Ian D’Sa, guitarist with Billy Talent (seen here on the right), chats with Kevin Cooper about the band’s name, playing Download, their new album Afraid Of Heights and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Billy Talent is a Canadian rock band from Mississauga, Ontario. They formed in 1993 with Benjamin Kowalewicz as the lead vocalist, Ian D’Sa on guitar, bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. There have been no line-up changes, although Aaron is currently taking a hiatus from the band due to ill health.
The band existed for almost a decade before mainstream success. The members met and played in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School under the name Pezz and remained underground in Toronto’s indie music scene until 2001. The band renamed itself Billy Talent after running into legal trouble with the old name. It was then that they landed a record deal that launched them into mainstream success
Ian D’Sa, on a rare break, took the time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Ian how are you today?
I’m good thanks Kevin how are you doing?
I’m very well thanks and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Any time man, no problem.
And just how is life treating you?
Life is treating me pretty good at the moment. I’m having a couple of days off at home right now after playing a couple of festivals over the weekend. I’m just getting a couple of days at home to myself before we start to get ready to open for Guns N’ Roses in a couple of weeks’ time. I’m super excited about that (laughter).
I was lucky enough to shoot Axl a couple of weeks ago while he was fronting AC/DC and let me tell you he was at the top of his game.
I saw that and I agree, he was on fire. It looked like he was doing a great job too. I think that he simply blew everyone’s expectations away. Let’s face it he’s a great singer, how could he not blow everyone away. I personally think that he was a great choice to stand-in for Brian Johnson.
The good thing was that because it was towards the end of the tour he was up on his feet and not restricted to sitting in his chair all night.
That’s great news. He has been suffering with a broken foot so yes, that’s great news.
Right let’s talk about Billy Talent and not AC/DC (laughter).
(Laughter) okay fire away.
You are touring the UK in October, are you looking forward to being back here once again?
Yes, absolutely. We haven’t done a headlining UK tour in four years now so we are definitely set to come back and play all of the cities that we first started playing almost fifteen years ago when we came over to the UK for the very first time.
You will be playing Rock City on Saturday 22nd October which I believe will be your third time there. Am I to take it that you like playing there?
Yes that’s right. We are coming up to Nottingham to play Rock City in October. We have played there a couple of times before and we are really looking forward to playing there once again. I personally love Rock City, it’s a great venue. I absolutely love the place. We have played in the small room there and the last time we played the main hall. It’s a great venue in a great area, and there are a lot of great small pubs around the corner where we all go out for a drink after the gig. I love the place.
You played Download a couple of weeks ago, how was that?
We actually played on the same day as Iron Maiden which was great. I have to say that it was very, very, very, very rainy (laughter). The mud was a little more crazy than I have ever seen before but the British fans were trucking through it, like they do, and it was a great weekend. All of the bands were amazing and it was a great line-up. It’s a rite of passage, you have to play Download Festival. It was so wet that the fans renamed it Drownload (laughter). It was definitely the most rain and mud that I have ever seen in my life at any British festival. You most definitely can’t have a music festival in the UK without your wellingtons (laughter).
You obviously really do enjoy playing here in the UK?
Most definitely man, I love it over there.
Do the UK audiences differ from the audiences back home?
There are lots of similarities between the crowds over there and the crowds here in Canada. Perhaps it’s because at one time we were all members of the Commonwealth, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because Canadian humour is a lot like British humour. I think that is probably what our audiences both here and over there in the UK have in common the most, their sense of humour. I personally don’t think that the American audiences fully understand satire or sarcasm in the way that the Canadians and the Brits do. I still think that Canadian humour is definitely closer to the British humour than American humour.
Swiftly moving on (laughter). Your new album Afraid Of Heights, I have been playing it for the past few days and I have to say that I think that it is great.
That’s awesome, thanks for saying that, I really do appreciate that.
Are all of you happy with it?
Definitely yes, one hundred percent. We have had a few years to work on it and develop the songs and it is probably our most ambitious album that we have released yet. We were not afraid to hold back and there is a lot of different instrumentation going on. It really was great to just have a fresh start. A couple of years back we put out a Greatest Hits album which capped off the last ten years of our career and so we viewed this album as a fresh start and an opportunity to try something a little different. It still has the classic Billy Talent sound but there are also a lot of new sounds on there that we wanted to try out.
Who is responsible for the writing?
That duty falls to me, I am the main songwriter in the band especially for this album. I wrote over twenty songs for this album and we then narrowed it down to the twelve songs that we thought would all fit together as a cohesive album. The twelve songs that we selected all kind of mesh into one another and I think that this album works really well.
When you are writing, is it lyrics first, melody first or does it simply come when it comes?
With me it simply comes when it comes. Sometimes a lyric will come first and that will spawn another idea. Other times it will be a guitar riff which comes first and that will spawn what the rhythm section will be doing. It is a little bit easier when you have a piece of music to write lyrics for because you are essentially coming up with ideas that match the feelings that you are getting from the music. The other way around is a bit more difficult for example the track Afraid Of Heights took almost the whole four years to write.
It went through so many different incarnations; the riff came first in fact but it was the chorus riffs which came to mind first. The music really had to capture that phonetic pacing of the lyric and the vocals.
Where do you draw your inspirations from?
I have listened to so many different records over the years and I have a pretty massive collection of CD’s over here. Jesus, CD’s I’m dating myself (laughter) okay I’m old. You name it, I have everything from progressive rock to classic rock but I think my inspirations really do come from my appreciation for Rock and Roll music and me being a fan. It’s hard to realise exactly where it comes from. For example, sometimes when I am writing I don’t just sit there and write for eight hours. Sometimes I will be watching the TV and an idea will pop into my head. I always have my guitar nearby so that I can document the idea.
Sometimes I will wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning and have an idea in my head so I will record it really quickly on my phone. So to be honest, I never really know where it comes from, I guess that it is my subconscious at work. It really is hard to put my finger on.
Are you constantly writing?
I am currently taking a break from writing as the recording of this album was pretty intense. It has been every single day for almost all of this year so that a solid six months of recording. I say that I will be taking a break but I have recently realised that I can’t take a break from writing (laughter). I have been home two days from touring and I am still bored with myself and I have found myself playing the guitar for the past few days working on new song ideas already (laughter). It really is crazy.
I imagine that you get asked this next question quite a lot so forgive me when I ask you where the name Billy Talent came from?
Billy Talent was a character in a film by a guy named Bruce McDonald which was based upon Michael Turner’s novel Hard Core Logo. It is a Canadian story of a fictional punk band that reform after twenty years of their supposed success. The guitarist’s name in the band was Billy Talent. The lead singers name was Joe Dick, the drummers name was Pipefitter and the bass player was called John Oxenberger (laughter). All of the band had really cool names and we thought Billy Talent was such a cool name so we just went with it. We did drop an ‘L’ out of Talent because we didn’t want to get sued (laughter).
But am I correct in saying that the author was pleased with your success?
That’s right, totally one hundred percent right. Five years after we started using the name, Michael Turner, the author of the book sent us four autographed copies congratulating us on our success. Let me tell you that we were all pretty much blown away by that. Whenever we play places that we haven’t played before the first question that we get asked is “which one’s Billy” (laughter).
How would you describe your music?
Wow, that is a really hard question actually. At the end of the day I suppose that our music is based around the punk aesthetic but it also has elements of classic rock, progressive rock and good old fashioned Rock and Roll. It definitely has an edge to it and I personally feel that it definitely has more of an edge to it than general rock. That’s a hard thing to sum up man. We have previously been labelled alternative rock, pop punk, emo, you name it we have been called it but at the end of the day I guess that we are just an old fashioned Rock and Roll band. Back in the 90s we would have called ourselves alternative rock but I don’t know if that is still a genre or not because I’m that old (laughter).
Who were you listening to when you were growing up?
I was listening to everything from Led Zeppelin to Depeche Mode. Music certainly had a British influence on me so I was digging the bands such as The Jesus And Mary Chain, Depeche Mode, The Cure and then all the way to bands such as The Pixies, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. Then when I was at High School I discovered punk and everything changed. When you are first starting out on your chosen instrument no one can pick up their guitar and instantly play like Jimmy Page (laughter). So in High School when I first started leaning to play the guitar it was comforting to know that there were bands out there who just played three chords, the same as I could play (laughter).
I really felt at home with the punk crowd at our High School. So playing three chords like Green Day at the time was for me pretty cool.
What was the first record that you bought?
The first record that I ever bought was The Beatles Twist And Shout on vinyl. My mum took me to the local mall and told me that I could buy any record and so I bought that one. Mum said to me “why would you buy that, that’s from my era” (laughter) and I just smiled and told her that I really did like that song. I have to be honest with you and say that to be fair, my mum bought it for me (laughter). The first record that I actually bought myself with my own money was the first Ramones album.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
The first live gig that I saw was Rush at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Canada. I was eleven years old and my older brother took me along to the show. It was one of the coolest shows that I have ever been to, especially the massive inflatable rabbits which came onto the stage. It was part of their Presto tour back in 1990. It totally blew me away and I thought to myself ‘wow, you can make a living out of this. How do I get into this’ (laughter). After that I saw the Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains The Same and that was it, I wanted to be a guitar player in a rock band.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
The highlight of our career would be staying together for this long. It has almost been twenty three years now. Who would have thought that a bunch of snot nosed kids in High School could have accomplished what we have done and travelled to the places we have been to. So the biggest highlight would have to be us doing it for this long. We know so many bands that only last for a limited period of time so for us to be able to still do this for a living, loving music and enjoying what we are doing, is a blessing within itself.
On that note Ian let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me, it’s been great.
Anytime man. You take care and do make sure that you come along and say hi when we get to Rock City. You take care.