Interview: Killswitch Engage: Ironhearts, Redemption, and Big Digits
Adam Dutkiewicz, Joel Stroetzel (Photos by LDOphoto.net), and Mike D'Antonio (Photo by Alex Solca)
As ominous as the name “Killswitch Engage” may sound, as gutturally as the metalcore vets’ verses might assault the ears of the faint, as chest-thumpingly ferocious as their blastbeats and breakdowns are, and as infamously irreverent and, well, goofy as their most visible member, guitarist/producer Adam Dutkiewicz, may be onstage, the Boston-based quintet has always been about warm-’n’-fuzzy messages of hope, redemption, and forgiveness.
Yeah, it can be a little weird taking such ponderous themes seriously when you’re either shaking your head or laughing your ass off at a 6' 4" dude with huge Amish chops and a fauxhawk storming the stage with a tuxedo-print muscle shirt, Daisy Duke cutoffs with boxers hanging out the bottom, a cape and/or inflatable sex toy strung about his neck, and perhaps an outline of his, er, “member” Sharpie’d onto his thigh. But beyond the catchy paeans to optimism wedged between the brutal verses of Killswitch tunes like “Unbroken,” “Breathe Life,” and “A Light in a Darkened World,” there does seem to be something to the conciliatory, life-affirming lyrics.
The biggest test of all that talk goes way back to 2002, and it came full circle last year. After seeing their sophomore album, Alive or Just Breathing, reach No. 37 on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart, Dutkiewicz, fellow guitarist Joel Stroetzel, and bassist Mike D’Antonio had the breath knocked clean out of them when original vocalist Jesse Leach—who’d been suffering from vocal-cord issues and depression—gave notice he was leaving. Via email … just days before a gig.
No one could blame the four remaining members of KSE if they’d left Leach on their blacklist when they found themselves singer-less again after the 2012 departure of Howard Jones—the guy whose uncommonly versatile and melodic vocals paved the way for tunes like “The End of Heartache,” “My Curse,” and “The Arms of Sorrow” to find favor with movie studios, video-game producers, and the Grammy-nominating committee.
And yet, here they are, fresh off the release of their sixth full-length album, Disarm the Descent—which sees the return of Leach and more fleet-fingered guitar solos than Dutkiewicz and Stroetzel have ever put to disk strewn amidst the relentlessly throttling riffs.
You guys seem revitalized on this album. How did having Jesse back in the fold change your outlook—other than apparently paving the way for more guitar solos?
Mike D’Antonio: [Laughs.] There were actually more solos, but we took them out. Joel didn’t want it to seem like all of a sudden there were too many running rampant all over the record. But, if you can play ’em, why not have ’em, right? That’s what I said, anyway.
As far as the music goes, everything was complete before Jesse joined. We’d had two years off, trying to figure out what was going on with Howard, and I was just stewing—I really wanted to get out and play. So I was writing really pissed-off music—old-school stuff with breakdowns and flip-flopping beats like I used to write when I was a kid listening to New York hardcore like the Cro-Mags, Leeway, Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, and Madball.
When I went to the demo session for the new album, I played the first song, which was “All That We Have,” and it was so in-your-face that Adam turned to me and said, “This is exactly what I want to do.” I was, like, “Score one for the little guy!” [Laughs.]
Adam Dutkiewicz: I was a little unhappy with the last record and how it felt a little ballad-y, a little singer-songwriter-y at times. I wanted to make more of a return to metal and put some more aggression into the music. I think we all tried to write faster, spunkier songs.
Joel Stroetzel: It’s fun to have Jesse back. Everybody’s happy and having a good time. We’re more fired up.
Mike, you mentioned the demo session. What’s that process like?
D’Antonio: We go our separate ways and write demos, and then bring them to practice and sit in a circle and listen to what’s there and decide what we’d like to pursue. Next, we set up Pro Tools and some automated drums, have everyone play the guitar parts they’re liking, and add and subtract riffs. It’s a really streamlined way to develop songs, but it’s totally different—I’m used to jamming out with buddies in a room.
What were the vocalist auditions like?
D’Antonio: We did it in New York—we wanted to make sure we left no stone unturned. We spent all day ushering people in and out, playing the same three songs over and over. Six o’clock rolls around, and we’re all dead tired—we’d just eaten a lot of pizza and drunk a lot of alcohol—and Jesse walks into the room. The mood immediately brightened, and we proceeded to play 14 songs. No one saw that coming. There were smiles, happiness, a sense of synergy—we just had a really good time. We didn’t think, “Oh, we’re tired,” we just thought, “Wow, this is really cool and these songs sound great.” Three-quarters of them were Howard tunes, and I think Jesse did that to show us not only that he really wanted the job, but also that he was going to take it seriously. He definitely sounds different—he’s not a carbon copy. We could’ve easily found a carbon copy of Jones, but we wanted somebody real, and we wanted somebody who believed in what they were doing.
Stroetzel: I think one of the things we liked the most about Jesse coming back is almost the same thing we liked about Howard: Howard was the one guy, years ago, that wasn’t trying to sound like Jesse. He came and did his own thing. It’s the same thing now. A lot of the people we tried were really good but they tried to mimic Howard a bit, whereas Jesse just came in and did his own thing. We were, like, “Y’know, that’s cool—it doesn’t sound fake at all.”
Did the fact that Jesse has a different vocal style and a narrower range than Howard affect how you wrote the new songs?
Stroetzel: Not really. Howard was still with us when we were writing a lot of this record. I don’t think we changed the writing process at all, instrumentally.
Dutkiewicz: We look at it really simple when we’re putting a song together: Just try to make it feel good, try to do what feels right … y’know, it’s all vibe, man.
But that was something we were concerned about when we hired Jesse—we wanted to make sure he was going to do justice to the Howard songs, which are pretty much 10 years of our career. During the tryouts, he sold us on it. He did Howard’s songs great. He put passion in it, and he put his own little spin on all the songs.
D’Antonio: Jesse’s scope is a bit narrower than Howard’s. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because I think his emotions are more apparent—he really feels what he’s saying, and you can tell that pretty easily. One of the main concerns, obviously, would be playing the Howard tunes live. They’re a really important part of the development of the band, and the Howard records are our biggest-selling by far.
Adam Dutkiewicz (Photo by LDOphoto.net)
What about all the solos—there are a lot more than on the past few albums?
Dutkiewicz: I don’t know why the hell I did that. Now I’ve got to pay more attention live! [Laughs.]
Stroetzel: I think it’s just gotta happen naturally. We wanted to have a high-energy record and express how excited we were to be playing again, and there were a few moments where we were, like, “Y’know what, a solo makes sense there. Let’s try it out.”
So there wasn’t a conscious decision to bring solos back?
Dutkiewicz: Not at all. Everything I did on the songs I wrote was completely by feel—like, “This feels right here, let’s try this.” It was just for the hell of it, I guess.
Adam, you’re a pretty big Eddie Van Halen fan—is the two-handed-tapping part of the solo in “In Due Time” a little tip of the hat to him?
Dutkiewicz: Yeah, that’s one of the, like, five [EVH-style] licks I can play [laughs].
Did you play the harmonized parts later in that solo, or was that Joel?
Dutkiewicz: Yeah, in the studio, whenever Joel or I write a specific song, we usually just have that person track all the guitars on it. It ends up being tighter because that person is more familiar with the riffs.
Mike, what’s the most difficult part of laying down the low end for Killswitch?
D’Antonio: Stepping up to the level that Justin [Foley, drums], Adam, and Joel are at, in general, is a pretty difficult situation for a self-taught guy like me. Those guys went to music college and all that stuff. It’s very intimidating—I’m surprised I’ve held up so well [laughs].
Is it because sometimes they use more academic terms to communicate ideas or …
D’Antonio: It’s just the riffs—have you seen Adam’s hands? They’re humongous! He can do some pretty amazing stuff, but I’ve got some of the smallest fingers going. Sometimes I have to dumb-down a riff by playing it at half speed, or use open strings to fill it out. Even Joel has difficulty with some of Adam’s stretches.
Dutkiewicz: Yeah, I have big digits [laughs]—which is a curse for things up higher on the neck …
Because it’s more cramped for space—does that make you tend to avoid playing up there?
Dutkiewicz: Not necessarily, I’m just a little sloppier than most up there, I guess … that’s what she said [laughs].
[Laughs] So what are the advantages of those massive mitts?
Dutkiewicz: [Suggestively] I don’t know….
Dutkiewicz: You can just do different chord voicings. Someone with small hands probably couldn’t make a two-full-step reach as easily.
Does that ever lead to situations where you really like the sound of a chord that’s stretched out and Joel is, like, “Dude, I can’t play that!”?
Dutkiewicz: Yeah, Joel will get mad at me at times for certain voicings, but either I’ll play one part and he’ll play another, or he’ll just buck up and figure it out. He can pretty much play anything.
Stroetzel: [Laughs.] Indeed, Adam has some large digits! A lot of the chord voicings in his songs are challenging for me—he can stretch further on the fretboard with his 1st and 3rd fingers than I can with my 1st and 4th fingers. I’ve got Polish kielbasa fingers!
Mike D'Antonio digs into his signature Ibanez MDB3. Photo by Alex Solca.
Let’s talk gear. Mike, which basses did you use for this album?
D’Antonio: I’ve played Ibanez basses for a long time, and I’m pretty happy about my latest MDB3 signature bass. It’s shaped like an Ibanez Destroyer and has a Duncan SPB-3 pickup and a single volume knob. It feels a lot like my old Gibson Thunderbird, which is one of the things I loved about it right off the bat—it took me back to when I was a kid, rocking out with my Thunderbird. Unfortunately, those Thunderbird necks are so fragile—I broke mine twice on tour. Both times I thought I was going to cry for days, so I just had to retire it—I couldn’t bear to see my baby get broken anymore.
Which features of the MDB3 are you most excited about?
D’Antonio: I’m sloppy onstage—I jump around like a nut and it’s basically gym class for me—so if I have a lot of knobs, I’m going to knock into ’em and turn them off or change my tone. I’ve been asking Ibanez for a long time how I can rectify the situation—if I can get some sort of pop-up knob or if I could put something in the back. They came up with the idea of putting a tone trimpot in the back, under the plate for the electronics. There’s a little hole so you can stick a screwdriver in and adjust your tone.
Joel, you’ve been pretty faithful to Caparison guitars for a while now, and you updated your signature model over the last year or so. What did you change?
Stroetzel: The guitar I’ve been playing has a cool neck profile: Toward the headstock, it’s kind of flat, and toward the body it gets rounder. You can do fast rhythm stuff down low and it’s nice and flat, almost Ibanez-style, and then you go up and it’s rounder, like a Les Paul. I’ve had a couple of versions with coil-tapping stuff, I’ve had a couple with a Gibson-style stop tailpiece, but we got rid of that and had the strings go through the body. You get better string tension for the low [drop-C] tuning with the greater angle of the string behind the bridge. So that, and the smaller fret size—from jumbo down to medium-jumbo—is the main difference. I love the feel of big frets, but it’s tough in the studio to intonate chords with bigger frets. I really like Caparison’s craftsmanship. They’ve got great fretwork and nice woods, and they’re well balanced as far weight and tone.
Adam, you’ve gone from Caparison to Parker to PRS guitars over the last few years, right?
Dutkiewicz: We used Caparisons to track this record, too, actually—one of my old ones and two of Joel’s. My Caparison with EMGs was just one of the only ones set up and ready to go at the time.
But you’ve changed guitar brands for various reasons over the years—you had back problems from 2006 to 2007, and then apparently there were consistency issues with the lighter Parker signature models you started using after that. Have any of the changes since then had anything to do with an evolution of what you consider great tone and playability?
Dutkiewicz: Not necessarily. I just like nice guitars—they have to feel good in your hands. When you have a guitar you really love, it’s just inspiring to play more. When it’s comfortable, you want to play.
What will you be playing on the road?
Dutkiewicz: I just started checking out some EVH gear, which is cool because it’s yet another nod to my hero. It has a bird’s-eye-maple, bolt-on neck. I’ve got one that’s a solid finish and one that’s a flame top.
What do you like most about them?
Dutkiewicz: They sound great, but I think the biggest selling point is the neck—it’s one of the most comfortable I’ve ever played.
You’ve used EMGs for quite a while, Adam. Are you sticking with the EVH’s stock passive pickups?
Dutkiewicz: Yeah, the electronics they developed for that guitar sound fantastic—very musical. That was one of the things I loved about PRS, too. The EVHs are pretty road-ready, and they’re locked on both ends, so it’s going to be hard to get them to go out of tune.
Mike, which amps are you using?
D’Antonio: I have an Ampeg SVT-VR tube head and a couple of 8x10 Ampeg Classic cabs. You don’t even really have to dial them in, they just sound good no matter what. I don’t like too many dials—just give me a couple of knobs.
Do you use channel one or channel two?
D’Antonio: One. I adjust the bass and treble pretty high but leave the midrange low.
Joel and Adam, which amps did you guys use for this album?
Stroetzel: For the record, it was mainly a mix of a Laney Ironheart and a Fuchs Viper, which I think is called the Mantis now. The Fuchs sounds big and round and bubbly—like a warmer-sounding Rectifier—while the Laney has more of that Marshall-style cutting quality, where the palm-muting has some crack to it. The Ironhearts have a good, tight, focused sound, and all the notes jump out nice and clear. For the delayed-out sounds, we used a Matchless Clubman 30, and for some of the delayed stuff and textural sounds we used a Custom Tones Ethos overdrive pedal, which has a speaker out. Live, we’re both using Ironheart heads, and Adam uses an Ironheart combo for cleans. I use a Fuchs Clean Machine.
What about pedals?
D’Antonio: I’m using a SansAmp RBI, and I’m really stoked about the Rusty Box bass preamp, which is from a small boutique company called Tronographic. It sounds great and doesn’t lose the low-end. The bass is way more in the forefront on the new record, and that’s because we just freakin’ loved the tone of the Rusty Box.
Joel Stroetzel riffs on his Caparison signature guitar, flanked by his Fuchs and Laney heads. Photo by LDOphoto.net
Adam and Joel, you guys swear by the Maxon OD808 Overdrive. What’s so special about it?
Stroetzel: It adds a little bit of solid-state tightness in front of a tube amp, but it also adds a little bit of compression and sustain and just kind of smoothes things out. It’s weird—I haven’t not used it in, like, 10 years. Before that, I was using an old-school Ibanez Tube Screamer from the early ’80s.
Dutkiewicz: We have the gain all the way down—it’s just for a little bit of compression and a little bit of focus and clarity in the picking. It doesn’t add any real distortion.
Is it pretty transparent, or does it add a bit of a mid hump like an Ibanez TS9 Tube Screamer? Dutkiewicz: Oh yeah—it’s pretty much like a TS9.
What other pedals are you using these days?
Dutkiewicz: It’s real simple, it’s guitar into a wireless unit, into the OD808, into a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor, and then into the head. I also use a Maxon AD-9 Pro analog delay for specific parts of the set.
Stroetzel: The main things are the 808 and the Maxon AD-999—the bigger analog delay pedal. The biggest difference between that and the AD-9 Pro is that the AD-999 is a little bit warmer sounding and you have better control over the delay times—you can dial in slow speeds more easily. [Ed. note: Killswitch tech Josh Mihlek says Stroetzel uses the AD-999 in the studio and the AD-9 Pro live.] For clean stuff, I also use the Maxon CP-9 Pro+, and I have a Boss NS-2 in front of the dirty amp.
Adam, how is your back doing these days—is guitar weight no longer much of an issue?
Dutkiewicz: I’ve been very healthy, so hopefully it remains that way. Thankfully, the EVHs aren’t that heavy. I was really concerned about my back shortly after the emergency surgery I had [in 2006]. I was looking for the lightest possible guitar and, of course, Parker was it. But I’ve been feeling pretty good—knock on wood!—for a little while.
Back pain is one of the most debilitating types of pain. How did you stay so upbeat—and so prolific?
Dutkiewicz: You kind of have to—you don’t really have much of a choice. You can sit there and lament, or just accept the situation and deal with it and move on, y’know?
But when it drags on as long as it did for you, it can sometimes completely transform your outlook and personality.
Dutkiewicz: Oh yeah, my ex found me in our living room, like, just swallowing pills … I drank two bottles of wine and I’m just punching the floor, and I’m, like, “Ahhh! Get me to the hospital now!” It was bad news! [Laughs.]
And yet you were still doing a lot of playing and producing during that time. Do you have any tips for other guitarists facing similar problems?
Dutkiewicz: Well, I heard something cool the other day on ESPN—“The only handicap is a bad attitude.” Y’know, you’ve got to freakin’ take things for what they are and push through. It’s pretty much the only choice you have.