Devin Townsend says that he “still can’t listen” to “Sex & Religion”, the 1993 album he made with Steve Vai. Released under the band name VAI, the disc saw the legendary guitarist joining forces with a band of “monster musicians” — including drummer Terry Bozzio and bassist T.M. Stevens — to create an effort that was radically different from 1990’s “Passion And Warfare”. The band split up after the album was finished, and Vai subsequently toured only with Townsend and several session drummers and bassists.
During a question-and-answer session at last month’s London screening of the documentary on the making of his latest album, “Empath”, Townsend was asked how he feels about “Sex & Religion” more than 25 years after the album’s release. “I still can’t listen to it,” he responded. “And it’s not because of the music. It’s because of what it resonates with. And it was a beautiful record, and it was a beautiful time.
“I went to L.A. for that record, and I was 20 years old,” he continued. “And I had the idealism that I think a lot of musicians have prior to getting involved with it, where, in your mind’s eye, you have this impression that if you become a musician, it’s easy street — you get videos and you get your albums in stores, and all these sorts of things. And it was compounded with me, I think, by my… I’ve always been interested in, not spirituality, but how music is an invisible thing; it’s connected to the spirit. And I think when I went to L.A., I was so immediately deflowered by the industry, where I was just, like, ‘Oh my God! This is all fucking bullshit! It’s all bullshit!’ All the smoke and mirrors that goes into making someone look like a God, where they’ll Photoshop the face and they’ll take the photos from that one angle where your teeth aren’t fucked up, and they present it… Some 60-year-old guy is, like, ‘He’s still hot, ladies and gentlemen,’ and they airbrush his abs on. And when you’re not involved with it, you’re thinking, like, ‘Wow! These are gods. These are legitimately not like me. These people are not like me.’ And when I got there, I realized really quickly everybody’s fucked. No one knows. No one’s got any answers. Steve doesn’t know. The label doesn’t know. And I think because my flowery connection to what music was in my own mind was immediately debunked, that’s when I started thinking… The Steve Vai record resonates with me with that sort of fundamental paradigm shift, so I don’t recognize the music as much as what it did to my connection to music. And ultimately, what it did is I was, like, ‘I’m gonna make STRAPPING YOUNG LAD, and I’m gonna make music where everything burns.’ They say that quote, ‘You can never hate something as much as something that you previously loved.’ And music, to me, was something that I felt so connected to that when I felt like, ‘Oh, it’s all bullshit,’ I just wanted it to be horror.”
Devin added: “So the music and the album and the experience was a huge thing to me, and the music on it and the performances are all things I’m incredibly proud of, but I can’t listen to it, not because of the music but because of what it represents to my life. It was a very complicated time. But Steve plays on ‘Empath’, and he’s one of my best friends in the world. And he’s done so much for me. Without Steve, I would not have done any of this. And not only that — I continue to be a huge fan of his work. Before I met him, Steve Vai was everything to me. So, it was one of those complicated relationships that we’re very fortunate to have gotten to a point as adults where we share a lot now. And I value him and my relationship with him as much as any intrinsic part of my life. So, hooray for Steve and that record.”
More than a decade after their initial musical partnership, Townsend and Vai again crossed paths. In 2005, Vai played a guest guitar solo on Townsend‘s “Synchestra” album, and in 2013, was cast as narrator on Townsend‘s “The Retinal Circus” live album. When Vai decided to record 2016’s “Modern Primitive”, which featured music he wrote in the period between his debut solo album, “Flex-Able”, and the aforementioned “Passion and Warfare”, he enlisted Townsend to sing on a song called “The Lost Chord”.