Killswitch Engage: The Jackass & the Nerd
Adam D and Joel Stroetzel of Killswitch Engage on Atonement and keeping it fun as BFFs for 25+ years.
When a band’s been around for a couple of decades, they’ve usually become a well-oiled machine, a harmony of personalities, a family that didn’t just choose each other but has developed a balance and process that both produces consistently and endures. Metalcore band Killswitch Engage is one group that possesses that special alchemy.
This summer, they released their eighth full-length studio album, Atonement. The album delivers 11 new tracks of the Killswitch sound: blistering metal arrangements with vocal and guitar harmonies, surprisingly melodic choruses balanced by screaming lead vocals, and triumphant, often visceral lyrics. It’s an approach that’s worked particularly well for the band since their third LP, 2004’s Grammy-nominated The End of Heartache. “Can’t change who we are,” laughs Adam Dutkiewicz, one half of the band’s guitar attack.
He and co-guitarist Joel Stroetzel don’t confine themselves to lead or rhythm roles. Their goal is to synchronize. That’s also reflective of the band’s overall creative attitude. No one acts exactly like the leader, or father of the “family.” It’s very clear they’re all brothers, if not quintuplets, with different personalities that happen to complement each other.
The recording of Atonement was a bit different from earlier Killswitch Engage albums due to the amount of interruptions. It took three-and-a-half years—in part due to vocalist Jesse Leach needing surgery after developing polyps on his vocal cords, and the band being invited to tour with Iron Maiden last summer. The album also came after the band switched labels from Roadrunner to Metal Blade. Dutkiewicz has been the group’s producer since day one, and was a bit burnt out by the end—but not because of any tendencies toward perfectionism in the studio. “A record should be a snapshot in time,” he says. “You can listen to it two years later and say you should have done things different, but then it wouldn’t be who you were at that period of time.”
The 6-string duo have plenty to say about everything from their commitment to the band to their passion for gear, which balances the old and the new—looking toward the future even as they celebrate their history.
It’s been 20 years since KSE’s eponymous debut. Was there anything different about your approach to Atonement?
Adam Dutkiewicz: I wanted to write songs that were a little bit more on the aggressive side, just ’cause I feel like this band can so easily fall into the trap of doing [too many] mid-tempo songs. Beyond that, it was pretty much the same thing.
Joel Stroetzel:Disarm the Descent [from 2013] was a bit thrashier than [2016’s] Incarnate. We wanted to get back to doing some stuff more like that—get more guitar work going on.
Is it true that each bandmember contributed three to five demos this time, as well?
Stroetzel: Yeah, pretty much everybody writes riffs and then once we get enough ideas together we figure out arrangements. We’ll throw it out to Jesse and see which songs he gravitates to. He’ll go out in the woods and sit around and write bits and pieces of some ideas—verses, choruses, whatever he has in his mind. Then usually it’s him and Adam that sit down with the music and try to piece it all together.
Dutkiewicz: It’s weird, because now we live so far away from each other. I moved to the West Coast, Justin [Foley, drummer] lives in Florida, Joel’s in Western Massachusetts, Mike [D’Antonio, bassist] is near Boston, and Jesse’s in New York, so we can’t really get together and jam. We try to write music on our own and show each other our ideas through email. If we like ’em, they make the [cut], but if we don’t like ’em they just get thrown in the trash. Or, we actually do get together and see if we can make them better.
How do you decide which ones to keep?
Dutkiewicz: Just conversations together. It’s kind of a lengthy process, because obviously it has to make it past our own individual drawing boards first. I’ll work on a song for a good four hours, then shelve it for a day or two, then listen to it again. A lot of the time I end up throwing it out. Or if the ideas there just need a little tweaking, I’ll work on it a bit more, and then I’ll finally email it out. If everyone says they like it, we’ll just use it the way it is, but if some people say, “yeah, we like the chorus part but the rest of the song sucks,” we’ll try to get some new parts.
What was the recording process like for this record?
Stroetzel: Justin flew out to San Diego to do drums there with Adam. Then we had a little portable rig and Mike knocked out a lot of his bass tracks on headphones in hotel rooms on days off. As far as guitar and vocals, we did a lot of that in Adam’s studio in San Diego. We did some of the guitars at my place [in Massachusetts], and vocals were kind of a mixture: San Diego and Zing Studios [in Westfield, Massachusetts], where we’ve done a lot of the records in the past. It took a while to piece it all together.
There were a fair number of complications along the way.…
Dutkiewicz: It was a pain in my ass, absolutely! It felt like it would never end, to be honest with you. The longer you work on a project, the more you have the capability of losing your focus and clarity on it. I felt like this one went on a little too long, but we can only do so much when things come up, like Jesse having to get surgery, and we’re not going to say “no” to touring with Iron Maiden for three months! We have to roll with the punches.
Adam, you’ve been producing the band’s albums since the beginning. What’s that like for you both?
Dutkiewicz: My most important role is resident jackass [laughs]. I try to be the guy in the band that makes the shows as fun as possible, and makes sure we’re not that band that’s perceived as taking themselves very seriously. But yeah, I definitely have another role of being that guy who likes to spearhead the record production, get everything organized and structured, and pull it all together. Since I was the guy that started the band with Mike, that’s just been my role from the beginning. I love being so active in the creative process of what it is to be in Killswitch Engage. It’s fun.
Stroetzel: Adam’s really good at doing the double-duty thing, as far as writing, playing on the record, producing everybody, and producing himself. He pushes everybody pretty hard to do their best and get stuff right. I’ve been around when he tracks his own guitars, and he holds himself to that same standard. He’s not just bullying the rest of us. He really has the greater good at heart. It’s good having him steer the ship.
TIDBIT: Recording Atonement took more than three years due to factors such as vocal-cord surgery for singer Jesse Leach, and an interim tour with Iron Maiden.
Dutkiewicz: I don’t think of it like I’m the leader of the band. We’re all in it together, you know? I just feel like I’m probably the most driven in helping get the songs finished. It’s in my blood, versus how a lot of the other guys have trouble finishing ideas and sentences.
Stroetzel: Which I’m very jealous of. Me and Mike will come up with a lot of parts, and we tend to need each other’s help to piece it together and make cohesive songs. I’ll sit around and try to program drums for a song, and I’m not very good at that. Definitely helps to have a couple guys with drummers’ brains actually put in the right fills to make parts fit together.
It must also be nice not having to worry about being assigned a producer you might not like.
Dutkiewicz: Exactly. It’s always felt organic and homegrown with us.
Stroetzel: We’ve always been a pretty self-contained unit. Even the artwork—Mike’s done all the artwork for the band since the beginning. We don’t really have too many outside opinions coming in as far as the vision for the band.
What’s your favorite song on the album?
Dutkiewicz: I always say the one with [Testament vocalist] Chuck Billy, “The Crownless King,” just because I love his voice on that song so much. He’s been one of the greatest metal singers out there for so many years, so it’s just an honor to have him on the record. His voice is killer.
Stroetzel: Testament’s been one of my favorite bands since I was a kid, and I always loved Chuck’s voice, so it was really cool that he was able to sing on that. “The Signal Fire” is a fun one to play. Those are some of the ones we just introduced to set.
How do you feel about the album after letting it sit for a while?
Dutkiewicz: I haven’t listened to it since we made it—two years straight was enough. I’m excited that there’s a lot of people that are hearing it for the first time who like it. That’s the ultimate goal—trying to make our fans happy—and there are some songs on there that I’m proud of. I kind of don’t hate the first half of the record [laughs]. I think Jesse did a really good job, too. Lyrics can really make or break a song for me.