has lost lead singers and drummers but has never missed a beat in being one of the most inventive metalcore bands around. Original vocalist Jesse Leach
left the band after recording just two albums and left the band in a creative lurch until they brought in Howard Jones
. Around that same period, drummer Tom Gomes
left and was replaced by Justin Foley
. Since then the band has recorded a series of albums that virtually defines what a two-guitar-loaded metalcore band should sound like.
Guitarists Joel Stroetzel
and Adam Dutkiewicz
had been playing together for years before the latter put Killswitch Engage together. He asked Stroetzel to audition and from that moment on, the duo have been forging dark and angry riffs that have even garnered Grammy Awards
Here, Joel Stroetzel talks about the band's history, lineup changes, and the Download Festival. UG: Killswitch Engage is playing the Download Festival in June. JS:
Yeah, we've played there quite a few times. I'm not really too sure what we're gonna do this time. Probably try to kind of change up as far as production-wise and things like that. I'm really not sure what we're gonna do. I think obviously we're gonna do some rehearsing and try to pick a kind of unique set. Festivals are always kind of interesting in trying to pick a set for. You kinda wanna do the best of if you will. A lot of people at those festivals haven't necessarily heard all the bands. You kinda try to stay away from the deep cuts. It's not like playing a club show. This will actually be your sixth appearance.
Yeah, it's just fun. I remember the first time we played Download - that's really the first huge festival over there in the UK/Europe on that side of the planet we played with that many people. I just remember it really being overwhelming. There's so many people there it's not like even a crowd anymore - it's just a sea of madness. Is there a sense of communing amongst all the Download bands?
It's kinda fun. Really every band just kinda goes up and does their thing. There's so many people there it's almost hard to connect with the actual crowd. You almost have to interact with each other onstage. Looking out people are so far awayand there are so many, it's not like you can just get in somebody's face like you can at a club show and singalong. It's really more about interacting with each other onstage versus playing a club show it's more about interacting with the crowd. When you talk about the "best of" songs, which songs are you talking about?
We've never really been a band that's had like big radio hits or anything. I think the songs we've done videos for in the past tend to be the ones people are most familiar with and especially people that aren't necessarily familiar with the band. We try to kinda focus on maybe get all of those in in the set and throw in a couple of different ones just to keep it fun for us. Versus a club show where we'll try to do something really different each time and make sure people see some of the songs we haven't played the last time they saw us. Way before you played your first Download Festival back in 2005, you attended the Berklee College of Music?
For a hot second, hah hah hah.You never graduated. Did metal take you over to the dark side?
Yeah, a little bit. I went there to check it out because obviously I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do out of high school. Obviously I liked playing music so my parents were like, "Why don't you try to apply somewhere like Berklee? See if you can do something like that."
So amazingly I got accepted and went to try it out and it was great. I learned a lot and did OK when I was there. Why didn't you stick around?
That's right when I was meeting Adam and we played in a band together called Aftershock
. That's right around the time where Killswitch was being formed. The second semester, my roommate who I got along with really well was moving out and I didn't get any of the classes I wanted. We had this band stuff on the horizon we were trying to do. So it was like, "Let me go home for a little bit and see what happens with this. If that doesn't work out, I can revisit."But Killswitch started coming together?
Yeah, things kinda just started growing with Killswitch. So I never really looked back. Did you apply anything you learned at Berklee to what you were doing with the band?
I think so. I think anytime you take lessons with private instructors and music theory, I think that stuff always kind of lives in the back of your mind. I don't think it's necessarily something we pay attention to when we write but it's nice to know what chords are in key with each other and how to harmonize parts and things like that. That's the kind of stuff you learn taking lessons or from taking a theory class or something like that. Especially in metals bands - it's not something you focus on. If it sounds good, it's good is kind of the philosophy we've always lived by. You've cited your early influences as Zakk Wylde, Slayer and Anthrax, right?
Yeah, definitely. I got into lots of different music in high school when I just started to learn how to play guitar. I was really into a lot of thrash stuff like Slayer
, old Metallica
was one of my favorite bands growing up. Stuff like that. What about the players who came before them like Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page?
Yeah, totally. I started off playing guitar learning Metallica, Megadeth, and Testament and all that. I think when I got into high school I had friends and stuff that were into more of the classic rock. Obviously I always liked Sabbath
and things like that but more like Zeppelin
and things like that. I got into Robin Trower
- an awesome guitar player. Then you discover things and the more people you meet, the more music you discover. You go, "Wow, I can actually do more with a guitar than just chug around. There's other stuff to be done here. So we'll get into that side of things." Were you always the best guitar player at your high school?
No, not at all man. I wish, man. It's just something I've always loved. I think when I started playing guitar, I don't think I put it down when I was home. So homework and stuff always suffered when I had my guitar. When I was watching TV, I always had a guitar. You practiced a lot?
I never really had like a crazy practice routine. I really just played and figured out songs I liked and kinda did it that way. Did you put Aftershock together with Adam?
No, it was actually a band Adam had started with his brother [Tobias
] probably in '94 or '95. I was getting out of high school a few years after that and their guitar player at the time [Jonathan Donais
, current guitar player in Anthrax] was leaving for college. I was teaching at a music store - teaching guitar lessons - and so was Adam. We didn't really know each other but I think he heard me teaching some kids some metal riffs or something and he came up to me and said, "Hey, we need a guitar player. Would you like to try out?"You knew who Aftershock was?
I said, "Yeah, I love you guys."
I started jamming with him and we got to be friends quick and that's how I met Adam. After that summer was over, he was finishing at Berklee when I was starting so we got to be kind of buddies there too. Did you feel an instantaneous connect with Adam?
Yeah, pretty much. It was like, "Wow, this guy likes to hear palm muting the way I wanna hear it and vice versa. And we both like playing squeals."
We had similar tastes in tones and things like that. We hit it off pretty quick I think and got to be good friends fast. Adam was playing guitar in Aftershock or drums?
He was playing guitar when I started with him and then we lost our drummer and he did some shows on drums as well. It's funny with Killswitch for the first couple of records we did, it was Adam on drums. We were just kind of a four-piece but trying out different guitar players throughout. So the first couple of records we just recorded as a four-piece. We couldn't seem to find another guitar player that either worked or would stick around. It was like, "Well what if we just get a drummer and I'll switch over to guitar."
That's kinda how that came about. Didn't you miss Adam playing guitar on those first two Killswitch albums?
I definitely missed him on guitar. It was really Adam and Mike D
] who kinda started the Killswitch thing. They were jamming with a couple different guitar players and none of which really worked out. People had things going on and stuff at the time. So I started playing with 'em and stuck around. We just started writing with Adam on drums and playing shows as a four-piece and over time we tried out a bunch of different guitar players. Nobody worked?
Some of them were great but they didn't stick around. Kids and work and things like that and they couldn't really commit to it. So yeah, it just seemed natural because Adam and I had played guitar together for several years. It was like, "Well, we know we like playing guitar together. Why don't we just get a new drummer instead of trying to find a guitar player?"What was that like for you playing all the guitars on the first Killswitch Engage album?
The very first self-titled, we didn't have a lot of time or money. So it was kinda just we went in there and hitting record while Adam was doing drums and trying to keep it quick and cheap. But yeah, I think we remember we recorded the whole first record in like a weekend. It was very quick. "Temple From the Within" was a pretty orchestrated song guitar-wise.
That was a song we all kinda wrote together. I can't really remember who wrote which riff. We wrote that one with obviously Adam on drums and Mike on bass and me playing guitar. I remember Adam hopping off the kit and going, "How about this riff here?"
and I was like, "OK, it sounds cool. Let's jam on it."
So it was one of the ones we wrote in a room together. We really kept that pretty simple and there's not a ton of guitar layering. I think the left and right guitars do something slightly different. At the time being a four-piece, we wanted to make sure it was something we could pull off live with just the one guitar. All the songs on that first album were recorded before Jesse Leach joined the band?
I think we demoed everything at Zing Studios where we recorded most of our records at. So we had a demo tape we were handing out to people. Jesse tried out and a lot of the music was kind of in place by the time we found him. So he came in and just put his stamp on it and we loved him right away. We had tried a number of other singers and he just brought something different and it was cool. Did you know the kind of singer you were looking for?
Not really. We tried a bunch of people out from bands we liked and bands we played with in the past. A lot of people were great but we weren't really certain about anyone until we heard Jesse. It was like, "This is the guy. He's really doing something really different. The sing/scream stuff."
Jesse has a lot of different kinds of voices he does and we found him to be one of the most versatile guys we had encountered at the time. You knew you wanted the scream and the clean vocals as part of the sound?
You know I don't think it was a conscious decision. I don't really know if we knew what we were looking for at the time. But when he came in and did it we was like, "Wow, never really heard anything like that. This could be really cool."
It brought a whole different element to what we were doing. It just seemed like a good fit. What about the "Alive or Just Breathing" album?
We hooked up with Roadrunner when we were doing "Alive or Just Breathing." We spent a lot more time and I worked on parts with Adam. So yeah, we spent a lot of time coming up with double guitar parts with the idea he'd be switching to guitar come time for touring. So a lot of that record we had worked out double guitar parts knowing we could pull 'em off. Whereas the first record we kept it really simple. This is the point when drummer Tom Gomes joins?
joined. Actually we had recorded the record with Adam on drums and then Tom joined just as we were finishing the record. So Tom did all the touring on that record with us. He was a friend - he had played in Aftershock with us. A great drummer and had been a good friend of ours so he fit right in. That must have been a big change for the band when Adam moved to guitar and Tom Gomes came in on drums.
Definitely. It just made sense. Tom had played in Aftershock as well on drums. So I had played guitar with Adam and we both played with Tom and it just made sense. He came in and did a great job and knew the songs right off the bat. He's a great player. Andy Sneap mixed and mastered "Alive or Just Breathing." Did he impact guitar tones and stuff like that?
Adam actually did all the producing and engineering on that one. We did that kind of at home at Zing then Adam went over to England to mix it with Andy
. So I think Andy did the final shaping and really got that record where it needed to be. We were all big fans of his stuff - his mixes and producing - so it was kind of cool to have him put his stamp on it and just really polish things up. We had gotten some pretty dirty tones at the time and he really did a nice job cleaning that one up. Yeah, we were all really happy with it. By the time you record "Alive or Just Breathing," were you comfortable in the studio getting guitar sounds and laying down tracks?
Umm, I don't think we were quite there. On "Alive or Just Breathing," we were still kind of experimenting with amps and stuff we liked. It was like, "To use a Tube Screamer? Or not to use a Tube Screamer?"
and things like that. "Do we like Celestion 75-watts or do we like C-30s?"
We were doing a lot of experimenting so I don't think we had quite found what we knew worked at the time. We were just kind of playing around with some different sounds. What was your rig on the "Alive or Just Breathing" album?
"Alive or Just Breathing?" I'm trying to think what we did. I think it's a combination of a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier
through a Mesa cab and I'm pretty sure we doubled those with either a Marshall
or a [Peavey
. I can't quite remember. It was a long time ago. I think the main tone on that was a Triple Rectifier
. What kind of guitar were you using back then?
That record was a combination of guitars. I had an Ibanez Universe
that I just tuned to dropped-C to the high D and actually doubled the high strings with some of the open chords that ring out and stuff. You can hear that extra high E and it gives you kind of a 12-string sound almost. I used that guitar for a number of the tracks and I had a Les Paul Custom
s and a Paul Reed Smith
. So it was a combination of those guitars. I can't quite remember which songs we used which on. Dropped tuning has become standard practice for virtually every metalcore band now?
I think so, yeah. As far as dropped tunings, there's definitely a sound to each tuning. Once you hit a low B, you really get this menacing kind of rumble. But we didn't want to go that low so C seemed like a better choice for us. It was low enough that you still had the clarity on the low strings. Could those early Killswitch songs have been played in regular tuning?
I think they maybe could have. We experimented with some different tunings - playing in B or 7-strings or 6-strings or dropped-D or dropped-C. I think we all were pretty comfortable with the D to D and then some of the songs were in a dropped-C. The songs seemed to feel right and it seemed to sit well in Jesse's range vocally. That all makes sense.
Yeah, I can't really remember why we decided to stick with that tuning, hah hah hah. But it just kinda happened. It must have been discouraging when Jesse Leach left the band during the supporting tour for "Alive or Just Breathing."
Yeah, it was. We had a brand new record out and it had only come out a few months before that. We just did a couple of tours with Jesse on it and he was having a hard time at the time holding his voice together. I think he was just singing too hard or singing in the wrong place. Two or three shows go by and you'd have to cancel a show because he blew his voice out. I think it was that combined with the fact we were just out in a van and we weren't making any money at all. He was a newlywed at the time and he felt he had to go home and take care of his wife. Honorable reasons to leave and there were definitely no hard feelings. Was there a feeling of, "Oh no, this might be the end of the band?"
Oh yeah, for sure there was. For sure. We just weren't sure what the heck we were gonna do. We got home from the tour and Jesse had left really right at the end of the tour. He pretty much did the whole tour and then headed home and informed us he didn't want to continue. So we were kind of driving home from the West Coast not knowing what was gonna happen. What did you do next?
Once we got home, we talked to some of the folks at Roadrunner and they said, "Hey listen, guys. We really like the record you just did and we want you to continue. So what can we do to help you guys find a new singer?"
So Roadrunner was really great about that and set up some rehearsals in New York for us to try people out. We probably tried 15 people out before we found Howard. You heard Howard Jones and knew he was the right singer?
Yeah, absolutely. I think what we ran into was there were a lot of people coming in that were really trying to sound like Jesse and some were really good. We were down to two or three people we really liked and then Howard kind of came in at the last minute and did his own thing. That's what we really liked about him. It was like, "Wow, this guy's doing something different. He's not afraid to be himself and he's got a powerful voice."
He just did a great job with the songs and I think we knew right away he was the guy. Did you know Howard Jones from Blood Has Been Shed?
Oh yeah, for sure. We were fans of Blood Has Been Shed
. None of us really knew him well at the time but we had definitely crossed paths. He was a nice guy and we had played shows together and we liked his voice a lot. It was interesting to hear him do some more singing stuff because a lot of the Blood Has Been Shed stuff - even though it's got melodic moments - is more aggressive than what we were doing. Killswitch actually played gigs with Blood Has Been Shed?
I'm not sure if it was Killswitch or Aftershock or Overcast
. But we had known each other from shows in the area. That's the same time when Blood Has Been Shed Justin Foley joins the band.
Yep. Howard had joined the band and we did some touring and Tom was still with us. But Tom amidst the tour met his wife-to-be out on the West Coast. So we got back from a couple of runs and he decided to move out to LA. He called us and said, "Hey, if you guys don't really need me back, I think I'm gonna stay out here."It was like you gained a singer but lost a drummer.
We were, "Alright, well fair enough. I guess we'll figure it out."
Howard immediately said, "Oh, if Tom's leaving, I know this guy"
and it was Justin
obviously from Blood Has Been Shed. He was a great drummer and he came in and just killed it right away. It felt great and Justin was a great player. Another natural transition too. I think we've been lucky in that regard. So you enter Zing Studios in 2003 with a new singer and drummer to record "The End of Heartache."
Doing that record was a great experience because I think coming from having Jesse leave and not knowing what was gonna happen and just having Howard step in and do such a great job, we were all really fired up writing that record. I think there's definitely an energy to that one that wouldn't have happened that way if we didn't have some new blood in the band. That was definitely a cool thing and we had a good time doing that one. It's still one of our favorite records we've done through the years. On "As Daylight Dies," you co-produced with Adam?
That was just really Adam. It was the band as a whole but mainly Adam. He did everything on that: produced, engineered, and mixed so that was kind of Adam's baby. Mixed it in-house and all of that. That's another one we were happy with doing and looking back on it we had some good luck with that record. A number of the songs on that record, we really enjoyed playing live. I think at that point, Howard was a little bit more comfortable in the band and the same thing with Justin. That was a record we spent a lot of time together piecing together. By this fourth record, what does the writing process look like?
I think as far as writing, we would all kinda have ideas like half-written songs or almost fully-written songs. We'd kinda just bring 'em to the table. It's like, "Hey, what do you think of this? What do you think of that?"
We'd all just kinda go through everything with a fine-toothed comb and help each other finish each other's songs that weren't complete. And then just jam on 'em in the room until we got 'em right and until they felt comfortable. What was it like in the studio?
The same thing recording. We usually just did stuff instrumentally and would tend not to have Howard or even Jesse there when we were writing stuff. It's like, "OK, let's get these arrangements right before we present the music to you. Then you can rearrange them there and see what you gravitate towards."
That's kind of just always the way we worked I guess and still do. For the 2009 "Killswitch Engage" album, you brought in producer Brendan O'Brien. In an earlier interview with Adam, he said that Brendan "softened the edges" on that record. What were your feelings?
I think Brendan
definitely softened the edges a little bit but I'm not sure if that was a bad thing. I think it was something we really wanted to try. Brendan had approached us - he had heard the band and he kinda dug what we were doing and wanted to see if we were interested in having him put his stamp on it. It was one of those things where somebody like that, it was really an opportunity we couldn't pass up. We had to try it out. It was a great record.
We went down to Atlanta and did most of that record down there. We did guitars and stuff back at home where we were comfortable. But it was definitely an interesting experience. Brendan is a cool guy. I think in retrospect some of us wished the record came out a little bit heavier and some of us were really stoked on it. It was just a strange experience because we were so used to doing everything with Adam. Not a bad experience but one of those things I'm glad we did and Brendan was awesome. A cool guy and had a lot of great ideas for arrangements and things like that. Yeah, that was really the most different record we've ever done. You're playing Caparison guitars by this time?
Oh yeah. I think by "The End of Heartache" we were on Caparisons
. When you started playing the Caparison, do you think that widened your vocabulary as a guitarist?
Yeah, I think so. I've probably been playing those guitars for over 10 years now. I remember I played Peter
] from Soilwork
's Caparison. We were on the road with them right when the "Alive or Just Breathing" came out and I was just blown away by it. It kinda had this low midrange growl to it I hadn't heard. I had played Ibanez and PRS
and all great guitars but there was something about the Caparison that just kind of fascinated me. I liked the tone of it and the fretwork and the shape of the neck and everything about it. You obviously love the guitar. Itaru Kanno
at Caparison is just a genius. He's not only an awesome guy but a really great designer. He was kind enough to set me and Adam up with a couple of guitars to check out and we both just kinda fell in love with 'em. We said, "These are great."
As nice as the guitars we got at the time were, I think the company has really grown over the years. They really step it up every year and make great guitars. For me personally, those guitars really helped shape my sound. So the tools become incredibly important in the development of the band's sound.
Yeah, absolutely. I think any great instrument whether it's a guitar or amplifier or anything - violin or saxophone - should inspire you to play new things and try new things and to make you wanna play more. And that's one thing I found with Caparisons - as soon as I started playing 'em, I just couldn't put 'em down. I've been with 'em for a long time. I love those guys. You've also been using Laneys for a while?
Yeah, for a couple years now. I've always been a fan of Laney
stuff. My brother had and Iommi
amp years ago. One of the original ones. But yeah, we were approached by those guys a couple years ago when they had developed the Ironheart
amp. The guys actually drove over to my house and brought a half-stack over and gave me a little tour of it. That's pretty sweet.
Well, that's pretty cool number one that these guys are bringing an amp over to my house. I was just blown away by the amp. I was like, "Wow, this thing really has everything a good metal amp should have. It's really well-voiced; versatile EQ curves; and musical. It's not crazy price; it's an affordable amp."
We were just really excited about it. It was like, "Wow, this thing's awesome."
And I can't really say enough them as a company. They've been awesome to us. They make sure we have amps to play overseas. We're flying into weird places and they're like, "We've got an amp you guys can use while you're there."
So they're really an awesome company and I can't say enough about 'em. You mentioned earlier how much you dug Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi's Laney tones.
Yeah, if the guy who invented heavy metal played one, they must be pretty cool. Jesse Leach returned for the most recent Disarm the Descent album. What that like a shot in the arm?
Oh, absolutely. Some of that record was written when Howard was still with us before he left. We had actually given Howard three or four of those tunes to check out. He came down and listened to 'em and he liked the tunes but I think he had kind of enough with the lifestyle and all that. We just continued writing and weren't sure what we were gonna do when Howard left. But it was one of those things. We tried out some different people and when Jesse approached us and wanted to come back, it really - for lack of a better phrase - kinda put a bomb under everybody's asses. It felt comfortable with Jesse singing again?
We were really, really excited. That record kinda came together quickly once we really got rolling on it. I think the energy kinda shows on that one. There's a lot of fast, aggressive songs and everybody was just fired up. Not in a negative way but just really excited to be doing it. It just felt inspired and once we really got working on the record everything happened fast. When you talk about fast, aggressive songs, you're defining a track like "The New Beginning." What does it take as a guitarist to perform a song like that?
I think it helps if people pick up a guitar here and there. A lot of the rehearsing and woodshedding stages kinda happen before we record and just making sure we can play our parts. Lately, I have trouble playing a lot of Adam's riffs and vice versa just because we have slightly different writing styles. So when it comes time to play live, I find I have to rehearse his parts a lot and I think vice versa just 'cause they're different. I don't necessarily think even though a lot of it might sound crazy, to me it's not the most technical stuff in the world. I think we've been playing guitar together long enough where we sort of know how each other thinks and stuff, hah hah hah. So it's not like it takes weeks and weeks of rehearsing to get a song down. How would you describe what you and Adam do as a guitar duo?
You know it's kinda funny because even on the last couple of records, usually the songs I write I'll play all the guitar parts. And Adam's songs, he'll play all the guitar parts. We'll reconvene after and, "Hey, this is what I did"
so we can do it live. It's more efficient in the studio. If it was, "Let me learn all your parts and then try to play 'em the way you wanna hear 'em,"
it's definitely a little bit more time consuming that way. We've done it that way in the past but sometimes people don't have the luxury of spending a month tracking guitars. Yeah, so it definitely helps when we kinda divide things up and say, "Hey, you play your songs and I'll play mine. Then we'll get together and we'll rehearse when it comes time to tour." Who is playing "In Due Time?"
That's most Adam on that. I think I might have played the first riff, the opening riff, and I think that was it. He kinda did everything else. You were nominated for another Grammy for Best Metal Performance for that song.
Yeah, that was pretty crazy. We didn't see that one coming, hah hah hah. Definitely an honor. You covered Dio's "Holy Diver" for the "This Is Your Life" tribute DVD.
cover came about a couple years back. Kerrang! Magazine
was doing a 25th anniversary issue and had asked a bunch of the bands they had reviewed and talked with over the previous years to cover a classic rock or classic metal song. They gave us a list of songs to choose from and I think the Dio song on the list was "We Rock
," which was a great song. But "Holy Diver
" was a song we always used to play in the band touring and we'd fire it up. It was one of my favorite tunes since I was a kid. So we went back to Kerrang! And said, "We want to do Dio but can we do 'Holy Diver.' That's the Dio song from the Dio record."
They're like, "Yeah, that's cool if you wanna do that."
So we kinda just went in the studio for a weekend and just had some fun with it. It's not drastically than the original but it's just kinda rearranged in a dropped-C tuning but I think it's still in the same key. I think the original is in C too. But yeah, we just kinda put our spin on it and had some fun with it and surprisingly it turned into something people gravitated towards. We ended up playing it live and having a lot of fun with it. Were you a fan of those Dio guitar players like Viv Campbell, Doug Aldrich and Vinnie Moore?
Oh, absolutely. Viv Campbell
was one of my favorite guitar players growing up. That era of Dio music was right up there and as awesome as any Black Sabbath thing in my opinion. I know some people would - hah hah hah - argue that. Even Dio's "Heaven and Hell
" record, the Sabbath record, was fantastic. That's some of my favorite stuff that Tony has done on that record. Yeah, I'm definitely a fan of all the classic stuff. What are the plans for Killswitch Engage at the moment?
Tomorrow we're leaving for Russia. I've got a lot of flying to do the next couple weeks. So Russia and South Africa and coming home for a few weeks and then going to Japan and Australia. So we've got some faraway places to hit. But I think we're kind of winding down over the next several months. We're gonna hit some of the spots we missed. Then hopefully come summertime, we're gonna maybe start thinking about making a new record. Another record?
Yeah. We haven't really started that yet but there's talk. We wanna make sure it's not four years between records like it was last time, hah hah hah.Interview by Steven Rosen