"It was like being strapped to a rocket ship. Things took off in a beautiful, surprising way": The ultimate guide to every Billy Talent album in the band's own words

Billy Talent
(Image credit: Dustin Rabin)

One of the most successful Canadian rock bands of modern times, Billy Talent - vocalist Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D'Sa, bassist Jonathan Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk - are also one of the most underrated punk bands on the circuit. Formed back in 1991, originally under the name Pezz, while the quartet were teenagers studying at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Secondary School in Ontario, the group now have six studio albums to their name, and no duds whatsoever in their catalogue.

Ben Kowalewicz walks us through the band's history, album by album.

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Billy Talent (Atlantic, 2003)

Billy Talent debut album

(Image credit: Atlantic)

"When we started out, as Pezz, there was really no expectation, and we'd be recording on a four-track in Ian's parents basement. Eventually, we ended up going into some bigger studios and doing some things here and there, culminating in Watoosh!, our full length record as Pezz. That was the first time we worked with a producer: half of it was done by a guy named Brad Nelson, the other by a guy named Daryl Smith. So we had an introduction to being in a studio, and being on the clock, before we recorded as Billy Talent. And that was a lot of fun: we were just excited to hear a song back, as opposed to just hearing it in a loud basement.

"It's a long-winded, convoluted story, but after 10 years of us just slugging it out, we ended up signing a record deal with Atlantic in the US, and that was the first time where we were like, Oh, we're gonna make something that maybe, hopefully, somebody other than our 20 drunk friends are going to hear. So there was a lot of pressure, and we weren't really sure of our capabilities. We were working with a guy named Gavin Brown and he had done some big things in the past [Three Days Grace, Great Big Sea] and we definitely owe a lot of our education as to how studios work to him. Again, that was a really fun time: no-one outside of Toronto knew us or really had any idea who we were, or what we were about. And nor did we, we were just kind of figuring it all out on the fly. So it was a wonderful experience. I remember being truly blown away and just proud of the band, and being very thankful for the opportunity.

"When it came out, we didn't have any expectation of how it was going to go and it was literally like being strapped to the front of a rocket ship, things just took off, and in a very beautiful, surprising kind of way... we were 'overnight' stars after ten years! The UK was actually the first place in the world, other than Canada, that got on board. I remember the first time we went to London, and played Reading and Leeds, and went to the Kerrang! Awards... None of us had ever travelled overseas before, so to have people coming to the shows, and knowing the words [of our songs], was mind-blowing, the start of a beautiful love affair. We've been doing this now for 30 plus years, and to still have people care about the band is really beautiful. That all started here."

Billy Talent II (Atlantic, 2006)

Billy Talent

(Image credit: Atlantic)

There's that old adage, 'You have your whole life to write your first record and then a year to write your second', so we were just riding the momentum. Ian was in a very creative place musically, firing on all cylinders, and songs like Red Flag, and Devil [In A Midnight Mass], Falling Leaves, This Suffering, and Surender emerged. So we did this again with Gavin [Brown], we did it again in Vancouver, we stuck to what felt right to us. And that record just became this monster.

"The touring became relentless. We just lived on the road, and grew it all very naturally and organically. That was a very exciting time, because that's when the identity of the band was becoming fully realised. We were still young, none of us were married or had kids, so we were fully subscribed to trying to spread the word.

"But Atlantic was an absolutely terrible label. Wen we first signed, there were people there that really truly believed in the band, and we really liked them as people, but on the second record a lot of those people were let go. So now you have this bunch of strangers coming in who don't know you, and don't care. I think there was some missed opportunities at that point on their part. Eventually we decided that Atlantic were terrible, and we ended up leaving them... and going to a whole bunch of other terrible labels in the States! [Laughs]"

Billy Talent III (Roadrunner, 2009)

Billy Talent 3

(Image credit: Roadrunner)

"We wanted to try something new at this point. We had a lot of success on the first and second record, but we kind of wanted a different flavour on the third record. So we reached out to a couple of producers on our wish list, Butch Vig and Brendan O'Brien, just because of their pedigree, and the history of the bands that they have worked with. Butch was really into it, but he was working with Against Me! at the time, who are our good pals, and Brendan was also very interested in working with us. I'm a huge Pearl Jam fan, so to be able to work with the guy that did Vs and Vitalogy was exciting.

"So this was a big learning experience for us. We flew to LA and recorded in Henson Studios, then recorded the second half of it in Atlanta [at Southern Tracks] because that's where his home base is. It was a really eye opening experience working with someone with such a vast knowledge of the studio, and a totally different approach than what we had done before. Ian, who was moving into a producer role, learned a lot from Brendan, it was like a master class for him. That record still holds a special place in my heart, and it yielded some really special results. It was definitely an eye opening experience."

Dead Silence (Last Gang, 2012)

Dead Silence

(Image credit: Last Gang)

"With this record, Ian felt comfortable enough in his abilities to want to produce it: he's the main songwriter of the band, and he has a very clear and precise vision of how he expects things to sound. So we built our own studio, which we still have to this day. When you're recording in big studios, you have a start date and an end date, which is a beautiful thing because it creates tension, it creates expectation, you're all working towards a goal, and when it's done, it's done. But for that record, we decided, we're going to write everything in our own little studio, and we're going to record it, and we worked in a different way.

"We were blown away by not having to be on the clock, that was the big eye opener. We were like, we're gonna take our time, and when it's done, and when we're happy with it, then we'll share it. And that was much to the chagrin of the labels, and people that we work with, because everyone's like, 'When do we hear stuff? What's happening?' We were like, Don't worry about it, and that record ended up turning out great. It's one of my favourite records we've ever done, and I'm still very, very proud of it. Sonically, it opened up some doors for us, and also reinforced some things that maybe we were missing on the third record."

Afraid Of Heights (The End, 2016)

Afraid Of Heights artwork

(Image credit: The End)

"That was a very challenging time. When we were working on the songs for Afraid Of Heights, Aaron played on, like, six songs, and then he came to his realisation that he can't do it anymore [due to a multiple sclerosis relapse]. There was some pretty heavy... I don't even know all the words to describe it, it was a very sad time, very challenging. Because, you know, as much as he's the drummer in the band, he's also our best friend, we've been doing this since we were 16 years old. So to have this disease prevent him from doing what he loves is just absolutely heartbreaking and shattering.

"We're weren't sure if we were just going to call it quits, or if we were going to keep going: we had some some pretty heavy internal conversations about it. And Aaron was like, 'You guys absolutely have to keep going'. We were hoping that he would get better enough to, at least, come back and do the tour. And so we called our friend Jordan [Hastings, Alexisonfire], and he happened to be home because Alexis at that point was no longer, and he was like, "Yeah, 100% I'll play on the record. He came in and did an incredible job, and we're forever indebted to them. Then once it became more clear that Aaron wasn't going to be able to come back out, he's like, 'Well, I can come and do the tour'. We just tried our best to navigate it the best we could, always operating with an open heart, and a lot of open conversations. And so that record definitely has a very unique place in my version of looking at the discography. There was a lot of heartbreak, and a lot of sorrow, but there was also the joy of still being able to do what we do, with a new set of obstacles.

"On that album, we played Download under Jane's Addiction, and getting to stand side stage and watch a band that literally changed the course and direction of my life was very special: Nothing Shocking is still the seminal record where I was just jaw dropped. When you're a kid, and you're listening to these records, and then you start playing music, it just seems impossible that you're ever gonna share a stage with, people that helped get you there. We're doing some shows this this summer with Jane's on the same bill, and things like that, or playing main support to Green Day at a festival are just insane to us, even though we're 30 years in to this now."

Crisis Of Faith (Spinefarm, 2022)

Crisis of Faith

(Image credit: Spinefarm)

"So, with this record, we weren't even going to do a record. At that point, we were just thinking that we were going to release some songs as they came out: the idea was that we were going to work on a song, finish it, put it out, work on another song, finish it, put it out. And so we started doing that with Forgiveness I and II. And then we released Reckless Paradise and we released Beg To Differ... and then the pandemic happened. And so it kind of shut down that idea.

"So then I became a father for the first time, and Ian's mom was very ill, and unfortunately passed during that time as well. So there was a lot of... life happening, internally within the band. And with the pandemic, we weren't able to see each other for, like, a year, a year and a half, and so we ended up starting to just do things individually, as opposed to like a collective band way. So, we talked earlier about that camaraderie in the studio, but this was very, very, very different.

"By the time we had enough songs, we're kind of like, Well, let's just put this out as a collective as a record. And so we did, and it ended up being really special. That record, to me, will always, again, hold a very special place in my heart, just because of the surroundings and the circumstances around it were so foreign to us, nothing felt normal about it. And I think fans seem to really like it as well, and that was special to us that it was received with open hearts, because there was nothing but heart and love put into it."

Billy Talent will headline the Avalanche Stage at Download festival on June 15.

The quartet will then play headline shows at Cardiff Students' Union (June 17), Glasgow Barrowland (June 18), London The Troxy (June 20) and Manchester Albert Hall (June 21). 

Tickets for all shows are available now from Live Nation.

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.