Killswitch Engage, 'Alive or Just Breathing': Their A&R Rep Reveals the Story Behind the Album (EXCLUSIVE)
Mick Hutson, Redferns
With the band heading out on tour this month (kicking off at the California Metal Fest on Nov. 24) celebrating the 10th anniversary of their 2002 landmark album, Alive or Just Breathing with a front-to-back bash-through of the record. Mike sat down to share some of his memories of signing Killswitch as well as the making of this landmark recording.
Portrait of four unusual suspects bound for metal stardom. Killswitch Engage didn't begin its career as a garage band – it all began in the bedroom. Guitarist Joel Stroezel's bedroom, to be precise. The four members of the band would set up in the corners of the small room: Joel and bassist Mike D'Antonio playing on small combo amps, then-drummer Adam D. playing on pads and Jesse Leach would scream his lungs bloody through a small amp as he clutched at hand-scribbled lyric sheets.
That's how Killswitch Engage wrote Alive or Just Breathing, the 2002 album (and Roadrunner Records debut) that's gone on to been as important and influential as Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power was a decade before.
When I showed up, contracts in hand, at the Stroezel family home at the end of a cul-de-sac in the Western Massachusetts town of Westfield, the band the band was quick to usher me upstairs to hear the most embryonic versions of songs like "Self Revolution" and "Numbered Days". Even at that early state, the songs bled with an unmistakable freshness and urgency. Stroezel's riffs were unforgettable. Jesse sounded like no one else.
KsE's brand of VFW hardcore melded with melodic death metal (see Carcass and At the Gates) blew my nuts off when I was handed a copy of their then-unreleased debut from former Ferret Records boss Carl Severson. Carl was then working for the 'runner as their "online marketing" (later termed: "social networking"). When the track "Temple From the Within" was played in an A&R meeting the decision to sign the band was immediate. Whilst Nickelback had become the metal powerhouse's calling-card, this was still the label that had changed the face of metal via boundary-stretching juggernauts like Slipknot, Sepultura and Fear Factory. Judging by the enthusiasm felt in that conference room conclave, KsE had the goods to become part of Roadrunner's fraternity of metallic game-changers.
True tale: Anyone who's seen KsE's Set This World Ablaze DVD will remember a scene where Joel's mom shook my hand and then told me to take care of her boys else she'd have my balls. True story. Suffice to say, my genitalia is still very much intact.
NOTHING LIKE YOUR FIRST TIME: MY FIRST KILLSWITCH SHOW
Killswitch Engage were nowhere near the live force they are today. The first show I saw them play was in late-December 1999 at a small art gallery in Easthampton, Mass called The Flywheel. The band was sloppy and still trying to get their onstage footing: Mike D. being the only member who looked 100% confident and dead-serious - in contrast to then bleach-blonde Adam who was playing drums wearing a plastic Viking helmet and yelling his lungs out between songs. Joel would stand statue-still riffing away as Jesse belted out varying shades of rage and desperation. Local pals Unearth and Philly's This Day Forward, (whose guitarist Colin Frangicetto would later go on to form Circa Survive, filled out the bill. Ten years later, this show would have sold out your local House of Blues. That night, there might have been 50 people there.
SYRACUSE: FEB 2000
With Roadrunner still attempting to work out a deal with Killswitch: a grueling eight-month negotiation with their publisher and de-facto manager Morgan Walker, I headed North to catch up with the guys at the Lost Horizon in Syracuse, N.Y. The show was at the Lost Horizon with Kill Your Idols and was one of the few shows ex-Overcast and future Seemless man Pete Cortese would play second guitar for the band. Pete would ultimately leave Killswitch just a couple months later, leaving behind one major contribution: the massive riff at the core of KsE classic "Fixation on the Darkness."
It was at that show that Adam handed me the three-song demo that contained earlier versions of "Numbered Days," "Just Barely Breathing" and "Fixation on the Darkness" (which at that point was titled "Transfiguration"). On the strength of this recording alone, Kerrang! declared Killswitch Engage to be the band that would "kill nu-metal dead". Prophetic words, indeed.
FORGING THE STEEL: SPRING 2001
The handful of shows that I caught the Spring were a strange and varied lot.
*Hellfest, Syracuse, NY: A great show on a bill that included Hatebreed, Martyr AD and some band called Lamb of God.
*Wetlands, NYC: 20 minutes of four-piece glory on a straight-up death-metal bill headlined by Incantation. The death metal contingent didn't quite "get-it"
*WSOU's 15th Anniversary Gala: Orange, N.J. Opening a pretty impressive bill in a local baseball stadium with the likes of Shadows Fall, the Misfits and Overkill all paying homage to the area's most influential metal station.
*Massachusetts Metal and Hardcore Festival: Possibly the band's finest live showing up 'til that time as they pummeled the upstairs stage at Worcester's Palladium. A ton of great and somewhat iconic photos would come out of that show that would end up on promo posters and album artwork came out of that show.
*A forgettable show somewhere in Mass that got shut down before KsE even hit the stage. Members of then-local heroes Diecast showed up trying to suss out what the hoopla surrounding Killswitch Engage and Roadrunner was all about. Diecast had been in talks with the label several months prior and quite naturally assumed Killswitch's arrival on Roadrunner's radar was the reason talks collapsed. Truthfully, the label had just lost interest.
Killswitch Engage have always been a private bunch – especially when they're recording. Sessions for Alive or Just Breathing twisted through the fall over the course of multiple weekends. There was never a question about Adam producing the album. He'd already nailed it on the self-titled record as well as having mustered up some pretty impressive work for his pals in Unearth and Every Time I Die amongst others. Initially, recording process was beyond simple: no muss, no fuss.
That said, no recording ever goes 100% smoothly. Drums. No problem. Bass. Check. Guitars – that's where things got a bit sticky. As often happens, constant tuning problems forced guitars to be recorded and then re-recorded.
A word about good A&R people: bands, our job is not to be your friend – although I still have major love and respect for the guys in Killswitch (and vice versa). Our job is to get the best records we can from a band we sign. I've had plenty of artists cursing my name from time to time. In most cases, those artists have delivered and profited from their (and my) pains. Believe me, you will thank me in the end.
Let me say this: Jesse Leach was and will forever be one of the most passionate vocalists I've ever heard and certainly will ever work with. Like most great artists, the guy wasn't bulletproof: he was susceptible to pressure from within and without. I saw Jesse's talent and commitment to his craft and did my best to push him to deliver the goods. Sometimes you can push too hard. Most musicians won't tell you that until it's too late.
Jesse and I talked at length about frontmen as dynamic as the Bad Brains' HR but also discussed why certain rock singers worked on a massive, massive scale. (Remember, this was 2001!) Now these examples included everything from the wince-inducing Scott Stapp of Creed to Bono. While he was eager to up his game on KsE's first rea; poke into mainstream metal consciousness, he simply psyched himself out. It all only served to put more pressure on Jesse to the point where Mike D. called me up to ask me to back off and let Adam D. do his job. That I did. The results speak for themselves. In the years after Leach had left KsE he only grew as a singer and since rejoining the band in 2012 has become a motherfucker behind the mic.
Best moment: calling up Zing and catching wind that vocals were being tracked elsewhere only to find out that Adam was tracking vocals at Jesse's apartment in Warwick, R.I.
Do I think that this pressure to perform was the cause of Jesse's decade-plus hiatus from the band? No. It was a factor at the time but it had more to do with the rigors of touring: being away from his wife (who never once objected to the idea of Jesse being out on the road) as well as continually blowing out his voice. He had yet to learn how to pace himself. The rest, they say, is history.
MIXING & MASTERING: BACKSTAGE STUDIOS, DERBYSHIRE UK
Andy Sneap is one of the most sought-after and best-regarded names in metal production. He's produced and mixed a bucket-load of fantastic records including Exodus, Kreator, Testament to name a few. The guy is also a genuine, often jovial, opinionated and ultimately talented dude who I have worked with now on many occasions including Earth Crisis' Breed the Killers, Killswitch's The End of Heartache as well as two records with Megadeth (United Abominations and Endgame).
I met up with Adam and Andy at his studio near Derby in Derbyshire in the midst of the British midlands early Feb 2002. The finished mixes were in a word: stunning. They took every iota of talent, energy and intensity that the band put into the record and gave it back in bloody, bombastic Technicolor. After the murkiness of countless metal and nu-metal records from that age, AOJB was an aural Gotterdammerung. I'd put it up there against Metallica's Black Album or Pantera's Vulgar for redefining the sound of modern metal.
It was also at this point that the decision was made that Adam would take up second guitar duties, a move necessitated by the growth of Killswitch's sense of technicality and melody. Enter Tom Gomes, who previously drummed in Aftershock with Dutkeiwicz. Tom would exit Killswitch shortly after the band's Ozzfest stint in 2003 to be replaced by the fantastically bearded Blood Has Been Shed drummer Justin Foley who still presides over the skins for KsE.
What do you say about a record as hugely influential and pivotal as AOJB? You can only look back at the past ten years since its release in April 2002 and marvel. The reception the record received was overwhelming. Kerrang! gave it five out of five K's stating "Thank fuck. Killswitch Engage may not be deliberately trying to destroy nu-metal, but they are the first band in a long time to provide a decent alternative for those who live their metal as heavy as a wrought-iron sperm whale."
Killswitch Engage's success is really a testament to their self-resolve and creativity. They not merely earned a rep for themselves as a prime mover in metal's evolution but they also carved out a genre of modern metal. (see: 'Metalcore' AKA 'The New Wave of American Heavy Metal'). The MTV Headbanger's Ball tour that KsE did with Shadows Fall and Lamb of God in 2003 not merely pitted three iconoclasts-to-be in a cage-match for metallic supremacy but also left a footprint that heralded the bloody re-rise of American heavy metal. Riffs were back in style.
An awful lot has transpired on Planet Killswitch since all of this. With frontman Howard Jones, the band went on to sell millions of records worldwide, racking up two gold records in the US with 2004's The End of Heartache and 2006's As Daylight Dies. Killswitch has gone on to play every high profile tour (Ozzfest, Mayhem, Warped) and European festival known to man. There's hardly a spot on the planet where Adam D. hasn't uttered something ridiculous into the microphone.
KsE are still very much the dudes they were ten years ago: give or take a few more bucks in their pockets and Adam's cape fetish, that is. They're the same Massholes (a term of endearment) that when they started this band would have never imagined that this would go this far. In fact, when they signed, they agreed to give it a year to see what would happen. If it didn't work out, they all had jobs to go back to: Adam's production career and Mike's work as a graphic designer, in particular.
Starting November 24th at the California Metal Fest, Killswitch embark on a month-long 10th Anniversary Tour for Alive or Just Breathing. Fans should count on a front-to-back run-through of the record delivered with the intensity of KsE's origins yet delivered with the authority of a band that's become nothing short of iconic. Friends, get ready to party like it's 2002 all over again. Capes are optional.
Alive or Just Breathing is available via Roadrunner Records on iTunes and Amazon.
Killswitch Engage Alive or Just Breathing Tenth Anniversary Tour Dates:
November 24 San Bernadino, CA - NOS Events Center (California Metalfest VI)
November 25 San Francisco, CA - Slim's