Billy Talent Are More Relevant Than Ever
"It's really important, now more than ever, to know that you're not alone ... Even if it's for just three and a half minutes," says Ben Kowalewicz
Published Jan 21, 2022There are few Canadian bands better positioned to meet this moment than Billy Talent.
Throughout a career of nearly 30 years, the Toronto rockers have maintained a consistent track record of political outspokenness and civic engagement. In their music, performances and public presence, Billy Talent have regularly railed against systems of oppression and injustice, agents of hatred and division, and abusers of power and influence. They've used their voices to help enact positive change in their communities and around the world, whether that's by advocating for political action, fundraising for worthy causes, or just spreading a message of kindness and inclusivity. That's only become truer over the years, as they've risen from local heroes to international rock stars.
Now, so much has happened since the band released their last album, 2016's Afraid of Heights, that it can feel overwhelming. Donald Trump. The refugee crisis. Brexit. The George Floyd protests. Fascist movements, white supremacist rallies, mass shootings and terrorist attacks. An ongoing climate crisis. A world-changing pandemic. And they're responding by doing what they've always done: writing about it.
"We have gotten to this point where things look like they're heading backwards," guitarist Ian D'Sa tells Exclaim! "Is this the point where we're questioning what we're doing as humans?"
Billy Talent's new album is the product of nearly six years of pent-up anger and frustration over what they're seeing in the world, in their communities and in their lives. There's always been a social consciousness to their music, but now it feels especially heightened and sharply directed. The title itself — Crisis of Faith — conveys a feeling of desperation, verging on outright despair for humanity.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Far from it. Crisis of Faith is about making the world a better place — not only with righteous anger and indignation, but also with love and compassion.
"Every song is reaching into the ether of what's happening at the moment, pulling it down and letting it back up," says vocalist Ben Kowalewicz. "It's easy to say 'This sucks!' or 'Fuck it!' But the one thing that is innate in [these songs] is that there's always an element of hope."
Look no further than the album's first two singles for those ostensibly competing attitudes working in tandem. "I know that something has to change / We got lost along the way / Your thoughts and prayers can't fix the pain / 'Cause we're falling down again," Kowalewicz sings on "Reckless Paradise," biting off the words and spitting them out in his uniquely piercing voice. The band released the song in January 2020, just before things suddenly got a whole lot worse. A few months later, soon after COVID-19 forced Canada into lockdown, they released "I Beg to Differ (This Will Get Better)," which has a more optimistic message: "When you feel so lost, that you don't belong / Well I beg to differ / As time goes on, this will get better."
So while Billy Talent are as angry and frustrated as they've ever been, they're just as unrelenting in their messages of hope, love and compassion. For them, it's the only way out.
"There's catharsis when you're listening to something and you're feeling pissed off and you think, 'I understand that. I relate to that,'" Kowalewicz says. "But the flip side to that is when there's an element of hope or an element of love. Sometimes, people need to hear that as well. It's really important, now more than ever, to know that you're not alone and to know that we are all connected to this thread of just how turbulent and crazy a time it is. Even if it's for just three and a half minutes, we're all looking for an escape."
In both its lyrical perspective and musical diversity, Crisis of Faith represents today's version of Billy Talent — as musicians and as human beings — who are shaped by experience and maturity but still have the fire of a group of young punks with something to say.
"It's about finding the honesty and the realness, and writing about it," says D'Sa. "There's a pandemic, a climate crisis, and all of these things happening, and they need a voice."
This is a philosophy that Billy Talent have been building upon for years. While it may have been eclipsed by the visceral energy of their music and obscured by the allegorical style of their lyrics, the group's sociopolitical stances have always been pretty out in the open. There were hints of it in their self-titled debut in 2003 with the anti-bullying warning of "Nothing to Lose" and the anti-Bush anthem "Voices of Violence," but Billy Talent really made their feelings about the world known with Billy Talent II, released in 2006. That album's big singles took aim at sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ("Devil in a Midnight Mass"), drew attention to the growing opioid epidemic ("Fallen Leaves") and advocated for a youth-led socialist revolution ("Red Flag"). From there, the band continued to regularly write music about power and politics, about class and inequality, about life and death.
On Crisis of Faith, there's plenty more where that came from. On "Judged," they spit their rage at racists, queerphobes, anti-abortionists and any other hateful bigots in a 99-second burst of incendiary punk. In "Reactor," they sing about the inevitability of revolt against oppressive systems in a way that strongly evokes 2020's widespread protests against police brutality. In "One Less Problem," they lament a seemingly endless deluge of bad stuff that just keeps mounting up: "So many people / So little progress / And all I wish for is one less problem."
Behind the scenes, the band have put their money where their mouths are, using their growing public profile to expand their political and philanthropic presence.
One of their key initiatives is the Billy Talent Charity Trust, the band's fundraising arm that has distributed money to MusiCounts, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada, War Child, Kids Help Phone and other charitable organizations. It's headed by their former drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, who took a step back from the band shortly before 2016's Afraid of Heights due to a multiple sclerosis relapse. (Solowoniuk remains entirely involved in Billy Talent's operations, though — he's in every studio session, every phone call and every email, and he occasionally joins them for a song or two during live shows.)
In recent years, the band have used their voice and reach for a number of matters they deem important. They've criticized Ontario's cuts to arts funding and put pressure on record labels and streaming services to provide better financial support to musicians. They've spoken out against Toronto's encampment evictions, expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and the Every Child Matters initiative for Indigenous reconciliation, encouraged people to help with the recovery efforts from British Columbia's floods and wildfires, and defended women's reproductive rights. They've consistently urged people to help those around them and to ask for help when they need it.
"I'm not going to speak on behalf of the entire world, but I will say that this is arguably the hardest couple of years that we've ever had to endure," Kowalewicz says. "The thing that I'm finding the most rewarding is compassion, empathy, love and understanding. It's okay to feel shitty, to cry, to be depressed, to go dark — but also to ask for help. I've had my own dealings with losing the plot. I rely on my friends and my bandmates to help pull me out of it. And I try to do the same when I'm feeling a little stronger. Community is really important."
These are warm words from a band who have dealt with their share of haters and weren't exactly welcomed into a music community they felt like they could call their own. Early on, they were mocked or dismissed by plenty of critics, scenesters and even other musicians. People would talk shit — to their faces or behind their backs — or sometimes even go to more extreme lengths to taunt them, like throwing batteries at the band while they played.
"We were never part of a scene," says Kowalewicz. "We were never accepted into anything. We just did whatever we wanted."
D'Sa adds, "I think we were rejected from more scenes than we were a part of. We tried to fit in with so many different scenes in the early days, and we were always the odd duck. Over the years we just embraced that. We're this weird, different band."
Betting on themselves has paid off. Every album since their 2003 debut has topped Billboard's Canadian albums chart and reached the Top 10 on the Heatseekers list. (Their last two albums also reached No. 1 in Germany, the band's European stronghold.) They've had huge singles like "Rusted from the Rain" and "Afraid of Heights," each of them spending multiple weeks at the top of the Canadian rock chart.
Crisis of Faith is poised to perform just as strongly. It has yielded the most No. 1 singles on the Canadian rock chart of any of their albums. At the time of writing, "End of Me" had spent 10 weeks at the top, the most of any of their singles.
By these measures, Billy Talent are as popular as ever, and maybe more so.
"How the fuck does that happen?" says Kowalewicz. "The appreciation and the gratitude is overwhelming. We're just so hopeful and so thankful to so many people for still caring and believing in what we do this many years. It's special, and it's not taken for granted."
Despite all of their accomplishments and enduring success, Billy Talent say they still feel like the ugly ducklings who never really fit in. Not that it matters to them — or ever mattered. "As long as people are still listening," D'Sa says, "that'll keep us strong."
Having the trust of the fans has also been creatively liberating. Not only is Crisis of Faith one of Billy Talent's most lyrically scathing records, it's also their most musically diverse effort since they were first figuring out a sound under the name Pezz in the '90s. By now, the band's musical identity is so firmly established and instantly recognizable that they can go exploring in all sorts of directions without losing their way. Crisis of Faith feels like a rock 'n' roll journey through the ages: there are elements of '70s soft rock, '80s punk, '90s indie rock and modern alt-rock. If you want, you can draw comparisons to Rush on "Forgiveness I + II," Black Flag on "Judged," Fleetwood Mac on "For You," Journey on "One Less Problem," and Weezer on "End of Me" (and not only because Weezer's Rivers Cuomo sings on the track). But they always sound undeniably like Billy Talent.
With pandemic restrictions forcing them to pause most of their plans, the band — rounded out by longtime bassist Jon Gallant and permanent fill-in drummer Jordan Hastings of Alexisonfire — spent a year and a half going over these songs, making revisions, adding layers, working on the lyrics, coming up with new ideas. It was the longest they had ever spent on a record.
Guitarist Ian D'Sa served as producer for a third time, following his work on Afraid of Heights and 2012's Dead Silence. "I've definitely settled into a groove," he says. "I have more of a process than I did on Dead Silence. This record felt comfortable to make, and I felt confident going in and trying out new things."
There are quite a few new things. "End of Me" is the first Billy Talent song to feature a guest vocalist. "The Wolf" features an eight-piece string orchestra that was recorded in Nashville, conducted by David Campbell in Los Angeles, and remotely monitored by D'Sa and engineer Eric Ratz in Toronto. "Forgiveness I + II" is easily the band's most ambitious undertaking: a two-part, nearly seven-minute prog rock epic that combines D'Sa's big, punchy rock riffs with a mystical soundscape shaped by synths, brass and a sax solo. Just as daring as the song itself is the decision to make it the album's opener. "I don't think we would have ever done something like that before," D'Sa says. "But it works. It just felt right."
Now, almost three years after starting to work on Crisis of Faith and six years after releasing Afraid of Heights, the band look back at the lengthy road to this long-awaited release with humour and acceptance. When they talk about their bad luck over the past couple of years — a delayed album, cancelled shows, a temporarily abandoned video project — it tends to be with aw-shucks modesty and a self-effacing chuckle.
"We hoped that we would put the record out at the beginning of a new year, a new chapter," says Kowalewicz. "'This [pandemic] will hopefully be behind us, we'll be able to play shows, the world will rejoice.' Or… it'll be the worst it's ever been. Fuck!" With the album arriving in the midst of Ontario's overwhelming fifth wave of COVID-19, all he can do is laugh it off.
But their demeanour changes when the conversation moves away from themselves and into the real-life consequences of everything that's happening. This is a group of guys who have dedicated their entire lives to making music in a rock band, but who readily admit that, in the grand scheme of things, a rock band is of relatively little consequence.
"When you look at what's going on now with frontline workers, it makes me feel small," says D'Sa. "What I do for a living is tiny compared to what they do."
Meanwhile, significant events in the band members' personal lives have changed the way they look at the world. Kowalewicz became a father. D'Sa lost his mother. They couldn't tour for the better part of two years.
And then there's all that other stuff.
"A lot has happened," says Kowalewicz. "A lot has changed on the planet and for us as individuals. As you grow, and you get some miles behind you, and you overcome certain adversities and struggles … you tend to see things a little bit more compassionately."
That makes its way into a song like "I Beg to Differ," which is effectively a spiritual sequel to first-album single "Nothing to Lose." While that song told a story from the point of view of a teenager feeling depressed and suicidal, this reprise flips the script, taking the perspective of an older, parental figure offering reassurance. That sentiment returns most unmistakably at the very end of the album: "One Less Problem" is bursting with resilience, while "For You" is brimming with love, care and support. Crisis of Faith is about struggle, but it ends in joy.
"We still have a lot of that fire and anger, but it's directed in a more pointed way," Kowalewicz reflects. "I've been trying to be a better friend, a better bandmate, a better husband, a better father. I'm trying to just work on myself to become a better person. If you can do that within your own household, and then within your group of friends, and then within your workplace, and then within your larger community, if you can try to always add to something as opposed to subtracting, then I think you're doing your job."