Killswitch Engage: a new adventure for a new Jesse Leach

In the interview published right before this one, guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz mentioned how everything seemed new to Jesse Leach after his return in the bosom of Killswitch Engage. We just had to talk to the vocalist to know how he feels about said return.

And he is indeed a very enthusiastic man, now only regarding this new experience, but also his new life as a musician. His happiness is even more heart-warming considering the difficulties the man has been through, and the doubts he had regarding his ability to step into the vocalist’s shoes again. As a result, he talks about these subjects very openly and touchingly. Now the difficulties are over, but they helped him gain a certain wisdom that he wants to share – about singing, life as a musician, and the freedom music should bring. No wonder he mentions Devin Townsend as an example to follow.

Whether you’re a fan of the band, a music enthusiast or simply curious, we strongly recommend you read this interview.

« The last thing I am is a rock star. I’m a working musician. This attitude, I think, is why I write the way I write, and why I act the way I act. I think that’s important, you know? There’s enough assholes in the music industry. »

Radio Metal: At the time you left the band, you said you were “done with music, period”. What made you come back to this life? What gave you hope?

Jesse Leach (vocals): I don’t know if it was hope… I think it was just a necessity. I just needed music in my life. I tried to quit for a couple of months. I was dealing with depression, and it just got worse. Then a friend of mine reached out and asked me to join the band Seemless. He sent me a CD, I listened to it and I thought it could be fun for me to do rock’n’roll, something completely different. There was no pressure, it was just: “Come on, we’ll play bars and have fun with it”. After coming out of this situation, it just seemed like a really nice thing to do. It became sort of like a therapy for me. It helped me along the way. I wrote about my problems and my depression, so I started singing blues. I fell in love with the blues.

Apart from that, could you update us on what you did between your departure from Killswitch Engage and your return?

Absolutely. There was the band Seemless, and a band called The Empire Shall Fall, that I’m still currently doing. Of course there was Times Of Grace last year, we had a record. In-between all of that, it was just tons of random blue-collar, working-class jobs, struggling and suffering, problems in relationships, redemption… What everybody goes through. I think it really molded me and helped me become the person that I am today. I finally feel grounded and confident, but I don’t think I would be who I am if I didn’t go through those trials and tribulations. And being a sort of regular working-class person really kept me in touch with everyday people. When people call me a rock star, I laugh; it’s the most hilarious thing in the world, cause the last thing I am is a rock star. I’m a working musician. This attitude, I think, is why I write the way I write, and why I act the way I act. I think that’s important, you know? There’s enough assholes in the music industry.

Do you still play in Seemless now?

No, Seemless has been done for maybe six years now.

How do you look at the evolution of Killswitch Engage during those years, from an outsider’s perspective?

Obviously, on the surface, they were very successful. It’s amazing how successful they were. I think they turned into sort of a more melodic, almost ballad-like type of band. They introduced a little bit more R’n’B elements, which, to me, is great, cause they were doing something different from what everyone else was doing. I’ve always been proud of my friends. But I know there’s been some real struggle in the past few years, that led up to the separation of Howard [Jones] and the band. If nothing else, I’m just proud of what they’ve accomplished. It’s pretty amazing.

« I was asked months before the announcement of them parting ways, and I said: ‘I don’t think I could sing his songs. I don’t think I’d be able to do that and be myself and be genuine with it’. »

Did you notice some changes in the working process between then and now?

Worlds apart. Very different. The band as a whole is a well-oiled machine. All the parts work properly, so it’s not a lot of effort. Coming back into it was like stepping in, finding my place and going. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness. They were so welcoming and so encouraging to me. It was effortless to jump back in, and before I knew it, literally the other day, I realized: “You’ve been back in the band for a year”. I don’t even think of it, it’s such a natural process. In terms of friendships and relationships, we’ve all become so close. It’s so different than it was ten years ago. It’s great now. Easy.

Your return in the band after Howard’s departure was announced very quickly. It looks like you didn’t hesitate at all before saying yes, did you?

I did! I was asked months before the announcement of them parting ways, and I said: “I don’t think I could sing his songs. I don’t think I’d be able to do that and be myself and be genuine with it”. That was the initial opening: them reaching out, and me working my job and living my life. Then I read the press release saying they’d actually done it. They weren’t just talking about it, they had gone their separate ways. I remember being at my job, behind a bar, stacking up glasses, with customers yelling. I read the press release, looked at my life and thought: “I should probably give this a shot”. That’s when I made the phone call to Adam and saying to him: “Hey, what about doing an Alive Or Just Breathing tour?” And he said: “Now we’re just set on those auditions”. OK, dude, cool, whatever. The next day, I called the manager and said: “You know, those auditions list – could you just put me in? I’m gonna audition”. I let the guys know I was going to prepare and audition. So I spent the next week and a half brainwashing myself with the songs, and I started to fall in love with them. “Arms Of Sorrow” was the first one that really hit me and struck a chord with me. I started to be able to relate to them, to feel them and get emotionally involved with these songs. I became a fan. That’s when I had the confidence, and I knew I could do this. I brought that spirit to the audition. The audition was fun, the energy was there, we were laughing and having a good time. The next day, I got a phone call from the management asking me to rejoin the band. It was great.

So this was not something you were actually looking forward to? Sort of: “If Howard ever leaves the band, maybe…”

I think, in the back of my mind, I thought: “Oh, cool, more time for Times Of Grace to do stuff in the future”. If anything, that’s what I was thinking, you know? But the thought hadn’t occurred. Quite honestly, when they asked me initially, I got to hear some of the demos for the new record, just the music. That was in the back of my mind, too, cause I thought that stuff was amazing. If I had to learn some Howard stuff, sing it live, and then work on a new record, I would be able to come back with the new record, too. That was sort of the bonus that gave me the push to really want to do it. I wanted to sing on this record when I heard it, I knew it was gonna be cool.

« I started to be able to relate to [the songs], to feel them and get emotionally involved with these songs. I became a fan. That’s when I had the confidence, and I knew I could do this. I brought that spirit to the audition. »

When a new musician is hired in a band, he has to get the approval of the fans. Even if you were in the band before, did you see your return as a challenge?

Yeah, absolutely. I think, fortunately, Killswitch fans love the band. Again, the reason I wasn’t sure about rejoining was that I wanted to be genuine. I think I’m genuine enough in my performance that it shows I really care. I think that’s helped, because I’ve got nothing but positive feedback from the fans. I’m sure there are people online who just can’t stand the fact that I’m back, cause they’re comparing me to Howard, like they’ve been doing in the past eight or nine years. It really pisses me off, because it’s so disrespectful to both of us. To me it’s just nonsense, I don’t pay attention to that anymore. I do music because I love it, I do it for the right reasons. If you don’t appreciate that, it’s not my problem. You can’t please everybody.

Apparently, for this album, Adam gave you some vocal advice. Did he make you sing things you thought you weren’t able to sing?

The cool thing about Adam is that he knows me well enough to know my range and what I’m capable of. As for him sort of helping me or giving me ideas, it was more like placement: “Why don’t you try that note instead of this one?” It was just little things that he tweaked. That’s what he does, he’s a producer, and he’s a genius at what he does. And we’re best friends, so there’s no ego involved there. There were some things I fought to keep the same way, and he respected that. There were times he would rearrange a whole chorus with different notes, and when he showed me, I thought it was great. For us it’s all about the songs and the album, it’s not about the ego. So yeah, he was a big help. Especially when I had writer’s block for a while. The deadline for the album was coming up, we had a tour soon, and I had a few more songs to write. I was really late, having a hard time with certain things. He stepped in and helped me out a lot for these last few songs. They became some of the best songs on the record, in my opinion.

Your clean vocals on the album are very inspired. Did your previous experiences with Seemless and The Empire Shall Fall help you develop your voice?

Yeah. I think the pinnacle of that was Times Of Grace. I used my bluesy, melodic voice with Seemless, and did more abstract stuff with The Empire Shall Fall. But touring with Times Of Grace made me realize, number one, that I had a lot to learn. I still have to grow as a singer. And number two, I realized what I was capable of, so it gave me confidence. But I need to train better, and that’s a reality. Coming into tour with Killswitch, I feel like I’m getting better. I hope to continue doing that.

Speaking of which, you had some troubles with your voice ten years ago while touring. You would break your voice out after a few shows and struggle with the rest of the tour. Have you learned to control that?

Thankfully, yes, I have. A lot of that is maintenance: knowing your voice, knowing how to take care of it, what not to do – talking loudly when you’re not on stage, going to the bar and drinking a bunch, getting drunk and dehydrated… Those are things I used to do. It’s a matter of just learning how to maintain your voice, techniques you can use to make sure you don’t blow your voice out. It’s all that stuff combined. I’ve learned a lot over the years. Now I’m confident with what I can do.

So that would be your advice to young singers who could have the same vocal problems?

Yeah, maintain your voice. It’s OK to have a drink here and there, but you’ve got to balance it out with water. Know your techniques, warm up. And don’t be afraid or too proud to sort of ask for help. Seek advice from teachers and fellow musicians. I’ve sat down with people that I’ve met on the road and admire, and gone like: “Hey, how do you do it?” The old me would have been: “Nah, I’m punk rock, I’ve got this! It’s no problem, I don’t need anyone to help me!” Look where that got me… So yeah, learn your instrument. Learn how to take care of it.

« Stepping on the stage was just… All the hairs on my arms were standing up, you know? The crowd was crazy. It’s one of the best moments of my life. »

On April 22nd, 2012, the band performed your first show since 2002. What was it like? Were you particularly nervous before that show?

Yeah! (laughs) Yeah, that show was definitely nerve-wracking for me – in a good way, though. It was just excitement and nervousness. Stepping on the stage was just… All the hairs on my arms were standing up, you know? The crowd was crazy. It’s one of the best moments of my life. Fortunately, from that point on, it just got easier for me. The nerves were more about excitement than about: “Oh my God, I’m going to screw this up…” For that first show, I remember having the lyrics to some of the Howard songs and studying them. I actually had a little sheet of paper on the monitor to give me notes on the stuff I was nervous about. In practice, I could nail it, but when you get in front of an audience, it’s different. So I had help from my little sheet of paper. “God forbid the new guy comes in and blows it on the other guy’s songs!”, that’s what I kept thinking.

Adam is pretty nuts on stage! Isn’t it quite disarming to do shows with him?

It was when we were in Times Of Grace – even though he calmed down for that particular project. But I knew what I was getting into. I think he’s calmed down for Killswitch. The past couple of tours we’ve done, he hasn’t gone as crazy as he usually goes. But at the same time, I think it’s made me a better performer, because I’m a little more light-hearted with it. He makes me laugh. It’s a good mixture of me being intense and really meaning what I say, and having moments where it’s OK to laugh and have fun. He’s made me more light-hearted, and I appreciate that. It’s helped me grow as a performer. Humor is OK in metal, it really is. If you’re taking like too seriously, you’re probably miserable, and that sucks. People who don’t understand that don’t come to our shows! It’s become a part of the performance. When I’m not feeling it, I’ll say it in the microphone. He does something stupid, and instead of me thinking: “What an asshole, let’s keep going”, I’ll say: “Hey, good job, douchebag!” I’ll just call him out, and that turns into something funny. I think the audience can sense that we’re good friends, and it’s fun. I think that’s great, it’s all part of a Killswitch show.

I know a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with you on the fact that humor is fine in metal. For them, metal has to be super serious!

Look at metal as a whole! Look at someone like Devin Townsend! Wow! That dude does whatever he wants. I think that’s the essence of what we should look at as a community. Metal isn’t defined by these rules. I thought we got into metal to go against the rules! So who’s telling us what we can and can’t do? If you like this, cool; if you don’t, go to a Slayer show and be as serious as you want there. That’s the beauty of music: freedom. We don’t follow the rules, and nobody should. I think it’s silly.

You’re obviously very busy with Killswitch Engage right now, but what’s the future for Times Of Grace?

We definitely love that project. At the very least, we want to put out recordings. But we’re gonna be pretty busy for the next few years. Adam and I don’t rule it out, it’s something we would love to do again: put out an EP, play some shows here and there… I don’t know, but our heart is still in it for sure.

That’s it for me. Any last words?

Just gratitude, man. Thank you for your support with this band, and for welcoming me back. Or not, it doesn’t really matter! Just thank you for supporting what we do. It’s good to be back.

Interview conducted by phone on February 2013
Transcription: Saff’

Killswitch Engage’s official website: www.killswitchengage.com

Album Disarm The Descent, out since April the 2nd 2013 via Roadrunner Records

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