Interview by Shannon Shumaker
Although fear is the underlying theme on Billy Talent's fifth full-length record Afraid Of Heights, it is certainly not what drives the band forward into their twenty-third year together. When you've practically grown up in a band, it becomes less about what is happening in your life at the moment, and more of an autobiography, a compilation of all of your past experience, your current self, and the future, and when we caught up with bassist Jon Gallant and guitarist Ian D'Sa at Riot Fest in Denver, only a couple of hours after their explosive performance, that much was true.
And I say explosive, because easily one of the festival's largest crowds of the day was gathered around the Rock Stage when the band went on just a little bit before 5pm. Only seconds into their set, fans were screaming the words to new and old songs along with vocalist, Benjamin Kowalewicz, proving that punk rock is alive and well and boy, do Billy Talent still have something to say. Touching on the subject of fear, Afraid Of Heights wastes no time before diving into controversial topics on songs like the opening track, "Big Red Gun," and asking fans an important question - what are we afraid of and why?
The Prelude Press: You guys just released your new album, Afraid Of Heights. What were the goals you had in mind when you first started working on it?
Ian D'Sa: Every band, when you put out a new record, you want to outdo yourselves and not just keep repeating yourself. We’d almost been away for about four years at that point, from the public eye, so we really put a lot of time into this record. All of the songs on the record really flow into each other and really share a common theme, which is fear. And that’s something we’ve never really had the time to really develop before, so we were able to on this record.
Would you consider it to be a concept record because of the common theme?
Ian: A little bit, yeah.
It being your fifth full-length album, where do you feel you’re at mentally, versus five albums ago?
Jon Gallant: It’s pretty crazy. You know, everybody grows up. You go through your life and you have stages in your life where, eventually people get married and have families and we’ve done all of those stages together for 23 years now. So I think the album definitely represents the path and the future of what’s going on, and it definitely represents where we are right now as people and songwriters.
When you’ve been doing it for twenty plus years, it almost like a scrapbook. You grow with it.
Ian: When you’re younger, you’re only really talking about in songs what things are affecting you at that age. As you get older, you have all of that history, and you have what’s happening in your life at the moment.
Jon: It allows you to be more definitive, too, like in what you’re talking about and what you want to do, because you’re more confident.
Ian: Yeah, and you’ve gained a lot of wisdom from all of that experience of making records before and writing songs. That’s the best part of staying true to who you are at the your age. It would be really easy to go and write a song and try to be in the mindset of a young Billy Talent, but that’s not what we wanted to do on this record.
On this record, on top of the theme of fear, you tackle a lot of different subjects. For instance, the opening track, "Big Red Gun," is very much about guns and violence. Going into it, was there anything that you knew you wanted to touch on?
Ian: We don’t live in the US, but you guys are our neighbors to the south, and we see a lot of news and just hearing about the mass shootings that seem to happening almost on a weekly basis, it’s really disheartening and it really seeps into your conscience. When I was working on that song, I was literally pissed off that guns have become so over-glorified in this country, that they’re marketed to children. There’s pink ones, blues ones… There’s something super wrong about that, and that song kind of reflected that.
Like you said, you get that outside perspective looking in - it’s hard to talk about that kind of stuff here because it gets so heated.
Ian: Yeah, I guess it’s a weird thing, being a Canadian band to bring up a subject like that, but we can.
Jon: We don’t worry about guns, nobody worries about guns or even thinks about them. It’s just something that’s not part of the normal, Canadian psyche, and it’s just because they’re illegal. They’re just hard to get. There’s murders and stuff like that, and generally it’s gangsters doing it to each other, but when shit happens, it’s not as gun related as it is down here, where you see it every day.
On this record, I know you also faced a few challenges because Aaron [Solowoniuk, drums] wasn’t able to work on it with you. Not necessarily sound-wise, but maybe mentally or in the subject matter, do you feel his absence had an affect on the record?
Ian: Yeah, for sure. There’s definitely an overall sense of, I don’t know - it was a tough record to make. It wasn’t like, “Hey, let's go make an awesome record, but without our drummer of 23 years!” It was really hard.
It’s almost like a missing organ.
Ian: Yeah. It was great that he was there every day - he would come by the studio and take pictures and things like that. He was there in spirit, and that’s made things easier to digest and to make the record.
Who have you guys been touring with for these shows?
Ian: Jordan Hastings from Alexisonfire.
He was killing it on stage today, so I think it’s safe to say you guys work well together!
Jon: Yeah, he’s a really great drummer, good person, and he’s been very understanding of the situation. That part of it has been really nice. Aaron can focus in and not worry about what’s happening, because it was hard for him to kind of step away because he has never, ever wanted to let us down, which is a weird thing because he would never.
Is there anything that you would want listeners to be able to take away from Afraid Of Heights?
Ian: The whole idea is, why are we afraid of things? That’s the big question that the album presents, so that’s what I want the listeners to take away from it. What are their fears and why? And maybe it’s not always good to listen to what you were brought up to believe about other people. Question it instead of just following the herd mentality, because that’s what’s really going on right now with Donald Trump and his followers. At the end of the day, is that right though? Is it morally right? The things this guy says, are they morally right things? And they’re not. So how is it right that he would become a presidential candidate? It’s a lot of questioning our fears as a society.
It’s kind of interesting because when you guys first started out, you’re young and angry kids, and there’s punk rock and you have something to be angry about. Did it ever occur to you that 20 years later, there’d still be that need for albums like this or for that punk mentality?
Jon: I think if you feel strongly about that stuff, it’s in you. Even guys like Neil Young, who are like 70 and older, he still writes protest songs. I think if you care about that stuff, it doesn’t go away.
Ian: But I never thought it would get this bad - this is bad. It’s way scarier.
Jon: But maybe it’s rock bottom. Because I think you just gotta get fed up at some point and start realizing that all that fear is not the right way. It’s better to talk to people and embrace your neighbor, you know? I think this is rock bottom, and maybe there could be a turn of events.
The only plus side is that it makes for good music!
Ian: It’s true.
Jon: Maybe that’s been the problem for the last ten years - music has just been so fucking shit. [laughs]
Ian: Music definitely helps create a dialogue amongst people. Songs aren’t going to solve the world’s problems, but they’re there to open dialogue between people. I think, even if someone listens to a song like “Big Red Gun” and they don’t agree with what we’re saying, that’s going to open dialogue with someone who may agree. That’s important.
"Songs aren't going to solve the world's problems, but they're there to open dialogue between people." - Ian D'Sa
It’s not necessarily shoving your beliefs down someone’s throat.
Ian: That’s the last thing we want to do.
Jon: And if you think about Bruce Springsteen, who leans left - when he writes a song that has an impact or talks about maybe more liberal ideas, and then that connects with an audience that doesn’t think that way, that is a really good thing because for them, that could open a dialogue. Like, “Wow, Bruce Springsteen is saying that? Maybe I should listen.”
After Riot Fest, do you have any more plans for touring?
Jon: Nothing concrete, but we want to do a little bit more in the states. We haven’t been here much. If and when we get back, it’ll be next year at some point.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Ian: We’ll try to be back here in Denver! Our new album is called Afraid Of Heights and it’s out now.