Devin Townsend, 19, scores opening gig for Michael Schenker with his first band, Gray Skies


By Steve Newton

Decisions, decisions. Tearing open the shrink-wrap from a tape by a local band called Gray Skies, I see that one side of the six-song demo is labelled the Juvenile Side, while the other promises the Dyslexic Side. Just as I’m ready to go with the Juvenile Side, I notice that on the right-hand side of the tape it says, No Spam; I flip it over to the see Metal With Spam. What’s goin’ on here?

Throwing caution to the wind, I decide to take the easy route and go with the side that’s rewound, and in no time at all these ears are assaulted with a Spam-less bit of funky thrash introduced by a Granville Street chicken-bone reader who tells Gray Skies singer/guitarist/main songwriter Devin Townsend that his “master bone is in a hell of a position”. Whoa—I think a cautious eye-to-eye visit with this Townsend maniac is in order, Spam or no Spam.

A quick trip from the Straight office down Pender Street puts me in the Cambie Street offices of Gray Skies’ management, Stickman Productions, where 19-year-old Townsend is ecstatic about the news he’s just received from concert promoters Perryscope. Seems his band has snagged the guest spot for the MSG concert on Thursday (March 19) after original openers XYZ cancelled. The only trick is, the normally noisy boys have to perform acoustically.

“We’ve got a week to put it together,” says Townsend, not the least bit fazed by the upcoming unplugged adventure. “We’re gonna have to borrow some acoustic guitars, maybe the one my dad has hangin’ off the living-room wall. It’s gonna be a blast. I remember seein’ [MSG guitarist] Michael Schenker when I was little.”

The unexpected gig reminds Townsend of the time four years back when he had to quickly throw together a band for a battle of the bands contest.

“I submitted a tape that I’d done in my basement,” he says, “one of these masturbatory guitar-type things—you know, ‘I can play faster than you!’—and I submitted it to the Spotlight ’88 competition. It was all instrumental at the time, but Tom Harrison really dug it or something, so they phoned us up and said, ‘You’re gonna be playing on the ninth at the Town Pump, so get your band ready.’ And I’m going, ‘Band?’ ”

Townsend was only 15 at the time, so he and 16-year-old drummer Greg Price—whom Townsend played with in the North Surrey Senior Secondary School concert band—tossed together a band with friends and brothers, and Gray Skies (which was spelled Grey Skies until somebody made a bunch of Gray Skies t-shirts) was born.

“We were the worst thing that ever hit the stage at the Town Pump,” claims Townsend. “I think someone booed us and it just ruined me for the rest of the night. But we just kept on playing and we started getting really influenced by King’s X and Jane’s Addiction and Primus. Greg’s really into Chick Corea and I’m really into new-age material, so we’re going, ‘Well, let’s try and see if we can mix this all in.’ ”

After putting a Musician Wanted ad in this paper, the two teens got a call from bassist Ken Fleming, who was in a Winnipeg-based band called the Unwanted. “He was about 10 years older than us, and he’s got this total different approach to what we’re doing, so it was sort of fun. Now we like to call ourselves a cross between new-age music and jazz and really experimental crap and punk.”

While Gray Skies’ current cacophony of sound could also be said to include thrash, Townsend confides that the band’s upcoming material is getting away from that, and more into a “groove-oriented thing”, which he sees as the (near) future of hard rock.

“Music sort of reflects the time, and as we went into the sort of economic strife then all of a sudden the evil, death, thrash, howling stuff came in. I mean, when I go to see a show and there’s four guys on-stage shaking their heads like Muppets, it just looks like anybody could get up there and do it. So I think people are expecting more of a groove now, as opposed to, like, ‘Die die die…kill kill kill…I smell bad.’ ”

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