Arguably the most productive musician in metal is everyone’s favourite Canadian Devin Townsend. His current project is the Retinal Circus DVD package, which can best be described as a career retrospective packaged as a high school musical. Ghost Cult chatted to the maestro himself about his latest project, the logistics and challenges surrounding it and his incredible productivity.
Can you takes us through the motions of coming up with the concept behind The Retinal Circus to the point where you have actually performed it?
Sure, I’ve been making music for so long and the main hurdles I’ve run when dealing with any public exposure is that many of my projects are so different from each other. There is the cyber thrash/death metal stuff, pop, rock, silly music and everything in between. So when a new record is presented to record stores and magazines people have difficulty with how to label my music. So when I signed on to the new management I have now, the main problem we were facing was in terms of how we should make my music more visible. What I said to them is that the aesthetics of each album may be different but the intention is the same and that’s being true to whatever I wanted to do. So they came up with the idea of using the platform of a circus to essentially present my back catalogue in some way to people in one space. The logistics of that took approximately a year and there were close to a 100 people involved with it. The whole thing was wrapped in a dubious story, but a story nonetheless and all the things that went into articulating that. We worked on it up until the point of rehearsal. We essentially rehearsed the whole show with all the performers in a period of only two days due to financial restraints. That’s essentially how it went. It was chaos, then incredible chaos and then unbelievable chaos and then it was over. After that it came down to mixing and coming up with the artwork and that was another hurddle to get over.
Given the little time and limited recources you managed to put on quite a show.
It went well, but it’s fair to keep in mind that I did a lot of editing not only to the audio, but also to the video to try make it as close as possible. to the original vision behind Retinal Circus. During the actual show there were syncing issues with the video, people coming in at the wrong time and some of the gear went down. I had a debate whether it was more importent to leave the show exactly as it was or to make it as close as possible to how I envisioned it. I decided to do the latter thing, because it’s my thing. Every time I put it on I saw the mistakes and I viewed those mistakes as unneccessary distractions.
You also included two Strapping Young Lad songs in the setlist. This is quite remarkable because you commented that the S.Y.L book is closed for you and that you moved on as an artist. Why this decision?
True, I’ve said that many times in interviews and it’s fairly well documented why I don’t want to do any new Strapping Young Lad material anymore. I’m not ashemed of S.Y.L and it’s still a huge part of my life. The reason why I don’t want to do it anymore has more to do with people wanting to force me to do certain things and that’s absolutely the wrong way to approach me. The best way of me not doing things is to demand it from me. My nature in reacting to that is a big phat no. I have no interest in being told what to do. Strapping Young Lad is a representation of me, just as much as Ki, Ghost, Ziltoid or Infinity. There’s no difference, it was just a different period of time. Including ‘Detox’ and ‘Love?’ on the Retinal Circus seen from the point being it a retrospective, is just obvious to me.
The concept behind Retinal Circus does lend itself for an annual event or even a dedicated festival. Is this something you’d like to pull off?
Well I hope that people will see it for what it is. For me it’s very much like a high school musical with a very dubious story. It worked in the sense of what I set out to do with the retrospective. If it does turn into an annual thing or a show I hope that people will see that if enough recources can be put in such a project, we can actually do a real show with new music and a proper story. In that situation we could do wonderful things and I hope people will see the potential in this. In terms of the Retinal Circus itself getting repeated or becoming an annual thing I can see it, but it’s not of a great interest to me now.
You’ve been incredibly productive the last few years. Are you afraid you might saturate the market too much?
Yes, very much so, but then again I think my solulition is that I’m very invested in being productive. That’s something I really enjoy. I’m not a psychiatrist so I can’t comment whether this mindset is really healthy or not, but I really enjoy making music. As a result of that, amidst my daily routine that includes family, chores and work, it’s just something that happens. I spent the last eight months deciding what to do with this creative impulse. Do I make music and don’t put it out or do I try and diversify what I do? What I decided is to slow down with that actual musical output, which is very liberating for me. The project I’m working on now, called The Casualties Of Cool, is something that has been in the works for a long time and taking my time on it is very satisfying. So when it comes it out it will be more indicative of who I am than any of my previous records. I also decided to diversify my creative activities. I did this radio show, the Ziltoid TV thing and I’m doing this improvisation gig with a bunch of jazz/fusion musicians next week. It’s allowing me to diversify my interests and that’s a solution I think. Do I saturate the market? Sure I do. Because of my level of output you either put it out or you don’t. I suppose it’s better to put it out.
You had a pretty fruitfull producer’s career going on back in the day. Would you consider picking up producing other bands again some day?
The productions that I did were helpful in the sense that it taught me how to record and how to mix records. It taught me how to deal with the logistics and the technology that comes with it. When I have an idea it’s very intuitive to facilitate it. However, I hated producing, man. I just don’t care. That’s the thing when you’re a producer, you have to care. The only thing I really cared about was the end result and finishing the process. The psychological aspects of producing I found so tyring, because in the majority of the time I was working with people who were much younger than me and I don’t have any desire to be a father figure or a mentor or whatever a producer needs to be in order to create these records. I found it to be really frustrating. There was an element in it that was succesful in terms of how I approached bands in my intuitive nature of how I approach production and I learned how the personalities of the musicians tie in with the music and how the lyrics tie in with the concept so on and so forth. That was the direction I went with it. If I can avoid producing other bands, I certainly will.