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.”

“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.

At a time when art forms increasingly intermingle and overlap, Québec’s stage directors are gradually investing in the province’s music ecosystem. Previously reserved for large-scale spectacles, their music is now recognized as essential in all kinds of productions, regardless of budget. Following is an overview of a phenomenon that’s grown steadily over the past decade.

Yann Perreau

Yann Perreau (Photo: LePigeon)

A pioneer in stage direction, dating back to the colourful shows back in the day of his old band – Doc et les chirurgiens – Yann Perreau had an epiphany in 2004.

His curiosity was piqued by the Michel Faubert-directed concert by Pierre Flynn, Vol solo. “I wondered what possible use a singer could have for a stage director… It was quite nebulous to me,” Perreau remembers. “So, after one of the shows, I met both men at L’Esco [a popular watering hole for artists in Montréal]. I was so enthralled by our conversation that I immediately asked Michel to direct my next show. He’s the one who told me to trust my music instead of constantly addressing the audience and sticking my foot in my mouth.”

Armed with this new-found confidence, the singer-songwriter trusted himself for the creation of Perreau et la lune, a show that earned him the Stage Director of the Year award at the 2007 ADISQ Gala. Increasingly renowned for that talent, he followed up by directing shows for Queen Ka, Ines Talbi and Chinatown and tapped Brigitte Poupart for her feedback in creating his own Un serpent sous les fleurs tour.

Mainly known for her theatre work, Poupart had tried her hand at music concert direction when she collaborated on electro duo’s Beast’s stage show. “Initially, the producers could hardly justify my role,” she says. “To them, I only represented useless additional costs. I had to show them how important I am… I explained that I was there to ensure that a certain quality standard was in place and respected.”

Brigitte Poupart

Brigitte Poupart (Photo: Fabiola Monty)

“Back then, a lot of people saw stage direction as high-falutin’,” remembers Perreau, who’ll be at the helm of SOCAN’s Montréal Gala on Sept. 12, 2016. “In actual fact, a stage director is simply an outside eye. It’s thanks to them that a show starts to shine.”

In other words, beyond artistic direction, stage direction and lighting, a stage director acts as a co-ordinator. That, in any case, is how Poupart approaches her role for smaller-budget productions such as Alexandre Désilets’ La Garde. “There were fewer people onstage, so we put a lot of thought into the show’s pacing and the interpretation of the songs. Désilets is such an accomplished musician, all I had to do was shine a light on him,” says the director of other contemporaries, such as Louis-Jean Cormier, Lisa LeBlanc and Misteur Valaire.

“Brigitte’s main advantage is that she knows the industry inside and out,” says Désilets. “She has an uncanny ability for mapping precisely the artistic direction imagined by the artist.”

Perreau also favoured an understated stage direction for Patrice Michaud’s latest tour. “For his first show, he mostly sat, a bit like a raconteur,” says Perreau. “For this one, he wanted things to rock a little more. So we worked on pacing, so that the show would grow in momentum. I did away with anything superfluous to create a show as efficient as a Springsteen concert.”

Working “Like a Duck”

At the other end of the spectrum, certain stage shows call for a lot more creativity and expense. Both memorable events, Pierre Lapointe’s Mutantes (2008) and the collective 12 hommes rapaillés (2009) marked their era through their theatrical stage direction by, respectively, Claude Poissant and Marc Béland.

More recently, Perreau himself went all out for an event called Piaf à 100 ans. Vive la Môme! presented during the Francofolies de Montréal. “I wanted to re-create Paris in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s by developing a dream-like fairground cabaret concept,” says Perreau. “I got the same argument over and over: it should be very understated… for me it was exactly the opposite,” he says, amused, reminding us that there was a real carousel onstage. “But in the end, I decided to take it as a compliment. The secret to good stage direction is to make it look easy. It’s very much like a duck: on the surface, not much happens, but underwater there’s a lot going on!”

Albeit in a completely different style, stage director Antoine Laprise faced quite a challenge when creating the stage show for Keith Kouna’s Le voyage d’hiver.

With a “minuscule” production budget, he managed to breathe life into this masterpiece, which re-visits German composer Franz Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle. “It’s the kind of challenge that thrills me,” says Laprise. “When the budget is limited, imagination kicks in. We worked with a slanted backdrop that had, way at the back, a perspective-distorted fridge. From that, we worked on 24 different scenes for the 24 different songs. It wasn’t always a cakewalk, but I was blessed to work with a very motivated actor. In the end, we created nothing short of a one-man opera.”

“That’s when I understood that restraints also bring about liberty and creativity,” says Kouna himself. “When you don’t have budgetary constraints, it’s easy to get lost and end up with a much less interesting artistic result.”

An Indispensable Expertise?

Keith Kouna

Keith Kouna (Photo: Jay Kearney)

Thrilled by his experience, Kouna nonetheless believes that the expertise of a stage director is not always indispensable. “It does serve more conceptual shows, but otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do a regular Keith Kouna show where I know exactly everything that’s going to happen,” says the artist, who also sings for punk band Les Goules.

On the contrary, Poupart’s steadfast artistic vision leads her to be convinced that any and all artists benefit from a stage director. Moreover, she believes that it’s at least in part because of the renewed quality of stage shows that the Québec music industry has continued to flourish despite the decline in record sales. “Regardless of the changes in this industry, the audience will always seek a collective experience,” she says. “That’s why there are still movie- and theatre-goers, and why there will be concert-goers for a long time to come.”

Less certain, Alexandre Désilets remains cautious about this widespread belief. “For 10 years now, everybody’s been saying to go all-out with your stage show, because that’s where the money is,” he says. “Yet it still feels like we’re all struggling to survive. It’s not true that because your show was created by a stage director, your ticket sales are going to increase… It’s not that clear-cut.”

But regardless of the economic stakes, Perreau believes that such collaborations between stage directors and music creators are the signs of a positive evolution of our music scene.

“It’s always a good idea to ask for the help of a stage director when your art needs a second wind,” he believes. “And it’s also good for the audience… I really think it’s a good thing we’re seeing less and less crappy shows where the guy onstage doesn’t know what to say between his songs, or tunes his guitar for five minutes.”