(NCS writer BadWolf interviewed Jesse Leach, who was the original vocalist of Killswitch Engage and returned to the band this year after a decade-long separation, following the departure of vocalist Howard Jones. In 2011, he recorded an album under the name Times of Grace with Killswitch bandmate Adam Dutkiewicz. Killswitch are now in the midst of an anniversary tour, with a new album on the way.)
–This interview appears courtesy of the Toledo City Paper.
It’s been a long journey for Jesse Leach in the past ten years. Shortly after recording the vocals on Killswitch Engage’s sophomore LP, Alive or Just Breathing, he parted ways with the band, citing vocal cord and emotional difficulties.
Alive or Just Breathing turned out to be a classic. The late-career revivals of Carcass, At The Gates, and melodic death metal as a whole, probably had a lot to do with Killswitch re-introducing the genre in an Americanized context. To this day, new bands use its basic structure of melody, hardcore beats, and good cop/bad cop vocals, as a template.
After his triumphant run on the short Times of Grace tour, Leach is back in Killswitch, and the band is about to embark on an anniversary tour, playing Alive or Just Breathing from end to end. After ten years of struggle, things might be looking up for Boston’s most unlucky screamer. As he said to me: everything happens for a reason.
The deck turns around.
So you write a lot of stuff on the road?
When I get writer’s block I’ll get on my bike or in my car. These days it’s the bike, but back in the day it was the car. I got off the last tour and with my first paycheck, I got myself a really nice bike. I wrote a lot of the new Killswitch record on my bike. I’m doing 20 to 30 mile runs. I’m becoming a serious biker. It really helps with my voice and breathing control. I take the bike out, pop headphones in, and when an idea popped up I took out my phone and recorded the lyrics or hummed a few bars. Movement is good for my writing.
So, there’s a new Killswitch in the works.
I’m wrapping it this week.
Will we hear anything new on this tour?
Yes. We’re planning on playing one new song. We’ll do Alive or Just Breathing in its entirety, a few of the Howard songs, and the new one that no one’s heard.
Are you worried about your voice this time?
The thing about the voice is it’s controlled by your brain. If you’re in a weird mental spot you can’t control it. [When I left Killswitch] I was going through a depression and going all out not being able to control my voice because I couldn’t control my emotions. I would get on stage and all hell broke loose in my mind. I would scream it all out without any technique. I was wet behind the ears and depressed. That’s why I bailed.
But that was then, this is now.
If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be doing this I would have laughed. It’s one of those things that feels right and it’s been amazing since it happened. Everything happens for a reason, and when this opportunity arose I can’t even describe it, I just had to.
I think a lot of people wanted you back—a lot of people really love Alive or Just Breathing.
There’s a part of me that’s super appreciative of that and a part of me that has to sort of ignore it and be how I am. You can’t live in the past. I’ve tried hard to move on in my career, but I’ll always be “Jesse Ex-Killswitch.” The guy who quit for ten years. But I have to believe in what I’m doing, my work needs to be relevant in the moment. But rejoining the band has made me realize that this is where I belong.
But is it weird to sing stuff from Alive or Just Breathing?
It is weird. I’m a different person both mentally and sonically—the way I scream and sing—they’re all different. I’m trying to polish up the songs to make them suitable live. But there’s also a certain nostalgia there—you know I wasn’t really able to tour behind that record. Now that I get to do it, even on a short US run, it’s a cool way to celebrate [both] ten years and my rejoining the band. And we’re doing smaller intimate venues, so it’s almost showing people what may have been if I had been able to tour on that record. It’s a fun thing. The vibe will be a good time.
You picked a good venue. If they take the barriers down kids stage dive. It’s nice.
You know after what happened with my buddy Randy [Blythe, singer from Lamb of God] a lot of promoters won’t even book the venue without a barrier for insurance purposes. So touring has changed. That’s one of the things we discussed—should we bother to try and not have a barrier? And insurance kept coming up. So whatever, if there’s a barrier we’ll do our best to deal with it. When it comes to that stuff, I’m used to playing small clubs without barriers, but these days you can’t be too careful.
So, the first lines on AoJB is “The Time approaches.” What time?
When I write material I try to be ambiguous enough to let people draw their own conclusions. It just seemed like an urgent thing to say. That’s an apocalyptic, biblical song. When I wrote that song I was really wrestling with my faith and my religion. I was raised a Christian but very much drawn to Rastafarian culture at that time—I made reference to Babylon, I against I, I and I. I’m using Rasta terminology because I was sitting between faiths trying to figure stuff out. There’s a lot of internal struggle on that record.
Has your crisis of faith resolved?
I would not call it a crisis—I am strong in my Christian faith. But you need to be aware and open to everything around in this constantly changing world. To me, my faith hasn’t changed but I’ve struggled with it, even recently writing the Times of Grace record. But anyone honest with you will say there is constant doubt. I know what I believe but I’m not afraid to say I wrestle with this.
After you left, Killswitch made less spiritual and more romantic music. Is it weird to sing that stuff?
The ones they gave me to learn for touring I’ve been able to latch onto. Howard’s intent may or may not have been romantic or about a woman, but the way the lyrics are written you can still make it a deep, spiritual thing. And even if it is a woman I can relate to that as well, it’s just not my particular style. When I write a song the first thing I’m thinking is greater than the everyday struggle, but I can relate to what Howard wrote and what he sang. I admire his voice, he’s an amazing singer. I really like some songs of his—like “World Ablaze.” It’s been a challenge to let myself sing material that I did not write, but I’m growing to like it. I think Howard was putting messages out there and people were not hearing the cry for help. He was going through a lot. But that’s the genius of Killswitch—we can get a new singer, go a different direction and retain the core sound.
And it’s a popular sound. I hear people younger than myself on the radio obviously still clinging to that sound.
Who knew there’d be mileage to it? Who knew ten years ago that Killswitch would be the behemoth that it is? It’s been cool to rejoin and take the band in a slightly different direction while still adhering to the formula.
Was it difficult to watch their career do that vertical takeoff after you left?
For me I have the attitude of things happen for a reason. For me it wasn’t easy—the past ten years of my life have not been easy. But I’m extremely happy for my friends. I was glad to see them Grammy nominated, touring the world. They won’t admit it, but to me they were one of the biggest bands in metal, and that’s amazing. I never harbored any negative feelings. That comes full circle—here I am.
Is adapting to the press cycle a burden?
A burden? No. Anyone who says the press cycle is a burden, it’s kind of funny. Especially if you’ve ever worked a real job, if they’ve ever worked a blue collar job. It can be annoying at times. A lot of musicians, if they aren’t egomaniacs, can get tired talking about themselves. Thats why I try to make every interview a little different. It’s not that hard until you’re on tour, that’s when it gets to you, because you’re homesick and exhausted.
Do you find touring easy? I know you and Adam did the Times of Grace… no I’m saying the wrong thing. That’s a Neurosis album.
No it is Times of Grace. And it IS a Neurosis album!
Which was a happy accident, actually.
Touring is not easy. Most people who work construction jobs-that’s hard. But the road is mentally taxing. As long as you’re not burning your bridges, taking naps, staying healthy, it’s ok. It can be spiritually exhausting to be cooped up in small quarters.
But I bet there’s harder guys to tour with than Killswitch Engage—you seem so funny.
Oh, I’m blessed. Those guys are awesome to tour with. They’re definitely goofballs. And there’s an air of respect on that bus. We know it’s our home and we respect that. When somebody is trying to sleep in the bunk it gets quiet—we have respect for one another. Which is easier on a bus. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve toured in van and trailer for most of my life, but now that I’m on a bus, I love it.
Congratulations. You’re in the 1%.
Nah, those are the dudes that tour with a bus to each person of the band, which happens.
That’s crazy to me. I’m too much of an environmentalist to get behind that.
It’s terrible. Adam D and I were talking about maybe, if things go well with this next record, getting a biodeisel tour bus. Trying to be more environmentally sound because we’re burning up fumes all over the earth. We’re doing the whole recycling thing because of all the plastic bottles we use on the road. We’re traveling around in a garbage truck. So we’re reducing as much as we can.
When I’m home I’m very local, organic thinking. I try to support local businesses. When I buy groceries I try to buy locally grown products. I go to the farmer’s market. All of that is important to me. I love mother earth. It’s the least I can do. It’s a political thing as well—when you buy something, you’re making a political statement. That’s been my philosophy.
I even take it down to the beer I purchase. I don’t buy corporate beer. I watched a documentary called Beer Wars, and I will not support Anheiser-Busch or Miller. Not that I would drink that stuff anyway, because I am a beer snob. But when we travel to a town that has a local brewery, it says on our tour rider—buy local beer. When Killswitch rolls into town we support the local brewery. It’s cool, I get to drink beer from all over the world.
When you come to Toledo look for Buckeye beer. It’s cheap and it’s local and fantastic. And I don’t even like the Buckeyes.
I’ll look for it. You know in Maine they have the Allagash brewery, and they reached out to us, because they’re fans. We get to tour the brewery when we go there. That kind of cool stuff can happen when you support local. People reach out, because you’re not some suit—you’re a person. The beauty of small business is that it’s blood, sweat and tears.
But when you’re touring, you know, you’re an alcohol salesman. The venue makes money off drinks.
Totally dude. Look at Jagermeister. I just saw a commercial the other day for Jagermiester with Kerry King and a bunch of sports dudes, they all sit at a table and cheers. Whoa—what just happened?
That’s definitely an aspect of our job that promotes alcohol—when you see Killswitch live, we’re all drinking. But the question is what are we drinking? Nine times out of ten I’m drinking Guinness. That’s my drink. And it’s good for you to. When you get down to it, Guinness is a healthful beer. It’s the only beer that doesn’t cause vocal fold inflammation. There’s been studies done—there was a man who lived on Guinness for… I want to say it was two months. The doctor said he was slightly dehydrated but healthy.
That’s nuts. Look, I’ve got to go, but before I do—new record. C’mon, you gotta tell me about it.
It’s sticking to what we do well—big hooks, sing-alongs. It’s definitely the fastest thing we’ve ever done. There’s a lot of melody, but don’t expect what you’ve been hearing for the past five to six years. My lyrics are different. We’re bringing it a little more back to the old school, but don’t expect Alive or Just Breathing part two.