By Vanessa Markov
Long before I ever stepped foot in the Toronto music industry, before even fathoming the idea of penning that first review that has since led to a career in helping young bands discover and develop their potential, I recall the summer when Billy Talent’s breakthrough single “Try Honesty” flooded the airwaves as I drove my first car to and from my first full time job. Whether I liked it or not (I did), Billy Talent has and always will be part of the soundtrack that carried me through the emotional freak show better known as early adulthood.
Fast forward 12 years to June 2016, I’m being rag dolled around a mosh pit during Billy Talent’s set at Amnesia Rockfest, trying very hard (and failing) to protect the foot I twisted earlier that day. I watch my friend get shoved so hard he flies ten feet backward before landing on his ass, only to be picked up within seconds and bear hugged by the very apologetic drunk dude that pushed him in the first place. Memorable as these moments were, what stood out the most about this set (and the festival in general) was when vocalist Ben Kowalewicz stopped between songs to speak to us straight from the heart:
“Take care of each other…Have fun, go nuts, but please just make sure you love and take care of each other.”
With their fifth album Afraid of Heights (now available in Canada) due this year, I jumped at the opportunity to have a chat with Ben, bringing my Rockfest buddy and local musician Corey Mole along for the call. Not only was the now iconic vocalist as conscious and real as he seemed on stage a few weeks prior, he also had some brutally honest advice and insight for musician, fans, and Canadians alike.
Vanessa: Hi Ben! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk – how’s the week treating you?
Ben: I’m having a good week although it’s been a sad, trying week in the world. I’m just trying to process all the illogical things that have been happening. Myself, as a human, I’m doing well but my heart is a little heavy.
Vanessa: Understandably so. Can you share your thoughts on recent tragic events?
Ben: I think we just need to start really changing our philosophy on how we value human life. That goes from all angles and perspectives. These are trying, turbulent times, but I still believe in love and hope and that we can get above this and move forward. It’s easy to comment on, though…if it were my mother or brother or sister or wife, my perspective would obviously be a little skewed. But I still believe in the greater good.
Vanessa: Musicians can have so much power, you influence so many people in so many ways. What can artists do to help in times like these?
Ben: Be there. What I mean by that is just write that song, play that song, and share it. For me, as a kid and now a forty year old man – barf – music is the one art form that transcends everything. It transcends race, sex, religion, geography. Every single culture either celebrates or mourns life with song. There’s just something really special when you sing a song to people and they sing it back to you. That feeling is the most important feeling to me.
I still believe that a rock show can change your life. I firmly believe that. Today, I’m driving up to a little farm where I go to escape the noise, and “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam comes on and it made me remember being 16 and sitting in my friend’s Monte Carlo smoking cigarettes and joints and listening to that song. Now, as a 40 year old man, I revert back to that time because of that song. [Music] becomes like bookmarks in your life.
Vanessa: Absolutely, I can relate to that. I just quickly want to introduce my friend Corey who’s also on the line. I invited him both because he’s a local musician I work with who has some great questions for you, and also because we both just saw you play at Rockfest.
Ben: Oh, hey Corey!
Corey: Hi Ben!
Vanessa: In the middle of your set you stopped to ask the crowd to take care of each other – it was a memorable moment the amidst the festival chaos.
Ben: In those moments, again the way things are shaking up and going down right now, I think people were feeling a little unsettled and confused and I still just believe in those moments when we’re on stage – those moments of feeling bliss and happiness and being present, and sharing the moment with so many people – that’s why I think music is the most beautiful art form on the planet. I meant everything I said, and still do.
Vanessa: Corey has some questions to ask you from a musician’s perspective.
Corey: You have one of the most distinctive voices that I’ve ever heard – and now being a 40 year old that used to smoke cigarettes and joints, how do you maintain your voice, especially during a tour?
Ben: I’ll be honest with you. I know a lot of singers and bands, and everyone has their own way of dealing with their voice. Some people are very precious, some people are very neglectful. I kind of sit in the realm of if I don’t think about it or talk about it, I’m usually fine. It’s when you obsess over it and get weird about it that, I find, you’ll incur problems.
I also think it’s just a matter of being aware of your body and your limitations, and also just realizing that you’re a human being. Some nights, if you can’t do it, you can’t do it y’know? I’ve been lucky enough – knock on every single piece of wood on the planet – that I’ve never really had to cancel a show, although, sometimes I probably should have [laughs]. But yeah, it’s just a matter of being aware that it’s a muscle and, much like being a professional athlete, if you strain that muscle, you need to let it rest. For me, personally, I just take it day by day and night by night and try not to think too much about it.
Vanessa: On the topic of touring, do you have any advice for younger musicians on helping their first tours run smoothly?
Ben: I’d say the most important thing is to get rest when you can. Driving when tired is almost as bad as driving drunk. Be safe. Excepting those things, have as much fucking fun as you can because, really, it’s the best position you can be in, in life. Being able to travel and play songs for people is a dream come true and it’s a privilege and you’ve worked hard to get there. Try to revel in it and enjoy it as much as possible. And just don’t be a dick!
[Laughs all around]
Vanessa: Best advice ever. Don’t be a dick.
Corey: How do you arrange set lists? Do you stick to one predetermined list or change it up as you go along?
Ben: We’re at an interesting point because we’re trying to figure out how long we should play for now and how many songs off the new record we should play. We’re always of the mindset to play what people want to hear. If it was up to us we’d play the whole record every night but people don’t tend to like that. I’ve gone and seen some bands where they play ten new songs then that song you know, then play five more new songs…it’s like, fuck off! [laughing] I don’t wanna hear all of that, I wanna sing the songs that I know! People spend their hard earned money to see you perform – you make sure that they walk away satisfied and happy.
Corey: What’s it like having a band member also acting as your producer? Does it cause any conflict?
Ben: In our band, absolutely not. Ian is the main songwriter of the band and more so on this record. He’s a machine with his writing and his guitar playing is fucking phenomenal. It feels very natural for us as a band to watch Ian progress into this role. Sometimes it’s great to work with producers outside the band, and we’ve had the privilege of working with guys like Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Rage, Springsteen) and then a guy like Gavin Brown who was instrumental in our development as a band – getting that perspective really adds to the songs.
But where we’re at with our band and how long we’ve been together and the technology that’s available, it makes sense for Ian to do it because when he’s writing the song, in its inception, he has a mental note of how he wants to document it and how he wants it to sound. So from the very beginning to the very end, it’s a vision, so it only makes sense logically for him to document it.
Vanessa: In the years I’ve worked with new bands, I find their kryptonite to be the inability to resolve conflict early on, causing them to break up before they ever get a chance. How has Billy Talent handled conflict in the past?
Ben: A lot of times musicians tend to develop a sense of ego, and I mean that in more of a Freudian way, where you get blinded by your own goals and are no longer part of a thing – you are you. I think with our band, and all the bands we ever looked up to and respected, we are actual bands. Every single member’s opinion counts, there’s no hierarchy, there’s no “well I’m the singer so this is how it goes!” – that never happens because it’s illogical.
That’s the first part of it, and the second part of it would be just like any relationship, whether it be with a significant other or family or friends, any good relationship that actually has substance or quality is built on the development of communication, respect, listening, and sometimes putting your own ego aside for the greater good. Even though you may feel very strongly or adamant, it’s a democracy and if three people think otherwise maybe there’s truth to that. I’ve been very fortunate to be in a band where all the members are very moral, ethical, grounded individuals. Our moral and political centers align. It’s a matter of respect, patience, and knowing that you’re not always going to be right. You’ll also learn more by hearing other people instead of just your own voice.
Vanessa: Many of the successful bands I meet share this sentiment, unsurprisingly. It’s a great insight to pass on to young artists who are misguided by the glitter.
Ben: Well the glitter doesn’t exist anymore. I’d rather be a band that tours and plays for 20 years as opposed to being the new band with the big hit that lasts 45 seconds and is gone. The one thing I can definitely say is make sure you find like-minded individuals that have the same goals and aspirations because what I’ve found over the years are situations where, say, three guys in the band want to go on tour and do this and be successful, and the other guy is like, ”well my girlfriend doesn’t want me to be away for the long weekend so I’m out of the band” …it’s like, okay, you’ve invested all this time and now you’re missing a limb. Finding like-minded people that have the same goals and drive is essential.
Corey: Can you share any other general advice for new bands?
Ben: I would revert to everything I just said. Also, practice. If you’re a guitar player and you can’t play anymore, play for another 3 hours. If you’re a drummer and you can’t hit the drums anymore, play for another 2 hours. The more you hone your craft, the better you become. The better musician you become, the better chances you have.
Vanessa: Thank you so much, Ben. Your insight is invaluable. Before we go, what can you tell us about Afraid of Heights?
Ben: I will say that we’re all very, very proud of it. It took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and laughs as well – but I will say this – if you’re a fan of Billy Talent you’ll love the record; if you’re not a fan of Billy Talent, you actually still may love the record. I’ll leave it at that.