With the latest Killswitch Engage album, Disarm The Descent, finally available for public consumption bassist and unofficial art director Mike D spoke with Popblerd via phone recently about the new record and the return of original vocalist Jesse Leach along with what makes fellow MA metallers Acaro so great and what’s next for Overcast and Death Ray Vision. Read on for more:
It’s been four years since the self-titled was released and there have obviously been some big changes in the band but how long did the recording process for Disarm The Descent actually take and was the record or any particular songs that may have been floating around restructured once Jesse returned?
All the demos were as is going into the recording process but it did take a very long time. I was talking to Justin (Foley, drums) over this past tour and he had said he started drums in February of last year which is unbelievable to me but I guess that’s exactly what happened. We recorded right up until about summer and we already had Jesse in place but he needed to take a break from the writing and recording process just to get a feel of being back in the band and being with us again so we halted recording because we wanted to make him feel as comfortable as possible. We didn’t want to force anything out of him so we went on tour all summer and just got reacquainted with each other. It’s been a long time…I mean, we stayed friends this whole time but really, it’s a more intimate, personal thing to be on tour with someone. We got that vibe and went back to the studio and blasted out another, I guess, 10 songs and all of a sudden he had new voices and new ideas and he had to go back and re-record some of the stuff he recorded earlier because it wasn’t even up to snuff compared to the new stuff he was recording as far as emotion level and intensity so I guess going out on tour was a really good thing for him.
What are the main differences writing a song for Jesse vs Howard and how has the songwriting with Jesse and with the band itself changed (or not changed) since your first record together?
It’s all relative really. We write how we write music. Nine times out of ten it doesn’t have any bearing on vocals. Jesse and Howard write their own separate styles and their own separate ways and we write how we do but on this particular record we had a lot of time to reflect on the band and if the band was still around. A lot of it’s pretty pissed off especially my tracks which are mad and angry and just wanting to be playing again in general. Sitting around for two years really can bum you out especially when you’re not playing on stage which is, like, the greatest drug. It can depress you so I started a new band with my buddy Brian Fair from Shadow’s Fall. Sort of a ’90’s throwback hardcore band called Death Ray Vision just to get some of that angst out. I was just really pent up and ready to go and also I was writing a ton of Killswitch material which was really angry and fast and more to the point than I had ever been in a lot of my music.
Disarm The Descent is definitely the heaviest record KSE has put out since your early days, was it a conscious effort to go in a more aggressive direction?
I just think it was this pent up energy. This wanting to record another record and get it out there. Just too much time off will make you stir crazy, I think, and that’s what happened here.
You worked with Brendan O’Brien on the last record and now Adam D is back to being the sole producer. Why was he the right choice for Disarm… and after all the albums he’s produced what does he still bring to the KSE table?
We feel most comfortable with Adam. You know, the last record was kind of a science project to see if it could throw us off our game and it sure did. It was just more stress than we needed to add to ourselves and I think we found our producer for the rest of our Killswitch lifetime. We just really need to sit on the couch and hang out with the guy, drink beer, watch Red Sox games and occasionally put a riff on tape (laughs). It really happens in that succession. Then you go out to eat, you come back, you drink another beer, and you put another riff down on tape. It’s just stress free. It’s like hanging out with a buddy so we really like how that feels rather than putting us in a strange room and telling us what to do. It just doesn’t really jive with the way we feel recording should go.
Um, what does he bring to the table? He brings beer to the table. He’s always done that. He keeps your mind off the stress of the record and puts you in a friendly, happy mood which I don’t know if many other producers do. I think most producers are cracking the whip and want you to get this part done exact or else it’s not gonna work whereas Adam will be like “Wait, time to go!” He’ll call of a recording session if he can’t pull off something that day. He avoids confrontation and makes everyone happy and glad to be there which is pretty awesome. We recorded more at his house this time than at Zing in Westfield. This time he brought a lot of his rig home and he just got out of bed, got some coffee, and started recording everyday. In a way it was definitely a lot easier for him but at the same time when you’re recording at home, or doing something at home, you can’t step away from it. He actually said he had no life because he kept going back and redoing things here and there.
Just like Adam is THE KSE producer, you’ve become synonymous with the bands art design providing among other things, the covers for all of the albums, single releases, etc. What goes into designing the album art and how do you come up with each concept?
It’s tough. It’s a really hard thing to do. I just come up with as many variant ideas as possible and just lay them out and throw everything against a wall and see what sticks. The new record I had three of four different artists working on stuff while I was working on different covers just to get different feels out there and shake it up a little bit. I’m not the guy who says you have to use my artwork. I’d rather the band choose the right artwork for the record. This one they just happened to pick what I developed which is pretty heartwarming and pretty cool.
As far as an idea for the new record, I had a buddy of mine whose wife took some photos and one of them happened to be this sort of Day Of The Dead looking kind of skull faced girl and there was this kind of fabric flowing off the head that looked like smoke and I thought that was a really cool ideas so we incorporated that into the record cover a little bit differently and added the fire coming out of the chest. Right away Jesse gravitated towards it: “Oh, this means this from this song and this means this from this song…” He loved it right off the bat so everyone just said: “Well, ok, we just picked the cover” If Jesse super believes in it and associates lyrics with it then we’ve done our job.
Do you have a favorite of the new songs and is there a favorite that you’re looking forward to playing live if you haven’t already? Is there a song you hate playing live?
We haven’t played too much live yet. We wanted the record to come out first but “New Awakening” which they just put out there within the past couple of days for me, as soon as I heard it I thought it was the best song on the record. It just kind of sums up everything that we do with the chugga-chugga’s, the breakdown, the group chorus, the gang vocals…it’s real catchy. It’s kind of a brutal song but it has a cool melody as well and for me it kind of just said it all. It said: This is the new Killswitch record. Of course I’m going to gravitate towards songs that I wrote when you ask about my favorite songs (laughs) and we are planning on doing one of the songs that I wrote live which we just started practicing for called “All We Have” or “All I Have”…we always change the names right before the record comes out. Our demo names are really funny. That one used to be called “Goddamn Right!” but we changed the name for obvious reasons but it’s really fast, lots of double bass, sort of Anthrax-y in tone which is kind of what I was going for.
I don’t particularly like “The Arms Of Sorrow” but the fans do and the fans trump any band member. We cater to what people wanna hear. We’ve been playing that one a lot. I think Jesse says it’s his favorite song so there you go! (laughs)
What are the touring plans behind Disarm The Descent?
We head to Europe in April for, I think, a month long run with Sylosis and The Hardest and then we’re in the US and I don’t think the US tour’s been announced so I’m not sure if I can say who it’s with but it’s gonna be ultra metal. It’s not a festival but it’s just as good. It’s gonna be really, really cool. We’re excited. It’s old friends back to crush the world with us again. We’re stoked! But yeah, this is the beginning. We just got back from an Australia, Hawaii, Alaska run which is the hardest run to pack for as you can imagine. You know, you pack the boots and then bust ’em out like a month later for Alaska. But I guess being in such nice climates and then going to Alaska and then coming here kind of braces you for old Massachussetts life cuz there’s snow all over the place now. My tan is fading unfortunately! That’s the beginning that starts the record cycle which hopefully is gonna be a year to two years. We’ll see how it goes but it it’s exciting right now. Everything’s going really well.
Speaking of touring, I was at a recent The Empire Shall Fall show and Randy of Swarm Of Eyes gave you a shout out for a t-shirt design you did for them. Along with that, Randy and members of Acaro and others popped up in the video for “In Due Time”. How important to you is it to make sure the local scene in Massachusetts thrives and are there any bands you feel fans of KSE or the scene should check out?
(laughs) He’s (Randy) my cousin. He’s a nut, I love that guy!
It’s incredibly important and it’s weird because we’ve been on the road so much over the past thirteen years that I didn’t even know there was a scene in Boston. You know, we had so much time off that I was forced to stare at the amount of awesome bands that are here. It’s ridiculous. I really didn’t know anything about it. I think Acaro is one of the best bands around. They’re really great live. They care about what they do. They’re super nice guys. They’re having fun on stage. They’re playing rippin’ music…I mean, you can’t really ask for anything more so we decided to take them out on tour with us. Jay Fitzgerald, the drummer, who used to play drums in my old band Overcast is currently the drum tech for Killswitch. I brought him aboard about a year ago and I just kept seeing his band and said “Wow, you guys are like a big band on a small stage and you need to come out with us!” They don’t have a manager now or a booking agent or anything. They just needed a break so we brought ’em out and they tore it up! They were selling out their merch every night and people were stoked about them so hopefully they can capitalize on that. They did really, really well and we knew they would. I’m proud of those guys.
That said, Overcast has a one off coming up later in the spring (May in New Haven, CT). Are there plans to record with them again and what’s the latest on Death Ray Vision?
The Overcast thing is just a one off. We’re practicing a bunch just to do this one show and trying to do other shows around it but Brian Fair’s wife is having a kid around the exact same time and she’s super nervous not to have him around and that’s understandable so we’re just going to do this right now and see what happens in the future as he’s got some things to attend to at home so we’re just gonna let him be for now. The Death Ray Vision stuff we recorded a record and we already had an EP out and we signed to Bullet Tooth which is Josh from Trustkill’s new label and he is putting out the first EP on 7″ which is gonna be available, I think, in May. We’re really stoked to get something out on vinyl even though I don’t know if kids have record players anymore but I do! And I’d be stoked to get it so that’s all that matters. It’s colored vinyl, all fun really, really old stuff….and then the LP we haven’t set a street date for because we’re still mastering it but it’s angry. It’s really pissed.
What has being in Killswitch Engage taught you about yourself and your bandmates?
To not take things for granted. I think I already knew that this thing could end tomorrow but having the amount of time that we had off really brought that point home that we are very lucky to be in the position that we’re in and to be doing what we do and still love it. It’s pretty tough to say that you love your job and boy, oh boy, I love my job and I never wanna quit.
Disarm The Descent is out now. Catch Killswitch Engage on tour in support of their new album throughout 2013.