After releasing the landmark album “Alive or Just Breathing” in 2002 and achieving mainstream success in the years that followed, Killswitch Engage is poised to scale even greater heights with the return of its original vocalist, Jesse Leach, on its sixth album, “Disarm the Descent.” Less than two weeks before its release, Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with guitarist Joel Stroetzel to talk about the new disc, Leach’s return and more.
LIVE METAL: The new album, “Disarm the Descent,” comes out April 2. There was a little longer break between albums than we’re used to this time, and it’s the first one with Jesse in more than a decade. What kind of goals and expectations did you have going into making this album?
JOEL STROETZEL: I think we just wanted to make a good, honest record that was us. I feel like for the last record, maybe we tried to do the video thing a little more than we would’ve liked. This one, I think we just said, “The heck with it, we want to write fast, brutal songs. Let’s write ‘em.” It wasn’t really a conscious decision to make it brutal, but I think it’s a heavier record for some reason. I think a lot of that extends from the fact everybody was really fired up to get back and start doing it again, because we had, pretty much, a two-year break. Everybody kind of came back in with guns blazing.
Obviously, the last album you made with Jesse in the band, “Alive or Just Breathing,” is considered a classic album. Did you feel any extra pressure to live up to that?
Not necessarily. I think we just do our thing and not really worry about it. If things are melodic, they’re melodic; if they’re crazy, death metal parts, they’re crazy. We didn’t really go into it with any specific thing in mind other than “Let’s write a bunch of songs and see what we like.” I think maybe towards the end, Jesse was feeling a little bit of pressure just being back for the first time in so long. But he handled it great and did a great job with it. Everybody was really happy throughout the process. It was a lot of fun making the record.
Aside from, obviously, playing guitar, what is your role in the whole writing and recording process?
Pretty much the same as everybody else. Everybody writes in the band. A lot of the songs were actually written before Jesse even came back. We were just starting to put stuff together, so me, (bassist) Mike (D’Antonio), (guitarist) Adam (Dutkiewicz) and (drummer) Justin (Foley) each brought in a handful of songs, and we started going through them with a fine-toothed comb trying to pick out what we like and what we didn’t, and figure out what we had for leftover riffs that we could turn into other songs. I think everybody brought a lot to the table on this one.
Adam is a very accomplished producer. He’s done all the Killswitch albums. What is it like working with him as a producer?
He’s great. As much as a goof onstage as he is, he’s pretty much all business in the studio. He likes to get things done, and he likes to work hard. He’s not afraid to get going early and work late. It’s awesome. He’s very honest. He’s hard on everybody with performances, makes sure everybody gets it right, and when he’s playing his guitar tracks, he holds himself to the same standard. So it’s not like he’s just picking on everyone. He genuinely wants everything to be right. Yeah, it’s great. He’s a fun guy to work with. He’s a character.
You went out on tour last summer before the album was finished. What effect did that have on the finished product?
There were some songs that weren’t finished vocally. A lot of them, actually, weren’t finished vocally. It gave Jesse the opportunity to kind of just sink back into the band, dive into the touring side and really get used to being part of it again instead of saying, “Here are a bunch of songs. Hurry up and finish it so we can get this record out.” We talked about that, too—“Let’s get this thing done before we leave for the summer.” We were just getting down to the wire, and we said, “It’s been so long already. Why not wait a few more months, take your time and get it right?” So I think the biggest benefit was for Jesse’s sanity. (laughs)
What has it been like having him back in the band? What’s changed and what’s stayed the same from the first time around?
Well, obviously, willingness to tour. Back in the day, when Jesse was in the band a decade ago, we weren’t making any money or anything, everybody was kind of scraping just to even do it. He had a wife to support and things like that. He’d rather be home with family and rightfully so. But over the course of a decade, people change, and he was like, “You know, I really want to do this.” Everybody’s attitude is really good now. Everybody’s kind of seeing things through his eyes, and he’s really fresh to it all. He’s making us young again. (laughs) At least, we think so.
So back at the beginning of last year, when you found yourselves without a singer, did you have any kind of inkling that Jesse would want to come back?
Yes and no. When Howard (Jones) was ill the first time, we asked Jesse if he wanted to come fill in for a tour, and he said, “I don’t know if I can sing Howard’s songs, do ‘em right. I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with that.” There was just no way we could not do the Howard songs; a lot of those songs are the songs that people know us by. So we were like, “Well, we’re gonna have to scratch that for now.” So we weren’t really sure. We didn’t really know where we stood for a long time—“What do we do if Howard doesn’t come back? Should we start a new band?” We ultimately decided we had to keep it going and tried out some really awesome folks. When Jesse came back, he was like, “I don’t want anybody else to have the gig. I want a shot. I’ll try some of Howard’s songs. If they fit right, I want to do it.” So it was great how it worked out.
He actually came in and auditioned, right?
He did, yeah. Obviously, we knew he could sing his own songs really well, but it was, “Well, how do you sound doing Howard’s stuff?” It’s funny, because when Howard joined the band, what we liked most about Howard was that he wasn’t trying to be Jesse. He came in and did his own thing, and did it great. And the same thing with Jesse coming back. A lot of the people who tried out were great. Some of them were trying to sound like Howard, some weren’t. But Jesse came and just sounded like Jesse, and it just seemed to work.
What are some of your favorite songs off the new album?
I like “New Awakening” a lot, the third track. “In Due Time” is one everybody likes, being the first single. That’s one that has a little bit of everything; it has one of the poppier choruses on the record, I think. They’re all pretty fun to play. The opening track (“The Hell in Me”) is pretty fun. We’re kind of rehearsing that, getting ready to throw that in the set, so that one’s fun to play. But it’s hard to say which ones are favorites until we really get in front of crowds and play them.
How frustrating was it for you guys last year when you had the song (“No End in Sight”) leak online?
It’s funny. We kind of toyed with the idea of putting a song out anyways. Over the course of a month, we were going back and forth with the label—should we, should we not—and then the thing happened to leak. I guess the only regret is that the song wasn’t finished. It wasn’t mixed, mastered. I don’t even think it was the final vocals on it. That’s the only regret. I wish it was at least done before it leaked. In retrospect, I think maybe it was a good thing just to let people know that we were still doing it.
You toured last year and you’ve done some this year. You’re going to Europe next month, and then you’ve got a couple months that are open at the beginning of the summer. Is an announcement coming up for that sometime soon?
I would think sometime soon. We’re talking about doing some stuff in the States and Canada, maybe June, July. I’m not really sure what the routing is gonna be or who exactly is gonna be on the bill yet. But that’s in the works. I think we’ll be doing something in North America, probably doing a club tour instead of doing the summer festival thing.
Is there anything else you would like to say about the new album or anything else going on right now?
Well, we had really a good time making it, and we’re excited to be back and doing it again. Like you said, the record is out April 2. Thanks to everybody who stuck around through the years. I hope people dig the new record.