The members of Billy Talent don't sweat the small stuff

What helped Billy Talent get through its darkest days was focusing on the big picture, not the little worries
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Ben Kowalewicz sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On travelling: “It’s a very, very important thing. Seeing other cultures, and the way that other people live, is a very, very powerful thing.”

On Dead Silence’s producer: “I cannot give Ian [D’Sa] enough praise for how hard that he worked on this record, and how dedicated he was. When it came time for us to start thinking about a producer, he was like ‘Who are we going to get to do this?’ All the guys in the band were like ‘You!’ He was humbled, and appreciative of the opportunity. And then he knocked it out of the park.”

On Billy Talent’s longevity: “You always worry that people will no longer give a shit. We wonder ‘Do they just want to hear old songs, or do they want to hear new songs that we are really proud of?’ That’s what motivates us to keep writing the best songs that we can. That’s how you maintain some sort of relevance in people’s lives.”

If one theme surfaces over and over again on Billy Talent’s fourth and latest album, Dead Silence, it’s that life is often anything but easy. The struggles we all find ourselves facing are, however, actually a blessing, suggests Ben Kowalewicz, lead singer for the veteran Toronto quartet. Misery has an upside, namely that it makes you appreciate the one-shot gift that is life.

“I think the overall message is to wake up and realize that you might not get tomorrow,” says Kowalewicz, reached at his home in Hogtown. “So if there’s anything on this earth that you want to do, then do it. If there’s anything that you want to see, go see it. If you’ve always wanted to take a course to better yourself, then start today because there’s no guarantee that the next day is coming.”

The importance of this, he suggests, sometimes gets lost in the constant white noise that is now part of daily life. Dead Silence makes the case that we’d all be better off tuning the world out every now and then.

“We live in a day and age where there’s so much negativity,” Kowalewicz argues. “We’re constantly bombarded with messages that we’re not good enough—that you need this or you need that to make your life better. On the news it’s tragedy, tragedy, tragedy. We all need to take a step back and realize the value of silence and the value of small things in life. The small things are the things that are going to carry you through the dark times.”

Kowalewicz didn’t come to this realization by reading self-help books, going to see Oprah at the Air Canada Centre, or joining the cult of Dr. Phil.

“I’ve personally gone through a lot of ups and downs the last couple of years,” he reveals. “When you go through that, it kind of puts things in perspective a little more.”

Billy Talent was at least partially responsible for the singer’s dark days, but not in ways that make for must-see dirt-dishing on Behind the Music. That the quartet has been together for its entire 20-year existence with the same four members speaks volumes about the band-of-brothers mentality shared by Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa, bassist Jonathan Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. As is often the way in the business of rock ’n’ roll, the Billy Talent family extends beyond the guys on-stage.

“Aaron, our drummer, had open-heart surgery,” Kowalewicz says. “We also lost someone who was a very, very close friend of ours. Those kinds of things can make you sit back and realize that small, little worries aren’t important. You have to focus on the big picture and what is and isn’t important.”

What’s important to the singer and his bandmates is Billy Talent, which leaves no doubt on Dead Silence that it long ago mastered the art of punky alt-rock. This time out, the group also offers up more.

As with past records, Billy Talent relocated to Vancouver for the recording process, setting up at the Armoury Studios. With D’Sa taking on the role of producer, the band committed to branching out musically.

“On this record I can remember Ian listening to a lot of Off!, and a lot of Pink Floyd,” Kowalewicz reveals. “Somehow, I think that subconsciously affects what you are trying to do. I really like that approach of mixing things up. I can remember getting the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik as a kid, and how every song was different. I was like ‘How can these guys cover so many parts of the spectrum, and have it seem so natural?’ ”

In that spirit, Dead Silence ranges from the jagged pop of “Stand Up and Run” to the distorted new wave of “Show Me the Way”. Billy Talent sounds as comfortable drawing on Chicago-style hardcore for “Swallowed Up by the Ocean” as it does dropping Celtic punk into the fabric of the understated album opener “Lonely Road to Absolution”.

Ultimately Dead Silence is the sound of a band still on top of its game 10 years after its break-out release, something doubly admirable when today’s Fidlar is almost always tomorrow’s Fall Out Boy.

Looking back, success came early to Billy Talent (if, that is, you overlook that it took Kowalewicz and company a decade before they made their first record). The group’s eponymous 2003 debut spawned a legitimate radio smash with “Try Honesty”, a perfect slash-and-burn blast of post-emo alt-punk angst. Billy Talent quickly secured hockey rink–headlining status from there, and the band held onto that status over the course of the albums that have followed.

What has Kowalewicz prouder than the size of the venues that he’s playing is his ongoing rapport with the guys he’s played with for most of his adult life. There aren’t many acts that get through two decades without losing members to death, addiction, or the inevitable creative differences.

“There is not a day where we don’t step back and go ‘Holy shit—we are really, really lucky,’” Kowalewicz says. “We’re very appreciative of everything that’s come our way. That being said, it’s come with a lot of work and a lot of struggle and a lot of sacrifice. Because of what we do for a living, it’s important that we really enjoy the people that we do it with. Being able to do that makes us realize that Billy Talent is a pretty special thing.”

So while there’s no shortage of mosh-pit igniting rage and angst on Dead Silence, the album’s overriding message never gets lost: no matter how bad things get, things could always be worse.

“Everyone always tells us ‘You have everything in North America,’ ” Kowalewicz says. “The thing is we don’t know how to use it properly. We really need to realize that life is about seizing the day because, really, we only get one kick at the can.” 

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Kirt Coban
Great interview
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