Headlining the New England Metal & Hardcore Festival is a nerve racking experience to begin with, especially if you’re a band from Massachusetts. Now imagine if that headlining gig was not only your first show in two years, but also your first show in nine years with your original frontman following a public split with a prominent band member. Well, that’s exactly the scenario Killswitch Engage found themselves in on the night of April 22. However, as you’ve probably already heard via reviews (like ours) or seen from fan filmed footage, Killswitch Engage overcame their nerves and lived up to fans’ expectations (and then some).
Roughly two hours before taking the stage that night at the Palladium Theatre, Metal Insider had the chance to speak with bassist Mike D’Antonio backstage. During our chat, D’Antonio revealed when it became obvious that Howard Jones’ time in the band had come to an end, what the audition process in finding a new singer looked like, how Jesse Leach has energized the group upon his return, and what the future of album covers as an art form may entail.
We’re a few hours away from Killswitch Engage’s set at the NEMHF. I just have to ask given everything that’s happened up to this point, what’s going through your mind right now? Are you at all nervous?
Yeah, I am extremely nervous, and I never get nervous before shows. But we haven’t been onstage for two years. It’s been a long time! I mean, I’ve done other things and other bands, but not on this scale. And this really means a lot. So it’s got to be right, which is a ton of pressure. But they are songs we’ve played a ton of times, and I’m sure they’ll go great. But there’s just that uncertainty that something could go wrong.
I remember seeing you with Death Ray Vision last year at the NEMHF, and it’s amazing how much has changed in a year. With that in mind, I have to ask: at what point did it become apparent that Killswitch Engage was no longer going to move forward with Howard Jones?
When we started writing the new record, there was just no creative juices flowing on his end. And after the last record, we kind of got a sense that things weren’t going right. Then the interim, in between the two years that we had off and writing the new record, it was just not going into the proper direction. We could tell that it was stifled, a very stifled situation. So that’s all I can really say. It was easy to tell.
But the band is still on good terms with Howard.
When did the idea of bringing Jesse Leach back into the group come up? I know that he went through an audition process, but when did his name first pop up?
I mean, it’s pretty much the first thing that comes up when you’re thinking about replacing. The third vocalist never works out. But we wanted to try everyone we could possibly think of. We had a really short list of names that we thought were appropriate, and Jesse was at the top. We tried out a bunch of people, you never know if there’s that diamond in the rough that you haven’t heard or sat down with and played with. You just never know what’s going to come out of a situation like that.
So we had a little audition in New York City, and Jesse was involved in that. We had started about 11:30 in the morning, and about every fifteen minutes it was a new guy coming in and auditioning. We were playing the same two to three songs over and over and over. So by 4 o’clock, we were shot. We didn’t want to play anymore. And then Jesse walked in, and this energy hit us. We proceeded to play like 12 tunes, like “Bang, bang, bang, bang!” And they all just felt right and no one wanted to stop, and that’s the energy you need if you’re going to pick yourself up and keep going. We all felt it, looked at each other and said “Wow! We haven’t felt like this with anybody who’s come through here yet, and there’s probably a good reason for that.”
Would you say that it was almost like the same fresh energy you guys had when Killswitch first formed and started, or was it something completely new and different?
I guess it would be like when we first started. Just that instant “Wow, this fits!” type of situation. You just kind of know. Are you a musician?
As a musician, you step into a room and someone’s playing a riff maybe how you would play it, or you’re playing a riff and they join you. There’s this instant mind meld that you feel, and Jesse has that mind meld with us. It just works; it’s unexplainable.
I know that Jesse will be singing a good amount of Jones’ material. Were there any hesitations about doing this, from both him and the band?
It was a priority to whoever was going to step into Jones’ shoes to be able to sing his songs because they’re the ones that really propelled us. Fans will say what they want to say, but the songs’ videos were the ones that got us moving in the right direction. And pretty much every video is Howard and his stuff. So it had to happen that way. We don’t want to gyp fans. Fans want to see songs they know and like. There’s a good mix, it’s about half and half. And Jesse’s cool with it. Jesse puts his own spin on it, which is also really cool. It’s not going to sound like exactly Howard Jones. It’s going to sound like an angst-ridden Jesse Leach screaming stuff out with his own vibe. But it works really well, and I think fans are going to be very satisfied. It’s not a cover version.
You’ve done all of Killswitch Engage’s artwork, in addition to other bands. When you approach a new project or album, what helps you determine which direction you’ll go with when creating artwork?
Usually, I’ll either have something in mind that I’ve been working on in my head for quite a while and then I just make it happen, or it’s a struggle. But it’s life experiences. Maybe something really terrible had just happened and makes me think of a certain image in my head, and a lot of times that’s what I’ll think of. Or sometimes it’s just fooling around in Photoshop and something happens to look cool. And you just change the color, and you’re like “Bam! Ok!” But a lot of times, I just kind of know. I like to give the guys a few options rather than just one thing.
Do you think that with so much focus on digital media now that the “art” of the artwork has lost its charm or appeal?
It is strange that it is going that way, you’re exactly right. It lives on through t-shirts for sure, but it has lost a lot. I mean, you used to be able to get the gatefold record album and see it in large format, and be able to stare at it while you were playing it on your turntable. Now, I buy a lot of digital records and I don’t even know what the cover looks like. So I don’t really know what the future is going to hold with that side of it, but like I said it will live on in banners, t-shirts, stickers, and stuff like that. Hopefully people will still get a sense of the overall picture of the album, but maybe now people can draw their own conclusions as to what an album should look like.
If you could name the best cover artwork of all time, which would you choose?
I’ll name three. I love Piece Of Mind by Iron Maiden of course. I love Best Wishes by the Cro-Mags. That’s an old Hare Krishna poster. And National Born Chaos by Soilwork. I love Travis Smith’s stuff. He is my favorite, and he does amazing work. And that one was the first piece I saw by him and was just blown away by it.