Ben Kowalewicz is doing all he can to put the spunk back into punk. Although the lead singer of Canadian rockers Billy Talent is still in bed when reached on the phone at his Toronto home, he can summon up more moxie than most of the nouveau punksters could ever generate in a one-hour set in front of 10,000 fans. Billy Talent -- along with Static X -- literally blew away the rest of the poseur bands at the October 2003 Buzzfest. Kowalewicz wailed like a banshee, complete with beet-red face and neck veins a-poppin', shrieking compelling lyrics about, um, hookers and such.
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Kowalewicz, nearing 30, admits Billy Talent won't be next week's TRL darlings. He'd rather see the band remembered like Faith No More: underrated and still deemed cool even a decade after it broke up. Like FNM's Mike Patton, Kowalewicz has vocals that give Billy Talent its signature sound, one that draws heavily on hardcore and late-1970s British punk. "Yeah, that's where my vocal styling comes from," says Kowalewicz, who sported a Buzzcocks T-shirt at Buzzfest. "We think of the Clash as the template of what kind of band we want to be -- you know, they played ska, rockabilly and punk and weren't afraid to branch out -- that was punk rock, not the look they had or anything else."
Eleven years ago in the Toronto suburbs, Billy Talent began life as Pezz, but a name change became necessary when a U.S. band with the same name threatened some good ol' American litigation. Kowalewicz picked the new name after watching the cult-fave punk mockumentary Hard Core Logo, which included a drummer by the name of Billy Talent. Many a cross-Canadian tour in mind-numbing 30-below temperatures left the quartet "a little wiser, all chewed up and spit out" and fueled the band's desire to attract a big label -- in this case, Atlantic.
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Another partially masticated and digested person -- specifically, a streetwalking prostitute -- was the inspiration for their self-titled album's best cut, the resplendent-with-power-chords "Standing in the Rain." The song showcases Kowalewicz's most powerful lyrics; the young woman is characterized as a "milk carton mug-shot baby missing since 1983."
"I saw this same girl a few times who was my age, and I kept wondering what horrible things were forced upon her to make that choice," he recalls. "The words 'standing in the rain' kept going through my head. I thought 'Roxanne' was a clever way to write a song about a prostitute, but their real-life existence is this 'do a line of coke and fuck' thing. I didn't want to glorify it."