Since the release of their self-titled debut in 2003, Billy Talent have cemented themselves as a generation-defining rock band. Boasting nearly one million albums sold in Canada alone and nearly 3 million albums sold internationally, the band have seen multi-platinum certifications for their albums Billy Talent I and II and III, and platinum status for the latest studio album Dead Silence. The band has enjoyed tremendous success at Canadian rock radio where they have had three #1 hits that combined for 19 weeks at the top spot, five Top 5 hits, and five Top 10 hits. Now, the highly talented Canadian punk rockers unleashed a greatest hits album, aptly titled HITS and have signed on with The End Records for the US release. The 14 song collection includes all the band’s biggest hits along with two new songs. Not ones to rest on their laurels, these lifelong friends are anxious to usher in a new era for the band. Already hard at work developing new material for an ambitious new album, the guys in Billy Talent hope to hit the studio in early 2015. Jason Price of the mighty Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with guitarist Ian D’Sa to discuss his musical roots, the longevity of the band, his songwriting process, developing the band’s forthcoming material and much more!
Music played a tremendous role in your life. What are some of your first musical memories?
For me, I originally started learning piano when I was 8 years old. I asked for a guitar for Christmas because my older brother had a bunch of Led Zeppelin records that I loved. That is how it really all started for me! Then I met the guys in high school. At first, we just enjoyed playing cover songs for our friends and it really grew from there.
Who do you cite as your biggest musical influence, as both a guitarist and songwriter?
I look at really iconic songwriters like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen as the standard for great songwriting. As far as guitar, I would say Jimmy Page is one of my first loves as a guitarist and he always will be. He really revolutionized the way rock guitar sounded. When I got into my punk years in high school, guitarists like John Reis from Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine had a big impact on me. The punk thing was a little more simple but there was something that was immediate and urgent about it that a lot of players from the early ‘70s didn’t get. I guess I really gravitated toward that.
You mentioned meeting the other guys in the band when you were in high school. When you look back, did you have any idea you would pursue music as a career and to what do you attribute the longevity of Billy Talent?
It is different when you are high school buddies with a group of guys because if I met these guys five years ago, everyone would have grown into their identity by that time. When you meet at such a young age, you are friends first and really develop a dynamic together. That dynamic has developed over 21 years. Originally, it started with us playing at our friends parties, high school talent shows and things like that. I think that is what has contributed to our longevity, the fact that at the end of the day we are friends first!
What do the other band members bring to the table as musicians that helps influence the band’s sound?
Everyone brings their own things to the table and I think that is one of the key elements of why our band has a bit of a unique sound. Aaron [Solowoniuk] used to listen to hip-hop all of the time and he still does. His drum beats kind of reflect that. Some of his favorite bands range from Jane’s Addiction to A Tribe Called Quest. We were all pretty diverse from the start. John [Gallant] and I used to listen to a lot of classic rock and then I got into the punk side of things. I think that is what helps to make the band so unique, the diverse influences you can draw upon.
You have been together for 21 years and the band just released “Hits,” a career retrospective. What went into choosing the songs? I imagine it has to be a bit surreal to look back on those 21 years.
Yeah, it was a little bit weird. It is only four albums in for us. Before the band was signed to Atlantic Records in 2002, we had five EPs before that as Pezz, which was the band’s name at the time. We had to change the name because there was another band called Pezz at the time. Looking back on the process of putting this together, I feel these are songs we are all really proud of. Choosing the songs wasn’t really that hard to do because we gravitated toward the fan favorites. I think the songs on there represent us the best because they were all singles and really encapsulate what we do as an act. It wasn’t really that hard to choose the songs. We all had our choices and then the label came to us with their list and they were all pretty much identical. That made it really easy!
You also included two new songs on the album, “Kingdom of Zod” and “Chasing The Sun.” What made now the time to release these two songs?
With the two new songs, they were originally going to be on the next record. We are still writing for the record right now. They are probably the first two songs written. We wanted to have an extra couple of songs on there as bonus material for our fans. These two songs are totally opposites of the spectrum. “Chasing The Sun” is unlike anything we have ever done before. It is kind of an acoustic ballad and it was written about someone really close to the band who passed away a few years ago. “Kingdom of Zod,” like I said, is pretty much the polar opposite. I think it is what you can expect of our sound. It was loosely written about our moronic mayor, Rob Ford, who was the mayor of Toronto. The video kind of reflects that and it’s kind of funny. Those two were written about a year ago, so they reflect what was going on in our lives at the time.
You mentioned working on new material for an upcoming album. Where are you in the process and what goals or expectations do you have for the release?
We are pretty close to having a full record done right now, song-wise. I have been writing for the past year, so we have been jamming these songs out. I will get to work on some lyrics soon. We aren’t really going to give ourselves a deadline or much of a timeline just yet but we are hoping to get into the studio in early 2015 and get a record out.
When it comes to songwriting, what can you tell us about your process? Has it changed through the years?
I think it has always been the same for me. Sometimes, I will go in and try to write a song and nothing happens for three to four days. Other times, songs are written when you are driving out to see your parents or in a restaurant. A melody will just pop in your head that you need to document. I always try to sing whatever is in my head into my phone. [laughs] I have all these tiny little voice memos saved up and then I go in and try to write a song around that. You never know when creativity is going to strike but I think that is how songs are written in my world. It is different when you go in and try to start from scratch. If you go in and say, “I’m going to go in and write a song today,” I don’t necessarily think that is the best way to go about it. I think it has to be out of pure passion for it. Sometimes, I have written the best riffs while playing around on the guitar or just watching TV. You never know when it is going to strike and I think that is when you get the best out of yourself.
How have you evolved as a guitarist since the early days?
I have always played Drop D since the early ‘90s, which was when bands like Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine were in their heydey. They all had one guitar player, well, Soundgarden had two but when Chris [Cornell] didn’t play it was mainly Kim [Thayil] playing. A lot of the songs are in Drop D and I realized why. You can still play bar chords and also do lead stuff with your other finger. I started developing that over the next 10 years and tried to do more of that being the solitary guitar player in the band. It is interesting because you end up coming up with things you never thought you would hear before. That is what I am really interested in at the end of the day. I use jazz chords sometimes and sometimes just full on punk rock bar chords. I think that is the cool and exciting thing about playing guitar to me.
You are always exploring new worlds musically. Is there still some sort of musical ground you are hoping to cover in the near future?
Yeah. I started on piano, so I kind of want to go back to that at some point. Sometimes I listen to stuff from the 1930s and 1940s and it blows my mind how talented these piano players were. That is definitely something I want to go back to or even incorporate into guitar playing, especially that saloon and honky tonk style.
What stands out to you as your personal milestones in the music business?
I guess the initial reception of our first record really blew all of our minds. Being a band for almost eight or nine years before putting out our first major label record, we never really had that kind of feedback before. It was kind of a standing at the edge of the cliff moment to see how people would receive that album. People received it very well, along with the second one. Those two albums are ones we are really proud of and serve as the milestones for me. The last record we did was great as well and we did it entirely ourselves. I produced it and I am really proud of it because it was completely done without any outside influence. I think that really represents the band in the best way.
As you mentioned, you produced the last album. Is that a route you plan to pursue for the upcoming record?
Absolutely. When you are trying to do things that are a little outside of the box, someone else might be really good at something or it’s their forte, then it’s cool to work with a different producer. For what we do, I think I understand the sound of what we do, as does the rest of the band, and for the most part we can do it ourselves. It was really cool working with Howard Benson on the two songs on the greatest hits release because he really brought a whole different element to the song “Chasing The Sun,” things that I don’t think we would have ever thought of doing. I always love learning from guys like him and Brendan O’Brien. Those types of learning experiences are pretty priceless.
What’s the best piece of advice you can pass along to those looking to make a career for themselves in today’s music industry?
I think it is important to stay away from whatever the trend of the moment might be. I think what matters is longevity. If you really want this for a career, longevity is something you definitely have to think about. It’s about substance and things that will stand the test of time, not just the next three months. That is the main thing. Also, really focus on songwriting and really being yourself. A lot of the world’s most successful musicians were pioneers in what they did and have their own identity. I think that is something that we need more of today, rather than just imitating others.
Looking forward to 2015, it seems you have plenty of irons in the fire. What are you most looking forward to about the year to come?
After this greatest hits album, I feel like this is going to be a whole new chapter for us. We are super excited. We have new management and renegotiated our deal. It is a really exciting time for us. We are excited to move onward and upwards, all while coming up with the best record we have ever released. We absolutely go into every record with that mindset but I really feel this one will be a triumph.
I know your focus isn’t solely on the band and you take time to give back. What can you tell us about your philanthropic side?
Absolutely! I am involved with an organization called Make Music Matter. You can check them out at www.makemusicmatter.org. Yearly, they do a contest called “My Song For Change.” It is a Canadian thing at the moment but it’s going to branch out. Young people will submit a song about change or make positive change in the world. Then a few of us will select the best song. We will then go to the recording studio with them and the song and have some pro players on it. We had Cone McCaslin from Sum 41 play bass, Sam Roberts from Sam Roberts Band, Hill Kourkoutis of Serena Ryder and I played on the last one with David Bottrill, who has produced Tool and Muse, producing it. It is a really fun thing that we do every year and I am so happy to be a part of it!
Thanks so much for your time today, Ian! We are definitely looking forward to seeing what Billy Talent has in store for us in the year to come!
Thanks so much, Jason. See you soon!