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, in general.
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 time?
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.