Billy Talent Frontman Talks 'Giddy' Guns N' Roses Opening Slot, Gives Update on Drummer's MS Battle

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Billy Talent at their east Toronto rehearsal space as they prepare for a summer tour. 

Canadian rock band Billy Talent, named after a character in the punk novel and film Hard Core Logo, built its way to arena status in Canada by putting on consistently killer live shows, starting in small venues like Toronto’s Horseshoe and the Bovine.

Frontman Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk and bassist Jon Gallant -- all childhood friends -- are notoriously nice guys, although onstage Kowalewicz is an intense mother, bounding around like an uncaged animal and pausing between songs to give commentary on how we should love each other or talk about social causes.

The band is currently touring behind its fifth album, Afraid of Heights, out on The End Records in the U.S. Unfortunately, drummer Solowoniuk is temporarily sitting out the dates because of his multiple sclerosis, which he’s had since his teens, while Alexisonfire’s Jordan Hastings fills in.

Billboard spoke with Kowalewicz about opening for Guns N’ Roses, being on the same page lyrically and how Aaron is doing.

You opened up for Guns N’ Roses at one of Canada’s biggest venue, Rogers Centre, in front of a sold out crowd of 50,000 in your hometown and you look like you belonged up there.
Thank you. What a wonderful night, huh?  It was magical. That’s the only way I can describe it. It is definitely one that I will not forget any time soon. Four lads being from Mississauga and playing SkyDome [its former name] is obviously a dream come true, literally a dream come true.

How do you prepare to play a venue that’s so huge and reach those people in the 500 level?
We’ve had the fortune of playing big festivals across Europe with 80-to-110,000 people. So we have played in front of big crowds. It’s a different when it’s a dome because they’re everywhere, as high as you look and as close as you can get, right in front of the stage. We just got up there and did our thing. We turn it up loud and have fun.

You’ve obviously attended shows and baseball games there.
I go to [Toronto Blue] Jays games as regularly as I can. I’m a huge Jays fan. One of the great things about the evening was our dressing room was in the away team’s dugout behind us, so we got to sit in the dugout and drink beer and watch GNR play. I was just giddy.

Did you get to meet them?
No. We had a chance to hang out with Duff [McKagan] quite a few times. We did some touring with his band in Australia as part of this festival and we did our own show in Sydney and he was like, "Can I come to your show?" "Yes, you can." He came to the show and we hung out with him. He’s an absolute gentleman and such a lovely, lovely dude. He seems to really enjoy the band. A little daunting when you’re singing and you’re looking at the front of house board and there’s Duff standing there. I am assuming somewhere down the line, that’s how we maybe got the call. I haven’t spoken to him about it. But I think he might have influenced the powers that be to get us put us on the bill. I was just sitting in my hotel room one day and I got the email that said they wanted us to play and there was a lot of fist-pumping and high-fiving going on.

A lot has happened in the world since you released your last album  [2012’s Dead Silence] -- gay marriage was legalized in the States; Trump is a presidential nominee; the rise of ISIS; death of Bowie, Prince and Lemmy.  That’s a lot of fodder for someone like you. 
Not just for me. For everyone.  It’s been a very turbulent, trying, sad, tragic year, and needless to say, every time you turn on your computer or flip on the TV, there’s some awful thing happening somewhere. This record, Ian, more so than before, is the main songwriter in the band and he definitely took a lot of the charge for the lyrics. He produced the record as well. So this is definitely his brainchild and I’m also very proud of him, I should also note. 

When we started working on putting the lyrics together, he already had a lot of ideas sketched out.  It’s definitely has a lot of tough topics we address on the record, but the one thing we feel that we’ve accomplished on the record, we discuss a lot of these horrible, awful things that happen, but at the end of the day I think the record represents that there’s still hope, and that we’re like-minded people and together in this, and with love and compassion and tolerance and empathy and the beliefs in the greater good that we’re going to get through all this stuff and come out the other side as better versions of people we were before.  

It’s really hard because I feel right now that everyone’s scared. There’s just fear. There’s this rampant fear that is running through every culture and geographically, no matter where we’re at, and having spent time in Europe and talking to these people, there’s this fear. And throughout history, when fear is your main modus operandi, that’s when things go really wrong really quickly. But on the flip side of that, I also think things can improve just as quickly. We’re all just passengers riding on this planet together. We just try to have fun and we believe that music is a very cathartic thing and so we hope enjoy the tunes. I think it’s the best sounding and the best songs that we’ve written in a really long time so we hope people dig it.

Obviously, you are life-long friends and probably the main reason is you all views these issues similarly, which is important if you have to sing songs and Ian is writing the bulk of them. 
It’s true. We’re all morally aligned. We hold the same values. We believe in the same things. So when there are songs with some heavy subject matter, it’s not just me and Ian; we talk about it with the band. It’s very transparent.

Aaron has to sit out of the band right now because of his MS and that news delayed the recording a bit.
There were some time things that were affected, obviously due to Aaron’s situation. That was the reason we pushed the recording back, and then we started in January. I don’t know if that was the best idea or one that we’ll do again. It’s a hard month to start recording. You have the new year and the weather is shit and we were going in to the studio without Aaron so it was strange. There were just a lot of oddities and it ended up smoothing itself out over time, but it was a hard month. I don’t think we’ll do that again. But the best thing about this record and the many great things is that we got to record the whole thing in Toronto for the first time. That was really special to be able to go home and sleep in our own beds and go to our studio where there were no time constraints. We could work as much or as hard or as little as we wanted.

How is Aaron? Did he see you play with Guns? 
Yes he was there.  He has a team of people who are working with him whose goal is to get him back on the drums; he’s feeling inspired and optimistic again and he believes that he can do this and we believe that he can do this as well.