Thursday, August 28, 2003
Music: One bad lad
Devin Townsend finds solace in Strapping Young Lad
By Newt Briggs
There are few tasks in this world easier than coming up with a name for a heavy metal band. For proof, divide a sheet of paper into two columns. In the first column, write blood, cannibal, death, festering, maggot, putrid and shit. In the second, write carcass, demon, goat, mouth, orgy, plague and rot. Randomly select a word from each column, and--voila!--the names make up themselves. Consider, for example, Maggot Mouth, Blood Orgy, Deathrot, Festering Carcass and the incomparable Shit Goat--all currently unclaimed by the heavy metal community. It's even possible to take a word and intentionally misspell it, like Karkass or Kannibal. Once you have the basic building blocks, it's really just a matter of personal preference.
All of which begs the question: Why--with all these possibilities for menace and gore--did Canadian metalmonger Devin Townsend christen his band Strapping Young Lad? Didn't that seem a tad dandyfied for a fearsome death metal project?
Mercury: When you were naming the band, were you at all concerned about the potential homoerotic implications of a name like Strapping Young Lad?
Townsend: I'm not sure I know what you mean.
M: Dude, Strapping Young Lad? It sounds like a gay Irish porno film.
T: In retrospect, I guess I could see that. The thing is, I'm equally disgusted by both men and women. Personally, I'm heterosexual because I'm with my wife and I love her, but sex just isn't important enough to me to give it a whole lot of thought. Human beings are gross. We're ugly fucking pink things. To a certain extent, it's really funny that a life choice like where you're going to put your penis can be so significant in our society. On my list of priorities, sex is--like--really, really low.
Townsend opts instead to sink his creative energy into music--a passion he's pursued with monastic devotion since first picking up a guitar at age 12. Over time, it's proved a mixed blessing, landing Townsend a gig touring with Steve Vai by the time he was 19 and in the mental hospital by the time he was 25 ("It's not that I was whacked out," he says. "I just said the wrong things to the wrong people."). Since then, he's fronted sporadically for a variety of projects: Ocean Machine, The Devin Townsend Band and Strapping Young Lad--each serving a specific (if somewhat self-indulgent) artistic need.
"Strapping Young Lad is a vehicle for me to be wild and extroverted and ridiculous," he says. "It gives me the chance to say, `Look at me. I'm a heavy metal guy. I'm Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson or whoever.' That's why we've got the Marshall stacks and the double-kick bass and the flames and everything. It's kind of like a parody. I get up there and tell the audience that they're idiots and that they should buy our T-shirts and all that shit, but it's not serious. It's just to get people's attention."
Try telling that to someone listening to Strapping Young Lad's most recent album, SYL, for the first time. A 39-minute barrage of shrieks and shrapnel, SYL seems nothing if not serious (the tracks "Rape Song" and "Bring on the Young" are a far cry from Strapping's sardonic debut Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing). Particularly when considered in light of its motivation--Townsend attributes the album's vicious bite to his horror at the events of Sept. 11--SYL hits with the immediacy and violence of a brick to the face. Townsend, though, finds solace in its brutality, seeking personal and social catharsis as he roots through the thrash.
"I don't deal with conflict well, so sometimes things will happen that will make me feel sort of powerless," he says. "But instead of being able to actually deal with the problem, I just suck it up--that's the way I was raised. Music, then, becomes my one avenue for letting things go, and when I get the chance, I let it rip. It's like therapy in that way. Maybe that's why Strapping Young Lad is such a fitting name for the band. It makes me feel strong. Like I'm actually in control and not trapped in a huge, empty, pointless void."