After 20 years of era-defining anthems, the Canadian alt-punk heavyweights weather the storm with love and positivity.
by Yasmine Shemesh
There is something to be said about the weather in British Columbia this past year. How its apocalyptic nature—from the sticky heat waves to the atmospheric rivers that flooded the streets and the valley to the blizzards and freezing rain—has felt reflective of the unpredictable storm the world has been caught in the centre of.
“Oh, shit,” Benjamin Kowalewicz, the lead singer for Billy Talent, exhales when I tell him I’m in Vancouver. He sits on the sofa, sinking into it as our interview begins over Zoom. His father lives on Vancouver Island, so Kowalewicz has been paying close attention to the conditions on the west coast; how it’s been one thing after another; how crazy it’s been; how it’s been crazy everywhere, really. Kowalewicz is speaking from his home in Toronto, where he is hunkering down under the city’s umpteenth pandemic lockdown. But he is doing well and trying to stay positive. It’s been a pleasant morning, up since 5:30 with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Kowalewicz smiles. He does this warmly, and often. The mention of her makes him light up, as she’s been a source of sweetness through it all. More on that in a minute though.
Billy Talent has always been a socially minded band, anchoring blisteringly paced punk and alternative rock with poetic lyricism and meaningful throughlines. Their last record, Afraid of Heights, was released in 2016 and dealt with struggle and responsibility, both individually and within society. It would be an understatement to say how much the world has changed, how much we’ve faced, how polarizing it’s all become since then. But songwriting helps Kowalewicz make sense of things. He and Billy Talent’s guitarist, the brilliant Ian D’Sa, work on their lyrics together—they have since 1993, when they first started playing in high school in Mississauga under the band name Pezz with drummer Aaron Solowoniuk and bassist Jonathan Gallant—through which they take snapshots of their own existences and of the collective world’s.
“Feeling that pulse and intonation of what’s going on around you, I think, is really important,” Kowalewicz says. ”And obviously, needless to say, the last two to five years have been arguably the most trying, at least in our lives, with the pandemic and with the climate crisis and with the social unrest. Things have become very divisive and very dangerous.” He pauses. “It’s easy to just say, this sucks, you know? But we’ve always tried to say, this sucks, but we’re going to get through this together. And there’s always been an element of hope and love that is really important to us to convey. And that’s not necessarily something that’s conscious, I think that just innately comes out of Ian and I, just the people we are.”
Billy Talent’s new and sixth studio album, Crisis of Faith, explores themes of politics, speaking out against injustice, loss, overcoming adversity, and connection. The songs were written sporadically over the past six years, the longest duration of time the band has ever had between records. The stretch is credited to the pandemic and some personal issues, Kowalewicz describes, that came up. “It’s been a hell of a journey,” he continues, “but I’m a firm believer that with struggle comes good art, and I think that this is arguably one of the, if not our best, records that we’ve done and I’m very proud of it—and very proud to finally put it into the world, because you write music for people to hear it.”
Billy Talent slowly released a handful of songs in the lead up, starting with the album’s epic, atmospheric opener “Forgiveness I + II” in late 2019. They wanted to share music differently in an effort to escape what can be the constricting confines of the music-making process that generally go like this: write, record, tour, go home, rinse and repeat. “People don’t necessarily consume in the same ways that they used to,” Kowalewicz says. “It’s an ever-changing thing that we have to monitor and try to be aware of, because you can’t just be those old jaded rocker dudes, like, this is how we’ve done it, this is how it’s going to be! No, that’s not how it works.”
With this in mind, the band came up with an idea to create a short film to be released across five episodes and soundtracked by their new music. Filmed in the New Mexico desert, Forgiveness stars mixed martial artists Rose Namajunas and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in a fantastical, dystopian story of revolution. While restrictions and re-shoots related to COVID-19 prevented the initial vision from being fully realized—and leading Billy Talent to put Crisis of Faith out in its more traditional format—three chapters of the short have been completed so far. The band is currently in the process of finishing the rest. “Where we started this journey into where it’s ending is much like life, I guess—there’s no straight line and we’ve had to adapt and kind of move on the fly,” Kowalewicz says. “But it’s been really fun and rewarding as it’s come in.”
The film’s namesake is another example of Billy Talent escaping the confines—in this case, of their song structure. Nearly seven minutes long, “Forgiveness I + II” is experimental and varied, with warm blasts of live horns that beautifully envelop the band’s signature sound in a Pink Floyd fever dream. It is a wonderful musical departure, something Billy Talent has never quite done before, and highlights the creative prowess of D’Sa, who not only composed much of it, but also serves as producer for the album at large. “It was nice to be able to show another palette and be like, hey, we can also do this stuff—because the guys all love Rush and prog-music and things like that,” Kowalewicz adds.
Billy Talent’s breadth of ingenuity is what drives Crisis of Faith, what makes it such a compelling record. Its relevance makes it a vital one. There’s “Judged,” concise and explosive in the spirit of punk, with something to say. “Your hateful rhetoric is so carefree,” Kowalewicz charges, “Why can’t you see what it feels like to be judged, for being born in your skin? Judged, for love that they call a sin?” “Reckless Paradise,” which, led by buzzy guitar, dares the listener not to move their body as lines assert how “our worldwide decency is gone.” Strings swell on the melancholic blues of “The Wolf,” while sunny 90s-inspired riffs tribute the band’s alt-rock roots on “End of Me,” featuring Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. Kowalewicz’s singing voice is full throated and clear, with a power evoking grit and vulnerability. It gives fluency to the hopefulness he mentioned before, which shines brightly on “I Beg To Differ (Things Will Get Better).”
Kowalewicz’s family gives him hope. Being a first-time dad stirred an immense feeling in him, one he describes as something that goes back to the dawn of time. “With her, I see the hope of the world. And it’s hard to be hopeful at the moment. But friends, family, community have become really important to me.” There is symmetry, he continues, in accepting that it’s okay to feel frustrated, to cry, to not be fine. We’re allowed that, he emphasizes, because it’s not fine. People aren’t the best versions of themselves right now. And compassion for others is something Kowalewicz finds himself understanding more. “You have to give people a longer leash, because people are struggling. And that’s why when you can see all of it again, the clarity and the sunshine, make sure you check in on those people that are alone because it goes a long way. It makes you feel better and it makes them feel better. Those are the small things—that love and compassion, that sense of awareness and community—that I’m beginning to realize that I hope, once we come out of this awful thing, stay with me.”
Solowoniuk, who has been on hiatus since 2016 due to his battle with multiple sclerosis, embodies strength and perseverance. Kowalewicz describes him as a “wonderful, wonderful human being.” Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings has been filling in on percussion in the meantime, but Solowoniuk has stayed very much involved with the band. He heads the Billy Talent Charity Trust, their philanthropic arm that supports initiatives like PLUS1, through which they donate a dollar from each concert ticket sold to local charities in the cities they play on tour. Billy Talent can’t wait to get back on the road next month—and that includes the prospect of Solowoniuk joining them onstage again. “He’s doing well, he’s feeling inspired,” Kowalewicz says, “and even though he won’t necessarily be able to play every night, he’s getting excited at the idea of coming up and playing songs wherever he can.”
Kowalewicz brims with respect for his bandmates. They’ve been making music together for almost 30 years, just over 20 as Billy Talent with era-defining anthems like “Try Honesty,” “River Below,” and “Red Flag.” Kowalewicz remembers when they were teenagers in the early 90s, kids looking for self-acceptance, finding kinship in the grunge movement, absorbing the sludgy sounds of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. They wanted to be part of that world, its culture. “The only way that we could was to figure out how to play our instruments, how to play guitar or how to sing or how to hit a drum and keep time. And once that starts, that door opens and you can never close it. Once you’re a musician, once you get introduced to playing with somebody and that feeling… that’s a light that shines on all of us. It’s this cool thing that you can’t really articulate, other than the fact that you just have to keep doing it. For us, the motivation hasn’t changed from the first time we played “Rockin’ in the Free World” in Ian’s parents’ basement.”
Kowalewicz grins at the memory. “We still have as much fun when we’re playing together. The success and people actually caring and listening has changed, but the motivation has always stayed the same.”
Before they finished writing Crisis of Faith, he and D’Sa were discussing the concept of infinite love. The juxtaposition of it, what it means. People will roll their eyes at that, Kowalewicz shrugs, but it was rooted in his newfound fatherhood and D’Sa coming to terms with the recent death of his mother. They were trying to figure out how the essence of that kind of love always holds true—how, Kowalewicz says, that “no matter where you are in the world or not in this world, that level always exists, will always be there, and it can never be changed or taken from you.” It led them to write “For You,” the uplifting final track on the album. “I will be your parachute when the wind takes you too high,” Kowalewicz sings, as if from the perspective of love itself, over sparkling chords. “I will be your sanctuary when rivers start to rise.”
After mining the turbulence of current times, Crisis of Faith promises sunshine after the storm with “For You.” Music, as ever, helps make sense of things. Kowalewicz smiles. “I hope people like it, because it means a lot to me. I think that’s my favourite song on the record.”