All Things Good: Billy Talent’s Aaron Solowoniuk

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Billy Talent finished up their Canadian tour last week at the JLC in London. Despite their cross-country trek, the guys didn’t seem worn out in the least, as they worked their way through a dozen or so interviews before Thursday night’s show. I sat down with the band’s drummer, Aaron Solowoniuk, for a quick chat about the importance of good timing, faith in the goodness of people, the good fight against MS, and, well, good music.

Anyone familiar with Billy Talent will be aware of the themes these guys often take on in their songwriting. I could compose a list, but I think it pretty much all comes down to one idea: the underdog. When I commented on the way they continue speak on behalf of the underdog, Aaron took it as a “great compliment.” About the desire to create songs concerning things that matter, that people can relate to, he says, “It comes from growing up around bands like Rage Against the Machine, where Zack de la Rocha’s onstage meaning every word that he says and is very passionate about the whole thing. Music can be very healthy,” he goes on to comment, “especially when you find other people that have the same dreams and aspirations you do.”

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One aspiration they share, beyond the music, is to give back. They’re avid supporters of Kids Help Phone, as well as the One campaign to Make Poverty History, just to name a couple. In the last while they’ve become especially involved with the fight against MS, and Aaron is just the guy to talk to about this. They held a show on Boxing Day 2006—aptly titled F.U.M.S.—specifically for this cause, with some help from Alexisonfire and Moneen. It sold out in 8 minutes and brought in around $20,000.

“I knew that I wanted to put on a show and give the money to the MS Society, but I really wanted to start something that could bring more of a youthful face to MS,” Solowoniuk explains. “When I was going through it I was 21, and I was having a hard time finding people to relate with because there were no 21 year-old guys with MS.” He continues, recalling his own experience, “I needed some strength or some sort of, something. I couldn’t find it. And then I just forgot about MS for about three years, pretended I didn’t have it.” Unfortunately, MS is not something that just goes away. “When I started reading up on it again, I started hearing about teenagers, and kids as young as 7, and as young as 4 years old being diagnosed with MS, and it blew me away.”

Now, at 32, the drummer’s making up for those years of wishing MS away by looking it dead in the eye, and reassuring others that they’re not alone in the fight. It was recently announced that the money from F.U.M.S. would be used to start up a scholarship fund for young people affected by the disease. “Every time I came home from tour I’d brainstorm with [the MS Society] about ideas for where we could put the money,” Solowoniuk says, “and we finally came up with the plan to have a scholarship program, put together for teenagers dealing with MS.” Things have come together pretty quickly, and applications for 2007/2008 are already being sent out. “It’s the best feeling in the world,” Solowoniuk says, “I can’t believe it.”

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Publicity and album artwork for “BILLY TALENT II”. Shot in L.A. on March 21, 2006 Dustin Rabin Photography job #2291

A little inside help never hurts either. Warner Music Canada donated a dollar for every copy of Billy Talent II sold in its first week of sales. “We sold 50,000 records, so that’s fifty grand that’s really got it going,” Solowoniuk says. I’ll admit I was personally a bit surprised by Warner’s generosity—but it all comes back to the unfortunately wide reach of MS. President of Warner Music Canada, Steve Kane, found out that his mother had MS when he was in university. “When he heard that I wanted to do something he said he’d be fully behind it,” Solowoniuk says.

Getting things going is one thing, but Aaron knows that maintaining something like this is just as important. “I’m selling wristbands wherever I go to raise money for it, we’re putting on concerts, and then I’m just gonna start asking people for help because I need to maintain this forever. I can’t let it go.” And it seems the guys have the same attitude when it comes to their careers. “We’ve even been talking about [this] as a band. We’ve given ourselves more work to do because we want to sustain what we’ve accomplished. And there are so many places that we haven’t been that we’re really excited to go to,” Solowoniuk explains. “And it’s all up to us. If we put hard work into it we can really make this something even bigger than it is now.”

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Can it really get any bigger than being in Billy Madison though? I brought up Steve Buscemi as a preamble to a question about activism, and Aaron told me about a brief meeting they had with the actor on the set of the 1995 Adam Sandler movie in which they were extras. Anyway, Buscemi was on The Hour recently, talking about his work as a firefighter in New York City. They got talking about the idea of “activism”, and the actor made it clear that he did not consider himself an activist. I thought I’d ask Aaron the same.

“No, not at all, we’re just four guys from Meadowvale. We’re just normal people. And there are a lot of people like us, just normal people who want to help. The sad thing is that there’s no news station that plays the good news. All you hear on the news is the most awful things happening all over the world,” and crazy astronauts I added, “and crazy astronauts,” Solowoniuk agreed. “But that’s just a fraction of the people on this earth, and guarantee you, 99% of them are great people who, whether it be helping their family, or the uncle who doesn’t have much money, or shoveling their neighbour’s driveway—it’s all the same thing, we just have the opportunity to do it on a bigger scale. We love that we have that opportunity, we take advantage of it, because it’s so good to give back.”

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There’s no denying that these four guys from Meadowvale are making the most of their success. Too often we hear of the prevalence of drugs and alcohol and self-destruction in their field of work—so much so in fact, that a lot of times it overshadows the music. There’s no doubt this band is at the height of its career—but I wondered how they see it, and I wanted to know how things might have been different had they reached this level of success five or ten years ago. “I definitely think we’re at the height of our career right now,” Aaron replied, sitting back in his chair, stretching out his legs and crossing his arms. “And if this happened when I was 24 or 25, I don’t even know where I’d be, because, you’re a different person.”

“If this happened when I was 17 I don’t even think I’d be alive. I was just a stupid kid, you know. But yeah, you really have to understand that you can make anything out of this, it’s your choice. I have a beautiful daughter and an amazing wife at home, I have the opportunity to help kids get an education . . . I can’t even believe what I just told you—and that’s all through playing music,” he laughs in slight disbelief. “Or,” he continues, considering the other side, “I could go get wasted . . . ruin my life, you know, it’s all up to me. It’s all there, I can do anything I want with it.”

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