Interview with Mike D’Antonio from Killswitch Engage: Trespassers Beware

*This post was originally published as the cover story of The Aquarian Weekly, Vol. 2-673 (Aug. 15, 2012)

It’s the homecoming of the prodigal son, as original Killswitch Engage vocalist Jesse Leach has returned to the band. It’s a fairy tale ending of sorts—a milestone comeback.Screen Shot 2014-04-27 at 2.26.23 PM

Similar to other metal greats like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, Leach has been challenged to prove himself once again in a band he helped create. Killswitch Engage had enjoyed the greater part of its tenure with singer Howard Jones, who replaced Leach in 2002—a critical time for the band. While they geared up to tour for their first major release on Roadrunner Records, Alive Or Just Breathing, newlywed Leach cited a lack of emotional drive and passion as the reason for his abrupt departure.

The unexpected exit ensued panic, naturally, as the band was standing at the starting gate of success. A lovechild of the metal acts Overcast and Aftershock, Killswitch Engage are regarded by their peers as pioneers of metalcore.

The current ensemble—Jesse Leach (vocals), Mike D’Antonio (bass), Justin Foley (drums), Adam Dutkiewicz (backing vocals and guitar) and Joel Stroetzel (guitar)—has already made major impact, noted for their musical skill sets and versatility.

They’ve toured with Slayer and Mastodon, but have broken bill rules by sharing the same stage with My Chemical Romance. Moving metal to a “happier place,” Killswitch Engage’s lyrics recognized and magnified corruption, rather than celebrating evil undertones.

Earning mega props from the industry, fans and peers alike, the band was excitingly entering a new chapter of success, taking Massachusetts metal to the masses.

They made amazing records together, but with Leach’s head out of the game, they feared for the security of the band and were forced to find a way to keep the momentum going.

Enter Jones, then singer of Blood Has Been Shed. A friend of D’Antonio and the band for several years, he auditioned for the vocalist role and helped the band pick up right where they had nervously left off. Killswitch Engage spent two years of touring for the first Roadrunner release, which was comprised of material that Jones didn’t even write. The band recorded three more albums with Jones and earned a 2005 Grammy nomination for the smash hit “The End Of Heartache.” Selling more than four million records in the U.S. alone, they’ve also played a plethora of prestigious shows, including Ozzfest, Download Festival, Mayhem Festival and Rock On The Range, among others.

While the band rode a long wave of steamy success, in Jan. 2012, the band announced that Jones would no longer be part of the lineup. They announced Leach’s return shortly thereafter.

In this exclusive interview, bassist Mike D’Antonio shares his perspective on the band’s upcoming album and the old-yet-new dynamic with the return of Leach.

It’s been a big year for Killswich Engage thus far. Founding singer Jesse Leach has returned to the band and you guys are expected to release a new record soon, right?

We’re still recording the record. Not sure exactly when it’s going to come out but hopefully we’ll have it done soon. It’s been incredible having Jesse back in the band. It feels like a brand new band that people know the lyrics to. It’s just ridiculous! When you’re on tour and you’re with someone who hasn’t been jaded by years and years on the road, seeing things through their eyes for the first time is really exciting, as well. It’s like this big, black cloud is gone and now we’re basking in the sunshine, and it’s amazing.

Are you still cool with Howard? What’s your dynamic like now?

Yeah, we’re very cool. It’s just that it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t going to work out. We sat for two years trying to get him in a better situation in his head, and it just was not working. Nothing we were doing was where we wanted it to be so we both looked at each other and said, “This is probably not the right direction.”

How has Jesse’s return impacted the band’s composition process, if at all, for the new record?

We took two years off so we were going to get aggressive no matter what with writing the new record. I started a new band in the interim just to have something to do called Death Ray Vision, which was a throwback band to my old band Overcast (Brian Fair of Shadows Fall sings in the band). It just really kind of pumped me up for the new Killswitch record and writing more of my roots than back to basics, heavier, more aggressive stuff—tons of blast beats and all that. But Jesse came in at the end of that whole thing, so we had already written this pretty blazing album before Jesse was even back in the band. Certainly adding his lyrics on top—which have notably been my favorite lyrics of all time, of anybody—it’s just like the icing on the cake and the cherry on top. We really couldn’t be happier.

Guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz is also the band’s producer. What’s that dynamic like for you guys? Does it make collaboration easier or more challenging?

If Adam had any other type of demeanor we’d probably be at each other’s throats while we were recording, but he’s so easy to get along with and such a good friend. It’s really just like hanging out on the couch with a buddy that occasionally asks you to play some stuff. It’s really the most stress-free, easy recording sessions that I’ve ever been a part of. It’s really cool. If there’s any discussion on what to do next, or if something’s not going right, it’s extremely easy to just talk it out with him and brainstorm new ideas. I like to run through my [bass] parts and then run through them a second time with Adam [to think about] what builds might work, or what may build off the guitar better than what I was thinking. It’s a nonstop fun brainstorming session. When we recorded our last record with another producer, it’s pretty notable how much of a difference it was in how other people [work]. We prefer [to record our albums] with Adam. We spent so much money on the last record and it took so much time. I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. We learned our lesson!

Since you had already worked on material for the new record before Jesse joined the band again, how will you integrate his vocals back into writing and composition?

We had pretty much all the demos done by the time he joined. So we just shipped them over to his house, he has a Pro Tools ring, and he’ll sing his ideas on top of it and then send them to us. Everything I’ve heard has been fantastic—really catchy and super fun. So that’s how we work.

What’s next for Killswitch Engage? How do you anticipate your sound to evolve with your newfound lineup?

We’re finishing up the Trespass America Festival tour with Five Finger Death Punch, Trivium, Emmure and God Forbid, among others. After that we’ll break and finish the record. Whatever time left in the year we’ll spend touring. We’ll be out there for sure! As far as the dynamic on stage, it feels like a hardcore band again. It’s really aggressive and fun—lots of jumping and crowd interaction. We’re fortunate to have some of the greatest fans ever who have accepted the change when Howard came into the band, and now having Jesse back. What we have going on now is really cool, that they still accept us at this point. We’ve put them through a lot of crap.

Killswitch Engage will be at the Prudential Center in Newark on Aug. 18 as part of the Trespass America Festival. They’ll also be at Festival Pier in Philly on Aug. 19. For more information, go to killswitchengage.com. 

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