots of where he was at the time; after quitting Strapping and spending time with his newborn child, he wrote a Meshuggah-esque opera about aliens and coffee called Ziltoid the Omniscient. Some consider Ziltoid a staple of Townsend's catalogue while others view it as a self-indulgent, immature pile of wank. His ambient albums, The Hummer and Devlab, are largely ignored by his audience, but show yet another side of our shiny-domed protagonist. His complete lack of a filter is a brilliant thing, and it's what has made his current band, the Devin Townsend Project, his most successful yet.

Originally intending to deliver just a quadrilogy of releases under the DTP moniker—handily packaged in his Contain Us boxset—Townsend's gone on to release seven full-lengths that way, the most recent being last year's sublime Transcendence. Whereas early DTP saw the man chugging through everything in his brain from Europop to Enya, from Opeth to Johnny Cash, the last three albums have all been built on similar foundations. There's the low-end, down-tuned Meshuggah guitars that procure a brown note at least once every few songs; the angelic tones of frequent collaborator Anneke van Giersbergen riding alongside synths and gospel choirs; the drums underpinning crushing orchestration, evoking a similar majesty to bands like Septicflesh—albeit with Townsend screaming, whispering and waxing a Broadway-ready croon on top. It's technical yet accessible, brutal but beautiful. It sounds like everything and nothing at all.

Townsend is unique not only as a musician but also as a businessman. The Casualties of Cool album was crowdfunded through PledgeMusic, raising over 500 percent of the target and allowing his record a full-on publicity campaign and budget, which culminated in a ludicrous performance at London's world-famous Royal Albert Hall, where Townsend is surely the first artist to have graced the stage alongside a fleet of farting ballsacks. A 2012 gig entitled The Retinal Circus half-revived Strapping Young Lad for two songs, but Townsend is always looking forward. Even the forthcoming, orchestra-accompanied performance of his 1997 solo album, Ocean Machine: Biomech, is a means to the ends of his vaguely outlined orchestral project, The Moth. As we sat in Sony's swanky UK office in Kensington, the subject of ambitious stage shows was high on the agenda and Townsend let me know, in no uncertain terms, that shit is about to get real. He just needs $10 million first…

Noisey: The Retinal Circus and were both big, overblown rock shows. If you had the money, would you do that with every gig?
Devin Townsend: Just you wait. I'm here at Sony tonight to pitch something I need ten million bucks for! The whole show is a metaphor for sex and power, and the idea of it all being related to some sort of God who's ultimately futile. But it's this symphony with all these cocks and vaginas and death and it's gotta be so over-the-top, with symphonies and choirs and it's got to include the best of the best and it's so fucking expensive! I'd like to not think about money, but what I want to do is just get so much money, absurd amounts of money, and just put it all into this thing that's a fundamentally unsellable spectacle, but make it so palatable that halfway through you'll just be like, "The fuck are we watching here?" I love that idea of absurdity and spectacle coming together. The Retinal Circus was like a high-school play; and the Royal Albert thing was fun, but again, it was more like a rock show. But what I wanna do now is just blow things up, right? So I need ten million bucks…

Is that project going to be The Moth?
Yeah. It started out as just being a symphony, but then I was like, "I can't get ten million bucks to just do a symphony." I needed to make it like a musical, with orchestras and choirs, and if I try and be like, "We're gonna redo Steinbeck, we'll do The Grapes Of Wrath" then it's gonna get lost in a sea of that shit. But if you make it just fucking absurd and a spectacle of fundamentally unsellable items and concepts but with the same production values as The Phantom Of The Opera, I think it'd get people's attention, right? Ultimately, it sounds like a load of fun; I wanna get a load of buddies together to work on this concept that I think is pretty interesting. I do the Devin Townsend Project and all these rock records, but that's shit I've been doing for twenty years—it keeps the boat floating more than anything else. I'm gonna die whenever, so I just want to make a statement. And it's about nothing. I haven't got a point I wanna make—I just wanna have fun.

You're pitching this idea now, so is anything finalized?
It's sorted, in a way. Manifest destiny, right? It's gonna happen, buddy!

Would The Moth be a one-off show?
It can't be! That's the genius part of the pitch—we'll never recoup unless we do it everywhere! It's this brutal, grotesque depiction of sex/power/death/God but I don't want it to be satirical, like a comedy show. But it's going to be ridiculous. So I've gotta pitch it in a way that legitimizes it and I've gotta do it with a straight face!

How much music has been written for it?
I had this orchestrator come and stay with me for a month, and he's done Spielberg, Slumdog Millionaire and stuff like that. He's fucking brilliant and so far out of my league, but he's really interested. So he came over and we started working together and dude, it's so good. So when we propose the idea, it's not gonna be like a pipe dream, but it's this really well-thought-out thing with all the orchestration and the art and the logos.

Is there a tentative date for when The Moth will happen?
It's gonna take so much and I don't want to nickel-and-dime it. If it takes a year or two, I can do another DTP record. I've got tons of music, and if that's what we do to keep everyone's salary paid or whatever, we can do some more rock songs—so there's my contingency plan! Good, right?

On your upcoming European tour, you're playing London's Hammersmith Apollo with DTP. Does that hold any significance to you, it being such an iconic rock venue?
Yeah, I mean it depends on whether or not it's a quarter sold, right? The thing to say is, "Yes, absolutely." But I do hope that it's cool, and it's not like I don't care, because I do, and I love entertaining people, but I've just been thinking about The Moth recently. So let me put this in gear because I've gotta sell this shit; everyone's freaked out that it's not gonna sell. "It's gonna be a genre-defying classic, the likes of which have never been seen at the Hammersmith Odeon before." Help me on this. What should I be saying?

Probably something about Motörhead?
How about this? "I love Motörhead, they've played there, now we are, so everybody should come because in order for me to get ten million dollars to make my cock symphony, I need to show the powers that be that I've got drawing power that's not fading over the years, which it may be, so don't buy into that. Bring your friends, because it's going to be a genre-defying performance for the ages."

Stick that on the poster. How did your Ocean Machine: Biomech show with the Orchestra of Plovdiv State Opera come about?
That was my manager, Andy Farrow. Without him, I would've been moving much more laterally over the past five years. Because I'm trying to get ten million dollars to do a cock symphony, I need to experiment with some of the past material in order to work with choirs and symphonies live. Bulgaria has a great symphony orchestra—within my price range!—and I can't wait. I was there yesterday and it's this crazy old Amphitheater; it's 2,000 years old and they call it "The Ancient Theater". Is that just because it's old? Did they used to call it "The Marble Theater"? We're doing Ocean Machine and all this by-request shit, but it's all with the choir and orchestra. I really enjoy new experiences, and it gives me an opportunity to test my ability to orchestrate with an actual orchestra and hopefully that'll set me up for – I don't know if I mentioned it – my cock symphony that's gonna cost somebody ten million bucks.

It'd be great to hear some of your poppier arrangements, like "Slow Me Down", with orchestral accompaniment.
It'd be great if you could do a by-request concert but the audience requests what you actually do. "I request that you play "Slow Me Down," but every time you come to a new part you have to slow it down 20 BPM" to the point where you're at the end and it's just like [does slow motion shouting]. We could really go far with that. "Can you play this song hanging by your feet, please?"

While you were there in Plovdiv, did you get the chance to stand on the stage and be like, "Yeah, this is a bit awesome"?
Yeah, they did the thing where they were like, "Go up there and yell!" It was cool. It was cold as balls and there's cats everywhere, and I'm sure their names were "Cat" and "Cat" considering "The Ancient Theater." There's tons and they're feral with big teeth. I'm shit at selling these things because you never go into them thinking, "Oh, this is gonna suck." When you have to sex it up, that's all I can say: I do things because I hope they'll be awesome. Whether it's Hammersmith or Plovdiv or whatever, you just want it to be fucking awesome. It will be fucking awesome. And I'll keep the cats away.

Are there any other albums of yours you'd like to do in full?
Well you see, the Ocean Machine show celebrates twenty years of that record, and then the next album I did [ Infinity] will be twenty-years-old the following year… so as you can probably ascertain by my tone, there's a good chance that I might be doing the full version of that to mark its twentieth birthday.

Your profile has been growing slowly over the years and now it allows you to do all this cool stuff, but there have been other chances too. You turned down the opportunity to sing for Judas Priest in the 90s, right?
That was many years past the point where I would've been interested. I guess it would've been '96 or '97; when I liked Judas Priest, it was maybe from '79 to '84. So fast-forward fifteen years, it didn't carry the same weight. I was like, "Oh cool, so I'll just go in there and shit the bed, yeah?" I would've been horrible in that band. People think that because you can sing it, which I can do 30 percent of the time, you'd somehow be an attribute to it, but I'd have fucking ruined Priest. In a controlled environment, I might be able to pull off one of those really typical heavy metal vocals, but thirty nights in a row? No, dude. It'd look weird, too.

You have the same haircut as Rob Halford now, too!
Yeah, he's gotta be bald, right? Not just, like, purposefully bald, but actual full-on bald.

A lot of surreal stuff came from that period of your career. You shoved Jay Leno's phone up your ass while you were sober—I can only imagine what you did while under the influence.
I just fell asleep. I do the same thing with stimulus. If I get emotionally overcharged, specifically in social environments, my first reaction is to just fall asleep. I fell asleep at a Slayer gig because it was just so overwhelming. I fall asleep—that's how I party. The Jay Leno shit was just me and my buddy, because the whole staff at The Tonight Show were just dicks. It started out with me and my friend alone in the room and we blacked the windows out, so we were just being idiots and taking naked pictures and everything—it seems super homoerotic looking back. But then you think, "Ah, you could stick the phone up your ass! That's a clever idea," until they called us on it and we will never go back to The Tonight Show. You'd do the same though, right?

To this day, you still get fans wanting a Strapping Young Lad reunion. Does that ever give you some sort of weird ego boost?
Sometimes, until I see live videos! There was nobody there for our last American tour; that was one of our least-attended tours, there were like fifty people in these 500 and 600 capacity venues. But it's looked at with rose-tinted glasses by people who didn't see it and it's built up to be something more than it was, so they think we must've been the best. We clearly weren't! I wouldn't reform Strapping for the same reason I never did coke or heroin, because I know myself enough to know what's good and healthy for me. Life is literally for living, so why would you want to spend time being a martyr for people? It just seems like that mentality is contrary to anything creatively astute. But at the same time, the fact that people pay attention to what I do and keep asking why I don't do Strapping again? Yeah, that's flattering, especially considering nobody liked it when I put the first record out. It was just Blackadder meets poorly-produced Fear Factory.

You've always had a good connection with your fans, your meet-and-greets being one example. Your packages have always been reasonably priced, but some people disagree with the idea of meet-and-greets in general; what's your take?
I have two thoughts on the matter and they cancel each other out, so that kinda sucks. The music industry is really difficult. The overhead for me to do this is fucking crazy; we have to pay around $14,000 a month just to function. We didn't tour for a year so I had to come up with fourteen grand a month just to keep everything going, then when we do tour, it's fucking expensive. $1,000 per person to fly shit class from Vancouver, too. A lot of the times, fans may think bands are taking the piss by simply doing a meet-and-greet, but if we don't do them we simply can't do what we're doing. It's not like we do them then get a bonus at the end of the tour.

On the other side of it, if you're in the band and you're hypersensitive to people's energy, like I believe I am, meet-and-greets fucking beat the shit out of you. Not because you don't want to meet people, but because in order to do it correctly, you really have to invest yourself and be present and ready to talk to people and sometimes accept hyperbolic praise or criticism, and you have to be emotionally resilient enough to not let either… I mean, it's about them. They're paying for a moment and your job is to be present and that's really challenging on tour. If you think meet-and-greets are fundamentally stupid then you're never not gonna think that. Some bands are like, "Fuck that, you can come meet me at the bar." I never go to the bar and if I am at the bar, please don't talk to me because I'm there to hang out with my friends. We try to do the best with our packages, but at the same time there's still people who are critical of it.

Okay, so we'll end on something a bit more positive! Either during a meet-and-greet or elsewhere, what's the most humbling thing a fan's said to you?
There's lots of things man, but I'm terrified of people. So to have interactions with actual human beings who make me realize that I'm actually communicating with people on some level… ultimately, through all this stuff, I just wanna help. Even with the cock symphony, I don't want to make things worse in the world. I want to make things better. I don't want to talk about politics; I want to provide music for people and say something that's coming from a place that's not so wounded that I'm just trying to prop myself up. I want to experience things so I can get healthier and stronger as a person so I can sing about that, and in return people will hopefully relate so we can prop each other up. That sort of stuff is the most humbling. The fact that people care.

The Devin Townsend Project's extensive European tour begins later this month, and will be followed by a run of North American dates with Gojira and Opeth. Dates are as follows:
1/28 – Trix, Antwerp, Belgium
1/30 – Rockhall, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg
1/31 – Le Bataclan, Paris, France
2/1 – Rock School Barbey, Bordeaux, France
2/3 – La Reviera, Madrid, Spain
2/4 – Razzmatazz 2 – Barcelona, Spain
2/5 – Le Moulin, Marseille, France
2/7 – Live Club, Milan, Italy
2/8 – Z7, Pratteln, Switzerland
2/9 – LKA Longhorn, Stuttgart, Germany
2/10 – Backstage, Munich, Germany
2/12 – Tvornica Club, Zagreb, Croatia
2/13 – A38, Budapest, Hungary
2/14 – Arena, Vienna, Austria
2/16 – The Roxy, Prague, Czech Republic
2/17 – Täubchenthal, Leipzig, Germany
2/18 – Kwadrat, Krakow, Poland
2/19 – Stodola, Warsaw, Poland
2/21 – Grünspan, Hamburg, Germany
2/22 – Voxhall, Aarhus, Germany
2/23 – Pustervik, Gothenburg, Sweden
2/25 – Blastfest, Bergen, Norway
2/26 – Sentrum Scene, Oslo, Norway
2/28 – The Circus, Helsinki, Finland
3/1 – Rytmikorjaamo, Seinäjoki, Finland
3/3 – Berns, Stockholm, Sweden
3/4 – KB, Malmö, Sweden
3/5 – Amager Bio, Copenhagen, Denmark
3/7 – Columbia Theater, Berlin, Germany
3/8 – FZW, Dortmund, Germany
3/9 – 013, Tilburg, Netherlands
3/10 – De Melkweg, Amsterdam, Netherlands
3/12 – Colston Hall, Bristol, UK
3/13 – Academy, Manchester, UK
3/14 – Barrowlands, Glasgow, UK
3/16 – Institute, Birmingham, UK
3/17 – Eventim Apollo, London, UK
3/18 – Rock City, Nottingham, UK

*with Gojira & Opeth
5/6 – Electric Factory Outdoors, Philadelphia, PA*
5/7 – Starland Ballroom, Sayreville, NJ*
5/9 – The Vic Theatre, Chicago, IL*
5/11 – Red Rock Ampitheatre, Morrison, CO*
5/12 – Arvest Bank Theatre at The Midland, Kansas City, MO*
5/13 – Egyptian Room at Old National Centre, Indianapolis, IN*
5/18 – Powerstation, Auckland, NZ
5/20 – The Triffid, Brisbane, Australia
5/22 – Enmore Theatre, Newtown, Australia
5/24 – 107 Russel, Melbourne, Australia
5/26 – Capitol, Perth, Australia
9/22 – Roman Ampitheater, Plovdiv, Bulgaria


Photos by Rebecca Blissett

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