Devin Townsend on hating guitar, loving Noisescapes, and doing the Steve Vai project “because it was there”

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 1993

 By Steve Newton

Things have a comical way of working out for some folks in the wacky world of rock ’n’ roll. In the case of 21-year-old Devin Townsend—who came out of nowhere (well, Vancouver, actually) to claim the prestigious lead vocalist spot in Yankee guitar god Steve Vai’s new band—it’s amusing enough to make him laugh out loud.

“This is so funny, man,” he says at the start of an interview from his home in L.A. “Remember about a year and a half ago you did an interview with me for [local band] Gray Skies? That was fuckin’ great. And then I remember, about eight months or so later I came up and gave you a tape of my new band, Noisescapes. I was up at the Georgia Straight office and I said [in a dumb surfer voice], ‘Hey Steve, ya wanna listen to this, man?’ So things have changed a little bit.”

Changed a lot, more like. Though I didn’t quite grasp the potential in that Noisescapes tape, Vai certainly did. When he heard a demo copy that Townsend had sent to his record label in the hope of securing a deal, he was hooked. “The second I heard Devin, I knew his talent,” says Vai in his Relativity Records bio. But as Townsend tells it, a job in Vai’s band was the last thing he expected to come out of his demo submission.

“Here’s the scoop, my friend. Noisescapes is heavy, right? Steve is not. When I sent away my demo for Noisescapes, I did it on a whim; I had no idea that Steve was looking for a singer. I just sent it all out, and then all of a sudden we got flown to New York and Noisescapes got signed to Relativity. But before they signed me they said, ‘Hey, there’s this guy on our label that’s lookin’ for a singer. Do you want to meet up with him and see how it goes?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, all right, let’s give it a shot.’

“So I met up with Steve, and we talked, and…hey, I mean it’s like cuttin’ your balls off if you can do something and you don’t, you know what I mean? When people ask me, ‘Why did you do the Vai thing?’, it’s like, ‘Because it was there.’ I had no intentions of joining a band. I didn’t even hear the Vai music until the day before we recorded.”

In his bio, Vai describes his singer as “the epitome of the anti-rock star”, and the offhand way Townsend talks about his enviable position makes you believe it. When he’s asked to comment on the highly acclaimed guitar talents of Vai, there’s little brownnosing to the boss.

“Like I say to everybody who asks that question, guitar just doesn’t really impress me that much. He’s an amazing guitar player, but I play guitar, everybody and their dog plays guitar. It’s like, if he was a great bassoon player or something, I’d be able to say, ‘Wow, he’s the master of the bassoon.’ But as far as the guitar goes…yeah, he’s a good player. I just don’t really analyze his playing that much because it never meant too much to me.

“And I just think the guitar is a stupid instrument, man. I’ve just been getting into this whole ambient movement—I’m sort of moving from the Fear Factory, Grotus sort of thing to ambient now—and all of a sudden you realize how limited the guitar is, and how stupid it sounds, man. Goddamn!”

If Townsend sounds just a bit cynical about rock’s most popular instrument, some of it comes from the fact that he’s turned off by the music industry in general—especially what he sees of it from his vantage point in L.A. (He actually handles a lot of guitar live, as he will when Vai, the band, plays the Commodore on September 29.)

“Guitar sucks and the music industry bites my balls,” says the perturbed rocker. “I’ve only been in it for a year, and I’ll tell ya, man… You know what’s stupid? I went to this MTV music awards thing last night, dressed like I would anywhere. I was wearing a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, and I’ve got this dorky pair of black glasses, and these two people from some record company stopped me and said, ‘What a cool look! You’re starting a new, cool look!’ And I’m looking at these fucking morons in tuxedos and high-heeled shoes thinking that I’m trying to start a new look! So I smiled and went, ‘Yeah, well, thanks, I’ve been workin’ on it.’ It’s so stupid, because everybody is so bent out of shape about what you wear, especially down in Los Angeles.

“So I’m stuck in this city which I hate with such a passion, man. Other than Disneyland, there is nothing down here, and there are no seasons, ya know. Some people from Vancouver may say that it would be nice to get to a place where it’s sunny all the time, but guess what? It’s not. It sucks. I hate it.

“But I’ll tell ya, the last time I was in Vancouver I saw that Steve’s album [Sex & Religion] was on the Georgia Straight chart, and I was like, ‘Yeah, man!’ It doesn’t matter where it is anywhere else: back in Vancouver is the only place I care about right now, because I know that eventually I’m gonna have to go back there. And if people think I’m a dork then I’m gonna have to go live on Galiano or something, and that would suck.”

Townsend—who dedicated his work on Sex & Religion to the memory of slain Surrey musician Jesse Cadman—says that, even more than his current Vai gig, he’s looking forward to getting his Noisescapes project in gear. He is joined in that Vancouver band by keyboardist Chris Myers (“The guy is God!”), former Caustic Thought guitarist Jed Simon, bassist Jon Taschuk, and drummer Greg Price.

“We are lookin’ for another guitar player,” says Townsend, “ ’cause I don’t want to play the guitar live. If I have to stand there with my thumb up my ass, singing with the guitar in my hand, I am going to seriously become a lawyer. So please print that we’re looking for one more guitar player. If you know how to play lead guitar you can suck my dick, ’cause there’s not one lead part in this entire set that Noisescapes is doing. Its influence is from the Grotus and Fear Factory thing through ambient through Sonic Youth. We’re sort of ambient industrial noise, except we’ve got melodies! Ha! It’s gonna be fun, man.”

Townsend suggests that Noisescapes candidates send demo tapes directly to him (at 5940 Manola Way, Hollywood, CA, 90048). He is also willing to use the connections he’s made so far to help Vancouver players get ahead.

“I’ve been giving every band that I know addresses to send their stuff, and if anybody wants to send me any sort of tape, I’ll do what I can with it. I mean, if I’ve got my connections, then what am I gonna do with them? They look all nice in a book and everything, but I’d much rather help out people like I’ve been helped out in the past.

“It’s the same thing with Gray Skies,” he adds. “Remember when you were doin’ the interview, how psyched I was? God, the only thing I wanted to do was work, and that’s one of the shitty things about being down here. All of a sudden you get thrust into a situation where everybody’s going, ‘Relax. Take your time. You’re okay now.’ Fuck, man, I’d go out in a chicken suit with a sandwich board on if that’s what it took.

“And the music industry’s such a joke. It’s like everybody thinks that you’re revered once you get in, and that’s just such a crock of shit. It’s like if I start getting all high and mighty, buying flashy clothes and everything, and then all of a sudden the projects fall through and I’m back workin’ at A&B Sound, how am I gonna go back to my friends? Walk up to them in a big shiny jacket and go, ‘Hey, hey guys, ’member me? I was the guy that dissed ya.’ ”

With an eight-album Noisescapes deal in the can, including tour support and videos, it could be a while before Townsend is back stocking CD shelves. “It’s a worldwide deal,” he says, “so we’re not gonna pull a Sven Gali and walk around with attitudes because we’ve got a Canadian deal. I mean, ‘Wheee, guys. Hey—good on ya!’

“I’m fully psyched on the Noisescapes stuff,” he adds. “Steve’s project is Steve’s project, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it, but as soon as this project is over I’m goin’ straight to Noisescapes. I’m not even gonna sleep a night. As soon as it’s over I’m takin’ a plane back to Vancouver and we’re gonna start rehearsing, then we’re gonna be on tour for as long as we can possibly be on tour. It’s gonna be really nasty.”

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