As friendly as he is on the phone, Billy Talent frontman Benjamin Kowalewicz doesn't have a lot of time for critics, or people who criticize in general. There's an easy explanation for this. A little over two years ago, Billy Talent blasted out of nowhere to score a screamo smash with “Try Honesty” off its self-titled debut. After an often-frustrating 10 years of toiling in the Toronto underground, Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D'Sa, bassist Jonathan Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk found themselves an overnight success story. And predictably, they discovered that for every instant fan there was someone else willing to take a shot at them. Sometimes it would happen in print, with Kowalewicz””who admits he's never loved the sound of his own voice””being singled out for his adenoidal howling, which can sound like Mike Patton channelling Jello Biafra. What the singer really found difficult to accept, however, was when people delivered their unsolicited assessments of Billy Talent in person.
“For some reason, when you're in a band people feel like they have the right to go, 'You know what? You fucking suck!'?” Kowalewicz says, on the line from a hotel in Cologne, Germany. “I really don't understand it. Can you imagine being at a ballet show and not liking the ballerina, so you stand up and shout, 'You suck, you fucking bitch!' You just wouldn't do that. So why is it okay in modern-rock music to just destroy people?
“What I've learned over the years, though,” he continues, “is to not care if some people don't like us. I can honestly say that, because the people who do like us like us a lot, and we really like them.”
If all this makes Billy Talent sound like the second coming of Limp Bizkit, it shouldn't. There will always be indie dogmatists who'll turn on any left-leaning band that aspires to more than a two-album deal with Fueled by Ramen. If Billy Talent was guilty of anything two years ago, it was not blowing its long-awaited shot in the majors. Its debut spawned three singles in Canada, propelling the disc to triple platinum. For “Try Honesty” alone, it was difficult to argue that Kowalewicz and company didn't deserve every sold-out show they played, both at home and in Europe and the States.
With the just-released Billy Talent II, Billy Talent shows no sign of a sophomore jinx. Building on the debut's fusion of ramped-up emo and streamlined punk, the band expands its plan of attack. The disc's finest moment comes right off the top, with “Devil in a Midnight Mass” sounding like Josh Homme mainlining Mudhoney.
“How 'Devil' came to be was that Ian brought this really heavy, dirty, Queens of the Stone Age–y riff to the table,” Kowalewicz explains. “It was evil, and I sat there going, 'Fuck””that's mean.' So I went home and started thinking about evil and horrible things. I did some research into child abuse””which is an issue that I hold very dear to my heart””and ended up stumbling on a story about a priest in Boston. Over a 30-year span, he molested over 150 kids. The church knew that he was doing this, but instead of doing anything about it, they moved him around, kind of out of sight, out of mind.”
All four members of Billy Talent met in Catholic school, explaining Kowalewicz's fascination with the story, which ended with the priest being convicted and subsequently murdered in jail. On the subject of religion, however, the singer plays things carefully, deflecting questions about his personal beliefs with “I'm a spiritual person””I pray every day, and I believe there is something out there.”
Beyond “Devil in a Midnight Mass” , Kowalewicz and his bandmates have plenty to say on Billy Talent II and no shortage of ways to express themselves. “Worker Bees” attacks American foreign policy from a platform of screamo-esque agit-pop; “Fallen Leaves” is a cascading alt-rocker empathizing with addicted street kids; “Where Is the Line?” updates old new wave for a scathing attack on bandwagon-jumping hipsters.
Based on those songs alone, Billy Talent II is the work of a band that's obviously aspiring to more than Myspace adds from the emo disciples of America. With that in mind, Kowalewicz says the album marks a logical step in the evolution of Billy Talent, which, for longer than he would have liked, was considered too out-there for the Canadian music industry.
“Keep in mind that when we started out, it was during the safe period, where you had Moist, Our Lady Peace, the Tea Party, and all these bands that ruled rock radio. Then all of a sudden you had all these weird bands come out of nowhere. Like, 'Hey, who's this Billy Talent band?' and 'What's this Alexisonfire group all about?' Then you've got Death From Above and Metric and Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and Hot Hot Heat.”
For the months ahead, you're mostly going to hear plenty about Billy Talent, which, having taken forever to arrive, is clearly going places.
“I can honestly say this is the best thing we've ever done,” Kowalewicz says proudly. “We didn't compromise anything, and we didn't let anyone fuck with it. We've been together 13 years now, so we knew we had a lot to risk with this record. We not only owed it to our fans to come up with quality songs, we owed it to ourselves.”
And for that, no one can criticize Billy Talent.
Billy Talent headlines a sold-out Foxfest at the Plaza of Nations on Saturday (July 1).