Ian D'Sa: The Chemistry Of Billy Talent

artist: billy talent date: 09/19/2006 category: interviews
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Ian D'Sa: The Chemistry Of Billy Talent
While they've been lumped in with the screamo bands, Billy Talent really owes more to bands like Metallica and the Clash and Green Day than they do those other types of groups. Guitarist Ian D'Sa cuts an intriguing path through the litany of players who tend to aim for the over-the-top fuzzed out and overdriven sound. His style embodies a cleaner tone that is brought to full articulation via a controlled and inventive brand of rhythm guitar laced with little single note riffs crawling up the chord line vines up a trellis. He describes in exacting detail this percussive approach that is brought to full realization on the band's second major label release, Billy Talent II. Ultimate-Guitar: One of the most engaging aspects of the band's sound is the way you sort of twist rhythms and combine them with these little single-note figures. There is certainly a punk feel to what you do, almost a Green Day thing, but your right hand really has a lot of rock in it. Ian D'Sa: It kind of developed into that from just playing a drop D tuning (from low to high string: D A D G B E). I used to play drop D way back like ten years ago. We used to cover a lot of Rage Against the Machine songs and it was all drop D tuning and I was a big fan of Soundgarden and stuff like that so I always tuned to drop D. And I just ended up keeping it in drop D and then I guess what happened it was always me just playing guitar and we never had a lead guitarist. And so I wanted to figure out a way to play leads and rhythms at the same time and I guess I kind of just developed that style of playing. Using one finger for the barre chords to get the chords and then throwing in some lead melody notes. Did it actually take you some time to develop this style where you felt comfortable with different voicings and different chord forms? Yeah, it took actually a few years 'cause you have to play it a certain way to get the voicings out properly. 'Cause if you don't attack it in the right spots and everything then the notes all blur together and it sounds mushy. And it's also a lot to do with tone, too; with an over saturated tone those notes don't really ring through and it sounds like kind of mush. I like to generally play as clean as I can, as clean a tone as I can. Over the years you've worked on your tone as well? Yeah, right now and for the last three or four and on the first record, I used a custom amp built by a guy named Mark Stevenson based out of Holt, British Columbia. So I've been using his amps and he just built me another custom Stevenson amp; it's just a 30-watter and it sounds unbelievable. He's got these really, really great like clean tone amps that can also sound heavy if you just goose up the gain a little bit. Yeah, I've been using his amps pretty much for the last four years. And before you came to Stevenson's amps, what did you run through? Before that I was using a (Peavey) 5150 head, I think it was a '91. And I really liked those tones, too, like they were really clean. I'm a big fan of the bright guitar amps. I was using a 5150 through a Vox cabinet at the time and it was super bright but at the same time with the 5150 every time you turned the gain up it would just get a little too saturated for me. I couldn't find that clean and heavy balance whereas with the Stevenson I found that balance pretty easy.
"We don't like wasting time in the studio."
You're a Fender player? I play Stratocasters mainly live, it's a Fat Strat Deluxe with the humbucker pickup. And in the studios I play a '52 Telecaster reissue for all the clean stuff and for all the heavier stuff I played a '58 Gibson Junior. You mix it up between the Fenders and the Gibson? Yeah, in the studio. I can't play Gibsons live really, I just don't like the feel of 'em but I'm a Fender guy, I love the Strats live because I get both those clean and dirty tones. It's pretty well balanced when we play live. But in the studio, I like to use the older Fender guitars like I used a '52 Jazzmaster for a bunch of clean stuff and the '52 reissue I've used that guitar for about five years now on pretty much both records. Talking about the new record, common knowledge has it that the track 'The Suffering' is a good example of the various elements that go into the chemistry of Billy Talent. How would you describe those elements? Well, that's a good track to describe the overall style of the band because the intro riff is kind of like something that appears in some of our songs and it's that style of playing like the one we were talking about earlier. That kind of riff, groove-heavy into then has the drums kick in and then all the notes are basically on a downbeat kind of thing. It's kind of got a reggae feel to it, right? And then it kind of goes into this clean interlude part which I do a lot in pretty much all of our songs. And then into straight ahead punk, I guess you could call it. So it's got like elements of everything we do in it. I think it's a good representational track. On 'Red Flag' the rhythm part has that sort of pinched technique sort of popularized by Edward Van Halen in songs like 'Little Guitars.' Does that make sense? Oh, yeah, yeah, totally. You know it's funny that you say it because like when I came out of that bridge that's exactly what our front house guy said (soundman). He goes like, 'That sounds like a Van Halen picking thing.' I actually use a pick and part of my index finger just for that bridge part but yeah, totally, I'm a Van Halen fan, too. Did you actually study Edward's playing and the way he positioned the guitar within a trio (strictly speaking a three-piece with a singer but a trio instrumentally)? I was a huge Van Halen fan. Yeah, I've always listened to guitar players that do that. Mark Knopfler as well, he's kinda like rhythm, lead, and bounces out his lead licks with his vocals, right? And I tend to do that with Ben's (Kowalewicz, lead singer) vocal; I'll pull back when Ben sings and that kinda thing. Jimmy Page, too, as well, he's one of my favorites. What about Pete Townshend and his rhythm playing? I love Pete Townshend, I think he's amazing. He's definitely up there but I think Jimmy Page still has to be my favorite. I'd say that my two favorite guitarists are Jimmy Page and Andy Summers. Andy Summers was great at applying these really clean, nice jazzy chords and I like to play a lot of those kind of chords, too. There are several songs on the album where you run through a sort of litany of these different voiced, kind of altered chords. There's some of those in the first, 'Devil In A Midnight Mass,' it just does that breakdown section every time in the verse and there's a lot of these clean chords kind of run out. 'Surrender' as well as a slow song. I was kind of heavily influenced by 'Every Breath You Take' kind of vibe; I'm a huge Police fan, too. 'Surrender' is a perfect example of how you orchestrate the guitar - the first line of a verse will have a minimal kind of single legato strum. And then the second line of the verse you'll maybe add another strum and some single note little fills. You're obviously very aware of how the guitar can present itself as a truly compositional instrument. I think it's to do with number one is looking out for the song as a piece of music. And I write the music and when Ben sings, I like to pull back and then the next time around if it's a verse or something like that and it's gonna build into a chorus, I'll start adding more picking parts and stuff like that. But generally I like to be able to take the listener on a bit of a roller coaster from the beginning of the song right 'til the end.
"I've never felt really comfortable doin' guitar solos or I just don't feel like they fit our band."
You talk about how you and Ben sort of weave the guitar and vocal lines around each other. How does that all happen? We actually write all the music first; I'll put together a piece of music and we'll jam it out as a band. And we'll finish the music first and have like basically I'll come up with vocal melodies on a keyboard, a piano, and I'll just kind of sing along like sha-na-na the melody over the top of us jamming. And then after Ben will always be there listening to the melodies and stuff like that and then after me and Ben will get together and write lyrics that kind of reflect the feel of the song or just complement the overall emotion of the song as a whole. The fact that you play piano really helps to explain a little more about your guitar style inasmuch as you like tossing out these great altered voicings and the very percussive way in which you play rhythm. Yeah, I play piano, it was my first instrument actually before the guitar. It's weird, I think maybe that's why I play the way I do. It's a little bouncy like you'd play piano, like you'd play saloon piano, right? Another curious wrinkle about your musical biography that may account for your unique guitar style is the fact that you were born to Indian parents and grew up in England. Did any of this rub off on you? What I remember of England is riding around the front lawn on my tricycle. That's about it. (But) my parents were into a lot of everything like Paul Anka and Neil Diamond and Elvis. They had Ravi Shankar records and I've always been into that; I love Ravi Shankar. I listened to some of his records but when I was younger, I was more interested in listening to punk bands and heavier music. Now I'm finally getting a taste for real Indian classical music which is really great. You touched on this earlier that one of the elements that identifies a Billy Talent song are these very musical intros - the opening bars of 'Worker Bees' are a great study in building a part and adding dimension to each succeeding phrase. The intro on 'Worker Bees?' Yeah, that's John (Gallant, bass) and Aaron (Solowoniuk, drums); we started jamming at that song and I was like, 'This is gonna sound so heavy.' It's just like a bass riff with Aaron just comes in and then I eventually come in with the riff afterwards and set up the song with this kind of rhythm section groove. Those are really jazzy kind of chords; I don't even know really what they are. I'm not the most technically savvy theory-savvy guitar player. I learned theory on piano and then I kind of learned guitar by ear so all those chords I just kind of came up with by listening to jazz music and stuff like that. 'Fallen Leaves,' like 'Red Flag' has some more of that Van Halen-pinched style rhythm in it but the outstanding element here is the solo. For you, this is one of the rare times when you actually let loose for 16 bars or whatever duration that segment is. Yeah, I don't tend to do a lot of guitar solos; I've never really felt comfortable doin' 'em or I just don't feel like they fit our band. But that song needed a solo and for some reason I just figured it would be a nice thing to add there. And when I do solos I like to do like melodic riffs, repetitive melodic riffs rather than like a flat out rock and roll solo. 'Sympathy' has a wonderful cinematically-driven solo passage. That part just kinda came out of nowhere. We had this little bridge section and I didn't want to do like a wailin' solo or anything so I just kinda felt this kind of Pixies kind of surfy vibe on that part. And it ended up being like one of those kinda saloon western kind of solos. It really has that great Clint Eastwood spaghetti western feel about it. Yeah, totally, totally. And another identifiable marker of your solos are the changes in guitar tone. Are you consciously seeking to inject a new sound in this section? Yeah. Usually when I do solos, I'll throw in a Tech 21 CompTortion pedal. I like that kind of really compressed, fat, a little bit distorted tone, and that's what I used on that solo. I became a really big fan of like the way Weezer record their solos - the tone of the solos doesn't sound anything like the actual rhythm guitars and stuff like that. It's really cool. Sometimes they're really screaming, sometimes they're like really super compressed or overdriven. And they have this really nice quality; they (solos) really stand out. Talking about licks that stand out, there's a line in 'Covered in Cowardice' during the chorus that really comes bouncing out of the track. In the chorus part? Oh, where there's that string bend? Yeah, yeah, that was something that took a long time to do because Gavin (Brown, producer) is really anal about tuning. Originally I just wanted to sound like a jangly, out of tune bend, but he convinced me to keep the bend even in tune. So we just did so many bends over and over until we found a double that matched perfectly.
"I'm a Fender guy, I love the Strats live because I get both those clean and dirty tones."
Gavin produced Billy Talent and the Billy Talent II albums so he must be someone who brings out the best in the band. Gavin is great to work with, he's a really, really, really amazing guy to bounce ideas off of. This album like I just wanted to look after the intentions of the band in the studio and the things on the last record that we weren't really happy with. Just the drum sounds, like we wanted to have a heavier drum sound. That's why this record me and Gavin co-produced; I just wanted to look out for the band and he was totally cool with doing that with me and it's great to have someone that works outside of the bubble. Because when you're in the band and you're producing the record, too, it would be too much, I think. I'd be too much in the bubble that I'd probably go way to far with like too many parts or too many this or that. I could have spent ages in the studio. But Gavin being outside the bubble is great for him to oversee everything and be like, 'OK, Ian, you're going a little too far on those guitar parts' or 'There's too many parts in this song.' He's a really good guy to bounce ideas off and to like tell us when we're going too far. At the end of the day, if Gavin gave the thumbs up on a particular performance, you trusted entirely in his judgment? Yeah, at the end of the day what I might think was a great rhythm track, he might not. He's always looking out for the technical angle and I'm always looking out for the feel angle so we always try to meet halfway. And if it's, 'Oh, that feels great, let's leave it' but it's totally out of tune, he's gonna say, 'No, we gotta do this over again, man.' And at the end of the day he's right. Like I wouldn't want to listen to our record now and be like, 'Oh, shit, that was out of tune.' Gavin also produced Three Days Grace first album (Three Days Grace). Had you heard Gavin's work with them and do you feel any sort of kinship with this band? Yeah, we know them pretty well actually; they're from the same town near Toronto. When I listened to their record, I could hear some of Gavin's production tricks that he did on our record. And their record sounds amazing, I love their album. 'The Navy Song' has a sweeping majesty about it. Yeah, that was a really challenging song we'd been workin' on for a while just 'cause we never really knew what to do with it. 'Cause I had all these riffs and I put 'em together and we didn't know how to carry it out as a band. So we got Aaron to do this really, really cool like rollin' drum beat and like he totally nailed it. That one ended up turning out great, it's one of my favorite tracks. Thematically it's sort of a modern version of Procol Harum's 'A Salty Dog' in terms of subject and the different types of musical sections. Yeah, 'Salty Dog,' that's great, yeah, I know that song. The way it swims through different movements and sounds. Yeah, totally. I think this would be like our most proggy sounding song that we've ever written. Definitely proggy. And 'Perfect World' has this very feverish type of rhythmic feel happening. With the intro part? It's kind of like a single note but just adding rhythm chords underneath when the band kicks in and stuff like that. That's a fun song to play, too.
"I'd say that my two favorite guitarists are Jimmy Page and Andy Summers."
The way you've just described the section as a single note sitting atop chords beneath it begs the question of whether your parts are performed on one track or multiple tracks? In other words, do you have to lay down those isolated notes on one track and then add the rhythm section on a second one? Yeah. That's why guitars take so long for us because we typically try to nail it with one guitar. We double everything, right? So everything's doubled on the whole record so there'll be left and right speaker, right? But we try to nail it with one guitar and if some of the voicings aren't coming through for certain reasons 'cause we're ? Sometimes we used like that '58 Gibson and all the barre chords sounded great and like really heavy but the voicings of the smaller (higher) strings weren't coming through properly and so you'd have to overdub stuff. So for a few songs we overdubbed like the single notes and then the barre chords separately. But a few songs like 'Pins and Needles' (marked by elaborate picking parts) was all like one guitar and then we doubled that. It's depending on the song and the tone; if it's a clean tone then we can get away with like playing the one guitar because most of the notes ring through. But sometimes with the heavier stuff it doesn't all ring through. Certainly you're trying to create parts that might be duplicated by one guitar in a live situation. Yeah, well, we already had all the songs written before we went in the studio and we jammed them; we don't like wasting time in the studio. And if it's all workin' in the rehearsal space and we can play it live then we don't have any qualms about going in and if we have to overdub certain notes or whatever, that's not a problem. What really makes the band work, what makes your guitar parts truly command the sound, is the connection between Aaron and Jonathan. Yeah, that's one of the things that's cool. I'll come up with those riffs and then sit down with Aaron and John and the rhythm (section) has to be there because it just punches out those solo notes even more. And John really locks into the barre chords that I'm playing. Besides the guitar playing and writing and producing, you also sing backup on the new record. Oh, I sing all the backup parts and John will sing some of the backup parts as well. A lot of the harmonies, the melodic harmonies, I'll sing the melodic harmonies and me and John do a lot of the screamy backup vocals. The screamy element is actually a part of the band's sound that you've consciously worked on eliminating from this new album. Trivium, another really musical band you may have heard of ? ? Oh, right, yeah ? ?Spoke about that same thing - how their new album would be based around a cleaner, and the way they described it, a more classic vocal tone. For the type of music that Billy Talent plays, you want to hear the melodies and lyrics coming from the singer's mouth and not a bunch of gargling marbles shouting type thing. Yeah, totally. With us on the first record, there was a lot of screaming and we got lumped into the screamo type of thing but we're totally not really into that scene or (even) part of that scene. And so basically I think Ben wanted to sing a lot more on this record and I think the songs wouldn't really allow him to scream because it wouldn't fit. And I think what we did on this record as far as singing and screaming is like he decided to use the screaming more as an exclamation point in the story, if you were reading a story. It only appears where it's supposed to appear now rather than before where the whole song would be screamed. I think you lose the sense of melody when you're screaming all the time; you lose a lot a lot of the melody to the song and we wanted to make sure the melodies were all in there intact and the screams were just used as exclamation points rather than the whole song. Without pulling punches here, a vocalist screams because it's much easier to do that than it is to sing in a cleaner voice. You can mangle a melody when you're shouting and no one will notice. But sing a line in a clear voice and the ear automatically hears pitch and phrasing and everything else. Yeah, totally.
"You lose the sense of melody when you're screaming all the time."
And this may bring down upon me the wrath of screamers everywhere but that's one of the elements of modern metal, or however you might want to define it, which is incredibly cloying. Even if you listen to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest and particularly Ozzy and Sabbath and more recently Metallica, there are melodies everywhere. Those singers, Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson and James Hetfield, are doing a sort of modified screaming, but you never forget those melodies. Yeah, I know what you mean. A lot of bands will do that 'cause there's a shortage of melodic vocalists. 'We'll just scream that part.' And it's kind of cheating in a way so we wanted to make sure the melodic vocals were prominent in this record more than the screaming vocals. You're going to be touring with Thursday - have they influenced you in any way? I've been fans of Thursday; they were one of the first bands that pretty much started off that whole screamo movement way back like years ago. They're kind of legendary like back in the day when bands like Refused and At the Drive-In so we're real excited to be touring with them. And Rise Against is one of my favorite new punk bands to come out in a long time. Your band has a lot of punk influences like the Clash ? ?Yeah, totally ? And like you and your group, they could really play their instruments. The punk movement was built around the notion that you didn't have to be able to play an instrument or be able to sing. And those bands took pride in the fact that they could barely even finger a C chord. Punk may have been the platform for displaying angst and rage and anarchy but where is it stated that being a complete novice with absolutely no understanding of your art should be rewarded? Do you agree with that mini-rant or have I just buried myself? I totally agree. Black Flag is a good example; Henry Rollins, once he came - and I'm a big Rollins fan - but once he came in a lot of the melodies were lost. If you ask anybody what are their classic, timeless hits, it's like 'Nervous Breakdown.' Like all the Keith Morris stuff like 'Nervous Breakdown' and 'Fix Me' and 'Wasted' and all that stuff has more melody than the Black Flag that came afterwards. You know what I mean? At the end of the day, those are the timeless Black Flag songs. 2006 Steven Rosen
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