(Published in INSTANT MAGAZINE, Issue #11 - May/June 1997)
It’s the sounds of the City: car alarms blaring, horns honking, vacuum cleaners whirring, blenders mixing on liquefy, car crashes, animals howling, people screaming, choking, cussing, fighting, fucking, running, crying, dying… The sounds of destruction, decay, depravity, desperation… Drums that sound like a herd of buffalo running rampant… Layers of guitars and non-sensical noise… Mega-wattage… Cries of pain and torture…Yet somehow, somewhere, lurking just beneath the surface is a melody. It’s Strapping Young Lad’s NEW CD, City (on Century Media) and it’s even scarier than their first release, Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing. It’s the brainchild of mad, evil musical genius, Devin Townsend, who at the ripe age of 19 was plucked from obscurity and into the spotlight as the lead vocalist for Steve Vai’s band. Since then he’s worked with some notable musicians including Jason Newsted with whom he formed a side project called IR8; a six month stint with the British band, The Wildhearts; played guitar on Front Line Assembly’s last two releases; contributed a track to Century Media’s Judas Priest tribute disc as well as a Rush tribute album; produced the Stuck Mojo CD, Pig Walk; and has a few of his own side projects, including the joke band, Punky Brüsster, Ocean Machine and Physicist. However, it is Strapping Young Lad that’s garnering accolades from extreme metal fans (although calling it "extreme metal" is an understatement). I talked to the lad and found out why.
"This is the night that it all changes…/A new time is coming and we know you're awake in there" – STRAPPING YOUNG LAD
BUTT SERIOUSLY FOLKS…
Is that you bare-assed on Heavy As A Really Heavy Thing?
That’s my naked butt on the cover of the first SYL CD. It’s not bad, is it? I’ve been told it looks like two elbows pressed together. It’s alright. I think I was 17 when that shot was taken. My current bass player was in the same band with me years ago and we went down to LA for our first trip and none of us had ever been there. We were watching all these people taking pictures of the Hollywood sign. We whipped down our drawers, stood up there and took the picture. And that little kid in the picture on the inside sleeve is me!
What do your parents think of all this?
They’re cool and supportive. They’re like, "Yeah, fucking hey, kid. That’s really nice. That’s cool. Yeah, you just keep dong that, OK?" I send them stuff when I’m on the road. When we went to Japan – you can get used underwear in a can there! (it’s true!) – I just hauled out and sent one to my dad who said, "Oh, this is nice but…Jesus Christ! Mother of God!"
How about a little history lesson?
Music’s always been in my family and I’ve just always been around it. It’s never not been part of my life. It wasn’t a conscious decision like, "Oh, I think I’ll be a musician!" It just happened. Before that, I had a scholarship and was gonna go to a university for literature. That was another thing that lead my parents down the dark path. I told them, "You know what? I’m not gonna take up that scholarship. I’m gonna go work at A&W Restaurant and be a musician!" My mother is still trying to recover from the shock. It’s easier for her to deal with it when I’m doing things that are sort of in the public’s eye where she can sort of justify it to herself.
But I’m having a really good time and I’ve got lots of friends and they’re like, "Uh huh, yeah, cool. Give us a call when you buy a house." But I haven’t made enough money to buy a house yet (laughs). Instead, I’ve started my own record label – Hevy Devy – and anytime that starts looking to narcissistic I’ll change it to Hot Diggity. To do the Ocean Machine record, it cost me $60,000. I didn’t have it in the bank but I got a publishing advance from Virgin and a distribution advance from Sony in Japan that you usually don’t get until after the record is done. But I didn’t have the record done at all so I used that little bit of money, and I may make a little bit per month, but it all goes back into it (the record). And hopefully it’s an investment that’ll pay off, so who knows?
Were you really flipping burgers at AW when you finally got your "big break"?
Oh yeah. I did the rounds, man. If there’s anything I’ve got going for me it’s a good work ethic. And when I’m back home I’m not gonna sit at home on welfare and wait for the government to subsidize my dreams of stardom. So instead, I just took a job no matter how menial it was, to pay the bills.
So how did you finally get "discovered"?
I swear to God, this is what happened. I sent a demo out, you know, how everyone sends demos out to record companies unsolicited. I got a phone call from Relativity saying "We love your demo, we’re gonna set you up with a 7-record deal and we’re gonna set you up with Steve Vai to sing on his new record [Sex and Religion]." It was as simple as that. The only thing different about it was when I sent the package out. I was 18 and I cut up a pair of old, messed-up underwear. And you know how horrible guys’ underwear get after a while – it’s all fucked up and they don’t even look right anymore. And I taped my cassette to the crotch with a photo of me on the inside of the underwear peaking out over the inside and just sent it out. And the guy who got the package, well…he threw it away because he couldn’t get the stench out.
DON’T USE JAY LENO’S PHONE! WARNING! THE FOLLOWING PRESENTATION CONTAINS MATURE SUBJECT MATTER AND MAY BE UNSUITABLE FOR SOME READERS…
I heard about some of your crazy stunts but I didn’t know if it was just exaggerated publicity.
Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with this industry, your peers just take themselves so seriously. All I’m trying to do is combat boredom. I play music. I will play any type of music. I’ve got no problems pissing anybody off. And you’ve got your core of friends and that just goes. But above and beyond that, man, anything goes. I’ve been a vegetarian for a while. Fuck it. You have sex, eat food, jump around, drink alcohol and have a good time. Whatever. Do what you do to get by as long as you’re not hurting other people. I think anything in moderation can be taken into consideration. Allow me to assure you, however pretentious and horrible that real thing may be, at least it’s sincere. It’s actually cool on the one hand to look at it and go "Hey wow, look at that retard!" But on the other hand, you have to deal with the repercussions of it.
Classic example: you know that picture on the internet [of me] with the telephone? I’m gonna tell you the story on that. This is brutal and one of my all-time favorites. We [Steve Vai] were doing the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and it was everything negative and fake about the industry you could imagine to that capacity. Everyone’s up their own ass and thinks their shit doesn’t stink, and they’ve got an entourage of people telling them their fingernails look OK – the whole Hollywood pretentious bullshit thing. I was doing this with a friend of mine from New York and we’d been living together, doing this Steve Vai thing. Now, I’d come out from Vancouver and I’m not from the generation of hookers and blows and backstage hanging with David Lee Roth trying to get caught in the publicity shot for Metal Edge – that’s never really been an aspiration.
So we were laughing at everything going, "Man, these guys are fucked!" So I said to my buddy, "Hey Mark! Let’s go into his office and just hang for a bit." So we went in looking around going "Wow, this is plush!" Then Mark, who’s an instigator, goes "I’m gonna lock up these doors and cover up the window with my jacket and I want you to take his phone and shove it up your ass! And we’ll take pictures of it with your balls hanging out!" I was like "Ummm…OK! OK! Let’s do this real quick!" So I just sat on his desk naked and was just being an idiot and sticking the phone up my ass. It was horrible, you know? We smelled the phone afterward and it was brutal. I know it’s terrible but if you tell me you’re not one of those people who checks the toilet paper after you wipe your ass to see if it’s clean, then you’re lying! So we stopped, laughed, and patted each other on the back going "Yeah, that was funny, ha ha!" And we went home. The next morning we get a phone call from Steve’s manager crying on the phone going "I can’t believe what you did! My reputation…And Steve’s a big star…And you can’t fuck with people’s reputations…" I said "What are you talking about?" and he replies, "You stuck that phone up your ass!" And I kept denying it – "No way man, you’re crazy!" I’m looking at Mark whispering "God, how did they figure this out?" They told us the security guards got it all on hidden camera. So when we got the photos back it was a big fiasco. We got threatened with a lawsuit, but we posted the photo(s) on the internet. And on all my guitar pics I had "Don’t use Jay’s phone!" written all over it. If I can get that footage, it will be on my home video.
Yeah, what’s going on with that?
I’ve got a lot of nifty footage for it. The only thing is that at this point I’ve got these tours. I’ve got the Ocean Machine. I’ve got all this shit to do and there’s just so much stuff going on, it’s difficult to get it all done at one time.
I WRITE THE SONGS…
Your lyrics are brilliant. They’re almost philosophical. It was one of the things that attracted me to SYL.
God, I get so embarrassed talking about lyrics. But they lyrics on the new record are fantastic. It’s therapeutic for me too. When I finished doing this new record, it cleared me out of a lot of stuff that I was going through. It was a dark record to do. The first one was more light-hearted.
Oh sure, screaming "I fucking hate you!" over and over is so carefree!
(laughs) I mean, it had a sense of humor to it lyrically. But I got older and I hit 24 and there’s a maturity that comes at that particular point in your life, in that certain part of your 20s, you grow.
Listen kid, I know people way past 24 – myself included – and they’re still growing. I hate to break this to you, but you may never get over this.
Oh God! Well, someone asked if I saw myself doing this music for the rest of my life and I said "I fucking hope not! Feeling like this sucks!" Who wants to sit around feeling pissed off all the time? But maybe you’re right. Maybe I still haven’t gotten it all out and there will be a few more records after all! Lyrically, the one that really got me was "Spirituality." During the last part of the song there’s a stanza that’s pretty heavy. When I was writing it I thought "Oh my God, there’s gonna be some kid in Alberta who’s having problems with his parents and hear this and wanna blow himself away!"
Lyrics and the conveying of ideas that I’ve got going on are the most important thing to me. What I write about is what goes on in my life, however trivial and crass that may be. Even if it’s me writing about a problem I have with someone who works at 7-11, or a problem I have at work, or problems with my family or a fight I get into with my sister – no matter how trivial that may seem to some people…if you’re talking about shit that legitimately pisses you off and you’re not just blindly spouting off "Generation-X" I’m-tired-and-everyone-sucks-and-the-wor
When you were recording the new CD, were people afraid to come near you? Were you in some kind of mode?
Well, I’m not a studio nazi. I’m not that type of person. My biggest thing is that I work 24 hours a day and I wind up smelling like death and my hair is all fucked up, but you just end up going for it full boar. And with this record…I mean, it hurts to do this sort of shit because I do it by myself for the most part and again, it’s not because I’m a nazi and I’m completely paranoid about other people doing it, it’s just logistically easier for me to play these instruments because I know how and it’s easier for me to knock it out alone and we don’t have to spend 2 ½ days telling the bass player [Byron Stroud] "Hey, you know, maybe you could just play that again…" But I just go all day and all night and I just rock it out as hard as I can.
But lyrically, it has to be right for me. A lot of this record was written in the pornographic district of Tokyo and Downtown L.A. and those images are printed on the inside of the sleeve and the gift of all that came through and summed up exactly what I wanted to say with this record. The lyrics on this one are infinitely more personal than the first one. There’s a couple of songs on the first one where the lyrics were sort of put on as an afterthought which I don’t agree with and which I regret. Songs like "S.Y.L.," "Rainy Season," "Goat," "Critic" and songs like that, the lyrics were intentionally put forth but there’s a couple of songs on the first record that not a lot of personal thought went into, as opposed to this new record where every song says what I need to say. Like, no holds barred. I mean, just check out the lyrics for "Oh My Fucking God."
That’s what people will say when they hear the new record!
Ha ha! That’s good! That should be in my press kit! Hey man, you’re the Queen! But seriously, the only thing is – and please believe me, this is absolutely the truth – talking about all these idiots that are being hypocritical and everything – I’ve been managing to bypass the whole scene because I’m sick of it being a fashion show and people telling me that my new record is good but it’s not gonna appeal to the kids who like Korn. Fuck that whole Addidas-wearing, wallet-chain-toting bullshit. My biggest problem with the whole metal scene a lot of times is the misogynistic part of it.
As far as S.Y.L….Jesus Christ, I don’t think I could ever write a song with Steve Vai because his lyrics verged on that whole sex/sexist talk bullshit thing. The way I look at it, between human beings or the male and female sexuality and/or relationships, it should be easy. It should be people saying "OK, cool whatever, we’re hanging" and that’s it. Other than the obvious personality differences, to me, there shouldn’t be any differences between men and women. I got some friends in a group called Broken Hope who sent me a disc and their whole lyrical standpoint is just like, "Bitch fucked with a knife!" and all this shit and I’m thinking they haven’t been laid, that’s their problem towards women, cause they’re not getting laid. What I see with that is a group of people who are afraid of women.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN…
What are your tour plans?
We’re doing the European thing but as far as America, maybe if there’s something that comes up, yeah, we’ll do it. But at this point I’m just up to my neck in work and I’m ready to barrel into that as far as it takes me. I just did Ocean Machine, I’ve got this Hell project I’m doing…I’ve got a mess of stuff…all studio projects.
Do you prefer the studio or touring?
Well, you know, the grass is always greener. If you’re in the studio, all you wanna do is be on the road and vice versa. If there’s one thing I’ve got going for me, it’s perseverance. Nobody is going to have any influence on what type of music I do or how I choose to lead my career, and being able to sort of get together my own label and do all this stuff myself makes it easier to attack things with that mindset as opposed to always being constantly worried about these petty little things like whether or not I look the part or if Machine Head will take us on tour. To me, if I keep on going and doing what I wanna do, eventually the audience is gonna have to come to me, if they want to. And as pretentious and as arrogant as that sounds, I’m secure enough with my abilities to be able to say that. Anything I do from this point on will be with my projects and I’m not working with anybody else anymore. I’m not gonna put out anything unless I completely love it. I’m a moody bastard, unfortunately.
Maybe you’ll get depressed and write sick sappy ballads.
That’d be great! Me and Morrissey will go on tour. We’ll cry on each other’s shoulders or I’ll get a big Elvis hairdo and cry "Oh, I’m so upset…" My favorite band at the moment is the Young Gods. They have an album out called "Only Heaven" and it’s fucking amazing. A.C.’s new record killed me when I first heard it. I laughed so fucking hard. They’ve got this one song called "Being A Cobbler Is Dumb."
I think they should do a song about YOU. I’m gonna tell Seth [Putman, vocalist for A.C.] to name one after you.
He’ll rag on me.
Maybe he’ll do a song about your butt.
I’d look forward to that. I totally think they’re amazing.
They like the Village People! Do you like ABBA?
Learn more about all of Devin's projects and keep up with SYL at http://www.hevydevy.com.