“Every song we play is a song we enjoy playing” An interview with Billy Talent (16/11/12)

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A huge name in the punk rock genre, Billy Talent are still going strong after nearly 20 years. Before the band’s recent gig at Portsmouth Pyramids, The Edge caught up with lead vocalist Ben Kowalewicz and bassist Jon Gallant to discuss touring, their new album, and how they’ve retained their longevity across their hefty career.

How has the tour been so far?

BK: It’s been great so far, thank you for asking

What’s the most difficult thing about being on the road for so long?

BK: I guess the hardest thing is just being away from home for so long, but, at the end of the day we’re pretty privileged to do what we do, and be able to still tour in this day and age. But yeah, I think the hardest part is just being away from your loved ones for an extended amount of time but with every great thing there has to be a sacrifice.

You have played so many live shows over the years, do you have a stand out, favourite show, ever?

JG: There’s great shows on every tour where you walk away saying ‘That was amazing!’, but there’s been some really great festival gigs that we’ve played, and, for example, the first time we played Brixton Academy was probably one of the highlights. It was sold out and it’s a legendary venue. So there’s always these moments but it’s hard to pick one. 

How do fans in the UK differ from those in the rest of Europe, or in the US?

BK: I think in the global age of communication with everyone having their smart-devices and their computers, and everyone’s connected, the fashion’s the same now and the mindset is the same… So most of the fans that come to our shows are really cool and down to earth and just good people; that’s the general theme. But it varies in age groups from young to old and everyone in between so we have a pretty diverse base, but on the most part, everyone’s just good, like-minded individuals.

Apart from the obvious things of family and friends, what things from Canada do you miss most when you’re on tour in other parts of the world?

BK: I miss my coffee shop that I go to every day! I go in there and everyone says hi, and they have fresh baked goods, and everyone smiles, and they play good music. I don’t even ask for my coffee, they just GIVE me my coffee. Subtle things like that, I miss.

JG: Home cooking too! I’m so tired of walking around wondering what I’m going to eat, and then trying to think, ‘Okay, I’ll do Thai food tonight’, and then trying to find a Thai restaurant, and all of that kind of stuff. I’m looking forward to just like, looking what I have in the fridge and making something.

A young Billy Talent

You released your self-titled album 9 years ago now, how do you keep shows interesting for yourselves when people still want to hear tracks from that album like ‘Try Honesty’?

BK: Obviously we’re more excited about playing the new stuff now because it’s new to us and challenging and fun. The old songs, we also have to remember that people have connected to them as well so you’re just the purveyor of them. But yeah, we love the songs. Every song we play is a song we enjoy playing. 

JG: Playing ‘Try Honesty’ doesn’t bother me anymore, well, it’s never ever bothered me playing it live, even though we’ve pretty much played it at every single show that we’ve played since we wrote the song. Like, there’s maybe been the odd exception but I really can’t even think of one where we’ve not played that song. I still enjoy playing it, but practicing it is a different story.

…and you must spend a lot of time traveling when you’re doing live shows. What have you been listening to recently whilst on the road?

BK: Lately I’ve been listening to Feist, her record Metals that I really like, and I’ve been listening to the new Jimmy Cliff record called Rebirth, which Tim Armstrong produced which I think is great.

JG: I just discovered a guy last night from England called Scroobius Pip, you know him? 

Yes! I LOVE him, he’s absolutely amazing!

JG: He is amazing! I bought his album last night and I was listening to it until about 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s really cool with intelligent lyrics which is really refreshing. 

Can you describe the writing process behind Dead Silence? Did if differ from previous albums?

BK: The major difference that happened with this record is that Ian, our guitar player, produced the record as well. He’s the main song writer of the band, so he works very hard on sculpting and putting everything together, and we all put our little two cents in, and then it all just happens. We’re all really proud of it, but the major difference compared to anything before is that we had full control. Not that we didn’t really before, but we didn’t have that outside opinion. It was just us.

JG: The process, I would suggest, was more like how we did things on the first and second records. The third record working with Brendan (O’Brien) was a bit of a different process so this was more like how we did things before, so it was familiar and new at the same time. 

Your music is often about quite serious themes. What gives you the inspiration for these dark tracks?

BK: Ian and I do all of the lyrics but I don’t think that our lyrics are dark. I mean, I think they’re optimistic, maybe you’ve got to look through some of the obvious things, and if you sit and really pay attention and familiarise with what we’re saying, it’s all about following your dreams and chasing your heart. It’s never just like ‘fuck it!’, we’re not that band. We always try and say like, this kind of sucks, but, you have an option. We’re all about bettering ourselves, the world & the people around you. I think it’s really important. A lot of punk bands are always just like ‘this sucks’, but we’re like, it does suck, but what are you going to do about it?

Your most recent video for ‘Surprise Surprise’ is pretty funny in a sombre way. Was it fun shooting that video? It’s pretty crazy!

BK: It was. It was a bit of a pain in the ass to be honest, it took a long time, but the actual shoot day was fun. We were in all of these old planes by this old war museum with all old Canadian aircraft. So yeah it was pretty cool, but then there was all the special effects and stuff. So we finished our part in 1 day, and then all the special effects took a long time, it was late by a long time! 

JG: We were getting really nervous about it because it was a big leap of faith to film a video in front of a blue screen and not know what it would look like in the end, but it turned out amazingly and we’re really happy with it.

You’re coming up to 20 years in the music industry, what advice would you give new bands on how to maintain longevity?

BK: God! I wouldn’t recommend it! *Laughs* You kind of don’t think about it, it just happens, but I guess for longevity it needs to be communication and patience, understanding and respect. Just leaving each other alone when you need to be left alone. Yeah I guess it’s just like any relationship with a partner; they’re going to drive you crazy sometimes and you’re going to have good days and bad days but you still love them.

Looking to the future, should we expect a Dead Silence II?

BK: Nah I don’t think so, well, actually, who knows? Funny you should say that we should do a DS2, and then a DS3! *Laughs*

But are you writing new material at the moment?

BK: No, no. We’re a very task in hand kind of band, so we spend a lot of time writing and then we do that, and when we’re recording we’re doing that, and now it’s just touring. Tour tour tour. We’re looking forward to Christmas.

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I’m Megan Downing, an English Literature graduate from University of Southampton. I am the Music, Arts and Culture Editor for The National Student. I am the Membership and Communications Officer for the Student Publication Association, I write about music for 7BitArcade, and contribute regularly to The Culture Trip. I have a passion for live music and this is where I began in student journalism. Reviewing a gig or festival is still where my heart lies four years on. I will be starting at MTV as a News Intern in June 2015. One thing you should know about me is that I have an unhealthy obsession with Kevin Spacey.

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