The guitarguitar Interview: Killswitch Engage
Published on 25 October 2019
In terms of modern Metal, Killswitch Engage rank as one of the most influential, not to mention successful. Their hard-hitting mix of bludgeoning riffs, staccato drums, mosh-friendly breakdowns and expressive, melodic vocals have done much to crystallize the sound of 21st century heavy music.
This year sees Killswitch Engage celebrate their 20th anniversary as a band. There’s much to celebrate: their newest record, Atonement, is a punchy, vital and necessary as their earliest work, and audiences across the world are going wild for tickets to their shows. Metal audiences are typically a faithful bunch, and indeed they were turning up in their droves to catch a rare performance with these innovative masters of the riff.
We were lucky enough to be able to catch up with guitarist Joel Stroetzel on the Killswitch tourbus. Joel was on fine form: friendly, full of calm energy and looking forward to that night’s performance. We discussed guitars and riffs, but we also took in the origins of the band name, the influence of their hometown and the win-win relationship between their current and former lead singers. Read on!
Guitarguitar: So, this is the...third or fourth date of the tour?
Joel Stroetzel: I think it’s the third date.
GG: Hows it been going so far?
JS: So far, so good, man! Yeah, really good!
GG; There’s a huge buzz in the city about tonight’s show! It’s been three years since you here, right?
JS: Yeah, I think so! I remember this venue (Barrowlands) from last time.
GG: It’s a classic place!
JS: Really cool man, a good sounding room.
GG: Totally! So, I guess we could start with Atonement, the new record. Is that your first on the new label (Metal Blade)?
JS: It is!
GG: Have they been looking after you?
JS; They have! Everybody has been really motivated and enthusiastic about stuff. A lot of things have been happening at the labels’ end, which is really cool. I think that Roadrunner (previous label) was good to us for a long time, but a lot of the people we used to work with are gone now, so it’s kinda nice to have some fresh blood, man! Everybody’s getting along good.
GG: Loving that. So, the new record...with Killswitch, the one thing I always figured into it was that, although the music is aggressive and heavy, what makes it different is that there’s a kind of self-empowering, optimistic message there. Would you agree with that?
JS: I think so! Lyrically, I would say! From a musical standpoint, I think we all wanted to make it a bit more aggressive, go back to some of the thrashier stuff. There a couple of, y’know, fist-pumping thrashers on there! It was kind of a conscious decision of ‘Shit, we’re getting old! Let’s try to not sound too old! Haha!
GG: Haha! Fist-pumping thrashers! Well, that’s the whole point, right? You have to have the breakdown with the mosh!
JS: Yeah man!
GG: The new record’s quite busy sounding, compared maybe with earlier Killswitch records. Was that a conscious decision?
JS: It is busy, yeah! There’s a lot of guitar stuff going on! There was even more, but as we were writing the songs, there were lots of overdubs and things, and we’d take some time and say ‘Okay: how are we actually gonna be able to do this live? Let’s pick what makes sense!’ And we actually took stuff out!
GG: No way!
JS: That’s what happens when we’re all sitting around writing on our own and stuff, throwing ideas in there. A lot of this record was written with everybody doing demoes separately and stuff like that so it wasn’t really...it was kinda weird!
GG: So back, traditionally, did you guys used to write together in the rehearsal room?
JS: Yeah, when we first started off, for the first few records. From ‘Disarmed to Dissent’ on, we’ve been forced to write separately because everybody lives in different places. It’s harder to get together than it used to be.
GG: You’re originally from Westfield, yeah?
JS: Yeah, Westfield, Masachussetts, yeah.
GG: And you’re no longer there?
JS; Uh, I’m still there! Couple towns over, but I’m still there. And Mike is pretty close: he lives about an hour from me. Jesse’s in New York, Justin’s in Florida and Adam’s in California so it’s a little tricky to get rehearsals in! (laughs) Everybody did their demos on their computers and stuff and sent ‘em along, and once we had enough material, we started getting together.
GG: Yeah, I’m interested in talking about that whole process, but what I was wondering about, not that I’ve ever been to Massachusetts, but is it cold in Winter?
JS: It is cold in Winter...
GG: Because I’ve noticed that a lot of heavier bands seem to come from colder parts of the world. Do you reckon Massachusetts plays a part in how Killswitch sounds?
JS: I think so, and there’s a lot of, like from the early to mid 90s on, there was a lot of melodic stuff happening in Hardcore bands, and Hardcore moments happening in Metal bands and stuff starting to mesh together a lot. I think, before that, it was all ‘Oh, you’re a metalhead’ or ‘you’re a punk-rocker’, y’know? ‘You like Hardcore’: it wasn’t all in the same place.
GG: It’s like you weren’t allowed to like more than one style!
JS: Yeah yeah, exactly, exactly. So that was sort of happening throughout the 90s in Massachusetts. We were just one of many bands, you know. There was Unearth, All That Remains, Shadows Fall, all those bands.
JS: And even guys like Lamb of God, those guys are from down South, but they were doing a lot of that stuff early on, too. A lot of guitars, the breakdowns, you know? The thrash stuff...it’s pretty cool, man.
GG: So, if we go back to the writing...these days, you’ll all straight across the US.
GG: So are you stockpiling riffs that you like: sitting down at the laptop, playing away and just saving he stuff you like so you can send it across?
JS: Yeah, that’s usually what I do. Me and Mike tend to do that: write a lot of riffs, whereas Adam and Justin will come with, like, they hear their songs completed. So, they’re like ‘here’s a song: what don’t you guys like about it?’ And I’m one of the guys that’s like ‘Here! Here’s a bunch of riffs! Make a song!’ Haha! It’s kind of the opposite!
GG: So, you’ve got the ingredients and it’s like: ‘let’s come together and arrange this’.
JS: Yeah, I’m not the greatest at arranging stuff all the time so I like to have the guys help.
GG: It’s amazing how it makes a difference.
JS: Justin and Adam seem to have those brains where they can kinda envision how a song should go. It’s like ‘Oh, we don’t like that bridge: let’s do something different there’. And they’re like ‘Ok’ and everybody’s happy. Stuff like that.
GG: Are they quite happy if they come in with a kinda finished song and you’re like: ‘No, I don’t like that middle bit! I want a different riff!’
JS: Yeah! That shit happens all the time.
GG: That’s rare!
JS: Yeah, everybody tries to be on the same page. We’re all kinda picky in our own ways. I guess the idea is to get everyone to be happy.
GG: It’s the only way you get anything good though, right?
JS: Exactly! That’s all we can do, man, is try and write stuff that we like, hopefully other people like it too!
GG: Haha, totally! So, riffs! What do you reckon are the ingredients of a great guitar riff?
JS: Uh, it’s tough to say, cuz I think sometimes a great riff can be something really basic to fill a spot in a song. That’s sometimes where I get stuck: like every riff has to be the coolest riff ever! And sometimes that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes you need moments for the vocals to do their thing, or a section for a guitar solo or something, so context is a lot of it. But I just think anything any riff that sticks in your head and makes you go ‘hey, I wanna hear that again!’ If you wanna hear it again, it’s probably pretty cool! (laughs) That’s usually what I go by!
GG: Haha, true! And in terms of your own taste, what do you reckon is the greatest guitar riff ever written?
JS: Aw, the greatest guitar riff ever written, that’s a tough one, man. I think, well, I’ll say one of my favourite riffs ever, is Prone Mortal Form by Only Living Witness. It’s killer, man. They’re a Boston band. The riffs, the tone...I’ve always had that one stuck inside my head since the first time I heard it.
GG: Awesome! That’s a great shout out to them, too. Nice one. Now, in terms of band influences, there will obviously be 5 different guys with their own influences, but I’m hearing Pantera and Meshuggah. Would I be close, in terms of your own influences?
JS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. For sure.
GG: What else? What were the big guys for you when you were young and dreaming of being in a band?
JS: For me, it was probably like Testament, old Metallica, Megadeth, stuff like that.
GG: The big 4.
JS: Yeah, a lot of the Big 4, Anthrax. I learned how to play the guitar by playing a lot of that stuff and it’s cool to be able to have toured with some of those guys. The Anthrax guys are amazing, good dudes. We did a couple of shows with Megadeth, really cool. Testament is one of my favourites.
GG: Nice! Alex Skolnick!
JS: Yeah! I went to a guitar clinic of his when I was like 12 or 13, a long time ago.
GG: That’s not bad.
JS: Yeah, it was great. It was great.
GG: So, is Atonement album number eight?
JS: Uh, seven or eight.
GG: It’s been a good nineteen or twenty years, right?
JS: Twenty years, we just hit twenty years, yeah.
GG: So, I’m wondering: is it still as easy to write songs, twenty years in? Does the well still throw up ideas as frequently as when you started out?
JS: I think it comes in waves, because on certain records we were crankin’ stuff out a ton of material, and then sometimes we’re like ‘Ok, here’s three or four songs’ and we’re stuck on a few, and it takes a little longer. The End of Heartache took a little bit longer to write. This record took a little longer to write, but we had a lot of material. Just to sift through it all and figure out what we’re actually gonna use, and what songs does Jesse gravitate towards for vocal ideas, usually those are the songs we end up choosing, like: ‘Okay if you’re hearing something over this song then we’re gonna use this one’.
GG: Ah! Does this mean that you guys have some awesome tunes that just aren’t really working for Jesse and so we haven’t heard them?
JS: Yeah! Sometimes we’ll go ‘Hey, here’s a tune we all like’, we like all the parts, it flows...and, if he’s not feeling it, we’ll do something else. And we’ve had songs, uh, that we wrote several, several records ago that have just made it to this record! ‘Let’s go back to this one!’ So sometimes that happens.
GG: Nice! So, why don’t we just go straight into the guitar gear?
GG: What’s your touring rig at the moment?
JS: Right now, we’re actually using Kempers. Through Laney cabs.
GG: Right, you’re still preferring cabs.
JS: Yep, so we still get a good stage sound for feedback and stuff like that.
GG: And what about your guitars? Are they Caparison?
JS: Yeah, the Caparison Dellinger JSM model that I kinda designed with those guys over the years. It’s kinda Strat-like, Super-Stratty.
GG: But super-heavy as well.
JS: Yeah, it sounds good. It’s like a Strat with a Walnut top, I’ve got the Fishman Fluence pickups...
GG: Yeah, how have you been getting on with those?
JS: Awesome man, they’re great. Yeah, it’s a set that Adam and I were able to go to Fishman and kinda design with them so it’s a little bit different than the stock set, not too different.
GG: Are they based on the Modern ones?
JS: Yeah, based on the moderns, there’s a little bit of a different EQ curve on the low mids, and they’re not quite as hot as the Moderns. We dropped the overall output by a couple dB, I think.
GG: Is that because you guys use lower tunings?
JS: Not so much: we just thought that maybe they’d be a little clearer sounding. If you want the gain, everybody’s got enough gain on their amps these days if you want a little more. I think it helps the clean sounds, too.
GG: Most definitely.
JS: Y’know, a lot of active pickups are so hot, it’s hard to get a good clean sound.
GG: Yeah yeah, and of course there’s two of you so you’re fighting frequencies quite a lot too.
JS: Yeah! And one of the cool things about the set is, a lot of the Fishman sets have a thing called a High Frequency Tilt, which is a push-pull pot, so instead of doing that on our set, we did like a coil-tap sound, so you can actually get some Stratty tones. So that helps a lot, too.
GG: What about string gauge?
JS: Strings, I’m using D’Addario, 11-49. Kinda light on the low side, but I just liked the sound of that.
GG: It’s a nice balance.
JS: Yeah, it’s a good balance. Tension’s good.
GG: And are you in C standard tuning, is it?
JS: Usually D standard, some of the songs are dropped to C.
GG; And of course, I keep having to ask everyone I meet about plectrums because I think they’re more important than anybody lets on! What’s your pick of choice? What do you go for?
JS: Uh, I forget what it’s called...I think we’re using the Planet Waves picks but it’s a Jazz II (famous Dunlop pick) style. (Joel finds one in his pocket and passes it across)
GG: Ah, yeah! That pretty much is a Jazz III shape! So that’ll be around 1.5mm?
JS: 1.3mm, I think those are. Something like that, I forget the exact size.
GG: The material is kinda like Tortex, except of course these are Planet Waves. Nice! Random tangent but I was wondering: do you and Adam find it easy to designate who plays what? Is it a matter of ‘you play what you write?’
JS: I mean, a lot of times if there’s like a lead thing, whoever wrote it will play it, unless there’s vocals: ‘Hey, you gotta sing over this chorus’! So, then I’ll play the lead, or vice versa. We just go through it and see whatever makes the most sense. Cuz Adam does a lot of backing vocals too, so we might write a melody part and go ‘Hey, you take the melody part so I can sing’.
GG: So he can sing.
JS: Yeah, it just makes things easier, so we just figure all that out.
GG; You’re a very democratic band, I’m impressed!
JS: Yeah! We just try to do whatever makes everybody’s life easiest! Haha! Go have fun! Don’t worry about it! Haha!
GG: That’s probably how you last for twenty years! Now, this is a question you’ve probably been asked a million times, but recently someone told me that the band’s name came from an X-Files episode?
JS: That’s where Mike heard the term.
GG: And not only that, an X-Files episode written by William Gibson? Is that just a coincidence?
JS: Nice! I guess, yeah! Yeah, it’s weird: I think at the time we were all in other bands that were kinda coming to an end, so it seemed like a fitting thing.
GG: Ah, got you. There you go! Much better! I like that!
JS: Yeah! That’s why it made so much sense at the time.
GG: So, the song The Signal Fire, off the new record. Obviously, the question worth asking is about how both lead singers (original/current singer Jesse Leach and original replacement Howard Jones) are singing on it. How did that come about?
JS: Um, well it’s kinda cool. We’ve always remained friends with Howard since he left and everything but in the last two or three years him and Jesse have become good friends too, which is kind of awesome. So, it’s just kind of a cool thing: Jesse was talking to Howard and said: ‘Hey man, you wanna sing on this song?’ They did it together years ago, so we just thought it’d be a cool thing. And that song was the one Jesse had in mind for Howard, and it worked out great, man. It was fun that we got to do a video and stuff. There’s a lot of internet beef, ‘Ah, Jesse’s better, Howard’s better’, but we love both the guys! Everybody gets along! There’s no big drama, it’s a cool thing.
GG: The fans are getting both singers on the record: win-win! I’ve got one last question for you, if that’s cool?
JS: Of course, man.
GG: So, the sound that Killswitch have, for want of a better term...well, that is what Metal sounds like now. The drums, the dynamic, the production, all these elements, it’s massively influential...(Joel starts laughing, slightly abashed) well, I can say it to you, you can agree with me or be humble, it’s up to you, haha!
JS: I appreciate it man!
GG: How does that feel as a musician, that you guys are now influencing the next round of guys coming through now?
JS: Well, we’ve got to that point in our careers where we’re the old guys now! Haha! We’ve been around for a long time!
GG: You’re not even 40!
JS: Haha, I’m the baby of the band! Ok, the band is old! The band is old.
GG: True, fair enough.
JS: So yeah, it’s really cool! It’s flattering when people say that, when people say ‘I grew up listening to you guys’ or whatever, ‘I’ve learned guitar to you guys’, or whatever. It’s really cool man, it makes me feel good!
GG: It’s like passing it on.
JS: Yeah, like we all had guitar heroes as kids.
GG: Who were yours?
JS: Ah, well, Skolnick for sure. Metallica...
GG: Were you more of a James guy or more of a Kirk guy?
JS: More of a rhythm guy, a James guy! No slight on Kirk, all good. I loved that (Megadeth) Rust in Piece record too, the stuff that Marty was shredding, A lot of that stuff is Dave, too, man. Some of the lead stuff, when I went to see them live a long time ago.
GG: He doesn’t get the props for his lead playing.
JS: Yeah, he shreds too man, he’s awesome!
And with that, my time was up! Mutual appreciation of Dave Mustaine is definitely a good way to end things!
I left the tour bus, happy to have hung with someone who appreciates not only the power of a great riff, but also where he’s at and what he’s doing. Killswitch Engage are currently at the top of their game, and this tour is ample proof of how patently ferocious they are. Catch then near you soon and enjoy a searing blast of life-affirming metal energy!
We’d like to thank Joel for his time, and Kirsten for organising it for us. Keep up with the band via the official Killswitch Engage website.
Thanks for reading, I’ll be seeing you.