Aaron Solowoniuk: Dodging Billy Talent

Maybe it has something to do with nearly getting brained every night by his own band. Whatever the reason, Aaron Solowoniuk of the ferocious neo-punk quartet Billy Talent has got to be the most self-effacing musician we’ve met in a long time.

“I get smoked by every drummer out there,” he says. “Over the past six months we’ve been playing tours, and every drummer I see just blows me away. I got to see Queens of the Stone Age play seven times in a row, and it was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t even know their drummer’s name, but he’s such a great player. I want to be able to play like him someday.”

That drummer just might have been Dave Grohl, although with the Queens it’s sometimes hard to keep track of these things. In any event, Solowoniuk has led a somewhat sheltered life. For the longest time, he and the rest of Billy Talent – singer Benjamin Kowalewicz, guitarist/singer Ian D’Sa, and bassist/singer Jonathan Gallant – focused on nothing other than finding gigs in Streetsville, the Toronto suburb where they all grew up. When they couldn’t get booked, they rented venues themselves. They made their own flyers and plastered them all over town. They worked grim jobs, clocked out each day, and got together for another evening of practice.

With this kind of dedication, Aaron can be forgiven for not recognizing whoever was banging out the beat for the Queens. What’s harder to understand is his attitude. On Billy Talent, their Atlantic debut, his playing, tight and concise, clearly pushes the other guys hard. Sure, it’s not fancy, but who wants a bunch of muso crap on songs like these anyway? Frankly, his modesty is a little incomprehensible – and refreshing.

By the way, hang in there; we’ll get to that part about getting clobbered onstage.

First, let’s dig a little into this young man’s psyche. In listening to what he has to say about himself, keep in mind that Solowoniuk is completely self-taught – never a lesson in his life. Yet from his first exposure to MTV, all he’s ever wanted in life has been to play the drums. “Guitar, bass, singing – none of that ever interested me,” he says. “The drummer was the only one I’d ever watch when I’d see a video. And I’d always tell myself, ’I can do that.’”

He began on air drums, flailing at his bed with invisible sticks. AC/DC and the Cult were his earliest inspirations, though his first hero was Brad Wilk with Rage Against the Machine. Gradually he began to gather bits and pieces into something resembling a kit; his first kick drum was a floor tom on its side. With this junkyard setup he put his first group together at age 12 or 13. They were called the Screaming Hungarians and they were, as Solowoniuk recalls, “terrible.”

Maybe so, but they were also his first step into this wacky racket, and by the time he got to high school Solowoniuk was playing with somewhat more evolved ensembles. His setup grew up too, beginning with a used Tama kit that his parents bought for him. “I remember playing on broken cymbals all the time,” he adds. “I made enough money at one point to get one good cymbal, which I played for three years. Eventually there were big cracks in it; I tried to drill holes through them so they wouldn’t get any bigger.”

In high school he wound up in a band with Gallant and Kowalewicz; after going head-to-head at a battle of the bands, they persuaded D’Sa to ditch his group and join them. Known at first as Pezz, they practiced incessantly in D’Sa’s basement and, in 1997, self-released an album, Watoosh. “That was a strange record,” Aaron says. “It was all over the place, almost like prog rock, with seven-to-nine-minute epic songs. When you’re just starting out, you just want to play, and that’s not always good. These days we could probably write about seven different songs from just one we would have done then.”

Having got that off their chests, they renamed themselves Billy Talent and began building their fan base. “We were the first band in Streetsville to rent out 80-person halls, bring in our equipment, and put on a show,” Solowoniuk says. “All we wanted was to break even – which we almost never did, because somebody would always break something and we’d lose our security deposit. Even just two years ago, if we had an unlimited guest list, we’d put 100 of our friends on it. All that mattered was to get people into the venue; it was never about making money.”

Yet it eventually paid off when someone from Atlantic caught one of these shows. A deal was signed, and suddenly the guys were interviewing producers who had been recommended for their debut. From the start they were sold on Gavin Brown, an especially appealing choice for Solowoniuk because of his history of playing drums with Big Sugar, Hayden, Betty Boucher, and other acts. They talked about drum sound – Solowoniuk mentioned that he’d been listening lately to Refused and Deftones – and began experimenting with different components of what would become the kit you hear on the CD: old Ludwig toms, a DW kick, an 8" Dunnett snare, and a rotating selection of cymbals.

The key to tracking the drums – and the whole band, actually – was to capture their live feel. “We pride ourselves on playing live,” Solowoniuk explains. “Gavin said, ’I’m just going to record what you do best.’ That’s what we wanted. It was great to work with someone who has the same vision.”

The only aspect of their show that’s not evident on Billy Talent is their tendency to end shows by throwing stuff – instruments, microphones, whatever – at Solowoniuk and his kit. There’s nothing personal; it’s just that, well, sometimes they can get carried away. Solowoniuk accepts this as part of the gig, but he has his limits: “Recently I asked them, ’Hey, can you guys take it easy?’” he admits, laughing a little uneasily. “Our shows are getting more and more intense. All I can do is play the drums and wait; I get nervous sometimes, but usually I come out fine. I don’t know; maybe I’ll get a cage.”

Our advice? Keep your head low and your dreams alive. “I get down on myself a lot, but if you start thinking you’re great, that already means you’re not great. There’s always more than you can learn. And I already can’t wait to do the next album, because I know I’ll be better than I am now.”