By Keith Sharp
Toronto’s Billy Talent were in a buoyant mood when they entered the recording studio in the spring of 2015 to start work on their latest release, to be titled `Afraid Of Heights’. “We had about 75% of the song structures completed when we took a break to do some summer festival touring,” reported band lead vocalist, Ben Kowalewicz.
But when the band returned to the studio earlier this year to start laying down the tracks, they all noticed something terribly wrong with drummer Aaron Solowaniuk’s playing.
Having battled the debilitating effects of Multiple Sclerosis (M.S) since originally being diagnosed in January 1999, Solowaniuk has spent the past 17 years fighting attacks of numbness, paralysis and loss of vision as he bravely continued to record and tour with the band, self-injecting three times per week to maintain his ability to perform, the mini fridge in the touring van and bus a constant reminder of the tedious regime he had to endure.
It was no secret Solwaniuk had the disease, the band’s first track off their 2003 self titled debut was titled “This Is How It Goes”, which made a direct reference to his condition, and there was always the on-going concern within the band that Solowaniuk’s condition would continue to weaken.
To Solowaniuk’s credit, he knew his playing wasn’t up to standard and was the first to admit “I can’t do this anymore.”, posting a youtube video announcement in January saying he was taking a hiatus from the band..
“It struck us like an upper cut to the jaw,” related Kowalewicz. “Aaron, Ian D’Sa, Jon Gallant and I have been together for over 20 years, to lose Aaron was unthinkable. Our first reaction was that we would suspend the sessions, we would wait as long as it took for Aaron to get better. But unfortunately, with M.S, it can take two weeks, two years or maybe never.”
Solowaniuk was insistant that Billy Talent complete the sessions without him so Jordan Hastings, former drummer with Alexisonfire, and a good friend of the band, was drafted in as a replacement. “All credit to Jordan, it wasn’t easy replacing Aaron but he has all the right nuances and we knew he would fit in right away.”
With a renewed energy, Billy Talent has completed their first studio release since their “Dead Silence” 2012 release which led to more than 20 months of solid global touring, forcing them to release a 2014 “Hits” album just to keep their fanatics fans saited during their prolonged absence from the studio.
“With everthing that is going on in the world right now, not just Aaron’s situation, but Gord Downie’s prognosis, the deaths of Bowie and Prince, Brussels, Orlando and even what happened in Dallas, things are so turbulent and people feel so vulnerable, they are on edge,” noted Kowalewicz. “So we look at ‘Afraid Of Heights’ as a means of escape. Most of the album’s material was written last year but I think the events that have been occuring recently have given the band an added edge and this shows on the record.”
Kowalewicz explained that as D’Sa is writing constantly, some songs tend to get overworked and need to be shelved for awhile before being revisited in the studio. A case in point is “Afraid Of Heights” a track that appears on the record in two forms, a raucious punk rocker, but also with a mid-tempo version that features D’Sa with a piano intro.
[styled_box title=”Billy Talent – Afraid of Heights” color=”black”][/styled_box]
“That track caused us so many initial problems, we had so many configurations and so many different time signatures that we literally overworked the track so we put it aside for a couple of months,” allowed Kowalewicz. “Then as we started to rework it, Ian started playing piano lines and singing a new melody over the chorus and we thought, “so what do we do now?”.
The band played the new version for their peers, they liked both tracks and so it was decided to go old school and include both versions on the record, the melodic version appearing as a reprise.
Shelving material also served Billy Talent well with “Louder Than The DJ”, a punkish throwback to The Ramones which the band intially thought sounded a little out dated.”We were playing stuff for our manager and he loved it so we just updated the lyrics and it seems to work”.
Kowalewicz is aware that their faithful fan suppport still views them as a punk band and constantly ask for the band to return to the punk roots of their 2003 debut. He feels `Afraid Of Heights’ retains the essence of that original sound while still expanding their studio progression.
“Yes there’s punk rock like “Big Red Gun”, “Louder Than The DJ and “Ghost Ship Of The Cannibal Rats” but we also delve into synthesizers on “Horses And Chariots” that kind of has a Depeche Mode feel” allows Kowalewicz. “And then there’s the six-minute “Rabbit Down The Hole” which is kind of our ode to Guns N Roses “November Rain” or Metallica”.
Kowalewicz is complemented when mentioned that “Rabbit Down The Hole” sounds like vintage Iron Maiden and acknowledges that Billy Talent continue to fly Canada’s Rock Music flag.
“I mean we grew up in the Eighties and early Nineties, our role models were the likes of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Rage Against The Machine, sadly these days it’s all rap, R&B and homogenous pop, everything sounds too safe,” explained Kowalewicz. “You watch all the music awards shows and the only rock band which ever apppears are The Foo Fighters. It’s like the show’s producers say to themselves `hey we need a rock band, what’s Dave Grohl doing this week?’
Kowalewicz pays homage to the brilliant job lyricist, guitarist and producer Ian D’Sa has down in creating “Afraid Of Heights” under stressful circumstances. “This record is all about Ian, he wrote it, produced it and pushed us in new directions, he really challenged us on this record.”
‘Afraid Of Heights’ is also available in a deluxe edition which features an additional eight demo versions of featured tracks.
So what’s next for Billy Talent? “Well we are going to cram a whole bunch of people on a bus and take off to tour the world again,” laughs Kowalewicz. And as for Aaron Solowaniuk; “He’s doing everything in his power to get behind the drums again. He is staying positive and he is still an integral part of the band. We are all pulling for him.”