Appearances can be deceiving. By all accounts, Billy Talent is a young band just releasing their second album. Hell, it’s even called II. But like most stories worth hearing, the best part often lies beneath the surface.
While II is the Toronto-based quartet’s sophomore record, the number hardly seems appropriate for this group of friends that first began this journey 13 years ago. And it’s those years of grounded experience that kept them from sacrificing II to the dreaded second album curse.
“There can be a bit of a curse but it’s a curse that’s explainable,” says guitarist Ian D’Sa. “You have your whole life to write your first record but sometimes you only have a few months to write the second one. The most important thing is to not get bogged down in other people’s timelines and just do it when you feel comfortable with the work.”
The band finished touring for their award-winning self-titled debut in late December 2004 and were scheduled to hit the studio the following February. But going from the road right to the recording studio isn’t how Billy Talent rolls.
“We took some time off, spent time with our friends, family and all the different people that need to be connected with,” says singer Ben Kowalewicz. “You need to have things to write about, you need real life to give you things to write about. I’m not going to write about touring up and down the highway.”
“We definitely wanted some time to slip back into normal society and let the songs come out naturally,” says D’Sa. “I think it was important to take our time with it like that. We were very confident with the material we had early on so we didn’t want to rush it and end up with three good songs and seven others that were filler.”
The band will be the first to admit that the last three years has been like living a rock n’ roll dream. Whether jamming backstage with their musical idols or showing up to awards ceremonies in a full-on military tank, Billy Talent has taken advantage and fully appreciate where they are and how far they’ve come. But it was working day jobs and playing everything from rented suburban halls to downtown Toronto dives for more than a decade that set the stage for their explosive debut, so it’s no wonder the band wanted a return to regular life in order to refuel for the follow-up.
Billy Talent’s version of regular life started when Kowalewicz, D’Sa, Jon Gallant (bass) and Aaron Solowoniuk (drums) began playing together in high school forging their own creative vision through a common love of punk rock. Bands like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine and Jane’s Addiction provided the foundation for what would become the foursome’s own unique sound. The band, then called Pezz, put out a few independently released cassettes and recorded a full-length indie CD called Watoosh. By 1999, Pezz was traded in for a new moniker, lifted from a character in the film Hard Core Logo based on the book by Michael Turner.
With all four guys working full-time jobs — autoworker, financial planner, radio producer, animator — they released their 2001 EP Try Honesty. It was then Billy Talent planted the seeds that would take them from Toronto-rock club obscurity to a North American major label record deal, sharing stages with heroes the Buzzcocks and Jane’s Addiction, touring with Lollapalooza, the Warped Tour and a gaggle of European showcase stops including the U.K.’s infamous Reading & Leeds festivals.
Their self-titled major label debut came out swinging, establishing the band as a melodic tsunami of fist-in-the-air rock n’ roll that garnered the guys accolades from Best New Group, Group of the Year and Album of the Year Junos trophies to Best Video and Best Rock Video MuchMusic awards, as well as a passionate following of fans at home and abroad.
For the follow-up, Billy Talent maintains the elements that makes them who they are — hard-hitting, hook-filled, tight arrangements with an edge — but with a more refined sense of purpose.
“The first record was very angst-fueled,” says D’Sa. “We had spent 11 years as a band together and hadn’t really gotten anywhere so the result was an angst-filled album. This record is a lot about trust and trust issues, and a little more of a personal and emotional record. That said, it’s still Billy Talent. There’s a good balance of simple hard songs and more complex songs, but no 10-minute prog jams.”
While it’s definitely clear the months of constant touring have sharpened their musical chops, one of the stand-out differences is the way Kowalewicz has tempered his screeching lungs of steel to reveal his inner punk rock crooner.
“I sing a lot more than I did on the first album,” he says. “I don’t want to be known as the Scream Guy, so I’ve worked on that. When you’re telling a story you need commas and periods. I think I was more angry on the last record, all around. And on this one, I’m a bit more focused and pick my moments.”
One thing Kowalewicz and the band haven’t changed is their deft lyrical depiction of personal experiences and keen observations. The blistering opener “Devil in a Midnight Mass” shows how Kowalewicz can take an issue and talk about it in a personal way.
“It’s from a story I read about a priest in Boston who had been arrested for child abuse and the church kept moving him from parish to parish,” says Kowalewicz. “The Supreme Court tried and convicted him of molesting 150 kids over a 30 year span and while he was serving his sentence another inmate broke into his cell and murdered him. I stumble upon these stories, they don’t necessarily have to be directly personal but it’s things like this that move me. I’m a big advocate for children’s rights and this song looks at sexual abuse. It’s not against the church or anything, it’s more about that individual betrayal between adult and child. I don’t have the answers but hopefully if I sing about a certain issue it will get people talking about it.”
The album seamlessly weaves such the issue-based songs with more personal tales, from friends falling victim to drug addiction in “Fallen Leaves,” to hipster snobbery in “Where is the Line?” to dealing with people who don’t stand by their convictions in “Covered in Cowardice” — the music sets the scene while the words tell the vivid stories.
“I think this record is more focused for us as writers and people telling stories that are a bit more personal and revealing the side of us that we were more hesitant to reveal on the first record,” says D’Sa.
Musically, the song “This Suffering” melds all the sounds and styles that fans were first introduced to on their first record. “I think it’s a good representation of the band and all the little things we do in our music,” says Gallant.
But while individual songs can be picked out and highlighted, II is not a collection of singles but a single work put together with purpose — which explains the spartan title.
“A lot of times you look at certain songs to get the name of the record, but the problem with that is then you’re saying that is the song — fast-forward to this song,” says Kowalewicz. “For us, the record is an entire album not just a few songs and some filler.”
Like getting to know a good friend better over time, their lyrics and sound are familiar but delve deeper into who Billy Talent is and where they stand. The first 13 years of their career established them as an authentic, honest and direct force of energy and these next 13 songs add to that legacy. Welcome to part II.