Billy Talent Released A Greatest Hits Album And We Asked Them Why
We spoke to the frontman of one of Canada's biggest loud rock bands about being huge in Germany and his moment with David Bowie.
Billy Talent have released a career-spanning album called Hits. That's right, let that sink in for a minute. It was 11 years ago that the Mississauga band previously known as Pezz appeared out of nowhere with their debut single, “Try Honesty”. MuchMusic along with local hard rock and alternative radio jumped all over the song and made it inescapable. I remember at the time, some people joked that Billy Talent were like a Refused Jr.; the hardcore influence was obviously there in the strident screaming vocals and the sharp-edged ruptures, not to mention their frontman Benjamin Kowalewicz suggestively emulating the spastic movements of Dennis Lyxzén. But after that song Billy Talent kept the hits coming, growing and growing to the point where they were Canada’s biggest hard rock band.
Hits might seem premature for a band that is currently still making them, but since when does that stop an artist? Britney Spears has at least three legitimate “hits” comps. Eminem released Curtain Call: The Hits in 2005, when he was still the biggest-selling artist on the planet. And when Foo Fighters released Greatest Hits in 2009, even Dave Grohl wrote it off as “premature.” Kowalewicz wrote on the band’s page that Hits is a “celebration of the songs” and an opportunity to “hopefully to make new fans.” But really, the purpose of Hits is to show that this band has had 12 of them, and potentially even two more. Why not brag a little?
Noisey: You said on your website that the band isn’t breaking up, you’re just releasing a greatest hits. Why now?
Benjamin Kowalewicz: Good question. There was some talk about it and we were mulling over the idea. And then we came to the conclusion that for us to release this it would be a nice benchmark. We were putting our flag in the ground, saying what we’ve accomplished over our career this far. And I think it’s a nice stepping stone to the next chapter. The more we talked about it, and we recorded two new songs for the record, and our photographer we’ve worked with for ten years, Dustin Rabin, shot and directed a really cool live DVD from Toronto and Montreal, put that together, and we’re also releasing a book of his prints and the packaging is just so bad-ass. So I think it’s just a really nice package for our fans.
Does it make you feel old at all that Billy Talent has a greatest hits album?
Y’know, I think I can honestly tell that since we first started talking about this and talking to our fans, is that it’s hard to quantify and articulate it properly, but we’re just so fortunate and so happy, and have such an interesting and dynamic 11 years since releasing our first song and going on tours. It’s been really nice for the four of us to sit around and talk about the songs and where we’re at, and the different opportunities that have come our way. It doesn’t make me feel old, it makes me feel happy and proud to have been so fortunate thus far.
From a critical perspective, greatest hits often get a bad rap. What greatest hits collection would you defend most?
That’s a good question. I would say Led Zeppelin, but they seem to do something like that every six months. The Steve Miller Band album with the blue horse head is a perfect example. That is the only Steve Miller album that I’ve ever purchased. And I was just up at my farm this weekend drinking wine with my friends, and I put on that record and everyone started singing. You can’t help but sing. I’ll be honest with you, sometimes we get people coming up to us and say, “Hey! You’re that guy in that band! I used to love you guys!” But we’re still together, we’re still playing. So I think it’s a nice way to re-connect with old fans we may have lost along the way. And I think the two new songs we put on there are good indicators of where we’re at and where we’re going. It just feels like the right time. But I understand why some people might have some reservations about putting out a “hits” album. For us though it just feels right.
When you look back at the band’s history, what is the craziest memory that stands out the most?
I think for me, personally, I’m such a huge music fan, having a chance to play top-notch festivals around the world, especially in the UK and Europe, just sharing the stage with bands that we either respect or idolize. Like I got to hang out and meet Eddie Vedder, who gave me a hug and said nice things. Or Dave Grohl coming into our dressing room and having beers. Just things like that, even if I tried to project my wildest dreams I never thought that would happen. And also I grew up on the other side of the tracks, so I never had money to travel, so to get to see the world and see these beautiful places and their architecture, food, and the nightlife, that’s also been something worth its weight in gold.
I always hear how big Billy Talent is in Germany. How insane are the fans in that country?
I could talk to you about this for like ten minutes, but I think to boil it down, we started there, like our very first record, our very first tour we playing Reading and Leeds in the UK and then went right to Hamburg. And it started snowballing into this thing, which made us pay attention to Germany. Then they started paying more attention to us. And it grew and escalated into this weird love affair that has been very healthy and lively for a decade. I just think that rock music there still holds true and resonates with people. When we get on stage and play festivals like Rock Am Ring, where there are 100,000 people in front of you all going off. There is something very special about our relationship with Germany and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
In your early days when you were called Pezz, did the candy company ever threaten to sue you guys?
No, because we thought we were so clever to add an extra "z" to the end of the name. But unbeknownst to us, prior to the internet, we found out quickly that there was another band with the same name, I think from Memphis, and they sent us this kind letter that read, “Hey, we had this name first so you have to stop.” And we said “okay.” Then in a rare twist of fate I ended up seeing the film HardCore Logo, and Callum Keith Rennie’s character is named Billy Talent. My favourite band is Jane’s Addiction, and I just love having a name, and it kinda stuck so we never looked back.
I saw Billy Talent play an early show at the Molson Amphitheatre as part of Moby’s Area2 festival in 2002. I heard you had a moment with David Bowie, the headliner.
No way! That’s very good because no one has ever asked me about that. A weird story is that I used to work at a radio station called The Edge, CFNY, and I was asked at the time to go with music director Kneale Mann who was going to interview David Bowie at the Sutton Place Hotel. He is one of my all-time favourites. So we were in this interview and I sat like a quiet little peach, and we ended up finding out that day that Busta Rhymes couldn’t get over the border. And at the time we weren’t signed, but we had started meeting people and for some reason they asked us to fill in for Busta Rhymes and play. And we were like, “100 percent!” So I remember sitting there with Bowie, and after the interview had ended there was an awkward silent moment. And I said, “By the way, I’m in a band and we’re actually going to share the stage with you tomorrow.” And he said, “No way!” I told him if he’s bored he should come down and check us out. And sure enough a couple songs into our set I look over and there was David Bowie standing at the side with his arms crossed smiling at me and giving me the thumbs up. Which to this day is another one of those highlights we were talking about. And, funny enough, I still have his autograph sitting beside my bed. I actually saw it yesterday and was like, “Oh my god!” That’s a very weird, cosmic thing. I can tell you from the little time I spent with him that he’s everything you’d want him to be. So down to earth and such a gentleman.
I never saw the episode, but you appeared on Designer Guys a few years back and had your house made over. What was that experience like?
You’re like Nardwuar! You know some weird shit. It was great. The whole thing behind that was that one of the Designer Guys was a dear friend of mine named Anwar [Mukhayesh]. We were talking about doing something on the house and then over drinks, and he said something they were working on fell through and they called us. It was great, a fun experience. But I don’t think I’d ever do anything televised in my personal life like that again, but it was a great experience.
Did you change the house afterwards?
No. I’m pleased with the job they did. [Laughs] I’ve been in the same house for nine years.
Cam Lindsay is huge in Germany - @yasdnilmac