Killswitch Engage: Re-Engaged
With Killswitch Engage set to hit our shores in a matter of days for their first Aussie headline tour in far too long, we caught up with the band’s prodigal vocalist Jesse Leach to chat about his experiences since returning to the band and getting back to what he does best – dominating stages around the world.
So you guys are coming out to play some shows for us Aussies very soon, which we’re very excited for, especially after seeing you at Soundwave last year! How was Soundwave for you guys? Were you happy with Australia’s response to your reunion?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I love playing in Australia and I love playing Soundwave; those tours have been really good to me both with Killswitch and with Times Of Grace the year before. We’re really looking forward to going back and doing a different kind of tour.
How have the past couple of years of touring been for you? Did you find it difficult to settle back into such a busy touring schedule since rejoining Killswitch Engage?
It’s been great, a little exhausting here and there but on the whole I’m super happy, I couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going. It’s a little taxing mentally, but to step back and see the big picture of things, knowing that a few years ago I was working a regular job and living a regular life, it’s totally worth the strain. When it comes to my relationship with my family and my wife, being away for so long can be pretty hard, but it’s so amazing to be able to do what you love.
What were you doing for work during that time?
So many things! But the most recent one was training to be a “mixologist”, working behind the bar, a cocktail-specialist bartender in Manhattan, but now it’s really nice to be on the other side of the bar and telling people what to make for me instead of making it!
Coming back in after the band has grown so much, the kind of huge tours you’re doing with Killswitch Engage now must seem fathoms away from the ones you remember from the early days.
Yeah, it’s a big difference! The amounts of people, the way the band is treated, the accommodation we’re staying at, the transportation… it’s all so much better than it was in those early days before I left the band. We definitely paid our dues, and I paid my dues with other bands over the past few years too. I’ve climbed the ladder, fallen off the ladder, jumped off the ladder and climbed back up again! But it’s great to be treated well and have audiences that want to see you and really care, it’s fantastic.
You obviously had a bit of a reintroduction to the touring life when you and Adam Dutkiewicz (Killswitch Engage guitarist) created the side project Times Of Grace. Do you think that you still would have ended up rejoining Killswitch Engage if Times Of Grace had not happened?
I don’t know, that’s a really interesting question, I’m really not sure! But Times Of Grace gave me a reawakening with falling in love with being on the road again. Being able to complete tours with Adam and Joel [Stroetzel, guitar] by my side, and riding off that record, really saved my life in many ways. I was going through a rough depression again, I’ve fought depression a good part of my life, but that album changed me. I don’t know if I could have mentally been up to the job of getting on the road with Killswitch if I hadn’t done that. It was almost unintentionally a warm-up for Killswitch, and made me fall in love with it again. One way or another it was a catalyst, even if it was unintentional.
Now that Disarm The Descent has been out for about a year, how are you feeling about that record?
I feel good about it man, I feel it’s a good step in the right direction. It’s a good reintroduction to the band for me, and the energy is definitely there on the record and I just think it’s a good stepping stone to the next one, whatever that will be.
Has discussion begun for what the next record might entail or when it might happen?
We’ve talked about it, but with the touring schedule we have we’ve only had a few conversations about it, just expressing to each other that we’re excited to get back in a room together and figure out what we’re gonna do. This last record was written completely without me – I had no input on it because I wasn’t in the band at the time. So I’m looking forward to hearing the songs being written and being part of that process. I’ve got a few concepts kicking around. Looking at the state of the world, there’s so much social unrest in other countries. Me, I’m looking outwards to the world, the gap between rich and poor and other things like that. It’s partly a political thing, but I don’t want to write a political record, I just want to write a socially conscious record without being preachy or over the top. You don’t wanna bum people out, but I definitely think there’s an importance to raise some awareness with the lyrics.
In the past, Killswitch Engage has mostly written about more personal topics. Is this new territory for you guys, to speak about political issues in your music?
I think Killswitch is able to touch on different topics, and for a while we’ve had more personal stuff while Howard [Jones, ex-vocals] was in the band, and that was great and it paved the path for the band to be as big as it is. But I’m very much a different writer to Howard lyrically. You’ve gotta write where you’re coming from at that moment – an album has to capture a moment in time, and I think it did that for many years and I think that, in moving forward, that’s what I’m gonna do as best I can. A lot of the lyrics on Disarm The Descent were partially based on me coming back into the band and seeing the ways of the world through my eyes, the band’s eyes and other people’s eyes, and I think that it should be capturing a moment. Right now I’m saying that’s what the record will be about, but in a few months I might change my mind [laughs]! That’s the beauty of writing a record.
You were nominated for a Grammy for “In Due Time” this year – this being the band’s second nomination, and your first – what was that experience like for you?
It was pretty surreal! It’s one of those things I never imagined I’d do, going to the Grammys for anything I’d done musically. Growing up as a hardcore and punk kid, never thinking that what I was writing would ever reach the mainstream ears, it was just surreal. It was fun really, it was great to hang out and rub elbows with the “musical elite” as you might say, and to represent metal in some way was cool. Even just to be spoken in the same sentence as a band like Black Sabbath, a band I’ve loved forever since I was a kid, was so cool.
The last time you spoke to BLUNT, before this nomination, you said that things like award nominations weren’t something that really concerned you, and it didn’t bother you that you weren’t part of the band when it was nominated for The End Of Heartache in 2005. Has your perspective on awards and nominations changed now that you’ve experienced it yourself?
Yeah definitely, but of course, no regrets! I’m not sorry anything happened in the past, everything happens for a reason. When I heard they were nominated back then, it was kind of laughable! It’s metal, it’s something you never expect to see in that light, but Killswitch had clearly developed more of a mainstream sound to it around that time. So it makes sense now to look at it, but for me, coming out of the band during the Alive Or Just Breathing era, it never would have occurred to me that the band could ever even be mentioned for something like a Grammy, but from then on they blew up! But I’m glad I wasn’t a part of it then though, in some ways. I might have been a different person if I had been in the band then. I’m glad I was able to step away from the band and live a different life for a while.
If you could have picked the Best Heavy Metal Performance Grammy this year, who would it have gone to?
That’s a tough one… I’d have to say Gojira for sure, that band needs to get a lot more recognition than they do. Mastodon are definitely worthy of a nod too. Kvelertak are making a lot of noise and they put on a great live show. That’s the kind of metal that interests me these days. Another band would be Periphery, they’re pushing genre boundaries and doing something really different. Deftones are an all-round awesome band too.
Looking back at Alive Or Just Breathing, that record is widely regarded as a genre-defining album. Did you have any idea at the time of how significant the album would be?
No, not at all! And I still don’t really think that way. When I write a record I’m always focussing on the lyrics and making it sound and feel the right way, and I think if you’re thinking outside of that you might be writing the record for the wrong reasons. As far as the impact, and people claiming we were starting a new movement in metal, that’s so cool and I’m honoured that people still care about that record, but it never even crossed my mind twice. It was just like, “Hey, we have a big label now and it’s time to make our next record.” We definitely didn’t have “Killswitch: Global Domination” on our minds!
Tell us more about your vocal background. How did you develop your style over the years?
I’d say I’m definitely more of a screamer, the singing thing is something I’ve been working on over the years. I still have a ways to go, I think any singer that doesn’t feel that way is probably doing it wrong, but for me my roots are strictly in hardcore screaming, being in sort of experimental hardcore-esque metal bands before metalcore was even a term. I looked up to bands like Integrity, Bloodlet, who crossed the genre boundaries between hardcore and metal but without being overtly metal, very much more of a hardcore-scene band. The melody came later, when I started to fall in love with bands like Faith No More and some of the early Gothic death metal stuff, which might be a surprise to some people. I thought it was cool that they had melodic vocals mixed in with the death metal vocals, so I wanted to take what hardcore was doing and what melodic death metal was doing and merge the two, and that’s where the ideas came from on the first Killswitch record, and Alive Or Just Breathing was a chance to sort of expand on that. Adam [Dutkiewicz, guitar], being the producer that he is, kind of got where I was coming from, so it’s really a sort of mixed bag of influences. But I’m also a big reggae fan, I love reggae melody and some of the vocal placement comes from reggae music, even though people might find that hard to believe! The way I use my voice and the way I want people’s heads to bounce to it is partly influenced by that, it still affects me today.
Before Times Of Grace started up, and you hadn’t been in a serious band for a while, were you still working on developing your vocal techniques?
Yeah, when I had the time, but I was working a lot. At one point I was working three jobs, doing 60 or 70 hours a week, so to find the time for music was tough. But I always wanted to expand my vocal vocabulary, and I still want to, I still want to get better at what I do and pull from a larger bag of styles and techniques. As an artist that’s something I’m always trying to evolve, and hopefully will do up until the day that a doctor tells me I can’t do it anymore! I love to experiment.
Is that your main way to train yourself, by experimenting? Or have you taken coaching.
I have had one or two lessons, but with where I am now in my career and the amount I use my voice on tour, recently I’ve been looking into more training again. Techniques evolve as vocalists and teachers evolve, and I’m sure there’s new stuff to learn about how to preserve the voice or use a different part of my voice differently so I’m very excited to look into that.
As someone who’s had the unique opportunity to observe the band from both inside and outside, how has Killswitch Engage developed through its lifespan?
I think the songwriting has become a lot more cut-and-dry, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s definitely a formula to how Killswitch operates in songwriting and style. The heavy melody mixed with screaming. It’s a great formula, but I also look forward to expanding that and experimenting with it in some ways. But as the guys in the band say, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. There’s a signature style that’s been developed and I really respect and admire it as well. I think another big part of what defines the band is emotive lyrics that are heartfelt – whether it’s to do with relationships, or spiritual topics like some of the things I write about, I think it’s honest, and most people can relate to it because it comes from that honest place.
Killswitch Engage / Kill Devil Hill Tour Dates
Fri Apr 11th – Eatons Hill, Brisbane
Sat Apr 12th – UNSW Roundhouse, Sydney
Sun Apr 13th – The Palace, Melbourne (18+)
Tue Apr 15th – HQ, Adelaide (18+)
Wed Apr 16th – Metro City, Perth (18+)