“To be honest, nothing’s really changed. We’re still like stubborn idiots, and we like hanging out and drinking beer together (laughs). It seems the same as it was back in the day, just straight out of university.”
– Dutkiewicz on fellow guitarist Joel Stroetzel.
It was the 1999 break-up of metalcore groups Overcast and Aftershock that one of the most influential bands in the scene was born. Their self-titled debut, released only a year later, boasts classics including ‘Stillborn’ and ‘Temple From Within’. However, it was the group’s sophomore effort Alive or Just Breathing (2002) that set them on a path no-one could have anticipated, marked as the quintet’s first album from an enduring partnership with Roadrunner Records.
17 years on and Killswitch Engage are still hitting the ground running with seventh record Incarnate, produced by the band’s guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz who is no stranger to this type of work. He sat down with me in foggy San Francisco to chat about dealing with a stall in the album writing process, hanging out and with other half Joel Stroetzel (the band’s second guitarist), and what it was like to lose singer Jesse Leach for 10 years.
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It’s been a while since the metalcore greats have graced our shores, and the reception to their early March tour announcement has been huge, with one of the two Melbourne legs already sold out. Right off the bat, Dutkiewicz enthusiastically asserted “I love Australia! It’s such a good time. Everybody’s so nice and it’s great to be there. I wish we could come down more often, but we just hate that freaking flight (chuckles).”
As I invited the guitarist to reflect on the new album, something else that clearly frustrated him was vocalist Jesse Leach hitting a mental wall three to four tracks into writing, which Dutkiewicz admitted “stopped us all in our tracks because we were firing”.
“We were doing a bit of touring in between, but all the tracking went fairly quickly. But of course the songs can’t be completed until you have vocals, so he stopped the whole album-making process. He just said he needed more time and was writing things he wasn’t happy with. He could have just spit out a bunch of lyrics, but that’s not how we want to make a record. We want to be able to feel good about the songs and have confidence in making the best possible album.”
Leach left the band for 10 years after Alive or Just Breathing, experiencing emotional struggles that not only made it difficult for him to gain control over his screaming, but his spiralling life in general.
It’s taken a while, but Leach truly settled back into the band during the writing of Incarnate. As Dutkiewicz explained, “the things that really shaped the record were all within Jesse, him getting much more comfortable in that role because before he was just thrown into this band again. He was like ‘Wow, this is so crazy and weird’, and I think the three years [from his first album back with the band, Disarm the Descent] got Jesse back into being a songwriter and sharing his life experiences with the band. That must’ve had a tremendous impact on how he sings and the way he writes.”
A defining aspect of the band’s work ethic is their very hands-on approach, with all members being songwriters. As the group’s longtime producer, Dutkiewicz directly facilitates this both in and out of the studio.
“We all try to give each other criticism and make sure we’re all a part of the process, because when you’re on stage and playing songs from a record, if you didn’t have a say in it then it’s hard to act like you’re playing something that you enjoy. The band just feels more passionate when they believe in their product, and that’s why I make sure that everyone gets hands-on when putting things together.”
Our conversation turned deeper as the guitarist reflected on replacement frontman Howard Jones’ 10-year tenure in the band, and him being “part of a very important period in the band’s history”.
“Of course Jesse did Alive and Just Breathing, and that’s the one that really got us a lot of attention. We went from being this tiny little band in Massachusetts to one that people around the world started talking about. When Jesse left, Howard joined and made that next record, and that’s when people really started to take notice. He was a very important part, I’ll always respect him for that too, and we still talk to him. I’m happy to call him a friend.”
However, the road with Jones has been far from smooth, with Dutkiewicz considering the band’s fourth effort As Daylight Dies (2006), co-produced with the ex-vocalist as a big challenge “because he and I were butting heads on a lot of things at that point and I think that’s what led to us getting an outside producer for the next one. It’s always difficult when you’re a band member and you’re not connecting with another one opinion or songwriting-wise. It’s tough, but luckily the guys still trust in me. When you’re around somebody for more than half a year, like you tour and live together on the same bus, I can see how people can get tired of each other and worn out. That does get challenging.”
“I can definitely say one of the worst experiences we’ve ever had is when Howard cancelled a show on us, like just gave up 15 minutes before we were supposed to hit the stage. The four of us went out to apologise to the crowd, and everyone’s booing and throwing all their drinks at us, telling us that they’ll never support our band ever again… That’s a tough pill to swallow, and luckily we were able to bounce back and play the next night. I’m sure some people still hate us for that, but what can you do when your singer just bails on you?”
Luckily though, someone who has never given up on the band is their management, and for Dutkiewicz “that’s really important, to have managers who want to do the right things for the band at all the right times. You need somebody who’s looking out for your best interests and not just a quick buck. But yeah, it’s really the team you assemble. All of the guys on the road with us are not only the most hard-working, but they’re also our friends so we love hanging out with them. You just need a good support system when you’re constantly touring and away from your family all the time… It gets rough being away from people that you love.”
One of the most important people in that support network for the guitarist is Stroetzel, and with what I could only imagine was a grin, he said “To be honest, nothing’s really changed. We’re still like stubborn idiots, and we like hanging out and drinking beer together (laughs). It seems the same as it was back in the day, just straight out of university. He’s definitely my second half because he’s the other guitar player, and when we’re playing or making music we always feed off each other.”
“It’s always great to have somebody in the band that you can be creative with, and you almost look at him as your brother. It’s hard to think about doing the band without him.”
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Catch the mighty Killswitch Engage when they storm through the country with atmospheric metal five-piece Fallujah, with tickets available here.
Otherwise, watch this throwback video to three years ago when the guitarists shared some juicy tales of life on the road, ranging from breaking spines to French fans stage-diving nude..