Devin Townsend's early years: Gray Skies, Steve Vai, Commodore highs
Vancouver’s Devin Townsend is a master of extreme metal. I’m not saying that from personal experience, because I’m not into extreme metal. Old Iron Maiden’s about as extreme as I get these days.
But from what I’ve heard the fortyish singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist is quite the artistic genius when it comes to various types of metal-based music. He’s hugely prolific and has pretty well gone on to conquer the world since I was following him in the early ’90s, writing about his band Gray Skies and his collaboration with American rock-guitar hero Steve Vai.
After that I went back to listening to Thin Lizzy and stuff.
But for those multitudes of hardcore Townsend fans out there who might have missed out on the gifted guy’s beginnings in the music biz, here’s a humble primer in the form of three old stories I wrote. (I got the idea for this little trip down memory lane after Townsend tweeted a photo of one of the articles a few months ago.)
The first one is a Local Motion piece that ran in the Georgia Straight‘s March 19, 1992 issue:
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.’ ”
Wasn’t that fun? It was for me. Now here’s the interview I did with Townsend after he’d joined Steve Vai’s band and sang lead on his 1993 Sex & Religion CD. This story got published in the Straight 16 months after the first one:
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.”
And for all those dedicated Devin fans still reading, here’s the final installment in today’s Townsend trilogy. It’s my review of his show with Vai at the Commodore Ballroom, which took place on September 29, 1993:
Vancouver vocalist Devin Townsend caused a minor uproar (and prompted a few letters to the editor) when he was interviewed in the Straight a few weeks back. Some folks didn’t appreciate the 21-year-old’s caustic view of the music industry or his offhand remarks regarding the guitar in general and guitarist Steve Vai in particular. But any readers who judged Townsend as an ungrateful, snot-nosed punk who just happened to luck out and score a dream gig in Vai’s band would have been hard-pressed to slag him after Wednesday’s Commodore show. The guy’s a wicked vocalist and a wild front man, and for someone who professes to despise the guitar, he sure handles the damn thing well.
The Vai band focused on tunes from its recently released CD, Sex & Religion, which runs the gamut from melodic power ballads (“In My Dreams with You”) to flat-out manic thrash (“Pig”), and Townsend was a prowling, panther-like presence throughout. Performance-wise, he’s like a twisted cross between Johnny Rotten, Peter Garrett, and Fishbone’s Angelo Moore—only he can out-shriek them all. The veins on his partly shaved head were bulging in places where I didn’t know veins could be, and if the band could have harnessed his energy, it could have done without power amps.
The loudest concert I’ve ever been to was David Lee Roth at the Pacific Coliseum, back when Vai was his guitarist, but this time—despite the fact that Townsend himself was wearing protective earplugs—Vai was much less deafening. And after seeing him play a rather silly crotch-rock gig with Whitesnake a few years ago, it was a whole ’nother ball game to experience the primo player at a bar. I used to think Vai was somewhat of a noodling, 1,000-notes-per-second techno-wanker in concert, but his subtle mastery of sounds and emotions was highly evident at the Commodore. He was, no doubt, driven in his inspired performance by drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., whose spotless playing more than made up for the fact that he was filling Sex & Religion drummer Terry Bozzio’s sizeable shoes.
“You know one of the reasons I like Vancouver so much?” asked Vai when the band was called back for an encore. “It’s because that’s where Devin’s from.” With that, Vai took the youngster on in a showstopping guitar duel, and although Townsend proved himself worthy of the challenge, Vai wasn’t quite nice enough to let his colleague outplay him, hometown crowd or not.
So that’s it. I don’t have any more 20-year-old stories on Devin Townsend to post. Used ‘em all up. So I’ll just say, “Thanks for the memories, Hevy Devy! And keep on strivin'.”