One of the bands I was eager to see again at Heavy Montréal this year was Killswitch Engage. Boasting a song that features vocals by both Jesse Leach and Howard Jones (“The Signal Fire”), it was a coming-together moment for Killswitch fans that came as a most welcome surprise. Add in some guest vocals from Testament vocalist Chuck Billy (“The Crownless King”), and you have the makings of a metal classic on two songs alone. With the additional lead singles “Unleashed” and “I Am Broken Too,” Atonement (Metal Blade Records) should play out to be one of Killswitch’s most popular releases to date. Joel Stroetzel, KSE’s long-time guitarist, took a bit of time in the media tent to field a few interviews, and we managed to get a few minutes with him to catch up.
The audio for this interview is included here via SoundCloud. There is a fair bit of background noise. Anyone thinking interviewing bands is an interviewer and interviewee sitting in a soundproof area to talk for ten or fifteen minutes need only listen to this audio-nugget for a genuine peek into the “glamours” of on-site interviewing. An alarm from an adjacent building kept incessantly going off, adding into the melange of overbearing audio from surrounding five Heavy Montréal stages. So this interview was indeed recorded at the Heavy Montréal Festival amidst a melee of music, scurrying festival workers, and press types. It’s decent enough audio that we deemed it worthy of a listen and included it for listeners who’d like to hear Joel Stroetzel’s voice answering questions in the real.
I understand that you are ready to drop another album.
Joel Stroetzel: “That’s correct.”
Can you talk a little bit about the writing of that album? How long it took to put it together?
Stroetzel: “Well it took quite a while actually because we all kind of live across the States now at this point. So we just started sending each other demos and stuff, emails and whatnot, until we had enough ideas where it was worth getting together on that. All the music stuff happened pretty fast after that, you know? Suddenly we had 20 songs. It took a while to get them all recorded. So Justin (Foley, drummer) and Adam (Dutkiewicz, lead guitar) did the drums in San Diego, and the rest of us kind of did the guitars and bass wherever we could.”
Killswitch Engage’s most recently-released music video is for “The Signal Fire” off of Atonement:
How many sessions did it take for you to do all of the recordings? Was all done in one shot?
Stroetzel: “No, no it’s really spread out. We had the drum tracks where Adam spent some time with those, getting them mixed and ready for us to track too. And then we did some of the guitars in San Diego where Adam lives (and) did some of the guitars Massachusetts. We did vocals all over the place. So it took a while. And in the middle of all that Jesse (Leach, lead singer) had to have surgery on his voice, his throat. So it took a while. Probably about two years in total to make the thing.”
Now I’ve read some pre-press on the album and it’s stating that it was a hard album to write. Was that just on Jessie’s side or was that everybody?
Stroetzel: “I think I think that was probably mostly on Jessie’s side. Because he was going through some personal stuff when we were doing it. We had a lot of music ready to go. So you know, it’s gonna be tough for somebody doing shows and the band hands you 20 songs and says, ‘Here you go!’ So yeah, I think it was a challenge.”
You’re on your Metal Blade now, right?
Stroetzel: “That’s correct.”
Is that new for this album?
Stroetzel: “It is. This is our first record for them.”
When did you sign with them?
Stroetzel: “Probably about a year ago I think at this point. It has been great so far. It seems a pretty good roll-out these guys are doing for this record, and everybody’s been cool.”
Images of Joel Stroetzel at Heavy Montréal (Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal, Quebec) on July 28, 2019, by Mike Bax and Trevor Lamas:
I mean, you’re a band that’s already well established. I’m sure you didn’t have to show them (Metal Blade) anything or bring demos along before that signing.
Stroetzel: “No, not so much. Those guys kind of approached us with an offer and we talked about it went back and forth a little bit. There are some other offers we’re entertaining. And we were with Roadrunner for many years; those guys were good to us, and we just figured it might be time for a change, man. After all those years.”
If I’m doing my math right this is 20 years for Killswitch.
That’s a pretty significant amount of time for for a metal band.
Stroetzel: “Absolutely. I don’t know how we got this far. We’re still kicking around.”
Are there any plans to do anything to landmark that 20 years? Do you think you’d do an anniversary release, or a tour, and play some old nuggets?
Stroetzel: “I would imagine we’ll do something like that. The wheels are starting to turn as we try to think of ideas on what to do.”
Can you maybe tell me what one of your gateway bands or concerts was back when you were younger that really motivated you to become a live musician?
Stroetzel: “Oh for sure. I remember going to see Napalm Death when they came around Massachusetts. And I saw Testament. A lot of bands. I liked a lot of thrashy stuff and death metal stuff growing up. I played the piano when I was a kid. And then I started getting more into old Metallica and things like that. I begged my parents for a guitar. As soon as I got one I couldn’t put it down.”
Also off of Atonement check out the lyric video for “I Am Broken Too:”
This isn’t your first time on these grounds playing an Evenko festival. You’ve been a part of Heavy Montréal a number of times in the past, correct?
Stroetzel: “That’s correct, yeah.”
Is there something about this festival that sticks out in your mind, something you like about it or something that makes it stand apart from other festivals that you’re doing?
Stroetzel: “Honestly, it’s always an awesome crowd here. People are super energetic, and it’s always great. I know one of Adam’s favourite things about it; There’s a girl that always shows up to the shows here and wears a horse mask. So he calls it the horse tits festival. He’s like ‘Oh, great, horse tits!’”
What to you is the most important characteristic of your genre of music?
Stroetzel: “The most important characteristic; I really think it’s just being able to convey emotion in kind of a raw way. That goes musically as far as playing instruments, and especially for Jesse, I think. Because his lyrics are pretty personal a lot of the time. And I think it’s a good outlet for him.”
With the demise of Pledge Music, I don’t know if you followed that at all?
Stroetzel: “I don’t even know what PledgeMusic is.”
Crowd funding. So they took a bunch of money and went Chapter 11 and have not paid the bands. They won’t ship any merchandise, and they have screwed all of the patrons out of their money. So I’m curious if you’ve got an opinion on crowdfunding, do you think Killswitch would ever do that? Bring their fans in and have them pay something in advance that would make it an autographed album or an opportunity to see you know the recording process of how you make music?
Stroetzel: “I could definitely see doing something. You know, we’ve done presale things or something like that where people get an autographed record in the package if they get in on it ahead of time but usually not until it’s done on our end. You know, we just want to make sure that we can actually deliver it first.”
Killswitch Engage’s eighth studio album Atonement was released on August 16th, via Metal Blade Records:
When did you join Killswitch?
Stroetzel: “Since the beginning. Since the beginning of the year 1999 at this point.”
What brought you guys together as a band back then? Aside from a love of making loud music, is there anything that you bonded over prior to deciding to become a band?
Stroetzel: “Well, I’d met Adam. We worked at the same music shop, so he had a band at the time called Aftershock. So I kind of stepped in when they lost one of their guitar players and started playing with Adam. This is probably ‘97 or so. And then we played some shows with Mike (D'Antonio, bass), who was playing in Overcast at the time. We got to be friends at the shows and stuff like that. So Adam and Mike really started talking and jamming together, and then they invited me to jam with them after that. So that’s kind of how it all started.”
What’s your favourite piece of band merchandise that you owned as a youngster? That you maybe wish you still had and could fit into?
Stroetzel: “Well, speaking of Napalm Death, I had this awesome Diatribes long-sleeve T-shirt. With all of these cool patterns down the arms that I probably bought in 1994. I can’t remember when that record came out. I wish I still had it.”
Can you pick a favourite performance that Killswitch has done over the years? Something that stands out for you personally. And why was it so good?
Stroetzel: “I think there’s a couple. The first time we did a DVD with the live DVD in western Massachusetts. And I think all the stars align for some reason on that night. Everybody seemed to play well. And it was one of the better crowds we ever had there. That was a really good time. I think other than that, maybe doing the first big festival that we did. Maybe like Download Festival in the UK. It’s just really overwhelming because we were used to playing the smaller clubs and all of a sudden you walk up and there’s a sea of people, and it’s pretty overwhelming. So it kind of a cool experience.”
Relive the now legendary Killswitch Engage song, “My Curse:”
How important is physical product to you as a band? The selling of CDs and LPs and cassettes and merchandise; Do you feel like that’s a prominent part of what Killswitch Engage is?
Stroetzel: “I think it’s definitely become a little bit less prominent. I’m actually curious to see how this new record does because it’s always kind of a rollercoaster ride with the way that the industry changes. But I mean for us we’ve never been a band with big radio hits or sold millions and millions of records or anything like that. So for us, it’s more about the touring I think. And doing the live thing. I’m curious to see how the record release goes.”
Did you use that that FaceAPP thing at all and make yourself look older?
Stroetzel: “I did. It came out pretty good.”
Did you post it?
Stroetzel: “I didn’t post it. No, I just kept it to myself. Sent it to some friends.”
What is your favorite soundtrack album from a movie?
Stroetzel: “Soundtrack from a movie? It’s probably got to be Flash Gordon, man. Queen is pretty awesome.”
Would you describe yourself as someone who was scholarly when you were in school?
Stroetzel: “No definitely not, man.”
What subject did you hate the most?
Stroetzel: “I always hated math even though it was kind of good at it. So I’d always try to get good grades and keep my folks happy. So they let me play my video games when I was home.”
“Hate By Design” was arguably the biggest song off of 2016’s Incarnate. Watch the music video:
Assuming that you are still in a band and performing when you’re 60-65 years old, what do you think is the attribute that you would hope that you would adhere to the most as an artist?
Stroetzel: “If we’re still doing Killswitch at that point, I really hope we can still have some energy on stage at that point. Just move around a little bit and look like we care. I think that means a lot when you can have that back and forth between the band and an audience.”
I think a lot of the legacy thrash bands, like Slayer, coming up today and doing their final round 40 years in, and they still knock it out of the park every time.
Stroetzel: “They are still a great show, yeah. It’s awesome.”
So it’s still a possibility there.
Can you describe how you personally like to write your material?
Stroetzel: “For me, personally, I usually come up with a couple of riffs and if I could string a few together and then say, ‘hey, this is kind of a partial song’ and send it off to the guys. I’m not the best at writing full songs for some reason. Adam usually has a really good vision of where songs should go, being the producer that he is, but I always tend to need some help. So I come up with like two or three riffs that fit together that makes me happy. And so it’s good enough to send to the guys and let them finish.”
How do you record your riffs then? Are you just putting a phone down and recording them on that?
Stroetzel: “I’ve got a small studio home, and I just program drums and then run ProTools and all that stuff.”
Also from Incarnate, here is the music video for “Cut Me Loose:”
I know you guys are Game of Thrones fans.
Joel Stroetzel: “Yes.”
Were you happy with the way the series ended?
Stroetzel: “I was not too happy with the way it ended. I mean I guess in retrospect it didn’t ruin my week or anything. When I saw it, I was like, ‘Man, that could have been so much more triumphant in the way it ended.’ I was bummed for Jon, man. (laughs)”
Do you think it could have ended any differently. Was there something you wanted to see? A character you wanted to see maybe come out on top?
Stroetzel: “Yeah, I was really rooting for Jon Snow to be a king. It was kind of weird. Kind of weird how that turned out.”
You kind of got an appropriate ending though because that was where he went at the beginning of the show and that’s sort of where he went at the end. So it was full circle for him.
Stroetzel: “Exactly. It all came around.”
How much time per day are you spending looking at your smartphone, and do you feel like it’s a good or bad use of your time?
Stroetzel: “On tour? Probably too much man. Looking at guitars and reverb all the time and stuff like that. I can’t say it’s really a good use of time. Unless it’s checking actual emails for business purposes or talking to the family. It’s probably not a good use of time.”
Are you an avid social media guy? Do you post a lot of photos?
Stroetzel: “Nah, I don’t even have any of those accounts. So I try to stay away from that one.”