Jesse Leach Talks Vocal Tips, Times of Grace, Solo Album, More
Band Photo: Killswitch Engage (?)
Times of Grace is a shock to the heavy metal system in more ways than one. Uplifting lyrics about hope and personal strength storm across a battering ram of melodic metal that was largely written and played by one man. Teaming with Killswitch Engage guitarists Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel, former Seemless and Killswitch vocalist Jesse Leach brought his band to Nashville for our own night of grace on August 9th. Before the show, which was dubbed the “Illuminatour,” with Underoath headlining, Jesse took time out of his concert preparation to chat with me. Photos from the show will be up in the photo gallery shortly, but here is the full text of the interview.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): How’s the tour been going, one month in?
Jesse Leach: It’s been decent. Probably not as good as we thought it was going to be. The crowd turnout has been fairly low. There are a lot of festivals we’ve been competing against and ticket prices are fairly high. We’ve had some hits and some misses, but it’s humbling.
FS: How was the songwriting process for “Strength In Numbers”?
JL: Literally, “Strength In Numbers,” that song was written in one day, one shot. It was actually the first song I wrote off of the record. Adam [Dutkiewicz, guitarist,] sent me the record and that was the first track I heard. I just sat down with a paper and wrote it! Boom. Done.
FS: Was Adam still in the hospital at that point?
JL: No, he actually had gotten out and demo’d it in his home studio, so he was already functioning and back on his feet again.
FS: There were some rumors going around that he had brought his studio to the hospital.
JL: No, but he did write a good amount of the record in his head, absolutely, while on the hospital bed with the help of a Dictaphone. There is truth to that rumor, a bit, but he didn’t bring the studio there! He waited ‘til he got out and was able to function again.
FS: What was the studio process like for Times of Grace overall?
JL: All the instruments were done by Adam, so that’s all him. He did it fairly quickly, too, in a couple of weeks. I was working a full-time job, about 50 hours a week, so the only open time I had was on weekends. He was on tour and was producing bands. Whenever he had a spare moment on the weekend, I’d rent a car and drive straight up there from New York and we’d do a couple songs here and there over the span of about a year – maybe eight or nine vocal sessions.
It was really spread out, so I was able to sit with the material for awhile, record vocals, sit with what I recorded, analyze it… It was a really long process, but when we were in the studio it was quick. Very spontaneous takes. I had a lot of fun with it. It was good therapy, too, because I was going through a rough spot in my life.
FS: You have really transparent and honest lyrics. What influenced them for this record?
JL: Life, man. Ups and downs, trying to maintain your faith and your hope in things when it’s at its darkest. That’s pretty much, in a nutshell, what it’s all about.
FS: The lyrical content definitely has evolved since the Seemless days. How have you changed personally over that time?
JL: I just lived a lot. I lived through a lot of stuff. As you grow, hopefully you gain knowledge and experience. With the scars that I have earned, I see life through different eyes. I think that it’s not a negative perspective, but perhaps a more realistic perspective on life. I’ll tell you right now, I couldn’t be happier. I accept life for what it is, things the way that they’re happening… You’ve got to find the joy in the little things in life to get you through.
FS: Well said. As you play the songs more, out on tour, do any of them hit you harder than when you wrote them?
JL: Oh yeah. When I’m alone, I listen to the record alone on my own, and I have moments where tears fill my eyes remembering when I wrote it. On the road, it’s a little different – you tend to focus on the performance of it. But, yeah, there has definitely been moments where I’m on stage and as I’m getting ready to sing a line, and I’m like “Ahhh, here it comes” and it hits me.
I do the best I can to balance it out with performing it properly, as opposed to just belting it out, because I’ve got to sing it the next day and the next day and the next. I’m actually fighting an infection as we speak, but I will nail it tonight! Haha! It’s the challenge of the road. I love it. It’s a bittersweet thing out here, but being able to see your material come to life… There’s nothing like it.
FS: Do you have any tips for vocalists?
JL: On the road, yeah. Sleep! First of all, make sure you sleep. Don’t party too hard, no matter who’s calling you a wimp, a pussy, whatever… Drink tons of water, especially if you’re on an air conditioned bus or van. I’m talking a gallon of water you should be drinking. If you have allergies, the moment you feel an allergy coming on, take your meds ASAP. Mucus is the enemy! Rest, rest, rest, and water. Do your vocal warm-ups and warm-downs. Don’t go out and party after, yelling in a club or a bar. Avoid that stuff at all cost, and you’ll be fine.
FS: Certainly good tips, because you ARE your instrument.
JL: Exactly! Unlike everyone else who will bust your balls and who will say “Oh, you’re a wimp for not drinking this or partying or staying out ‘til 4 in the morning,” but guess what? They don’t have to sing the next day. You DO! What happens when you open your voice and you’re like “uhhhhhh”? It’s your fault. That’s why singers always get called bitches and prissies because you have to be! (laughs)
FS: Mostly, vocalists understand that. Everyone else, not so much.
JL: Yeah, they don’t get it. You wake up in the morning and your voice is heavy with mucus and you’re like “Alright, from this point on, I’ve got to get my voice warmed up to where I’m ready to go on.” Sometimes that takes a good hour of singing and doing stuff to help your voice clear up, especially if you’re sick. It’s an extra thing.
For example, tonight, I’ll be back here for an hour singing Van Morrison, The Allman Brothers, The Misfits, and tunes that I know real well that get that mucus loose and my voice where it needs to be. A little bit of whiskey, too, that’s always good, but that’s different for everybody. If I have a couple shots of whiskey before I go on… it takes the edge off, too.
FS: Or you can smoke to get that grit, like Chris Cornell! (laughs)
JL: I guess, man. That would kill me. I can’t. I love cigars, and notice there’s some hand-rolled ones here. Usually on the days off, or if I’ve had a couple of drinks after the show, I might have a cigar, that’s my taboo. I don’t recommend that, but man I love cigars! (laughs) Everyone’s got their thing.
FS: Going back to the end of the Killswitch Engage days, you stopped playing music altogether for a period. What made you want to come back?
JL: A friend of mine, Derek Kerswill, was working on a project with my other friend Pete, who was from Overcast, which was the band before Killswitch (that Mike D’Antonio’s from.) Derek actually played with Shadows Fall for awhile, so they’re old friends. They sent me a rock n’ roll record they had been working on. It just hit me, I was like “Wow.” Rock n roll. Bluesy rock n roll, that sounds great. I had never done that before, and I saw it as a challenge.
We talked about starting the band Seemless, which is going on six years ago now, it was just like, “Hey, we’ll just play bars, we’ll just have fun, stay in the northeast area, and play for the love of it.” That was music to my ears, coming off the high pressure of Killswitch starting to explode and me walking away from that, which is a whole other story. I just don’t foresee myself ever stopping music. Even if Times of Grace doesn’t last, if Killswitch starts up and this falls to the wayside, which is a possibility, I think I’m always going to be playing music in one form or another.
I can’t stop. I’ve tried stopping. I can’t do it! (laughs) It’s almost like a painter trying to stop painting. This is what I do. This is who I am. No matter where life takes me, I’m going to be creating music. Even if I never release it, I’m sure I’ll be creating it.
FS: Do you have any plans to reunite with Seemless in the future?
JL: No. I think it ran its course. There’s no need to beat a dead horse. For me, I’d rather progress. It’s just like when people ask me if I would join Killswitch again, no. Give me what’s next. That’s exciting to me as an artist – not to repeat myself for the sake of money or this or that. I’d rather move forward and see what I could create – even if no one gets it. That can be a pain, and it’s a struggle for people to understand where you’re coming from.
I constantly get thrown back to the “Killswitch, Killswitch, Killswitch” thing. I get it! But as an artist who wants to be fulfilled, I love the new stuff. The next thing. I’m already thinking of what I’m doing next now in my head. It’s already happened! (laughs)
FS: What’s next?
JL: If I can get my discipline in order, I’ve got a bunch of songs I’ve been demoing, solo stuff. When you first walked in [the bus], I was watching The Clash, and I’m a huge Clash fan. I’d love to do something that sounds like a mixture of The Clash with some trip-hop, some dub, and some reggae music in it. Energetic music, but I’m a huge reggae/punk fan, so The Clash is a really good model for what I’d like to do. I lean more towards the reggae/trip-hop aspect with some punk undertones. That’s kind of my dream project, doing my solo record.
It’s been a couple years of demoing it, but I just don’t have the discipline to, when I get off tour, to sit down and do it on my own. We’ll see. I’ve got a couple producer friends who have shown interest. Maybe I can get that done soon.
FS: That’s actually interesting to me, being a Portishead fan.
JL: Oh, I LOVE Portishead! And they’re touring again! Crazy! I might just make it home from the tour.
FS: Underoath has done a couple different things at their tours in the past, like offering Bible study sessions after shows. Do you do anything like that?
JL: I haven’t, and I’m not aware that that does happen anymore. I haven’t heard of it. I try to do my own little Bible studies every day for myself and my spirit, but no, I haven’t participated like that and I’m not aware that it’s happening. If it was, I would definitely go to check it out. It’s always interesting to hear different people’s perspective on scriptures.
FS: Especially in the heavy metal world, right? It’s a phenomenom.
JL: It is, and it’s a dying phenomenom. I will say that. There’s a lot of musicians who you may think are one way and they’re not. Such is life.
FS: Do you have any advice for new bands, maybe about maintaining band relationships?
JL: Yeah, I would say to really love what you do. If you don’t, or you’re expecting fame and fortune, they’re few and far between out here. You’ve got to really love what you do. My advice is to just be honest. If you want to be successful, you may have to compromise. The people who are pulling the strings like music a certain way, and if you don’t do it that way, you probably won’t be a success. It’s a tough business, so I would say love what you do or just don’t even bother. Take it from me! (laughs)
FS: You’re certainly a good person to take it from, given the number of years you’ve been in the business.
FS: That’s more than half of the years I’ve been alive! So what music are you listening to these days?
JL: Always The Clash. Always. I absolutely love The Clash. Rancid. I’m more of an old school punk/hardcore guy. I love the old UK punk. I’m a big fan of Bad Brains, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Operation Ivy, and all the old school stuff that I grew up on. I went back a couple of years ago and rediscovered all of it and re-bought all of it. I’m definitely into dub, I love King Tubby. I’m a huge King Tubby fan, actually all of the stuff that was going on in Jamaica in the 70s – Bob Marley, of course.
Portishead, as you mentioned. I’m a huge Massive Attack fan, Tricky, the whole Bristol trip-hop scene. Recently, I’ve been living in New York and I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz. Believe it or not, jazz didn’t make sense to me until I lived in New York and spent a lot of time in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and the lower east side.
I really got into John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. John Coltrane’s incredible. He’s one of my favorites right now. When I write, he’s usually in the background in my headphones. That’s actually been the catalyst for my poetry. I’ve been writing poetry almost daily. Caffeine and jazz make me write! I love it. That’s another thing I love to pursue – writing poetry.
FS: Also a dying art.
JL: It is! It is. It’s something that moves me. I’m starting to read some poets like Langston Hughes, and that stuff’s just so inspiring to me.
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