Massachusetts based metalcore band Killswitch Engage has finally released their highly anticipated eighth studio album, Atonement which also marks their debut with new label Metal Blade Records. Jesse Leach (vocals), Adam Dutkiewicz (guitar), Joel Stroetzel (guitar), Mike D’Antonio (bass) and Justin Foley (drums) have had an adverse few years since their 2016 album Incarnate with Roadrunner Records. Signing with Metal Blade Records and lead vocalist Jesse Leach having undergone emergency vocal cord surgery last year signify a new beginning for Killswitch Engage and it is prominent in this new record.
Screamer Magazine sat down with bassist Mike D’Antonio to talk about their part in the success of metalcore in the mainstream market, Leach’s surgery, their contract with Metal Blade Records and how the new album Atonement focuses on mental illness issues.
“We are so stoked the record is finally out,” D’Antonio shares. “We were a little excited and ended up writing too many songs which normally isn’t a bad thing until you turn 21 songs over to your lead singer and see him turn green,” D’Antonio jokes. “That was basically the case here. Unfortunately, it took longer than we had anticipated and if you factor in the number of tunes that we handed over and the time it takes to go through each one and determine if it fits for what we wanted to accomplish with this record, I think we did a pretty good job getting it done. I am just happy people can finally hear it,” he says. Already reaching #1 on the iTunes Metal charts in the U.S. and Australia, it is safe to say that Atonement has been well worth the wait.
“It’s kind of interesting. When we signed with Roadrunner Records way back in 2001 or 2002, it was like going from 0 to 100. We instantly turned into a band that played actual shows to actual people. One minute we were nobodies playing to an audience of ten people and the next thing we knew we were on these European tours and people actually cared about the band. It was an amazing thing and it was just like a rush of so much energy and there was so much promotion put into it, which seemed overwhelming at the time. But that was when we decided to sign a contract with Roadrunner for a good amount of records and believe it or not we actually finished out our contract, which is rare. Not a lot of bands actually finish out their contracts. Usually, things just happen and the bands and labels go their separate ways. But we finished what we said we would do and it was just time to move on,” D’Antonio recalls. “Now, fast forward to 2018 and we were talking to a few labels and really just wanted to find a partner in this thing and that is when we decided to go with Metal Blade Records. We really didn’t want a record label per se. We wanted people we trusted, people we hang out with and knew they would do a good job and would be a welcomed part of the team. Luckily, we are in a position where we are big enough to make that happen. The people at Metal Blade are fantastic. It’s like a family atmosphere and we have literally liked the music they have had coming out of there for so many years. I was a huge Metal Blade fan growing up. I listened to a lot of the records from this label and it felt like we had a lot to live up to. A lot of great music has come from Metal Blade and we couldn’t be happier. All in all it boiled down to us having the mindset that we wanted to do this for the Metal Blade team and their promotions have just been out of this world. It actually reminds me of the early days of Roadrunner Records,” D’Antonio acknowledges.
Killswitch Engage has played an instrumental part in the growth and popularity of the metalcore genre, a juxtaposition of extreme metal and hardcore punk rock, but didn’t necessarily fit into either category without complicating factors. Either it wasn’t metal enough or it wasn’t punk enough and a lot of fans weren’t really on board with this new sound because of that. But, in the early 2000s, metalcore gained more prominence with the release of albums through independent metal labels like Metal Blade Records and Century Media Records. In 2002, when Killswitch Engage released their second studio album Alive or Just Breathing, metalcore was thrust into the spotlight and quickly exploded with bands like Atreyu, As I lay Dying and Bullet For My Valentine. What was once an overly judged subgenre had finally gotten its own rabid fanbase and continues to rise. D’ Antonio tells us about his recollection of their part in bringing metalcore to the level it is today. “Well, we all came from hardcore bands that played metal music growing up and many bands with interchanging members, even stealing members from other bands. The metal scene in Massachusetts was just nonstop. Everyone enjoyed playing around in all different types of bands so it was a fun place to grow up. But, it was hardcore, it was just brutal metal and we didn’t really think in terms of how it would be categorized as metalcore when we decided to start Killswitch Engage. We didn’t want to limit ourselves to playing one thing. We knew we were hardcore and we knew we wanted to play metal and at first we thought about just calling it metal or just doing typical mainstream metal, but at the end of the day we were hardcore dudes playing metal and it just turned into metalcore, which brought our vision of combining two things and being able to add more into the mix. There is no greater way for a genre to die than to not branch out and bring in other genres to the mix. We just do our own thing and it works,” D’Antonio concludes.
“I wasn’t always a rock star,” D’Antonio chuckles. “I began playing bass when I attended a vocational high school and was hanging out with a bunch of friends who were in bands. I just thought being in a band was the coolest thing and I wanted to help out in any way possible. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had any musical ability whatsoever so I learned graphic design in school and started making flyers, posters, stickers and album covers for my friends’ bands when the teachers weren’t looking. Then, I got to the point where I realized how much fun they were having and I was sitting here playing with paper so I talked to a few people. I liked the guitar a lot, but I couldn’t afford one and I could afford a bass so I started playing bass. I didn’t know how to read music. I still don’t. I am not a technical guy but I know what I like and the tones I like and my playing ability. When I joined Killswitch Engage, that ability jumped up a million times over because those guys are so good that they were able to help bring me to their level and that’s the interesting thing about playing in this band. I am constantly learning new things and even 20 years later I am still learning,” D’Antonio confesses. He even has his own signature bass guitar, the Ibanez MDB1 which features a simplified one volume control layout modeled after the SRX700 and includes D’Antonio’s own graphic design of a Medusa snake.
In the 20 years that Killswitch Engage has been around, they have had their share of ups and downs, such as when lead singer Jesse Leach took some time off for mental health issues in 2002 and was replaced with Howard Jones who eventually left for the same reason. Shortly after, Leach returned permanently to the band but eventually began having severe issues with his vocal cords causing him to spit up blood, which soon became alarming. In 2018, Leach underwent surgery to remove polyps from his vocal cords which could have once again changed the game for the band. “I guess you can say we had a string of bad luck, but we persevered and played through it. When Jesse left right at the end of the Alive or Just Breathing tour, it was a devastating blow. We were on our first tour ever in the U.S. and Jesse left the day before the last day, it was a tough pill to swallow and we had a label that was super excited, we were excited. We got home from the tour and thought we were done. We had just finally gotten signed and we just did this tour and now it’s going to be over. So we sat down with the people at Roadrunner Records and they assured us they believed in us and what we do and we know you have a lot of great music left in the tanks,” D’ Antonio reveals. “We held auditions for a few weeks and that is when we found Howard Jones and were back on tour a month later. I had known Howard for a long time as being one of the best singers in my area and when he told me he wanted to try out I knew we had found our guy. After that, Howard started having a lot of trouble with anxiety and depression, which had seemingly gotten worse due to the overwhelming pressure from everything. It was another devastating blow and it was a struggle for all of us. We weren’t sure of the future of the band again at that point. When a bandmate leaves it almost feels like getting divorced or losing a girlfriend, there is just a sense of loss and emotions that come with being in a band, especially at the caliber we were at. When Jesse came back after the split with Howard we were so happy and things were amazing and he has just been killin’ it ever since. We understood what was happening with Howard and there were no hard feelings and he did a great job for us while he was in the band so we all still get along,” D’Antonio adds.
Jones joins Leach on vocals for the third single titled The Signal Fire from Killswitch Engage’s newest album Atonement and is featured in the music video. D’Antonio describes the dynamics of Jones’s growling and Leach’s melodic chords as out of this world and talks about the video. “It was like old times really. We were laughing and reminiscing about old stories. But, the inspiration behind The Signal Fire and the idea for the video all come from the fans to signify solidarity and unity, to bring compassion and understanding to the current day. I think it has done its job so far and hopefully, it can induce change. That is what we want with this whole album,” D’Antonio divulges.
Atonement is definitively one of, if not the best and most diverse Killswitch Engage records yet. Despite lead singer Jesse Leach having to undergo emergency vocal cord surgery midway through recording the album, he sounds better than he ever has. There was a moment in time when D’Antonio says they were a little worried, but they also had complete faith in Leach’s resilience and determination. “It was a very scary situation because he was spitting up blood and we knew he was nervous so we did our best to be strong for him as to not stress him out more than he already was. It was a relief after it was over and seeing how much progress he made in such a short amount of time was incredible. It’s just another thing we have all gone through together that has only made us closer and better than before,” D’Antonio affirms. “We touch on a lot of things on this new record which is important not only to us because these are situations some of us have dealt with firsthand, but the audience can relate to or knows someone who can. “Now that the record is out, we can expect more excitement on some of the newer songs that weren’t released as singles. 20 years of music is a lot and this album stands out, even though our fans love those other albums. We do too, but I think because of everything that has gone on with the new record label and Jesse’s surgery it has a more sentimental side to it,” D’Antonio reveals.
So far, there have been three singles released from Atonement. Unleashed, I Am Broken Too and The Signal Fire. All of the proceeds from I Am Broken Too are being donated by the band to Hope For The Day (https://www.hftd.org), a non-profit organization that helps prevent suicide through providing outreach and mental health education. “When Jesse brought me the lyrics to I Am Broken Too, I could have sworn it was about me because I had just gone through a divorce a few years ago,” D’Antonio elaborates. That song really helped me to get through it and put things in perspective and we hope it can do the same for others. We actually have fans come up to us who tell us that our music has saved their life. That is the number one thing for us to hear and I am not exactly the most positive guy, so if I can bring positivity to others, I have truly accomplished something great.” More than ever, metal bands are being recognized for their humanitarian efforts. Bands like Metallica, Breaking Benjamin and Five Finger Death Punch have also recently donated money or proceeds to charity. It is a feat for the metal community which is so often perceived as evil or dark. Perhaps, the lightness shining from the dark will lift non-metal fan’s perceptions of the artists, the fans and the music.
Despite how big a band or artist becomes during the course of their career, it is still unbelievable when they get the chance to open for one of their predecessors or in this case one of the most iconic metal bands of all time, Iron Maiden. Over the summer, Killswitch Engage had that opportunity and D’Antonio described it as probably the most surreal experience of his life and claims to kind of ‘geek out’ when he meets people he admires. “Unfortunately, I can’t control myself around certain people and I tend to ask way too many questions when I am in those situations,” D’Antonio says with a laugh. “Another example is when we played with Anthrax. The fact we were on the same bill as them was the coolest thing and the 11-year old inside me was freaking out–but I kept my cool, I think…” he tells us as our interview comes to a close.
Killswitch Engage has announced rescheduled tour dates for November and December from their Spring 2018 tour. Joining them will be Born of Osiris, Crowbar and Death Ray Vision. Please visit their website below for tickets and more information.