On November 25th, 2022, Billy Talent took the stage at The Festhalle in Frankfurt, Germany, a stunning venue with a grim history. At over 100 years old, the neo-baroque style hall, capped by its iconic dome, adds to the sheer scale of the event. Wasting no time with introductions, guitarist Ian D’Sa launches into the riff of “Devil in a Midnight Mass.” From the wings, frontman Benjamin Kowalewicz runs to join the band, yelling out with one of the most distinctive voices in rock music, capturing the audience hook, line, and sinker. A wide-angle view of the crowd makes one thing clear: Billy Talent may just be one of the most celebrated bands in the world.
Being in a band is not for the faint-hearted. It can mean cramming into tour vans for weeks, navigating the roads, and confusing, often predatory, recording contracts. It can also involve fighting your best friends and the anxiety of “going for it” in the music industry. You can count on one hand the number of rock bands who have remained together for three decades without stopping or changing members: U2, Radiohead, and ZZ-Top leap to mind, making it so impressive that the consistent four members of Billy Talent have just crossed the 30-year mark with no sign of stopping or slowing down.
We worked together, slogging it out for close to ten years before anything actually happened.
Benjamin Kowalewicz, Ian D’Sa, Jonathan Gallant, and Aaron Solowoniuk (yes, there is no Billy in the band) first got together in July of 1993 in Streetsville, Ontario — just students at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School. After the awkward phase of testing the waters with band names like The Other One, Zig-Zag, and Grand Theft Tomato, they settled on Pezz, having the foresight to cleverly add an extra “Z” so they wouldn’t get sued. Spoiler: that did not go quite as planned.
In true punk tradition, the band would organize DIY shows at local lodges and halls by scrounging money for deposits to rent spaces from people who had no idea what would happen. Ever the resourceful lot, they used “borrowed” milk crates found behind grocery stores and plywood from housing developments to construct a stage. Those shoddily crafted platforms proved to be a strong foundation, instilling in the band a dedication and work ethic they would maintain throughout their career.
As Pezz, they released a slew of self-recorded demo cassettes and, with the help of some maxed-out credit cards, a full-length album called Watoosh! in 1999. Still, they were nowhere near quitting their day jobs. Then came the Billy Talent EP featuring the song “Try Honesty” and a new band name inspired by a character (Billy Tallent) in the film Hard Core Logo. The band’s sound had evolved into a fierce emotional punk with D’Sa’s clean-toned aggressive guitar playing and Kowalewicz’s unique voice lending to the band’s now unmistakable style. The EP marked a rebirth for the group, and with friend Jen Hirst landing at Warner Canada as an A&R rep, Billy Talent was about to catch a lucky break.
In Canada, it was like we got shot out of a rocket.
The band’s major label career started in 2003 in a much different music landscape than today. To paint a picture of that wild time, Napster had just exploded, CD sales were peaking, labels were willing to invest in bands and take chances, and the explosion of popular Warped Tour emo was just around the corner. “We worked together, slogging it out for close to ten years before anything actually happened,” said Kowalewicz. After years of toiling in obscurity almost overnight, the band was flown around to play for label suits and treated to dinners at swanky restaurants. Soon after, they inked a deal with Atlantic Records, which cut a co-venture agreement with Warner Music Canada and released their first full-length, Billy Talent.
The universe was conspiring in their favor. “In Canada, we were really lucky and fortunate because it was at the time that radio was playing rock music. Multiple stations across the country did, and Much Music was playing us in high rotation,” said Kowalewicz. In another stroke of good fortune, the Canadian content (CanCon) requirement for radio had just increased to 35%. Suddenly, there was more demand for Canadian artists to play on the radio. “In Canada, it was like we got shot out of a rocket.”
Your second album is your big shot. If you write a crappy second album, your career is over.
Despite all their success in The Great White North, Billy Talent had an unusual problem in America where their label neglected to prioritize the band or push singles. Rather than waste time playing in half-sold rooms and small clubs, they chose instead to invest their energy playing in Europe – and their decision would pay dividends. They thrived overseas, particularly in Germany, where they spent time playing every small club imaginable and touring with notable Berliner punks, the Beatsteaks.
Those early tours cemented an organic fanbase. No longer cramped in small clubs, the audience fills the gigantic Festhalle, excitedly celebrating the band’s entire discography and responding with loud cheers when Kowalewicz asks if they are familiar with the band’s second record. “Your second album is your big shot. If you write a crappy second album, your career is over,” said D’Sa. “That kind of drive made me want to make these songs the best they could possibly be and expand the sound of the band.” The appropriately titled Billy Talent II delivered, giving the band some of their biggest singles that still amp the audience up.
By the time Billy Talent III (there is a theme happening) came in 2009, the world had evolved. Sales were plummeting across the spectrum, the music industry was panicking, revenues were falling, and people were concerned with piracy. While smartphones and streaming were not yet omnipresent, there was a feeling of shifting tides. The band made a label hop to Warner in the US, who tapped Brendan O’Brien (Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, AC/DC) to produce the record, helping Billy Talent earn their first charting number one in Canada with “Rusted from the Rain.”
Breaking their naming convention, their fourth album, Dead Silence, dropped in 2012. Streaming had entered the picture, and new mediums presented themselves at a rapid clip. It was the Mumford and Sons era of banjos, mandolins, beards, and pop sensations like Taylor Swift and Adele dominated the charts. Not many rock bands were making waves anymore, but Billy Talent stood out and ignored the noise. Then, In 2016, things in the world took a dark turn, with Brexit creating problems in Europe, the ongoing refugee crisis, a rise in extremist policies, and then Donald Trump. The time was right for angry, aggressive, outspoken art. Afraid of Heights addressed those issues head-on upon its release that year. Sadly, Aaron Solowoniuk did not play drums on the record for the first time due to a multiple sclerosis (MS) relapse.
He’s the most beautifully gentle, wonderful, inspiring person in the world. There’s no one on this planet that could say a bad word about him because it would be impossible.
Solowoniuk was first diagnosed with MS in 1998 when he was 24. However, he managed to keep things under control for a very long time with treatment and maintaining his positivity, refusing to be disheartened by the obstacles. During the recording sessions for Afraid of Heights, he took to social media to let fans know that while work on the album was in progress, he would unfortunately not appear on it. Instead, he needed to step away and focus on his health. Jordan “Ratbeard” Hastings from Canadian post-hardcore greats Alexisonfire was brought in to learn the parts and record the drums, later picking up the sticks on tour.
“He’s the most beautifully gentle, wonderful, inspiring person in the world. There’s no one on this planet that could say a bad word about him because it would be impossible,” says Kowalewicz regarding Solowoniuk. “So now Jordan’s an official member of the band, and Aaron will continue to come out with us, and he’s always part of every decision, every email. We went from four to five. That loss of going down to three? We actually gained someone. That’s the way we look at it.”
Crisis of Faith landed in early 2022, preceded by a handful of singles, including “Forgiveness I + II,” described as “one of the most daring and satisfying creative moves in their decades-long career.” Another album single, “End of Me,” is a more Weezer-sounding song than Weezer has put out in who knows how long and features the chief weeze himself, Rivers Cuomo. It continued the band’s streak of European dominance, debuting at number one in Germany and Switzerland and number two in Austria, making it no wonder Billy Talent chose the Festhalle in Frankfurt to record their live album and companion concert film.
As the night ends at the Festhalle, the crowd erupts during “Viking Death March.” To the credit of the camera operators, they dutifully entered the pit, running in circles, capturing the energy in a way concert films rarely do. You can almost feel the heat and choking humidity amongst an audience that just spent the last hour and a half singing their hearts out. Billy Talent wraps up their marathon set with fan favorite “Red Flag,” a rallying cry from a band of lifers who will continue to carry the proverbial flag just as they have the last 30 years, chanting, “We don’t need them! We don’t need them!”
Devil In A Midnight Mass
I Beg To Differ (This Will Get Better)
Afraid of Heights
Hanging Out With All The Wrong People
Pins and Needles
Rusted From The Rain
Diamond On A Landmine
End of Me
Forgiveness Part 1
Devil On My Shoulder
Viking Death March