On Tour Monthly sat with Levi Benton before a show at the House of Blues in Dallas. We discuss; how he became a singer, what he does to prepare for a show, his...
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– Interview by On Tour Monthly/ Photos by James Villa –
“Killswitch Engage the Past to Move Into Future”
For the first time in their storied careers, the members of Killswitch Engage found themselves at a crossroads. On Jan. 4, 2012 an announcement was made that the group’s powerful voice, Howard Jones, was officially leaving the band.
For the previous two years, guitarists Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel, bass player Mike D’Antonio as well as drummer Justin Foley had held out hope their front man for the past decade would return to the fold. Jones’ screaming vocals mixed with his ability to sing melodic verses, had put a definite stamp on the band’s signature sound. Unfortunately, the same health issues that had prevented the Ohio native from touring in 2010 – diabetes – made it virtually impossible for him to continue the brutal pace Killswitch Engage demanded. The decision to walk away on his part was final.
Immediate speculation centered on whether or not All That Remains singer, Phil LaBonte, (who had filled in for Jones on the band’s 2010 tour), would replace him on a permanent basis. LaBonte quickly shot those floating rumors down, making it very clear he was not leaving his own band. Thus a half-hearted audition process to locate a replacement was announced. Though several top name vocalists showed interest, there were some nagging questions that needed answering. Did the band itself really want to break in another singer? Was this now a good time for this metal core great to go out on top and call it a day?
The principle songwriters in the band had already written their contributions for the next album. Each member could take their material and start fresh someplace else. As the internal engine within Killswitch continued to sputter along, the unexpected occurred. A mechanic showed up out of the blue to repair the motor and make it howl again. The ‘fixer’ was none other than Jesse Leach, the group’s original singer.
Regardless of what camp – leach or Jones – you were solidly a fan of, in this case the very future of Killswitch Engage was in the balance. During the ten plus years Leach had voluntarily left the ‘family’, the voice and especially his once shattered confidence were fully restored. After the experiment of working with a famous producer on their previous album was now relegated to the ‘been there done that’ department, Adam Dutkiwicz was once again handling production duties for the band’s new record. The stars had finally fallen into alignment after two years of total disarray.
Ironically, it was Leach’s sudden departure in 2002 that had paved the way for Howard Jones to help forge a new identity for the band. In a strange and roundabout way, the favor had been returned. The resulting album, Disarm the Descent, captures a seasoned band marching down a familiar hard core path of melodic mischief. With all its musical traits now finely honed, Killswitch Engage had managed once again to revolutionize the sound of metal. The only difference this time – when the engine roared, there would be plenty of passengers willing and eager to climb on board for the ride.
ON TOUR MONTHLY: I was listening to the song “In Due Time” early this morning and my first thoughts were this. I love the guitar playing but the screaming vocal just drives me crazy. And then a miracle happens. Jesse Leach starts to actually sing and I about faint when vocal harmonies are added to the mix. That moment not only changed the entire dynamics of the song, it turned mediocre at best into great – and then the unintelligible screaming starts up again. I don’t get it Joel, I really don’t. Do you not want the vocals to equal the majesty of the music itself?
Joel Stroetzel – I feel if we didn’t do the screaming or the clean stuff we would be a bit remiss. We put a little bit of everything in there for the rock and roll folks and the classic metal heads. There’s a little something for everybody in our songs. At least that’s the idea.
OTM: When you do a lot of everything do you run into the danger of losing focus on what you were trying to accomplish in the first place musically?
Not necessarily. I think having all those elements is what we like to do musically.
OTM: I read where you all prefer to write the music first and fit the lyrics in later.
Yes, we have done stuff like that throughout the years. For the style of music that we play, most people would think you would write the music around the lyrics. It’s not that way with us. It would be tough to come up with a musical arrangement around the vocals in this band. We go the opposite of traditional songwriting.
OTM: I guess when you are growling your vocals as much as you actually sing them, it really doesn’t matter what lyrics you write. No one will understand them half the time anyway.
(Laughing) That is an excellent observation.
OTM: I’ve had three of my photographers who knew I was doing this interview tell me that your albums, The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies, are two of the greatest heavy metal records ever recorded. Adam Dutkiwicz produced both, yet was conspicuously absent on your previous release. Why he step aside from the producer’s role for the 2009 album?
You’re right! Adam has been the actual production guy on most of our records. He stepped aside for the 2009 record and ended up mixing it instead. I think our label was secretly hoping we’d go in more of a rock direction with a different producer working with us in the studio. Adam had done a great job on the two albums you cited. Collectively, we just wanted to try something different. Some folks liked the record, others did not. Some would say it’s too rock and not enough metal. Overall, there were a lot of mixed reviews on the final product. In retrospect, I am glad we tried it.
OTM: You have mentioned in previous interviews that the record company started interfering with your business before the release of your last album. What exactly seemed to be the problem, especially since you had a proven track record? Was the label hoping you’d evolve into an arena act? What’s the story here?
Not necessarily. They felt our sound was getting similar from record to record and they were curious about what would happen if we got a big name producer involved. I think we all wanted to know if it would be a good thing or not as well. Originally, we just wanted to stick with Adam. Then we talked it over with management and they told us this could be really cool, and we might regret if we don’t check it out. If it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work and we won’t revisit it down the road. The opportunity was there to work with Brenden (O’Brien). He’s an awesome guy. In hindsight, for our purposes, all of us learned that we like to keep our business in-house and do stuff with Adam.
OTM: Is Disarm the Descent a back to basics approach for Killswitch?
In some ways yes, but it is also a very aggressive record as well. There’s lot of fast songs, fast drumming and guitar playing throughout. A lot of the musical style we started out with in the beginning can be heard on the record, as well as some other elements of the two albums you mentioned earlier. This is a comprehensive take of all the elements that have been found in our music from the past brought up to speed today.
OTM: The last ten years has thrown the entire music industry for a loop because of the dynamic changes that have been brought about because of the Internet. Your band literally grew up during this chaotic time – any thoughts?
It’s kind of weird you said that, because I was thinking about that very same thing the other day. Radio, TV, the Internet, everything has changed a lot this past decade. That’s especially true when it comes to how we conduct our business as a band.
OTM: Today, it seems as though bands have to also think visually on the way they present music because YouTube, in a weird way, has become a national radio service. A viable single by a band is now determined by how many hits the video gets. Does your aggressive style of music protect you from these harsh realities radio friendly bands have to contend with?
Yes. I really don’t try to think about it too much from record to record, we just do our thing. Obviously the outlets to get your music to the public are different than they were ten years ago. It has forced us to embrace these changes, from downloads to videos. In the end all you can do is write and record your music. Then you use the tools you have available to you, social media for instance, and use that to promote your product.
OTM: Let me put the question to you this way. It used to be that music was all about the album. Now it’s all about the single you can download to your song. Because of your aggressive style of music, has it insulated you from the realities other genres of music have to contend with?
I’m not really sure to be honest with you. Obviously, we’ve never been a singles driven band. The last album we did with Brendan O’Brien proved that the rock we prefer isn’t suited for radio. Like I said earlier, we tried that approach, but it just wasn’t us. When you listen to a Killswitch Engage record, you need to hear the entire album to fully understand what we’re doing at the particular point in our careers. Sometimes we’ll release a single the band feels really encompasses who we are as a band knowing full well it won’t be a massive hit. I doubt you’ll find many ringtones featuring Killswitch Engage music.
OTM: The moment you all got together to record your very first song, you all knew that your destiny lay in your own hands. Heavy touring was the only answer to getting the Killswitch name out to the public. Servicing songs for radio play wasn’t even on your radar screen. Is your band a good blueprint for other overtly aggressive style groups to follow if they want a sustained career in this business?
Interesting question! The underlying strength of Killswitch Engage is this. We have always been a grassroots type of band where we go out and tour, tour, tour to develop a following. That’s the best way for us to reach people instead of having a single attract attention to the band. As for leading others by example, that’s a tough call. Each band that plays the aggressive style of music we prefer has its own destiny, and it is up to them find the path that’s calling them.
OTM: Do you ever wish Killswitch had found its way to forming 20 years ago instead of ten? Back then at least people had to physically invest their money to purchase your music, feel the product in their hands, and even read the lyrics. It seems so impersonal these days.
Obviously people don’t buy records today like they did back in the day. That’s one thing I’d like to rewind from 20 years ago if I could. I’m sure that if Killswitch was at the spot we’re at today two decades ago, we would probably be more successful given the style of music this band plays. That’s why hindsight is 20 / 20. You just don’t know. This industry has changed so much, especially the way in which people purchase music, or download it, or don’t pay for it in many cases, it’s just too easy to get a hold of music these days. The music business I don’t think is as protected as say the film industry.
OTM: After the release of the self-titled 2009 album, did the group need some time off to refocus itself?
Actually, our singer at the time, Howard, needed some time off to deal with his health issues. Jesse and Adam thought it would be a good time to do some touring with Times of Grace. They needed a second guitar player, so they asked me to go on the road with them. It was nice to take a break from Killswitch for a couple of years to focus on something a little bit different. When it came time to refocus on Killswitch, it felt fresh again.
OTM: Was it good for you to see where Jesse’s head was during that time period?
Absolutely yes, and I think that part of Jesse wanting to come back to the band was based on how much fun we had during the Times of Grace touring we did together. I think he missed being on the road and hanging out with us and vice versa.
OTM: If that’s the case, why did you even go through the audition process to find another singer?
Well, we already had auditions lined up before we ever thought there was a possibility that Jesse wanted to come back. We also had never heard Jesse sing any of Howard’s songs. We knew how he was going to sound with the material he had sang on, but we had very important albums with material Howard had sang on, and we didn’t know whether Jesse’s voice could handle the songs. We asked him to learn a few of the one’s Howard had sung to see if they were in his comfort zone.
OTN: How did you know that Jesse Leach returning to the fold was going to be the right fit again? Was there one specific moment when you said to yourself, “Okay! Everything is going to be fine.”
A think that maybe a song or two into Jesse’s tryout, we all knew. By the way, we also tried out some very impressive singers. Had Jesse not come along, it would have been a very tough decision on who to go with it. Once we really started playing the songs with him during his audition, everything felt natural as if he had never left the band. That’s when we knew.
OTM: I would think auditioning vocalists who are really interested in being a part of your band is both a great compliment to what you have accomplished in the past, and a true sign of respect of where you can go in the future. Were you impressed by the quality of the vocalists that came through your rehearsal room door?
You better believe we were. Everyone we got the chance to play with was excellent. Fortunately, everyone we auditioned understood our decision to go with our original singer.
OTM: When you and Adam were touring with Jesse on the Times of Grace tour, did it help ease any of the previous concerns you had about him, and more importantly, his frame of mind?
I think so.
OTM: Does time really heal old wounds?
Totally! It’s funny, because everyone had some hard feelings toward Jesse when he left. We were bummed out for a couple of weeks because we just didn’t know what to do. At the time, all of us understood why he had left. We were upset with the way he did it – through an email. If he would have come to us and explained his situation, then his departure would have been less stressful to deal with. He wasn’t making any money, he had just gotten married and had a wife to support, and touring in a band didn’t make sense to him at the time. It wasn’t like screw you guys, I’m out of here. He just couldn’t do it anymore. We remained friends over the years, which helped.
OTM: Did you know Howard had some serious health issues when he left the tour and you had to bring in Phil and Jesse to finish dates on your last major tour?
We called Phil because he was in-between projects and more importantly, he knew our songs. It was like, “Who are we friends with that’s a good singer who can pull this off and is not doing anything right now?” Phil’s name immediately came up because he wasn’t on tour. We asked him to come out and do some shows with us. He did such a good job, we asked if he’d do the whole tour, and he said yes. Jesse caught wind of what was going on – I think he and Adam talked – and when he found out we were coming to the New York area, he decided to do some shows with us. Jesse and Phil helped turn a once bad situation into a good one. As sad as it was for Howard and his health issues to leave the tour, it was exciting for us to play with Phil. We owe him forever for helping us out with that one.
OTM: Were you hoping at any point that Howard would come back?
We wondered a lot of things. Howard’s back was hurting him also, so we didn’t know if he would be able to walk. There were so many issues he was dealing with all at once, riding in a bus and performing on the road was not the right place for him. We gave him the time off and finished the rest of our shows. We took it really slow to see how things would go with him. Over time, we realized his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
OTM: With the Internet playing a dominating role, music has become just as much about marketing as opposed to talent, and the public can tell the difference. What challenges does that pose to the band, or again, are you insulated because of the style of music you perform?
It doesn’t really matter to us because, as you said, we’re somewhat insulated from all of that because of our style of music. We’re a bunch of regular guys who like to make loud music that makes us happy. If people like the songs, then we’re happy. If they don’t, we’re still happy because we’re still out here doing what we love to do. No one in this band thinks about outside influence too much.
OTM: Do you consider Killswitch more of an album-oriented band?
This band has never said to itself, “Hey, we need to write that one single to put us on the map.” That is never going to happen with this band. We come up with a cohesive concept – record the songs then hand it to the label. If there are any tunes on the record they think could be a single, great, push it. If not, we’re not going to butcher the material to turn it into something it’s not. We would never redo the original intention of a song.
OTM: Do bands even need record companies anymore?
It depends upon what people are looking for. Roadrunner has been very good to us over the years as far as promotion and helping with tours. It really depends upon the situation, I think, of the individual bands as to whether or not they need a label. We are definitely thankful to have a record company behind us, but there is something to be said about doing it all yourself. All you have to do nowadays is put a song up on iTunes and you don’t even have to press an album anymore.
OTM: That’s an amazing statement you just made.
It is crazy, isn’t it?
OTM: During my career as a journalist covering the industry, I have gone from vinyl to eight-track tapes to long box CD’s, shrink-wrapped CD’s, mini CD’s and now downloading. Talk about a long strange trip!
(Laughing) If you think you’re confused, try being on my end of it.
OTM: Is Killswitch Engage in the ticket selling business as much as they are the music business?
There is no doubt that we make most our money from the road. We make records nowadays so that we have something to play live. Sometimes I think we’re in the concert t-shirt business as well.
OTM: The situation that happened with the Lamb of God singer in Europe, where he was arrested over a bizarre stage altercation he didn’t instigate – has that caused your group to reevaluate your own touring situation?
Absolutely! When we perform in smaller clubs it’s easier for people to get on stage. A think a lot more hard rock bands have become more conscious of the safety issues since that happened to Randy. I think everyone is making sure there’s enough security so people don’t get hurt, use barricades, etc. It’s a terrible thing when tragedy strikes. You would like to think that people attend shows with the idea they have bought a ticket to have fun and a good time. But sometimes the worst can happen and a terrible situation occurs. Hopefully no one will run into that again.
OTM: Heavy metal has been sub-genred to death. Killswitch Engage is called metalcore, whatever that means.
It can get to be a bit annoying for people to slap certain labels on your music. We play heavy music, not metal core, not scream-o, just hard sounding music.
OTM: Speaking of ‘scream-o’ music, does Jesse actually do any singing on your songs or is it just growls.
There is singing pretty much on all our songs. We do vocal harmonies as well.
OTM: Have you ever thought of doing an entire album without screaming, and actually sing all the lyrics throughout?
No, not really! Not with this band. There are a couple of tunes on the new record where there is no screaming on them, but most of the tunes have that growling element added to them. It’s the nature of the beast. We like to keep people confused.
OTM: I thought it was a mistake to rename your 2009 album the same as your debut, Killswitch Engage. When it came to naming your latest release, what happened there?
It was something that our bass player Mike and Jesse had talked about. At the time, things seemed to be going a bit downhill with the band. We really weren’t into things, the band wasn’t sure if it wanted to continue as a group. We originally called it Disarming the Descent, and Jesse changed it to Disarm the Descent. Anyway, the title meant we were going to stop the fall of this band, pick up the pieces and get everything right.
OTM: Were you really thinking about disbanding?
We weren’t sure about moving on together as a band when Howard’s health problems forced him to the sidelines. We didn’t know if getting a third singer was the right thing to do. We were wrestling with the questions of should we go that direction, move on to other projects, or wait around to see if Howard gets better?
OTM: Was Jesse the wild card?
In a sense, yes he was. We never thought of him as an option he auditioned. We were even at the point of starting over and calling ourselves something else. We really weren’t sure where we were at, but ultimately we sat down and said, “Hey, we can’t really give up. Let’s write the music to this record.” It was during that process when Howard decided to part ways and Jesse ultimately came back.
OTM: How long as the music on this album been around?
Well, we started working on new material in early 2012, with a lot of it being recorded before last summer. Then Jesse came in and recorded the vocals. The whole process took about six months.
OTM: So you were really prepared to take the material you had written and go your separate ways if you couldn’t right the Killswitch Engage ship?
Well, we hadn’t really discussed that option, but we were heading in that direction. Honestly, at that point, I wasn’t really sure what we were prepared to do. We’d all written a ton of material so in the event Killswitch went away, all of us would have a set of tunes to take with us wherever we went. Fortunately, everything worked out and we didn’t get to the point where Killswitch was in danger of disbanding. In fact, all the material each of us wrote ended up on the new record. I’m glad everything turned out the way it did. Starting over isn’t easy in the climate we live in these days.
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