Billy Talent's Frontman on Their Evolving Sound: "It Feels Good, and It Tastes Good"
Pop-punk is alive and well.
Canadian genre torchbearers Billy Talent are still reppin' their experimental, melodic-angst punk from the early '90s (the band started as Pezz and later changed their moniker due to legal issues). Frontman Benjamin Kowalewicz's pungent shrill, Ian D'Sa's towering riffs, Jonathan Gallant's valiant bass-backup vocal combo, and Aaron Solowoniuk's sturdy percussion still riotously echo themes of anti-government and the lamenting of sour breakups. Only difference is, the dudes are grownups now. And what better place to keep shredding than the hormonal mosh pit of the Vans Warped Tour?
County Grind caught up with frontman Kowalewicz before their visit to West Palm Beach this weekend to get the lowdown on the success of Billy Talent's latest album, Dead Silence, the wackiest sights they've seen at the annual rock festival thus far, and how they've evolved from angry, teenage rebels.
New Times: You guys haven't toured the U.S. in over three years! A festival like Warped Tour is a great way to do that. What did you miss about touring the States?
Benjamin Kowalewicz: It's an interesting paradigm being a Canadian band, because we've spent so much time in the States over the last ten years. Our very first tour was opening for Buzzcocks. We've toured with Rise Against a couple of times, we've toured with My Chemical Romance, we've done our own headlined tours, we've done Lollapalooza, we've done Warped Tours. It's just one of those things that never really took off, and we're fortunate enough for other places in the world -- Australia to South Africa to Canada -- it's a big planet. So we decided to focus our energies on places that were doing well for us.
Now, we're at a point in our career where we want to come to the States more often. We decided to do two-and-a-half weeks [of Warped Tour], and we've done five shows so far. It's a good way to get in front of a lot of people. And there's a lot of people that come up to us and are like "Dammit, you guys haven't played here in so long," and there's other people who are like "never heard of you, and this is awesome."
What is the wackiest thing you've seen at Warped so far?
We're like the old wily veterans on the tour, and everyone's 21 with throat sleeves. We just do what we do, we try to be as positive and as cool to everyone around us. We've met a whole bunch of cool bands, and some cool people. But as far as zany? I don't know. We have our own solar shower set up in front of our trailer. You have a little tent that we stand under [on] a wooden skid, and you hook up a bag full of water that you set out in the sun all day, and you have a shower!
Your early music as Pezz mirrors rude boy, ska influences. When you guys became Billy Talent, the punk was definitely still there, but in a more refined, melodic way, which has materialized on your first three albums. What would you say makes your latest record, Dead Silence, stand on its own?
We've always been a band that likes to challenge ourselves, because that's something that all the bands we loved growing up and still listen to did to us. You can't be too one-dimensional as an artist or as a band. I hate ever [hearing] "oh, you're this band." We like to kind of keep everything open. We love reggae, we love ska -- from Bob Marley, to bands like the Specials -- we love that type of stuff. But that is one, small piece. We love classic rock just as much as we love that, we love punk rock just as much as we love that, we love hip-hop, we love jazz, we love blues. Our sensibilities come from all those things.
A lot of bands label themselves one way.
That's weird to me. Because then you're just completely limiting yourself, and [there's] all these other wonderful options that can make your band better. Dead Silence is a perfect mixture of all our personalities kind of colliding, and I think if you like rock music -- because we are a band, there's guitar, bass, drums and vocals -- I think this record has pretty good depth and a lot of exploration in different things that we've never tried before sonically, texturally, thematically. It's a really cool record.
Were you guys surprised that Dead Silence debuted at number 3 on the U.S. Billboard "Heatseekers" Chart since it sounds different than your previous releases, and you've always fared better in Canada and Europe?
We thought it was great. In an international way, people seem to really be digging it. We're really stoked that the States started realizing that we're not dead. And that's why we're really happy to be out here now [at Warped Tour]. We've had a lot of people come up to us and be like, "wow, we haven't listened to you since the first record," and now we've got this record and it's amazing. So it's a nice feeling, to get people back.
And the band is still composed of all original members, so that makes you guys a pop-punk gem.
Yep, our 20th anniversary is this summer. Not as Billy Talent, but as the four of us playing together.
And you all met in Catholic school.
Have those old memories been the glue that has kept the band rockin'?
When you have a history, you learn a lot about yourself and each other. It's interesting for me, because for what we do -- it's how I eat, it's how I survive -- it's such a part of us that you're not sure where you began and where you went. It's who we are, it's not what we do.
And we were kids; we were 15, 16 years old. We didn't know what our instruments did, I didn't know that I was a damn singer. I got demoted to singing because I wasn't a good enough drummer. And then over the years, you develop as a band and as people. Our main concerns when we were 15 were going to parties and meeting girls, and exploring alcohol and drugs, to now being like, 'Man, some of us have kids and mortgages.' And we're closer to 40 now. It's an interesting experience, and I think history is something that makes anybody stronger and wiser.
How have you personally evolved, or what have you learned over the years in terms of your voice or vision as frontman?
I definitely improved as a singer. I've realized what I can and cannot do, which I think is a really important thing for singers. And just to develop your own sound, just be yourself, and not try to sound like every other singer. In the late '90s, early 2000s, everyone wanted to sound like Eddie Vedder, or Layne Staley from Alice and Chains. Now everyone has that really screamy, kind of interchangeable singer-voice. For me, it's always been about individuality and being yourself, and trying to express yourself.
Does Billy Talent always turn to its staple influences, or does inspiration come from bands you listen to while recording?
We have staple influences, [that are] something that I think indirectly have shaped our psyche -- if you go back to the Beatles, Stones, Clash kind of thing, [or] you start going into Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, '90s Soundgarden, Beastie Boys -- I can keep going. These are pivotal moments in our lives because we were 15, 16 years old when all this stuff was coming out.
And I think indirectly, when you're listening to new music, if there's something that you're into or aspire to, that kind of comes out. [Some of us were] listening to a lot of Pink Floyd on this last record and the Cure, and then all of a sudden, there's some parts that are very Pink Floyd-ey and very Cure-ish, but they're still done in our way.
Imagine cooking, and you want to try something different. I think at certain times, the spice drawer opens up and you're like, oh yeah, I forgot about that. And you put that in there, and it feels good, and it tastes good.
Vans Warped Tour 2013: With Billy Talent, Hawthorne Heights, Forever the Sickest Kids, Man Overboard, Motion City Soundtrack, Chiodos, We Came as Romans, and others. 11 a.m. Saturday, July 27, at Cruzan Amphitheatre, 601-7 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883; cruzanamphitheatre.net. Tickets cost $23.50 to $37.50 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages.
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