UNLESS YOU’RE PRETTY WELL TAPPED INTO THE METAL SCENE, IT’S EASY TO HEAR A
name like Killswitch Engage and assume it’s another blastbeat-powered outfit
pumping out paeans to carnage, raucous living, and Beelzebub. But though this
Boston-based quintet does deal in throat shredding, detuned chugging, and
double-bass frenzies galore, KSE is also arguably the preeminent proponent of
songcraft and tone alchemy in metal today. (And, for the record, the band’s tunes
actually deal primarily with altruistic themes of loyalty, love, forgiveness, and
persistence—a big bonus for those who dig aggressive music but find most of
metal’s subject matter ridiculous or offensive.)
Killswitch’s last album, As Daylight
Dies, was hailed as one of All Music
Guide’s Top Five metal picks for 2006,
and that album’s first single, “My Curse,”
became a favorite selection for Rock Band
and Guitar Hero video game enthusiasts
everywhere precisely because the
band balances its brutality with Adam
Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel’s ultratight
and über-memorable harmonized
leads, Howard Jones’s incredible singing—
yes, singing—and arrangements that are
simultaneously catchy and unpredictable.
“That’s something some people like
about us,” says Stroetzel. “But others
criticize us and say our heavy parts are
too melodic. Some people say, ‘That’s
cheesy, like emo—you’re not metal.’ But
we’re kind of a mix of everything. We’re
not trying to be any particular type of
metal band—we’re just trying to write
music that’s interesting to us.”
So far, that mantra has paid off in
spades for Killswitch. But as one of
metal’s most prominent acts, the band
faced high expectations for its fifth album,
this year’s eponymous Roadrunner
Records release. Fortunately for fans and
open-minded newbies alike, the new
album confirms the band’s pre-release
claims that it would be both heavier and
more melodic than past work. Co-produced
by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam,
Rage Against the Machine, the Black
Crowes) and Dutkiewicz—who studied
engineering and bass at Berklee College
of Music and is a noted producer of heavy
acts such as Unearth, As I Lay Dying,
and All That Remains—the new album
finds the band laying old-school thrash
sections down alongside dynamically intimate
vocals, genre-busting guitar textures
and tones, and new atmospheric adornments.
What was it like working with Brendan O’Brien?
Joel Stroetzel: It didn’t affect the guitar
parts too much, actually. Brendan
mainly worked with Howard on the
vocals, and Adam and I pretty much
recorded all of our guitar tracks back at
home like we normally do. We tried to
keep it chill and work long hours to do
as much in a day as we could.
Adam Dutkiewicz: Yeah, Joel and I
recorded the guitar stuff the way we
always have because that’s my specialty—
I’ve produced all our previous albums.
We’re very confident in what we can
do in terms of guitar tones, and we
were very fortunate that Brendan let
us do that.
How did you get the layered crystal-clean
and gritty-clean sounds on “Take Me Away”?
Dutkiewicz: I believe we used an
Orange Tiny Terror and an old Fender
Vibrolux. Doing that let us get some
really dynamic clean tones that aren’t
typical of our band.
The guitar tones and textures on the new
album are more complex than on past albums,
Stroetzel: Yeah, there’s a lot of different
stuff going on, and we used a lot of
different guitar amps. Many of the rhythm
parts were done with a Diezel VH4, and for a
lot of the main overdubs we used a Splawn
Nitro, which is basically a hotrodded Marshall
with KT88 power tubes, which give it a bigger
sound more like the JCM 800s. We also
used a Fuchs Tripledrive. Our favorite cabs are
Mesa/Boogie Stiletto straight cabs with
Celestion Vintage 30s. That’s what we tracked
with, but sometimes if the tone wasn’t fitting
in we’d send the recorded part out to another
amp so we didn’t have to re-track it.
What’s your favorite studio mic?
Dutkiewicz: The Shure SM57 is the standard.
We put them right up on the grille,
and do different phasing things—but typically
the mic is about six inches back from
the grille, and a tiny bit off-axis.
What guitars did you use this time around?
Stroetzel: I used a couple of my custom
Caparison TAT guitars with EMG 81s. A lot
of rocker guitars have really thin, flat necks,
but the TAT has a rounded, Les Paul-type
feel to it—like a baseball bat. I like that
because a lot of a guitar’s sustain comes from
the neck. Adam played a couple different
Parker Flys, some with EMGs and some with
passive pickups. We used the Parkers with
passive Duncans for much of clean stuff, and
the Caparison and the Parkers with EMGs
for the dirty stuff. We string the guitars with
011-.050 DR Tite-Fits, and I use Caparison
picks that are like Dunlop Jazz IIIs, but a little
heavier. I like smaller picks because there’s
less to get in the way when you’re playing
pinched harmonics and things like that.
Dutkiewicz: I’ve dealt with back problems
for a long time, and playing heavier
guitars really aggravated them—I almost had
to call it quits. I’ve had two back surgeries
for bulging discs over the last few years, and
that’s one of the major reasons I started playing
Parker guitars. The weight of the Fly
allows me to do my job without being in agonizing
pain. We’re coming out with a
signature model called the Dragonfly. It will
have a seven-degree pitched headstock,
which helps the guitar stay in tune, and it’ll
be the first Parker to come with EMGs—an
81-X, which you can split, and an 85-X.
What about pedals and rack gear?
Stroetzel: We don’t really use any rack
gear with our guitar stuff, although live we
use an ISP Technologies Decimator to control
noise. Live and in the studio, we use a
Maxon OD808 Overdrive—a copy of an
Ibanez 808 Tube Screamer—as well as a
Maxon phaser, a Maxon AD9 Analog Delay,
and a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor.
Do you use the OD808 as a boost for leads?
Stroetzel: We actually leave them on all
the time. We don’t use any gain on them,
we just turn the level up a bit past noon or
maybe 3 o’clock to compress the signal a little.
Some of the tube amps tend to get a little
fluffy with the palm-muted riffs, so adding
in a little bit of a solid-state pedal increases
the attack and punch.
Are you careful to use similar gear so that your
tones don’t contrast too much?
Stroetzel: Live, we’ve been known to
use different stuff. We’ve both been using
those Splawn amps a lot, but I’ve also used
the Fuchs amps live. But we do try to keep
our tones matched up pretty closely. When
we’re recording, we’ll both play through
whatever rhythm or lead amp we decide on
for a whole song.
When you’re playing harmonized leads live, do
you switch to a different tone?
Stroetzel: Live, we pretty much set one
tone and roll with it, although we switch to
different amps for clean and low-gain
sounds—Adam uses a Fender Twin and I use
a Fuchs Clean Machine.
How do you divide guitar duties?
Stroetzel: In the studio, there’s usually
a rhythm track on each side, and there could
be any number of lead overdubs stacked on
top. Usually, whoever writes the riff will
play both sides and do the overdubs. Whoever
seems to be more comfortable with
that particular part of the song plays the
left and right guitars for a section, and then
we’ll just trade off. We have slightly different
styles and it saves time—especially
when we haven’t had much time to play the
songs live together and we’re still working
out the kinks.
Dutkiewicz: Exactly, we just hammer it
out and it depends who wrote the song. If
Joel was a major contributor to that song,
he might record more of it.
What do you track first when you’re beginning
a new song?
Stroetzel: We do drums first. You want
some of the sections to be machine-gun tight,
so you use a click track. But others have a
bit of a groove and you want to sit behind
or on top of the beat a little bit, which can
be tough to do with a click track. Brendan
also had us lay down scratch guitar tracks
or play along with Justin [Foley, drums] to
help him get the vibe, too.
Do you stick to one or two tunings most the
Stroetzel: Yeah, all the songs are in C,
G, C, F, A, D, low to high, but “Take Me
Away” is in standard tuning dropped down
one full step to D,G, C, F, A, D.
What are you listening to these days?
Stroetzel: I like a lot of old thrash and
metal—I’m a big Iron Maiden fan, obviously,
and I love Testament and old Metallica, and
Megadeth—but I haven’t really kept up with
the metal scene. I like a lot of indie rock and
mellow stuff, as well as classic rock and blues.
I’m a big Ryan Adams and the Cardinals fan,
and I’ve been listening to a lot of Wilco lately.
Dutkiewicz: As a guitarist, my favorites
are Eddie Van Halen—he’s number one, for
sure—and Nuno Bettencourt. He was one
of my bigger guitar heroes, growing up in
the late ’80s and early ’90s. He’s amazing.
I’m also a big fan of Zakk Wylde’s squeals,
and I’ve incorporated that into my style. These
days, I listen to a lot of Cannibal Corpse, but
even though we love death metal we really
don’t listen to it much anymore. I’ve actually
been listening to a lot of hip-hop lately.
Kanye West is one of my favorites. He’s a
consummate artist, from his songwriting
and composing to his attitude. As a producer,
I’ve got my tone heroes—like Van Halen.
And I’m also a big fan of Andy Sneap [Arch
Enemy, Machine Head, Megadeth]—he’s great
at getting modern guitar sounds.
Although “Never Again” has a shredding solo,
you guys typically shy away from the spotlight in
favor of making intricate leads and riffs integral
to the verses and choruses.
Stroetzel: And even some of the arrangements
that are kind of complex to play don’t
necessarily sound complex. We’re definitely
into playing guitar—and I love hearing guitar
solos—but we usually try to write more
for the song. If a song needs a guitar solo,
we’ll put one in, but we don’t base tunes
around solos. A lot of metal bands do that,
and it’s awesome, but it’s just not the way
we’ve done things throughout the years. We
try to keep ourselves easy to listen to.