Interview: Jesse Leach of Killswitch Engage
Tue, 07 Jan 2014 09:51:53
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Disarm The Descent shook up heavy metal last year. With Jesse Leach acclimating quickly, it felt as if Killswitch Engage didn't even miss a step from 2002's landmark Alive Or Just Breathing. It was as if zero time had passed at all. Still, getting back together with Leach lit the band's fire like never before, and the resulting album is Killswitch's finest hour to date. It's as heavy as longtime fans had hoped for, but it preserves those immense arena-size melodies the band has perfected over the years. They nailed the combo so well that they landed a 2014 Grammy Award nomination for "In Due Time" in the category of "Best Metal Performance" even.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Jesse Leach of Killswitch Engage dives deep into Disarm The Descent, talks the video for "Always", uncovers the correlation between heavy music and reggae, and so much more.
Killswitch Engage and Lamb of God spearheaded the last true metal movement. You're both still going strong as well.
It was a blast. I'm a fan as well so it was great playing with two bands that I totally admire. It was awesome. It's also cool to have two bands on a bill who are different in style. The fans are co-mingling. There's no separation there. People show up to the gig in Lamb Of God shirts, and they may not listen to us. They actually end up enjoying it. They come up to us afterwards and talk to us. It's great for both bands because it's cross-pollination of metal. It's awesome.
Has Disarm The Descent opened the doorway to Killswitch's next chapter?
Absolutely! It brought some of the aggression back, but it kept the melody. I think it's kind of a return-to-the-roots, but a progression in my mind. You're right. I feel like moving forward we are able to do more melodic stuff if we want. We can go heavier if we want. The next record will be a true testament to the progression of this band. That's the plan.
Have you already begun kicking around ideas?
Not really…we've been touring pretty hardcore for the past year-and-a-half, and we've still got tours lined up. It's hard to even wrap your head around it. These days, it's crazy. In reality, it just came out. I know bands move quickly, but we'll give it a little time and let this record sink in. People are still getting adjusted to it. I kind of have an idea for what I want to do, but we haven't really discussed it.
You haven't taken a break since you got back together.
We really haven't. We've taken a couple weeks' break here and there. The last break we had was almost two months long. For the most part, we've been on the road nonstop, while making a record. We'd tour, come home, write, and finish vocals. Then, we'd tour again. I'd come home and finish vocals. Even when I'm home, I'm still crazy busy. It's been pretty insane.
Disarm The Descent felt like it picked up where the Times of Grace album, The Hymn of a Broken Man, left off. That really was like the successor to Alive or Just Breathing. You had to go through the Times of Grace record to get to this Killswitch Engage album.
Yeah, that's definitely an interesting point of view. I can see why you'd say that. Obviously, that's not intentional to us. Times of Grace is a totally different baby that we're going to continue to do on the side. I think the bottom line is the way I write I'm capturing different moments of my life, the way I see the world, and things that are happening around me. So, I think naturally that would happen. I don't think it's intentional as far as the album being a springboard for another record. I guess it's just the progression of life, what happens in your life, and where you are at that time. I just try to capture those moments and be relevant for at least the time they're written.
With how dark The Hymn of a Broken was, the positivity that Disarm the Descent is laced with hits even harder.
There's definitely a common thread throughout it. In retrospect, now that you're saying it, I'm sitting here thinking about it. There's certainly a thread. It is about a struggle, suffering, and all of those things everybody goes through. You find a way out somehow and you find strength. I think the band is in a good place right now mentally. For me, everything works. It's the signs of the times, if you will.
In Killswitch Engage, you've been able to include cathartic and introspective lyrics within the landscape of genuinely heavy metal. That's a delicate balance.
It is! I think years before they were bringing in a balladeer-type thing with Howard Jones. It's very interesting in the success that it had. Killswitch Engage has just been able to roll with the punches to be a relevant band. I'm extremely honored to be back in it and still have people care—even though we did switch it up a bit with me coming back to the fold. Stylistically, my writing is different from Howard's, and a good amount of the fans still stayed with us. It's amazing.
Each Killswitch record feels like another level, while preserving the same spirit.
That's very gracious of you. I also have to give respect and love to the fans for just rolling with us. It's been overwhelming. Coming back and having new material people are singing along to and then singing an older song and people are singing along to that too, it's great. I just think the fire's back. We're firing on all cylinders.
Was the short film for "Always" a collective band decision?
That was pretty much my brainchild with the two directors. At the time, we were in the middle of the tour, and I was pretty burnt out. The idea came through the pipeline. Writing the lyrics of the song and knowing what I had in mind and what I didn't want for a video, that was the biggest motivator [Laughs]. I knew I didn't want it to be a Guy-Meets-Girl "I love you always" video. So I got involved immediately. I said, "This is what I don't want. Here are some ideas I have. Here's what the song is essentially about". That's mourning the loss of a loved one and the memories—the joy and the pain. I figured the best way to show that without having mourning in a cemetery was by drawing from songs like Pantera's "Hollow" and "Cemetery Gates" or "Nothing Else Matters" from Metallica. They're heavy bands but they're tackling softer, yet powerful subjects in a way that's not sappy. In this case, the route was to show a different kind of love, namely brotherly love. That was Mike and Ian's idea. Then, you're dealing with a disease or death. It's unspoken in the video, but we're essentially talking about cancer. Everybody's been affected by that. It's one of the number one killers. I wanted to make sure people were impacted by it. It made people stop and think. They didn't just go, "Yeah, I've seen this before". It's a love song, but what kind of love song is it? That's the question I wanted to pose to people with the video. If you assume it's this kind of love song, you may or may not be right. I hate to tell people what the songs are about, but it was important to show another side of love that people don't usually draw from in music videos.
The song itself adds to the ebb and flow of the record.
Yeah, I'm glad you said that. That's really why that song is on the album. Initially, a couple of the guys were like, "I don't know if this fits on the record". Adam and I were like, "Well, it's perfect because it gives a breather right before the last song". Every song is put in that particular order for a reason. In a day and age where people don't necessarily listen to records from start-to-finish, we're still an album band, and we wanted to make sure this album was an experience from beginning-to-end. I feel like "Always" was the breather before the final song. It's sort of the closer.
What's been on your mind lately?
I'm overwhelmed the state of our country and the apathy of the people in this country. I'm overwhelmed with the two faced-ness of our government and all the things they're getting away with. I'm pretty frustrated as a U.S. citizen, but I look at the world as well. I've had the privilege of traveling and talking to other people from Germany to Thailand to Estonia. We have it pretty good here, but there needs to be some changes. For me, I'm almost in the mindset of Marvin Gaye like "What's Going On?" I really wonder what's in people's minds and where we are right now in this state of affairs. That's where my head is at.
Does that inspire writing?
For me, it's more about, "What do we take for granted on a daily basis?" You're out here on the road. You're living this little life in a box or a bus. People are throwing adoration at you at all times, and there's got to be a balance. That speaks volumes for society. We live in such a comfortable society. People don't realize how bad it's getting and how bad it is all over the world. There are places where revolutions have been happening and riots. Eventually, it's going to touch down over here. It's easy to take things for granted. That's my big thing. Coming from a working class background and working regular jobs and then coming back out here after years of not doing it, it blows my mind. I feel blessed, but I've got some unrest in me, and I feel like people need to wake up. There's an urgency bubbling up within me. I want to be careful to walk that fine line so I don't come off too political. There's nothing worse than hearing someone preach about something. You still want people to enjoy your records and the live show without being preached at. I think I'm able to work it in there lyrically without bumming people out.
You don't write in an on-the-nose fashion. Everything is still up for interpretation.
I really strive for that honestly because I feel that makes a song more powerful. If you're coming out, listening to the song, and gathering your own interpretation of it, that's more powerful maybe than what the song was originally intended to be about. Through the interview process, I can't keep my mouth shut [Laughs]. There have been a couple of songs I've spoken about, but for the most part I try to keep it pretty ambiguous. I think that's important.
That keeps it personal for the listener too.
When did you first get into reggae?
It's funny. I've been listening to reggae almost as long as I've been listening to hardcore and punk. I don't think it really reflects too much in the music melody-wise, but lyrically there's the spirituality of it and the positivity of it. There's something behind it that struck a chord with me early on, listening to bands like The Clash and Bad Brains where there are constant reggae references going on and it sparked my interest. My gateway drug was Bob Marley, but I got deeper and went back to the sixties with the ska music and Desmond Dekker all the way through more modern things like Steel Pulse. There's a consciousness to the lyrics which is very close to what punk rock and hardcore were saying in the eighties. Reggae music has some really great anthems.
There's also a correlation to heavy music.
Absolutely! The common thread people seem to forget is it all comes from Africa. You've got the blues music which inspired great rock 'n' roll, and you've got reggae music from Jamaica that infiltrated ska music and punk ska. The influence is everywhere. Even the groove, during the nineties, we had groove metal like Sepultura's Roots and Soulfly. All of that comes from African tribal music. That's the common thread. A lot of people forget that. It all comes from Africa.
Have you been there?
No, we're booked to go to South Africa. It's a place I've always wanted to go. I'm looking forward to it. Killswitch is playing two or three shows.
What's your favorite Killswitch Engage song?