An Interview With Billy Talent: Reaching Great Heights

BILLY TALENT Afraid Of Heights - press photos Toronto - May 16, 2016 Dustin Rabin Photography - #2724
Billy Talent is a rarity—over the course of their 17-year career (even longer if you count their origins as Pezz, which initially formed in 1993) the Canadian four-piece has managed to keep the same lineup. But their fifth studio album, Afraid Of Heights, marked a dramatic and unfortunate change. Due to his extensive battle with multiple sclerosis, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk chose to temporarily step away from the recording of the album and the subsequent tour to make his health his main priority. But don’t be fooled, Solowoniuk’s hiatus doesn’t mean he’s going anywhere anytime soon, and his dedication to improving his condition will only ensure this.

While on an end of summer vacation with his family, Solowoniuk took the time to discuss his changed role in the band, his charity F.U.MS, and his determination to get back behind the kit as soon as possible.

Let’s start off discussing the new record, Afraid Of Heights. What do you think the biggest difference is, sound wise, between this album and 2012’s Dead Silence?

God, there are like a hundred things different, just for me because I didn’t get to play drums on it. It was a very stressful time for me personally because of some heath issues that I’ve been dealing with for many years. And it all kind of came to a halt right before I was meant to go into the studio. But I did get to be part of writing 12 of the 13 songs, and I think this record is more focused than others.

Ian [D’sa, guitarist] is the principle songwriter, and he really took the reins on this and created this masterpiece. I think it’s such a great record for Billy Talent, and I’m super proud of it. But it came with so many ups and downs that were kind of difficult to deal with but at the same time were positive, if that makes sense.

What do you mean by that?

Just the way I went into it explaining to the band that I couldn’t play drums on the record. At the beginning they were telling me that they wanted to wait, but I couldn’t have that looming over me because over the years I felt like I was pushing myself too hard just to get up on stage. I’ve just been feeling myself slow down, and having MS for 18 years now, it’s been tough. It was time for me to step back and explain to them that I didn’t want the band to stop or wait and I’m going to do everything in my power to push and get back, but I need to do that in a safe atmosphere. I had to be honest with everybody and let them know that if I can’t do it anymore I’m going to tell them. But right now I’m in the middle of focusing on mental and physical health and trying to get back on the drums, but it has been a roller coaster.

Jordan Hastings of Alexisonfire was chosen to be your temporary fill in for the recording of the album and the tour. How was this decision reached?

It came pretty fast, especially because Alexisonfire is taking a pretty big break. I had to go through some heart surgery during Dead Silence, and there was a point where I might not have been able to play, so he came up loosely in those conversations. I had surgery in February and I was back on the road in June, and looking back maybe I should have taken some time off then. But his name was always in the back of our minds because he’s not only an amazing drummer but a great friend.

For this record, you worked as the production advisor and in-studio documentarian. Would you ever consider having a career as a producer or working behind the scenes?

No way. Like right now I’m just a hobbyist photographer learning how to properly expose pictures and it’s fun, but I want to put my energy into getting healthy again. I’m putting all my eggs in that basket. It’s something I’ve always been intrigued by and I’m having fun learning it, but at the same point I’m a hobbyist drummer at the moment, too. Everybody doesn’t really understand what’s going on with me and my health, and I can be a hobbyist drummer, but to be a professional touring rock drummer it’s a lot of physical work. I don’t want to spend any other time learning anything else. Being the drummer of a rock band is really the best job in the world, so I’m going to push to do that.

Ben [Kowalewicz, vocalist] recently said that you were currently working with a team of people to get you back on the road. Any idea when that might be?

I want to say it’ll be soon. I would love to play drums on the touring cycle of this record and that’s my goal, whether that be in the fall or in the winter or the spring. But I have a team of nutritionists and endurance specialists, and I’ve very blessed to have these people helping me not only physically but mentally as well. I’m hoping for the Canadian tour, which will be early next year.

Will you be attending any of the shows in the meantime?

It’s hard. The band did a couple of shows in Quebec recently and it was Jon’s [Gallant, bassist] birthday, so I went to those. But it was hard. I think I could spend my time better if I was home resting and getting back on the drums. It’s fun to go see them play, but it comes with a lot of travel and a lot emotionally. It’s a little bit too much for me to go out and see them every night, that’s for sure. I’ll probably pop into a few shows on the tour coming up, but I think it’s in my best interest to stay home and keep working on getting back on stage. The first show I saw them play was with Guns N’ Roses, which was so weird on so many levels (laughs).

Why do you say that?

They were at the Rogers Center, which is a big stadium in Toronto. It was the last big venue that we had never played, and for us to be able to play it and open for Guns N’ Roses in front of almost 50,000 people is amazing. But I was at the front of house kind of like peering up watching them play and wanting to be on stage with them. It was just so, so crazy. But you know, it’s life.

I wanted to go back to discuss writing Afraid Of Heights a bit more. As a band that’s been around for quite some time, is it difficult to try to appease older fans while simultaneously growing as musicians?

You don’t want to write the same thing over and over again, but you don’t want to do things too differently. There’s a line that you have to cross. A band like Bad Religion has this luxury of being able to release amazing punk rock songs that have the same sound to them from when I was 16 years old riding around on my BMX bike listening them. Then they realized an album like True North, which just came out a couple years ago, it has the same impact and is just as catchy.

But with our band, I think that formulaic sound is Ian’s guitar playing because it’s so unique. We have this thing where if you hear the opening you know it’s a Billy Talent song, and we never want to stray away from that, but you always want to push yourself to do bigger and different things while keeping the core essence of that unique sound that people love. I think Ian puts so much time and so much effort into making these beautiful and amazing guitar riffs, and all of that combined with Jon’s bass playing and Ben’s voice is just great.

I also wanted to take some time to talk about your organization, F.U.MS. Can you tell me a little about that?

I was diagnosed with MS at 24, and by the time I got to be 28 I began to find that young children were getting diagnosed at eight or 12 or 14, and I saw this lack of youth-based programs. It was more of an older person in a wheelchair type thing. So I put on some punk rock shows, some art shows, and some golf tournaments to raise money to start these cool programs, like a camp for kids with MS. It’s a hard thing to deal with, so we get these kids together from all over Canada and America, and even the German MS Society sends one kid every year. But one thing they all have in common is the fact that they have to take medicine for this disease that is very hard on the body.

This has been going for 10 years now and I still have a lot of work to do with it, but it’s just me trying to give back. One thing about taking time off playing drums is that it has given me the opportunity to get more involved in the organization, too. I’m planning on maybe running in this muck run that they do, which is like an obstacle course, just trying to let people know that the youth that are affected by this disease need help. We all need help, but it was born out of the lack of resources for youth.

Billy Talent will be performing at Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan on Sept. 10 and The Foundry at The Fillmore in Philadelphia on Sept. 13. Their new album, Afraid Of Heights, is available now through The End Records. For more information, go to