Want to get our stories Straight to your inbox (see what we did there)? Sign up for our newsletter here.
Billy Hopeless arrives upstairs at the Cottage Deli wearing a Santa hat and a T-shirt for Eating Miss Campbell—a Troma-distributed horror film with a new Black Halos song on the soundtrack. He’s carrying a bag of gifts, including the out-of-print 7” of “Ain’t No Good Time to Say Goodbye,” proceeds of which went towards the mural dedicated to Hopeless’ friend Mr. Chi Pig of SNFU (the song is also on the Halos’ new album, How the Darkness Doubled, but more on that later).
The frontman for the reactivated Vancouver band is singularly good at choosing locations for interviews. Today’s pick is tucked into a back corner of one of Hopeless’ Gastown haunts.
“It’s been here forever, since I was a kid,” he notes. It has homemade bone-broth soup, which Billy Hopeless recommends, and a charming brick interior, with upstairs windows that overlook the trainyards.
“Whenever we’re on tour, I always ask, ‘Take me somewhere special, some place tourists don’t usually see,’” he tells me between mouthfuls of soup. “I tell tourists about this place all the time.”
Hopeless’ happiness is contagious, and it starts these days with his continued collaboration with his old songwriting partner, Halos’ guitarist Rich Jones. There’s the new record with a sold-out first pressing, and an album-release show at the Rickshaw on January 13 with two of his favourite bands, the Spitfires and Alien Boys opening. That the singer is in a good place makes for a marked contrast to the deep darkness of years past, including touring for 2005’s Alive Without Control, recorded after Jones had split acrimoniously from the band.
When the Straight interviewed Jones a few years back after he’d reconciled with Hopeless, the guitarist advised us to ask about how sick Billy got on the road, after Jones had left the band.
“Oh yeah, I thought I was going to die,” Hopeless says. “I had an abscess on my spine, and it was terrible. I couldn’t even take a leak by myself because I couldn’t pull my pants up, I couldn’t bend. And the guitarist at that time was giving me pills, popping me Xanax. I would just pass out, because the pain was so bad, and everyone was just like, ‘Oh, you’ve just pulled a muscle, that’s all it is, keep performing. Take some of these pills,’ doing the Elvis until the pills wouldn’t work anymore.”
When he got back to Vancouver, he was told in the ER that he would either be paralyzed, or die.
“That was dark. And my dad died at that time, when I was hopped up on drugs in the hospital, waiting to die, hoping to die, because I didn’t want to be paralyzed. It was a terrible, terrible time.”
When Hopeless was in the hospital, Chi Pig was one of the people who visited. “Chi came to visit me at four in the morning, and he had a pig mask on and a business suit, and a suitcase. And he opened up the suitcase, and it had a picture he drew of me.” (Hopeless still has it, of course.) “And he hugged me and kissed me and left the picture. I said to the nurse, the next day, ‘I had this weird drugged-out dream,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, about your visitor last night, normally we don’t let people in at that hour, but he wouldn’t say anything, and just had a piece of paper with your name on it, and I just knew he had to be legit.”
Writing the lyrics to “Ain’t No Time to Say Goodbye,” during a shift at his job in social housing on the Downtown Eastside, Hopeless found himself crying.
“One of the tenants walked by and said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, man. Beautiful.’”
He says it’s the hardest song he's ever written, hardest song he's ever sang.
“We’re putting it into the set now, and I begged Rich not to—I said, ‘Fuck, I can’t even… anytime I think about it makes me cry.’ I miss him so much. It’s just so hard. Like I say, my dad dying, my mom, missing Randy [Rampage of D.O.A., who died in 2018]… with Chi there was something special, just different.”
Despite such traumas, throughout How the Darkness Doubled, the Halos sound like they’re having so much fun making music together again that the album comes as an incredibly positive infusion of adrenaline. It acknowledges darkness, but only to surmount it.
The kickoff track, “A History of Violence,” is a pulse-raising celebration of old friends (Hopeless, Jones, and Jay Millette, joined by new guys John Kerns and Danni Action) tearing up the town after a long time apart.
“Forget Me Knot,” meanwhile, commits to channeling Hopeless’ love for “doo wop and girl groups and garage bands,” as filtered through the New York Dolls and Mott the Hoople. That song features Hopeless’ proudest lyrical moments on the album, “I was drinking ‘til she looked like you,” which is a pretty damned witty bit of writing, you gotta admit.
There are also two songs entirely written by Jones, who, in-between Halos recordings, has been honing his chops writing for original Hanoi Rocks frontman Michael Monroe. “Frankie Come Home” is inspired by the Tom Hardy gangster flick Legend, and “Better Days” takes in the rougher elements of the guitarist’s British birth, with teddy boys lacing up their boots to start trouble at dance halls and football hooligans in Harrington jackets with racist patches.
“It's stuff that I can relate to,” explains Hopeless, whose own lineage stems from Yorkshire. “With my dad, it sort of was the same, in a different way, growing up in East Van, getting your head kicked in by the Clark Park gang. It was tough. The prejudice was so terrible here, you’d hear all the racist jokes and stuff. Now there still may be patches of it, but it’s really cleared up. It’s still tougher than crap on Hastings, or working in the Downtown Eastside, but these are ‘Better Days’ in a lot of ways.”
The Black Halos play the Rickshaw with the Spitfires and Alien Boys on January. 13. Tickets and more information here.