The band you know and love today as Billy Talent is approximately 13-14 years old. They’ve been at it for years. Struggling, practicing, playing shitty venues and shows, dealing with shady club owners and bookers, dealing with media doubting their super powers, building stages, putting on their own shows, fighting with each other, moving out of town, losing money and equipment, quitting the band, going to school, getting married and having kids; things that all bands go through. As far as I can remember the Billy T gang had always been a step ahead of everything else. They were always the band to come check out or the band to watch out for, especially if you were going on after them. Billy Talent started as four kids in high school … back then they were known as Pezz.
During their teen years the band lived in the newly developed suburbs of Mississauga, ON, Canada, in the towns of Meadowvale and Streetsville. These towns are located almost parallel to each other on the Northern tip of Mississauga. The communities were full of new houses, schools and churches open for business to the newlyweds and expecting parents looking to raise their families in a safe and quiet environment. That was the way life was before a brand new high school was erected in Meadowvale bringing teenagers from all walks of life together for the very first time.
From their second practice I knew that these four high school kids had something going on. After the popular high school band To Each His Own broke up singer Ben Kowalewicz (originally hired to play drums), bass player Jon Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk hooked up with the guitar player from the band Dragon Flower (another popular local band) and high school friend Ian D’Sa. They were influenced a lot by Rage Against The Machine and other “grunge-like” bands because at the time nothing like that had been heard before. There were lot of hip hop elements and 70’s punk rock to this outfit named, for the time being, The Other One.
They played their first show (Jingle Bell Rock 2) in the cafeteria of their Catholic high school (Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School). They quickly realized they had something going on after seeing the crowd’s response to their debut. The kids were ready for something new and something groovy. Within a month or so they had changed their name to Pezz and started booking shows around town.
Ian and I never realized what impact we were about to lay on the city of Mississauga when we booked our first indie rock show at the local Masonic Lodge. Located in Streetsville, ON, the Masonic Lodge was a perfect venue for bands like Pezz. It’s a square basement venue on the corner of Main and Thomas. It cost us $200 and was out of site of the public and concerned residents. With the help of friends, family and other band members the first independent rock show was a success; a hit with all the kids. The Mississauga music scene was born.
The summer of 1994 was an exciting one for Pezz. They were asked to play the Sonic Picnic concert in Orangeville, ON, a town located one hour north of Mississauga. It was put on by a local indie label named Sonic Unyon based out of Hamilton, ON. This was the biggest crowd the band had ever played in front of and featured other indie acts such as Hayden, Treble Charger, hHead, the almighty Trigger Happy and a slew of other Sonic Unyon bands. It was the success of this show that inspired them to make their first tape.
They recorded a demo on a four-track recorder in Ian’s basement and called it DemoLuca, named after a friend Jason Deluca. The tape featured four songs showing what the band was all about. Hip hop beats mixed with Ben’s hip hop inspired lyrical flow mixed with punk rock eclectic riffs. Picture Rage meets Jane’s Addiction with very funky, raw Police inspired repetitive break downs. Pezz, with their new tape went on to play other venues outside of Mississauga but were always involved and more than willing to help out with the indie shows I was putting on.
Riding on the success of the Orangeville show they started playing more shows with more established Toronto based hip hop artists and other rock acts; all along gaining more and more fans and opening doors for other local acts that were struggling to find an outlet. This was apparent when they played the fourth Jingle Bell Rock show. The headlining act that year was London, ON’s The Gandarvas. When the band came back for a paid encore they were assaulted by the crowd yelling “We want Pezz! We want Pezz!” and were pretty much booed off the stage.
In January of 1995 Pezz went into a proper studio (Signal to Noise) with engineer Dave Tedesco and recorded a proper demo called Dudebox. Pezz revisited two tracks from their first cassette and recorded four new tracks. A year later the band went in and recorded four more tunes live off the floor and re-released this tape. These songs were powerful, thought provoking and rhythmically superior to their first recording, but mostly, different than anything else out at the time. These songs made you move and feel what Pezz were saying. You wanted to jump up and down and stick your fist in the air and shout out loud “Yes! I believe!”
With this release, and with the help of their local following, more and more people started to take notice. Every high school kid in the Mississauga area knew of Pezz and the now legendary shows they were playing. Aspiring young musicians would often come up to the band and let them know that they were the reason for starting their own bands. The fame they were creating never went to their heads and they were never above working hard for every show they played or helped put on. That includes stealing hundreds of used milk crates to build a stage or plastering the streets with fliers designed by Ian or me announcing upcoming shows.
As the years went on the boys found themselves in different head spaces. Now out of high school some went to college and some went to work. Their different career choices never stood in the way of them sticking together and recording the brilliant and even-more-relevant-today self-released album Watoosh!.
With Ian attending Sheridan College for Classical Animation, Jon almost finishing a business degree, Ben between jobs, and Aaron working at Chrysler Canada, they found time to record 12 studio tracks and do it up right this time ’round. With their friend and producer Brad Nelson at Great Big Music, and with Darel Smith at Chemical Studios, Watoosh! was recorded. The songs were polished and they strayed away from their earlier hip hop sounding raw rap-rock. Ben actually started singing, as did Ian, creating unique harmonies accented by the loud rock sound that the band was pumping out. Most songs were catchy and angst-ridden why-did-you-break-up-with-me four minute pop punk anthems. Other songs were sonic builds. Punk rock meets a rave song with high and low points with ebbs and swells full of groovy bouncy bass lines and obscure guitar melodies topped off with a solid and deadly beat. The classic Pezz breakdowns have now found themselves in Billy Talent’s surprising ballistic bridges.
At the time of this recording Pezz was a tough sell and against the grain. They were interested in experimenting with the song going with what felt right even if the songs were six minutes long. Some of the band’s catchiest work is on this album. It was Billy Talent without direction. Every song had its own theme and sound and several musical styles were messed with. Ben’s high Johnny Rotten-esque screams, Ian’s awesome harmonies and crazy inverted guitar riffs, Jon’s rhythmic busy bass lines and Aaron’s impeccable timing and commitment to the back beat all indicated that Pezz was destined for greatness.
Billy Talent has been my favorite band since day two. On that one day in Ian’s basement, on their second practice together as a band, I sat and listened to this new sound coming from these four seemingly innocent young men. I knew then what you know now and I will never forget that day for as long as I live. I am proud to call each member my friend and even more proud to of been a part of their career since its inception back in high school. Back when we wanted to change things but didn’t know how.