Billy Talent’s Ian D’Sa and Jon Gallant are sitting in Starbucks sipping on bottles of water on a quiet evening when we meet.
It’s hard to believe these are two of the guys responsible for such explosive hits as “Try Honesty” amongst “Red Flag,” “River Below” and their latest, “Rusted From The Rain.” The intense energy of these songs doesn’t show here.
Instead, D’Sa and Gallant are completely laid back and chill, eager to talk about their new album, Billy Talent III, which dropped July 14. Everything about the meeting is collected and still, a calm before the craziness of the album’s release and the extensive touring set to follow it.
For the album, Warner flew in Grammy Award-winning producer Brendan O’Brien, who has worked with the likes of Stone Temple Pilots, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam, Velvet Revolver and Incubus, to name just a few. Billy Talent were asked to submit a list of dream producers and O’Brien at the top — and they got him.
“I don’t even think we really believed it until we had him in our rehearsal studio in Toronto doing pre-production,” says Gallant. “We’ve been hardened enough to not believe anything until it actually happens. We were excited about it and crossing our fingers and then when it was all going down it was really a dream come true, finally.”
The experience was different this time, especially for guitarist D’Sa, who co-produced Billy Talent II alongside Billy Talent producer Gavin Brown (Three Days Grace, Thornley, Cancer Bats).
“It was interesting at first,” says D’Sa says. “We didn’t see eye-to-eye.
“In the pre-production, everything was great, but once we got to the studio, he’s really all about momentum and working super-fast, so that first week if I disagreed with something he would disagree with me and it got a little hairy at some point. I think we both ended up understanding each other in the second week and it turned out great in the end.
“It’s funny how it changed from the beginning, because when you walk in, especially with someone you’ve never met before, you have to work really fast. You’re walking in protecting your baby — ‘baby’ meaning all the songs we’re written over the past eight months.
“After a while you have to realize this is a guy that has made so many great records and so many records that all his calls are totally correct and in line. He’s all about trusting your instinct and he’s great. We kind of got to that realization and followed that path after a while.”
Billy Talent credit O’Brien for the new sense of texturing on the album. He added percussion, played the mellotron on “White Sparrows,” piano on “Diamond On A Landmine” and added various additional details and elements the band wouldn’t have thought to do on top of their standard guitar, bass and drum set-up.
Yet this is not what stands out most about the album. Instead, the melodies scream the loudest while, perhaps ironically, vocalist Ben Kowalewicz screams the least he ever has.
Gone are the angst-ridden tracks of harboured teenage aggression and loneliness in favour of more thought-provoking songs. There are even elements of hope amidst the softer vocals and lyrics of this new batch riff-rock anthems.
“I think as we’re getting older we’re maturing,” D’Sa says. “The first album did have a lot of screaming on it because we were more angry and aggressive at that point in our lives. It really fits where we are right now in life on this record.”
“It has more a fulfilling attitude towards it,” Gallant adds. “We feel as a band that we’ve accomplished a lot and have a right to do all the things we want to do without second guessing them. I think there’s a lot more of our instinct on the record.”
A lot has happened since Billy Talent II dropped in 2006. For Gallant, the biggest thing is the birth of his now 21-month-old son.
“It makes it a little more difficult to tour because you want to be there,” he says. “Aaron [Solowoniuk, drums] has been doing it since the band started touring heavily and now that I’m in his shoes I understand a lot of the sacrifice that he made.
“I think it also makes you get to appreciate life. I hope my son gets to do the things that I got to do. It changes your mindset in ways, but I don’t think it affects me creatively.”
For D’Sa, it’s a different story. He ended a long-term relationship and became involved with the non-profit organization Canadian Artists For African Aid, better known as Song For Africa.
The organization was started in 2006 by Winnipeg-based music producer Darcy Ataman, who got a group of Canadian artists together to record a song and video called “Song For Africa” in order to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa.
D’Sa was asked to record the guitar tracks for the follow-up Song For Africa documentary last year. During the recording, the team was shooting aspects of the documentary, which ended up including some footage of D’Sa.
Ataman asked D’Sa if he would like to go to Africa. D’Sa jumped on the opportunity and joined fellow musicians Damhnait Doyle, Luke McMaster and Simon Wilcox for 10 days in Kenya where they visited families in mud huts, AIDS clinics and the biggest slum in Africa.
“It was really eye-opening and an amazing experience,” D’Sa says. “It made me realize how lucky we are to live here and all the things that are available to us that aren’t available to others and how we can help change their problems.
“We’re all neighbours, we’re just far away from each other. When you go over there you realize we’re a lot closer than we think.”
D’Sa got to see the work organizations like CARE Canada and Free The Children are doing in Kenya. They teach families to boil polluted water before drinking it, something they didn’t normally do.
One of the aspects of the trip that stuck out the most was how happy the children were and how curious they were about what it was like for D’Sa to grow up in a city just outside of Toronto.
“It was really great to hear their stories and see where they grew up. There are a lot of parallels. They have normal families,” he says. “Their living conditions aren’t as good as here, but they have normal families and do normal things. It made me feel like we’re a lot closer than we think.”
If this doesn’t sound like the talk of a bunch of young punks, it’s because it isn’t. Billy Talent are developing into a far different sort of band.
D’Sa takes a moment to reflect on how all of these life experiences have affected the band musically — not just in terms of song inspiration, but also in their ability to master their art.
“I feel like we’re slowly honing the songwriting craft and becoming better as songwriters so this is the one I feel really proud of,” he says.
It’s too early to tell if the third installment will match the success of Billy Talent, which was certified three times platinum in Canada, or Billy Talent II, which reached #1 in both Canada and Germany and was certified two times platinum, but Billy Talent seem pretty content with where things are now.
They’ve already released a video for “Rusted From The Rain” and have filmed one for second single “Devil On My Shoulder.” They’re currently on tour supporting Rise Against and Rancid and are planning to tour Canada in January and February. Dates will be announced soon.
“We’re working on making it a smashing lineup right now,” Gallant says. “We want to make sure everything is right for the Canadian tour and to do something special. At that time the band will be a well-oiled touring machine and we’ll have our shit together.”
July 29, 2009