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.