Killswitch Engage: Seasons in the Abyss

Originally published in Guitar World, October 2009

Slayer kicked them off their tour, and one of their guitarists nearly quit after throwing out his back. Now Killswitch Engage return with a new self-titled album and plans for a summer rematch with Slayer on the Mayhem tour. Adam Dutkiewicz and Joel Stroetzel weigh in.

"I don’t really aspire to be a wicked, awesome guitar player,” declares Adam Dutkiewicz of Killswitch Engage. “I know that’s a shitty thing to say, but it’s true.”

Dutkiewicz is the band’s resident provocateur. He likes to wind people up and mess with their expectations. And what better way to mess with a guitar magazine than to proclaim total indifference to the quest for greatness as a guitar player?

“Adam likes to take the piss out of things,” says Joel Stroetzel, Dutkiewicz’s co-guitarist. “Onstage, he just wants to have a good time—kind of act like an asshole, but in a funny way. He likes to get people going, egg the crowd on. He gets up there and calls the crowd ‘pussies’ and all this stuff. But coming from a guy wearing short shorts and a cape, you gotta take things like that in stride.”

Adam’s unusual stage attire and demeanor have caused controversy in the stylistically conformist world of metal. Killswitch were once kicked off a tour by Slayer, who found Dutkiewicz’s strange sense of fashion “inappropriate” to metal—as if metal were a Catholic school with a dress code. But Dutkiewicz’s ironically confrontational approach is very much in the time-honored “proud to be an asshole” tradition of metal icons like Gene Simmons and Ted Nugent. He just puts his own post-emo spin on it.

And when it comes time to strap on the axes and get down to business, Dutkiewicz and Stroetzel are unquestionably, 100 percent metal and, it shouldn’t be forgotten, some of the most accomplished players in that eternally guitar-centric genre. They’ve evolved a brutally precise tandem approach, banging out eyeball-melting, low-string arpeggios and chunky, cement-block chordal passages like two repeat-offender muggers taking down a sucker. Their dark guitar artistry reaches new heights of intensity and confidence on Killswitch Engage’s new album, their fifth to date, which is titled simply Killswitch Engage. There’s a greater sense of freedom in the rhythmic feel and more imaginative variety in the compositions and arrangements. Singer Howard Jones pushes both extremes of his unique vocal style on the new disc, belting out some of the most soulful melodic passages he’s ever sung and some of the scariest Cookie Monster barking to emerge from a human larynx. And down in the lowest infernal depths of the frequency spectrum, bassist Mike D’Antonio and drummer Justin Foley pummel, pound, thunder and thud, with all due ferocity.

Stroetzel says, “The main goal this time around was to try to do something different. Over the years we’ve embraced the European metal thing more than the old hardcore stuff we used to do.”

The new Killswitch Engage album also marks the first time the band has chosen an outside producer, Brendan O’Brien, who has worked with AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, among numerous others.

Stroetzel explains, “We had a conference call with Brendan many months back. He seemed like a really cool guy, and working with him seemed like a good opportunity to change things up.”

Up until now, Dutkiewicz has produced all of Killswitch Engage’s albums. Having also produced albums by Underoath, Unearth and Every Time I Die, he has acquired a solid reputation as a studio architect of the New Wave of American Metal. For this outing, O’Brien’s services were sought, in part to prevent the occasionally feuding Dutkiewicz and Jones from killing one another in the studio. It couldn’t have hurt that O’Brien had just completed production on Mastodon’s Crack the Skye, the hottest contemporary metal/mainstream crossover disc in recent history.

Dutkiewicz and Stroetzel have come a long way together, initially teaming up as co-guitarists in the mid-Nineties metalcore band Aftershock, out of Westfield, Massachusetts. Dutkiewicz switched to drums when he launched Killswitch Engage in 1998 but was soon back on guitar. Stroetzel says, “For a long time we couldn’t find another guitar player that was right. Finally I said, ‘You know what, Adam? You and I have played guitar together before. Why don’t we just get a drummer? So Adam switched back over to guitar, which made sense right away.”

Drummers and singers came and went, as drummers and singers are wont to do. But Jones and Foley settled into place in time for Killswitch Engage’s The End of Heartache album, the title track of which was nominated for a Best Metal Performance Grammy in 2005.

Things were looking up for Killswitch Engage, but the band’s career was hobbled from 2006 to 2007 when Dutkiewicz underwent a series of surgeries for a painful back condition. He missed some tour dates and even wondered if he’d be able to continue as a full-fledged band member, but he’s since made what Stroetzel calls “an amazing recovery. Thankfully Adam has been holding up well and taking good care of himself. With any luck he won’t have to go through that again.”

When Guitar World caught up with Adam and Joel, they were finishing up mastering the new Killswitch Engage album and preparing to embark on a round of touring that will see them blazing through America as part of this year’s Mayhem tour with Marilyn Manson, Bullet for My Valentine, Cannibal Corpse, Trivium and, yes, Slayer.

GUITAR WORLD The dynamic between you two seems to be that Adam is the wild and crazy one and Joel is the solid, stable, sensible one. Does that perception match reality?

JOEL STROETZEL Ha! That might vary from evening to evening, depending on how much I’ve had to drink. But what you’ve said is what people seem to think.

ADAM DUTKIEWICZ I’m surprised. Is that what people think? Is that what you think?

GW Well, I don’t know what I think. That’s why I’m asking. Is it true?

DUTKIEWICZ Sure...I guess so. If that’s what people think, then let ’em think it.

GW Were there any antics down in Atlanta while you were working on the album?

STROETZEL We had some fun—a lot of after-session beers. We went out every night to eat wings and drink beer. Brendan O’Brien and all the guys at Southern Tracks [Studio] were a really great bunch. They kept things very low-stress.

GW How did Brendan get involved as co-producer of this album?

DUTKIEWICZ He actually contacted us to say he was very much interested and liked what we did and wanted to help out. We never had an outside producer help us before and this guy’s got a pretty classy track record. So we said, “Okay, we might as well give it a shot.”

GW Was this before or after he produced Mastodon?

STROETZEL Just after, I think. I’m not sure if the Mastodon album was quite finished when we started talking to him. But we started working with him just after that album was finished.

GW So what did you want to achieve with this album that you hadn’t achieved on any previous Killswitch Engage disc?

DUTKIEWICZ Uh...not to suck. That’s pretty much it. Just to write some decent guitar riffs and songs.

STROETZEL We wanted a different-sounding production and different-sounding songs. We were trying to stay away from “chugging on the low strings” kind of riffs. We tried to do stuff in different keys.

GW The prior Killswitch Engage albums were all produced entirely by Adam. What did you think Brendan could bring to the table that Adam couldn’t?

STROETZEL We were hoping to get his vibe on some of the arrangements, and he was pretty cool with that. He didn’t want to change too many things musically. But the big thing was, we really wanted somebody other than Adam to work with Howard. They tend to drive each other nuts in the studio, in a good way and a bad way. It’s not necessarily the best thing for somebody to be criticizing your parts and your performance and then have to spend two years on a bus with him after you’re done with that.

DUTKIEWICZ I just think that Howard doesn’t take my criticism as well as he should. [laughs] So having a fresh perspective is nice. I tend to be a little harsh on singers sometimes.

STROETZEL It was a cool thing for Adam to take a back seat on the vocal sessions and just kind of listen. And Howard could do his thing alongside someone with a fresh set of views.

DUTKIEWICZ Howard was very into the idea of working with somebody who’s done big records before.

GW Apart from the vocals, did you approach any other aspects of recording differently this time?

STROETZEL The only thing really different was the drum tracks. In the past, Adam and I would do a scratch track with a click and then let Justin do his thing. But this time, Brendan had us all play in a room together when we were tracking drums. When it came time to track guitars and bass, we went back to Massachusetts and did those tracks at home, just as we always have. The whole process wasn’t that different for me, except for spending a week or two in Atlanta recording drums and some overdubs.

GW I’ve heard only rough mixes, but the drum sound seems more open than on prior Killswitch Engage albums. And there’s a little more swing in the rhythm parts. Everything’s really tight, but there’s a little more push and pull.

STROETZEL That was one of the goals too. We didn’t want to have a super Pro Tool–ed, completely perfect record. There are some imperfections here and there with the guitars, drums and so on, but that doesn’t matter. We didn’t go into this saying we’re going to sound like robots. We wanted to embrace the human element a little more.

DUTKIEWICZ We’ve gotten rid of all the raw, nasty drum tones that were in the rough mixes you’ve heard. We’ve cleaned it up a little bit.

GW But I like the raw, nasty tones!

DUTKIEWICZ We’ll, we’re a metal band. It should sound like a metal record instead of a Stone Temple Pilots record.

STROETZEL But this wasn’t one of those records where you spend five weeks on guitar and double-track every single note and make sure everything’s perfectly in tune. We wanted to get more of a live feel. Not a sloppy feel, just a live feel.

GW What were your main guitars and amps for the album?

STROETZEL I used a Caparison TAT guitar. They’re a small Japanese company. Their guitars have hardware similar to what you find on a Gibson, but the TAT is more like a Jackson Soloist in that the neck is kind of thin, like the old USA Soloists. I used a TAT with EMG pickups.

DUTKIEWICZ And I used my Parker Fly, which has an EMG-81 and an EMG-85 pickup.

STROETZEL We used a bunch of different amps. The main rhythm tracks were played with a Diezel through a Boogie 4x12 with Celestion Vintage 30s. For most of the dirty overdub stuff we each had a Splawn Nitro that we played through the same cab.

DUTKIEWICZ Splawn is a small, boutique amp maker in North Carolina. Scott Splawn is an Eighties guy who’s doing his version of Marshalls. It’s kind of like hot-rodded Marshalls. That’s right up my alley. A really high-gain [Marshall JCM] 800 is one of my favorite heads.

GW How did you get turned on to Splawn amps?

DUTKIEWICZ Joel heard about them through the grapevine, and then he actually got one to try out. When I heard it, I said, “That’s incredible!”

GW What other amps did you use?

STROETZEL For the clean tones we used a mixture of things. We had an old, Seventies Fender Vibrolux with a combination of pedals for tones ranging from clean to slightly dirty. And we used a Fuchs Triple Drive for some clean stuff, and an Orange Tiny Terror.

GW What effect devices were indispensable to your guitar tones on this album?

STROETZEL As far as dirty tones, we always have a Maxon OD808 on at all times, just to boost the signal a bit.

DUTKIEWICZ It’s kind of the Maxon version of the [Ibanez] Tube Screamer. It just sounds a little more bubbly.

STROETZEL There’s also a lot of delay on guitars on this record. We used one of those Maxon vintage analog delays, a big, purple pedal [the AD999]. We also used a Maxon phaser and a Hughes & Kettner Rotosphere in a few spots to get some chorusy tones.

DUTKIEWICZ And we used a real Leslie cabinet on a lot of the guitar parts. That’s definitely a cool sound.

GW The album has songs in a few different keys, as you mentioned, but there are also quite a few that are in or around the key of C. Did you tune down for those?

STROETZEL Yeah, most of the songs are in a dropped C kind of tuning. The songs in other keys are played in different positions.

GW So you take everything down a whole step and then you take the low string down another whole step?

STROETZEL Exactly. So it would be C G C F A D, from low to high.

GW “Take Me Away,” which is in A minor, sounds like it might be in standard tuning.

STROETZEL That’s in standard but taken down a whole step, so it’s D G C F A D. We just don’t drop the low string for that one.

GW How do the two of you divide up the guitar work?

DUTKIEWICZ Normally, the dude who wrote the part is the dude who will play the part.

STROETZEL Or whoever feels like playing the riff or feels it with the drums a little better will do it. There are not a lot of parts on this record where we’re actually playing at the same time. It’s kind of either one or the other. We didn’t have a lot of time in the studio, so whoever was most comfortable would play a part or an entire song.

GW Some of the songs, like “The Forgotten” and “Light in a Darkened World,” have harmonized lead lines. Who played those?

STROETZEL I did the leads in those two; Adam played the leads in “Starting Over.” It’s all divided up differently.

GW But whoever plays one lead line will also play all the harmony tracks?

STROETZEL Yeah. That just makes things easier, because we have slightly different [finger] vibratos. If you want to get that stuff really tight, it makes more sense to have one person play all the harmonies. But obviously we both have to play them live.

GW You two have been playing together for a while now, in two different bands, no less. Have you long since resolved any ego issues as to who’s going to play which parts?

DUTKIEWICZ There are no ego issues. We’re pretty good friends.

STROETZEL We’re pretty lighthearted about everything.

GW And as part of that lightheartedness, Adam’s stage performances tend to undermine the clichés of heavy metal posturing. Is that an accurate way to sum it up?

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, you could pretty much say that. It’s a live show; I don’t think people should take themselves that seriously. I think everybody’s there to have fun, not to intimidate. That’s the way I look at it.

GW What are the origins of wearing a cape and short shorts onstage?

DUTKIEWICZ It’s just me being an asshole. That’s pretty much it. It’s just me not giving a crap, and trying to offend people.

GW Your contention seems to be that nerds have a place in metal too. Just because you play metal, that doesn’t mean you have to act out that Neanderthal stereotype.

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, I don’t believe in that whole thing of “Look at me. I’m in a band. I’m cooler than you.” We’re all in it to have a good time and just party.

GW So you’re not comfortable in a role where you might be seen as cooler than the audience?

DUTKIEWICZ Well no. I think that’s kinda horseshit. Nobody should act better than anyone else.

GW Your image and act caused some concern on the part of Slayer when you were going to do a tour with them in the past?

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, they kicked us off the tour because they thought it was inappropriate for a metal band to do something like that.

GW Did they have a problem with the costume?

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, that’s basically it.

GW But now you’re gonna play with them again?

DUTKIEWICZ Yup, indeed. That’s the way the cookie crumbles for them.

GW Have the bands reconciled?

DUTKIEWICZ No, I don’t think so. Actually, no.

GW So your attitude is basically, “Fuck them”?

DUTKIEWICZ Hey, I got no problems. I don’t care who I play with. I’ll play with anyone.

GW Did you go to the Grammys when “The End of Heartache” was nominated for the metal award?

STROETZEL We did. That was a trip, man. The whole Grammy show is not quite my vibe. I had to leave two-thirds of the way through and go to the bar. But it was a neat experience and an honor to be involved in that.

GW What did you wear to the Grammys?

STROETZEL Aw, we all wore suits and stuff, man.

DUTKIEWICZ I wanted to wear a chicken suit, but everybody in my band told me they’d be really bummed with me if I did. I told them they were foolish for thinking that way. It would have been a great joke.

GW There is a definite tradition at the Grammys of making a statement with what you’re wearing.

DUTKIEWICZ Yup. My band is a bunch of wussies, that’s all there is to it. They’re so scared to make impressions.

GW Who did you chill with at the Grammys? Did you get to meet any other artists?

STROETZEL We didn’t really talk to anybody. I walked past a lot of famous people that I didn’t have the balls to say hi to. We’re not glamorous people. We were definitely out of our element

DUTKIEWICZ We lost our category, so we watched the show and left. That was pretty much it.

GW So Adam, how’s your back doing?

DUTKIEWICZ Not bad. A little sore today from working out, but definitely not bad compared to what it’s been.

GW It must have been rough going through all those surgeries and missing so many tour dates. Was there ever a point where you felt like the jig was up? That you would have to leave the band?

DUTKIEWICZ Oh absolutely, yeah. That’s happened many times.

STROETZEL Adam and I talked about that at great lengths. There were times when he said, “Maybe you guys ought to think about finding somebody else, because I’m not sure I can tour anymore. I still want to be part of the band. We can write music together, but I don’t know if I can tour.” We weren’t sure what was going to happen. But basically he made a pretty remarkable recovery. He’s been holding up really well on tours since.

GW So how does one get through a misfortune like that?

DUTKIEWICZ Well, it’s just a fact of life. Everyone’s dealt a hand of cards. It’s all a matter of how you play them. If I couldn’t play in the band, then I guess I’d have to find something else to do.

GW You also have a promising production career. You could always have done that.

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, I’m pretty lucky to have a few different jobs that I like.

GW Even without a painful back condition, life on the road can be pretty difficult. Do you have any strategies for handling the pressure, and the sheer boredom?

STROETZEL Yeah, actually it’s the boredom that’s the worst part of that. Sometimes the venues are way the hell out of the cities, so unless we have transportation, we’re stuck either in a dressing room or on a bus. People tend to bring a lot of DVDs on the road. Some of the guys like to play video games, but I’m not much of a video game player. I usually have my little practice amp in the dressing room and riff for a bit. Most of the time, though, we just drink. That’s probably not the healthiest option to keep you entertained, but it works.

GW What are the current top-five DVDs on the bus?

STROETZEL The top-two lately have been Grandma’s Boy and Idiocracy. Stupid comedies. Everybody enjoys them. Anchorman is another one we like.

GW You probably don’t want to mention the porn titles.

STROETZEL We don’t have too many porn geeks in our camp. If they are, they’re secret porn geeks. Maybe it’s best kept that way. Besides we’re all old, married and drunk, so we don’t care about that. Alcohol—I wouldn’t recommend it, but I can’t deny it either.

GW What are your favorite on-the-bus DVDs, Adam?

DUTKIEWICZ I don’t really like DVDs. I prefer to watch television.

GW Okay then, what are some of your favorite television shows?

DUTKIEWICZ I love the Travel Channel and the Food Network. I’ll watch The Price Is Right. Normally I like that. And, uh, a lot of baseball. We have a lot of baseball fans in the band.

GW And do you also practice guitar on the bus or in the dressing room, like Joel does?

DUTKIEWICZ [contemptuously] I don’t practice at all. The only time I play guitar is onstage.

GW Well, you guys tour so much. I’m sure that keeps you in shape.

DUTKIEWICZ Yeah, pretty much. Every tour, the first show or two is a little rough.

GW And now you’re about to rip it up on the Mayhem tour.

STROETZEL Pretty soon, yup.

GW So what kind of mayhem do you have in store for us this time?

STROETZEL We’ll be doing a little different stage show than we’ve done in the past—a different type of backdrop. There might be things exploding. We haven’t decided on that yet. These are bigger shows for us and we’d like to do something to bring up the excitement level.

GW In this economic climate, I’m glad to hear you have the budget for pyrotechnics.

DUTKIEWICZ Well, the only reason we might be able to do that is because it looks like everybody else on that stage could be doing that. So maybe we can make some kind of package deal happen. We’re still not a band that can afford extreme things.

GW Do you think there’s a chance your new record might blow up big?

DUTKIEWICZ I’m not sure. It’s always hard to tell, especially in the current market. People don’t buy records anymore, it seems. But we’ve been lucky to have as much success as we’ve had thus far. We hope it continues. And, hey, we’re stoked. We’re happy to be doing this.

GW That’s enough to keep you going? You don’t need the multiple-Platinum sales?

DUTKIEWICZ Nah, we don’t need that crap. Don’t get me wrong. Success is nice, but we’re content with what we have.

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