Killswitch Engage 'Incarnate': Metalcore Rebels Face Dark Side, Fight Inner War | Revolver

Killswitch Engage 'Incarnate': Metalcore Rebels Face Dark Side, Fight Inner War

Singer Jesse Leach: "This album literally drove me crazy"
killswitch engage star wars HUBBARD, Jimmy Hubbard
photograph by Jimmy Hubbard

This feature was originally published in January 2016. To purchase a limited-edition print of Jimmy Hubbard's Star Wars–themed Killswitch Engage photograph, as well as a copy of the issue in which this story was originally appeared, visit the Revolver store.

"I was just young and stupid and didn't really have a sense of who I was. I didn't have confidence in myself as a person and as a singer," says Killswitch Engage vocalist Jesse Leach about his departure from the band over 10 years ago.

"Now my confidence is intact but I think there's a humility now that I didn't have before. I'm willing to grow. I think back when I was younger, I had this punk rock guilt about me, where I thought I knew what I had to do and I didn't want to take lessons from anybody."

It's a mature reflection from Leach, who helped to found the western Massachusetts-based act back in the late '90s, and appeared on their first two albums, 2000's self-titled debut and 2002's classic Alive or Just Breathing. But just as Killswitch were picking up steam and leading the charge for what would eventually be a flood of 21st century metalcore acts, the vocalist, plagued by bouts of crippling depression that were exacerbated by long stretches of being on the road, abruptly quit the group.

In the ensuing years, Killswitch climbed to even greater heights with replacement singer Howard Jones at the helm — until he split as well, citing, among other things, his own battles with anxiety and depression, as well as complications from a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.

And while Leach's 2012 re-entry was cautious at first, coming back "has been better than I ever thought it could be. It feels really good."

Which is partly why the band chose to title their highly-anticipated seventh album, Incarnate. "The definition of incarnate is 'in the flesh,'" Leach explains. "And this record is who we are right now. Whereas [2013's] Disarm the Descent was sort of my 'comeback' album, and was about us feeling out the new vibe. But now, after spending a few years traveling the world together, I think we're all in a really comfortable place. We definitely have a strong sense of self as to who we are as a band."

That strong sense of self (and the cinematic story of Killswitch Engage itself) likely came in handy, in a much different way, when the members gathered in New York City to shoot the cover for this issue of Revolver — with each of them dressed as a different Star Wars character. "We're all huge Star Wars nerds, so it was awesome," Leach says, recalling the shoot.

As for which character each member impersonated? "I took Han Solo, because he's the most serious one, and that's kind of how I am in the band," Leach says. "Mikey [bassist Mike D'Antonio] was Darth Vader, Justin [Foley, drummer] was Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Joel [Stroetzel, guitarist] was Chewbacca. And of course, Adam [Dutkiewicz, guitarist/producer] was Princess Leia — everyone knew that was gonna happen!"

There was little doubt that Dutkiewicz — a man who has gone onstage in front of thousands of rabid metal fans wearing everything from daisy dukes to a ballerina's tutu — would step up to the plate at the shoot. "I just went with the traditional white dress," Dutkiewicz says of his fashion choice.

And when asked if there is anything in Killswitch's long and varied career that he would consider a misstep similar to, say, the introduction of Jar Jar Binks — undoubtedly the franchise's most universally reviled character — in Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Dutkiewicz lets out a laugh. "Oh man! There's a few, I think! We've definitely had our Phantom Menace moments. Not every record can be The Empire Strikes Back, you know what I'm saying?"

Fortunately, Incarnate looks to be more the latter than the former. "It's a really well-balanced record," Dutkiewicz says. "And at the same time, there's also some different sounding stuff for us, for sure." To that end, Dutkiewicz points to one of the new album's tracks, "It Falls on Me," which, he says, "is very ambient in places, with lots of textures and swirly things."

Leach, for his part, singles out another song, "Embrace the Journey...Upraised," as an indicator of the album's diversity. "To me, it has an almost post-metal vibe, with odd time signatures and a lot of effects and delay," he says. "And then it kicks into a massive chorus, the kind of thing that will make people's hair stand up on end. And I'm pushing my voice higher than I ever have on it."

A third Incarnate track that finds Killswitch diverging from their traditional metalcore roots, but in a much different way, is "Until the Day," which Leach describes as something of a classic "road song." "That particular one, I'm not even kidding when I say I sat down and listened to stuff like Journey's 'Faithfully' and Bob Seger's 'Turn the Page' and Iron Maiden's 'Wasted Years' — just different songs about being on the road," he says. "I was like, 'I wanna write my version of that…but without being too cheesy.'"

"That one's a mover and a shaker, for sure," Dutkiewicz adds. "And I guess you could say it's a little cock-rockish. But it's also got a big, fat In Flames-style lead in the chorus, that kind of thing."

But despite the presence of a little bit of cock-rock, Incarnate also sees the return of Leach's enemies. "It's definitely a darker record than Disarm the Descent, or even Alive or Just Breathing," Leach says. "It's more realistic, more honest. And lyrically, I'm dealing with a lot more with pain. I'm at a point now in my life where I question a lot of what I was brought up on. I think there's a lot of that in the lyrics."

In this vein is "Cut Me Loose," which Leach says is among his favorites on the album. "That song is basically about coming from a place where you're at the end of your rope, but being able to move past it and see the world through different eyes after coming out of a dark place. I wrote the song for someone very close to me in my life, but I can also relate to it personally, having gone through bouts of pretty heavy depression. There are a couple songs like that on the record — songs where it's not about being angry or necessarily being this 'metal guy,' but that are just very soulful and heartfelt."

According to Dutkiewicz, who produced Incarnate, Leach dug deep inside himself in order to get to that soulful and heartfelt place. So deep, in fact, that at one point he held up the recording process. "OK, I'm gonna rat Jesse out here," Dutkiewicz says. "He came into the record with guns blazing—I think he finished three or four songs in his first visit up to my place [much of Incarnate was tracked at Dutkiewicz's Massachusetts home, at his own Wicked Good Studios]. But then he just hit a wall with ideas, and things came to a halt for a little while. He couldn't find lyrics he was really stoked on. But Jesse's a great lyricist and a great songwriter, so I just told him, 'Hey, keep writing, and when you hit on something that inspires you bring it to me.'"

Leach, for his part, admits that he struggled for a bit. "It did take me a little longer," he says. "But we're at this stage now with our band where we can't be phoning it in. If you really care about your music and you care about your career and your fans, you gotta give 'em everything you've got. And so I came to a point where this album literally drove me crazy. My wife can attest to that. There were a good couple of weeks where I wasn't myself. I just got lost in the process, because I wanted this record to be everything it could be. I was losing sleep, not sleeping at all, waking up in the middle of the night and sitting down and writing pages and pages and pages of words. By the time all was said and done I probably had 80 pages of lyrics. I just wanted to give it everything I could, vocally and lyrically."

Lyrics in particular are a point of pride for Leach. "There are some vocalists who don't write their own words, and to me that's kind of shocking. I can't even imagine that," he says. He has also always been adamant about the fact that he finds it difficult to sing words that he hasn't written himself, or that he doesn't feel a deep personal connection to. This stance became something of an issue when Leach first rejoined Killswitch Engage — all of a sudden, he had to come to terms with the knowledge that he would be performing at least some songs from the band's years with Jones.

"Jesse got in there and chose a few songs he was comfortable with," Dutkiewicz says. "But of course there were others — the 'hits' — that he had no choice about. The important songs in the set, the ones you feel the crowd reacting to, we can't not play those. So we told him, 'You kinda have to learn these, man…' But he's talented enough where he just pulls it off. And when you see the crowd react and you see fans singing along, that's what it's all about. It doesn't matter whose song it is."

"That was a very humbling experience for me," Leach says. "I had to figure how to live in someone else's style, and take that person's words and make them my own. But from there, I fell in love with some of those songs and really began to appreciate the work that Howard did in this band as a vocalist and a lyricist. It helped me to grow as a singer."

Were there any songs from Jones' tenure that Leach found he really connected with?

"Oh, absolutely," he responds. "One would be 'The Arms of Sorrow' [from 2006's As Daylight Dies]. I think it's such a powerful song. It's basically about depression and the road — or, at least, that's what I equate the lyrics with. Because I've had those dark moments, where you turn to drinking, you turn to drugs, you turn to whatever helps you get through. Everybody does it at some point. And then sooner or later you have to come face to face with those problems."

But for Leach, at least, many of those problems are in the past. "I still have struggles, as far as being in a band and being on the road and away from home and my family," he says. "But in these last few years, I've also had so many profound moments that I never anticipated. We've played in places I never thought I'd go to, like Africa, like Russia. I stood on a mountaintop in Japan by myself. I spent a day at a Buddhist temple, 2,000 feet above sea level. Those are experiences that changed me forever."

Those experiences will only continue to come, as Killswitch Engage will be spending the majority of 2016 touring the world in support of Incarnate. "We'll be traveling a lot," says Dutkiewicz, who has also found his own peace out on the road. "I ended up buying a cheap bicycle," he reveals. "And it's such a great thing. Because when you get to be my age you don't wanna just sit around on the bus all day and drink beer and be a piece of shit. You wanna, like, get outside. See things. Move your body. Exercise. So having a bike has been a huge game changer for me."

Which begs the question: From Star Wars to Buddhist temples to bicycling on the road, is this a happier, healthier Killswitch Engage? The answer would seem to be yes. "Everyday, I feel very blessed, and very fortunate," Leach says. "I mean, when I was younger, did I think I'd still be doing this at my age now? Hell, no! I didn't think I was gonna be alive, honestly. Back then I was doing all kinds of drugs, getting in all kinds of trouble. When Alive or Just Breathing came out I was on this super-righteous trip so I didn't talk too much about my sordid past, but I didn't think I was gonna make it into my 30s. So having seen what I've seen and done what I've done, I feel a huge sense of gratitude to be able to still do this. I think we all do. And we're gonna keep this band going for as long as we can."

"I was actually talking about that the other day with our manager, just the fact  that it's incredible that we've been doing this for as long as we have," Dutkiewicz says. "And I was like, "Yeah, man, but the reason why is because we love it!' So I guess we'll just keep going until people don't wanna hear us anymore."

And so, as Killswitch Engage continue on their journey through the 21st century heavy-metal space-time continuum, does Dutkiewicz see any parallels between his band's mission and that of the intergalactic warriors in the Star Wars saga?

"Ah, man," he responds with a laugh. "I mean, we don't want to rule the entire galaxy or anything. Maybe just that we believe in the idea of good over evil." Dutkiewicz pauses. "But we definitely don't have any forces working for us. Except for gastrointestinal forces. Our farts. The force is definitely in us when it comes to that."