Written by Anthony Toto
“We are alive and our time has come for a new awakening,” Jesse Leach ignites the rebirth of Killswitch Engage with a piercing scream demonstrating his lyrical mastery on “The New Awakening.”
Killswitch Engage represents the collective vision among a group of best friends in redefining the boundaries of metal.
Formed in 1999, Killswitch Engage innovated the sound of metalcore with a guitar driven attack of malicious riffs, duel harmonies, aggressive tempos, and groundbreaking vocal performances.
As part of the Massachusetts Metalcore scene, Killswitch Engage influenced a wave of American metal bands not seen since the historic Thrash Movement of the 1980’s. 2002’s Alive or Just Breathing, 2004’s The End of Heartache, and 2006’s As Daylight Dies became genre-defining blueprints for a decade’s worth of bands.
The band hit the lottery twice in the vocal department with original Frontman Jesse Leach and his replacement Howard Jones. Both Frontmen set the standard for a wave of metal vocalists looking to duplicate the elegant sincerity and dynamic intensity within their voices.
Shortly after the release of Alive or Just Breathing, Leach left the band for vocal issues and personal reasons after a monumental release on Roadrunner Records. Longtime fans hadn’t witnessed a follow up record with Leach and curiosity always plagued fans.
With Howard Jones’ dynamic range, the band spent the 2000’s exploding in popularity by releasing consistently heralded albums. In 2012, Killswitch Engage found itself in a troubling scenario after Jones announced his departure for personal and health related reasons.
The situation opened the door for a long-awaited reunion with Jesse Leach. Killswitch Engage released Disarm The Descent earlier this year and showcased the band’s brash ability to craft a timeless batch of songs. Once again, the band finds itself riding a high wave of momentum and have found themselves nominated for a Grammy.
Killswitch Engage recently co-headlined a massive tour with Lamb of God and played the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New Jersey. The setlist featured a high-adrenaline barrage of material played with virtuosic precision and demonstrated the band’s rightful place at the forefront of metal music. In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, Guitarist Joel Stroetzel sat down for an in-depth interview covering multiple facets of Killswitch Engage’s trailblazing career.
Pop-Break: Disarm The Descent, from a listener’s perspective, melded the band’s entire catalog together. From a musical standpoint, the songs bridged what you originally accomplished with Jesse and the sounds you pursued with Howard. With the album being out for a while, how have the songs digested in a live setting?
Joel Stroetzel: I think we’re feeling pretty good about it. We had a great first few months with the record being out. We’re at the point now where we’ve tried most of the songs live at one point or another. We’re trying to figure out what works in a live setting and what doesn’t depending on each tour. It’s been good and I’m psyched to be playing new songs. It’s awesome having Jesse back so it’s been fun, everyone wins! [laughs]
PB: The documentary for Disarm The Descent was excellent; it captured the vibe of Killswitch reuniting with Jesse and reconnecting as a band. In a way, your band came full circle. You faced a difficult situation 10-years ago when Jesse left the band and Howard joined the fold. Jesse is back after Howard left. Could you elaborate on the experience?
JS: Going way back, one of the things we liked most about Howard was that he didn’t try to be Jesse out of all the people we tried out. The same thing happened again when Jesse came back after Howard left. We said, ‘How do you sound singing Howard’s songs?’ He did it and it sounds like him. We liked that he didn’t try to be somebody he’s not. Both guys are unique. Yeah, it was great having him come back. It’s just like old friends reuniting after all these years. We kept in touch over the years and we did the Times of Grace project with Adam and Jesse. Everything’s been great and the spirits are high!
PB: The documentary touched on the uncertainty regarding the future of Killswitch after Howard left the band.
JS: I won’t go into any of Howard’s personal stuff out of respect for him. Howard was in a rut and we did a few short tours with him. Ultimately, we were like, ‘Hey, let’s just take a break.’ Almost two years passed and it didn’t really seem like he was into going back out on the road. We talked about it and it was a friendly thing. It wasn’t ‘Screw you, you’re fired,’ or ‘Screw you, I quit.’ We talked and decided this was the way to do it. It’s all good. Once Jesse found out that Howard left, he was like, ‘I don’t want anyone else getting that job. I don’t want anyone else getting that gig! I want it!’ We were like, ‘We know you could sing your songs but you mind learning a few of Howard’s?’ He came and nailed it. We were in the process of trying out people at the time before we heard from Jesse. We tried out a bunch of folks and he came in and tried out against everybody. He nailed it and it was great.
PB: When your band first signed with Roadrunner, the metal scene was still entrenched with Nu-Metal, a less guitar driven and low-end sound. Your band came out of nowhere with an in-your-face combination of fast melodic metal and hardcore music. Looking back, did you want to bring a guitar driven sound back into metal?
JS: We didn’t really pay too much attention to what was going on the radio. We always liked what we liked and grew up going to local shows in basements, VFW’s, and little clubs. We were always into the underground metal scene and underground hardcore stuff. We all came from different styles of music: I was the thrash guy and Mike and Adam were the hardcore dudes. There was a little bit of everything in there and we tried to write stuff that we liked and it’s really how it all started. If people like it, that’s cool. If they don’t, it is what it is [laughs]. We have been lucky throughout the years.
PB: Alive or Just Breathing recently celebrated its 10th anniversary and The End of Heartache will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. Those records inspired an entire influx of bands. Being at the point where you have veteran status, how do you feel hearing your influence established in the music of younger bands?
JS: Its definitely flattering man and it makes us feel old [laughs]. I can’t believe how long we been around at this point, almost 15 years! It’s always flattering when people say, ‘You guys were one of my biggest influences.’ We’re like, ‘thanks,’ but we don’t what to say. It’s neat.
PB: Going off the last question, The End of Heartache holds a special place in your catalog. Are there any plans to celebrate its anniversary next year? Possibly play it in its entirety?
JS: I’m not sure what we’re going to do. I don’t see Howard jumping back in because he has something else going on. Jesse is obviously here to stay so I don’t think that is something we’ll necessarily do like we did with the Alive or Just Breathing. Maybe we’ll figure something out.
PB: The cool thing about this tour, Killswitch and Lamb of God achieved their successes almost simultaneously. Alive or Just Breathing and As The Palaces Burn picked up momentum around the same time. The End of Heartache and Ashes of the Wake propelled both bands in 2004. What is your relationship like with Lamb of God?
JS: Yeah, we kind of grew up together [laughs]. It’s been awesome and we been lucky enough to tour with those guys a handful of times overseas and in the states. We’ve been good friends throughout the years. It’s weird; those guys have such a huge following! It’s insane and their live following is crazy. We’re very proud of those dudes and honored to be out supporting them.
PB: Both bands carried the flag for metal over the last decade. Is there any extra motivation to bring your A-game every night?
JS: I think everybody tries their hardest every night. We try to have a good time and put on a good show. I don’t think there is any real competition, but everyone is out there trying to do their thing and have fun.
PB: As a guitarist, where have you seen yourself grow or change in terms of song writing? How has your guitar tandem and relationship with Adam evolved over the years?
JS: Even longer than Killswitch, Adam and me have been playing guitar together for 16 or 17 years. We played in bands before Killswitch and I played in Aftershock with Adam. Yeah, it’s been a long time and I think it is really cool that I been playing with the same guitar player for so long. We think alike. Writing and playing together has gotten a lot easier over the years.
PB: You guys naturally click.
JS: Yeah, we goof around and make the same funny noises. We give each other the look and we both think alike at this point. Think alike and drink alike [laughs].
PB: Going back to the days of the Set The World Ablaze documentary, I found it pretty cool seeing the band practice in your room in the early days. Your family played a big part in helping the band get off its feet.
JS: Yeah, totally! That’s how it started. They were really cool about it. For our first couple years as a band, the band played in my bedroom at my parents’ house. Even when everyone had their own places, my parents would let us play in their basement until we got our own place to play [laughs].
PB: Your parents were really supportive and pushed you to go for the dream.
JS: Yeah, definitely. They really did and Adam D’s parents too. Throughout the years, I made a lot of noise at their house too and we’re really lucky to have that family support.
PB: On the Disarm The Descent documentary, when you guys were jamming in Adam D’s basement with Jesse, was that the original footage of his audition?
JS: Yeah, at that point, Jesse was already back in the band.
PB: From an outsiders perspective, I found it pretty cool seeing your band jam together in Adam’s basement because it showcased the special friendship and family bond within this band.
JS: Definitely, it’s really what’s kept us together after all these years. I can’t imagine bands that go out on the road and hate each other. We’re all best friends and it’s like a family. Even the crew guys, we always go out to eat and drink together. Everybody hangs out and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We started out as friends jamming and it’s still what it is fifteen years later.
PB: The whole Massachusetts scene with Shadows Fall, Unearth, and All That Remains, grew up in the same area and established Metalcore.
JS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s funny because Matt from Shadows Fall actually lives ten-minutes from me. I find myself drinking beers in his kitchen and he’s in my basement all the time hanging out. I see him a few times a week. We all grew up together, playing together, and hanging out. It’s been a lot of fun.
PB: Are there any plans or ideas floating around for new music?
JS: We have been talking about that a lot more over the past month or so. There is a little bit more touring to do on this one. Over the first quarter of next year, we’ll do some overseas stuff that we missed and maybe a few things here and there in the states. I think early through halfway next year, we’re probably going to start working on something. I don’t know how long it’s going to take because it could be a song here or a song there. At some point, we would like to start thinking about new material. None of us want there to be four years in between records again.
PB: It’s a unique situation that Adam Dutkiewicz self produced most of your records. After watching footage for the recording of Disarm The Descent, it looks like Adam finds a pretty steady balance between being a producer and band member.
JS: He always has the greater good at heart. He’s tough on us when we’re tracking because he’s a super perfectionist. It could be frustrating, but you see him tracking his guitars and he holds himself to the same standards. He is just as hard on himself as he is on the rest of us. It’s fair and it’s great to work with him because he’s a funny guy and a character.
PB: Guitar-wise, what is your setup and what are you playing through right now?
JS: My setup right now, I’m playing Caparison (guitars). It’s a JSM model and it’s a model that I kind of co-designed with Caparison. I’m using that guitar with EMG’s. We’re using Laney Amps and those sound killer. It’s a pretty simple setup. Laney Ironheart through a 4×12. We have a couple pedals here and there. We use separate amps for clean and hit the A or B switch. That’s pretty much it, we keep it old school. On the record, we use a lot of different stuff. We use a Fuchs Viper, Laney Ironheart, and Fender Twins for clean. We play around with different tones.
PB: I saw your band with Darkest Hour, Miss May I, and The World Alive. The whole situation with As I Lay Dying was unfortunate because it was supposed to be a co-headlining tour. You guys managed to recruit great bands and reestablish a solid bill.
JS: It was an awesome tour. We tried, man. It was hard because it’s not like As I Lay Dying would be a rinky-dink band to tour with. We were like, ‘Okay, who do we get to replace As I Lay Dying?’ We got a couple bands to try and balance off the bill. They were awesome to have. They all worked out great but I felt bad because we missed out on the As I Lay Dying guys. Strangely enough, Jordan came and filled in for Justin on our last European tour. He was so psyched and he was like, ‘I can’t wait to tour with you guys!’ He was fun to tour with and he’s a nice guy. He was my roommate because we both snore [laughs].
PB: Your band will be touring with Trivium in the U.K. early next year. Are there any plans to come back to the states?
JS: I don’t think we’re coming back to the states. As of now, it’s just a U.K. run with a couple Ireland shows.
PB: Do you see the return of Jesse Leach as the rebirth of Killswitch Engage?
JS: It feels like it. It feels like a whole new band but it also feels like Jesse never left. It’s a natural thing and it’s very easy. We’re really lucky it worked out. It’s great because Jesse is such a positive guy. He keeps everybody’s chin up really because he’s excited about everything.
PB: How are you inspired by Jesse’s lyrical content?
JS: I always loved his lyrics throughout the years. The thing I like about his songs, you could listen to them in different ways. It will mean something to you and then you’ll ask him, ‘Hey, what does that song mean?’ And you’ll be like, ‘Oh, okay. It’s not how I envisioned it but that makes sense too.’ I like his style of writing where it’s open for interpretation. He will say one thing, but you could really interpret it three or four different ways.
PB: I know most of the songs on Disarm The Descent were completed before Jesse came back. When you’re writing material, do you have a mindset where this lick or riff would work with Jesse? Do you keep his voice in mind?
JS: Not necessarily, we write riffs and if we like them, we’ll say, ‘Hey man, what do you think of that?’ We wrote too many songs for this record. We said, ‘Hey, here is 16 or 17 different songs, pick you’re favorite 10 or 12 or whatever speaks to you the most.’ The rest of them, we’ll throw on the shelf for right now.
PB: If you had to pick a few favorite songs off Disarm The Descent, which songs would you choose?
JS: I like “The New Awakening,” that’s a fun one to play. We just put “Always” into the set, which is a different song. It’s more of a sludgy ballad song, which is also fun to play. I like “All We Have,” that one is one of Mike D’s songs and it’s really fast one.
PB: Where does Disarm The Descent sit for you among your catalog? Is it your favorite?
JS: Right now, it’s probably my favorite because I’m not sick of playing all the songs yet [laughs]. Yeah, I think we’re all pretty proud of it because we worked hard on it. We weren’t really sure how things were going to turn up. Having Jesse back and being able to make another record with him, we were all very excited about it. The fact that it happened, I’m very pumped about that.