Rise Above: The story behind Billy Talent's new album, Afraid Of Heights

Billy Talent with stand-in drummer Jordan 'Ratbeard' Hastings (second left)

There’s a song on the new Billy Talent album that will have rock fans air-punching in delight. Several songs actually, but Louder Than The DJ is a particularly rousing, exhilarating anthem-in-waiting, both a salute to the life-changing potential of rock ‘n’ roll and a challenge to “Generation Narcissistic” not to abandon the genre. “We surfed until the end of the set, our leather jackets covered in sweat,” sings frontman Ben Kowalewicz. “Those glory days they ain’t over yet, so light that torch and burn like a jet.” When the song climaxes with Kowalewicz defiantly screaming “We’re not gonna pack up and go!” you might just want to hug him.

“It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek obviously, but it’s a song about protecting the beauty of rock ‘n’ roll,” says the singer. “When we were younger going to see bands it literally changed us and shaped us into the people we are now, and I feel as music has become more homogenised and diluted there’s not that visceral thing that kids can connect to. We need to make sure that the next generation are enabled to go pick up a guitar, or sit behind a drum kit and just rock out with their friends ‘til all hours of the morning.”

Billy Talent have been doing their bit to keep the fires of rock ‘n’ roll burning for over two decades now. For those late to the party, 2014’s knowingly-titled ‘best of’ set Hits is the perfect introduction to what Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa, bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk have been up to since forming their band at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School in in Mississauga, Ontario in 1993, the release of the compilation leaving the Canadian punks with a clean slate as they prepared to work upon their forthcoming fifth studio album.

Ask Ben Kowalewicz what he’s doing today, ahead of rehearsals for a summer of festival dates for his band, and regardless of the buffer provided by the Atlantic Ocean, you can picture a broad smile upon the face of the 40-year-old singer when he says “I’m overlooking my beautiful city on a gorgeous sunny day.” Billy Talent’s new album, Afraid Of Heights, is currently being mastered for a July 29 release, and while their frontman admits that the wait for a new record to drop is always a “nerve-wracking” time, he sounds positively bullish when considering the upcoming release.

“You still get the butterflies, but I feel more confident in this record in its entirety, in terms of song quality, production, content, than anything we’ve ever done,” he says. “I’m confident if you’re a fan of the band – or even if you’re a newcomer to this band - you’re going to love this record.”

“The reason I brought up the weather and the sunny day is because I felt like there were a lot of clouds around us for a long time and now it’s just starting to break and we can feel the energy and positivity coming through all the trouble and strife we’ve been through,” he explains. “It’s all been worth it for this kind of moment.”

Billy Talent's Ben Kowalewicz at Download, Donington Park in 2007

Billy Talent's Ben Kowalewicz at Download, Donington Park in 2007 (Image credit: Kirsty Umback/Photoshot/Getty Images)

The ‘trouble and strife’ that Kowalewicz is alluding to here largely relates to BT drummer Aaron Solowoniuk being forced to sit out the Afraid Of Heights recording sessions for health reasons. Solowoniuk, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his mid-twenties, announced in January that he was “dealing with a relapse”, and would not be able to play on the album: longtime friend Jordan Hastings from Alexisonfire stepped in to assist the band while Solowoniuk dedicated his time in the studio to documenting the recording session via photographs and video updates.

“It’s been the best situation of a shitty situation,” says Ben Kowalewicz, who admits his friend’s absence took “a heavy toll.”

“Aaron is a brother, and he’s part of this, regardless whether he’s behind the kit or not: his input is as invaluable as ever. And Jordan is not only an amazing drummer but an amazing human being, so he was very sensitive to the whole process. We were hoping Aaron would be up and running again by this point, but a disease like MS is unpredictable, so there’s no timeline and we’re not putting any pressure on him. So Jordan has graciously donated his time to joining us on the road too until Aaron is back. He’s on the road to recovery, and that’s exciting for all of us.”

Afraid Of Heights offers further reason for Billy Talent to be excited and optimistic right now. Though Warners can only currently provide a six track sampler of the 12 song album, the fire, ferocity and fervour exhibited speaks volumes about the band’s current mindset. In addition to the aforementioned Louder Than The DJ, Big Red Gun is a passionate anti-gun song (“Somehow it’s as if we’ve accepted that mass shootings are ‘normal’ now,” says Kowalewicz. “Fifteen people getting shot somewhere in America is now just a passing news blip on a Twitter feed”), Time Bomb Ticking Away cautions against the toll modern life takes on our mental health (“there’s so much pressure on us all – work, work, work to get, get, get – and people just snap,” says the singer. “We need to realise that it’s okay to talk about being scared and frustrated and worried about the future”) and the evocatively-titled Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats offers a scathing look at environmental destruction. This Is A War, meanwhile, expresses the band’s mounting alarm that, across the Canadian border, the US public could be gearing up to vote a megalomaniac billionaire into the White House.

“It’s just mind-blowingly unbelievable that someone like that can come so far to running America,” says Kowalewicz. “Back in the day like-minded people would stand together to protest, so that song is a call to arms, saying, even if we have different opinions, if something is not morally and ethically right then we need to make our voices heard, because that’s the only way we’ll get ahead as society and as human beings.”

“We’ve been playing together since high school and now we’re forty-something men, and we still feel like we have a lot more to say,” the singer states. “After taking time to pause with the Hits record, we’ve been able to see how fortunate and blessed we are, so now it’s ‘Let’s keep going, let’s see how far we can take this.’ I hate to sound cheesy, but it’s about love, and about taking the opportunities that come your way, and putting your best foot forward and not backing down when trouble comes. That’s all been put into this pot and er, now we’re ready to eat!”

For UK rock fans, the first opportunity to see and hear the rejuvenated Billy Talent will come at Donington Park on June 12, when the Canadian quartet will rock Download’s Zippo Encore Stage before Jane’s Addiction. For Ben Kowalewicz, it’s one more reason to be cheerful, and the singer admits that he and his bandmates “can’t fucking wait” to step out onstage again.

“On a personal note Jane’s Addiction is a seminal band in my life, and I wouldn’t be who I am without them, so to go on before them is a dream come true for me,” he beams. “We’ve been asked to play Download four or five times, and we’re always very thankful for the opportunity. There’s never been a time that I’ve walked away from that festival without an amazing story to share with my friends. It’s been a tough year in many ways, but now we’re ready to get back on the horse and ride into battle again.”

Billy Talent play Download on June 12. The band release their fifth studio album, Afraid of Heights, on July 29 via Warners.

Billy Talent: Hits – A track-by-track guide

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.