You know you have a powerful song when people are willing to eternally etch your lyrics into their skin.
In the case of Mississauga’s Billy Talent, it’s not the obvious anthems like “Try Honesty,” “Devil in a Midnight Mass” or the 2010 Juno-nominated Single of the Year “Rusted From the Rain” that are prompting people to permanently puncture their flesh; it’s “White Sparrows,” a ballad of lament and longing from the band’s latest album, Billy Talent III, that’s doing the trick.
“I’ve actually met five or six people where that song means so much to them that they have the lyrics tattooed on them,” claims singer Ben Kowalewicz, speaking on behalf of guitarist Ian D’Sa, bass player Jonathan Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. The band headlines a sold-out 18,000-seat Air Canada Centre tonight with an invigorating punk-powered package that includes St. Catharines’ Alexisonfire, Against Me, from Gainesville, Fla., and our own Cancer Bats.
“It’s nice to be part of people’s lives forever, I guess.”
Kowalewicz — whose act is up for four Juno Awards (Group of the Year, Album and Rock Album of the Year for III and single for “Rusted From the Rain”) on April 18 — says “White Sparrows” stemmed from the loss of a close relative.
He views it as a new pinnacle in the band’s melodically intricate slice-of-life repertoire.
“I was really hoping to use this song as a vessel to tell that story,” he recalled from a recent Winnipeg stop. “I had just lost someone very close to me, but Ian had been through a breakup at the time, and he really wanted to write it from that perspective.
“So the first part of the song sounds like this guy’s all sad because he broke up with his girlfriend. But then you realize that he’s sad because she actually passed away, and he’s asking God why, more or less.
“Ian came up with this beautiful melody, and the song was this perfect storm in how it worked together. Playing it in concert is pretty moving.”
The song — and a spate of losses involving “a bunch of friends and a whole bunch of friends’ parents over the last couple years” — also triggered a change in Kowalewicz’s own perspective.
“I’m just trying to enjoy my life right now,” he admits. “I’m no longer banking on that philosophy of ‘save up and then retire.’
“You’re not guaranteed anything. So enjoy what you’ve got right now, and if you want to do something — and if you’re excited about it — then do it, because you’re not promised that golden carrot at the end of the race.”
Of course, 17 years of unity — first as a screamo punk act Pezz, before the band changed its name to the Hardcore Logo-inspired Billy Talent — has enabled the band to gather a few carrots leading up to tonight’s hometown bash.
The five-time Juno winners have collectively sold more than a million albums here and abroad; spent the last nine months crisscrossing the globe steadily building audiences in Europe, Australia, Japan and Russia; and more tellingly, snagged ubiquitous hotshot producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC) to helm the boards for III.
To say they’re in a good place may be a bit of an understatement, but Kowalewicz and his pals haven’t forgotten the struggle it’s taken to get there.
“It’s a dream come true for us,” he agrees.
“To have put forth a decade of blood, sweat and tears before anything ever happened, and now, to have our wildest dreams blown out of the water and fulfilled to a certain extent, we know how hard it took to get here and we’re not going to let anybody take it away from us,” he vows.
The fact that they’ve played so many gigs around the world puts them in a good position to realize many of their dreams, but Kowalewicz, 34, says moving out of the city isn’t one of them.
“I would never move out of Toronto — ever,” he adds for emphasis.
“I don’t think any of us would ever move out of Toronto, to be honest with you. Having had the chance to have seen a lot of great places in the world, and go to a whole bunch of different cities, Toronto is the best city there is.
“I love it. I absolutely love it. I love the people. I love the way it’s developing. Yes, we have problems, but every major city has problems. But I’m the biggest fan of our city, so I can’t see me leaving … pending some kind of global catastrophe.”
While there’s no foreseeable catastrophe on the horizon for Billy Talent; there is a new album the band plans to begin writing in the fall, following spring dates in the Pacific Rim and summer festival appearances in Europe and Canada.
Also looming: the Juno Awards in St. John’s, where they’ll perform live — although Kowalewicz says it really isn’t about the hardware, but the invitation to the party.
“It’s a drinking party, is what it is,” chuckles Kowalewicz. “A drinking competition, especially in Newfoundland, oh my goodness.
“Some great performers and great bands are going to be there, and we’re just happy to have our named tossed in with the gang.”
The Toronto Star
March 28, 2010