1997. I loved the band, but had no idea what Devin Townsend from Strapping Young Lad would later become.
STRAPPING YOUNG LAD reveal all about passion, pisstakes and suicidal wood pigeons…
“Sorry that the pigeon had to die, but that was fucking hilarious!” giggles animal-loving guitarist Jed from cybermetallers Strapping Young Lad. It’s been an odd tour for the noiseniks, taking in illnesses, exhaustion and an encounter with a self-destructive pigeon.
“It happened to you guys and we got to see it,” explains Jed.
“We’re driving down the road and it was like BAM! The windscreen shattered. That was all I saw,” interjects an appalled Matt, guitarist with the band.
Jed continues: “What we saw was a bird flying straight for your van, which would have been impossible to see. It hit just the top section of the window, on the right. As it came off the van, it was spinning like a Chinese firework, have you seen them? Sorta pretty, well this bird was spiralling and all of a sudden feathers started to expand from it. It was beautiful, it was like a show. Couldn’t have been planned better. Unbelievable. Stuff like that, what are you going to do? It was funny.”
Humour is an important element in SYL, the band who brought us Heavy As A Very Heavy Thing and No Sleep Till Bedtime.
“I can’t go into detail about what makes us laugh – everything makes us laugh. I’m not even going to go into it – under the surface we’re pretty fucking twisted people. The music will speak for itself. We have a damn good time playing what we do.”
Do you get frustrated with dour, self-loathing industrial bands?
“Each individual person writes for him or herself and if someone wants to be Morrissey and cry about the fucking world and oh my god the whole time, then fine. Or if, like us, you want to sing about the Joy of Metal, then it’s up to the individual.”
The press release is entitled “Spinal Young Lad”, linking the extraordinary events of the tour with the comedic spoof “rockumentary” of the ficticious metal band, Spinal Tap.
“Spinal Tap wrote the book on travel,” laughs Jed, “That film is the be all and end all for touring. We’ve been battling some very strange viruses, and we’ve all been pretty sick lately. Plus the vindaloo. This tour’s been pretty wacky. I say wacky in a loose way, it’s been pretty fucking annoying to a large extent, but you’ve gotta put it into perspective. Fuck, we’re touring! Can’t complain!”
Do you ever wish you had a dayjob?
“Yeah, but fuck! If I had a dayjob, I’d be saying “I wish I was on tour right now”. This IS the dayjob.”
Strapping Young Lad are one of those “industrial” bands whose “industrialness” is largely based on there being more side-projects than band members. Do SYL write music for the project, or do they write a song and then decide which band gets which song?
“It’s both, sometimes you write a song and think “Fuck! That would be perfect for X band” but most of the time you’re sitting around jamming and it just fits with whatever you’re doing at the time. Sometimes when I’m sitting at home writing I’ll think “This’ll be good for this, and this’ll be good for this” We are the side project kings, we have bands all over the place.”
Do you try to keep the live sound in the studio?
“Yeah, there’s no fancy tricks. Well, there’s some choreography! I’ll sometimes put a KISS poster up for inspiration, but that’s about it. We don’t go in for big effects or anything. It’s soul-driven rather than FX driven. We play it like it is. You don’t need tricks. Live is what the record tries to represent. There’ll be no 11 inch high Stonehenges.”
Many of the bands we have spoken to have been actively into animal welfare. Do SYL pursue an ecologically-aware lifestyle?
“I’ll speak for myself,” says Jed, “I don’t give a fuck about people, but I give a fuck about animals. I don’t actively participate in any animal welfare programs although I would like to, I just don’t have the time or whatever excuse. I’m just not doing it. Animals are the one true thing, they’re innocent, they’re instinctual and they don’t rely on Kleenex softies to get them by. I’m not a big fan of the human race, but animals fucking rock. That kinda thing happens, but if you want to sacrifice stuff then go around the prisons and sacrifice some inmates, cut down the population.”
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘Then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’
At this point, we meet up with vocalist and main-man Devin Townsend, a charismatic, intense man who looks far older on stage than he does up close. Slightly built and with that same desperate earnestness possessed by Ogre from Skinny Puppy; Devin is vaguely unsettling and has the zeal of the preacher when he delivers his rhetoric on the “truth” of music. Still, he’s a pleasant enough chap, with an easy laugh and amiable manner, yet the seriousness of his conversation lies at odds with the humour of his music.
When we spoke to Rhys Fulber, he mentioned a side-project he has with you?
“No, I mean, you know the rumours with side projects are out of hand. I seems to be the in vogue thing to do at the moment. Rhys is from Vancouver so we just manage to go out every now and then and talk and when we talk, things come up. If we ever decide to do anything, well every day is a different day and we’ll take it as it comes.”
Rhys describes you as having a voice like a “male Bjork”…
Devin laughs – “That would be a funny looking thing, wouldn’t it? You mean she’s female?” He explains that his singing voice is merely the result of childhood lessons in the school choir, and the will to succeed.
James, a rivethead I brought with me, asks a question. He remembers a metal band called Nuclear Assault, and comments on the similarity between them and SYL. Are SYL an industrial band, or a metal band, like Nuclear Assault?
“It’s not intended to be industrial, or anything. It’s just an exultation of being alive. Music is just a by-product of living. Music is not a by-product of wanting to be a musician, it’s a by-product of wanting to be alive, and if you’re in a particular head-spin and you hear a particular record at a certain point in your life, then that will influence the kind of music you make. As soon as you start putting things into a genre it gives people a clique they feel they need to belong to.
“The idea behind music for me is that the audience is just as responsible for creating the music as we are. As soon as you start categorising, it’s like saying you’re a Christian or a Bhuddist or a Catholic, it gives you a group of people you can rationalise your hopes and fears with. Music isn’t about rationalisation of fears and hopes it’s about exultation of being alive. That’s all there is to it.
“Any agenda or fashion is like… we’re in a society that believes that compassion is a weakness for so long as opposed to accepting that we’re all part of a community as it is. We hold our hands out and we’re being fed empty products like the Spice Girls and McDonalds and as artists and as an audience the only responsibility we have is not to ackowledge it because as soon as you say you like it or you don’t like it you start buying into it. As soon as you acknowledge good then you instantly acknowledge that there is a bad to go along with it. Don’t acknowledge anything. You just are. And music just is. And whatever I choose to write is whatever I choose to write and whoever I choose to write it with is whoever I choose to write it with.”
So, there is no such thing as “bad music”?
“I think it’s all perception. There is music that I personally don’t think is very good but that’s just a question of what I’ve been raised to think is good or bad. If it gets you off then it gets you off, but I think what gets you off should be based on truth rather than lies. Perhaps the only music that I would consider would be bad is based on a vacuous existence which unfortunately counts for 99% of musicians. What I’d like to see is absolute purity. We’re looking for something shocking – we put rings through our noses and wear weird clothing. My idea is to present something so pure it’s terrifying. It doesn’t come from shock or trend, it comes from soul.”
What criteria would you use to identify a “good” record?
“If it marks accurately how I felt at that particular point in my life. Def Leppard’s Hysteria, however cack that record was, it reminds me of being sixteen and getting my first blowjob. In that light, it’s a great record, which is why I think you can’t discredit a record based on whether it’s this or that.”
Do you like music that makes you feel a certain way?
“Of course! I heard something today called… Gabba? … It’s CRAP! It’s what happens when you give undereducated people the privilege of using something that’s supposed to represent glory. You know, I hear this shit and it’s out of time and it’s crap! It’s not based on anything except for self-indulgence and perhaps that’s what music is based on but I mean when someone does it purely to be annoying, well, you might as well be a dentist.”
But Strapping Young Lad can’t be all serious. I mean, for a start – you’re called Strapping Young Lad.
“This kind of music is ridiculous!” says Devin, laughing again at last. “It’s all parody. I remember people coming up to me saying “Wow, you gotta hear Cannibal Corpse, they’re really extreme”, and I remember listening to them, going, these people just didn’t get hugged enough when they were kids! It’s just shit. But if they like it, then good. I always thought, you know what? I’m going to make a record way more extreme, so it’s just a parody.”