Whether it’s because they have definite hardcore roots, forming as they did from the ashes of Overcast, Aftershock and, later, Blood Has Been Shed, or because they have choruses that sound more like globules of liquid sugar instead of caustic battery acid, Massachusetts’ Killswitch Engage has always had troubles being accepted by metalheads across the board. Arguments range from “they’re metalcore/screamo/not metal therefore they suck” to “they may be metal, but they suck” and other such subjectivity disguised as scene police fact. That they’ve gone ahead and managed two certified gold records in the U.S. means that the underground has yet another reason to chastise them beyond the speciousness of arguments surrounding what genre they call home. But wait a sec… not one, but two gold records?
Somebody, somewhere must not be giving a flying fuck about where along the continuum of sleeveless-Manowar-shirt-ownership they fall and cottoned on to the band’s song-smithing, which has brought the undeniable infectiousness of the likes of “Rose of Sharyn,” “The Arms of Sorrow” and “My Curse” to the world. The band’s fifth – and, oddly, second self-titled – album continues that tradition, sticking to the formula vocalist Howard Jones once described as “brutal sounding verses with pussy choruses.”
Hellbound recently tracked down guitarist – somehow, we ended up with his wife’s cell number – Joel Stroetzel, and after his wife passed her phone to him, we chatted about working with Brendan O’Brien, stifling album leaks and, yeah, those damned gold records.
So, in the interests of research for this interview, I checked out the Killswitch Wikipedia page and there’s an unnerving amount of personal info up there about each of you guys. Is this something you’ve come to accept as being in a band in the digital age?
Joel Stroetzel: [laughs] It’s a weird thing, but ultimately, it’s a good thing at the same time as it shows people are taking more of an interest in the band. That’s a good thing, but it’s kind of strange when your personal life is kicking around out there. But whatever, it is what is and I guess it’s pretty flattering if people are that curious.
You wake up in the morning and see two framed and mounted gold records for The End of Heartache and As Daylight Dies staring back at you. What goes through your head?
[Laughs] Actually, As Daylight Dies just went gold [ironically, it was certified gold the very same day the new album was released, which was two weeks before this conversation took place-KSP] and we’re pretty stoked on that, but we’re not one of those bands that ever lived or survived on record sales. We’re a bit more of a traveling circus as we’ve kind of always made our living selling t-shirts and doing lots of touring. Record sales are exciting and it’s great that things are going well, but I don’t think anyone in the band is counting the numbers too closely.
How are gold records calculated these days? Are they based on actual SoundScan sales or still on number of units shipped?
I think they still calculate it by units shipped. Obviously, the units shipped are going to be more than you actually sell, but it tends to be fairly close. I think most bands are within like 10-20,000 copies of the number shipped. If a band gets a gold record it usually means they shipped 500,000 but sold 475-485,000 or something like that. I think it’s ultimately how many make it to the stores.
Do the shipping numbers take into account albums that are sold outside of stores, like when you see albums in a distro or on a merch table? Does SoundScan count those in any way?
I’m not sure how that works. As far as SoundScan numbers go, I think it counts as two or three sales if you buy an album at a show, or a certain show, and it depends on the venue and all these other factors. I’m not exactly sure how it works. For a lot of our shows and some tours, we don’t even bother selling CDs with our merch because they can be really expensive to get from the label. Fans are actually better off getting them from a store.
[Vocalist] Howard [Jones] said in Terrorizer magazine a couple years back that Killswitch’s songs, in a nutshell, were “Brutal sounding verses with pussy sounding choruses.” Obviously, that’s a generalization, but has the song writing philosophy or process changed on the new album?
That statement is frighteningly true [laughs]. That’s awesome! That’s funny and he’s kinda right. We all love rock music and pop music and metal and we usually try to write something that combines all those elements into something that’s kind of exciting to us. We like the heavy riffs and we like the hooks and the catchy choruses and we try to incorporate more sound, y’know? Howard was right though. He nailed that one.
What were you looking to do differently on the new album? Was there a different approach to the recording with Brendan O’Brien (AC/DC, The Offspring, Pearl Jam) on board?
The biggest thing musically was that we weren’t sure what he was going to do with Howard. Brendan said that vocals are kind of his thing; that’s his favourite part of working on a record. We just kind of hoped, with him being more of a rock and roll guy, that he would give the record more of an organic, bouncy feel instead of a robo-sounding, pieced-together-on ProTools record. We’ve done that in the past and wanted to go back to something more organic because we hadn’t really done that since Alive or Just Breathing. [Guitarist/producer] Adam [Dutkiewicz] has always worked with Howard in the studio in the past and the tension sometimes can get high when those two disagree on stuff because not only are they working on a record together, but they’re band members and have to travel together and everything. I think for Adam’s sake, this time around he was like, “Howard can battle with somebody else and that’ll save our friendship.” Not that it gets that bad, but he figured it’d be a cool experience and Brendan a great job with Howard.
Was Brendan O’Brien on the same page with you or did he bring an additional set of different ideas that had you guys thinking or doing beyond your comfort zones?
He was actually more on the same page than any of us expected. There were only a couple of arrangements in a couple of songs where he offered suggestions, but it was really subtle stuff. Howard tends to write his lyrics and stuff and do vocals in the studio after the songs are done and recorded, but I’m not sure how things really went between Howard and Brendan, they did their own thing for that.
With you guys coming from a more metal/hardcore background and Brendan coming from the mainstream, was there ever a butting of heads or clashing of ideals based on your different backgrounds?
The only thing that was really different for us was that Brendan is used to working with pretty huge bands and the studio environment he created for us was a lot more relaxed than we’re used to. In a lot of ways, that was a good thing, but in a lot of other ways it was kind of frustrating. In the past, we’d be like, “Let’s get in the studio for 10am. We’ll track ‘til midnight and just knock this shit out.” With Brendan, he’d pop in here and there for an hour or so, work on something, then take a little break where we’re like, “We kinda want to get this stuff done” [laughs]. It’s part of the reason that Adam and I did a lot of the guitar stuff at home where we had 24-hour access to home studios and stuff, so we could do our long hours and not step on anyone’s toes. The relaxed environment worked out awesome for Howard because it kind of brought down the stress level. He puts a lot of expectation on himself and I think gets kind of stressed out about things. Brendan was the perfect guy to help him through that.
How difficult was it for Adam to relinquish that “control”? Or was it a relief for him to be able to focus more on playing guitar and have someone else worrying about gear going on the fritz?
Yeah, totally [laughs]. I mean Adam obviously trusted Brendan. If you look at Brendan’s track record, it’s hard not to trust him. We immediately got a good vibe from him, talking on the phone before we ever started working with him. It seemed that he got what we were and what we wanted to sound like. He wasn’t going to try and turn us into a radio rock band or anything. He was pretty understanding about that stuff and I don’t think any of the issues were about control. Originally, we were going to have Brendan mix the record as well. So, we got the test recordings back and everything sounded good, but it was a little rawer than we were hoping for. He’s not a big fan of that sort of sounding metal record, so to speak. We went back and forth and he’s like, “If you guys don’t want a super-polished metal record, I’m probably not the guy to do that,” and that’s when Adam stepped back in.
As you spent more time in the studio putting the recording together, how was the finished product turning out compared to what you were bashing out in the rehearsal room?
It was pretty much what we had envisioned. There were some bumps along the way. Like I said, we hadn’t tracked together live in a room in a while, so we went back and re-did some guitars and things like that. And there was the thing with the mix, but the songs pretty shaped up the way we expected them to and hoped they would.
With your increasingly busy schedules pertaining to the business side of music – and stuff happening like having weird dudes call your wife’s cell phone for interviews – what do you find yourselves doing to maintain focus on the music?
[Laughs] Everybody has their own little hobbies and their own vices. Some of us like to drink booze and hang out. I don’t really play video games, but when I can I’ll just lock myself in a room and play guitar and that keeps me happy. At the end of the day, we’re all out here to play, we’re not out here trying to live some crazy lifestyle or anything. We try not to get too hung up on numbers and stuff like that, ultimately we just want to have fun and play fun shows every night.
How difficult it is to get together for rehearsals and writing sessions these days?
We don’t really rehearse too often because we’re on the road so much and playing so many shows. If there’s a song we need to brush up on or that we haven’t played, then we try to do it at a soundcheck a couple of times, then just go for it. We all kind of live in different places and it’s tough to get together when we’re at home. People have to fly to see each other. When we were writing the record, [drummer] Justin [Foley] lives in St. Louis and he was flying in every other week and we’d play everyday from 10 ‘til 5 or whatever then take a week off then do another week of 10-5’s. It was a real on and off thing, but that was the only way we could do it.
I remember seeing Killswitch back in a small club with [former vocalist] Jesse [Leach] on vocals. I also saw Howard’s debut with the band at Hellfest ’02 and it seemed like there was a certain transition taking place in terms of popularity – playing bigger stages and less intimate shows. Now, you guys are frickin’ huge. How long did it take you to adjust to playing on big stages?
It was weird, especially the first few times we played on bigger stages because we kind of didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We were so used to being cramped on these little stages where no one could move around even if they tried and it was a hassle just trying to fit up there [laughs]. You can’t really get in people’s faces when you’re on a stage 10 feet high with a five-foot barrier separating the crowd and that’s kind of a bummer because you lose that closeness vibe. There’s definitely a magic that’s lost playing those bigger shows. At the same time, it’s fun to look out and see more people as well.
I know you guys had a couple of promotional tricks like having the new album played at various Hot Topic locations on the same day in addition to the usual advance tracks and streaming. How do you feel these tactics are working in terms of piracy and downloading?
There’s no way to really stop people from downloading these days. Anything you want you can find it on the internet at some point. We were lucky with this record in that it only leaked a week-and-a-half before the release date, which isn’t bad. If it leaked three months before, we’d have been bummed. The Hot Topic stuff, the online promotion, the streaming and all that, it’s almost like a new form of radio. It’s a new way to promote the record and if people like it, hopefully they’ll pick it up. I don’t think it’s going to stop piracy, but I think it’s a good way to get the music out there for people to decide if they like the record or not. For me personally, I like buying records. I don’t download a lot of stuff. I’m old school, I like to have the booklet and the disc and all that stuff.
It’s pretty telling that you’re talking about an album leak in terms of how close to the release date it was prevented from happening.
Yeah, it’s a sign of the times. It was hilarious though, because the record wasn’t even done when it was supposed to be. I think we delivered it to Roadrunner three months late because we were on tour so much. I think we got it to the label two weeks before it was supposed to come out. I don’t even know how they got them pressed that quickly.