Former-Turned-Current Killswitch Engage Frontman Dishes On Recent Reunion, The Empire Shall Fall, And More
Band Photo: Killswitch Engage (?)
Ten years. That's how long it took Jesse Leach, the arresting voice of one of the millenium's most influential American metal albums "Alive Or Just Breathing,"  to rejoin his brothers in Massachusetts powerhouse Killswitch Engage. Less than one week after the official announcement on Monday, February 6, I visited the cozy Easy Street Nightclub in Greenfield for an evening of local and regional metal - headlined by one of Jesse's beloved interim projects, The Empire Shall Fall (latest release reviewed here). Following the spellbinding set, we sat aside in a secluded corner amidst a rowdy last-call bustle as the underground dive bar cleared out for the night. With a little help from amorous Adam Dutkiewicz (Killswitch Engage) and aspiring TV interviewer Matt Bachand (Shadows Fall), Jesse filled in Metal Underground on all the major current happenings in his career. The complete, unabridged transcript follows.
Mike Smith (OverkillExposure): You have two more EPs planned for The Empire Shall Fall, correct? Are there any more unannounced ones?
Jesse Leach: The great thing about The Empire Shall fall is that there are no rules. We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do. But definitely two more EPs, and we’re also thinking about releasing singles and 7’’s and random stuff along the way. Maybe we’ll put out a punk rock or jazzy style or rock 7”. In this band, there are NO rules. So we’ll definitely finish the two EPs, but you never know what to expect from us. That’s the great thing about this band. We can do whatever we want!
Mike: How about another full-length?
Jesse: Maybe. That’s just tough right now; I’m a little busy, and doing a full-length requires a lot of time – time I don’t really have, because I’m balancing so many different projects. [Laughs]
Mike: Especially now, in light of recent developments!
Jesse: Yeah, with this little band. [Laughs] You may have heard of them; they’re called Bon Jovi!
Mike: Before we move on to that, I’m curious about your running conceptual thread on The Empire Shall Fall EPs. How will you be continuing it?
Jesse: It’s kind of loose, y’know? It’s one of those things where we had an initial idea, and it may change as time goes on. Again, it’s punk rock; we kind of do what we want. But it’s loosed basely on a story that I wrote – loosed basely on… basely loosed, I should say? Wow, that doesn’t make any sense! [Laughs] The EPs are BASED LOOSELY upon a couple different things, and one of them is a short story I wrote. It was kind of a fictional thing, and some of it was from my own experiences, and it also has a lot to do with our good friend who took her own life, and how that affected all of us, and the emotions that we’ve been going through collectively as a band. So I try to live vicariously through all of my band members and her family. It’s a combination of all three of those things, coming out in this weird schizophrenic way. I literally wrote it down and didn’t edit any of it, so the lyrics are abstract, but I’m not gonna change it to make it sound better. It is what it is, and I’m gonna do that for every single EP. Just a stream of consciousness.
Mike: Tonight, you dedicated “Awaken” to…
Jesse: My good friend Michelle, who’s been battling cancer. She’s in remission right now. We did a show for her yesterday and raised about $1700 for her. She’s been beating it. She’s been in my mind and my heart for a while now, because no matter where my life goes, or the struggles I go through, I think of her fighting for her life. It always makes me look at my own life and appreciate everything I have. So “Awaken” is kind of about that: living your life to the fullest, ‘cause you never know when you’re gonna go.
Mike: Do you ever feel emotionally naked or self-conscious about being so lyrically direct?
Jesse: No. I mean initially, yes, but I’ve learned to sort of block out all the nonsense at shows, with people just drinking and having fun. And that’s great, I’m glad they’re doing it, but I do the best I can to stay focused with the material. To me, this is not a big “arena performance” band, where you have silly fun. There’s a time and a place for that stuff, but this is like my abstract painting that not everybody’s gonna understand. It’s precious to me. So I block out people sometimes. I’ll sing to them, but I’m also blocking them out, ‘cause I’m just trying to get that raw nerve revealed to the one or two or three people who are really there to see that performance. It’s for them. It’s not for your laughing, beer drinking entertainment; it’s more for people who are into the substance of music, and the message of it. It’s precious, and we plan on keeping that vibe going. That’s why we play small shows, and that’s why people leave when we play sometimes, ‘cause it’s heavy. But it’s not gonna change. I’ve got my projects that people come to see, that are a little more lighthearted or loose or whatever. But this is not gonna change.
Mike: I like the concept of blocking people out, as though you were screaming into your pillow.
Jesse: It’s like performance art. That’s the way I see it – without sounding pretentious. That’s what it is. When I’m up there, I’m not thinking, “Is this kid gonna dig it and buy my merch?” I don’t care about that with this project. I’m just trying to convey that feeling, and the three or four people that get it, that are affected by it? That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why we’re all doing this. There’s a message to everything. And it’s not for the masses, man. Not everyone wants to swallow that pill. It’s like that scene in “The Matrix,” where you can swallow this pill or that pill. Not everyone wants to swallow that pill. But for those who do, we’re here for you.
Mike: And I can assume you’re not pulling that old stage trick of imagining the audience naked.
Jesse: Hell, no. ‘Cause that would be very distracting! The songs would probably have a whole different lyrical content! [Laughs] It’d turn into James Brown and Rick James up in here, man, c’mon. [Singing] “LIKE A SEX MACHINE!”
Mike: Well, at one point, you announced you were singing the blues tonight – might as well take it further!
Jesse: I'm singing the blues the whole time; it just don’t sound like it all the time!
Mike: Can you fill me in on live plans for the immediate or near future – with Empire, at least?
Jesse: We have dates booked in Cali, and some in Canada. Promoters are literally flying us out to do three or four gigs, and then flying us back home. It’s kind of the perfect thing – we’re not touring, but we’re playing in different places. It’s really rad.
Mike: Moving this in the direction we’re ultimately heading…
Jesse: Yesss! [Laughs]
Mike: … Here’s sort of a gateway topic. There is SUCH a diverse range of influences in Empire’s music. It’s really an eclectic bag. And yet, practically every description of the band seems to sum it up with one word: “metalcore.”
Jesse: [Shakes head in disgust] Yuck.
Mike: Right. I’m curious about your overall thoughts on that word, and what it’s come to mean to most people, and how you feel about that.
Jesse: Yeah, I mean, I get it. It’s an accurate description of where the music comes from: hardcore and metal. I get it. That’s where it comes from, no doubt. But that term, just like the term “emo,” has been bastardized, and when you say it, people automatically think of that trendy, typical stuff. That is “metalcore;” that is “emo.” I’ve never, ever been a fan of music that is overproduced. When I say overproduced, I mean bands that hear another band, that co-opt that style, that co-opt THAT style, and it turns into this thing where all the edges are dulled, and it’s just a flat, repetitive, NOT creative sound that’s coming out. I have no interest in that, and if that’s what metalcore is, I want nothing to do with it at all. That’s not who I am, and that’s not what I feel. But if people are to call me that, so be it. If someone can latch on and say, “I think I understand where that’s coming from,” cool. But personally, yeah, I hate that stuff, man. I hate those labels.
Mike: The bands that are here today, and gone later today.
Jesse: Yeah, or the bands that are here for ten years, and they’re STILL crap. [Laughs] Right? Speak the truth!
Mike: As you alluded, there’s another “small” band you’ve become involved with AGAIN recently…
Jesse: Yep. Simon and Garfunkel are reuniting, and I am Garfunkel. Be prepared: my afro will shine in the glory of 1965, in the sound of silence. “Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to see you again.” And here’s Paul Simon!
[Adam Dutkiewicz approaches]
Mike: Hey, how are you?
Adam Dutkiewicz: Great! I just wanna do this real quick. [Hugging Jesse] Love ya.
Jesse: You always wanna do it “quick.” [Mock tears] Why don’t you just hold me? [Laughs] I love you, brotha.
Adam: See you in a couple weeks?
Jesse: [Nods] Good. Love ya, bro. Be safe.
[Adam heads for the door, turns back]
Adam: Hey, you sounded good tonight, man!
Jesse: Thanks, bro!
Adam: Awesome. [Exits]
Jesse: … And, Paul Simon, ladies and gentlemen!
Mike: It’s still pretty early since the announcement that you and “Paul Simon” were back together. We’re less than a week in, and a lot of people are still reeling from it.
Jesse: Yeah, I am too!
Mike: Can you share the background on how this came to be, from your own perspective? We all know you and Adam had started working together again, and we figured it was leading this way, but…
Jesse: It wasn’t leading ANY way until… Well yeah, the idea was kicked around casually while they were going through some things, but it didn’t really hit me until the bassist of The Empire Shall Fall, Nick [Sollecito] sent me the press release. [announcing the departure of longtime frontman Howard Jones] He texted me something like, “Hey, have you heard? Did they ask you back yet? HAHAHA.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He sent me the link on my iPhone, and I clicked on it, and was like, “Oh… Word? Okay.” I literally walked away from my phone, working at my day job, and was like, “Well, whatever.” But I thought, at the very least, I should reach out to them and be like, “Hey. It’s the tenth anniversary of ‘Alive Or Just Breathing.’ Maybe we can do a reunion tour.” So I texted Adam, and was like, “Hey. No matter what goes on with your auditions, or whomever you find, I’ll do a tour, and we could do a reunion thing. It’ll be fun, y’know, if you guys get stuck.” So that was my initial thing, and then literally, two minutes after I reached out to him, I was sitting there thinking, “Maybe I should try this! Maybe there’s something to it.” It was forming literally within minutes. So I texted him back and said, “Maybe we should jam.” He said, “Really?” I’m like, “I don’t know, maybe.” So he says, “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” I woke up in the morning and called our manager – we share management – and said, “Hey man, put me on the list to try out. I want to be on the list of dudes to go in and try out.”
Mike: You were on the list right along with every other dude?
Jesse: Yeah. “Put me on the list. I want to go through the proper channels. I want to TRY OUT for Killswitch.” So they sent me three songs to learn, I learned the three songs, I went and jammed with them for a little bit, and got a call back. I mean, I literally went through all the motions. And I know these guys were probably doing it on purpose, but from the call back, I sang seven of Howard’s songs – strictly his songs, not mine – just to show them I could do it, and also to prove to myself that I could do it. And apparently I nailed it, and they dug it. We sat down and talked, and the next morning I got the phone call. They asked me to rejoin, and I said, “Hell, yeah.” That’s it. It literally just… happened.
Mike: Do you think they may have intended to ask you back all along?
Jesse: No. No, I don’t. Because there were some people on that list to try out that are, in my opinion, technically better singers than I am. But I don’t think that’s what it’s about; it’s about the heart and soul of the band, and taking it in a new direction, which the new record is DEFINITELY going to do.
Mike: You’ve taken a decade-long, circular path back to Killswitch. 20/20 hindsight aside, do you feel this was always meant to be? Do you feel you’ve been led down this particular path for a reason?
Jesse: I guess I could say that now, yes. But if you’d asked me that question a couple weeks ago, I wouldn’t have answered the same. It’s one of those things where a situation arises, and you sort of deal with it with all of your baggage, and all of your experience, in the moment. And that was one of those things. I didn’t dwell too hard on the past. I just felt it and I ran with it. It’s kind of a strange way to make a decision, but I guess… It’s just one of those things that people tell you about. Like when I met my wife, the first day I met her, I knew that I wanted to marry her. Weird, but that happens, and we’ve been married for ten years. It’s the same thing with this. When this decision came upon me, I just kind of knew. I didn’t think about it too much. I do NOW, but initially I didn’t. A leap of faith, as my wise father would say. It was a leap of faith. Don’t get me wrong; I searched my soul. I really did. I spent a few days really contemplating it, but that was after I initially decided I was going to do it, and I was like, “All right, HOW am I gonna do it, and what’s the outcome? What may be the backlash? Do I care? No, I don’t. Let’s just do this.” So the day I joined, I literally unplugged from my Twitter and my Facebook. I got rid of all that garbage and haven’t paid attention to any of it, and I’m doing great, man. I don’t believe the hype of me, and I don’t believe the naysayers. I’m just being me.
Mike: Right. And “blocking people out,” as you mentioned, certainly applies to the Web as well.
Jesse: You have to. There are a lot of naysayers, and a lot of people who’ll kiss your ass, and none of that is good.
[Matt Bachand approaches, puts his arm around Jesse, and leans into the microphone]
Matt Bachand: [In Martin Short’s “PrimeTime Glick” voice] I was gonna say that if ya gots this little sweet little intah-view with Jesse Leach right heeyah, I think it maybe could be interpreted a little bit better. There’s like some sweet, like, things that coulda been said a little bit better. Like, maybe like, what’s your flave-o-rite flower? [Laughter]
Jesse: [In a deep Glick growl] I’M UNCOMFORTABLE WITH THIS CONVERSATION!
Mike: Man, I wish this were a videotaped interview.
Matt: [Mock tears] Whatcha can’t see is that we’re huggin’ each other a LOT.
[After a moment of goodnights and goodbyes, things settle back to normal]
Mike: All right, where was I? [Laughs] Getting a little technical in terms of voice, I know you took a break from harsh vocals for a while, and returned to them with The Empire Shall Fall. With 20/20 hindsight, would you call this project a necessary steppingstone on your way back toward your original vocal style with Killswitch?
Jesse: I wouldn’t say “steppingstone,” but it’s all part of a process, y’know? I knew that I wanted to get into more aggressive vocals again, and Nick and I started the band, and it just kind of happened, man. I guess I’d use the word “steppingstone” if it were something I’m putting behind me and walking away from, but I’m not. It’s all relevant, and it’s all angular. It all works together. That was the starting point for me going, “Yeah, let me give this a shot again.” And I really enjoyed it, and got better and better and better at it just from doing it over and over again. I actually found my voice between this band and Times Of Grace. I relearned how to do it, and learned to do it properly. So I can do it for hours on end and I’m okay, whereas before, that wasn’t the case. Back then, I was too punk rock to take any advice. You gave me advice, I’d be like, “You don’t know me. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not taking lessons. I’m not doing this.” And as you get older, you get wiser, and you get a little less punk, and you go, “Oh, maybe that’ll help.” And guess what? It helps.
Mike: I’m a Killswitch fan, but to be perfectly honest, their last album really didn’t do it for me. Do you have any thoughts or visions of where you’d like things to go musically, with you at the helm?
Jesse: I’ll tell you what: they’ve already made up their minds, and they have fourteen demos to prove it, and it’s the best Killswitch stuff I’ve ever heard. Super exciting! It’s fast, it’s heavy, it’s raw, it’s brutal, and our next record together is going to silence the naysayers.
Mike: Any working track titles?
Jesse: Not even there yet, dude. I’ve just been listening to it. And it’s fast, it’s heavy, and it’s… beautiful.
Mike: What recent music by other bands has really impressed you lately?
Jesse: As far as metal is concerned, that’s a tough one. I’m not a big fan of modern metal; I’m an old school guy. If I were to name a modern metal band, probably Acaro from Massachusetts. I love those guys; we played with them last night. Jay Fitzgerald used to drum for Overcast, which was pre-Killswitch. Those guys put out a great metal record. Machine Head, I love those guys. I’m constantly impressed by Opeth. Off the top of my head, that’s about it, man – I’m not a big modern metal guy.
Mike: I wouldn’t call The Empire Shall Fall’s lyrical content “specific” exactly, but it does center on certain recurring themes. Do you ever find that limiting in any way?
Jesse: I think this new EP is what breaks the mold, y’know? The first CD was definitely politically driven, and centered on questioning authority and not swallowing what you’re force-fed. That’s still part of the message, but we’re expanding into a whole new territory now, where it’s more abstract. I’m writing lyrics about the cracks in the foundation of a building being like your mindset in society. I’m making it more poetic by looking at people like Bob Dylan. You can say, “This guy wrote a poem and made it into a song and people love it,” but if you really listen to what he’s saying, it’s poetry. So that’s kind of what I’m doing. I’m trying to just write short stories and poetry.
[Adam D. appears again]
Adam: [To Jesse] Good night again.
Jesse: [Laughs] Love ya, man.
Adam: Love you too.
Jesse: Talk to you soon!
[Adam exits again]
Mike: [The Empire Shall Fall’s 2009 debut LP] “Awaken” was two-plus years ago. What current issues really push your buttons – stuff you’d wish to address more than anything?
Jesse: The apathy of human beings, and how we’re so tuned into our Internet, and our reality TV, and our fast food, and all these things that are making us dumber and more passive. And how we’re allowing our government to take away our rights slowly but surely, to the point where you can get arrested as a terrorist if people suspect you. They can now arrest you and not try you. Our Constitutional rights have been slowly stripped away from us, and the way they’ve done it is to make us fatter, slower, and stupider through everything we’re plugged into. That is the scariest part of our society, because no one cares. The mass of people, they don’t care. They’ve got their TV dinners, they’ve got their Starbucks, they’ve got their reality TV, they’ve got their McDonalds that they’re “loving,” and they’re becoming bloated and dumb. That’s where our society is headed, and it scares the hell out of me. My one thing is, “WAKE UP!” The revolution should be happening within your own mind now, and it’s not. For a lot of people, it’s not. But I’m still gonna keep blowing that whistle.
Mike: Let’s turn the clock back a few hours. If you knew, somehow, that tonight would be the last gig you’d ever play – with any band – what would you wish to impart to the audience more than anything?
Jesse: I said it tonight! That’s why I do this, whether it’s with Times Of Grace, with these guys, or with Killswitch. Killswitch will be a little more lighthearted, at least with some of the stuff, ‘cause that’s the way they roll. But that’s fine too. It’s okay to laugh and have a good time. There’s a time and a place for each thing I’m doing, but I do it with an intent, and underneath all of that intent is love and compassion. That’s important.
Mike: To wrap this up on a Killswitch-related note, what are your biggest hopes for the band in the long term?
Jesse: I don’t know if I’ve even gotten that far. I think that for me, it’s just one step at a time. It’s such a huge undertaking, and I know right now, where we are as a band, the energy is super positive. We’re really stoked to be back together, and sharing laughter and good memories. That’s step one, and we’ve accomplished that. Now everyone’s stoked to write the new record. So for me it’s about continuing that feeling and not losing that fire, not losing that passion. They’re the first ones to tell you that they lost it for a while. I hate to see any of my friends lose that passion for music, and the fact that I can be a part of a re-ignition or relighting of that passion is amazing. That’s step one, and we’ll go from there.
Mike: I have to say, I’m very excited to see and hear that fire recaptured. I have such a vivid memory of hearing “Alive Or Just Breathing” in 2002, and then you were gone. As great as most of the later material was, SOMETHING had gone.
Jesse: I think the cool thing about the fire that’s coming now is, it’s older and more mature. It’s still raw, and I still have that youthful passion in me, but it’s with years and years of experience, pain, and suffering like we all go through. I think that shapes my lyrics and adds a whole other experience. My fans have grown with me, and they’re going to see me where I am now. I’m not who I was ten years ago, but that spirit still lives within me.
Mike: Jesse, this has been awesome. Thanks so much for hanging with us; it’s been a real pleasure.
Jesse: Yeah, thanks for the interview!
Mike: Well, I’m glad you could stick around for it!
Jesse: I had no choice, man. My hotel’s right down the street. [Laughs]
Please share this article if you found it interesting.
- Previous Article:
Unearthing The Symphonic Black Metal Underground
- Next Article:
Moonlyght Issues Album Update
10 Comments on "The Empire Of Killswitch: Jesse Leach Speaks"