A Q&A With Billy Talent’s Ian D’Sa

Guitarist Ian D’Sa gives you a behind-the-curtain peek at Billy Talent’s new album as well as the Canadian rock band’s long-awaited tour. “We haven’t been in the U.S. in so long,” D’Sa told Pollstar. “We’ll be able to play in front of fans who haven’t seen us in three or four years.”

As every Billy Talent fan knows, there is no one in the band by that name.  Having begun life as Pezz, the band eventually had to seek out a new name after another band claimed ownership of that particular moniker.  The musicians landed on the film adaptation of the novel “Hard Core Logo,” which featurs a guitar-playing character named Billy Tallent.

Afraid Of Heights arrives July 29 via The End Records, joining a catalog that includes the band’s multi-platinum LPs Billy Talent, Billy Talent II and Billy Talent III.  The band’s last album – 2012’s Dead Silence – also achieved platinum status and featured several Juno Award-nominated singles.  Physical pre-orders for Afraid Of Heights include a unique download code giving fans access to a “mastered for headphones” version of the album. Click here for more details.

While talking from his Toronto home last week, D’sa covered several subjects, including the band’s punk beginnings and his close relationship with his bandmates. Not only was the guitarist excited about the new album and tour, but he was especially looking forward to July 16 when Billy Talent plays a gig in Toronto with one of his favorite bands.

Photo: Photo by Bowman (@bowmanitis) 2016

What excites you the most about the new album, Afraid Of Heights?

We’ve matured over the years as a band and this record is something where we weren’t afraid to experiment, try different sounds on.  There are things like synths and extra layers of stuff we wouldn’t have done years ago.  I think it’s important to grow as a band and always try pushing new boundaries. Also, we all … recorded the record in Toronto.  That’s a first for us.  We’ve recorded in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Vancouver – outside studios with big producers. … I produced this one and we did it at home.  It’s great.

Your advance press for the album portrays it several different ways, including as a “struggle, both within ourselves and with the society we live.”  Also, it’s “about following your dreams and knowing that when you get knocked down you have to get back up” and “the pressures that society creates and how we’re all trying to figure out where we fit in.”  Was that the plan when the band first went into the studio for Afraid Of Heights or did those themes begin to emerge during the recording process?

They kind of came about through the writing process.  We hadn’t put out a record in four years.  A lot has happened and changed in four years.  A lot going on in the world and being on the sidelines in Toronto and watching a country like the U.S. and what’s happening there right now, what’s happened in the last two days, you read about this stuff and it really affects you.  We’ve got problems of our own but a lot of the songs have to do with that.  Just the title, Afraid Of Heights, alone is a metaphor for “why are we afraid of this society to seemingly do the right thing when it seems so easy, but I guess it isn’t.”  A lot of the record reflects that [and] us as a society. … It’s important to keep questioning. … That’s the only way to progress toward a society where everybody feels included.

Do you think that harkens back to the roots of punk rock – never accepting the status quo?

Absolutely.  When we first started in high school, we learned the first Rage Against The Machine album front-to-back.  I grew up listening to The Clash and London Calling and a lot of bands like that. The roots of punk rock were always based in questioning things that are wrong in society.  I think that is something we’ll continue to do as a band.

You mentioned synths being new for a Billy Talent album.  Is it easy to bring in new elements to a long-time band?

Not really.  You get used to playing as a three-piece band with a lead singer for so long that it becomes set in your mind over the years.  I’m also a very big fan of bands like Depeche Mode and Ministry and bands that use synths along with heavier sounds and music rooted in punk as well.  I didn’t feel like there was necessarily a barrier there, that we couldn’t have guitars alongside synths, but I did question how it was going to sound to our fans, and even the other guys in the band when I played them some of the early demos. But at the end of the day I find that if something works in a song, whether it’s a mandolin or another instrument like a synth or piano. … I don’t think it’s a big issue.

Have fans commented on past albums where they thought the band might have strayed from its roots or have they always backed you?

I think on [Billy Talent III]] we went a little bit classic rock.  It was an album that Brendan O’Brien produced and a lot of songs were written in that kind of format.  We did stray from our punk roots on that album.  I’m really proud of that album and I love it.  But I know our fans didn’t really engage with it right away.  I think it took us a few years after that to play the songs live and for them to really get into it.

But the other thing is we’ve made a whole bunch of new fans off of that record that may never have been into the punk thing but were more into the heavy rock bands. For us, we never wanted to pigeonholed into just being a punk band and that album kind of opened the doors for us to be just a rock band and do what we want.

What are the challenges of performing the new songs on stage?

There are only a handful of tracks that have overlapping synths.  But that’s only three of the 12 songs on the album.  We’re very conscious of still wanting to keep our Billy Talent sound intact.  I don’t think it will be that much of a big deal.  We may have to have a friend play keyboards or synth here or there.  But it will be pretty much the same.  We can deliver it all.

How do you describe the band today?

Our sound as a band … is definitely rooted in punk.  But bands like The Clash [during] the middle to the end of their career they were experimenting with all sorts of different sounds, like reggae and world music.  I think that’s really important for a band to do.  That’s where we’re at right now.  It’s really easy to keep making the same record over and over but I think you have to evolve as a band and try new things … and work with the sound.  That’s the key thing.  You have to work with what you’ve established as a band.

Keeping that in mind, what do you think would surprise your younger self preparing for his first tour, if he could hear your comments today?

(laughs) He would probably reject them. “No way, man.  We’ll always stick to guitar, bass and drums. And that’s it.”  That’s exactly what I would have said 20-some years ago when we started in high school.

That’s how life goes.   You get older and your tastes get refined.  You become more open minded.  Some people become more close minded but I think, if anything, we’ve become more open minded to experimentation and trying different things in our music.

The rise of Billy Talent corresponds with its members going from teenagers to adults – a time when most people establish lifelong relationships and friendships.  Has your personal life reflected that during the past two decades?

They say you meet your best friends in life [while] in college and I would have to agree with that.  I still maintain great friendships with all of my college buddies.  Yes, things have changed and it’s really hard to keep tabs on relationships and keeping up with what’s going on in your family’s lives and things like that because you’re on the road all of the time.  That part definitely changes you.

Before we got a record deal and started touring I used to be a classical animator working on kids’ TV shows.  I could see my parents whenever I wanted to. I could see my brothers.  It changes when you’re in a rock band because most of the time you’re either on the road or in the studio.  It’s a big change but it’s something you really have to want to do.  It’s been a dream for us to do since we were children.

What first interested you in playing guitar?

The movie “The Song Remains The Same” by Led Zeppelin.  My older brother used to work in a video store.  One day he brought home that movie on VHS and I immediately fell in love with Jimmy Page’s guitar playing, and I wanted to be him.  For my 13th birthday I asked for an electric guitar and that’s where it kind of all started from.

No acoustic beginnings?

I never really played acoustic before.  I did play piano when I was a kid.

What was your relationship to music before deciding on guitar?  Were you a casual radio listener or were you soaking up everything you heard?

As early as I can remember I loved music.  My mom played piano a lot to us, me and my brothers, when I was a kid.  She enrolled me in piano first because I was the only one singing along with her when she played piano.

Billy Talent is on the bill when Guns N’ Roses plays Toronto July 16.  Is that a special date for you and  yourbandmates?

We’ll be opening up for one of our favorite bands of all time.  I still can’t believe it’s happening.  I’m incredibly excited to play the show. It’s going to be awesome.

Will you just play your show and make way for GNR or will there be some moments where you can mingle with your heroes?

I’m hoping to meet [with them]. We’re definitely sticking around to watch Guns N’ Roses. We’ve met Slash once before and Duff came to one of our shows one time, during the Soundwave Festival, and hung out with us for a bit.  I’m really excited to see those guys, not only [watch them] perform but to meet the rest of the band.

You’re also playing Australia and Japan.  Will it be the same basic show or do you have a different game plan for, say Australia or festival gigs?

For the most part, we tackle things the same as we’ve been doing for 15 years.  You definitely have to tailor your setlist depending on what kind of music festival you’re playing.  That’s one of the great things about our band is we’re able to play everything from pop to metal festivals. … Playing in front of a metal crowd, they may not want to hear songs like “Surrender” or “Stand Up And Run,” songs that are a little bit more low key … and quieter.  For rock festivals we’ll play the stuff we think our fans want to hear.

Japan will be interesting because we haven’t played there in 10 years.  We’re going back to play Summer Sonic, the same festival we played 10 years ago. 

Photo: Photo by Bowman (@bowmanitis) 2016

Any places in Japan that you want to revisit?

There’s a really cool rock bar that’s been there forever that’s called “RockRock” in Osaka.  We went there 10 years ago.  It has this entire wall of Polaroids dating back to the early ’80s. All of your favorite bands are on this wall.  Van Halen … you name it.  Bands that used to visit that bar back in the day. So I’m looking forward to going back there.

You’ve done walk-ons at other bands’ shows.  What’s it like to perform outside of the Billy Talent comfort zone?

For me, when I’ve done guest vocals with friends’ bands, I’ve felt a bit naked not having the guitar on me. I’m not used to that.  Otherwise, I have gotten up and played guitar with other bands and it’s super fun.  You ‘ve just got to remember that it’s their stage, their show, and why you’re going up there.  They’re asking you to contribute to their song. It’s an honor and you’ve just got to kill it.

Is it easy for you to pick up other people’s songs?

Yeah.  I never learned guitar by reading. I still can’t read guitar tabs or anything like that. Well, tabs, maybe. [Reading] music, I learned a bit when I learned piano.  I’ve always learned things by ear.  So, for me, it’s relatively easy for me to pick something up by ear and then try to reproduce it on guitar.

When you do pick something up by ear, are you mentally identifying the notes or are you going strictly with sounds?

I’m picturing the notes, mentally, in my head … then just trying to reproduce them.  When I was growing up listening to Led Zeppelin records and listening to Jimmy Page’s riffs, I would try to play the riff over and over … try to identify the melody and keep playing until I got it right.   That’s how I learned. Just by listening to records.

So there is some mental imaging going on as well as listening to the sounds.

It’s a bit of both for me.  It’s almost like picturing music notes on a piece of sheet music in your head.  I kind of do it that way but in the end it’s all [in my ear].   You can hear when you’re playing a bad note.

Do you like to scope out the audience before the band hits the stage?

A little bit.  If there’s an opening band … just going to check in to see how the crowd is reacting, the overall mood, so you can kind of be prepared for it instead of walking out on stage and being met with crossed arms, or the opposite with everyone going crazy.  It’s good to check out the opening bands or the band before you for a little bit of mental preparation.

So even after 20 years you might still walk out knowing it’s going to be a tough crowd to win over?

All the time.  Our band gets to tour internationally but we don’t have the same following [in every country]. … There are still shows we play where people are … like, “OK. Impress us.”

What can fans expect from the upcoming tour?

We haven’t been in the U.S. in so long.  The last time we toured there was through the Vans Warped Tour. So this will be exciting for us. It’s our own show and we’ll be able to play in front of fans who haven’t seen us in three or four years.  Smaller venues, nothing like we’ve played in Canada or Germany.  But that’s the exciting part for us.

Does the band have anything new for the visual presentation?

We have new production for bigger venues but we’re trying to bring a smaller, scaled version of that [to smaller venues]. It’s something we’ve never done before.  We put a lot of thought into the stage production and we’re still figuring out what the logistics are for bringing some of that down for the U.S. tour.  I’m hoping we can bring all of it because it looks awesome.  A guy named Jordan Coopersmith designed all of our new production. It’s based around the new album’s art and it looks fantastic.

Is there a particular venue size that works best for Billy Talent?

For us it’s not about the size of the venue.  It’s the overall enthusiasm from the crowd.  It could be 300 people or 30,000.  I don’t think anything would really change for us.  Feeling like you’re one with the audience is usually the primary goal.  That they come because they listen to your music, and singing back lyrics, I think, is still the most important thing to us. But that’s not going to be case all of the time.  Like I said earlier, it’s important to always [give] your best performance.  You see some bands as they get older, they stop moving around on stage, and we just don’t want to be one of those bands.

What’s a bigger thrill for you – being in the middle of the performance, or those first minutes after walking off of the stage knowing you nailed it?

That’s probably the best part, right at the end.  The first couple of minutes of a show, you don’t know how it’s going to go.  Sometimes the audience is into it right off the band.  And sometimes they don’t really get into it until three quarters of the set. Walking off of the stage, at the end of the show or right before the encore, it’s just that great moment where you know you’ve converted them, or they’re already converted and you had a great show [and] you’re going to go back out and knock them over the head again.

While performing do you hear the same mix that the audience is hearing?

Pretty much. We used to be on Legends, which are floor monitors, forever.  Almost 20 years.  Toward the last album cycle all of us switched over to in-ear [monitor].  I was probably the last guy to do it because I always loved the feeling of being onstage and hearing the audience right away.  You hear everything – everything coming from your amp and the screams from the audience. In-ears took a bit to get used to but if anything … our vocal work is a lot better now.  You can really hear yourself a lot better.  And there are things you can do.  Our front house guys use audience mics so I can still hear the audience [through] the in-ears.  Stuff like that makes your show better and you have to be open minded toward new technology.  It’s really not new.  People have been using that for 20 years.  I think it was just new for us because we started three or four years ago.

Is there anything you want to tell the world but no one has asked the right question?

We will be touring with a drummer named Jordan Hastings, from Alexisonfire. Aaron Solowoniuk, our drummer the last 22 years has had a multiple sclerosis relapse. We miss him a lot on the road and we get to hang out with him when we’re home.  We’re keeping our fingers crossed hoping things will change for the better in the next few months and he gets a full recovery so he can come back out on the road and play drums.

It sounds as if everyone in Billy Talent acts as a support group for each other.

We’re one of those bands where we were all friends in high school.  Hang out together, have parties at our parents’ houses and get drunk together.  That will never go away.  We’ll always be a best-friend-in-high school / brotherly unit.  I think that’s probably what kept us going for so long.

Do people still ask which one in the band is Billy?

They do.  We’ll probably get that question asked a lot while in America.  The band isn’t as big there as it is in other countries. It’s a question we still get and it’s no big deal.  That’s what we get for naming our band after a fictional movie character.

Photo: Photo by Bowman (@bowmanitis) 2016
“For us it’s not about the size of the venue.  It’s the overall enthusiasm from the crowd.”

Upcoming Billy Talent shows:

July 16 – Toronto, Ontario, Rogers Centre  (with Guns N’ Roses)
July 23 – Chicoutimi, Quebec, Port Area (Festival Bieres Du Monde De Saguenay)
Aug. 11 – Brisbane, Australia, Max Watt’s
Aug. 13 – Sydney, Australia, The Metro Theatre
Aug. 14 – Melbourne, Australia, 170 Russell
Aug. 16 – Adelaide, Australia, Fowler’s Live
Aug. 17 – Perth, Australia, Capitol
Aug. 20 – Chiba, Japan, Makuhari Messe / QVC Marine Field (Summer Sonic)
Aug. 21 – Osaka, Japan, Maishima Outdoor Activities Center (Summer Sonic)
Sept. 3 – Denver, Colo., National Western Complex (Riot Fest & Rodeo)
Sept. 5 – Kansas City, Mo., The Riot Room
Sept. 6 – Minneapolis, Minn., Varsity Theater
Sept. 7 – Milwaukee, Wis., Rave Bar
Sept. 9 – Niagara Falls, N.Y., Rapids Theatre
Sept. 10 – New York, N.Y., The Gramercy Theatre
Sept. 11 – Cambridge, Mass., The Sinclair
Sept. 13 – Philadelphia, Pa., The Foundry
Sept. 14 – Washington, D.C., Rock And Roll Hotel
Sept. 16 – Grand Rapids, Mich., The Pyramid Scheme
Sept. 17 – Kalamazoo, Mich., District Square
Sept. 18 – Chicago, Ill., Douglas Park (Riot Fest)
Sept. 30 – Sterling Heights, Mich., Freedom Hill Amphitheatre (89X Chill On The Hill)
Oct. 12 – Norwich, England, Univ. Of East Anglia LCR-Union
Oct. 13 – Bristol, England, O2 Academy Bristol
Oct. 15 – Manchester, England, Manchester Academy
Oct. 16 – Glasgow, Scotland, O2 ABC Glasgow
Oct. 17 – Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, O2 Academy Newcastle
Oct. 19 – Birmingham, England, O2 Institute Birmingham
Oct. 20 – Leeds, England, O2 Academy Leeds
Oct. 22 – Nottingham, England, Rock City
Oct. 23 – London, England, Roundhouse
Oct. 24 – Cardiff, Wales, Tramshed
Oct. 26 – Southampton, England, O2 Guildhall Southampton
Oct. 27 – Paris, France, Elysee Montmartre
Oct. 28 – Antwerp, Belgium, Muziekcentrum Trix
Oct. 30 – Amsterdam, Netherlands, Melkweg
Nov. 1 – Esch Alzette, Luxembourg, Rockhal
Nov. 2 – Copenhagen, Denmark, Pumpehuset Club
Nov. 3 – Stockholm, Sweden, Fryshuset Arenan
Nov. 5 – Turku, Finland, Logomo
Nov. 6 – Helsinki, Finland, Circus
Nov. 19 – Madrid, Spain, Teatro Barceló
Nov. 20 – Barcelona, Spain, Barcelona Arts On Stage
Nov. 22 – Zurich, Switzerland, Volkshaus
Nov. 23 – Lausanne, Switzerland, Les Docks
Nov. 25 – Linz, Austria, Posthof
Nov. 26 – Vienna, Austria, Gasometer Halle
Nov. 27 – Graz, Austria, Orpheum
Nov. 29 – Munich, Germany, Zenith – Die Kulturhalle
Nov. 30 – Stuttgart, Germany, Hanns Martin Schleyer Halle
Dec. 2 – Hannover, Germany, Swiss Life Hall
Dec. 3 – Dusseldorf, Germany, Mitsubishi Electric Halle
Dec. 4 – Frankfurt, Germany, Festhalle – Messe Frankfurt
Dec. 6 – Hamburg, Germany, Sporthalle Hamburg
Dec. 7 – Leipzig, Germany, Haus Auensee
Dec. 9 – Berlin, Germany, Max-Schmeling-Halle
Dec. 10 – Lingen, Germany, EmslandArena
Dec. 12 – Poznan, Poland, Eskulap
Dec. 13 – Warsaw, Poland, Progresja Music Zone

Please visit Billy Talent’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed, YouTube channel and Tumblr HQ for more information.