A Vivoscene Feature Interview by Jeff Halperin
I sat down with Jon Gallant, Billy Talent’s bass player, at Lady Marmalade in Toronto’s East End for a long talk and an out-of-this-world bacon, avocado and brie baguette. Now any celebrity with a brain appears decent when people are listening, but Gallant gives the impression that if you were to put a hundred random people in a room, he’ll be the nicest, most humble of all, never mind he’s a rock star. When we met, he started interviewing me, probing and seeing what I do with my life–I didn’t publish it here because his life is decidedly more interesting. If that wasn’t enough, the guy wouldn’t let me pay for lunch. Too nice.
Sure, the dialogue meanders a bit, but rigid, scripted interviews are predictable and filled with stock answers to worn out questions. I happily discarded my list of questions, sneaking the important ones in on the sly. We discussed the ins and outs of the music industry, making videos, various ways success affects people (from K-OS and Metric to no-name Americans like the Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon). Of course we touched on religion, both Christianity and the Maple Leafs. I suspect Canadian celebrities are inclined to profess a love of hockey, but Gallant is a knowledgeable hockey nut who grew up playing the sport. Let me unequivocally declare in this space that if people start calling the exciting Leaf prospect Jake Gardiner the “Gardiner Expressway,” it’s a name Jon Gallant coined first.
Jeff: The biography on your website makes it sound like, in the early days, when Billy Talent was called Pezz, your success was gradual, but inevitable. On Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, you were all working and maxing out credit cards to produce your first album…
Gallant: It was anything but inevitable. Aaron worked at Chrysler, so he had a good job. We were maxing out his credit cards. I was finishing my degree. We broke up twice, briefly. We were totally on our own until 2001, anything we got we got for ourselves. Ian was in Montreal, he’d come in a couple times a month to rehearse, or do shows. I told them, “I need three months off away from music. My girlfriend and I are driving around Canada. I understand if you need to find a new bass player, but when I come back I want to be fully committed.” This is just before we became Billy Talent. I went, and they understood, and while I was gone they played with some good bass players, seriously good ones. Thankfully they took me back!
J: Wow! Like that guy who quit the Beatles. [Laughs]
G: We sent demos out everywhere, did as many shows as we could get. When we sold out the Horseshoe, and it wasn’t just our friends coming, I knew things were good. Ben met Jen working at the Edge, and she really liked us. She came to our shows. She got hired by EMI, and on her form they asked “what band are you listening to now?” She said us: she backed us. They flew us to New York, took us for dinners, and then we knew we were getting signed. Jen introduced us to Michael at EMI publishing, and he came to our rehearsal wanting to sign us, but first he said, “sit down with [producer] Gavin Brown.” He said he could really, focus the band and focus our sound. And Gavin really did help us a lot.
J: How do you get that job, working for really good bands and telling them how to get better?
G: Networking, but you have to have a really good ear for talent, have talent yourself. Gavin’s one of the best drummers in Canada. He can play every instrument. He’s a music guy, he knows what it takes to connect through music to everybody in this restaurant. He’d know how to take a Rush song, take all the parts, and rearrange it into a 2-3 minute pop song everybody would like. Some people have those skills. We want everybody to like our band. We want a guitar player to hear us and say, “wow, I want to learn that guitar part.” I think that’s the challenge for a lot of bands now. A lot of bands feel awkward about it…Rage Against the Machine. A lot of our influences are those types of bands, Green Day.
J: The tension between not selling out but being popular.
G: The term “selling out” is a bit retarded.
J: Well, willing to sacrifice your sound for success. I know, that term gets abused. When people make money it’s not selling out. You can be very commercial, very successful, and be true to yourself.
G: Yeah. If Fugazi wrote all these pop songs…because they were so against that. It’s mostly artists that judge other artists. That term has gotta be the conception of some cynical musician who wasn’t having the success he felt he deserved. I think a lot of artists struggle with success, doubted themselves after. K-OS has always struggled with being popular. Kings of Leon…they get mad at their crowd because their crowd only knows their two hits. Metric also went through that, they had a hard time becoming a very popular band because they were big in the East here, popular, cool and underground for so long, then they became a really big Canadian band. But I think finally they realised, “Well we haven’t really changed much. Maybe our songs are a little bit more focused, but we’re still a really cool band.”
J: You can’t control your fans. It almost seems like they don’t like their fans.
G: Yeah, it does come across that way. I think they’re more worried about what their peers are thinking about their fans.
J: Oh, right…like they’re trying to cater to them.
G: Yeah, but anyway, that whole thing is pretty ridiculous. I would love playing in stadiums around the world, if we could connect with that many people. Because we’ve always done it our own way, and we’ve always listened to other people, but we only listen to it if it’s a valuable piece of information. Gavin said a lot of things that make sense. “OK, maybe you’re right. Smart.”
J: Musically, or business advice?
G: Anything. And he also told us a bunch of things he didn’t like that he was wrong about. He didn’t think “Fallen Leaves”, one of our biggest songs, had a chorus. We’re sitting there, “you’re ridiculous, this is gonna be the chorus.” You fight for what you believe in. You should always respect what people have to say, at least listen. When you get into the music business, at any level, you’re entering into partnerships in a way, because as soon as you start taking money from somebody they’re gonna wanna have a voice. You have to at least let them say something, and then you take it for what it’s worth, and show them the respect. That’s gone a long way for us, because you end up making friends and believers, and you’re gonna have people fighting for you when you’re not around.
J: Is it a mix? Like, musically they’re fighting for you, or personally because of the way you’re interacting with them?
G: I think it’s personal a lot of times because people don’t have any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to music. You make them feel like, “those guys are actually willing to listen to my opinion.” And when they start to like you as people that goes a long way. We’ve always carried ourselves that way and I think that’s had something to do with being 27 when when we got signed, not 21. We knew what it took to develop relationships, we knew how to treat people. All four of us are good people. People walk away saying, “not only are they a cool band, but they’re really nice people.” They’ll want to help you because there’s a lot of cool bands out there where the guys are dicks, and it’s ended up coming back to haunt them.
J: My guess is the most dedicated musicians who achieve fame and stay current have to be grounded to try and write better music with all the distraction.
G: The mega stars that I’ve met, the Foo Fighters, I’ve met a couple Red Hot Chili Peppers at one festival, Alanis Morissette. The biggest, richest people in our industry are always down to earth and the nicest people. It’s just easier to be that way. Smarter. Not that it’s fake either. We’re nice guys, we’ve been walked over by people…it ends up being like a touring thing where you hire guys to come on the road with you who you might not be able to trust. Nothing’s really worked out for us in the States. We’ve been told so many lies by the American record companies, but that’s never changed us. Maybe it’s made us cynical.
J: Have the Canadian record companies been different?
G: Probably not. They may have done the same things if the band didn’t make money for them, but I definitely got to know a lot of the people at the record company that I work with, they’re all my friends. The President of Warner Canada is Steve Kane. Amazing, really nice man, supported F.U.M.S. [Billy Talent supports the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada Scholarship Fund] and everything else we’ve ever done. They’ve given us extra money here and there because they believed in us. When we wanted the tank for the MMVAs…people show up in fancy vehicles, so we wanted to show up in a tank [laughter]. They rented one for us. They spent five grand doing it because they thought it was a smart idea. It’s a good marketing expense.
J: Were you driving it?
G: A guy named Frank was driving it…Frank the tank. [Laughter] So we’ve had a good relationship with our European labels too. With the States it’s never worked out.
J: You guys are huge in Germany.
G: Yeah, we’re as big there as we are here.
J: They have 85 million people.
G: Yeah, second biggest music market in the world.
J: They have a huge underground scene, alternative…very cultured.
G: They got us right away. I don’t think we’ve ever been too American. Most of the music like ours seems to stay underground in the States.
J: I don’t think the States like things too subtle. They want things blaring.
G: Exactly…streamlined, very easily understandable. In Canada we always got through, in Europe they’re a little bit more sophisticated, they keep more of an open mind. In Canada, we get Canadian content laws to help you out. If your song isn’t responding well on radio in the States it’s going to get pulled, but in Canada, if it’s Canadian, they’ll keep it going a little bit longer because they need Canadian content. Then it’ll start to catch on. When we released our first record with “Try Honesty” and “The Ex,” things were OK, but it was just kind of we’re not that top level. Then we we released “The River Below,” and that video and that song just kinda took off and changed that whole record around. It was a big single.
J: You have a lot of kids in your videos. I know when your band was starting to take off you guys were having kids yourselves, but was that an important thing for Billy Talent from the outset?
G: Yeah…it’s funny that you say that. I’ve never really thought about it…”Rusted From the Rain,” “Devil in a Midnight Mass.” I don’t know, we never really actively thought about it.
J: It’s just the innocence, trying to do right.
G: There’s something you can learn from kids, they have all the right attitudes, when you look at one you just see nothing but potential. I guess that’s always resonated with us, people living up to their potential. And trying to do good things for yourself and for other people. “Red Flag” video had that. Yeah maybe!
J: The “Rusted From the Rain” video, the junk yard, with the carousel…
G: All these videos are, ironically, other people’s ideas. I guess they must be pulling these themes out of our lyrics. When we sit down to make a video, we give the song out to a bunch of video directors and get them to write treatments for it. Then we pick the best one, and we sit down and adjust that guy’s treatment. So all those videos were initially the director’s ideas, then we worked on the video and developed something better. We appreciate that artform too, we always wanted to have good videos. Must be their reaction to our lyrics.
J: Billy Talent has the record for most MMVA nominations with 46. How excited do you get for videos compared to writing and playing music?
G: Videos are fun. They’re a little bit more tedious. Now we’ve done so many we know what to expect, they’re going to be long days. But it’s cool.
J: Do you think the novelty has worn off a bit?
G: Umm, ya.
J: You’d never say that for music because you’re a musician first and foremost. I wonder if videos are kind of a burden?
G: The novelty of making a new video, a really awesome video, doesn’t wear away. Coming up with the ideas is a bit painful. Going through the process: production meetings, shooting. All that’s out of our element. Then you gotta perform in front of the camera and there’s a bunch of people behind the camera. Nothing feels natural. I wouldn’t call it a burden, but it’s not that fun.
J: I’m just not sure there’s a parallel in other industries. If you’re a writer, you’re not expected to make a video, you know?
G: If you’re a writer and you released a book you’d have to go on a press tour, and do autograph signings.
J: Ya, there’s a discussion how much writers should participate in social media, promotion. I guess it’s a new reality. But a press tour for an author isn’t a separate art. Your videos are for the fans, they’re cool! They’re not done haphazardly. My guess is not all musicians like doing videos, or have a real taste for film.
G: “No. I’m 36, videos were important to me growing up, they were still relatively new. So we’re still excited to make a new video. We’ve been off for so long, now we’re going to the studio. It’s all cycles. It’s been a while since we filmed. It’s happening in Spring when we figure out what the next single’s gonna be to support the album release. So I’m kinda looking forward to it, but after that first one I’ll probably not be looking forward to doing the next video. One of the things that makes it not as enjoyable is that we all want a voice. It’s not just one guy, all four of us are in everything we do. Some of us are better at it than others. One guy in the band, to get a phone call back from the guy it’s like pulling teeth. It’s just impossible.
You got a director, production company, your manager, and the band. You gotta have a conference phone call about this video. We all read treatments–some people do it and some people don’t. The challenge of all the logistics becomes a pain in the ass. Then you do the video, the editing. It’s definitely not what you think you’d be up to as a kid when you want to be in a band. All you really think about is playing shows.”
J: Ben’s out there all over the place, obviously, but in your videos you’re generally behind…even in your picture on the site you’re covering your face. And in the “Fallen Leaves” video you’re pulling the blinds down on your face.
G: [laughs] That was Dean’s car idea. You probably just stumbled on a couple coincidences. But I definitely try not to speak too much. Ben’s the voice of the band, he’s the front man. I’m totally aware of that, totally comfortable. I’ve got my own jobs in the band, and he’s the best at it. We’re in our seventeenth, eighteenth year, we’ve all molded into what we’re going to be. So if there’s a time where the band needs a voice, it’ll be the four of us standing there and Ben will talk. He’s the best at it, why not let him do it?
J: For that reason, I’m glad you sat down to hang out! [Laughter] Fame hasn’t distracted you from developing musically over your albums, whereas some bands peak in their first or second. All posturing aside, how do you guys all insulate yourselves from the acclaim and all the distractions?
G: It’s the way we were brought up. My dad was a great mechanic because he cared; he takes pride in his work. That spread down to me, same with the guys in the band. Anybody who is going to be successful is gonna want to do it as best they could. My dad’s washing the guy’s car, it’s going to take him five minutes, but the guy walks away and says, “wow, I brought my car in for an oil change, but I got my car washed.” My dad said he was the best mechanic in the shop…I feel the same way as a bass player. I know I’m a top notch bass player. I’ve put the time in, I’ve got my 10,000 hours, but I also realize I’m not the best bass player in the city. [Laughs]
J: There are other players with 10,000. When you get to that level, that’s just something else. I don’t know if I’m looking at something else that isn’t there, but there are mentions throughout your music of the devil, and other religious references. Do you guys have a stance on organized religion?
G: All of us are pretty much probably against it. I know I am, I feel it causes more bad than good. I like the ethics behind Christianity. But I’ve always lived by the philosophy, “do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” Treat people like you want to be treated. Show respect. Try not to make judgements at least until you have some basis. So I respect all that stuff from religion, but I think we’ve all been a little bit scarred here and there. Ian and I are Catholics. We all met at Catholic school…there’s a little anger in us in, the fact that we’ve been brainwashed. That’s basically what happens when you’re raised that way. Eventually your personality is going to be changed.
J: It comes back to the kids.
G: Yeah, there you go. And it’s vivid imagery that a lot of people can relate to. That’s probably why it’s on the top of Ben and Ian’s minds when they’re writing lyrics. How many times when you stub your toe and you say, “Jesus Christ.” It’s just a part of your fabric. So when there’s a line like, “Devil On My Shoulder,” it’s because they wanted to write a song about…we have so many buddies whose lives are wasted away, and they’re getting older and older, and they keep on listening to the devil on their shoulder. It’s an expression. But I guess because we’ve done it so many times it is a bit of a pattern.
J: I didn’t know if it was a Robert Johnson kinda thing, because you sign a contract with the devil.
G: Oh yeah, in the video. Yeah.
J: “Devil in a Midnight Mass” was obviously the true story about the priest who raped kids, got sent to jail where he was killed by an inmate. So I knew that it was about the incident, not religion in general.
G: We’ve got other songs…there’s kind of an instant effect on a person who’s listening to it when you reference something like that because everyone can relate to it. Especially with the devil…in religious terms everyone’s walking with the devil every day.
J: I’m an atheist, but I still like reading the Bible. It used to be that everybody knew it, so when I hear a reference to the devil I don’t necessarily think it’s religious per se. It’s highly effective symbolism…universal.
G: I’m sure there’ll be songs on this album referencing it too. I kind of appreciate my Catholic guilt…it keeps me in line. There’s some value to it. I don’t like the thoughts that if I jerked off I’m going to grow hair on my palm.[Laughter]
J: I think some atheists think something’s bad because it’s religious…that’s silly. But the whole jerking off thing, come on! [Laughter] You said that the first three albums were a trilogy and the fourth would be different. There’s already such an arc to your development, like “White Sparrows” couldn’t have been made on your first album. What’s changed for the fourth album [tentatively called X]?
G: I think when we say the trilogy thing it’s just kind of an easy way of saying we’re done with the numbers.
J: You’re onto letters.
G: Yeah. [Laughter] Or the year. But every album there’s a development from the previous. Putting “Nothing to Lose,” last song on the first record, it’s a slow song. It gave us an opportunity to do something different with the second to write “Surrender” and “Pins and Needles.” And those songs allowed us to write “Rusted From the Rain” and “White Sparrows.”
J: They’re lyrical, but it doesn’t betray your earlier sounds, just more mature.
G: Well, “Rusted From the Rain” is the most too because it’s probably the closest we have to a Nickleback rock song. Not that it’s anything close to that–just a mid-tempo rock song. So we just want to stop with the numbers and figured three was a good way to do it. It sounds like a trilogy. Albums can roped into one another for themes and stuff like that, and now we’re just ready to do whatever we want to do.
J: So there’s no radical departure, it’s the same kind of development…
G: Yeah. There seems to be a lot on this record that reminds me of what we did on the first. But we might use some acoustic guitars, a piano, depending on how some of it sounds on…so far it seems like a pretty heavy record, which is great. It’s going to be hard to name it. That was one of the reasons we used the numbers, to not go through that process of naming. How do you sum up all the songs in a phrase that’s going to be not stupid or not too long? You need something direct and short, that’s cool. Really easy to say.
J: I think that’s where the White Album must have come from. They tried to avoid naming it.
G: If you name it after one song then it puts all the focus on that one song. That was the total reasoning behind naming the second album II.
J: Call it ‘No Name’.
G: Maybe. Well, the first album didn’t have a name. So that second one, Ian came in one day and said, “you guys want to just name it II?” We said, “yeah.” We didn’t really want to do it for III, but we got lazy. There was a deadline so we had to have a name.
J: Call it‘ TBA’.
G: To be announced [laughter].
J: Did you feel either a greater thrill, or a sense of validation, from being number one in the charts and winning Junos, or after Brendan O’Brien (producer for Pearl Jam, Chili Peppers, tons more) were willing to come to Toronto to produce your third album? What gave you a better sense of, “we made it, people take us seriously?”
G: Probably selling out tours in Germany. Touring after our first record for eighteen months across Canada, ending in Prince George, with Metric and Death From Above…it was so much fun. And by the end of the tour we each made 25 grand and felt like we were rich. “Wow, this is incredible.” We were coming off the road, tired. Like I said before, you’re never really certain [how long it can last]. But the second record, all of our tours were sold out in advance. Everywhere the crowds were great, and there was momentum. That’s when I probably felt the best. “Wow…I’m a band guy now.” The Juno awards, MMVA nominations, that’s just gravy. We never really think about that, all we really think about is writing awesome songs, and trying to be as good as we can when we play live.
J: Well, Junos are a symbol of the resonance, right?
G: It’s great for my parents to hold on to, “my son won a Juno,” not “my son’s in a rock band.” So it’s validation for people on the outside, the buddy, son or brother.
J: This summer I’ve been writing some serious things, but the only thing to get published was a little humour piece on the Walrus comedy site…I mean the thing was a joke, “Why Plants are Better Than Dogs,” [Laughter] and people say, “wow, you’re a published author.” It’s not an achievement, so I’m thinking, “for that?” There’s such a disconnect.
G: That’s exactly what a Juno does. To keep you grounded, I’m also a published author and I have no writing experience.
J: Thanks, but believe me, I’m grounded!! [Laughter]
G: I wrote a piece for Bass Player magazine.
J: And you have a shoe in the Bata shoe museum? You did the art for that?
G: Oh, has that already been displayed?
J: It was on twitter; there’s a pair of New Balance shoes with a dragon or a monster painted on them.
G: I don’t know how that got out there. I did that totally on the down low.
J: Social media.
G: That’s so funny. My sister’s friend works for New Balance and they do the Walk For Cancer thing, sponsored event, and they asked me if I’d paint a pair of shoes and put them in there to help promote it, I really didn’t tell the band about it. I was a week late with the submission. I didn’t really think it’d be a big deal, like “yeah I’ll decorate a shoe,” but then I got into it, tried to make them cool.
J: You’re a musician, author, and you’ve got a painting in a museum! [Laughter]
G: A real renaissance man. If only I could play for the Leafs.
J: I was going to ask, you got a song in NHL ’09…
G: Yeah, and it’s cool going to Leaf games and hearing my band play during commercial breaks. I got tickets for tomorrow (home opener vs the hated Canadiens [2-0 Leafs]).
J: I saw the Leaf key on your ring.
G: That’s our studio key. We got a fantasy pool draft, tomorrow I’m gonna go to the game. I watched almost every pre-season game. It’s really pathetic how much I bleed blue and white.
J: I’m the same!
G: Grabovski and Kulemin look really good, I love that guy.
J: He’s a beast. I said early, he’s assertive. Most young players aren’t.
G: He’s got such great jump and explosive speed. He can turn at a right angle or 180 degrees and he’s gone.
J: He strips people of the puck, he digs.
G: He’s the best player on the team.
J: Grabovski too…
G: I picked him in our pool late rounds…those guys together are going to get 70 points. I’m worried about Reimer. There’s a lot of pressure. He’s really not proven, only thirty games.
J: He seems so grounded, I don’t think it’s getting to his head. Whether he has the ability, or whether scouts and players figure him out…when you start nobody knows how to score on you yet. It’s hard to know how much that accounts for.
G: Watching the pre-season too, you see how many players are firing [location withheld for confidentiality], over and over, the guys in the NHL now know to shoot [location withheld]. He was down a little early…
J: I feel like I don’t even want to publish this! [Laughter] And Burke said, “when the goalie’s not playing well, it’s corrosive for the team, ” and, “I have confidence in these young guys, but if they stumble we’ll need to do something.” Weird.
G: I read something about that. Well, they’d have to do something about that if they stumble out of the gate.
J: But you don’t need to say that. Adds pressure for no reason. Young guys know to play well to stay in the NHL. If you don’t know that, what hope is there? I don’t dislike Burke, but that seemed like a weird thing to say.
G: I have mixed emotions about Burke. Generally I think I like him, but I don’t like that Colton Orr has a roster spot.
J: And David Steckel?
G: They just picked him up.
J: He’s 6”5 slow, 12 points in 70 games.
G: Fourth line centre.
J: We had young kids competing? Why do that?
G: I know, and he’s on the hook for 1.1 million, two more years. This year and next year.
J: There’s a Jeff Halprin in the NHL, David’s my middle name and Stackle’s my mother’s maiden name.
J: Every form of myself is there but me. [Laughter]
G: Writing for the Leafs would be pretty good, but I could see those guys getting pretty cynical.
J: I wrote a piece last year on the Leafs after the guy was throwing waffles on the ice, a real low in a season of lows. I was just writing about the team and the “eggo bomber,” and we sent it to him and he was angry at what I wrote, so he and I were going back and forth, and I realised he didn’t think I was a Leaf fan because I was critical…
G: There are two types of Leaf fans…there’s Tony from Woodbridge who thinks Tie Domi should be captain, just has no understanding of what hockey is, but he loves the team and thinks they can do no wrong. Then there’s guys like me who’ve played hockey their whole lives who know the team’s deficiencies.
J: What do you think about Kessel?
G: He’s got so much talent, he’s amazing to watch. He just has nobody to play with…put him on with a responsible centre and he’s going to be a really effective player.
J: Streaky, sure, the way goal scorers are. We haven’t had a guy like him since Mogilny, only he’s 24 not 30 something.
G: It took Yzerman 10-12 years to figure it out, learn how to be a complete player, win cups.
J: What do you think about the Kessel trade?
G: In hindsight maybe it was a mistake…would have been good to keep those picks, Seguin’s gonna be a solid NHL player, but I’m fine with it.
J: Me too.
G: It made so much sense because it looked like he was going to be the missing piece to bring them back to the playoffs; then the team just shit the bed. But Burke has made some really killer trades.
J: I don’t even know the other guy Boston got with their pick. Listen, they’re happy with Seguin, they won their cup, they didn’t lose the deal, but how much better can Seguin possibly be? Maybe we could have got a better deal if we knew it’d be a second overall pick…
G: I think they have enough confidence if all those guy stay healthy. There’s enough offence, the defence is decent if they decide to sit out Komisarek. But I gotta coin the phrase for that new guy, Gardiner…the Gardiner Expressway! [Laughter] Haven’t heard that yet.
J: That’ll take off!