"Drink lots of water and try not to smoke as many cigarettes." A simple formula perhaps, but one that has allowed Ben Kowalewicz to become the most manic frontman in all of Canada.
As vocalist for Toronto's Billy Talent, Kowalewicz has been front and centre during his band's unlikely ascension to the rafters. Lurching around stage like a wounded animal, Kowalewicz' primordial stomp has exposed the caustic rants of this Toronto four-piece to thousands since the release of their eponymous major label debut last September.
Three powerhouse singles ("Try Honesty," The Ex" and "River Below"), 200,000+ albums sold in Canada alone, a main stage billing on the 2004 Warped Tour, a Juno Award for Best New Artist, four cross Canada toursÖ the accomplishments are staggering when you consider the sheer audacity of the band's noxious spew, an unholy mixed of punk, hard rock and blood-rearing hooks.
"We were a band for so long that we didn't really have any expectations when the album first came out," says Kowalewicz, who along with Ian D'Sa (guitar), Jon Gallant (bass), and Aaron Solowoniuk (drums) formed Billy Talent in mid-1990's Toronto. "The one thing we wanted to accomplish was to write and record a really good album and have it distributed worldwide. The whole band is very appreciative of everything that's happened to us since and we don't take ANYTHING for granted. We've sacrificed a lot to get to this point and it's always been the four of us together with our middle fingers raised to the worldóthat stupid little high school band that was going nowhere has finally made it."
Billy Talent released their debut LP Watoosh in 1998 but external commitments informed the approach the band took towards promoting itself. Kowalewicz was working in radio as a producer for Toronto's 102.1 The Edge and with other band members likewise ensnared in the grind of day jobs, the band opted to develop a solid grassroots following at home on the strength of their blistering live performances.
"It was mainly Ontario shows and Montreal once in a while," confirms Kowalewicz. "With us all working regular jobs Monday to Friday, there was really no time to tour. So the approach we took was to focus on our craft and our art and our music, and become part of our hometown scene. We'd play any place, any time around Toronto for a very long time."
The band eventually signed a worldwide publishing deal with EMI and the rest is history. In attempts to score rock radio airtime, Billy Talent threw its "Try Honesty" single into the void during the summer of 2003 and by the time their album was released that September, they were the most talked about Canadian band to hit domestic radio in years.
"I truthfully don't understand why it worked," says Kowalewicz. "To release a song like 'Try Honesty' in a market saturated by middle-class rock was definitely a risk. But in a lot of ways, you have to pay homage to your country. In Canada, we've got bands like The Dears and Broken Social Scene and Hot Hot Heat and k-os and Hawksley Workmanóall these acts that Canadians have started to embrace, even though they're not that easily digestible. They're all different but the music fans in this country have been very accepting because of that diversity. It's a beautiful thing and we've definitely gained a newfound respect for Canadian music fans. We wave our flags very proudly."
While many have lumped Billy Talent with the festering pool of "emo" bands currently swarming the hearts and minds of young people everywhere, the band views themselves merely as a rock and roll band, plain and simple. After years spent pounding the cement in attempts to have their cries heard, Kowalewicz laughs at charges filed from underground in light on the band's commercial success.
"Street cred? I'm so sick of that bullshit, pompous art school world. If you don't record on a four-track in a basement in Guelph, you somehow aren't authentic. I have no time for that because if you want to talk about being indie, we were indie for 10 years and we were never supported by anyone else so screw 'em. I've met the guys in other major label bands like Finger Eleven and they're total sweethearts. Just because the music they play might be different and appeals to a different fanbase, it's still music and it's still art. People let television or their friends' opinions or whatever define their concept of what's good and what isn't, yet people should really be able formulate their own hypotheses away from all that crap."
While the band is about to embark on one final cross-Canada trek in support of their self-titled disc ("It's definitely a 'thank you, good night'-kind of tour," says Kowalewicz with a chuckle), the band will tide fans over with the release of their first DVD on November 23rd. Documenting the band's rise to stardom over the past year and a half, the DVD will buy Billy Talent time to start working on their next full-length, with recording slated to begin in mid-February.
The downtime will also serve as a much-needed breather but for a band that feasts off the energy of the gig, you can bet that Billy Talent won't be silenced for long. In fact, when asked it's become harder to sustain his spastic intensity on-stage after 18 months of touring a single record, Kowalewicz replies to the contrary.
"I think it's easier now because the fans are there and they're excited. We're all about showmanship and we love bands that are not only musically amazing but also visually. If I pay my $10 or $15, the last thing I want to see is a bunch of dudes on-stage staring at each other. You gotta shake your shit; you gotta have fun. That's what we're all aboutóhaving a good time and letting our fans having a good time."
Billy Talent will be playing the following Canadian dates this fall (all date with Metric and Death From Above 1979):
September 29: Kingston, ON A.J.'s Hangar
September 30: Montreal, QC TBA
October 2: Mont Rolland, QC Bourbon Street
October 3: Ottawa, ON Capital Music Hall
October 4: Guelph, ON Club Denim
October 5: London, ON The Drink
October 7: Guelph, ON Club Denim
October 8: Toronto, ON The Docks
October 10: Thunder Bay, ON Warp 9
October 12: Winnipeg, MB Burton Cummings Th. For Perf. Arts
October 13: Saskatoon, SK The Odeon
October 15: Regina, SK Gabbo's
October 16: Lloydminster, SK The Kooler
October 18: Edmonton, AB Red's
October 19: Calgary, AB MacEwan Hall
October 21: Kamloops, BC Sport Mart Place
October 22: Vancouver, BC Commodore Ballroom
October 24: Vancouver, BC Croatian Cultural Center
October 26 : Prince George, BC Prince George Multiplex
For more information about Billy Talent, visit their official web site at www.billytalent.com
Writer: Cameron Gordon