A few months before the release of the new album “Incarnate”, we had the chance to meet Jesse Leach, the (first and) current singer of Killswitch Engage for some very personal confidences.
Hi Jesse! How are you?
Jesse Leach (vocals): Oh yeah, good man! Chilling!
Happy to be back in Paris?
J: Yeah I love Paris! I just wish I could stay longer. I leave in about three hours to go to London. Got to be quick but it’s OK. Hopefully will be back soon!
So, we’re here today to talk about your seventh album called “Incarnate“.
How do you feel a few months before its release?
J: I’m very excited for people to hear it. I think it’s our best record yet with me. So yeah, excited man!
What’s the story behind this title?
J: Basically, “Incarnate” for me is ambiguous, it’s a title I think people can draw their own conclusion on what it is. I mean, in English, it means “In the flesh”, so that’s kind of a representation of who we are right now, but it also can mean many other things – which I love, I love that about lyrics, I love that about titles. It allow people who are reading and are listening to draw their own conclusions. But I guess in some many words, it’s just like Killswish incarnate. It’s kind of cheesy, but I like it.
Could you tell us a bit more about the artwork?
J: Oh, you’re the first person to ask about the artwork, it’s awesome! It hasn’t really been shown yet but from a nightmare that I had when I was in the middle of writting this. I saw a man being pulled apart by two snakes on his legs and two cranes birds pulling him up, with his inside coming out. So clearly, that’s not the album artwork, but that’s the inspiration behind it, so we actually reached that to an artist who is from I think Indonesia. He’s a really good artist, he also did the “Strength Of The Mind” artwork. So that’s sort of his style which is almost like a real painting looking. And it’s just two cranes, two snakes rather, around a crane trying to escape. So that’s not violent, but it comes from the concept of one of my nightmare I had, I got up and actually sketched it out my nightmare. (laughs) Interesting, huh?
On this album, you wrote about new themes, that you never used before, as on the road, for example. Why did you choose to write about these topics only now?
J: I think for me I just had a moment when I was writing, when I was listening to… what’s the hell is the name of that guy? Give me a second. I can choose one or three songs. There are three songs that kind of hit me about the road. One of them is Journey’s “Faithfully”, it’s a really cute song, a romantic song about the road. I thought to myself it could be a challenge, I wondered if I was able to write a song about the road that wouldn’t be cheesy, so I wrote the lyrics and I picked a song it would go to, and after been done with that. Yeah it actually took me a little while, I was originally singing the chorus, just really melodic, and I listened to it a few times, and I thought “no, this is cheesy, that’s not good!”, so I rewrote it, with more yelling and screamings, and I think I’ve pulled it off from the first song I wrote, about being on the road, being away from home. I love being on the road, but I’m also missing home. That’s a feeling a lots of musicians have, it’s a sort of a romantic feeling, but also a melancholic. And I think I’ve captured it on the song. I’m pretty proud of it.
Why did you turned out to be more positive in your lyrics? What happened in your life?
J: I think it’s because I love what I do now. I think mostly my carrier was struggling with the road, with performances and all these things when I was back in Killswitch and then touring the world, I really fell in love with the road again. So it turned out to be a love song of us as a band travelling the world. But then, of course, an element of that is being far from home, and missing your loved ones so I wanted it to be a part of it as well. I don’t know, I think it’s because I love what I do now, I’m confortable with what I do. So this is certainly a romance to the road that was never here before.
You just said you were confortable, you also said the recording drove you crazy.
J: Yeah, it did. (laughs)
What were the difficulties, and how was the recording process?
J: Writing it honestly started pretty good, I had some so solid ideas, I wrote “Strength Of The Mind”, I wrote a song called “Hate By Design”, I was kind on a roll and had idea of what I wanted to do. We would record it then tour it. So we wanted just sitting and recording at one point, and I came off the tour and continue recording, but we started to track a song and it just didn’t feel right, it felt uninspired, it felt unauthentic to who I am. So I took a few weeks off. Adam, the producer, Adam is also one of my best friends, he can tell when I am or not inspired, he told me: “maybe you need to go and get inspired”. So I spent a lot of time by myself, in the high of the mountains and alone and it kind of reflected on my entertainment. Sort of question existence like breath down deep in myself and thought about life, you know, my thoughts on who God is and just read deep stuff. And also really paid attention to American politics, and the issues we’ll have back home, about racism and police brutality, and the rich getting richer, and all the stuff sad and hard to swallow, I really focused on that as well, so it kind of pulled myself into a dark place, kind of depressed. And from that, I found inspiration and start writting about stuff that I’ve never written about before as a writer. Really questionning everything, questionning the world of man. And these deep topics turns in the songs. And I’m glad it happened, and I did changed from that. I think I’m a different person than who I was when I started the record. Yeah and that’s never happened to me before. I feel like I left a piece of myself on this record. So it should be interesting to perform some of these songs live, because it’s going to be emotionnaly hard, but I feel like that’s what you should be doing as an artist : suffuring a little bit. Especially when you’re in a metal band, like it should come from pain, it should come from somewhere that is hard. And my challenge was hide away. Saying those things were also to keep hope alive. And I feel like I stroke the balance on this record. At least from my perspective.
So it was a kind of catharsis for you ? Is music in general a form of salvation?
J: Absolutely, 100% yes. It’s therapy, it’s catharsis. It’s safe to say that if I wouldn’t have music, I would be dead. Absolutely. It kept me alive more than once. Pretty intense, sorry. But it’s a truth man, and I’m proud to say it too. I feel like that’s what being an artist is all about. Either you love it and you live it, why bother?
So this makes “Incarnate” more special and personal.
J: Yes absolutely.
Also for others in the band?
J: Yeah I mean their stories will be on it too, like for one song in particular, “We Carry On” on the record. I try to write songs in such a way that it’s not just about one thing. It doesn’t just come from one place. So their stories are being told as well through the record. Because I’m living with them, observing them. We’re in close proximity for months in the end. So, I’m inspired by them. And yes, personal for them too. But the crazy thing is I really have yet too. Divulging some informations, and tell them. But like THIS song: “hey I wrote this about you and I”, I’ve never done that but they are on it. And I’m sure one could sort of connect to that. I’m sure it becomes sort of personal. But I like it, I’ve been really almost secretive about where this album comes from and I like to be ambiguous. It’s important for people who listen to have their own stories attached to a song. If the song is too direct, like: “THIS song is about DEATH”, at the moment you do that, you kill some people interpretations. so it is a really personal record and the band is on that too, again I haven’t really told them yet, where it fits lyrically.
About being personal, you’re really present on social medias, but also on you blog.
J: Sometimes painfully, yes! (laughs)
It implies a lot of communication with your fans. Have you ever chat with a fan who told you to have seen something in one of your song? Did it help you to be more aware of the impact of your music or maybe to change the way you’re writing? To improve your music?
J: I think “improve” is a good word, yes. I am really affected by that, I can’t help it. I try to just put stuff out there and I’ll hopefully help someone out there. So getting messages back from people from that, it’s really special to me, and it gives me a sens of purpose. But I’ll tell you what’s even more heavy: it’s hearing other people’s stories about their lives and experiences. I have one thing in particular which was shared with me. A girl, she’s a survivor of domestic violence, really bad stuff like sexual abuse, physical abuse, and I actually had a meet and greet with her and we talked, and I wrote a song for her. She doesn’t know it yet, but when I’ll see her again, I’ll let her know, for this song is “Quiet Distress” in the record. That’s all about: violence and domestic violence and abuse. So yeah, there’s inspiration in there. It gives me a sense of purpose to give a gift back to fans and to hear that I am affecting people’s lives.That means a lot to me.
And don’t you fear the fans to be sometimes too intrusive? Because you show a lot of your private life also.
J: No, because I don’t let them. I put out what I’m comfortable sharing, and then when I receive feedback from people, I only take it so serious, because there is a disconnect. It is social medias, it’s not like I’m face to face with fans doing that. So, to me, it’s just a glimpse. A little glimpse into my life that I’m comportable sharing. I also think why I do that is that it’s also important for me personaly to destroy the myth of the rockstar. People call me rockstar, I don’t like it. To me, I don’t see myself that way. I’ve lived a fairly normal life before I joined in, I was working, had a regular job, and been a sort of normal blue-collar worker. And I don’t take things for granted. I work very hard to be what I am. I like showing people that. And I also like showing people that I’m a regular person. I suffer from exactly the same things: the anxiety depression, I have addiction issues. I’ve gone through alcohol and the use of drugs. Drugs abuse. It’s important for me to let them know that I’m not that different and I think once I do that, it’s sort of let them see me in a different light, and I guess that’s important for me. I don’t want to be looked as a rockstar, and I don’t want to act like one.
This part of your personality, this honesty, reflects on your music. You’re really attached to honesty and being transparent. But what do you think about the metal scene nowadays? Do you think there are some artists capable of taking this risk, the risk to be honest, or do you think they tend to just please fans, or trying to be mainstream?
J: I couldn’t really speak of if they’re doing music just to please people. But I think there are a couple of bands out there who are doing it, being honest, like Baroness, for example, their most recent record “Purple” which I think is a very personal record. And I came to listen to them after this record, after “Incarnate”. But when I look at this record, to me this is the example of a band putting their heart and soul on a record. I think it’s there, but I don’t know if it’s bit too outspoken as I am maybe too aflowing sure yet, but again I just think it’s important, and I’m sure there is some bands out there who will never be like that, like who would probably do music just to get chicks and make money and live that life, but I couldn’t honnestly speak about that because, I don’t have the pride to listen to them. (laughs) I’m very picky about what I listen to.
What are the bands or artists you’ve been listening recently?
J: A British duo, they’re playing like ambiant, electronica music and i really like that for calming my brain, and surrounding myself. They’re called The Orb, their new record is so good, i’ve listened to it so many times. That’s one of these records I just put on and just relax. It’s not like metal really engaging, but this is the kind of music I really like to listen to. Or lay back and listen to some reggae music, I love ska, there’s a band from the UK called The Skints, it’s really like upbeat ska music – makes me happy. A girl named Hollie Cook from the UK who plays like kind of lover rap-reggae, I love her. There’s a band from the States called Wild Oak, and they’re like psychedelic folk electronical kind of stuff, with femal vocal, and her voice is incredible. There are like a lot of stuff, so you know, along with the band, I like Gojira, I can’t wait to hit their a new record! Along with the bands I quote, I love quiet mello music. Because when you do heavy music, you can’t just listen to heavy music all the time. So yeah, that’s a pretty accurate decription of what I’ve been listening to the past week or two.
As you said, these musics are really different from what you’re doing in Killswitch Engage, but did they contributed to your inspiration in some way?
J: Oh yeah. Sorry I may have cut it off! (laughs) Yeah, I do have a lot of musics that inspired me! But, with making this record especially, leading up to make this record, I didn’t listen to much music at all, I mainly listened to ambiant music, actually it’s funny because it’s the first time I say it in an interview, but I would listen to white noise like “shhhhhhhh” that kind of sound, I would put it on, through headphones or my stereo system and I would write to that because It blocks everything, all the distactions out of you and you really focus better. It’s a unique thing I’ve leart about and that it works. So maybe that’s why I’m a little but crazy! (laughs) Listening to white noise for days on. But yeah, that’s a thing that students use, like at university to study, and I found it out, so I tried to give it a shot, and it works. I works great. So I tried no to let real musical influence coming to my brain because I wanted this to be unique.
Is it the reason why “Incarnate” is more melodic, with more clean vocal? It’s a really new sound for you, and also in the video for “Strength Of The Mind”, we can feel a duality: it’s calm, yet anxious, which recall what you’re saying about white noise. Could you tell us more about that?
J: Yes! I think I just wrote to the music, and the music is what inspire those things. When I hear a certain riff at the guitar, a lot of time, I write a word or two down, that reminds me of something or make me feel a certain way. And after I’ve figured out what that riff makes me feel, I decide whether it’s gonna be an agressive vocal or a calm vocal. And some musics are really obvious, like it fits driving and it sound driving, I will get energetic. But what I really like to do is to play with the fact that an aggressive sometimes is going to be more gentle, and more melodic. So it’s the opposite of what I wanted to do with the music. I think it’s very much like sitting and listening as for “Disarm The Descent” we kind of decided all: “this part needs this”. Or if the lyrics are really heavy, sometimes I’m singing it, and being gentle with it, makes it come accross above you, like feel it, what I am aiming to do. When I write it’s hard to decide: “this part is going to be screaming, this part is going to be singing”, it’s more like “how do I make people connect to that”, and then “how do I make the hairs of your arms stand up?”. The chills. I live for that stuff. So it’s a mixture of all these things. I think it’s just a matter of how do I write the song and how do I want this song to come accross, and I love the balance between these two, because it makes all the difference in the world. For example, “Strength Of The Mind”, “I’ve seen rock bottom and I’ve smashed my fists against it” you can’t sing it like “lalalala”, it’s an intense line, and needed to be intense. I think each part speaks to me, for some reasons.
Why did you chose this song to be your first single?
J: I mean personaly, that first riff, when I first hear it, I thought it was so badass, it’s such a good riff. And then, I think it kind of just represents the record. Like, you always want to pick a first song that’s not too heavy, but not too melodic: this is the way we think as a band. But also that kind of touches on the album, and “Strength Of The Mind” is a song about struggling with your entertainment, struggling with anviety, depression and those things. I think that could be a common thread, and it’s definitely about the psychology of human kind, so it just seems to, lyrically and sonically best represents what we thought it could be a good introduction to our record.
Is it your favorite song of the album?
J: No, I don’t know if I have a favorite one. They’re kind of all my babies in some way. “Cut Me Loose” which hopefully will be the fourth single of this record, this one is really special to me. Lyrically and sonically, there is something about that song which is really special and it’s different, it’s a different sound for Killswitch, and then another song that I can speak to it as a different one for Killswitch is “It Falls On Me”, which is more of a atmospheric soulful like soul searching song, and that was me just questionning my existence, questionning my faith, my beliefs, and it’s an extremely personal song for me. But even sonically with its breakdown in the middle of the song, and I’m singing as quiet as I’ve ever sang on a Killswitch record, and I love that. I love that it’s different.
Listening to this album, we kind of feel that every member has now found his place, and you confirmed that. Do you think Killswitch has ever been Killswitch before this record?
Yeah, I couldn’t be so balled to say that, especially since I wasn’t in the band for a while. (laughs) But I would say, as far as me being in the band, I think we are at our best. This is the best record I’ve done with these guys. I think it’s most archived we’ve been. With me. I can’t really speak with Howard because it would be presemptuous, I’d be an asshole. I wouldn’t comment on that. I’m sure at one point they were at the top of their carrier with him, I mean, I know they were. But we feel more connected than we ever had as a band, personaly. And I think that refects on our music.
Looking back at this, do you have any regrets to have left?
J: Absolutely no regrets. None. You can’t live that way. And everything, everything truly happens for a reason. I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I didn’t do everything that I did. Because I live my life, I was forced to face reality, to face my entertainment, because of the decisions that I’ve made. And I don’t regret it at all.
How is it different to work now with Adam, than it was when you were in Times Of Grace for example?
J: I think Times Of Grace was pretty much a collaboration. We had a great working relationship then. But prior to that, I really think it was quite a privilege to work with him. Because I didn’t know what I wanted and I was insecure, and he was really inner-attentive and precise, and I feel that, in Times Of Grace, we started, we sort of found each other in different places, we both grown a lot, but this time around was the absolutly best experience I had with him. Because he was very receptive to what I was going through, was very receptive to me like that I wanted to make the best record we possibly could, so he’s very patient. And even tho we had deadline for the record label, I don’t know, to me, I was like: “I don’t care what deadline, I don’t care what restictions, I need to make sure this record is everything that it can be” and Adam has held my back the whole time. And I’ve seen him nervous, and I know this album is delivered later, so… it actually caused to miss some opportunities. But it was like: “Screw that, man! it’s gonna be the best it could be”. And Adam was by my side the whole time, like: “I get it, we’re going to do this way”. Because we have such a good working relationship now. So yeah, it’s awesome. He’s my best friend and he’s a great producer. It’s like a really nice compromise. I can be vulnerable and honest in front of him. And I’m not afraid to screw up a part or sing a part wrong. I can’t get nervous for that because I know and he knows I’m trying my best so it’s the best it has even been. For sure.
You’ve just said you were not that confident before, but now you seem to be more comfortable with that. How do you deal now with other members or other artists? Do you take advices from them? How did it help you?
J: Yes, I guess it’s a mixture. If you’re honest with yourself as a person, people around you affect you no matter what, and you can engage them, and be a part of their live, and dig deeper, or you can sort of keep them away from your life. But I have this thing I guess I get from my mother like I can’t do this. I like to bring people and I want to know if they’re ok, how they’re doing, what they’re going through. So yeah, I think anyone that surrounds me in my personnaly life affects me and inspires me. So yeah, it’s a good answer! (laughs)
And what is the most important lesson you received recently?
J: Humility. Just being humble. Being self aware. I think it’s super important. Because when you’re self aware, you’re humble, you treat people better, you think thoughful when you’re thinking. And you have more gratitude for life. You know, when you’re in the moment, it’s like more like “yeah yeah yeah yeah” and you stop and take a breathe, and think “yes, this is where I am right now”. If everyone could do that on a regular basis, we would live in a much better world. Self-aware is the key. Humility and self-aware are themes that are constant on my brain, especially doing interview or preparing to tour. Choosing my words wisely, and all that stuff, is important for me.
Let’s talk about humility, or the contrary here, since something quite flattering happened to your band recently: “Loyalty” has been chosen for HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” mixture tape! How did that happen?
J: They approched us through the label and the management and we were immediatly like: “oh yeah absolutely!”. I mean, that show is incredible! It’s a good show. A huge show. I’m a big fan, so being part of this was an honnor. It was so cool! And they sent us a list of words and basically said us: “give us a song about this!”. A concept, which is one of the houses: House Martell. And I was such a nerd. I really liked that, I did a bunch of researchs and worked on the lyrics really hard. I loved that song, it’s great. We actually got permission to put it on our special edition of our new record, so we’re going to release it. Stocked, man! It was an honour, for sure.
Would you like to do more of this type of stuff?
J: Absolutely yes! Mike, our bass player, is really into pro-wrestling, he’s a big fan of all this. So years ago they had a song called “This Fire Burns” which was used for a wrestling record, when they walked into the ring. I’d be so glad to do that. Or even for video games! Like “Assassin’s Creed” for example, I’d really love that. Yeah of course, for television shows, of course! That could be cool, that would be so cool!
You seems to like fun a lot, do you have some funny stories to share with us?
J: Oh funny stories. I sure have one! But I can’t think of one precisely. The problem with funny stories is that most of the time, there is unfortunately too much alcohol in me. (laughs) No, let me think. I guess I’m not a very funny person. Nothing comes to mind, damn it! You’ll probably leave and I’ll find something super funny. I’m totally blank, I’m sorry.
Well next! What’s next for Killswitch Engage? What are your plans? Any chance to see you in Europe? In France?
J: We’re booking Europe now for the festivals in June, but now, I don’t know if we’re going to be in Paris. I know that we’re on Download UK and I guess it talks with us doing a Download here. But I don’t know if we can look forward to that. But I’m sure we’ll get here, we have a lot of plans everywhere, still a lot of fans. But I hope so, I love Paris! I’d love to play here. We’ll see!
To conclude, our traditionnal question: We are “RockUrLife”, so what rocks your life?
J: What rocks my life? Music, man! I know it’s lame because it’s so obvious, but it’s true. Music is everything to me. As I said previously, if I didn’t have music, I wouldn’t be here. When I’m feeling low, I put on music. When I’m happy, I put on music. I’m constantly putting on music. Music is my life, it’s everything. It definitely rocks my world.
Thank you very much for this interview.
J: Thank YOU!