“Killswitch has always been strong and positive. We wanted something a little darker, a bit more personal, spiritual almost”: how Killswitch Engage reinvented themselves with their divisive self-titled fifth album

Killswitch Engage posing for a group portrait in 2009
(Image credit: Press)

Massachusetts metalcore heroes Killswitch Engage’s self-titled fourth album (their last with second singer Howard Jones) proved to be divisive with its more mainstream sound - leading fans to speculate that they’d been strongarmed into it by their label. But in this classic 2009 Metal Hammer interview, guitarist Adam D reveals that it was all down to the band themselves.

“People expect more and more from you with every record,” sighs Killswitch Engage guitarist and notorious joker Adam Dutkiewicz. “It’s the same thing every time we record an album.”

You could forgive them for feeling the heat when it came to writing their self- titled new album. Having turned around the blow of losing original vocalist Jesse Leach, by recruiting Howard Jones and creating 2004’s much acclaimed The End Of Heartache, Killswitch released an album that would be hailed by many as their greatest effort yet, a claim backed up by the highest sales the band have achieved to date.

The flipside was that the metalcore godfathers had given birth to a release that they have struggled to escape the shadow of. Though there are fans who argue that 2006’s As Daylight Dies is the superior of the two albums – citing improved vocals from Howard and more focused song writing among other arguments – the general consensus is that it did not quite live up to its predecessor. Regardless of which camp you fall into, the fact that the band were perceived to have dropped the ball when it came to moving to the ‘next level’ means that there’s high expectations for them to deliver on their fifth album. 

“I don’t think we ever try and sound like something in particular,” says Adam. “I think once you do that you kind of set yourself up with boundaries. We just try and make the music we like, something we can live with and not be bummed every time we hear it.”

All the same, given the band’s size and status, simply coasting along with a by-the-numbers collection of songs wasn’t an option. If the band are going to have an opportunity to propel themselves into the big league – should they actually want to do that of course – then the time is now. But career progression, perhaps understandably, isn’t something that Adam is particularly eager to talk about. A friendly and likeable character, it’s clear that he’s most comfortable when the tone is kept light, and initially his almost overly positive demeanour forms a barrier to a more in-depth analysis of the situation. But though he hammers the point home that the band still write material primarily to please themselves and that they are very happy to be where they are, he also admits that this album has been approached with a very different mindset to rest of the band’s albums.

“This record was more about trying something experimental and going with the flow,” he explains. “To be ourselves, but to push ourselves in a way we haven’t done before.” He pauses before adding, somewhat revealingly, “To be honest we’ve never challenged ourselves before.

Killswitch Engage posing for a portrait in 2009

Killswitch Engage in 2009 (Image credit: Press)

It’s surely no small matter to remove yourselves from your creative comfort zone after a successful 10-year career. And while Adam may play down any notions of premeditation when it comes to the musical progression, on the new album it becomes apparent that it wasn’t merely a case of going into the rehearsal room and seeing what came out. No, instead it seems that the band have consciously adopted a new approach, a determination to hone their craft and produce a stand-out record that would also act as – in Adam’s own words – something of a “fresh start”, also apparently the reason for the new album’s self-titled moniker. 

“I guess we tried to be more conscious about writing songs that were more concise, got to the point a little quicker and were a little more...” he pauses, “...I guess you could say fun to listen to. I think before all we were worried about was just putting in riffs and riffs and this time we put a little more emphasis on writing songs that keep the listener’s attention. It still sounds very much like a Killswitch record, there’s just a little bit more singing on this record, and the songs feel a little easier to listen to.”

With Howard’s clean singing voice utilised more than ever before and arguably a greater use of melody too, this is almost certainly the most accessible face of Killswitch seen yet. In fact it may just be the sort of material that could push the band into the CD shelves and iPod playlists of the sort of rock fans who – when it comes to dipping their toes in metal waters – normally draw the line at the likes of Metallica. Consequently it’s hard to believe that this isn’t an attempt to break through to a wider audience, that it’s not a move that’s been influenced by the advice of record label and managerial types. Adam, however, dismisses the suggestion outright. 

“Nah, it wasn’t the record label or anything, it was pretty much us wanting to branch out a bit more. We’ve done lots of records with lots of screaming, so we thought we’d do one with more singing. I think Howard just wanted to showcase it a little more to be honest with you. He’s naturally a really good singer, so heck – why not do it more? It literally was wanting to take the record in a different direction, to break the mould and see if we could be creative in a different way, to write different things just for the sake of trying it and go into a slightly different direction.”

This apparently self-imposed change of direction extends to the lyrical themes as well as the music, and the new songs reveal a greater sense of vulnerability, seemingly an attempt by the band, and specifically Adam, to move away from people’s perceptions of Killswitch as an upbeat metal band. It’s certainly a move that suits the greater use of clean vocals – after all, sung vocals are a somewhat more traditional choice for expressing human frailties than screamed ones – but more significantly it seems to fulfil a wish to move the band a step forward creatively and project themselves in a new light.

Killswitch Engage - Starting Over [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube Killswitch Engage - Starting Over [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube
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“I think Killswitch has always been pigeonholed as a forward-thinking band, being strong, being positive,” he ponders. “I thought since we wanted to make a record with a new dynamic, one way we could contribute to that was to write something a little darker, a bit more personal, spiritual almost, to show that human beings have weaknesses and all that stuff. I know for a fact that I told Howard that I’d like for him to try and push himself on this record and write from a different place than usual on certain songs. And he took the challenge – there’s actually several songs on the record that are much darker in content, stuff we’ve never touched upon before.”

And the changes don’t end there. These days of course Adam is almost as renowned for his role in the producer’s chair as he is for his own music, having worked on albums by the likes of Parkway Drive, As I Lay Dying, Unearth and All That Remains to name but a few, shaping the face of metalcore in the same way that, say, Ross Robinson shaped nu metal or Scott Burns shaped death metal. So it’s slightly baffling to find that for the first time in Killswitch’s history the band have brought in outside talent, namely Brendan O’Brien, a man who has made his name with artists as varied as Stone Temple Pilots, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and Velvet Revolver, to help produce. 

“I think he reached out to us and we thought, ‘Hell, why not?’” Adam explains in a typically matter-of-fact tone. “I really have no problem handing the reins to someone else on our stuff as long as there’s trust. It doesn’t bother me at all, especially when it’s someone who’s done as many successful records as he has. I actually thought that maybe he could shed a whole new light on the record and maybe I could even learn a lot from him, just being round the guy and seeing what makes him tick and grow as a producer.”

Remaining in the picture as a co-producer, Adam has been able to steer the ship back in the right direction where necessary, while allowing Brendan to bring his own spin on the project. As it turns out, Brendan’s most significant contribution was in regard to Howard’s vocals, the renowned producer being instrumental in giving the frontman the confidence to really push his clean sung parts, perhaps because he used a slightly more positive method than Adam’s own ‘tough love’ approach.

Killswitch Engage guitarist Adam D performing onstage in a wrestling mask at Download 2009

Killswitch Engage guitarist Adam D onstage at Download 2009 (Image credit: Kevin Nixon/Future)

“Yeah, Howard gets a little down on himself so it was good to see Brendan take control and pushing him. I tend to push Howard a little too hard,” Adam laughs, “he tends to get a little upset at my negative comments and me basically taking the piss the entire time. It’s literally all I do the whole time. His reaction? Well he either laughs really hard or gets pissed, it’s one or the other.”  

Though the decision to share production duties might seem to demonstrate a wish to move away from the mixing desk, the reality is quite the opposite and Adam admits he’s “looking forward to producing a lot of bands when KSE is over”. In fact, given his success in the field and the fact that production work would be surely a lot less likely to aggravate his back problems (which have resulted in major surgery and extreme pain in the past) than a life of touring, one can’t help but wonder if he’s ever tempted to jack in the band and the stress of a life on the road. Well, before the rumour mill goes nuts, you can relax, because the answer is a resounding ‘no’; not terribly surprising given the amount of pleasure Adam exudes onstage. In fact, while this new album does mark a fairly significant change of tact, one which may or may not pay off in terms of their career, Killswitch don’t seem to be a band who are going away any time soon. 

“Every job has its ups and downs but this is still probably the coolest job you could ever have,” he concludes with a smile. “It’s not really changed much for us since the early days – it’s still exciting to go on tour, to drink with friends, to be in new places and play in front of fans that are really excited to see your band. We’re pretty stoked to have got where we are and to get any further would be the icing on the cake. It’s more about playing shows and seeing people happy. It doesn’t really matter what level of band we are, we’re all just really lucky to be able to still do this and enjoy it.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue