With Ben Kowalewicz Taken From Black Velvet 39 - Feb 2004)
at the floor, positioning a microphone I notice the word 'Bleed' stuck
to one of Benjamin Kowalewicz's bright pink Converse All Stars, the
classic shoes standing out vividly among the rest of his apparel. By
the end of the interview I'm still no clearer as to why it's stuck there.
A conversation about shoes was hardly how I intended to begin my interview
with BILLY TALENT's vocalist however it soon shifts to the subject of
Kowalewicz's hometown, Toronto, in Canada. It's a fair comment that
Canadian musical exports have in the past been viewed with a certain
degree of scrutiny since Bryan Adams and Celine Dion were imposed on
the rest of the world. In recent years however things have been changing.
"Mainstream adult contemporary marketing is very alive and well
in our country," admits Kowalewicz. "But," he is keen
to point out, "there is a lot of amazing bands that are coming
out of Canada. Hot Hot Heat are doing something really cool. I'm proud
to let them represent us." Death From Above and From Fiction, described
by Kowalewicz's as "crazy math rock," are just two bands he
names, reassuring us that there is further material being exported that
is worthy of investigation.
Talent are a relatively new name in the UK. It will probably come as
a surprise to learn they have been together for over 11 years. Together
since high school in battle of the bands competitions they played for
a number of years under the name Pezz, before changing to Billy Talent,
a name inspired by a character in the 1996 film, Hard Core Logo.
"We released four tapes, remember those, and did an independent
full length album under the name Pezz," explains Kowalewicz. "Under
Billy Talent we released a four track independent EP thing as well."
A fair, if somewhat bizarre comparison Billy Talent make is likening
themselves to an episode of Seinfeld, the hugely successful sitcom staring
"We just have an obsessive compulsive, overly neurotic sense about
us," explains Kowalewicz. "We just have a really unique way
of dealing with situations with the four of us. We manage to get ourselves
into so many stupid situations that could be easily avoided," he
adds, choosing not to reveal any further details.
only having played together for 11 years the band have, until now, never
had a record contract. Jumping directly into the depths of a major label
with Atlantic Records was certainly an experience for them. "We're
learning," jokes Kowalewicz. "It's different, but we're comfortable.
Everyone, including myself, thinks of major labels as these big, evil,
faceless and mindless corporations. But now every single label from
indie to major has just been hacked and slashed because no one is buying
albums or music anymore so they had to let a lot of people go. I've
got a lot of friends in the industry that have been fired. Trying to
humanise the industry is what I've been trying to do. These are people
and everyone at Atlantic so far has been fine. When making the album
no one was coming in suggesting stuff to us, all the artwork and music
we got to do ourselves. Any decision making was okayed through us. The
thing the major label basically gave to us was the ability to have CDs
clear from listening to Billy Talent that what they're doing is not
original, they are in essence a punk rock band. However there is a degree
of freshness to their sound that is lacking from the music scene. The
band have taken a tried and tested formula, tweaked it, thrown in an
element of Seinfeld and created an excellent product.
"When you're playing with people it is the dynamic between the
people you're creating with. You could get someone to come and play
in the band but it wouldn't be the four of us," Kowalewicz attempts
to explain. He continues acknowledging that the band are not attempting
to reinvent the wheel. "We're a rock and roll band. It's one those
things with us."
In their 11 years together, Kowalewicz is quick to recall some of his
most memorable moments in Billy Talent. The band supported the Buzzcocks
on their American tour and have recently played with Jane's Addiction,
a band Kowalewicz grew up loving and respecting. "I'm not really
impressed with their new album," he argues. "I think it's
dated. The reason I liked Jane's was for the energy that came off their
albums. The new one I find very polished."
lot of Kowalewicz's lyrics come from listening to different people's
experiences and points of view, venting their frustrations through himself.
The track 'Standing In The Rain' for example tells the story of a heroin-addicted
"It's weird. I meet a lot of people; that's the beauty of this
job," he begins. "I get to hear so many stories and people's
points of view on things I might have never thought of. You meet people
you can relate with and people that have lived through things I could
never imagine. A lot of the time I like writing in third person but
from the first person view, if that makes sense."
This manifests itself throughout their debut album, in many sombre ways,
revealed when Kowalewicz begins talking about the track 'Nothing To
Lose.' "I wrote it when I was reading a newspaper on tour,"
he explains. "There's a town near where I'm from and there was
a boy being teased at school because he had really bad acne. One kid
said 'why don't you go home and kill yourself?' That day he went home
and hung himself at lunchtime. I realised there's more to life than
high school, so I wrote a song from his point of view."
It's difficult knowing where to continue when someone has just recited
an event like that to you.
eventually returns to the band and to D'Sa, and his talent besides that
of guitarist as an animator. "You know that makes me mad,"
laughs Kowalewicz. "God pisses me off sometimes," he adds.
"He gave this one kid so much talent it's ridiculous. It's unbelievable
how talented he is. Ian does all our artwork. He graduated at the top
of his class at background design. We wanted to go with a very cold,
Russian, almost Communist look. We went almost opposite. I went to Cuba
then we decided to do like a Cuban revolutionary flag, which is what
the cover is about."
Cuba was "absolutely unbelievably amazing," Kowalewicz exclaims
excitedly. "The musicians on street corners are unreal. There's
no Americanism, no McDonalds or Burger Kings, no Kentucky fucking Fried
Chicken. It's just how it was left in 1953."
Conversation shifts back to Russia and how Americanisation is gradually
creeping into the former Soviet country. An abundance of McDonalds and
other American corporations are already firmly routed in Moscow. Kowalewicz
reveals it's the next place he wants to visit. "The plague is setting
in," he jokes, referring to America.
Returning to Billy Talent Kowalewicz begins talking about his aspirations
for the band.
"The most important thing is simply playing. We'll live, breathe
and die by playing," he states. "It's the best thing in the
world. It's been a pretty crazy 15 months." After 11 years in the
underground Billy Talent are finally making their presence known and
enjoying it. "Enjoying to the absolute fucking fullest, which is
the only way you should be," Kowalewicz concludes.
Billy Talent's self-titled debut album is out now on Atlantic Records.
Visit www.billytalent.com for more
Billy Talent are on the cover of issue 49 of Black Velvet with an interview with Ben inside.
An interview with Ben is also in issue 61 of Black Velvet
Order these back issues from www.blackvelvetmagazine.com/backissues.htm