By: Luke Ottenhof –
It’s a dangerous thing to assume that success is acquired overnight. In most cases, success isn’t suddenly conjured, carbon-copied and shipped worldwide to shrieking fangirls. Stardom is but the last in a long line of steady increases, which usually begins with sweat, tears, and maybe a few drops of blood. A true work of passion, worthy of pride, is a labour of love, dedication, integrity, and of course, honesty. The members of Toronto’s punk-rock leaders Billy Talent know this all too well.
It’s been 10 years since Billy Talent released their debut full-length album, the iconic, self-titled Billy Talent I. Taking home two Juno awards, and currently certified triple-platinum in Canada, they are celebrating the album this fall with several shows featuring the record played in its entirety. Factor in the band’s impending 20th anniversary, and it’s shaping up to be a milestone year. In the midst of the SIRIUS XM Roadtrip, bassist Jon Gallant reminisced on the band’s history.
“When we started touring that first record, that was all the material that we had,” Gallant says. “We just played those songs so much that they’re engrained in our heads, and we’ve been slowly rehearsing some of the tracks we don’t really play that much anymore. I actually started listening to some of the old sets that we have recordings of from back in 2004… It’s all the little things we did between songs, which I had completely forgotten about, so we might resurrect some of that stuff too.
“I listened to the Warped Tour set we did in 2004, and you listen to it and then all of the memories come rushing back… It’s cool.”
The band’s storied climb from local to national to international acclaim began humbly as a high school outfit in Toronto called Pezz. A few legal barriers later, and Billy Talent was born. Right off the top, the foursome made a point of packing as much as they could into the live experience.
“When you’re professional about anything, you’re going to make sure the job is done right,” Gallant explains.
A long career has graced the band with a widespread fan base of all ages. At the band’s September 6th show at Ottawa’s Bronson Centre, a seven-year old boy threw up the devil horns on his father’s shoulders for the entire set, right in front of the stage. It was hard to discern who was having more fun.
“It’s nice to see that it can span across so many generations,” Gallant remarks. “It’s an honour because when that’s happening, it’s just not something that people are into for a short period of time. It’s more of a lifestyle about acceptance, which for me is the way I connect with music.”
The intricately layered and diverse sound the band is known for isn’t easy to keep up, but after two decades of playing together, there’s hardly a breath of bad air that could wedge itself into between the thunderous, apocalyptic dirge of each individual instrumental mesh.
“The message in our songs always strive to kind of convey a level of hope, and it’s more about conversation than preaching.”
“It gets a little bit easier the better you are at your instrument. We’re always been that [high-energy] type of band. The bands that turned us onto music were that type of band too: Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers, At The Drive In… The music just kind of makes you move.”
Their debut album turned so many heads not only due to it’s prophetically poignant lyricism, but the stunningly complex and unique, yet accessible, musical stylings. Guitarist Ian D’Sa’s overwhelming fretwork pairs with Gallant’s tight bass riffs, as D’Sa and Gallant both share backing vocals duties.
“Ian’s such a unique guitar player that sometimes it sounds like there’s two guitars playing,” he says. “In terms of the [backing] vocals, that was just something we stumbled upon when Ian wrote “Try Honesty”. It had this ‘call and answer’ type of vocal melody. We really liked that idea and the counter balance between the lead and background vocals, so when we stumbled upon that, it was just something we wanted to do more of, and all of us enjoy singing.”
“I’m a terrible singer naturally but over the years you just get better at it, and it’s fun. We appreciate the challenge. It’s something that we practice and work on to make sure we’re delivering it properly live, cause it’s one thing to record it, but trying to play it [live] is a whole different animal.”
With 20 years under their belt, the band’s iconic sound has hardly wavered, but with 2009’s Billy Talent III, they tried a bit of a different take, sonically.
“Billy Talent III was quite different from I and II, and the album was not embraced,” Gallant admits. “We love the record, but in hindsight, I can understand why its not our fans’ favourite record.”
“We were done with the numbering thing after three. With Dead Silence, we kind of went back to some of the things we were doing on I and II in terms of production and sounds. I think if we’re digging what we’re doing, it usually will spread to what our fans think.”
Another constant that can always be found is the awareness and power to be found in their lyrics. The profound messages they have been able to spread started early with songs like the widely played “Nothing to Lose”, but the less popular “River Below” also unfortunately bears incredible relevance.
Gallant sheds some light on the song’s beginnings: “There was such a shift on terrorism and stuff like that back when we wrote that song, but then there were always these things happening internally with the States. It just doesn’t seem to stop. People always seem to be more paranoid about impending terrorist attacks, and really I’d be more scared that somebody is going to be coming into the school to shoot the children.”
“Some of that stuff back then I don’t think really made sense to us. I think with that song it was kind of like, ‘Should be really spend so much energy and time and fear on these things when your neighbour could be building a bomb in his garage?’”
The song’s chorus, ending with “I’ll take all the blame/The front page and the fame” has been echoed in media coverage of horrific events for the past decade, including Rolling Stone’s now-infamous July 2013 cover featuring the Boston Marathon bomber.
“To do something so heinous screams for some sort of attention. It gets so much media coverage, and it is what they want.”
Beyond the front pages and the headlines, Gallant emphasizes the need to stay positive, and investigate before grabbing your pitchforks and torches.
“We’ve always been the type of guys that take all the information that is fed to us in stride,” he says. “Whenever anybody tells you anything or you read a news story or watch a TV program, you’ve got to take it for what it’s worth and understand there are sides to every argument and every opinion, before you make any kind of a judgment. You have to come from a stop where you’re educated.”
“It’s a pretty sick world sometimes. The message in our songs always strive to kind of convey a level of hope, and it’s more about conversation than preaching.”
As Gallant and Billy Talent head back out on the road this fall to celebrate 20 years of making music together, it will be with all the intensity, furiosity, heart, and honesty that’s seen them through the past two decades.