“Had I known Avec pas d’casque would last more than 13 years, I’d have chosen a different band name…”

On the eve of the release of the band’s fourth full-length album, Effets spéciaux, Stéphane Lafleur reminisces about its beginnings and its evolution. But try as he might to disavow the band’s very name, the guitarist, singer and songwriter can’t change the fact that the expression “avec pas d’casque” has become part of Québec’s vernacular. Thanks to the success of 2012’s Astronomie, the band’s audience has exploded.

“Initially, this band was almost a farce, an accident,” explains the multi-talented artist, who’s also a movie director. “There was a lot more humour in my lyrics. I truly was not expecting this to last so long. Joël Vaudreuil [drums] and I would get on stage to scream our songs as the opening act for punk band La Descente du Coude. To me, humour was a form of protection, because if people in the crowd laugh or don’t like what they hear, you can always hide behind your joke. It was much harder to stand behind my more serious lyrics, because I knew that if people thought it was corny or sucked, I couldn’t hide from it. Luckily for us, the audience jumped right into our more serious stuff. It clicked.”

The opposite would have been quite surprising. Their stunningly beautiful imagery is carried by a refined minimalism, and Avec pas d’casque’s songs express a peaceful strength that’s both modest and disarmingly sincere. “I’ve never been a stories kinda guy,” says Lafleur. “Not in my songs and not in my films, which are renowned for their ambiance. That’s what I’m into. For this record, I wanted to simplify my lyrics even further, in order to make more room for the music. There are still a lot of metaphors in what I write, but I’m really proud to have eliminated the adverb ‘comme’ from the album’s lyrics. Sounds silly, but it was a really helpful exercise. So instead of writing ‘tes yeux sont comme des diamants’ (‘your eyes are like diamonds’), I now write ‘your eyes are diamonds.’ The image is much trippier that way. It almost becomes like a graphic novel, where you actually picture diamonds instead of eyes. The universe expands before you.”

“No matter what stirs your days and mind, seeking calm will always catch up with you.”

Despite the fact that its title is a nod to the world of cinema, Effets spéciaux [Special Effects] isn’t a flashy album. Aside from the increased presence of synths (courtesy of Mathieu Charbonneau), the sound hasn’t changed drastically. “I see the title as referring to personal relationships,” says Lafleur. “There are special effects that occur when people communicate, or when bodies touch. Just before kissing someone for the first time, something happens, there’s something in the air. That idea is the basis for the concept of the album’s cover and the video for “Derviches Tourneurs” (“Whirling Dervishes”). This kind of light trail that connects the characters’ faces.”

And even though Lafleur’s lyrics are cryptic, it still comes across quite clearly that those special effects had a beneficial effect on him. Astromonie’s success (Critic’s Choice Award at the 2012 ADISQ Gala), directing the movie Tu dors Nicole, and a tumultuous love life directed him through an exhausting emotional maelstrom. “This record is about seeking calm and peace,” he says. “The most recurring words in the lyrics are ‘lenteur’ and ‘lumière’ (‘slowness’ and ‘light’). No matter what stirs your days and mind, seeking calm will always catch up with you. Whirling dervishes are dancers that spin and spin until they’re in a trance. That’s how I felt. I felt like I constantly needed to be on the run. Having a ton of exciting projects is good, but it’s easy to forget that one needs to stop and take a step back every now and then, just to understand why we do what we do. I found peace again after meeting certain people. Some people are more reassuring than others.”

And so are certain albums…and Effets spéciaux is definitely one of those.

Omnipresent hip-hop collective the Alaclair Ensemble released their fourth official album Les Frères ceuilleurs on Sept. 2, 2016, just a few months after the fun and bouncy album by Rednext Level, Maybe Watson and Robert Nelson’s side-project, and just a few weeks before KNLO’s highly anticipated first album, Long-Jeu. The Alaclair fountain clearly isn’t about to run dry of the suave grooves and captivating rhymes that we all love to consume in great quantities.

Leaning over a table on a sunny patio, Ogden Alaclair, a.k.a. Robert Nelson, enlightens us with a bit of Québec history to explain the new album title.

“Strictly speaking, it is a direct reference to the Frères chasseurs, a society founded by Robert Nelson,” and he doesn’t mean himself, but the real one, whose name he has adopted: A revolutionary patriot who declared the independence of Lower Canada in 1838, and who died in 1873 after returning to his medical practice following his militant (and military) political years.

Les Frères chasseurs? “The idea came from the Masonic lodges,” says the current Nelson. “They used hunting clubs in Québec and the American Northeast [as a disguise] to have meetings to plan the second patriot revolution, which ultimately failed.” Nelson was a Lower Canada guerilla whose goal was to get rid of the colonial power. “As for us, the hunters have become gatherers…”

“A voice, a beat, it’s still something special to us, and despite our apparent minimalist approach, it’s still a very rich way of making music.” — Robert Nelson of Alaclair Ensemble

“Our album title is true to our many references to Lower Canada,” adds KNLO, adding his own, more esoteric, explanation to it all, something that won’t surprise those who know him even a little: “There’s an underlying global concept: gather, bring bread home, put butter on the bread… Or better yet, gathering ideas from the ‘musicosphere.’ This notion becomes apparent, now that I listen to the finished album: keeping an open mind [while creating].”

The album was created as a tribe, in a cabin, under the direction of beat-maker Vlooper, who was the de facto producer, composer and musical director for Frères cueilleurs. “Of all our albums, it’s the one where one person really took control,” says Nelson. “He wanted to take on that responsibility and the idea was well received within the group.”

His productions are delectable, fresh, slightly experimental at the onset, and funkier towards the end of the album, notably on the over seven-minute closing jam, “DWUWWYL.” And it’s all interspersed with grooves that hark back to the classic New York jazz-funk sound of the ‘90s. Above all, though, the overall atmosphere of this effort isn’t as crazy as its predecessors: Les Frères cueilleurs is, almost surprisingly, the most reserved of the band’s albums, as if there was some desire to get back to their roots.

“Yes, but not a return to the roots of rap, a return to our roots,” Nelson explains. “As Alaclair, we’ve done a lot of things, we’ve explored a multitude of musical styles, and it was very liberating. But in the end, what we’ve been doing from the get-go is making beats and rapping over them. We really love making good ol’ rap. A voice, a beat, it’s still something special to us, and despite our apparent minimalist approach, it’s still a very rich way of making music, and there’s still room to be original and creative within that framework. It’s our way of celebrating rap as a medium, this thing we grew up with.”

Here’s another example of how these guys don’t do things like everyone else. Says KNLO: “I think these songs will simply tag onto to the couple of hundreds more in our repertoire, and that’s what we’ll perform on stage. Roughly.” Nelson adds: “It took us a long time to admit to ourselves that it’s not out of laziness that we never prepare set lists. As a matter of fact, when we do, it’s generally not a good show. So we just turn the V-shuffle on.”

The what? The V-shuffle, as in Vlooper shuffle. The album producer is also the DJ in charge of their concerts, a conductor who feels the atmosphere, takes the audience’s temperature, and decides what the next song will be. Each concert is absolutely unique. “We don’t even know what the next song will be,” says KNLO. “We have just a few seconds to recognize the song that’s just started and know what to do next. The idea being that each audience is different; you can’t give the same performance in an après-ski chalet in Sainte-Adèle and in Cap-aux-Meules. As a matter of fact, it’s in Cap-aux-Meules that we learned that lesson…”

“We traumatized a lot of people that night,” remembers Nelson. “We made some people very uncomfortable. That’s when we understood that we’re able to play like a boy-band as much as a punk band. It’s the audience that decides, to a certain extent. The best thing to do is still to start the show and see where it’ll go. And that’s Vlooper’s job!”

Billy Talent was ready. The album had been written, the songs had been rehearsed and the veteran hard rock Toronto quartet – 23 years and four original studio albums deep into their career – was preparing to hit the studio to record what was to become long player No. 5, Afraid of Heights.

Then tragedy stuck.

In an emotional band meeting, drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, who’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) 15 years earlier, told his longtime buddies –  singer Ben Kowalewicz, guitarist Ian D’Sa and bass player Jon Gallant – that he had to step back from his band commitment due to a flare-up.

D’Sa remembers the devastating meeting. “It was roughly September of last year,” he recalls. “We’d done a number of summer festival shows, and we noticed Aaron was struggling about three-quarters of the way into the set. That had really never happened before. His back was hurting and he was concerned that he might be having a mild flare-up.

“We were supposed to go into the studio in the Fall, and we pushed back the studio time a little. He saw a round of doctors and they confirmed it was an MS flare-up. We told him we’d push the record back until he felt better. He had learned all the songs on the drums and we were all ready to go. And then it just never really got better.

“When we rehearse, during the breaks we discuss stuff, and a lot of that ends up in the lyric.” – Ian D’Sa of Billy Talent

“A couple of months later, we had to have the most disheartening meeting you’ll ever have as a band, where Aaron basically said, ‘I won’t be able to play drums on this record and I don’t want you guys waiting around anymore. I need to get my health back in order and I think we should get someone else to record the album and tour.’”

The unanimous choice was Alexisonfire drummer Jordan Hastings, a Billy Talent tour mate for more than a decade. “He’s a really good friend and he knew Aaron’s situation,” says D’Sa. “It all worked out. He learned the songs and came to the studio with us in January.”
While Hastings joined the band for the Afraid of Heights sessions – and is now touring the world with them – D’Sa says that Solowoniuk was a welcome studio presence. “He was there every day when we were recording, taking pictures for social media,” says D’Sa. “He’s not only our drummer, but we’re all best friends from high school. He’s such an important part of the chemistry of the band that it’s good to have him there.”

The light at the end of the tunnel: Solowoniuk’s health has improved to the point that the band hopes he’ll re-join them on the road in 2017. “Over the summer he’s progressed quite a bit,” says D’Sa. “He’s looking a lot better and he’s just getting his strength back now. He hasn’t been on the kit yet, but every time we come home from tour, he’s doing better. I’m hoping by the end of this year he’ll be back on the drums again.”

Although Billy Talent members are obviously frustrated by Solowoniuk’s situation, the collective that first started out as Rage Against the Machine cover band Pezz; later gave us such memorable classics as “Try Honesty,” “Devil in A Midnight Mass” and “Rusted from The Rain”; and has since amassed sales of more than five million albums and a worldwide following, can take some consolation in delivering their most accomplished work with Afraid of Heights.

Billy Talent

Their first full studio album since 2012’s Dead Silence (2014’s Hits contained a pair of new songs, “Kingdom of Zod” and “Chasing the Sun”) is also their most topical:  the 12 songs, ranging from “Big Red Gun” and “Ghost Ship of Cannibal Rats” to “Horses & Chariots” and “Rabbit Down the Hole,” are mature observations of senseless gun violence south of the border, and the environmental decay, religious acrimony and political calamity that have plagued this planet for the past four years.

“The songs are a little bit more politically-leaning on this record than ever before,” says D’Sa, who doubled as producer of the album. “It’s a little more urgent than anything we’ve done since maybe our second album, and I think our sound is growing. There are a lot more elements being added, like pianos, synth parts, and acoustic guitars, things like that. It’s important for our band to keep growing.”

The overall Afraid of Heights theme? A study of the state of human compassion. “I would say that’s a very good synopsis of the album,” says D’Sa. “It feels like the whole theme of Afraid of Heights is a metaphor for humans being afraid of doing the right thing, which is strange: You’d think in this day and age we could make sound decisions as a collective society, but it seems to be getting worse, in a weird way.

“You look at everything from Brexit to the amount of support [U.S. presidential hopeful] Donald Trump gets – it just doesn’t feel like we’re all on the same page or moving in the right direction. So I guess this is where the metaphor comes from: We, as a society, seem to fail to understand how to feel empathy for other people… or how to put ourselves in other people’s shoes… or even feel compassion in general for others that are different from us, or have different sexual orientations, or different coloured skin. A lot of themes on the record are about that.”

For the record, those themes begin first and foremost with D’Sa. “I’ll write all the music first, and part of the lyrics – generally choruses and things like that,” he says, and adds that he often records demos in Billy Talent’s Toronto studio. “I’ll usually have the main theme or the idea behind the song there lyrically, and then Ben and I will get together and work on the lyrics for the rest of the song. It starts with the music, and then the spark of what the song will end up turning into.”

D’Sa says the topics that evolve into future songs usually stem from band discussions during rehearsals. He says there’s a natural trust between the foursome when it comes to song creation and development. “That kind of shapes the lyrics in our band,” he says. “Ben and I both know what our band stands for, and what we want to say collectively, so we’ll work the lyrics towards that, or just totally start from scratch on an idea. But a lot of it comes from conversation about things that are happening in the world. When we rehearse, that’s generally what we do: during the breaks we discuss stuff, and a lot of that ends up in the lyric.”

But there’s also room for slightly lighter fare when it comes to subject matter: “Louder Than The DJ” is “a song written in defense of rock ‘n’ roll and a reminder that rock bands are still here… it’s certainly nothing against DJs or EDM music,” says D’Sa.

As the band continues to circle the globe – this year. they’ve already played Moscow, the U.K. summer festival circuit, Japan and Australia, and will hit the U.S., Canada, the U.K. again and Germany before 2017 – Ian D’Sa says he’s proud of how creatively far Billy Talent has come, and excited about its future horizons.

It’s all in the name of progress. “When we first started in 1993, we were literally a Rage Against The Machine cover band,” D’Sa recalls. “I never thought we’d get out of that, with Ben almost rapping and all the ‘screaminess.’

“But we have. Over the years we’ve turned into this band that’s more melody-based than our early punk roots, and that’s huge. Just watching the band turn into what it is now from our early beginnings is incredible. Being able to add things like synthesizers on songs and not worry about what people think of it is a big stepping stone for us.

“And I know the four of us remain incredibly passionate about what we do.”