The show must go on
Billy Talent is the very definition of a “band of brothers,” with a 23-year history dating back to its four members’ high school years in the Mississauga enclave of Streetsville. For any band to carry on that long through thick and thin and innumerable tour-bus flameouts and studio squabbles with its original membership intact is a truly heroic feat. It really doesn’t happen that often.
Indeed, Billy Talent’s last hometown gig, opening for Guns N’ Roses before 50,000 at the Rogers Centre on July 16, provides a convenient point of comparison: GNR splintered into ruins a dozen years into its existence and subsequently spent 15 more as an exclusive plaything for Axl Rose before Slash and Duff McKagan returned to the fold for a “reunion” tour this summer. Mercury Rev might have put it best: “Bands, those funny little plans / That never work quite right.”
Billy Talent nevertheless worked “quite right” for more than two decades, until drummer Aaron Solowoniuk who first revealed that he’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006 grudgingly conceded that the disease was getting the better of him and announced in a heartbreaking YouTube video in January he was taking time off the band he formed with vocalist Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa and bassist Jon Gallant under the name Pezz in 1993 to get well.
Sessions for the quartet’s fifth album, Afraid of Heights, were beginning. Jordan Hastings, known for his sturdy work behind the kit for Say Yes and beloved St. Catharines hardcore heroes Alexisonfire, was handpicked to sit in his place.
“We were getting ready to go in the studio. We had 12 or 13 songs written and ready to go,” recalls Solowoniuk, hanging with his lifelong friends in Billy Talent’s east-end rehearsal studio a couple of days before their Rogers Centre date. “I had struggled through some shows in the summer and kind of pushed through it, and then it came to a point where I was just overdoing it, man.
“At that point, I was just having some MS symptoms of, like, blurred vision as I was playing drums. But then I pulled my back and Jon had to take me to get an MRI and they said ‘Your back’s messed up’ and, at that point, I just kind of decided I needed to switch medicine, switch what I’m doing and I was like, ‘I don’t know how long it’s gonna take and I want you guys to keep moving forward.’
“So I gave Jordan a call to come in and learn the songs and record the songs, and tour with the band while I’m figuring out my health.”
Given the platinum-or-better track record established by Billy Talent’s first four albums here in Canada, that must have been a daunting challenge for Hastings to accept.
“A little bit,” he shrugs, having nonetheless learned the parts to every song on Afraid of Heights in a month and a half before recording commenced in the winter, and another 46 Billy Talent tunes since, to carry him through the international touring commitments that will keep the band busy in Australia, Japan, Europe (Billy Talent is huge in Germany), the U.K. and the U.S. through December.
“He didn’t show it at all. He’s a pro,” says D’Sa.
“He didn’t show it,” affirms Gallant, who suddenly found himself half of a brand new rhythm section heading into Afraid of Heights. “And, for me, it was 25 years playing with the same drummer because Aaron was in the band I was in before this band. Ben, as well. So it was bizarre. It was really, really strange.”
Kowalewicz is similarly blunt about the hole Solowoniuk’s sudden departure tore through Billy Talent’s family dynamic.
“It was devastating. It was the weirdest day ever,” he says. “But Jordan is a great drummer and an amazing man who was very delicate and understood the nuances of what we were going through.”
Solowoniuk, for his part, has far from left the picture. He was a perpetual presence in the studio, part spiritual adviser to Hastings and part video documentarian, during Afraid of Heights’ creation, and he’ll be hanging around in the background on as many of the tour dates as he can following the record’s July 29 release. With an eye, of course, to eventually returning to active duty.
“I’m working daily at getting back,” he says.
In the meantime, Afraid of Heights offers further confirmation if there were any doubts lingering after the oft-overlooked creative steps taken from 2003’s Billy Talent to the present that Billy Talent is a hitmaking CanCon powerhouse in it for a far longer haul than the “Try Honesty”-era doubters predicted.
Subtle synths here and there, and a proper power ballad in the form of “Rabbit Down the Hole” have crept into the mix under chief songwriter and returning producer D’Sa’s diligent supervision but, as was the case with the classic-rawk tropes of 2009’s Billy Talent III, they feel like such a natural, unforced evolution of the frantic-but-tuneful Billy Talent “sound” you almost don’t notice the ground being broken.
No, Billy Talent might not have yet added a Day for Night or a Trouble at the Henhouse to its discography, but it’s still one of the best hopes this country has for a better-than-everyone-thinks-it-is, arena-level successor to the Tragically Hip. And the band doesn’t take its position for granted.
“After the year we’ve had and the struggles we’ve had, I appreciate it more now,” says Kowalewicz. “We’ve always been very thankful and very appreciative, and it’s always been because we’ve worked really, really hard to get ourselves into this situation. But now, it’s every single day, especially when we’re onstage.
“Through the climate and all the weird turbulence that’s happened in the industry, and the way things have evolved and the way people communicate, and the way they get music and process music now, for us to be 23 years in and they still care? We’ve just been playing shows and, like, looking at people and seeing people smiling and singing and having so much fun and it’s, like: ‘This is the best. We’re so lucky.’”