Billy Talent

I recently spoke with Benjamin Kowalewicz, frontman of Canada's own Billy Talent. By all accounts, Billy Talent live an interesting life; in Canada, they are full-fledged rock stars, winning major music awards and fawned over by mainstream news and music outlets like few others. Yet in America, they're a relatively new band, still building steam on their two full length albums, Billy Talent II and Billy Talent.

Ben and I discussed everything from their "feud" with Fucked Up, to working with legendary Canadian broadcaster Alan Cross.

I never went to college, I never went to university. I never got the chance to do that kind of stuff. For me, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do, the only thing I know how to do.

How was the tour?

It was great! It was good for us to say hello to a lot of Americans.

Speaking of that, how has the response been?

Pretty good. There’s a few that knew us from when we first toured with the record, then we did the Warped Tour in a lot of these places in the summer, so now we’re coming back and saying hello again. Then we’re going back out in March to do our own headlining tour across the States. So this is just an actual set up tour to meet a whole bunch of people who didn’t know who we are, or maybe heard about us but they’ve never seen us. So it’s been fun.

It must be a strange feeling, because you’re bona fide rock stars in Canada, but a newer band in the United States

There are certain parts in the States where we’re doing really well - any border town. We played in Detroit, and we had a lot of kids coming out from Windsor and the surrounding areas. So they’re all good, the Canadian fans are all good. America’s just a bigger country, in order to have success in this country you need to devote all your time to this country.

We’ve chosen to devote ourselves more to Canada and Europe and places overseas as opposed to just being an American band. I think a lot of the time bands have this stigma that in order to have the ultimate success you have to crack the American market. That’s never really been a huge goal of ours. At the end of the day it would be cool but we tour where we tour, and we’re not on MTV. We’re not smeared all over the radio stations like we are in Canada. It’s a little bit more word-of-mouthy over there, which is cool because at the end of the day if there’s kids who want to see us and we can play in small venues across America - that’s perfect for us.

Now how did the tour with Rise Against come about?

We just hung out with them at the Warped Tour and we ended up getting along with the guys. It was just one of those things, we were talking about - we wanted to put together a really good line up of friends and bands for Canada, and we were asking - y’know we asked Moneen and Anti Flag and Rise as well. And they all came back and said sure. They were talking about doing their own headline with Coheed and Cambria, Thursday, etc. So it’s just kind of been a tit for tat almost.

The fact that you guys have done so well is part of the fact that all these bands around Toronto have been picking up, like Moneen and stuff like that.

I don’t know, for us. Even bands like Moneen - they’ve been around for a hell of a long time as well. That’s the funny part - if people - it’s a blessing and a curse in the same mouthful, if we have - we’ve done better than we could have ever, ever, ever, ever, could have imagined. What we are doing right now is beyond our wildest dreams. We were independent for ten years and fought tooth and nail to get to where we are. In fact risked everything in our lives to get to this point.

It fucking kind of sucks when people think that we’re overnight flash-in-the-pan kind of thing when we’ve worked our entire lives to get here. The people who know us and who have been with us a long time understand the fight.

Is it satisfying to finally get here?

Of course. Of course. I mean Christ, you devote everything and all you’ve got.. I never went to college, I never went to university. I never got the chance to do that kind of stuff. For me, this is all I’ve ever wanted to do, the only thing I know how to do. To be honest with you, I’m not very good at a lot of things. This is a dream fucking come true, for however long it lasts. But we’re happy that we’ve been given an opportunity and a moment to have some fun and live our dreams.

One thing I wanted to ask you about was what happened with Fucked Up?

Okay, this is a great opportunity to clear the air. What happened with Fucked Up is that we had heard that they’re so amazing. I was really curious to hear what they’re all about because I’m always a fan of great music especially if it’s coming out our backyard y’know? Long story short there was a kerfuffle. Our guitar player Ian went to meet some friends who were in from out of town who had just moved here - this guy, a friend of ours and his girlfriend. He went to go meet them and to show them out, take them out for dinner and show them around.

They said to meet at the Bovine because that’s Ian’s local watering hole. Ian ended up getting there, they’d been going there for about five years, knew the bouncer and the bouncer let him in to go meet his friends and then they left to go have dinner and stuff like that. Fucked Up was playing at the Bovine when Ian went in, Ian didn’t know that. Some of the guys started giving him shit and they supposedly had said some stuff on stage about us. That was it, and we were like "that’s cool", it was a misunderstanding, but nothing happened.

And then they thought that we wrote a song called "Where’s the Line" on our album about them. When really that song is about Now Magazine and the hipsters/scenesters in Toronto. It has nothing to do with Fucked Up. Nothing. Zero. They were not in mind. We have no bad blood towards them, we think they’re a great band and we wish them all the best of success. Then they wrote the song "The Line" in retaliation to us and it’s just become this stupid, stupid thing, but at the end of the day we have no bad blood towards them. Everything that has happened has just been a purple-monkey-dishwasher miscommunication thing. The band are not even talking about it anymore and we’re not going to talk about it anymore because it just doesn’t make sense. There’s no - I’ve heard they’re great guys and girls, its just been a big misunderstanding.

Anyway, if they don’t like us, that’s cool but we have no bad blood towards them. They think that song is a rip on them and its not. At the end of the day there are greater fucking problems on the planet earth than worrying about what other bands say about each other.

But you don’t like Now Magazine, is what you’re saying?

Well, Now Magazine has never supported us. We were in it for - and we’ve been from Toronto, it’s our back yard. They’ve never helped us out and they always given us shitty reviews and they’ve never really helped us out. It’s not really just Now, if you go into the clubs and indie clubs and people look down their noses at us. You know what I mean - it’s like "fuck off." We’re here to have a beer and relax you now what I mean?

I agree with you, I can’t watch, I can’t read a movie review in that magazine, because if it’s not in Swahili , they give it a bad review

Exactly. Musically, unless it’s recorded in Guelph on an 8 track in a basement, its not good. You know what I mean? So it’s a lot of like fuck off, it’s a lot of indie bands just masturbating for each other. That’s fine, its just being from Toronto and having that be your local zine that’s supposed to help you out. They’ve never helped us, just slagged us it was more just tongue in cheek.

It took three years between the two records, is that mainly because of touring or was there writer’s block?

Nah, it was pretty much the latter, it was touring, touring, touring. We didn’t stop touring - the funny thing about the record is that it really didn’t start doing well in Canada until at least a year and a half after we released it. And then it kind of went ripping, something happened.

So we kept on going and going, and we toured in Europe and by the time we came back we were just like - what the fuck happened over the past two years? Then we took a month off just to relax and rejuvenate. Then slowly but surely we started writing. So from the time we stopped touring it took us about nine months in total to write, record and get it all finished. I don’t think it’s going to be as long on the next turnaround

And anticipation’s pretty high for the second one.

Yeah, you know as well as I know, if there’s bands that have a pretty good first record, everyone wants you to fall off your chair, but, to the fault of the bands that release really shitty records, it’s because they get so pressured and they have a little piece of the pie and they want to have more. For us, we really take what we do seriously, the craft, the power of music.

We believe in writing the best songs we possibly can. So sometimes that may take a little longer, but at the end of the day we’re going to benefit and the people that like are band will hopefully benefit as well because we’re giving them quality and not just off the cuff stuff.

As far as how the band works, you guys have kept a fairly steady line up for quite a while…

Same guys!

Which is weird these days.

We essentially feel like old men on tour now its hilarious (laughs). Well cause we’re all 30, 31 years old, Aaron’s going to be 32 next week. We meet bands that are like 21 and people are all like "how old are you guys?" and we’re like " we’re 30 dude" they’re like "What!"

We kind of feel like the old geezers half the time but we’ve had the privilege and the honour of - you know what’s funny? Is that I talk to a lot of my friend’s bands, and some of the bands have been breaking up and dismembering and people change and stuff like that. The one thing that we were lucky about is that we started when we were really young and we shared all the same goals and the same mindset that this is what we wanted to do. Everything else is secondary, girlfriends - secondary, work, jobs, school, opportunities, everything else is just kind of secondary, cause we all wanted to be in the band y’know.

I think that’s one of the hardest things these days in the bands, or in a band, is to find the same members that actually all have the same goal, that they want to be in a band, and not be an accountant first and in the band second. It sucks when you see bands who are doing so well and are just about to break, they’re about to do stuff, and then they’re like - well I don’t want to do that, and then one member leaves and then they’re fucked.

You definitely had some different things going on, and yet you still seem cohesive, so that seems like quite an achievement in itself.

Well thank you. That’s the one thing that we do as a band, we kind of respect each other’s differences and use them as a positive as opposed to using that against us. I love hip hop, I’m a big hip hop guy and I love a lot of ska and old reggae and things like that, and we all kind of do, but it’s a matter of - growing up I’m not a big prog rock fan, I’ve never been in the metal scene, I don’t think Fubar is funny, y’know what I mean, but that’s just me. I was more into bands like the Clash and the Pistols and Public Enemy back in the day as opposed to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, you know what I mean?

But some of the guys in the band, love the metal stuff and prog rock and Rush and stuff like this. That’s fantastic, that’s not my cup of tea but they respect me for what I like, and I respect them for what they like. Which is cool, and then I’ll sit down and listen to a Rush record and listen to the fine parts in it that are good. Like I love the drums, or - y’know what I mean? It’s just about respecting each other’s differences.

There’s a lot of really good people who have been coming to these shows. But you know, you get the odd drunk guy at a bar. If he’s not getting laid, he’s going to get into a fight you know?

On the subject of Canadian bands, without naming any of the bands you have recently toured with, what are some of the bands you see coming up, or that are kind of exciting to you right now?

Well, my favourite band in Canada was Death From Above 1979 and we brought them out, and we toured with them, and we tried, and we loved them so much, and then they ended up splitting which fucking sucked. But I’m really proud of Metric and the Cancer Bats, the new album is really good.

Have you heard it?

It wasn’t what I expected. But if you like The Bronx and you like the more hardcore stuff and the rock and roll stuff, you’ll definitely dig it.

Wow, cool I’m excited to hear that. God, I don’t know, there’s not much else that I can think of at the moment. I just think that its rad that we have a scene, not just a punk scene or a hardcore, I’m talking about just how Canada has a scene you know? With bands like the Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene, to bands like K-Os, you know there’s just so much good music coming out of our country and it’s kind of refreshing.

The Tragically Hip still put out records, so -

I heard that new song, it’s not bad.

(laughs) I can’t listen to them, it just, they just don’t work for me, I don’t know what it is.

Oh yeah, I never was a fan either, but at the end of the day I love and respect what they’ve done. The new song’s not bad.

See, where I went to college, telling people you don’t like the Hip was like saying you don’t like hockey.

That’s the thing, they kind of cornered that Molson Canadian market (laughs). You know what I mean? That’s the frat boy mentality, which was kind of like my antichrist growing up.

Now you guys were the victim of a leak of your album before the release date.


You guys leaked it?

We leaked half the record about six months before, we were releasing demos of all the songs, as precursors, and then the album got leaked, we kind of put half the record out before anyone even knew and then someone got the other half and then it was just all out, so we leaked it - it was leaked.

The album did pretty well when it was released so do you think it was a good thing?

Yeah! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s going to get out there, regardless of if its the day you were planning on releasing it. We tried to fight it off for as long as we could. But at the end of the day we were just like "who cares?" Like really, what can you do, you can’t control it, you might as well just embrace it.

I’ll tell you one thing dude, having things like Myspace and pure volume and stuff like that, that totally helped us out in a way that we’ve never found possible. We’ve met so many people from America and Western Europe and Australia, that people have discovered us through Myspeace and it’s pretty amazing that all these bands have these wonderful options that didn’t exist ten years ago. Five years ago.

You recently had to leave England in the middle of the tour? Just wondering if everything is ok, is everything worked out?

Thank you for asking. No, I lost somebody very close to me in my life. It was really fucking terrible and awful and horrible, but things are getting better and taking it day by day. But its stuff like that that happens to your life that when you care about somebody so much and there’s nothing you can do for them. It just opens your eyes and it makes you appreciate that your friends and your family and the people you’ve got in your life are everything, and everything else is just secondary you know? So it’s been a rough go for the past little bit, but things are getting better, they’re getting better. Thanks for bringing that up.

No problem, you have my sympathy and I hope everything works out for you.

Thanks brother.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s going to get out there, regardless of if its the day you were planning on releasing it. We tried to fight it off for as long as we could. But at the end of the day we were just like "who cares?" Like really, what can you do, you can’t control it, you might as well just embrace it.

The last thing I wanted to ask was just - I remember seeing some pieces with you guys where you were talking about getting a really - I don’t even know if this is the right word - you were getting a lot of homophobia while you were in the States?

Homophobia? Yeah, well I’d get yelled at, people would say some derogatory things to me, you know, but that’s ok. What am I going to do? I can’t compete with a 6 foot 10 muscle football guy yelling names at me.

You could swing the mike around your head I guess.

Well, yeah there’s been some interesting stuff on this tour that has happened. There’s a lot of aggression in certain parts of America. We’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of cool and really amazing people and bands, like we’ve been friends with the Rise Against guys, the Thursday guys, there’s a lot of really good people who have been coming to these shows. But you know, you get the odd drunk guy at a bar. If he’s not getting laid, he’s going to get into a fight you know?

I remember an interview with At the Drive-In and that was their reason for wanting to get out of hardcore, was just for that reason.

There you go, which kind of sucks. They’re one of my favourite bands as well. It’s like you have these people that just kind of ruin it for everybody else.

I guess the only other thing I want to ask you is a weird trivia thing, like a "before the band broke" question. I know that you had a job with Alan Cross before the band really broke. What was that like?

He is the most amazing man ever. I had the pleasure of working with him, and to be honest the only reason I got into radio was because of the Ongoing History of New Music. I was listening to him, and all the information, I was addicted growing up. I was living in this shitty little apartment complex and I had this little ghetto blaster, and I used to just sit there like he was speaking the gospel.

I eventually went and got work there working at the Edge and they believed in me and got me a job emptying the garbages and sweeping the floors, then I was working doing Alan’s show and then he would not talk to me, and I’d walk in and say hello, and then he’d sit there and work and I’d go "ok" And then over six months he would say "Go to the Tower Records" and the next thing I’d know I’d be sitting there just highlighting stuff and giving it to him, and then we became friends. He’s a wonderful guy. I think we’re so lucky, like, to have the opportunity to travel around and listen to radio stations, they don’t have that kind of stuff in 99% of the world.

So to have a guy or have these kinds of shows where anyone that is into rock music, you can learn so much about these different things. Maybe I’m just a fucking music geek.

The guy is like an music encyclopedia, anything, ever.

Its insane dude, it’s insane. You just sit there, I don’t know if you’ve met him, but if you ever meet him, you say so "what about the Pistols?" and he can talk for hours.