Toronto punk-rock band Billy Talent are no strangers to the music game. After having been together as a band for over 20 years, the band has had their share of trials and tribulations, but have always managed to come out on top. We spoke with lead singer Ben Kowalewicz about the preparation for the release of their fifth studio album, Afraid of Heights, the challenges of recording, and opening up for Guns N’ Roses.
CONFRONT: What was the album process like this time around?
Ben: Well, it’s kind of been the same way we’ve been doing it for the last 20 years. Ian [D’sa. Guitarest for the band] is the main songwriter of the band in every way, shape, and form, so he comes up with some ideas, whether it be on piano or guitar, he plays it, shows it to us, and we all do our own on bits on top of his creation. This process was kind of the same, but this was different in a few ways. It was really quite beautiful because Ian also got to produce this record so from the initial songwriting to the final note played he was there for the entire process, so I loved that. The whole vision got to work and we got to do it in our own studio for the most part which was also really nice. Then there was not having Aaron [Solowoniuk. Drummer for the band] play on this record, which was the worst thing ever. But having our friend Jordan [Hastings] from Alexisonfire come in and fill in and do such a wonderful job. So there was a lot of light and a lot of dark.
CONFRONT: That’s kind of the first time where it’s been someone else who’s not in the band playing on the album. Was it kind of different at first or did you have to go through the motions of it at first?
Ben: We were fortunate enough to have two to three months with Jordan to work on song the songs, and all the drum parts had already been figured out. Ian had written all the drum parts and Aaron helped a bit, so when Jordan came in, he just had to learn and memorize it a bit and to put his own twist on it. It was different for him, different for us. But like I said, there was a beautiful, simplicity to it as well because we’ve known Jordan forever, and his playing ability as a drummer are X-Men good. But that that part of the transition was very easy, very fluid, very natural. The thing with something that carries that sort of weight is that it’s always in the forefront, so as much as we were all trying to,not pretend, but to just go through this odd thing together and make the best of it. We felt the weight of it and how different it was, but it was the best situation of a very f***** up situation.
CONFRONT: Lyrically as a band, you’ve always kept your message very political. But as more albums came out, you also managed to share personal experiences. Are similar themes like that on the new album? What can we expect to hear?
Ben: I listened to the record yesterday or the day before and man, it’s crazy how a lot of the themes and topics that are discussed on the record are bang on. With Ian as the main songwriter, this record is the most of him. I remember him showing me parts of lyrics that obviously we all work on together, but a lot of the things mentioned we were thinking about and talking about. From the Trump situation of the world to the environmental catastrophe, to the absolute horrors that are happening in America like from Orlando shooting, to innocent black men who are f****** murdered by police officers. All of these things we talked about on the record, that we as people, these creatures, co-exist, we have these wonderful things, and yet we’re f****** it up. It’s a very scary, turbulent time on the planet, and this record is written about those fears. From things like relationships, to how we only care about things until it’s a tragedy. Like why don’t we talk to people? And why don’t we listen to our neighbours? Or try to be the best versions of ourselves and be part of the community? And just being with your friends and family and just learning a little bit harder to be better.
CONFRONT: Are there any songs you’re particularly excited about?
Ben: I’m excited about all of them, and I know that’s a typical rock guy answer to this question, but I really am. I think we’re old school and we still believe that rock and roll music is a very important art form, and we still believe the process of creating a record and having a body of work work together in a cohesive way. We’re very proud of this record, from the first song to the last song, and we think of it like a piece of art, a piece of work. We’re very proud of it, and I can’t pick a particular song and say ‘this is the one’. I’d say if you want to listen to a record from front to back, old school with a pair of headphones on, this’d be the record.
CONFRONT: You guys have been doing this for a while now, but do you ever still experience nerves before the release of a new album?
Ben: Oh yea, for sure. I get lots of anxiety as a performer. When your’e releasing a record, this is the thing, this is the beautiful and yet very tragic thing of being a musician, is a lot of bands and artists will work on things for a long time and they agonize over it. This record has come over a two year writing process, and it should be critiqued, and it should be broken down in sections, but when you work really hard on it, and this is very personal to us, but we live in this day and age where it’s so easy for someone to be like “this sucks” or “it sounds like sh**”, so yea, you get nervous. We get nervous, but we’re also very confident in this record, it’s the four or five of us and we think people are really going to like it. Am I nervous about people receiving it? Kind of, but I also think it’s honest, it’s pure, it’s real. And if they don’t like it, they just don’t like our band, which is completely fine.
CONFRONT: You guys are opening for Guns N’ Roses next weekend. How did that opportunity come up?
Ben: I have no idea! We met Duff McKagan [bassist for Guns N’ Roses] and we played the same festival as him a couple of years ago in Australia. We did our own headlining show in Sydney, and he came tot he show, hung out, watched the whole thing, stayed afterwards and was just a lovely dude. And then, yea, I don’t know, we [Billy Talent] were doing festivals in Europe a few weeks ago, and I was lying in bed about to watch Game of Thrones, and I got an email from our manger saying Guns wants you to open for them at the Rogers Centre. We just couldn’t believe it. There was an old joke in our band, when we were kids, whenever we’d drive into the city from Mississauga to play shows, we’d always say ‘one day we’re going to play the Sky Dome! And now we’re playing there! I was actually at a Jays game last night and they played our song during the game, and I went outside and there was a big billboard that said Guns N’ Roses with Billy Talent, and I was like ‘holy sh**, this is happening.’ It was definitely a surreal moment.
CONFRONT: Are you nervous about appeasing to a certain crowd, or are you just going to go for it?
Ben: Yea, I think at the end of the day, there’ll be people who will like us, and people who have never seen us before, which is great, but at the end of the day, we’re opening for Guns N’ Roses, so everyone there wants to see Guns N’ Roses. So I don’t feel any pressure on me except to for the normal pressure to do our best and to try to make people have a good time, which is what it’s all about really, but we’re just going to go in and do what we do. If you like it ,you like it, if you don’t, you don’t.
CONFRONT: What do you hope fans ultimately get as a whole from the album?
Ben: I would hope they would get something form the music, the actual playing from each member. I’d hope they’d get something from the production, because I think it sounds amazing sonically. I think lyrically both Ian and I would want people to walk away with a sense of hope, and that in all of this turmoil, and all of this chaos, and all of this frantic energy that’s running through the planet right now is that it’s going to be okay, and that we’ll all get through it together.