The Van Halen of Metal

Killswitch Engage welcomes back Jesse Leach. Now, they're new all over again.


The people that say, “History repeats itself,” weren’t exactly referring to the world of rock and roll when they made that oft-repeated observation, but it’s exactly what has happened with Killswitch Engage. In fact, it wouldn’t be too ridiculous to call KsE “the Van Halen of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal.”

Much like their hard-rockin’ counterparts separated by a few musical generations and genres, Killswitch finds its original singer back in the fold. Just like the Dave vs. Sammy debates that circle around the Van Halen camp, there’ll now be the Jesse vs. Howard comparisons and camps of opinion.

No one would have guessed that Jesse Leach would return to the KsE camp – especially considering his public desire not to sing the Howard Jones material with the band when he filled in for Jones in 2010 during a leave of absence. When Howard announced his departure from the band last year, not many would have predicted Leach re-joining the fold – including the band, who didn’t include him in the auditions. But there was one giant hint that the impossible was indeed possible – and that was the Times of Grace side-project that Jesse and guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz did together in 2011.

Tell me the story about how the decision-making process came to be for you to rejoin Killswitch Engage, how you heard about what was going down in the band, the communication you had with the guys and then your decision to actually get in and tell the guys, “Hey, I want to audition…”
I was aware of the inner workings of the band way prior to the announcing of Howard leaving or departing or whatever you want to call it. Basically, I was approached early on and asked to rejoin, but I turned (them) down initially, because I didn’t think that I would be able to sing someone else’s songs and actually feel what I was doing (and) be genuine about it. Then a couple of months went by and I read the press release where they were actually announced they were parting ways with Howard and holding auditions. I called Adam, who was a really good friend of mine, and said, “Oh, you guys are doing auditions? Crazy … what do you think if I went and auditioned?” And he said, “If you changed your mind, definitely – come and audition – but we definitely want to make sure whoever we choose is the right person for the job and part of that is being able to sing Howard’s songs.” So, I spent about a week or so really, like, living inside Howard’s lyrics and really reading and listening to these songs and I started to fall in love with them. And that’s when I kind of knew I could do it, so I showed up to the audition. I was the last one to audition and I felt like I nailed it. I had a really good time and the next day they asked me to rejoin.

Nice. I wanted to pick your brain a little bit about your reluctance to take on Howard’s songs… Why do you think your brain was thinking that way? Because, you know, some people are singers by vocation. Like, if I’m a singer and I join a Journey tribute band or I join some band that’s already in existence, I’m gonna come into that (situation) knowing that I’m going to sing somebody else’s songs. How did that attitude get formed in you? Please explain your way around it a little bit more, if you could.
I think, for me, just growing up in the hardcore punk rock scene … sort of being the hardcore kid at heart, I’ve never done that before – never sang someone else’s material. I’ve always done stuff that’s from me, so it’s genuine. Initially my thought was, “I can’t do that – that’s not my style – not something I’d be interested in doing.” I guess you might want to call it “punk rock guilt,” (which) is the term people use for it. I just didn’t think it was gonna work. I just missed it without even really thinking about it, you know what I mean?

I think it all kind of hit me when I was working, ‘cause I worked day jobs my whole life. For 20 years of doing music I’ve always come back to a job and I’m standing there behind the bar at my job, thinking to myself, “Okay, I can either give this a shot or I can continue living this life.” And the thought of somebody else joining the band that wasn’t me or Howard was so odd to me. And I was just like, “I should really at least allow myself the possibility – the thought of the possibility of me doing it.” The moment I did that, within a few days I kind of just felt foolish that I hadn’t even thought of entertaining that thought process, because of my upbringing musically and because of my state of mind. And now I can honestly say, “Singing some of his songs are some of my favourite songs to sing.”

I assume that you’ve probably seen some shows when Howard was in the band and you actually heard and saw him sing some of your songs from when you were in the band earlier. And how did that feel seeing and hearing him do that?
To me my main focus when I actually did go see them perform was I was just glad that my songs were still being sung and people still cared all these years later. You know, it’s definitely a different style. We both have very different styles, but I think he pulled it off well enough and hopefully I’ll pull his songs off well enough.

Yeah, that’s got to be a good feeling when people want to hear your songs.
Yeah, it’s a cool situation – for sure.

Let’s talk about the new album and what it was like getting together with the guys and the collaboration effort.
A good amount of the songs are really natural. They just came out and you didn’t change alot when being put to the album. I think towards the end we were up against a deadline and the tour was approaching and the label wanted the record and we only had a few weeks left… So I ended up just staying at Adam’s house – where we were recording the vocals in his home studio and living with him and writing the stuff on the spot. It’s really interesting for me. I’m usually more prepared. I demo stuff and I’m pretty prepared for songs, but for three or four of these songs it was really spontaneous. Adam stepped in and helped me out alot.

One of the songs that comes to mind is “Beyond the Flames.” I was just completely stumped on the what to do for the chorus and we were messing around with the song and we stopped working on it that night, ‘cause I was getting mental blocked. We both got pretty buzzed off some beer and then Adam just began humming the chorus out of nowhere … So I picked up my cell phone, ran over to him and said, “Dude, keep doing that – what are you doing – keep doing that.”  I recorded him jokingly humming a tune and that ended up being the chorus – like the scales in for the chorus – from one of his drunken ideas. It kind of became a fun little game we would play where we would record in the studio and then take a break at night and have some beers and have Adam and I listen and come up with these ideas. The last three or four songs on that record were conceived by taking a break, having some beers and listening to the songs again. I guess you’d call ‘em drunken ideas that came to us.

My father was a minister … I have been in organized religion my whole life and I see definite contradictions that anger me to the point where (I get grouped in) with people who say stuff like, “God hates fags,” and who are pointing the finger at people and judging them – when I firmly believe that we’re not supposed to judge, we are supposed to show love.

It’s nice when you get a creative idea that comes unexpectedly like that…
Yeah, I think it really makes the songs. Some of my favorite songs on the record are because of that.

Why do you think  chorus is so important? It’s kind of an obvious question, but if you can run with that…
Basically, the chorus has to say everything that the song is saying. It has to sum it all up and it has to be memorable.  To me, that’s a lot of pressure on myself – to come up with really clever stuff that you want to sing along with. Sometimes I find myself hitting a wall with it, you know? I have the basic idea, but the good thing about having a producer slash one of my best friends in Adam is he is so musically minded. He would say, basically, “I like what you’re saying, but simplify it – make it easier to digest. It’s a really smart thing to do, because you can do tons of stuff with a song – but if your chorus isn’t good, the song’s not good. So, it’s really important. It carries the weight of the whole song.

Take the temperature of the band, so to speak. Where do you think Killswitch Engage is at right now as far as longevity? Do you think this band has got more years in it? How’s it feel as you look and hope to the future?
The band feels like a brand new band. We’ve already done four tours and we’ve got a bunch more lined up and the energy is at an all-time high. I think the only thing we have to be careful with is burning ourselves out – especially since all of us are over 30. It’s a matter of pacing ourselves. I know that the passion, the desire, is at an all-time high with all of us. We’re really excited. Again, if we just pace ourselves and take the right steps, the right process, we’ll last for another 10 or 15 years hopefully. Who knows what the future holds? You can only hope for that kind of stuff.

Yeah, I’m sure for a moment there – with you as a friend and the guys in the band – it was probably pretty shaky for a while when Howard announced unexpectedly that he was bailing…
Yeah, they weren’t too sure of their future – absolutely. We’re talking maybe two years ago, and things were not really happening for them. It wasn’t working out and I’m pretty sure those guys sort of had that thought in their heads that they weren’t sure how long it was gonna last. It’s pretty amazing to see them (even) just as friends, as an outsider, and now as an insider to see them – how happy they are to be back working again, to be on the road, to see a new energy in all of them. As a friend, it’s really exciting and I’m really grateful to be a part of it.

That’s cool. I really like the Times of Grace project. I enjoyed that immensely. What does the future hold for that? Is it going to be a one-off thing, or is it going to be a side project or is it going to keep going?
Probably more like a side project. Adam and I definitely want to keep it going and we’ve talked with the drummer, Dan, about doing an EP at least – here and there and just keeping it going, because we really love that band as well. It’s just a matter of when we have time to do something with it, but there are definite plans to, at the very least, make an EP or two, maybe another full-length – depending on how much time we have. I would love to record and even play shows here and there, but that’s all to be seen. We’ll see what the future holds for how busy Killswitch is.

From your perspective, what do you see as the differences between the two – musically or artistically?
I think Killswitch tends to be a little more, I guess… I hate to use this word, ‘cause I hate it, but “mainstream” or “pop” – as far as writing goes – writing sort of, verse/chorus, verse/chorus/bridge-style songs. There’s differences in the way the songs are written and they’re also from a little more of an aggressive side, where I think Times of Grace can take a little bit more of an artistic nod and do stuff that’s a little more diverse and maybe even a little more softer, I guess, if that’s the word I want to use – not really (laughs), but… There’s really more an artistic edge in Times of Grace versus Killswitch. That’s probably the best way to describe it. I feel like with Times of Grace we have that artistic freedom to do an acoustic song or we have the artistic freedom to write a six-minute song that’s really slow, melodic and strange-sounding. That’s something we plan on doing in the future with Times of Grace – pushing those boundaries and doing more acoustic stuff doing more abstract music and I think that’s the difference: Killswitch keeps it pretty cut and dry, pretty digestable for the masses. It’s a career band. You want to be able to do well with it … within the confines of your own creative outlet. In Times of Grace we’re a little less concerned with all that and we’re able to be a little more creative with it, without being concerned about album sales or any of that stuff.

On the technical side – as far as details go – is Times of Grace signed to a record deal as well?
Times of Grace got dropped from Roadrunner records. They don’t want anything to do with us, so now we are free agents. We can do whatever we want, which is a good thing  for that project.

Nice. I know from talking to you before a few times in the past – and I’ve enjoyed our conversations – that your faith in Christ is pretty important to you and you’ve kind of found a way to kind of weld it with your art. How important was it for you in joining this band and what freedom do you have there? And what are your thoughts on kind of the marriage between faith and art in your mind with Killswitch?
Yeah, I think generally it’s everpresent – just ‘cause it’s who I am. I think, with this record especially, it’s there, but it’s not as obvious as I think, say, Times of Grace (is), for example. I feel like I was writing a different record, and a different mindset. There’s a little bit more of a political/social thing going on in this record, but it’s everpresent. It’s something that I can’t … that’s a part of me, so if I’m writing something that’s a part of it, regardless. It may seem a little more obvious in some styles, some songs or some bands. And in this record it’s evident, but not quite as obvious, i think, as in Times of Grace stuff. And also there’s a whole new level as a writer for me where I actually wrote a song sort of questioning and almost, I guess, pointing a finger at organized religion and some of the hypocrisy within it. It’s the first time I’ve written a song that’s sort of a constructive criticism of my own faith or religion in general, I would say. There’s a bit of a departure, as far as my thought process, but my faith hasn’t changed at all. I just think I wrote with a different pen for this record.

I spent about a week or so really, like, living inside Howard’s lyrics and really reading and listening to these songs and I started to fall in love with them. And that’s when I kind of knew I could do it.

I think sometimes when you’re an insider, your experience gives you the right or the authority to offer some constructive criticism, because you’re not an outsider that’s just throwing flaming darts at it. You’ve got some personal experience and  kind of a stake in the matter, so the criticism has some validity to it.
I think if you love something you’re passionate about, you have to protect it. You have to criticize people who are being frivolous with it or sort of contradicting themselves. And I think that a lot of that, you know, my father was a minister … I have been in organized religion my whole life and I see definite contradictions that anger me to the point where people group me in with people who say stuff like, “God hates fags,” and who are pointing the finger at people and judging them – when I firmly believe that we’re not supposed to judge, we are supposed to show love. I think for me it’s a righteous anger against people who are spouting that and, even if you do believe that homosexuality is a sin, for example, or whatever the case may be, you have no right to shove your finger in someone’s face and judge them and condescend to them. That kind of stuff has built up over the years and really angered me, because there is a way to show people what you believe and I believe that compassion and love speak so much louder than judging somebody and hating them. So, that’s kind of where that comes from. That particular song that i’m referring to is called, “You Don’t Bleed for Me” and it also talks about the government and how corrupt we are – not just in the United States, but the world over – and the corporate greed that goes along with it. So, it’s kind of a mixed bag with that song. You’re right, as far as religion goes, there are plenty of artists that are criticizing it. They have no idea what they’re talking about and that also upsets me, too, because my whole life I’ve been put under the magnifying glass with people (who) have cast judgements on me – whether I’m Christian or not Christian. So, I just kind of took all that frustration and wrote about it and put it into one song. I’m pretty proud about it. I think I did a well enough job with it. Different people from different walks of life can relate to it.

Yeah, I’d go as far as to say – depending upon your viewpoint if homosexuality practice is a sin or not, that, regardless of that – I think God loves fags, so I think those people are ridiculous.
Yeah, He loves everybody.

…And the thing is, too, if you want to point the finger at someone and say they’re a sinner for this … but guess what? You’re just as much of a sinner. If you really read the Scriptures and pay attention to what is being said, you are just as much of a sinner as the next person, so who are you to point the finger? You know, point the finger right back at yourself. You don’t believe that’s righteous? Okay, fine – but half the thoughts you have during the day on a regular basis are just as bad a sin. We all live in sin. It’s just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is for everybody – as long as you believe. So, who is anyone to stand and say this person is wrong? Guess what? You’re just as wrong. That’s what Christianity is all about – we’re all miserable sinners. God’s grace contains us, we’re not worthy, nobody’s worthy of it.

I act as if people are watching me all the time and I strive to live righteously. You know what? I’m human. I screw up, too. I’ve gotten drunk a few times and I know people saw it; but, you know, I’m a human, but it happens.

Yeah, that’s good stuff.  You’re familiar with the fact that there is a whole industry or a scene or sub-genre called “Christian music, Christian rock” or “Christian metal” and Adams’ produced a bunch of Christian bands?
Oh, yeah!

Killswitch has never been known or claimed to be part of that scene or a band with that agenda, per-say, that are art is going to  reflect faith in Christ, but isn’t it kind of ironic that the singers that have been in the band have had a faith in Christ?
Well, that’s interesting, because Killswitch is a very much mixed bag. We equally say that half of the members are definitely not even spiritually-minded – never mind believing in a Christian God. So, it would be very inaccurate – especially since, if we were to come out and say this is a Christian band: number one, we would be put under the microscope from the elitest Christians, who would definitely not be happy with the stage banter that Adam D. puts out there – number one; Number two, they would analyze every little thing we do and I’m not in any way, shape or form trying to get into any kind of a contest with another Christian about who’s more Christian. The fact that I enjoy a good glass of scotch, the fact that occasionally a swear word slips out of my mouth – little things like that. I don’t want any part of that. I don’t want someone telling me I’m not righteous enough to be a Christian. Also, I think, definitely again, with Adam’s stage banter we would offend so many people if we said we were a Christian band, ‘cause this isn’t a Christian band. We just happen to have a few guys who believe.  It’s one of those things where you can dedicate your life to God or you can be who you are in your vocation. It’s like someone who works at a bar – they’re a bartender, but they happen to be a Christian. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to serve alcohol.  I think that we’re called – in whatever we’re called to do – we just do it the best that we can and I’m in a band where I can’t come out and be like that and use God’s Name, because it doesnt work. If I wanted to do that, I would have to start my own band up and, honestly, I don’t want to do that, but that’s between me and God. I don’t want to involve everyone in the world and all the press into my personal life, so they can judge me. That’s just where I’m at right now. It’s just one of those things, too, that, as you grow, your knowledge and your faith grows … and I’m still growing. I may have a different opinion in a few years, I don’t know, but right now I’m pretty happy with life. Such a complicated thing, you know, being a Christian artist and being in the secular world…

Yep, there’s a lot of conflicts involved – like the fact that, as humans, we question things and some people think that a Christian has all the answers and has no questions and that is kind of crazy.
It is, man! To quote a comedian – Steve Harvey…  He’s got a quote that I love. I use it a lot. I’ll word it differently, but he basically says to fellow Christian people, “Don’t trip, He ain’t through with me yet,” and that’s how I feel about my faith. I’m different than I was even three years ago with my beliefs. It changes, because I do question. You know, what I do (question), I search it out. It’s not like I’m just sort of in an abyss and like I’m not sure what I think. I’m actively looking at every side of it. And, you know, I’ve looked to other religions, I’ve talked with other people from other walks of life. I think that’s important, because if you really believe something, you need to figure out why you believe it. Seek it out, you know? And my journey – it begins every day when I wake up.

That’s cool. It’s also kind of cool that you have a band – that you have friendships with people – that give you the freedom to believe what you want to. It’s almost like a micro-chasm. This will be a weird parallel, it’s like America. Killswitch Engage is like America – where you’ve got the freedom to be who you want to be. Even though the idea of an evangelical Christian – somebody who believes in Jesus – sometimes just that label has so much baggage with it that people see that label and say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that,” like, “I don’t want him working in my business or being in my band.” But you’ve got friends who give you the liberty to do that – and thats kind of cool.
Yeah, you know, that’s quite interesting, too, from being out on the road and rubbing elbows with some of these people who call themselves Christians. You’d be really surprised at what goes on behind the scenes.  There are bands – and I will never name names, but – I’ve seen some really foul stuff and that’s why, if you’re so vocal about your belief, you better walk  the walk. For me, I’m not extremely vocal about it. I like to let my music speak for me, and my actions to speak for me. I think that’s so important.  I’ve met musicians and I’m just, like, totally crest fallen… Like, “Wow! I thought you were this way and you’re not at all…” I think actions speak louder than words when it comes to your faith, as well.

Yep, big-time. I mean, you have to question the substance of it if the actions aren’t there to mirror something.
Absolutely – and the same goes for our ministers. Same thing goes for those who are our quote-un-quote “politicians” and all that stuff. If you’re claiming to be something, then be it. You don’t have to say it from the rooftops and then not live it. That’s something that bothers me really bad. That’s why I almost tend to keep a tight lip about it and not allow what I believe and what i’m doing – the spiritual works – in my music. So, when I’m on stage I’m doing the best I can to reflect that; and when I come off stage, the person you meet is the same person who wrote those lyrics, so if I was acting different… You never know who’s watching you. You think you can get away with stuff, but you never know who’s watching and that’s the way I look at it. I act as if people are watching me all the time and I strive to live righteously. You know what? I’m human. I screw up, too. I’ve gotten drunk a few times and I know people saw it; but, you know, I’m a human, but it happens.

Yeah, if I can, I’m kind of on a soapbox now by saying this, but I think Christianity is so powerful. For example,  a concept like forgiveness – if it’s really part of your life, when somebody jacks you up you’re gonna exhibit forgiveness for that person. That’s where the rubber meets the road and thats an incredibly powerful and profound thing when you see somebody that gets taken advantage of and they respond with forgiveness. That’s huge and that speaks volumes – way more than words, you know?
Absolutely – and that’s strength, but people don’t see that as strength, but that’s strength. That’s why I wrote about that song “Living Love” in Times of Grace. One of the lyrics is, “Don’t mistake my kindness and compassion for weakness.” And on the new Killswitch record there’s a song called “All we have,” and the chorus is, “Forgiveness is all we have.” At the end of the day, forgiveness is so powerful, it goes right along with love. It’s the same thing. It’s the most powerful thing we have and when you display that and you’re genuine about it, that is a powerful message within itself.

Absolutely. Well, wrapping up on some details … What does 2013 and part of next year look like for you guys? What tours are you going on? What are you looking for and what else do you want to share with our readers?
Busy, busy! I leave in about a week-and-a-half for Europe. We’re doing a full headlining run in Europe and the UK, then home for a few weeks and then back out to do a full U.S. tour, which I believe they’re going to be announcing in a few days, I hope. It’s going to be a heavy-hitter. It’s going to be a great tour with really good names on it – small clubs that will be really unique. Then we’re back over to Europe in August for the festivals and then, if all goes well, looks like we’ll be doing a show in Japan, Thailand, and The Phillippines. There’s offers coming in from other countries, as well. I think the next year-and-a-half/two years probably will be a full world tour at this point – with what we’re thinking the way things are going.

Nice, I’m jealous.
Pretty crazy.

Yeah, that sounds awesome, dude!
And then, you know, for the readers, I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude for just supporting me no matter what I’ve done and welcoming me back to Killswitch. It’s a pretty overwhelming experience, which has changed my life and it’s blessed me and my family, so we’ve been having a really good year so far. Hopefully that continues, but I have the fans to thank for that.

Killswitch Engage was posted on April 1, 2013 for HM Magazine and authored by .