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Killswitch Engage Vocalist Jesse Leach on Almost Missing Out on the Job Again, Singing Howard Jones’ Songs

Classic Rock Magazine, Getty Images

When frontman Jesse Leach reemerged to rejoin Killswitch Engage in 2012, it was a major turning point for the Western Mass. band. Not only was it a seismic shift from the soaring vocals of Howard Jones (who parted ways with KsE earlier that year). It also signaled the return of the voice that not only embodied the spirit of 2002′s modern metal classic disc, Alive Or Just Breathing.

Since parting ways with KsE Jesse’s passionate screams and heart-wrenching singing became the focal point of now-defunct blues metallists, Seemless. He’s also headed the Meshuggah-ish stomp of The Empire Shall Fall and more recently reunited with Killswitch Engage guitarist and mainman Adam Dutkeiwicz in Times of Grace, whose single album: Hymn of a Broken Man recalled the glories of a Leach-fronted KsE.

Now back in Killswitch Engage, whose new album Disarm the Descent, is readying for an April release, Jesse Leach is back to the business of being one of the most unforgettable voices and personas in modern metal. Noisecreep sat down with Jesse to talk about the decade plus of sound and fury, his battle with depression and a well-deserved second lease on a very loud life.

What attracted you to punk, hardcore and metal?

My brother got me into Metallica. The first time I heard ‘Blackened’ it blew my mind but it wasn’t something that 100% spoke to me. I was looking for something else. That happened when I was hanging out with my friends in high school and they knew I was into Metallica, Nirvana and Pearl Jam and they asked me: ‘Hey, have you ever heard this band, Minor Threat? Or this band Black Flag?’ I remember hearing Minor Threat for the first time. I think the song was ‘Seeing Red’ and my mind was blown. I didn’t understand what I was hearing. It was raw and pissed off. To this day, Ian Mackaye’s voice is my favorite voice in hardcore. It just sounds so angry and the guitars sounded like that as well. I had never heard anything like before and I was hooked. I went right out and bought the Minor Threat discography CD that was out then: it was ’92 or ’93. From there I went into all different kinds of hardcore. Bad Brains, Earth Crisis, Youth of Today, Cro-Mags. That led me back into punk because I wanted to know where this music came from.

Did that set the stage for you musically? What were your pre-KsE bands like?

Interestingly enough, my first band was more a mixture of hardcore and rock. But vocally, I became more of a metal and hardcore vocalist because I always ended up playing with people who were already influenced by bands like Integrity and Deadguy; bands that played a mixture of styles. Even though I fell in love with hardcore and punk, I was always a vocalist who did a mixture of things – singing, screaming, yelling – the kind of vocals they now call ‘metalcore.’

How did you end up in Killswitch Engage?

My first band, Corrin, played a lot with Overcast and Aftershock. I looked up to Overcast. They were more established and were older guys. I was there for at least twenty of their shows, standing on top of the pile-on, jumping on the stage and singing along. The way I started working with Adam and Mike was that Toby, Adam D’s brother, who put out my last band, Nothing Stays Gold, on his label, knew that we were breaking up and told me that Adam wanted to potentially work with me on a project. Initially that project was just a compilation for the label: just a bunch of covers songs. We were going to collaborate on a psychedelic, spaced out version of a Slayer song. That never panned out but from being in contact with Adam, that’s when I got asked to do the audition for Killswitch, The kicker for me was when I showed up at Mike’s (D’Antonio –KsE bassist) house in Worcester to car-pool with him, he opened the door and we were both like “Whoah! I know you!” The whole car ride up to the rehearsal I was nervous, I was like: ‘Mike D! Overcast!’

Watch ‘In Due Time’ Video

Why did you want to go back to Killswitch?

Many reasons. There were talks before they officially parted ways with Howard where I was asked: ‘Hey, this is probably going to happen. Do you think you’d like to rejoin?’ I initially turned it down. I told them that I didn’t know if I was that guy right now. I was working a job still and had Times of Grace as my thing that I really wanted to pursue. I wasn’t sure if I could sing somebody else’s material and really feel it and put my heart into it. After some really thinking and when I heard via a press release that they actually, officially parted ways with Howard and they were going to hold auditions. When I saw the word ‘audition’ it hit me that somebody else could step in and try to be the singer. It didn’t sit right with me. I realized that maybe I should some give it a shot then. I realized that my decisions were being skewed by my point of view and because I really wanted to pursue Times of Grace. But I knew that these guys were serious about carrying on. I said to myself that I didn’t want to miss the boat this time. I did some soul searching and talked to Adam. He said, ‘It’s cool that you want to do this, but we’re still gonna do the auditions. Your initial turning down the offer made us feel that maybe you’re not the man for the job.’

So then it presented a challenge to me of having to prove myself. It was a good process to go through because it made me realize that A.) There’s a chance I’m not the guy they’re going to choose and B.) How am I going to feel singing someone else’s songs? I went through that process of really listening to Howard’s material and started to fall in love with it.

How difficult was it for you to sing Howard’s songs?

Well, I sat and listened to ‘Arms of Sorrow’ and it struck me how was powerful a song it really is. Howard has a really great style of writing. Then, when I listened to songs like ‘End of Heartache’ and ‘Rose of Sharyn’ they really struck a chord with me. So when I came to the audition with Killswitch, I didn’t come with just a confidence in knowing that I could sing the material but more importantly, that I was feeling it. I’m really glad that I went through that process because it humbled me. I realized that yeah, this guy wrote hits. The reason why Killswitch is as big as they are is that they were writing some huge hits with this guy. Any human being can relate to what Howard was writing about. It’s broad enough where it could appeal to your working class guy or muscle-bound, tough, hardcore guy all the way down to a young girl can relate to a song like ‘End of Heartache.’ I’m sure the popularity of the band is such because of those songs and those lyrics. Me being who I am: a very emotional guy, put them in my own mind and lived through them vicariously. I conjured my own mental images when I started to sing those songs.

How would you sum up your contribution to Killswitch’s history up til now?

My contribution was helping lay the groundwork for the band and putting out lyrics that were different from the time they came out. Realizing that people still care about Alive or Just Breathing is still astounding to me. Even still, in 2002, I walked away and then Howard stepped in and saved the day and helped establish them as a worldwide brand and a worldwide band. Other than that, I feel like I still have yet to offer a true contribution to the band. I think that begins now with me going out and proving myself on the road. I’m four tours down, feeling good and ready to go again. I think the best is yet to come.

Roadrunner Records

Disarm the Descent is your first record in ten years with Killswitch. What’s your take on it?

I think for me it was easy to jump in on this because it is musically a little more aggressive which is a little bit more my style. The fact that they wrote the music before I rejoined the band speaks volumes for where they were when they wrote the music. There is more aggression and angst to it. I had to sit down and ask them: ‘What are you guys thinking? This is clearly different than the last record. What’s your mindset?’ The response was: ‘Do whatever you want.’ So I would do demos, send them to them and they were very supportive of what I was giving them. There was very little critique or second-guessing which was great but it was overwhelming at the same time. Here I am coming in, writing for a band, which is world renown and I’ve got the steering wheel for vocals and lyrics. There was never: ‘Don’t put too much screaming in there because we have to be sure this is going to be viable for commercial radio.’ I think those guys wanted to come out with a metal record that had real teeth to it.

What are your favorite songs on the record? Are there any songs that hold a lot of meaning for you?

There are songs that have a lot of meaning for me because I was able to ‘go-there’ where in the past I hadn’t. ‘You Don’t Bleed For Me’ is one of them. I really expressed my anger as far as where we are in the world and made it clear what my qualms are with the contradictions that go with organized religion. That’s probably the most pissed off song I’ve ever written.

That’s surprising. You’ve been known as such a spiritual person. It’s no a secret that when you first left Killswitch, you stated that spirituality was a key part of you having to devote your life to other things than music.

I think it comes from taking things seriously and being more grown up. When you’re younger and more impressionable, you take what you’re taught and simply say: ‘That’s what I believe.’ As you get older and you go through struggles and trials and tribulations, you become more critical. Five or six years ago, I went through the deepest depression of my entire life to the point where I was pretty much suicidal. You really begin to figure out what you believe and what you have to question. From that point on I think my faith strengthened but through that strength you begin to question to question. I read scripture. I talked to a lot of people who are in the church and plenty of people who aren’t in the church at all and I came to the conclusion: I don’t have to believe exactly this but I have to stand up for what I believe in.

What’s up with Times of Grace not that you and Adam are now playing together in Killswitch Engage already?

Still going. We’re going to do whatever can whenever we have time for it. Our plan is to take it more stylistically down the road with the acoustic side of it and the post-metal, ambient, shoegazer side of it as well. We’re going to make it less of a quote-unquote metalcore thing.

Watch Times of Grace’s ‘Strength in Numbers’ Video

What is the status of your more technical metal band, The Empire Shall Fall?

Still going as well although it’s much more of a studio project. The demos I just received are pretty strange and proggy. I don’t know where exactly that one is going but I’m still doing that one as well.

If you could be any musician in the past fifty years, who would that be?

Probably Joe Strummer! I just have so much admiration for that guy. Not only what he did in his career but what he did for music as a whole. He blended my two favorite types of music: punk and reggae and did it successfully. I think some of the best Clash songs are the reggae songs. I think his legacy still rings true with a lot of punk and hardcore kids. He wasn’t a politician but he did have a political edge to himself and his music. Let’s face it, he was the first to say: “We were a bunch of drug addicts having a good time” but a lot of his lyrics still speak true to me. The fact that his post-Clash career was very grassroots and on the street and his attitude was so positive is inspiring to me. He wanted to be connected to the youth and wanted to know what was going on. He cared about music as a whole: punk, folk, electronic music, whatever. He’s a legend in my book and the only guy I’ve ever considered getting a tattoo of. That’s how much I love and am inspired by him.

When you go out onstage, what is it that inspires you to play a great show?

Life man. It could be something as little as something someone said to me during the day. It could be something a fan said to me the day before. It could be a conversation I had with my dad or my wife or someone in the band. I’m just trying to channel any emotions and feelings I have, both good and bad. Truthfully, now being back in Killswitch, this is the happiest I’ve ever been in a band. I think that shows.

Disarm the Descent will be available everywhere April 2 via Roadrunner Records and can be pre-ordered on iTunes now!

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