Yes, it was April Fools Day. But I kid you not, this is one of the best interviews I’ve ever conducted! Killswitch is rarely invoked, there was a very natural flow to the conversation, and I think we both genuinely enjoyed our discussion. I hope you do as well.
Note: I mistakenly call their record label, Angle Side Side, “Angle Angle Side” the first few times.
ML: This is Matt Longo for WRUV FM Burlington and MindOverMetal.org. On the line here is Jesse Leach, the original vocalist for Killswitch Engage, as well as Seemless. But he’s currently fronting The Empire Shall Fall, who have just released their debut EP Awaken on Angle Angle Side (sic) Records. Thanks for joining us on Mind Over Metal, Jesse, we appreciate it!
JL: Yeah, no problem. Thank you, Matt… ‘preciate it. Hey, what’s up, Burlington?! How you doing?!
JL: What’s up, Burlington?! Burlington, Vermont: great people, good city, good beer!
ML: Oh man, I’m glad you approve of that. We’ve actually have one of the, uh…(I trail off here, probably thinking about something like our bar-to-person ratio, but then resume with…) it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with beer, actually, was because of this city.
JL: Alright, man. And actually, our artist that does all the artwork for the records and the t-shirts lives in Burlington; a good friend of mine named Matt Y (Matthew Yezuita and his email is email@example.com).
ML: Cool. Well I wanna start by saying, Jesse, that The Empire Shall Fall surpasses most modern metalcore that I hear these days.
JL: Right on.
ML: I mean, you guys maintain the melodic sensibility, you incorporate the obtuse rhythms a la Meshuggah and jazzy interludes, you keep the sociopolitical hardcore center…explain the development process that brought TSEF to fruition.
JL: Well I’ll start by saying this: a lot of people are labeling up as “metalcore”. I understand it, I dig it, but at the same time, people are gonna be really surprised about the next record. We’re gonna push some boundaries. Keeping it heavy, keeping that groove, but I think we’re more than a metalcore band. That being said, we all come from different backgrounds. The lead guitar player is about 19, who was 17/18 going into this record, has written about 95% of the riffs. The guy’s constantly firing off ideas, which is why we’ve started working on the new record. We’ve got a drummer that has a lot of experience with pop music and jazz. We’ve got a bass player who’s done jazz and rock. We’ve got a guitar player who’s doing progressive music, and Marcus is also the engineer and the producer of the record. So that’s kinda where the sound came from. But the two songs that really show more of the direction we’re heading are “Awaken” and “Our Own”. They were the last songs we wrote, and I think we really began to capture our sound – what we’re going for – on those tracks. So it shows our progression, but also our diversity, because I make a point to keep that punk/hardcore influence in the vocals.
ML: Speaking of your lyrics and your vocals, is there was anything you experienced in recent times that made you want to write lyrics this confrontational?
JL: Life! I gotta tell ya, 2009 was one of the roughest times in my entire life, and it really inspired me to question a lot of things.
ML: Is there any one thing that catalyzed it especially?
JL: Yeah, it’s a personal thing… but definitely! (laughs) But it’s a positive thing now. You live and learn from intense situations in life.
JL: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and more aware. That’s kinda the theme of the record – a reawakening, if you will, of self-discovery. I like the word you said: confrontational. I started to confront things like the way this world is run, the way people view each other in a community, the lack of love, the lack of compassion, a general sense of apathy. It really fired me up…and I had to vent…get it off my chest. I’m the kind of person who will put my lyrics out there and release my aggression, but at the end of the day, there’s always hope for change. I really see myself as an honest writer. I do my best to stand by the lyrics I write. If I haven’t lived them, I won’t write about it.
ML: I was checking out your MySpace page and it says you were “raised on protest music”. What was the first music that really moved you, changed you… as far back as you can remember?
JL: I was raised on Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds, CSNY, Neil Young, Bob Dylan…
ML: So “protest music” with more of a folk influence.
JL: For me, though, it was just lyrically. That stuff really hit home with me. My dad would sit down next to me when I was a kid, and he’d put on the vinyl. I’d have the album with me, and I’d open up the big record cover and stare at the artwork and read those lyrics. I’d see my dad singing along, closing his eyes and putting his fist up…it inspired me from a really early age. But I think it didn’t really connect with me until I discovered punk rock when I was 15. The first time I heard Minor Threat, that voice – Ian MacKaye… I was like ‘Whoa!’
ML: A lot of those bands have the same intentions, but the approach is so different.
JL: You know what it is? You put on a band like that, you can’t not listen to it. It’s not background music, y’know? Shortly after, I got to Bad Brains, and that’s when it all clicked. That punk aggression, but always a spiritual lining to it. That’s right up my alley, cuz my dad went from a hippie to a minister, so it all sorta ties in together. That’s kinda my roots.
ML: Along those same lines, I wanna posit a question I recently asked Bruce Fitzhugh of Living Sacrifice: as a devout Christian, is it more or less difficult to write secular music vs. non-secular, and do you have a preference for either?
JL: That is an interesting issue. I definitely consider myself a Christian and a believer of God, but I wouldn’t want to have anyone look at me or my actions or the way I carry myself and think that’s how a Christian should be. When you’re an artist and a musician, people do look at you a certain way, but I think my honesty is gonna show people that I’m just like you are. I’ve never written a “Christian” record; I’ve never called upon the name of God in my songs. For me, that would be a little contrived. I’d rather write music from my perspective as a believer in God, as opposed to being a religious artist. You have to go with your calling, and I don’t feel called to be a Christian artist, per sé. So people consider me secular, but I’m writing from a Christian point-of-view.
ML: I see. Now you were mentioning earlier how apathy is one of the greatest problems affecting our society. In the title track, “Awaken” you state that “real emotion” is “the reason for life”. I was wondering how you think human actions boil down. Are there base emotions that we’re firing from?
JL: That is probably one of the best questions I’ve ever heard right there! And the fact that you picked that line up out of anything on the record…I love that. You are awesome. (laughs)
ML: (laughs) Thanks, man.
JL: I would say that’s not meant to be a literal line. I take a lot of poetic license with my songs. That line to me is…when you’re honest – when you just say what you feel – those words carry power. That’s the catalyst for change, the catalyst for revolution. When you try to express your raw emotion through words, sometimes those words my not come out perfect. You may not be able to spell it out to people, but when they hear it, they know it. You can tell when someone is being completely honest because it does something to you; that sound strikes a chord in your soul. That’s what I aim to do with my lyrics. Regardless of what I’m saying lyrically, there’s a sound and a feeling behind the words that I convey.
ML: The conviction behind your words, not just the content [it]self.
JL: For me, it’s just a matter of what’s coming out. And it may sound kinda hokey to people that don’t grasp it, but I think if you’re singing from your soul – if you’re speaking from your soul – people that are ‘tuned in’ are gonna know that.
ML: Now, I’ve gotta ask you this. I’m sure everyone you’ve talked to today has brought this up: your recent performance with KsE. You’ve been asked about reformations, tours, etc., but rather than ask a simple yes-no question, I’d like to know why rejoining KsE would be an attractive offer for you, and why would it not?
JL: Wow, you’re good at these questions, man. I will answer with respect to everybody involved.
JL: Killswitch to me – the level that they’re on – are the kind of band where you can leave tour, and not worry about paying your bills for a while. They’re really successful; they’re doing really well. They are definitely some of my better friends and I’ve known them for years.
JL: Those two options, as a 31-year-old who works 50-60 hours a week, loves music more than anything, and would enjoy the road: that would be the attractive option. As well as being able to sing those songs that I never really got the opportunity to fully express to the world.
ML: And you did sing only songs from Alive Or Just Breathing and the first album [at the NY gig].
JL: Well I’ve never been a… cover singer.
ML: And that’s how you would have interpreted it, if you were to perform those songs?
JL: Yeah. It’s really tough to say. Again, I feel what I write. So for me to sing somebody else’s material would take some effort. When they asked me initially, I said that as long it was stuff off AOJB, I’m in. I love those songs, and I hadn’t listened to that record for years. And when they asked me, I put it back on and just felt completely re-inspired by it.
ML: You hadn’t even listened to it for years?
JL: I will go on record as saying this: I’d do an Alive Or Just Breathing Reunion Tour!
ML: (surprised) Really?
JL: No problem, yup! And why would I not want to do it?
JL: A#1 – I love my life as a “normal person” and I love being with my wife. I love my band, The Empire Shall Fall. I think maintaining TESF first and foremost, then running with Times Of Grace: those are the two things that would keep me from wanting to do it, since it would take time away from those projects.
ML: Okay. I want to – possibly – touch one more nerve, and ask how you felt about Killswitch releasing another self-titled album?
JL: (laughs hard) That response you just heard is my honest one: I chuckle.
ML: (laughs) Okay.
JL: Well because you go online and see their reason why, and they say We didn’t know what else to do. (laughs)
ML: Yeah! Or I thought the quote I saw was like We always thought of the first album as an EP. And I was like… really? I don’t see that.
JL: I honestly didn’t pay too much attention to the press around that record. Hey, whatever, to each his own. I just thought it was kinda funny. (laughs)
JL: The funny thing is, though, we’re all friends!
ML: Oh yeah, so we all know about that… but what I’m wondering who is your favorite formative metalcore band – in the northeast or otherwise – that you haven’t been involved with.
JL: It’s hard for me because, believe it or not, I’m not a huge listener of metal. So a local band that really struck me … local … lemme think about that for a sec, cuz there’s a lot of bands that came from that scene. I used to love watching Aftershock, I’ll be honest with you. My band, Corinn, used to play shows back in the day with Aftershock, and that’s when I first noticed Adam. He was the guitar player, and he was definitely a lot chunkier way back then, just a big dude!
JL: And I just remember watching him, and they way he would stomp and the faces he would make when he played guitar. I just remember thinking they were a badass band. But I gotta say… the cream of the crop for me, personally, back in the day was the first time I saw Candiria play.
ML (interested): Really?
JL: It was like ’98 and my band Corinn invited them down to Rhode Island to play a hardcore matinee on Sunday. There was maybe twenty people there, and Carley [Coma] steps out of the van. It was the first time meeting each other, though we’d been in touch via phone and Corinn were definitely fans of Candiria. The nicest guys you’d ever wanna meet, man. He gets on stage, and they start playing, Ken starts doing the drum fills, and – literally – all 20-25 people there in that place just stopped what they were doing and were like What is this? Then Carley gets on stage… he starts jumping around and screaming. He had his pants sagging and his big feet… he looked like Busta Rhymes… but he had these death metal vocals. I remember just standing there thinking This is insane! These guys are really onto something.
ML: That’s funny, I had a similar experience with that same band, only a little earlier in ’96, cuz I had never seen a black dude really sing brutal vocals.
JL: Exactly. And as they grew within the next couple years, I saw some of the coolest performances from those guys. Real high energy, full on. In my opinion, one of the most underrated bands. I’ve got a lot of love for Candiria.
ML: Alright Jesse, I gotta wrap things up. The new album from The Empire Shall Fall is Awaken on Angle Angle Side (sic) Records. Is that an up-and-coming label, or what’s with Angle Angle Side (sic)? Or Angle Side Side, sorry!
JL: Ah, there it is! Yeah it’s Angle Side Side. It’s actually run by our bass player; it’s our record label.
ML: So it’s real DIY stuff here with The Empire Shall Fall.
JL: We’re a DIY band, oh yeah! (laughs)
ML: So what’s coming up with tours? I was looking for info and didn’t see anything. What are your plans?
JL: We’re a regional band at this point. We all work full time, and have bills, and are students. We’re in no position to tour unless someone threw a bunch of money at us, but that’s not happening. We’re weekend warriors until we can actually do it, but I’d hafta say that by 2011, we’ll probably be hitting the road.
ML: Alright, we’ll be on the lookout for ya, man. It’s been great talking to you, it really has.
JL: Likewise, man… good questions! I appreciate it.