Christmas comes early next week for Billy Talent fans as the massively popular rock band release HITS on November 4, a best-of collection of 12 of their singles plus two new tracks, “Kingdom of Zod” and “Chasing the Sun”.
Announced in mid-September, the guys took a unique approach to revealing the album’s track listing to fans. An interactive video vault launched on their website was updated daily over the course of two weeks with one new track revealed, a link to its music video, and a short taped interview with band members discussing the song. A nostalgic throwback for both the band and their fans, the vault will remain on the website at least until the album’s release.
Last week I chatted with frontman Ben Kowalewicz about the album, the tours, and 20-plus years in the industry.
How do you begin to narrow down your catalogue to 12 of your “best” tracks? Does it have more to do with what was popular with the fans or what meant something to the four of you?
That’s a good question! We had a list and started going through it…we were fortunate enough to have around 15 singles over our career. And then we also personally have our own favourites which were just album tracks that never got released. I think it was just a matter of all of us sitting down and talking about each song. So then we had to decide whether it was going to be a “greatest hits” and that narrowed it down to just singles. And then from the singles we went through which ones we thought were pivotal moments in our career.
Let’s talk about the video vault…it must have been a real trek down memory lane for you to record those video interviews.
It was great! The weird thing about being in a rock ‘n roll band – and especially in a rock ‘n roll band with the same guys for 21 years – is that you don’t really get a chance to kind of stop and go “Oh, wow”, you know? It’s just nice that we’re sitting around and having a beer and saying “Remember this?” We’re now getting to a point where we can stop and reflect and enjoy each other’s stories. It’s nice, it’s really cool.
What kind of fan interaction did it spark?
How should I put this…about five or six years ago we were not the most technically advanced fellas in the world! We were fortunate enough to work with a couple of people who were so amazing and so inspiring. And they showed us all these wonderful tools that could help you create a nice conversation and that dialogue between you and your fans. You don’t need the mystery of that, now it’s very transparent. It’s great for us, because I think we’ve become very savvy at it, and ahead of the curve in a lot of ways – and I don’t mean that to sound like an ass! We use these things in the right way and it was great to get people’s feedback. You can’t please everybody, right? We got some “why isn’t this song on it?” or “you guys suck now!” – but that’s what comes with the territory in this Wild West of global communication.
There are two new tracks on the album – “Kingdom of Zod” and “Chasing the Sun”, the latter seeming to be a very emotional song for the band. Could you speak a bit about both?
I think they have to do with us and the type of band that we are and the place we’re at in our lives…”Kingdom of Zod”, we were working on and it’s more or less based around how just absolutely disgusted we were with the way our city was being made a mockery to the rest of the world by the mayor and his cronies. And then it became a little bit more about looking at what’s going on in the rest of the world and places like Russia and Ukraine…I mean, god, you can just shift your focus anywhere and there are people who are abusing power and doing horrible things. So that song came about from Ian and I talking about things that were happening and just being fed up, you know? Fed up with people lying to our faces, saying one thing and doing something different. Not even as a politician or the head of any kind of corporation…just as a human being, if you make a promise to your friend or to somebody and you shake their hand and look them in the eye? Then you follow through and you live up to your commitment.
“Chasing the Sun” is a very difficult song to talk about and a very difficult song to have written with the guys. We had a very dear friend of ours pass away and it was quite a traumatic thing in our lives. It was sudden and it was abrupt and it was horrible. Ian, being the brilliant songwriter that he is, showed us this idea, this acoustic song that he was working on, that he wrote right after the funeral – and more or less, we spent weeks and months working on it until it got to the point where we were like “Wow…I’m not sure what we’ve created here, but it seems to be very special” and the people we’ve played it for have been very moved by it. Throughout our career we’ve always tried to challenge our fans and challenges ourselves as a band. Some people might not get it – but I think a lot of people will. And so we’re very proud of it and I think it’s probably one of the best songs we’ve ever written.
Obviously looking back over your career, there were not only the albums but the live shows and multitude of bands you performed with. Who were some of your favourites and what did you learn in the early days from any mentors you might have had on the road?
Touring is such a strange thing, you know? It’s like being on this massive ark with all these other bands and their crews and the people that you meet…we did 20 months of touring for our last record. When you’re out that long and you cross paths with so many different people, eventually what happens is you have this whole other friendship and beautiful network of people that you know and get to share the stage with.
But the mentors that kind of showed us the ropes …well, the very first tour we did across the States was opening up for Buzzcocks. If people don’t know who Buzzcocks are, they’re an amazing punk band from back in the 70s, a la Pistols and The Clash and groups like that. They’re a fantastic band; but playing in front of that audience of people – 45-year old dudes with mohawks calling me a f***ot and spitting on me for an hour a night – was a bit challenging! That’s where we cut our teeth, where we said, “You can do whatever you want to us; we’re just going to keep playing”. So it made us learn to be ourselves, trust our instincts, be proud to be on the stage, own the stage, and no matter what, not let anybody kick us off of it. That was a very good lesson to be instilled in us.
Did working in the industry initially (i.e. at a radio station and record label) shape your approach to the band at all?
I think in your journey as a human being, everything affects you or impacts you in some way or another – but I don’t think that I was moved in any way by working in radio. I ended up meeting a lot of great people who are just lovely human beings and believed in this high school dropout kid that had no college education and was just there to sweep the floors and get coffees for Alan Cross! And then slowly I built this trust; it’s about hard work and dedication and determination. I never tried to cross pollinate between music that I created and music that was played, you know what I mean? People would say, “What are you doing this weekend?” and I would say “Oh, nothing”, meanwhile I was going to the Rivoli or the 360 to play a show. I think it maybe helped more in terms of giving me an awareness of how radio “works”…and even by that standard, it’s changed dramatically since I was there. But it was a great experience for me.
Where are you guys headed from here, in terms of a new album or tour?
We’re super excited. There’s the greatest hits and all the packaging and we shot a video last week for “Kingdom of Zod”…but more so, we are knee-deep in writing, I’d say. I can’t say when we’re going to start recording, but I will say that this record is going to be very, very bad-ass, from what we’re working on right now. I’m so excited – like every day I wake up and I can’t wait to get to the studio! We’re in a great place.
HITS will be available November 4 in a standard CD edition as well as a deluxe edition (CD plus never before seen live footage from the Billy Talent 10th Anniversary tour) and limited edition super deluxe package (CD plus live DVD plus 35-page book of images spanning the band’s career).