Slam Dunk announce festivals in Italy and France with The Offspring, Simple Plan and more
The Offspring, Billy Talent, Simple Plan and many more join Slam Dunk France and Italy next summer.
It was all going to plan until it wasn’t. The first time Kerrang! spoke to frontman Ben Kowalewicz about Billy Talent’s eagerly-anticipated sixth album in 2020, they were still hard at work on it in the studio. The Toronto titans – completed by guitarist Ian D’Sa, bassist Jonathan Gallant, drummer Jordan Hastings and Aaron Solowoniuk (who stepped down from drumming owing to his fight with MS but continues “to play a part of every decision, every email”) – were writing songs and drip-feed releasing them as they went along. And then… Well, you know the rest by now.
“The world shut down,” sighs Ben of how the pandemic changed not only their plans, but also the record they were making. “Since then, there's been so much that has happened, not only just within our lives as the band, but throughout the world, throughout the planet. It was everything from what was happening in the States with the rise and fall of Trump and this divisive cancer that seems to be spreading throughout the world, to the protests, and a global pandemic for good measure. And then there’s the climate crisis, which I’m fucking watching in real time as it is hitting us in unprecedented heights at the moment.”
It turns out that when we catch up with Ben today, he’s witnessing the impact of the world’s climate first-hand.
“I went to bed last night at around nine o'clock, and there was zero snow, and I've woken up this morning to it being the worst snowstorm Toronto has maybe ever seen,” he laughs. “We have about three feet that's already fallen, so I've spent the day digging myself and my neighbours out.”
But while their new record may not have unfurled in the way they originally intended, it’s taken Billy Talent to some unexpected and incredibly poignant places.
“How we started and how it ended is light years away from what we could have ever imagined happening,” he explains. “I also became a new father, and I think it's important to also address that Ian lost his mum during the pandemic, not due to COVID, but due to other health reasons. We had to give him time to grieve and mourn. So much has happened. And we just drew from it, it was like in The Matrix – there was so much stuff flying at us and we were doing the slow-motion avoiding of bullets. All of the variables and all of the factors that were pushing this record one way or another, that ebb and flow, created a beautiful tension. And that's why I think the record is so strong, there was no time for bullshit.”
The result is Crisis Of Faith – an incredible album that while being just 10 tracks finds times to ricochet from the sprawling two-part prog epic Forgiveness I & II to the furious sub-two minute rampage of Judged and even working with alt.rock royalty – his majesty Rivers Cuomo of Weezer – on End Of Me.
“The thing about this record is that if you're a fan of the band, and you have been for a long time, there's something for everyone, and that sounds fucking gross saying that!” Ben hoots. “That sounds like a throwaway answer, but I actually genuinely believe that. I'm really excited to have fans listen to it as a body of work. From start to finish, it's maybe our strongest record in the regard of [cohesiveness] since Billy Talent II, in my opinion. We were talking to Cone [Jason McCaslin] from Sum 41 because he's hosting a listening event that we're doing for fans and he said, ‘I love the record – if we hadn't already taken All Killer, No Filler, I would have suggested that should be the name for this.”
Before we let Ben get back to shovelling snow, first it’s time for him to guide us through Billy Talent’s latest outing, track by track…
“It’s the brilliance of Ian D’Sa – which I obviously can't stress enough! He brought the bulk of Forgiveness Part I and it is a badass, heavy, prog song. It evokes these images of riding through a desert on horseback. Ian had some lines already written for it and then we explored that theme of forgiveness together, while also referencing The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and it's a wonderful, beautiful story and a great lesson. The book is an adventure with all of these things happening only to discover at the end – sorry to ruin it, but I have to! – that everything you're looking for is inside yourself. And you need to understand that. It all starts and stops with you. That's how Forgiveness Pt. I was – you could feel the dirt and the sand on your face riding through the desert and experiencing all of this, and then the flip side to Forgiveness II was that all of a sudden it's very spacey and it has this very Pink Floyd-esque way about it – you're kind of looking at the Earth from the macro kind of view. I loved the band's performance on this song. For me to sit there and marvel at watching them play and everyone digging into it was really, really cool. I remember Ian playing me the demo of Part II, like, ‘I don't know, dude – just listen and be open-minded.’ And then I heard the sax solo come in and I was cheering!”
“Ian and I really wanted to embody the message that though there are so many atrocities going on at all times, you need to be more active within your community. More or less what we're saying is you can sit there and be like, ‘Thoughts and prayers’ online and that's nice – that's not to negate the fact that's a nice gesture – but if you want to stop things from happening, we need to look at the root of the problem. The song is more or less addressing that. It's like, ‘Hey, let's stop and figure things out in a real way that will establish real change.’ So it embodies and carries this tension because it was a very tense time, and I’m not saying that it's not now. There's an urgency there, because it does feel sometimes like the house is fucking burning while we're sitting in it.”
“There is an element of hope to everything that we talk about. Ian originally had some scratch vocals for the chorus which was like, ‘This will get better’ and that was the thing that always stuck out. There's a trick to the Billy Talent world and that's that sometimes Ian has these great things down on scratch vocals that I don't even think he really realises! River Below was the same. Sometimes these words, these sentences, steer the boat in the direction of where you're going to end up. For us, that song was dealing with a lot of our friends and people we know with mental illness and saying, ‘You're going to be okay, and when you're dark, or when you're going dark, please ask somebody, please reach out to somebody and know that there's people out there that love you, and they care about you, they want you to succeed.’ That message is really important. It was challenging to write, and we worked really hard on it. Nowadays there's a lot of artists and a lot of people saying that message in metaphor – and I love that too – but sometimes it's just nice to just hear it the way it is and be that direct: it will get better, stick through it.”
“Oh man, this is one of the best songs we’ve ever written in my opinion. The song is about being told that you're going to die – that you’re terminal – and reflecting on your life and the past. We had someone that we know that had that happen to them, and we watched it happen in real time. That song really hits home with us in a lot of different ways. But I think there's just something so beautiful in the simplicity of it. We were playing a version where Ian had some chords on a keyboard and eventually it was suggested we get a real orchestra. That idea sounded a bit bold and audacious, but we thought if there was ever a song that deserved it, it was this one. We actually ended up getting David Campbell on it, who's an amazing composer and has worked on some of the biggest records in the world. We had a lovely chat with him about the song and the lyrics and he came up with a beautiful arrangement.”
“Ian had the majority of the song written, lyrically, before we actually started to work on it. That song came out of when the George Floyd protests were happening around the world, and watching people saying, ‘Fuck this, you can't do this to us anymore.’ There was such power in that and the unity that was formed from watching it in real time. What was happening and what had happened needed to be addressed and I think Ian felt very moved by that. He put the pen to the paper, and that's what came out. To know the honesty and conviction behind what my friend was saying makes it very powerful for me as a singer to be able to sing. It’s a beautiful song and it's going back to the reality that we need to change things for the better, not just for our generation, but for the next generations moving forward.”
“I think the record really needed this. It needed to be balanced with a little bit more piss and vinegar. And this song has a closed fist, 90-second, Black Flag, Minor Threat, old-school vibe to it. It’s just a really heavy banger. And lyrically, it's going back to how we need to make change, and we need to stop judging people based on the colour of their skin or their gender. We need to realise that we all want the same things in this world, which is love and compassion and understanding and yet we're constantly just throwing rocks at each other. At the end of the day, we have to learn and accept each other's differences.”
“This is where the record turns – it would be side B, I guess. We deal with a lot of heavy subject matter on the first side, and then Hanging Out With All The Wrong People is almost reminiscent of Worker Bees [from Billy Talent II], it’s a Cake meets The Strokes meets Billy Talent. It has this weird quality to it, and we just went with it. I love the groove, and I love the chorus. We wanted to make a bit of a social commentary – it was fun to have this narrative of a kid growing up, hanging out with some people that maybe led him astray, and talk about some of those friends, but then also look at him when he’s grown up and he's this 'politician guy’ (laughs). We worked on that song very hard because we didn't want to make it cheesy, and we wanted to make it work, but we didn't want to make it feel too forced. And we also wanted it to make us laugh at certain points.
“We've been doing this for so long – we're flirting with 30 years now that the four of us have been playing together. The idea of when we started as [Billy Talent’s early incarnation] Pez was we had all these crazy songs. Each one was very different and very crazy, they went in all of these different directions. And I feel like we've come full-circle again in the sense that we can explore all of the different extensions of what makes Billy Talent tick. Some people perceive Billy Talent as always sounding like Judged or Reckless Paradise – they think of us as this loud, bratty, and political band. We’re that sometimes, but we're also a bunch of dorks that like to talk about funny stories. You don't have to necessarily always paint in one colour, it's okay to use this beautiful world as a landscape.”
“Ian had a guitar riff which had this John Frusciante, Jimi Hendrix vibe and then went into this very Pinkerton-esque pre-chorus and chorus. I loved it – well, we all loved it! – because it embodies the essence of that time in music which was so seminal and influential in our development. It was ’93 when we started and Weezer’s Blue record was just as important to us as Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. It was part of the Rolodex of that time. Ian and I ended up writing a song about certain friends who, no matter how much they're a dark cloud or can sometimes be challenging, we love and we're going to stand by them until the end. It's a bit tongue-in-cheek but also deals with friendship and community and standing by your peers and your loved ones. We tracked it, mixed it and mastered it… And a couple months later, I was like, ‘Nope, every time I hear it, I hear Rivers singing on it – we have to get him on this song.’ And we’ve never met Rivers! Our manager gave his manager the song, and about a month later, we found out that he loved it and was happy to be part of it. He sent it back like BAM! I was so emotional, just at the idea of him singing on one of our songs. He did such a beautiful job, with this silky, beautiful delivery. Whenever he comes on I turn it up and I kind of turn it back down when I start (laughs). Now I just have to get Eddie Vedder on a song!”
“When we were working on it I just pictured someone smiling [through gritted teeth] like, ‘Yes, I'm fine.’ That's kind of how it is right now – just being completely fucking over-processed, overwhelmed, and just kind of fucking over it. And if there's any time in history – at least of the last, like, 60-70 years – this is the time that I think we can all relate to that. Everyone is fucking hanging by a thread and trying their best to get through the days and be positive. The song is just like, ‘Wouldn't it be nice to just wake up with one less problem to worry about?’ It's a fun song with a pretty heavy message.”
“It's a love song, but it’s also more than that. The main lick of the song was just so beautiful, but I remember us working on it and working on it… and we just couldn't fucking do it, so we scrapped it. But then we went back to it and I don't know how long later because time, what is time? I don't remember the last year other than it just being hard! We continued working on it with a fresh viewpoint – I was becoming a new parent and that it has that viewpoint of that love and a connection that is forever. So there’s that version of love, and then with Ian's mom transitioning to the next world, to the afterlife, Ian was coming at it from that love for his mom, and her love for Ian. No matter what plane we're on, or where we operate from, that love will always be there and it will always stay with you. No matter where we go afterwards, or when we first come into this world, or when we leave it, that love stays. That's a beautiful sentiment. I think that's my favourite song on the record in a lot of different ways. I think anybody that's experienced that true love, and knows that love of loss and gain, will really be able to resonate with it. The soul of this record is one of hope, love, acceptance, tolerance and empathy.”
Crisis Of Faith is out now via Spinefarm Records.
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