By David DeRocco
With no disrespect intended to any group of musicians who have, through the consequence of recent events related to their lead singer, been branded as “Canada’s band,” I present to you a set of empirical facts for your consideration.
Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2003, the band known as BILLY TALENT has: scored no less than four #1 hits in Canada, including their most recent single “Afraid of Heights”; knocked Drake – yes, DRAKE! – out of the top spot on the Canadian charts with the same album, which also hit #1 on the German rock charts; achieved multi-platinum status with two of their first four albums; earned 20 nominations and won seven Juno awards, including Best Band and Best Album for their debut; scored six Top 5 hits and seven Top 10 hits; sold over one million records in Canada; sold nearly three million records worldwide; sold out Toronto’s ACC as a headliner in a matter of hours; earned the title of “Most Nominated Band in the history of the MuchMusic Video Awards.”
Not a bad list of accomplishments for a Canadian band often branded too loud, too punk, too young, too vocally polarizing for mainstream rock radio – usually by the same corporate radio programmers the band skewers in their new hit, “Louder Than The DJ.” Like the song says, “Radio needs a shot to the vein, of anger, fury, heartache and pain.” Those are things the members of BILLY TALENT – vocalist Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa, drummer Jordan Hasting (temporary fill-in for Aaron Solowoniuk) and bassist Jonathan Gallant – have relentlessly delivered on disc and on-stage in waves since releasing their first single “Try Honesty” over a decade ago. Is there a case to make for BILLY TALENT being “Canada’s band” of the present and future? Legions of BT fans from here to Germany would support that nomination.
Given their “regular-guys” mentality, however, the members of BILLY TALENT might be adverse to claiming that crown for themselves, but you can’t argue with their success. Hot on the heels of the release of their fifth album AFRAID OF HEIGHTS, which debuted at #1, BILLY TALENT is once again ruling the charts and rolling across the continent on a tour that lands them at Niagara Falls, NY’s Rapids Theatre September 9th. Bassist Jonathan Gallant took the time out to talk with GoBeWeekly about the band’s success, the challenges of fame, those crazy Germans and the joys of opening for Guns’N’Roses.
GOBE: BILLY TALENT’s back on the road and in full tour mode. How’s life on the road treating you?
JONATHON: We’ve been going steady since the end of May. We’ve been spacing things out enough that we’re keeping things fresh. It’s been a long time since we toured in the States so it’s been fun to be down here again and hanging out with Americans.
GOBE. I’m 55, I have daughters aged 26, 20 and 14. We have our differences in opinion, but one thing we can all agree on is how much we all love BILLY TALENT. Do you see that kind of diversity of age in your audiences, and what is it about your band that appeals to such a cross-generational audience.
JONATHAN: I do see it especially with these shows in the States. We’ve not been here for a while and there are a lot of fans of the band who haven’t had the chance to see us. So we noticed the age has been a little older, but I know with these last two albums there’s a lot of young people getting turned onto the band. I think it just comes down to a similar personality trait of people who are fans. We sing about regular issues; we’re not fluffy or anything like that. There’s some intelligence behind our music and I think if that’s something you appreciate, you’ll gravitate towards our band. Some people just want to listen to music just because and they don’t care about any kind of message or anything like that. They just want to dance and enjoy some junk food for the mind, which is totally fine. But there’s other people who take their music a little more seriously, and I think our band is a band that takes ourselves seriously with the content we write about and even our musicianship. We try to do things that are unique and we take pride in that. If you take pride in that then were the band for you.
GOBE: BILLY TALENT has an uncanny ability to write songs packed with emotion, not in an Extreme “More That Words” wimp-ass way, but in a powerful way that truly seems to resonate with fans. What’s the band’s approach to recording when you walk into the studio with a bunch of songs packed with emotion.
JONATHAN: Sometimes there are drafts of songs that get rewritten because we felt that the message may not have been conveyed properly. But the approach is generally that we’re people who pay attention to our emotions day by day, and that kind of bleeds into the music. I can’t comment too much on the lyric writing because I’m not part of that, but I live with it day by day. If the guys aren’t writing things that resonate I will say something. But our process is so thorough and long that we have a good filtration system
GOBE: You certainly hit the mark once again with the new CD Afraid of Heights, which debuted at #1 and knocked Drake off the top of the Canadian charts. How do such achievements resonate with the band five albums into your career?
JONATHAN: It feels good. With this kind of lifestyle and career it’s always uncertain. You never know what can happen or what can go wrong. We always feel like we’re putting our balls on the line all the time, with our reputations and the way we want people to evaluate our band. We worked so hard on this record for three years, and for it to come out and have people respond to it this way. It felt really good. We’ve been doing it for a long time, and we’ve never felt comfortable – which is a good feeling, because once you rest on your laurels that’s when it’s just going to stop working. We feel like we’ve got lots more to accomplish.
GOBE: When I was working rock radio in Hamilton I remember sitting in music meetings around the time of the second album, arguing the case to get you guys played on the station. The program director and music director couldn’t get past the vocals, and I kept saying ‘listen to the guitars, listen to the hooks.’ At this stage of your career, does that still happen? Do you hear from your label reps about radio programmers who still don’t get BILLY TALENT?
JONATHAN: I appreciate you being a champion for the band, because it was help like that helped us gain ground in the beginning because we were a little bit different. We’ve always believed in ourselves as a rock band you know. I think we still fight that battle even with the new music that has come out in the last 10 years. I think for us it kind of goes back to what I just said, that we don’t feel comfortable at any time. Even in the last little while when we were getting prepared to get into the studio and record our record, there were times I remember sitting with the band and being worried about our career. We’d never hear our band on the radio and that kind of stuff. But I think that’s just the insecurity of an artist. We don’t take it for granted. We always feel like we have to prove ourselves. I still have those feelings that we’re not always going to get radio support.
GOBE. Radio airplay is not always the panacea for success and with BILLY TALENT, you’ve definitely won your audience with your live shows. I’ve seen you headline the ACC, seen you open for Guns N Roses, seen you in small clubs. And no matter where you play the band always brings it. Do you have a preference, being a headliner, being an opening act, being a club act? Or do the guys just like to play?
JONATHAN: We’ve done the small clubs and it’s a total blast. There’s people right at my feet. I just love playing personally. For me the best part of the day is the show. I love to get up there and interact with people that are directly in front of me. I’ve got a bit of an entertainer in my blood. I just love playing music. So it doesn’t matter where we’re paling, it’s just go lets have fun playing for these people.
GOBE: Speaking of GNR, how fun was that experience this summer?
JONATHAN: We were really really stoked. Our manager had mentioned it a couple months earlier that he was going to try and get that show. We were like,’okay whatever.’ We don’t believe anything until it’s happening. But we were in Europe actually on a day off, all of us were tired and no one was checking their emails. All of a sudden Ben says, ‘check your emails.’ It was us getting the offer to open the GNR show. For me it was pretty special because GNR was one of the main reasons why I wanted to be in a band. They came out when I was in grade six. It just kind of took over for me. I started playing bass shortly thereafter. The show itself was just magical, something that was really cool and surreal. Playing at the SkyDome and then to watch GNR from the visitors’ dugout. It was really all just a trip. Really awesome.
GOBE: I was hesitant to buy tickets to see GNR, but when I found out BILLY TALENT was opening it was a no brainer.
JONATHAN. And it was worth it too. They were good, GNR was good. I have so much respect for them. I’ve been touring so much the last 12 years and watched a lot of classic bands. I’ve seen other bands use background tracks and cheat. But GNR, they just went up there and they played a raw set. Sometimes it sounded amazing and sometimes it sounded terrible but all in all, they were putting all their heart and soul into it and I was really impressed. I’ve been a jaded GNR fan for the last 15 years because of some of the shenanigans over the past few years. But I was super impressed with the show. I think anybody that went to the show got their money’s worth by far.
GOBE: When you see an iconic, mega-selling band like that, whether you’re just watching them or opening up for them, does it awaken any competitive spirit in you as a musician?
JONATHAN: I have a lot of belief in my band, and in our songs. I feel like we could do that. I want to do that. Maybe it can’t happen now or maybe it won’t, but I feel like we’re as good a band as GNR when I look at my band. That’s the competitive nature of the business. I’m also very close to it so my opinion is what is.
GOBE: You have a right to feel that way based on your success. Over a million albums sold in Canada, four number one hits, seven songs in the Top 10, the most nominated band in Much Music Video Award history. Such success is almost blasphemous to a band sporting a 70s style punk mentality. Why do you think BILLY TALENT has resonated in such a profound way with fans? Is it because you’ve managed to transcend the labels people put on the band in the beginning, and fans are just too smart these days to be restricted by them?
JONATHAN: I don’t how or why it all hit. I know we write good songs. Sometimes I’m walking out of rehearsal and a song gets stuck in my head and they’ll be new songs where I go ‘wow, that’s a strong chorus.’ I know that’s what we’re good at. I think good songs kind of trump everything and go beyond labels. That’s what hits you as an emotion. I think labels are terrible because they just put up pointless barriers. So I like to think our songs can transcend that. I know in my musical listening tastes I love music from every kind of genre and I don’t care anymore. We’re just very lucky.
GOBE: You’ve been hanging with these guys for a couple of decades now, since the early incarnation as PEZZ and then through the formation of BILLY TALENT and beyond. When you stop and step away for some quiet reflection on your accomplishments as a band and for you as a musician, what does it all mean to you?
JONATHAN: I don’t know man. There’s not really much time for reflection. We’re always going forward and looking ahead. Then when I get home and I’m not thinking about the band I’ve got three kids that completely absorb me. I just feel extremely lucky and I don’t take that for granted at all. You’ve got to kind of make your own luck and you can’t rest on your laurels. I think there will be a time for reflection at some point. Most of the time we’re trying to think of what we’re doing and where we’re going.
GOBE: With such a schedule how do you deal with the ill consequences of fame, trying to balance work and family and demands on your time.
JONATHAN: It’s difficult but it is about balance. I’m lucky when I get home I get to be off. My works days are short. I get completely involved in my children’s lives. My wife and I have been together for a long time, we’ve grown up together through all this, it’s just the way we live. If I wasn’t a musician I’d be a workaholic in some other kind of job and who knows how much that would take me away from my family as well. This is our lifestyle we’re used to. My wife is incredible and keeps it all together. As a band we try to tour in a responsible way. When we get home we care about managing the amount of time we’re working. If you work too much it will all fall about.
GOBE: Speaking of the work involved, I was watching the video for the title track for Afraid of Heights, and when you break it down it looks like the process of making such videos would involve a lot of tedious, boring, work. Is the making of the videos more draining that the endless hours spent in studio recording?
JONATHAN: We’ve made a lot of videos and we’ve always taken pride in making good videos. I probably don’t look forward to the video shoot. I look forward to the time when the video shoot is done. It’s just a necessary evil. We’ve gotten a lot of really great opportunities to work with some really great video artists. Overall when I look at our video catalogue I’m really proud of it. There’s only a couple I look at and say I don’t like that one.
GOBE: You’ve definitely managed to avoid wearing any fashions in those videos that 10 to 15 years from now could be embarrassing.
JONATHAN: We’ve been pretty smart about that. We’ve always been kind of a no-frills image, black T-shirts and black jeans. That’s kind of a timeless rock and roll attire. This is the first album where we’ve decided to step out of that comfort zone and throw some colour in there. We’re wearing red shirts. How brave.
GOBE: Afraid of Heights has hit #1 in Germany and you’ve toured extensively there. Is there any difference to the audience, does the language barrier present any challenges.
JONATHAN: No, there’s never a challenge with the language. They’re so smart, everyone speaks two languages over there. The shows are incredible. I think the live rock show experience there is a little bit more important to the culture there than it is in North American. I’m not saying it’s crazy, but the fans are into it. When you get there there’s a perspective that they’re all in it together. It’s a nice feeling because people become part of something bigger rather than going to a concert for their owner personal experience. It’s not too much different than playing shows anywhere else. But the fans are all like-minded. They do these incredible things in groups. One time we were playing “Try Honesty” and everyone sat down on the floor and pretended to row a boat all in unison to the rhythm of the song, just 700 people sitting on the floor just rowing a boat. It happened so fast, everyone got together to just do it. It was just amazing. You never see that kind of thing in North America
GOBE: Final question: when you see the reverence displayed to The Hip during this recent tour, what does it make you think about how you would like BILLY TALENT to be remembered in the lexicon of great Canadian bands.
JONATHAN: You know what’s beautiful about The Hip: their reputation as good people, and how they resonated with people in an honest way. That to me is the best part of what happened to them. That’s what I would strive for. Respect, just so people know that we’re good representations of the country. We were – we are — always careful to represent Canada well. It’s kind of like being socially aware and conscious. What was so incredible about that last Hip show is that Gord directed everything away from himself and put pressure on Trudeau to take a social responsibility toward the indigenous people up north. I just thought that was so noble. He could have made it all about him. He made it a platform to help others. And that’s the kind of shit that matters.
Billy Talent plays the Rapids Thea