Billy Talent’s Ben Kowalewicz: “Once I accepted that this is the voice that I have, it was very liberating”
As anyone who’s heard Billy Talent’s classic track Devil In A Midnight Mass can attest, Ben Kowalewicz has one of the most distinctive voices in rock. Here is a singer who summons the kind of piercing, high-pitched screams that can raise eyebrows clean off people’s faces. But right now? Ben’s voice is soft, a virtual whisper. He’s recalling the moment, over a year ago, when his life changed forever. That is when he became that most nerve-wracking, awe-inspiring of things: a dad.
“Me and my wife had a little girl,” he smiles as Kerrang! catches him leaving Billy Talent’s rehearsal space. “She’s changed my whole perspective on everything. Looking into her eyes, I don’t know…”
He drifts off, struggling to find adequate reverential words.
“There’s just a love and a purity…” he says. “It’s been a really moving, beautiful experience. It shook me to my core.”
This, Ben explains, is one of many reasons why he feels inordinately grateful right now. Another is that Billy Talent are now one more year into their remarkable journey. Theirs is, after all, a story of four friends who went from forming in Mississauga, Ontario’s Our Lady Of Mount Carmel Secondary School to becoming one of the most celebrated bands of their generation. “The first gig we ever played was at our high school talent show in our cafeteria,” he chuckles.
From such humble beginnings, however, Billy Talent have distinguished themselves with their breathtaking mix of punk, alt.rock, metal and post-hardcore. Across the space of five excellent albums (and one more coming), they have enjoyed success beyond their wildest dreams together.
But there’s also been trauma. In 2015, their drummer Aaron Solowoniuk told Ben, guitarist Ian D’sa and bassist Jonathan Gallant that his ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis was going to rule him out of recording and touring.
“The news was gut-wrenching, like someone ripped our hearts out,” an emotional Ben told K! in 2016. “Our first reaction was to just wait for him. But after countless conversations and many tears he said, ‘With MS, you don’t know if you’ll be better in six weeks, six months, six years – or ever.’”
So it was that Billy Talent, with Aaron’s blessing, decided to continue chasing the dream that started back in that high school cafeteria, recording the brilliant Afraid Of Heights with help from Alexisonfire sticksman Jordan Hastings.
All of which brings us to the present as Billy Talent prepare themselves to release their much-anticipated sixth album Crisis Of Faith. They’re fired up, as recent single End Of Me and 2020’s Reckless Paradise can attest, with the latter lamenting a world in which ‘huddled masses stare down the barrel of the gun’. Which seems like a good jumping off point…
Reckless Paradise paints a pretty bleak portrait of civilisation right now. Did anything specific trigger that song?
“We’re in a very interesting time in the world. In my 45 years on this planet, it’s never been more dangerous, volatile or divisive. The four of us are saying we need to come together and put our bullshit aside. We’re only on this planet for a short time together and we need to make sure we treat each other with respect, treat the climate with respect and also realise that the things we’re being sold as truth are not always right. We get a lot of, ‘You’re a political band!’ – we’re not necessarily a political band, but we are socially-minded. This is past the point of left or right-leaning politics.”
What’s the difference between a political and a socially-minded band in your eyes?
“Well, because we’re not nailed to the cross of only singing about politics. We sing about a wide variety of things and we’ve never been afraid to tackle tough issues from the very beginning of our existence. From 1993 until now, if something is pissing us off then we’re going to let you know you about it. If there’s something we believe in, we’ll try and shine a light on it. Like I said, this isn’t about politics anymore, this is about survival. This is about being people. This is dangerous and if we don’t pay attention to this, it’s going to fly further away from our control.”
As you said, you’ve been together for an extremely long time. With that in mind, what questions were you asking yourself as a band when making your new album?
“Something we’ve been talking a lot about recently is that we’re experiencing people passing way, and we have friends and family who have been taken ill. You deal with these things as they come to you. Now more so than ever, we’re just feeling gratitude and appreciation that, after this long, we’re still together. It’s something we don’t take lightly, we feel very privileged and fortunate to still be able to be doing it.”
Given the length of that journey you’ve been on, let’s rewind the clock. How would you describe your life growing up?
“I come from very humble beginnings with very hardworking parents. I’ve definitely learned throughout that hard work is a very important attribute, I was definitely bestowed that from my family. My teachers would say I was a bit of a handful. I dropped out of high school when I was 17 – I was just filled with so much piss and vinegar I couldn’t see clearly. Music is the only thing that ever made sense to me. It’s the only thing that speaks to me, the only thing I’m half-good at. I don’t know what I would do without this band. Who we are and what we are is so interconnected into what this band is… I don’t know myself without it. I’ve been singing in this band since I was 17 – that’s just absurd (laughs). We met smoking joints at the back of our high school and now we’re seeing each other getting married, some of us have kids… It’s been quite amazing to watch the transformation.”
You once said you started out your musical life as a “below average drummer” and went on to become a globe-trotting frontman. What growing pains were involved in that transition?
“That’s a loaded question, my friend. I don’t think you’re ever fully prepared. We worked together, slogging it out for close to 10 years before anything actually happened and then, once we signed a record deal, it pretty much went from promising your friends a free beer if they came to a gig to being strapped to the front of a fucking rocket ship, you know what I mean? We’re travelling the world and landing in London for the first time and going right to the Kerrang! Awards and getting absolutely annihilated drunk with Sum 41. Next thing you know we’re in a car with Paris Hilton and playing Reading & Leeds! But back to your question, nothing prepared me to become the frontman of a rock’n’roll band. It’s been a hell of a journey.”
Some bands from a DIY background worry they’re ‘selling out’ when they sign with a major label. Did you go through spiritual crisis when you signed with Atlantic in 2002?
“Absolutely not. We couldn’t give a flying fuck (laughs). We were an independent band and we’d sent all of our stuff out to every single indie label and it all came back and they either passed or it was, ‘No thank you’ for years, and then all of a sudden we have Atlantic Records who signed Led Zeppelin wanting us?! After a decade of no-one giving a shit, we were just so excited somebody wanted to help us. We did not give a flying fuck about signing to a major label, and if people can’t hear the art or the beauty because in the top left hand corner there’s a major label logo, if that’s going to change how you feel about the music, then don’t bother listening to it. For us, we’ve never really bought into any of that kind of bullshit.”
Since you got your big break, you must have experienced so many incredible things – what’s one of the coolest things that’s ever happened to you?
“I got a handwritten letter from Eddie Vedder. We ended up recording our third album [2009’s Billy Talent III] with Brendan O’Brien and the day after us, he was working on Pearl Jam’s Backspacer record. Brendan and I got along really well so I said, ‘Hey, do you think maybe you could play Ed some of our songs?’ Later, I came home and there was a handwritten letter from Eddie to me, with all these beautiful niceties and he put some records in there and several zippo lighters. I was completely fucking blown away. It’s on my mantel. There’s nothing else on my mantle except that letter (laughs). It’s my prize possession. Anyway, a couple of years later after that, we were playing a festival in Canada and Pearl Jam were headlining one night and we were headlining the other, so I flew in early to watch them. I was backstage and Ed walked by me and I said, ‘Hey Ed, my name’s Ben, I play in Billy Talent and you wrote me a beautiful letter – I just want to say thank you!’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s you!’ He gave me a big hug, we started shooting the shit, and he asked if I wanted to hear any songs in particular. It was a closed set but he brought Ian and I up onstage and let us watch the whole show. He’s a beautiful soul, and I can’t imagine the world without him. He’s a fantastic singer, lyricist and frontman that we’re fortunate to have around.”
Let’s talk about your own status as a frontman, as you once observed that your singing isn’t “everyone’s cup of tea”. What is your relationship with your own voice?
“Once I accepted that this is the voice that I have and embraced that and went with it, it was very liberating. Then it felt good. When people didn’t like it, I don’t care. It’s something that, as I’ve gotten more used to it, I’ve worked really hard to continually try to improve and better myself as a singer. I can’t really express to you how much in awe and in love I am with Ian’s playing and songwriting ability. It just blows me away. He makes these beautiful songs that make me challenge myself. It’s a challenge [to keep up] and a worthwhile one. This new record, the songs are so different and so diverse. As a band, we have a wild template. Sometimes we play the big heavy badass songs, but then we’re not afraid to be vulnerable and to strip all of that aside and sing a beautiful song about love or loss.”
It does seem like the vulnerable side of Billy Talent is often, sadly, overlooked. There’s a strong case to be made that White Sparrows is your best song…
“Well, yeah. That song was written about loss, and I had lost somebody close to me at that time. It’s a beautiful and tragic song. Ian’s playing, there’s something eerie and sad to it musically that lends itself to a narrative of loving someone and then them just not coming home one day. It’s a very special song to me and I have it tattooed on my arm. It’s the perfect concoction of emotion and melody. Every once in a while, you’re fortunate to have it all aligned – the intention and the purity of it locks right in. It’s a very beautiful song.”
On that topic of perception, how well understood do you feel as a band at this point?
“We always think that about how much of a difference it would have made if, as a band, we’d come out as in 1995 instead of 2002. When we came out, everything was ‘pop-punk!’ and ‘screamo!’ and people lumped us in with it. We didn’t understand that. We were guilty by association in a lot of ways, but that’s fine because if that was how other people processed it, ‘got it’ or heard about us, that’s totally cool. But the thing about our band is we can play – and have played – at punk, ska, reggae and hip-hop shows. We love all those genres. We’re like a chameleon, so it was a bit odd for us to come out and people needed us to be in a certain category. It was weird that some people heard the songs and were like, ‘Oh, that’s punk.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, but you’re missing other parts around it.’”
In 2016 you told Kerrang! that you were going through a form of “survivor’s guilt” about going on without Aaron. When you found out he couldn’t continue, did you come close to calling it a day?
“I mean, everything goes through your mind when you face something like that. It’s your best friend, it’s your bandmate. Again, we’ve been doing this since we were kids, and to see your best friend not be able to perform due to this disease is the most heartbreaking fucking thing in the world. We didn’t know how that was going to pan out; we didn’t know how to proceed. In those situations in life, you just have to talk and be open and honest, and laugh, cry and try to figure the best solution. With Aaron’s blessing and his undying love for the band and what we do, he wanted us to continue. But it was extremely difficult. When you have four people go to three, it was like, we’re missing 25 per cent of the ingredient to the stew. Playing live with Aaron, I didn’t even have to look at him and I’d know what he was going to do. There’s a chemistry that happens, you speak almost telepathically. For that to be gone was heartbreaking.”
Way back in your first K! cover feature, you didn’t just describe Aaron as your drummer, but your “spiritual guide”…
“He’s the most beautifully gentle, wonderful, inspiring person in the world. There’s no-one on this planet that could say a bad word about him because it would be impossible. No matter all the hardships, which I won’t get into, and all the things he’s endured that are quadruple the amount that the average person goes through, he’s still positive and smiling. When Aaron made the decision that he was stepping aside from drums because he couldn’t physically do it anymore, we had to deal with what that felt like and the impact and ramifications of that. So now Jordan’s an official member of the band and Aaron will continue to come out with us and he’s always part of every decision, every email. We went from four to five. That loss of going down to three? We actually gained someone. That’s the way we look at it. We all hang out and it’s great. That awkward weight of how that all happened in the last three or four years had finally subsided and everyone feels more comfortable. At the beginning you were asking me about where we’re at and how we feel these days? I’d say we’re feeling gratitude, appreciative and fortunate. I can walk into the studio and see Aaron there smiling and there’s some amazing new songs we’re creating. It’s a really cool moment for the band right now.”
We’re almost out of time, so let’s end with something quick and easy. What’s the meaning of life, Ben?
“Love. (Long silence) Sorry for the awkward pause, I’m a very dramatic guy. That’s it, man. That’s it.”
Billy Talent’s new album Crisis Of Faith is due out on January 21, 2022 via Spinefarm Records.
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