Killswitch Engage’s sixth studio album, Disarm The Descent, is slated for release tomorrow, April 2nd, 2013. The album marks the first with returning vocalist Jesse Leach after the departure of Howard Jones, Killswitch’s vocalist of 10 years. In anticipation of the new record, we caught up with Jesse sometime back and talked about his big return, what really happened in those 10 years that he was missing, his process of self-discovery and music for him as an individual. A pretty in-depth interview, but it’s worth it! Read on.
I saw you perform with Times of Grace a few years back and the first time I saw Killswitch perform was with Phil (of All That Remains), so I never really saw Killswitch with either you or Howard, but I guess tonight will be good!
Jesse: Yeah, it all comes full circle.
So first of all, congratulations on 10th anniversary “Alive or Just Breathing” tour! With a great lineup of bands too for the tour.
Jesse: It’s pretty amazing. Especially tonight. Put Periphery on the bill – I love those guys, great band.
When it was announced online that you were re-assuming your position in the band, you had the picture of you guys with the snowy backdrop – it was so happy; it was like this big family reunion and it just made my heart smile.
Jesse: That’s awesome! That’s how we wanted it to be, that’s why we put that picture up. Everyone was happy.
So really, what’s it like for you, being back?!
Jesse: It’s unreal, y’know? Most of my life has been playing in bands and working full-time. Killswitch is the first band that gives me the ability to not have to work when I go home. That’s huge for me. Just going home and being creative, and not having to worry about paying my bills. Number two, it just feels like a family reunion. We’ve been in touch ever since I left – good communication and all – and I know they’ve had their ups and downs here on the road but it just feels like a total rejuvenation. It just feels like a whole new band. Everyone in the band feels the same way. My excitement with being back and with the new record that we just finished, it’s just a very positive energy – everyone on this crew, on this bus, all around it’s a very good vibe.
Check out the song “The New Awakening”
So a complete 180˚ from the time you left?
Jesse: Oh yeah. Worlds apart from 10 years ago.
Does it feel like you were never gone? Or do you feel your absence? It was a good chunk of time to be missing.
Jesse: it is definitely very apparent to me that I’ve been gone, especially stepping back into a band that’s now known all over the world. Seeing the reactions from fans, having to wait outside our bus for autographs – I’m just not used to that. It’s entertaining but at the same time it’s also unnerving for me because I don’t see myself as a star, someone to be sought after for autographs. So we kinda chuckle about it and obviously we do it for the fans but deep down inside, I’m not feeling it. To me, I’m a working-class musician – I can relate to a guy that I can sit next to at a pub somewhere in Blue Collar Town. That’s my mentality; that’s where I came from. When people place me higher than that, I’m like… I-I dunno about that. [laughs]
Honestly, I think that’s what fans love – a really modest musician who’s able to relate.
Jesse: For me, it’s a matter of saying thank you to them because if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even be here. People still care. I mean… the lead vocalist of 10 years leaves and I come back and they’re still supporting – that’s pretty amazing.
What line of work did you go into when you first left the band?
Jesse: I’ve done tons of things. When I first left, I worked at an organic bakery – I would get there at 4am, help prep, leave in the afternoon to chop wood for the oven, drive home 40 minutes to my house, have dinner and go and refurbish antique windows at night, so I was doing three jobs back-to-back. That burnt me out real quick. Then I worked as a paralegal for a bit, worked at a brewery as a bartender behind the bar, worked in a medical facility in Scarsdale, New York, worked as a valet, did business management…
Wow, you did everything!
Jesse: Everything. Eight months ago, I was behind a bar in Manhattan training to be a mixologist, learning the art of mixology and studying scotch and gin, which is something I still love to do. But if I can help it, I’d never want to go back behind the bar; I’d rather sit on the other side of it.
Will you continue to do explore any of those fields now that you’re back in music?
Jesse: Yeah, definitely as a hobby. I mean, I’m a scotch enthusiast. I’ve read books and I really wanna go to Scotland and do a tour. It’s just a passion of mine and in the world of drinking, it (scotch) really has this air of class and sophistication. Also my roots are Scottish and Irish among other things. It’s just something about it! My father and I used to love to have a glass of scotch and talk about life – it’s kind of an emotional thing for me too. So definitely something I’d like to go back to and become an expert on.
That would be really cool. When I went to Scotland with my family, we tried to do a Scotch tour but they were all booked up!
Jesse: Aw man! That’s a bummer. And another thing I really like about scotch too is it really forces you to take your time. It’s not a party thing; it’s definitely more of a gentleman’s drink. It’s how I see myself when I drink… for the most part! Couple of nights here and there with these guys, I get a little crazy but moderation is key to me. I really enjoy a nice drink with good conversation. Act my age a little bit, y’know?
Sort of like an end in itself versus a means to an end. So now that you’re back in business, is there anything you’ve taken away from your time apart from Killswitch that makes you a better musician, makes you more prepared for the whole process of recording and touring, and just the general pressures of being a musician?
Jesse: Many things but first and foremost, just having the appreciation for being back out here and living this life because it’s so different from all working class life where you’re stuck somewhere for 8 or 9 hours at a time, doing something for somebody else. Any of the time you have outside of that is so short and so fleeting. Time can definitely slip away from you out here but I love having free time to write, to watch nature documentaries, to read a book – like all these things. And I do them. Like when I wake up early in another town and take a long walk, go to a café – I appreciate those moments so much now because I can do them. So I think being at home, part of the working class, it can definitely be on another level with mental and spiritual wear and tear on you.
But all that prepared because if I had been out here and doing this for all these years without any interruption, I would probably be a very different person. I don’t regret a thing because it made me grow up and figure out who I am as a person, have confidence in who I am. Also not having all these outside influences – I mean as a performer, you are constantly praised by people, constantly being put on a pedestal; some people start to believe that crap. Fortunately, I’ve never had that a lot – not that I would’ve believed people anyway. So I’m glad with how things turned out.
Yeah, it sounds like your time away really allowed you to find yourself, even create yourself.
Jesse: Oh, absolutely. And I discovered my real voice, just from trying new projects, doing different styles of music. All that stuff contributed to it.
Check out the song “In Due Time”
Vocal difficulties were a part of the equation of what prompted you to leave the band. Do you do anything differently now, with regards to technique? I mean you probably still do your Melissa Cross warm-ups and stuff.
Jesse: Oh, yeah. I swear by Melissa Cross. So there’s that and just knowing your instrument is half the battle. For me, I never knew it back then. I never knew how to utilize proper techniques. Even something as simple as staying hydrated, or after performances where mucus tends to build up. ‘Cause you’re an athlete – just like any other muscle in your body, you undergo fatigue. And knowing how to repair that fatigue, get enough sleep, get enough water – all these things that I do religiously now, I never knew about. Because I was losing my voice, because I struggled, it forced me to step back and say, “What am I doing wrong? How do I improve this?” And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. I’ve been experimenting with blues music, having fun on my own with just other projects that never saw the light of day – trip hop music, all kinds of stuff that was such a part of me and influenced the way I sing and write now.
I can imagine it’s definitely still hard to be away from family – except now you’re away from your wife of 10 years as opposed to your newly-wedded wife. Is that any different? Is it harder?
Jesse: It’s easier in one regard because there’s a maturity there. When you first fall in love with someone, there’s a real desperation, a real burning passion that is hard to control, but I think after all these years, the fire still burns – it’s still there – but it’s a more mature thing where you can put it aside and live the life, because we both know this is what I’m meant to be doing. Knowing that she’s supporting me, got my back with all of this stuff, she knows that this is my passion – it makes it easier at the end of the day, because she knows I’m working hard to do something I love. In turn, it will help us down the road with paying the bills and all. It’s been a struggle my whole life. But the maturity makes everything a lot easier.
When I first heard of the band, I knew that Adam and Joel went to Berklee; that was their music background. How did you first get into music?
Jesse: I fell in love with 60’s rock ‘n’ roll when I was a kid. My father used to play me all the protest record, folksy stuff. That was the initial spark but it didn’t really hit me until I heard punk rock and hardcore. The yelling, the urgency – when I first heard it, I was like, “I have never heard anything like that, what is this. What is this person doing with their voice? How do they do that?” That’s what got me first screaming. I’m not a trained musician. I don’t have an ear for it, but I have creativity just because of experimenting and wanting to do these things but not knowing how, so figuring out on my own how to do that. Teaching myself to play guitar and drums, all that.
That’s a strength, having that sort of creativity and mindset, but it’s also a weakness, which is why I’m balanced off so well by for instance, Adam, who’s so highly intelligent. He knows his music theory down to a science. He can take an idea I have and say, “That’s really cool, that’s creative but try doing this slight adjustment; it will make more sense to music theory.” So I’ll have these “aha!” moments with him where he’ll be like, “Oh, it’s because it’s this chord and that chord” and I’m like, “I dunno.” [laughs] Actually that’s another goal I have too – to start studying music theory and to understand why I have these ideas. It’s fascinating. But I also think improvisation is a big strength as well. You can do great stuff on the spot, and I’m really good at that.
I think one of your greatest strengths is just your uncanny ability to really project raw emotions into your vocals.
Jesse: Yeah, it’s weird – I don’t know why that is. I wear my heart on my sleeve. And it’s not something I’m aiming to do; it just comes out that way.
I had a band with my brother back in the day, and whenever we jammed to Killswitch stuff, or whenever other bands covered material from Alive or Just Breathing, it was always such a struggle for the vocalist. Even when they could actually carry out the screaming, it would just tear them up.
Jesse: Yeah, and everyone’s got their own signature, y’know? You just have to find it. For me, it has to do a lot with the way I approach things. I may not be the most trained, technical vocalist of all, but I have a signature. I think that’s something I worked really hard on.
Check out a ‘Disarm the Decent’ teaser clip
Absolutely. In this upcoming album, has the creative process of writing changed much from the days of Alive or Just Breathing, the last time you guys were all together?
Jesse: I think for me, again being a working-class guy, when I write records, I would do it in the moments when I wasn’t working. I think that pressure and knowing that my time was very limited projected me to work a certain way, but on this last tour, where I had a month or two to write a record and that’s ALL I had to do, at first it was like, “This is exciting! I can get so much work done” and then there were days that went by where I just wasn’t feeling the inspiration. So I had to find a different method, and part of that method was free writing, where I would just free write pages and pages of stuff while listening to the instrumentals. If I had writer’s block, I would get on my bike and ride out 20 miles, keep the songs in my head in the woods, get an idea, record it on my phone or jot something down.
The process of free writing and approaching this stuff differently really affected this record and I started to live it, breathe it, eat it, sleep it. It was in my dreams. I woke up out of dreams and started writing. It embodied me. So this record is the first one where I can fully say it came out of just living it every day, being in the studio every day. If I were stifled in the morning, I’d take the morning off and be ready in the afternoon with all these new ideas and get right in there and record it. I’ve never had that luxury so it’s definitely been a challenge but also a progression for me.
Musically, with the other guys – this is going back to “feeling your absence” – do you feel like you have to “catch up” with anything? Do they do anything differently?
Jesse: Thankfully, no. I’ve just had the luxury of having these guys be on point. When they’re playing a song, they’re there. When they have an idea for a song, they’re ready to deliver it. For me, it’s just a matter of taking what’s given to me and running with it, and I look forward to being part of the music for the next record and giving my opinion on it, going with the flow of the record. This one was just a record that they gave to me, like “Here, write. 16 songs. Go.” Thankfully, I can keep up. That’s the short answer. [laughs]
What about your side projects, Times of Grace and The Empire Shall Fall?
Jesse: The Empire Shall Fall is demo-ing a new EP – it’s extremely conceptual and nerdy and strange and great. As to when we’ll put it out, it all depends on the Killswitch record because Killswitch is still number one. As for Times of Grace, we’re free agents, we’re no longer part of our record label, so Adam and I decided that in the near future we’ll start demo-ing some stuff as well, doing whatever we want, y’know? We wanna do a really bluesy piece and a really heavy one. Doing it a different way, maybe putting it out on vinyl – just having fun. So, both of those projects are going to be active. Maybe with my free time, after talking so much about it, I might put out a solo project I’ve been working on. I have like 20 demos but I just haven’t had time – trip hoppy stuff, bluesy stuff.
I really hope you do! My brother and I are huge fans of trip hop.
Jesse: Yeah! Ah, that’s the stuff I listen to more than anything else, I think, next to punk rock and hardcore. Ska, I also love. Reggae too, but trip hop, yeah – Portishead, Massive Attack, all that stuff really inspired me and is the only reason I have a drum machine and keyboards. So someday maybe I’ll put it out.
Well, we would really look forward to that! Is there anything you’d like your fans to know, anything we didn’t cover?
Jesse: Gratitude. Just gratitude. All I want to express to people is how grateful I am to be here and how grateful I am for people’s support. I’m gonna do my best to continue being an honest and passionate writer.