Billy Talent

Rock stars behind picket fences


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It took years for Billy Talent to find their sound. Today, the Canadian band bursts with self-assurance – and yet the members still prepare breakfasts for their kids and continue with much of their otherwise rather normal Toronto lives

  • Author: Janna Cramer
  • Photos: Scottie Watson
  • Video: Dustin Rabin

  • Editing / Post Production Moodmacher
„The guys from the Great Lake area renamed themselves Billy Talent after a character in Michael Turner’s punk novel “Hard Core Logo”.“

Compared to a typical January snow pack, this year’s is light, just under an inch. But Aaron Solowoniuk is a neat freak: The snow has to go. He grabs a shovel and meticulously begins cleaning in front of his band’s studio door. He’s a pale guy in mid-calf winter boots, jeans dangling around his thighs; he looks like everybody else, is out shoveling snow (albeit perhaps a bit more frequently) like everybody else. But whereas his attire and routine parallel his neighbors’, Aaron himself is markedly different: He is the drummer for Billy Talent, one of the most famous punk rock bands in the world. The band recently released a best-of album and has emerged with a heightened self-confidence.

Says bass guitarist Jon Gallant, “I don’t think that we are still influenced by other bands. Inspired, maybe. But we are doing our own stuff.”

The guys from the Great Lake area renamed themselves Billy Talent after a character in Michael Turner’s punk novel “Hard Core Logo”.The friends perform – and stick – together: 22 years and counting. They’ve come a long way, Aaron, Jon, vocalist Ben Kowalewicz, and guitarist Ian D’Sa; they’re far from their start as a school band covering songs by their idols Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and, most often, Rage Against the Machine. “The sound of our generation”, Ian says. “These forces never let you go.”

The four young men officially became a band in 1993. They played the clubs of Toronto’s indie scene and called themselves Pezz until that created problems due to a US band claiming the same name. So the guys from the Great Lake area renamed themselves Billy Talent after a character in Michael Turner’s punk novel “Hard Core Logo”. (To this day, people wrongly think front man Ben’s name is Billy Talent.) The friends perform – and stick – together: 22 years and counting. And as their friendship as individuals has grown, it allows the band to continue to evolve musically and to allow their sound to grow alongside.

The band was maturing. Time to create a band milestone?

And as the band has matured, it seemed to be the right time to create a band milestone, which they chiseled at their studio in a quiet area of Toronto. At this former film props warehouse, on these pine floors and fake Persian rugs, the friends get together several times a week, hang out, sip chicken soup and coffee from paper cups from the deli next door, talk, practice (individually as well as collectively), try out new tunes. The studio has become both refuge and sanctuary: Here they freely discuss what is going on in the world, Ian and Ben write lyrics for new songs, and they together plan Billy Talent’s future.

„These rock stars behind picket fences — they’re on a mission.“

And so came about the milestone: Billy Talent released in November 2014 a best-of album — more than a best-of album, actually: “With the ‘Hits’ album, we wanted to link our past - 2004 and later - work with upcoming new stuff”, Aaron says. “That is why we put two new songs — ‘Kingdom of Zod’ and ‘Chasing the Sun’ — onto ‘Hits’.”

A link to the release of “Hits” that the band didn’t envision was one between best-of albums and bands retiring: A frantic rumor quickly spread across the internet suggesting an end of Billy Talent. So this was it, people conjectured, they are going to split up now. A split would be typical given the band’s age and members’ lifestyles — married, kids, home owners; not exactly epitomes of punk. When asked about the rumors, Jon, Ben, Ian, and Aaron shake their heads, “Never even thought about that until everyone freaked out on the internet”, Ben says. With 1.5 million Facebook fans, Billy Talent managed to dispel the rumors with a simple post to their timeline.

Rumor quashed, Billy Talent went back to the studio and creating songs. A list of working titles for the upcoming album, slated for early 2016 release, at the latest, is pinned to the wall opposite the drums. “Don’t show that, don’t show that!” Jon, Ben, Ian, and Aaron shout in near unison at the camera guy.

“It is unique that we are together for such a long time”, Ben says. “Our greatest strengths are Ian’s talent for song writing and guitar playing. There are not many people on this planet who can play like he does.” Ian D’Sa also worked as a producer on their albums. The guy with the brush up hairstyle is an all-around talent. Late at night, he scouts clubs for new bands, and while shooting the video, he helps with setting up the microphones. “Takes me 20 minutes to do my hair in the morning”, he shrugs.

These guys are rock stars behind picket fences. “I always get up at 6:15 in the morning, get myself a cup of coffee and watch breakfast television with the weather reports,” says Aaron, “so I know how to dress my kids for school.” His children are 3 and 11 years old. He chauffeurs them to kindergarten and school, then drives to the studio to practice drums (“Pretty cool, when you think about it,” he admits.) Jon likewise has two kids, Ben a wife. Around here, the friend’s worldwide fame as Billy Talent doesn’t matter; they’re first and foremost dads, husbands, friends.

The four met during their years at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School in the town of Mississauga, west of Toronto, population 700,000. They remain friends with a dozen or so classmates. They watch hockey together, share chicken wings. They probably cannot explain how they morphed from catholic school boys into punkers. “I find it annoying that my parents sent me there”, Jon says. “I was taught things that are not true.”

Ian replies, “But Catholicism teaches good things like sympathy and tolerance.”

“I do not believe in God,” Jon says.

Though Our Lady of Mount Carmel strives to shape students into faithful Catholics, it, albeit unintentionally, molded within Billy Talent a vein of social criticism: The band’s songs call attention to corruption, to dishonest politicians (“Viking Death March”), to social seclusion (“Fallen Leaves” and “River Below”). The bandmates discuss the attack on the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, which clearly shook them. “I watch ‘The National’ news show with Peter Mansbridge every night”, Ian says; Ben adds, “The world is just nuts.” And so the band writes and performs.

They’re working on a song about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager who was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman.

These rock stars behind picket fences — they’re on a mission.