BILLY TALENT with ALEXISONFIRE, ATTACK IN BLACK, CANCER BATS, ILLSCARLET and DIE MANNEQUIN at the Molson Amphitheatre (909 Lakeshore West), Friday (July 13), doors 5 pm. $25.50-$45.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Wanna know what it's like being one of Canada's biggest international rock stars?
The clock in the van reads 2 am, and you're bleary-eyed and coming down off the high of watching 30,000 beaming Austrian faces mouth the lyrics to your tunes. In seven hours, you'll be on a plane headed for Toronto.
If you're smart, you'll spend most of that nine-and-a-half-hour flight sleeping, cuz, dude, you'll need your energy to blow the roof off the MuchMusic Video Awards. Yeah, you're one of the main attractions, and it's a live broadcast, so you've gotta be on. Did we mention you're scheduled to go on, like, six hours after that plane touches down?
Try to smile when you win one, two, three MMVAs. Hey! The People's Choice prize - they like you, they really like you! Pose for cellphone snapshots with weeping 14-year-old girls (those pics will be totally rad on Facebook). Don't get too wasted at the after-parties - you wanna be lucid enough to kiss your girlfriend before passing out in your Parkdale pad.
Maybe you'll have time to take your new puppy to Trinity Bellwoods in between interview spots and jamming at the Rehearsal Factory. You should also stock up on clean underwear, cuz you're headed for Bilbao in just over 24 hours and you won't see the CN Tower again for another three weeks.
Welcome to 48 hours in the life of Streetsville-bred alt-rock assault force Billy Talent.
"You know the Gravitron at fall fairs? Where you just spin around and around and when you get off you're like, 'Bleaaaah!'? We're almost at the barf point right now," grins frontman Ben Kowalewicz.
He and his bandmates are using up some of their final minutes on home turf picking at plates of shoestring fries and burgers at Betty's, an east-end hangout near their long-time practice space.
"We're in our 14th month of non-stop touring. We've done Canada and Australia. We did the States three times. We've already tic-tac-toed around Europe five or six times. It's been a freaking whirlwind."
He pauses to sip his iced tea.
"But it's been infinitely better than I ever could've imagined things working out."
He's not the only one blown away by Billy Talent's phenomenal success. Ex-suburbanites Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D'Sa, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk and bassist Jon Gallant have been sweating it out in the Canrock trenches for close to 15 years.
Not that they had anything figured out when they formed the band, formerly dubbed Pezz, in 1993. Back then, the quartet bashed out an awkward mid-90s blend of ska-ish, punk-ish, rap-ish grungy rock.
There was no "scene" to speak of in Streetsville, so the Billy Talent kids - along with similarly now-notable peers like Sebastien Grainger, IllScarlet and members of the Meligrove Band (who had a group called the Fur Merchants) - forged one. They were the first band to book a show at the Masonic Lodge, now a solid all-ages venue.
Hell, these kids were DIY enough to make their own stage when they were sick of playing off the floor.
"We used to go to all the different Dominions and A&Ps and Loblaws stores in the middle of the night and steal milk crates," confesses Kowalewicz. "We'd stash them in Ian's parents' basement."
D'Sa continues, laughing. "At one point there were 320 crates in my basement, built up over the course of three months. It reeked of rotting milk! I had to keep promising my mom they'd be gone in a week. We'd wrap duct tape around all the milk crates, steal drywall from construction sites and put it on top ."
Presto - a stage!
Eventually, the four-piece connected with club bookers in Toronto. By 94, they were "the official cancellation band" for William New's Elvis Mondays series at the El Mocambo ("He'd call us whenever the bigger acts dropped out," explains Kowalewicz), and became one of current El Mo booker Yvonne Matsell's pet opening acts at Ted's Wrecking Yard.
Still, they never became hot shit in the local indie scene.
"Part of that was that we never fit into any particular indie rock scene," offers D'Sa, the thoughtful, quieter counterpoint to Kowalewicz's witty band mouthpiece. "We were always just a rock band, but we had pop sensibilities, and I don't think people knew how to peg us. We didn't get press from any magazines for years."
Then the ferocious charge of Try Honesty - which became Billy Talent's first big hit, recorded for a four-song demo EP - connected with the folks at Warner. The quartet scored a record deal and released their major-label debut in 2003. It went triple platinum in Canada.
D'Sa claims that aggro undercurrent was always just under the surface of the band's sound. After all, they started out covering Rage Against the Machine, with Kowalewicz doing his best Zack de la Rocha impression.
Still, he says, "A lot of the aggression you hear on that first record is the result of being a band for 10 years and not getting any recognition. And after we got all that out, I guess we felt it was okay to show our more melodic side."
Of course, it took them three years - years spent touring their brains out and collecting a crapload of Junos, MMVAs and CASBYs - to get comfortable enough to do so.
While not that far removed from their self-titled Warner debut, Billy Talent II (released last June) is a much more interesting and diverse disc, bubbling over with jangly, propulsive singalongs (Worker Bees), unselfconsciously sweet ballads (Surrender) and one giant tongue in cheek dance-punk fuck-you to indie snobs (Where Is The Line?), which mistakenly started a "rivalry" with T.O. hardcore crew Fucked Up.
That song is not about Fucked Up, insists the band. Nor is it, as Kowalewicz suggested in an interview around the album's release, specifically directed at this publication.
"It's only indirectly about NOW," he claims. "We were independent for 10 years in this city and slugged it out and played every fucking club a million and one times. And especially when we were younger, we looked up to NOW, cuz NOW would do reviews of independent bands, which was great. But we always got slagged.
"Still, it's more that we would walk into bars after we got signed, after things started happening, and people would give us dirty looks and say mean stuff to us. And we'd be like, 'Hey man, we've paid our dues, mothafucker!'"
If you really listen to the construction of the tune, with its cheeky Clap Your Hands Say Yeah-referencing riffs and caustic lyrics, you'll realize it's dead clever and one of Billy Talent's best tracks.
Beyond that, though, the irony of the BT backlash is that, more than any other local international superstars, these guys are fiercely loyal to the Toronto scene. They're at rock shows whenever they're in town. They give back as much as they can - witness drummer Solowoniuk's independently created scholarship campaign for the MS Society, which he dreamed up after being diagnosed with the disease.
And all four band members are genuinely sweet, solid guys. Unpretentious, too. As uncool as it is, Kowalewicz has no qualms about pronouncing Ani DiFranco's Dilate "a great album! That was before she got all, 'I'm gonna tour with Maceo Parker and do happy funk stuff now!'"
And they may be playing to crowds of 85,000 in Germany, but when a server at Betty's begs them for an autograph to impress her new stepson, they're totally stoked.
All they need now is some downtime.
"After this Molson Amphitheatre show and the Festival d'Été in Quebec City, we have our first vacation," enthuses Kowalewicz. "It's the first time we've asked for a month off in years."
Adds D'Sa, "We haven't been able to enjoy the Toronto summer in a long time."
"And Toronto is still the best city on the entire planet," Kowalewicz grins. "No matter where we've gone or what we do, whenever I'm driving on the Gardiner and see the CN Tower, I'm home."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Ben, Ian and Aaron discuss how they avoid becoming total douchebags despite their international rockstar status and the surreal quality of celeb culture.
Aaron talks about the Multiple Sclerosis scholarship fund he founded (for more details, visit Billy Talent's website at www.billytalent.com)
Grant Varney, aka G-Money, the secret "fifth member" of Billy Talent
Fallen Leaves, the video co-directed by guitarist Ian D'Sa that netted them Best Video honours at this year's MMVAs:
Billy Talent performing Red Flag live for thousands at the Rock am Ring festival in Germany
Billy Talent's Ben and Aaron do a video interview at this year's MuchMusic Video Awards:
Sir, could you please take off your hat?
Though frontman Ben Kowalewicz is arguably the face of Billy Talent (and, like Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos, has gritted his teeth while idiots address him as "Billy"), Ian D'Sa's fab flattop makes him the band's most arresting visual trademark.
D'Sa's curious hair has its own network of fans so loyal they've started a website (www.geocities.com/theianarmy) to try to convince as many folks as possible to adopt the soft-spoken savant's gravity-defying do. In addition to step-by-step directions, you can also check out a hilarious gallery featuring fans' fumbling attempts at rockin' the bricklike D'Sa look.
But it's not all fun and games maintaining that style, says D'Sa, whose coif was the result of a rockabilly pompadour gone wrong. "At first people thought I was trying to look like the guy from Kid 'n Play and made fun of me."
Or, like one security guard, refused to believe the do was for real. "It was at an airport in San Francisco, and the guy asked me to remove my hat a few times before he believed it was my real hair. I had to let him feel it a few times before he let me through," says D'Sa. "What a strange sight that must've been."
Q&A with Ian D'Sa, the soft-spoken brains behind Billy Talent
A lot of people might be surprised to find out that you have a background in animation. What's the story?
I went to Ontario College of Art from 94-96 until I heard about the Sheridan College Classical Animation program, so I applied there in 96 and ended up graduating in 99. I worked for a year as a character animator in Montreal on an IMAX feature called Adventures in 3-D, then decided to move back to Toronto in 2000 to focus on the band. I got a job here working on the children's cartoon Angela Anaconda for a while.
I know you shared directing honours with Dean Karr on Billy Talent's Fallen Leaves clip, which won this year's MMVA for Best Video. Is that ? or animation in general ? something you plan to pursue further in the future?
I've always wanted to direct my own short films but as the band got busier i became more interested in songwriting and recording. I'll always love working on the creative concept side of the band's videos with whoever the director is, but right now i'm happy to be on the other side of the camera playing in the band and being in a recording studio.
What other projects do you have on the go? Has co-producing Billy Talent II inspired you to explore any other production projects?
I recently finished producing two new tracks for Die Mannequin, which will be on their upcoming EP Slaughter Daughter; before that, I co-produced a few tracks with Greig Nori for a band he was working with called One Second Too Late. Last year I played guitar (with a number of other Canadian artists) on Song for Africa, which premiered at the AIDS 2006 conference in Toronto. The week after the Amphitheatre show, I'll be travelling to Kenya for 2 weeks with the other artists and the organizers of Song for Africa to be part of a documentary film. We'll be visiting educational compounds run by Free the Children and AIDS clinics provided by CARE Canada. It's going to be life-changing stuff for me.
Do you have any plans for other collaborative ventures?
I enjoy collaborating because it allows you to try new things and also makes you aware of your limits. I tend to let things like that happen organically because then you know you're meant to be there ? you were in the right place at the right time. There are plenty of bands I'd like to work with in the recording studio, though.
How many times have dumbasses mixed you up with Sum 41's Dave Baksh?
Usually it's just random people when I'm out at bars, but it doesn't happen so much anymore since he left the band [Sum 41]. Occasionally a few journalists will mistake me for Dave and ask questions about Sum 41 so I'll pretend to be him and reply to their questions with fake answers until they realise and feel embarrassed. What can I say ? we're both good-lookin' brown dudes who play guitar!