When Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach invites you for a hike in a bear-infested wood, you don’t say no

(Image credit: Justin Borucki)

Jesse Leach was hiking a trail through the forests around his home in upstate New York a while ago when he came across a pair of black bear cubs. For anyone whose hot take on the natural world comes courtesy of a David Attenborough documentary, this would have been a magical moment: beautiful creatures in their native habitat, unspoiled by the intrusion of anything approaching modern civilisation.

Except the Killswitch Engage singer knew this wasn’t quite as cute as it looked. Because wherever there are baby bears, a mama bear won’t be too far away, and she will protect her offspring by any means necessary.

Twenty-six people have been killed by bears in the US since 2010, and Jesse didn’t want to become the 27th. So he did what anyone who watches as many survival documentaries as he does would do: he got the hell out of there as fast as he could.

“I knew the mom would be close, and I figured she would smell me and that would be game over,” he says. “So I started doing this death metal growl and banging trees, and I just ran.” 

It’s a great story: fragile humanity acknowledging the fearsome power of nature in all its red-in-tooth-and-claw glory. At least it would be, if we weren’t at this very moment walking through those one of the very same forests where he bumped into the bears. Suddenly that indistinct brownish shape through the foliage just over there takes on a sinister hue. Is it a bush, or is it a giant, pissed-off Paddington?

“We’ll be fine,” reassures Jesse. “You just have to be watchful.” He hands over a can of bug spray. “You should put this on. If you get bitten by a tick, you could end up with Lyme disease, which can be nasty. Like very nasty.”

Great. If the bears don’t get you, the insects will.

(Image credit: Justin Borucki)

To get to the place Jesse Leach calls home these days, you drive north out of New York City for two hours until you reach the Catskill Mountains, then just follow the road upwards until civilisation is a distant memory. He lives a few miles away from Woodstock, the tiny town-turned- hippy mecca that lent its name to the 60s festival (an event that actually took place an hour-and-a-half’s drive away).

“Some people in Woodstock came for the festival and never left,” he says. “One guy walks around with no shoes all year. But there’s a great community of artists and musicians. I was sitting in a bar and I saw the guitarist from Bad Brains. And next to him was a guy who used to be in [70s funk collective] P-Funk. They had this reggae band, and they asked me to jam with them.”

His one-storey house stands on a quiet road surrounded by greenery and the kind of fresh air they should bottle up and sell in the Big Apple for 10 bucks a pop. He’s been coming here on holiday for 11 or 12 years between tours, but he moved in for good in January. He figured he spent so much time and money visiting that he may as well just move here and rent a place full-time.

There was another reason, too. Just before Xmas, Jesse’s 18-year marriage broke down. He doesn’t want to divulge details, but he does admit that it was messy. “We were supposed to move here together, but I ended up coming on my own. It was rough for the first couple of weeks. Full-on mental breakdown on the living room floor, drinking myself stupid.” He laughs. “Living the cliché.”

Today, his new girlfriend, Purple, is here. They’ve been together for five months but they seem like a perfect fit. They’ve only just got back from an EDM festival in Michigan, where they “took psychedelics for pretty much a week”. It turns out that today is Jesse’s 41st birthday, and Purple is heading out to pick up his birthday presents. She has a look in her eye that suggests she knows exactly what she wants to get him.

But we’re not here to talk about Jesse’s domestic situation or what he’s going to get for his birthday. We’re here to hike, to brave everything Mother Nature can throw at us and hopefully not get mauled, poisoned or eaten in the process.

(Image credit: Justin Borucki)

Ten minutes later, we’ve parked the car and are deep in a forest, following Jesse as he leads us along a trail between trees and rocks. We talk as we walk, our voices and the crunch of our feet the only noises breaking the silence.

With his bushy beard and sinewy physique (he says he’s dropped 30lbs after going vegan, cutting out gluten and reducing his booze intake, and it shows) the singer looks like an authentic woodsman. Or at least he does from the eyebrows down: the effect is ruined by the freshly dyed mohawk crawling across his head like an electric blue caterpillar.

The difference between him and most other hikers is mainly psychedelic. Over the last few years, he’s become an avid proponent of microdosing LSD and magic mushrooms. Microdosing – taking a reduced amount of a drug that would otherwise blitz your soufflé – is an on-trend pursuit that advocates say helps you deal with anxiety issues while getting you nicely buzzed.

“I got into it when someone I knew who was a chemist made a batch of LSD specifically for it. You just stop worrying about stuff. Sometimes if I’m going out to a show, I’ll do it rather than drink.”

The last time I was here, I was on copious amounts of mushrooms.

Jesse Leach

In fairness, the doses aren’t always so micro. “Oh no,” he says with a grin. “The last time I was here, I was on copious amounts of mushrooms.”

So far, so Woodstock. But his adventures in psychedelia are anchored in a more serious worldview. A strong streak of spirituality runs through him: he meditates, practises yoga and communes with nature. And fairly regularly he undertakes vision quests.

“It’s a Native American practice where you go out into the wilderness, take psychedelics and find your spirit animal,” he explains. “And the spirit animal will communicate with you.”

The first time he did it, he says, he fasted for a full day, ate a handful of magic mushrooms and sat on top of a mountain. “I stayed there all day,” he says. “These red-tailed hawks were flying above me, and I could see in their eyes and they could see in mine. They were calling. I got messages.”

That sounds kind of crazy.

“Sure. You can say what you want about it, but I firmly believe I was given messages through my spirit animal, and it helped heal and guide me and protect me. I still believe in it.”

He indicates his chest. Visible through the V of his denim shirt is a tattoo of a red-tailed hawk.

We’ve taken a break from our hike and are perched on a rock above a small gorge. I suggest talking about the fine new KSE album, Atonement. He shrugs and says, “Mehhhh.” It’s not because he’s not proud of it – “I am so happy with this record” – but he’d rather let the music and lyrics speak for themselves. It’s just about the only clichéd thing that comes out of his mouth today.

Jesse fell in love with the outdoors as a kid. He and his brother would go hiking with their father in the White Mountains, near their home in New Hampshire. It was a rare moment of bonding with his dad, a minister and purveyor of a fire-and-brimstone strain of evangelical Christianity. So strong was Leach Sr’s devotion, he moved the family from town to town whenever he heard God’s voice telling him to do so.

The pair spent years butting heads. Jesse hated his father’s ingrained bigotry. “He was such a tyrant,” he says. “I kept saying to him, ‘You talk about the God of love, yet here you are looking on in judgement.’”

In recent years, they’ve become closer. “He survived cancer twice, and mortality made him change his ways. He retired from the ministry and became a professor. He’s still religious, but it morphed his faith away from the dogma of religion about sexuality and gender. Now we’re decent friends.”

I fell into a pretty dark depression prior to my surgery. There was fear, anxiety and self-hate…

Jesse Leach

But Atonement is significant for another reason. While Killswitch were making it, Jesse discovered a polyp on his vocal fold. “When they told me, I’ve never seen my doctor have that look on his face before,” he says.

He was referred to a surgeon – “the guy who did Adele’s vocal surgery a few years ago” – who compared Jesse’s voice to “an 80-year-old man’s forehead”.

“I was sitting there going, ‘Is it over? Is it fucking done?’” he says. The band were forced to cancel one tour of their own, but they were due to go out on a huge European tour with Iron Maiden, and there was no way they could blow that one out. “I fell into a pretty dark depression prior to the surgery,” he says. “There was fear, anxiety and self-hate… feeling like I’d fucked things up for the band, that it was somehow my fault.”

Thankfully, the operation went well, despite the surgeon finding a second polyp on his throat. He visited a vocal coach as part of his recovery, where he found he could do things with his voice he never could before. He’s starting to tell me about the Maiden tour when his phone buzzes. He looks at the screen and the colour drains from his face.

“This is so weird,” he says. “My doctor just called, the guy I was telling you about. Dr Kessler.”

Do you want to call him back?

“No, I don’t want to talk to him right now. It’s freaking me out. This is weird.”

He puts the phone down, then picks it up again. His colour returns. “Oh, he’s wishing me happy birthday.” He laughs with relief. “Jesus Christ.”

(Image credit: Justin Borucki)

We’ve walked for what seems like a week, though in reality it’s probably not even an hour. Normally, Jesse would spend entire days out here, communing with nature and what he calls ‘The Great Spirit’.

“I like to refer to the Great Spirit when I say my prayers,” he says as we begin to walk back towards the car. “Mother Earth. Though to me it’s not a male or a female thing. It’s a spiritual entity that I believe exists in all things. I’m comfortable with the idea of this greater force, this greater energy that surrounds us and not having to label it.”

He’s aware of how it might sound, though he doesn’t really care. “It’s a fine line I try to walk where I take what I do seriously, but I try not to take myself that seriously,” he says. “My intention is to spread this message of love and unity and self-empowerment, but in the same breath I’m onstage with four other guys who are much more light-hearted about it.”

He says it was tough to reconcile those two approaches when he first rejoined Killswitch Engage in 2012. “I had a really hard time with it. I was miserable. I’d be onstage trying to talk about, you know, society, and Adam would be, ‘Titties and beers!’ I’m, like, ‘Come on, this is deep shit.’ I’d get offstage and have the weight of the world on my shoulders. But I think I realised I had to be humble. I can laugh at Adam’s dick jokes now.”

We’re back at the car. He’s heading back to his house, where his girlfriend will give him the present she’s just been out to pick up: a beautiful, handcrafted wooden table. Later tonight, they’ll get dressed up and head out to a nearby restaurant. He says that up here people have no idea who he is or what he does, and he doesn’t volunteer the information unless asked. “And even then, I’ll say the name of the band and people are just, like, [shrugging], ‘I don’t know.’ And I’m, like, ‘Yes!’”

We drop him off, and bid Jesse, his girlfriend and his new handcrafted wooden table farewell, leaving him to his solitude. And the ticks and bears. 

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.