During the making of Atonement – Killswitch Engage’s eighth album, out now – vocalist Jesse Leach ran into some serious vocal trouble. After a polyp developed scar tissue in his throat, he was forced to undergo surgery and then enter into speech, vocal and scream therapy.
Leach’s journey with the band has not been unimpeded. As a founding member, he was present for the first two Killswitch records – 2000’s self-titled and 2002’s Alive or Just Breathing – before exiting for nine years and three albums due to, among other things, feeling discontented with the touring lifestyle.
But since returning for 2013’s Disarm the Descent, Leach has been determined not just to rekindle the fire of the band’s early work, but also realise his full potential as an individual. This is all brought to bear on Atonement, which was completed after he successfully recovered his voice.
Leach speaks to Music Feeds about how losing his voice helped him gain perspective, the origins of the album title, his views on religion, and reconnecting with Killswitch’s other (former) lead vocalist, Howard Jones.
Music Feeds: Killswitch Engage has been a part of your life for two decades and Atonement is your fifth record with the band. You also worked with lead guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz on the Times of Grace project. Do you think a lot of your identity is tied up with your experiences with the other four members of the band?
Jesse Leach: 20 years is a long time. It’s just a little bit less than half my life so I think my identity definitely is tied in. It’s not the end-all, be-all, but it’s definitely a huge part of who I am. I was able to step away from the band for nine years and even with this recent vocal issue that I had where I had to have surgery, it really made me re-think about who I am outside this band.
MF: Atonement is the third album to come during your second phase as the band’s lead singer. Howard Jones, who took over for The End of Heartache, As Daylight Dies and 2009’s Killswitch Engage, makes an appearance on ‘The Signal Fire’. How significant was it to include him on the record?
JL: He had come out to a show in Canada and we made fast friends. We were acquaintances before that, but having him come out and seeing him interact with the band and just seeing that friendship come back was really inspiring to me. That night we all hung out on the bus and he played some of his new band, Light the Torch, for us, and that inspired me. I loved the name of the band and it inspired me to write ‘Signal Fire’. I thought, “what a great idea; lighting up a signal fire to call your brothers out to have your back.”
I wrote the song thinking of that concept and then it just kind of clicked: why not have [Howard] sing on this and really drive that message of unity home? And I’m grateful that it worked out and I’m stoked at the way it came out.
MF: During the making of Atonement, which dates back to early 2017, your voice became inoperative. That’s obviously a serious issue, especially when singing is your livelihood and mode of expression. Did you go through some dark times when you found out about the severity of the problem?
JL: Full on depression. I spiralled into a very dark place. But at the same time, being quiet and not being able to use my voice for the better part of two months was very monastic and meditative. And realising the gift that we do have as humans with our voice and what we do with it. We can either waste it and be fickle with it and use it for negative things, for hatred, and to knock people down, or we can speak of goals and dreams and positivity and love.
When you can’t speak, the body and the brain pushes out other senses and my sense of hearing and the feeling of the vibe of people in the social environment was heightened. So as much as I got depressed and had a hard time with it, I look back on that as a very big learning experience for me as a human being.
MF: The word atonement carries religious connotations – in the Christian religions, it’s the reconciliation of God and humankind. You have a religious background and you’re a critical thinker where organised religion is concerned. As far as the album title goes, what connotations of the word atonement are you trying to convey?
JL: I was definitely raised by a minister and in a Christian environment. I’ve taken what I think are the positive aspects of that religion and allowed that to be a part of who I am, but I reject a good deal of the dogmatics and a good deal of the contradictions that run alongside the Christian religion, and religion in general, really. I see it as a means to control and I think it’s detrimental to us as human beings to lean too heavily on any one religion.
Atonement to me was just a very strong word that I saw as being held accountable for your actions. Whether that’s you holding somebody accountable and inflicting that atonement or that revenge or that righteous anger upon somebody, or taking a very long, hard look in the mirror and re-evaluating your life and your soul and holding yourself accountable.
MF: Killswitch Engage is a band capable of full-on, extreme heaviness and you employ guttural and primitive screaming and growling. There are also shades of light throughout the catalogue and many classic rock-tinged melodies on Atonement. Do your stylistic decisions align with any sort of spiritual ethos?
JL: The thing I hold above all things is compassion and love. I think if you are putting that first in your life, regardless of your religion or your belief in a god or a great spirit or mother earth or whatever you want to call it – love in essence and compassion, in essence, is god, is the higher calling, is the greatest thing that we could strive for as the human race.
If you’re putting that first above all things, which I strive so hard to do, then you’re on the right path. Once you stray outside of that and you get into the laws and the dogmatics and the control of religion that’s when you start to see the flaws. For me, it’s a higher calling to remind people that we do have this beautiful gift and this powerful thing called love.
Atonement is out now. Listen here.