evin Townsend has a special relationship with bass guitars. It’s a deep understanding that means that his status as the figurehead of the myriad projects that he’s been involved with over the years – Strapping Young Lad, his solo work or indeed the Devin Townsend Project – is never compromised. We spoke to the Canadian multi-instrumentalist while he’s touring Europe on The Retinal Circus tour. It’s a huge production and Townsend is singing and playing guitar in front of Georgian architecture, huge video projections, dancers dressed as wild cats and, naturally, a choir.
“At this point in my life, having been so visible for so long, standing by the drum riser playing bass isn’t going to work,” he laughs. “Bass is a real passion for me. It’s a sideline because every time I jam with people, very rarely am I given the chance to play bass.”
While he treats playing for other people as a bona fide luxury – as he will do not long after this tour when he flies to Germany to play on Swedish legend Jonas Hellborg’s wife’s new album – he still tries to play bass on his own records. What is it about the bass guitar that resonates so strongly within Devin, though?
“For me, the kind of bass that’s important to me is the one that is invisible until it stops and then everything just falls apart. You become the producer of the band without needing the attention of it all,” he explains. “I guess I find that with my own music it takes a while for me to write a bass-line that I think is appropriate. Something that supports it without aping the guitar line. I prefer to play with my fingers for the most part, so there’s an element of what’s going to complement the song and what’s going to fill in the production at the low end.”
“When I became a parent a few years back,” Townsend continues, with a more personal slant on his bass guitar philosophy. “I realised that by putting yourself in second place as a person – kids come first and all that – that the role of support became clear to me, and I think that it gave me a really good understanding of that instrument. I became more fascinated in it than ever, and have spent a great deal of time since then putting together a project that is completely bass.”
A new project based completely around a bass guitar? This sounds too ridiculous even for a man of Townsend’s reputation. With the cheeseburger that served as the meat of the story behind his Deconstruction album and, of course, the mighty Ziltoid the Omniscient – the fictional alter ego who helps him project many of his tales through music – he’s always been one to take a concept and go with it. It’s for this reason that a bass-oriented project pokes at the imagination.
Townsend’s initial explanation, with the facts boiled down their bare bones, makes the project seem rather simplistic (“It’s just me on bass with a choir”, he shrugs), but the reality is that his love affair with the bass guitar has concocted something even more complex and absolutely more eccentric than imagined.
“It’s maybe two or three projects down the line,” he explains briefly before moving swiftly and elaborately into details about how the rig is set up for this particular project. “I’ve got these fretless five and six-string Warwick Dolphins, but I run them into two old Ampeg 4x10s – the one that looks like a Darth Vader-type cab. About 10 years ago they released these cabs that are just useless for most folks because they’re too heavy, but they look so great. I also run into a Peavey 18” sub and then I’ve got two Mackie units that run all the effects.”
He continues: “I run that bass as loud as it takes to trigger the sympathetic strings and all these things that we’ve made and run through delays so if you’re playing a certain note, certain notes on the sympathetic strings will vibrate. Those vibrations go into these big boxes which get sent to a pitchshifter and then a delay and it becomes an ungodly thing.
“These two boxes are made to look like gnomes, these triangular, pyramid things. If you play an A on the bass, the eyes glow red and the A strings on the sympathetic gnomes resonate, and then behind the whole thing I want to have pictures of planets flying by,” he says with excitement. “We’re taking all these apocalyptic, fretless, destructive bass-lines and I’ve got this Icelandic choir that sings all these bizarre passages over the top of it.
“I like the idea of fretless for that,” he continues, “I like the idea of being able to swoop and trigger those notes without worrying too much about the transition between notes. There’s a couple of albums that really influenced me for that. A UK band called Old Lady Drivers had a record called Formula and, of course, Massive Attack. That’s the type of bass that I really, really dig.
Again Townsend simplifies his effort, in an almost off-hand manner, but averaging an album a year over his two-decade career, it’s unsurprising that he has this level of production mapped out for a project that is a couple of years away from coming to fruition. It’s this deep level of thinking that allowed him to draw the kind of numbers that led to headlining two nights at London’s historic Roundhouse in Camden. He prefers spending time making sure the production is as good as it can be, rather than “trudging around five miles in a day in the freezing cold to see some fucking moment.”
Townsend is in whichever city he’s in to do a job – one that he truly adores. So he spends a long time in the studio making sure everything sounds the best it possibly can.
Talking of the studio, we know he uses Warwick basses live, but at home he uses two Sadowsky Modern 24s. “They have a pre-amp in these basses that’s just an extra push for the low-end,” he explains. “Any time I’ve mixed these tracks, it’s very easy to just work with the DI signal. It’s pretty conservative – I spend a lot of time just making sure the notes are connected and the intonation is correct – and then there’s the über-destroy-everything bass rig of doom.”
He’s certainly come a long way from his first bass, “a Yamaha Precision copy with flatwound strings from 1962 that just wouldn’t break”. He says that all he needs for recording are his Sadowsky basses, which he runs into a Diamond compressor and then into a Universal Audio 6176. Though he might run one DI signal through a Sansamp to be on the safe side. So what’s the secret to being an excellent bass player?
“Consistency between notes,” he says immediately, before elaborating: “A lot of the time when I’m tracking bass guitars, even when they have technical ability, notes are never long enough. I think the length of the notes that you play and which string you play it on goes a long way in helping the mix. The amount of bass players that are just guitar players, and then you’re struggling with the frequencies and it’s not supporting anything – it’s just a bunch of bass notes rather than a foundation.”
“I’m so fascinated with the bass as a fundamental,” Townsend says. “How can we make it the most bass that you can get?”
It’s a question many bass players have asked themselves, but you wouldn’t bet against Devin Townsend conjuring up something very, very close to the answer.