Jesse Leach of Killswitch Engage Reflects on "Alive or Just Breathing" and Talks New Album
Wed, 26 Dec 2012 12:30:27
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When Killswitch Engage welcomed original vocalist Jesse Leach back into the fold, shockwaves reverberated through the entire heavy metal landscape. It wasn't just the return of a proverbial "prodigal son", so to speak: it was a new beginning for the genre stalwarts.
The band's debut with Leach, Alive or Just Breathing not only established the band's patented sound, but it influenced an entire era of heavy music. In every way imaginable, it's an undeniable landmark. The group hit the road with Five Finger Death Punch and then on a headline jaunt this fall performing the classic record from start to finish. Most importantly though, the next chapter for Killswitch Engage has begun. The quintet is in the studio for their new offering, and it's bound to be just as timeless with this inimitable combination back in place.
In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com editor in chief Rick Florino, Killswitch Engage main man Jesse Leach talks Alive or Just Breathing, the next album, and so much more.
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Alive or Just Breathing?
Believe it or not: reggae music. I was just obsessed with reggae music and culture. I really wanted to follow in the footsteps of one of my favorite bands Bad Brains and inject positivity and spirituality into the music. When I got the opportunity—we had been signed to a label, and I knew a lot of people would be listening—I was really careful with what I was going to say, and I wanted to put out a really heavy positive spiritual vibe in the lyrics. I look back on that, and it's great and I love it. I've matured over the years, and I've experienced some ups and downs. I've changed a lot, but the initial spirit behind what I set out to do with this band is still there. I did my best to continue that with this record. As we all know, when you grow, learn, and experience pain and suffering, you've got to be real with that. It's a balance of light and darkness on this record.
That balance was always at the heart of Killswitch Engage from the beginning.
Definitely, but I also chuckle a little bit with some of those lyrics from Alive or Just Breathing, especially with me using the terminology "I against and I" and "I and I". I wanted to be a part of the reggae culture so much—being a little white hardcore kid [Laughs]. I was coming from a really good place though.
When did you first discover reggae?
In high school, when I fell in love with hardcore and punk, that's all I listened to for a good year of my life. Anything else was just garbage to me. I was an elitist little jerk in high school. It was all about hardcore and punk. One day, somebody played Bob Marley for me, and it just hit me. The same person who showed me Bob Marley was really into Bad Brains. Then, it all made sense. Bad Brains are into reggae. Cro-Mags, Underdog, and 108 injected reggae here and there. I got into The Clash after that. From there, I was like, "Bob Marley's good. Who else is good?" I'd go to the record store and buy anything I thought looked cool. I started to find deeper cuts. It's stuff your average college reggae kid wouldn't know about like Israel Vibration. I became immersed and obsessed with reggae culture.
What were the recording sessions like for Alive or Just Breathing?
It was both tense and strenuous because I didn't know how to use my instrument properly. I was coming from a point where it was all emotion and no technique. It sounds powerful and good, but I was burning out quickly after an hour and a half of doing it. I canceled a few sessions. At one point, I threw my entire back out from screaming. I reached forward and hyper extended my arms into my back. I had to record a couple of songs with my arm in a sling on pain meds. I think it was frustrating for Adam because it was his chance as a producer to put out his first huge record, and here his vocalist is having a really hard time. It wasn't only just with my instrument, but it led to me being mentally frustrated because I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. It was a painful process to record that album. It's great to be here ten years later finishing the new record. That process was awesome. It was so much fun. It was a collaboration, and it was exciting. I've come a long way, man.
It was fall into winter. We finished up around wintertime.
What's your favorite song on Alive or Just Breathing?
It's probably "Rise Inside". Now that we've been playing them live, that song is so much fun. It's such an anthem. I still fully believe in all of those words. In retrospect, it's a beautiful song about how we need to love each other. The way we did it was so different. It's a song about loving each other, but it's powerful and heavy. We've been having so much fun playing that song live. The crowd has been into it.
What's the story behind "Temple From Within"?
The whole idea is, "The body is a temple". To me, it's kind of a gospel song in a way. You're looking up to God and saying, "Give me peace. Help me to see life through different eyes. Teach me your ways and allow me to safe". It's a cry to faith. There's pain behind it to because at the time I was struggling with depression, which is something that's come and gone in my life a lot. You're crying out to God like, "Help me out here. I'm having a hard time". That's what it's about. At the root of it, that's where it's coming from.
Was The Hymn of a Broken Man special for you?
In retrospect, it was a stepping stone to bring me back here. My touring experience with Adam and Joel was so positive and so good it made me fall in love with being on the road. When the opportunity to come back into this band came up, it was a no-brainer for me. I'd go as far as to say The Hymn of a Broken Man [Times of Grace] saved my life. I was at a point in my life where I was considering suicide. I was depressed, and I was going through personal issues. Actually in "Until the End of Days", there are excerpts of a journal entry in the journal I was keeping to try and help cope with my depression where I was talking about wanting to die. For the whole entire record, Adam and I were both in very dark periods of our lives. It's very much a special record and will always hold a place in both of our hearts. Adam was humming the riffs and majority of ideas on that record into a Dictaphone on his back in a hospital bed in London. When he got home, he had to stay off the road. He plugged into his computer and started demoing stuff. I got the phone call when he was about eight songs in. He said he was working on a record. It was a special project, and he didn't feel like it was Killswitch material. He couldn't think of anyone else to sing on it besides me. I was blown away and honored by that. It was a great collaboration because vocally and lyrically we collaborated. It's something I've never done. I've never taken somebody else's lyrics and made them my own and vice versa. It was an awesome time in my life, and it was very therapeutic for the both of us.
Is this new Killswitch different from Alive or Just Breathing for you personally?
It's worlds apart. It's so different. That's a good thing. Actually, I can say I'm pretty much completely comfortable with who I am. I know my instrument now. I knew my limits. I knew when I was pushing too hard. I knew when I needed to push more. Adam knew the same. If I did a take, he'd know and I'd know. We're very much on the same page now. It felt completely different than Alive or Just Breathing. I think it's my best work to date. I'm happy to say that as an artist I'm always trying to outdo myself or do better. I feel like I've been able to achieve that.
Do you tend to read a lot?
I definitely love to read. I'm all about musician's biographies and autobiographies. I read Keith Richards' book Life. I read Scar Tissue. I'm currently reading Willie Nelson's new book, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me. I love looking into other musician's lives and how they lived them. I'm a huge Allman Brothers fan. I love the blues. I love bike riding. When I'm home, I have a routine where I do 15-20 sometimes 30 miles a day. I draw a lot of inspiration from that when I'm writing. If I get writer's block or I feel I'm not inspired, I'll go for a bike ride and listen to the demos. A lot of this record was written while riding a bike. Then, I'll paint occasionally. I love to paint. I love art in general and going to shows. I love jamming and all kinds of stuff. It's art. I'm definitely an artist. I have a need to do it. I love getting into nature, escaping into the mountains, and being quiet. Turning off the white noise of the world and getting in touch with nature is important for my soul as well, especially living where I live outside of New York City. The city life is great, but I need to escape.
What's your favorite Killswitch Engage song?