Black Halos revisit their roots

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      Billy Hopeless has been coming to Foo’s Ho Ho since he was a kid. It’s his favourite local restaurant. Situated on the seedy corner of East Pender and Columbia streets, the modest eatery isn’t exactly in the nicest part of Chinatown. But seated in front of a heaping plate of fried rice, the Black Halos vocalist maintains that it’s one of the classiest joints in the city.

      “It’s been here for ages,” he tells the Straight between mouthfuls. “It’s a heritage restaurant. I like things that are still around, especially in this time of ”˜Let’s tear it down and build something up.’ ”

      Though the Black Halos have gone through their fair share of remodelling since the band’s inception in the mid ’90s, they’re still kicking it with their indomitable rock ’n’ roll swagger. We Are Not Alone, the quintet’s fourth album, is a down-and-dirty testament to the band’s will to survive.

      “We’ve been through so many crazy things,” says drummer Rob Zgaljic, seated next to his bandmate. “We’re not making tons of money, and we’re struggling a lot of the time.”

      A founding member along with Hopeless, Zgaljic has experienced all the pitfalls of being a Black Halo. But through money woes, broken-down vans, and band infighting, he’s remained loyal to his long-time frontman and whoever else is willing to join the madness. “I understand why people have quit. I get it,” he continues. “But we’ve been lucky enough to find people who want to keep this going.”

      Sadly, not all of Hopeless’s cherished city landmarks have been as fortunate. “They tore down the miniature golf at Playland,” the singer says with a sigh. “That shook me up. I get shaken up so easily.”

      Though notorious for his debauched behaviour, which often finds him wriggling around the stage in his leopard-print skivvies, Hopeless has a heart for the slowly fading character of old Vancouver. He proves that with “Holes”, a track from We Are Not Alone that finds the screamer mourning the changes to his city’s landscape.

      “I’ve never considered myself a political lyricist, but it’s about gentrification,” he says. “Places that are loved by me are disappearing. In the music genre we’re in, clubs are getting closed down and turned into fancy restaurants or dance clubs because that’s where the money is.”

      A thudding rocker, “Holes” works a slow-rolling groove that’s likely to have members of the group’s punk-as-fuck fan base scratching their heads. Zgaljic’s steady beats bustle beneath the primal power chords of guitarists Johnny Stewart and Adam Becvare, while Hopeless snarls “Beyond an inch of doubt they’re just crowding us out to make room in their billfolds.”

      Despite the downer nature of “Holes”, most of We Are Not Alone marks a return to the classic beer-swillin’ and house-wreckin’ punk of the band’s first two albums, Black Halos (1999) and The Violent Years (2001). With its barrelling Motor City backbeat, “Suck City” finds the Halos channelling Iggy and the Stooges. Rip-roaring six-strings dominate the tune’s verse before a furiously pounded piano line takes control of the chorus.

      “One-fingered piano skills are a fantastic thing,” Hopeless says with a laugh. “Sometimes all you need is one finger.”

      Hopeless gives new guitarist
      Stewart—a Halos fan before he joined the group—much of the credit for the combo’s return to its roots.

      “He brought the roll,” he contends. “I think we were becoming rock. I like rock ’n’ roll more than I like rock. I think Iggy Pop said, ”˜Rock is just something you dig out of the ground. Rock ’n’ roll is another term for sex.’ ”

      “Monstrosity”, another full-throttle rager courtesy of Stewart, mashes the band’s penchant for reckless, ’77-style punk with jangling pop guitars, making for one of the strangest songs on the album. The track even baffles the outfit. None of them can put a finger on who it sounds like most. Hopeless feels the song combines Nirvana with Britpoppers the Manic Street Preachers, while bassist Jahmeel Russell gets more of an Appetite for Destruction–era Guns N’ Roses vibe from the tune. Zgaljic says he doesn’t really know what it sounds like, but admits he initially found the piece cringe-worthy.

      “To tell you the truth, I really didn’t like the song at first,” the drummer reveals with a smirk. “Now the more I play it, the more I love it.”

      Reinvigorated by the band’s recent changes, Hopeless is ecstatic about the current lineup of the Black Halos. “Being the longest-running member, I like having new inmates,” he says.

      It’s hard to say how long the current crop of Halos will stick together, but no matter who’s thrashing on-stage, the group—much like Foo’s Ho Ho—plans to be part of local lore for years to come.

      “It’s a brotherhood,” Hopeless reiterates of his posse. “Even through the breakdowns of vans and bodies, the casualties as well as all the great times, we’re still here.”

      The Black Halos play the Plaza Club tonight (February 28).