When you think about current Canadian musicians on the world stage, there are a few names that immediately come to mind. Avril Lavigne. Nickelback. Arcade Fire. Feist. For better or worse—depending on taste—these artists are de facto representatives of Canadian culture, selling millions of albums and winning over countless fans while simultaneously waving the Canadian flag. We might love our Hip and our Stompin' Tom, but when a Japanese music fan thinks of Canada they're more likely to think about Simple Plan or Sum 41.
One homegrown band that does a surprising amount of business overseas is Billy Talent. The Toronto-based quartet—which hits the Metro Centre stage on September 8—is as popular in Europe it is in Canada, headlining festival dates and earning a German platinum album (200,000 sold) for its latest disc II. Guitarist Ian D'Sa says relentless touring is the key to the band's success abroad.
"To us the most important thing is touring," he says over the phone from a concert stop in London, England. "You can download a live concert, but you can't replicate the feeling of seeing a live band. Other bands will ask us, "How come you guys are so big over there?' and it's because it's where the band focuses most of its time. You have to beat the road as much as you can."
D'Sa practices what he preaches. Billy Talent has spent the better part of 16 months on the road promoting II, a solid slab of angst-driven, hook-filled rock. Mixing monster riffage with classic-pop chord-changes and a newfound focus on melody, the album appeals to both aggressive-minded individuals and those who like the big chorus.
D'Sa says the band's musical evolution came naturally over time. "As you play more and more you get used to songwriting in a melodic sense," he explains. "Some of the songs from the first album were written in 2001, and by the time we got around to writing the new record in 2005 we wanted to put more emphasis on melody, where it was important, and place focus on the parts that are raw and aggressive. We wanted to put out an album that was solid the whole way through, not one or two good songs and a bunch of filler."
While D'Sa and company have only been in the national spotlight for a few years, the band has existed in one form or another since 1993. Initially working under the name Pezz, they released one independent album (Watoosh!) and built a following in Toronto before signing to Warner and becoming Billy Talent in 2001. It took an entire decade before the band's self-titled debut made it a household name, but D'Sa isn't complaining.
"It was pretty strange having all of this success 12 years later," he says. "When you're in your early 20s"—all of the band members are now in their early 30s—"you have all the time in the world to tour, tour, tour, but the first big blowup or lineup change is kind of a shitty time to go through. We were more prepared for it."
Following the Metro Centre show, the quartet will take a break from the road to focus on material for its third album. Until that's released, the band plans on satiating fans' appetites with a live DVD of its European adventures, including a full live concert from London's prestigious Brixton Academy.
"We're putting out the live DVD because it'll be such a long time between records," says D'Sa. "It'll be cool for Canadian fans to see the stuff that's happening for us in Europe."
With Canada and Europe clearly conquered, will Billy Talent spread the Can-rock love south of the border? The band has toured Stateside with moderate success, but album sales have been lacklustre thus far, and the band has focused much of its energy to its existing (and much larger) fan bases elsewhere. Still, D'Sa enjoys occasionally jumping off the festival and arena circuit to do a US club tour.
"It's a welcome break," he says. "You have a flashback from when you first started playing shows at the Horseshoe Tavern. It makes you know where you came from."
Billy Talent w/illScarlett and The Saint Alvia Cartel, September 8 at the Halifax Metro Centre, 7:30pm, $27.50-$39.50, 451-1221, www.ticketatlantic.com