Latest release: Disarm the Descent (Roadrunner/Warner)
It’s snowing in Massachusetts when Killswitch Engage guitarist Joel Stroetzel comes to the phone. A day before the Soundwave Festival crashes over Sydney and a couple of months out from the band’s first headlining tour of Australia since their jaunt with Lamb of God and Unearth in 2011, the weather is looking bleak at this end of the line too, but Stroetzel is keen to return.
“It’s been quite a while since we did our own tour there,” he says. “It’s good, and we’re very excited. It’ll be good to get away from the snow.”
As a late addition to last year’s Soundwave bill, fans only got a brief look at Killswitch Engage with original vocalist Jessie Leach back out front. This time they’ll get to experience the complete package, which also includes special guests Kill Devil Hill, former Down and Pantera man Rex Brown’s band that Stroetzel promises he is eager to check out. During our previous conversation, the guitarist spoke avidly of how Leach’s return had revitalised the group. Twelve months on, and his thoughts haven’t changed on that score.
“Since we started playing with him again, it’s been like he never left,” Stroetzel says. “The vibe has been great. Everybody’s happy that we’re playing together again and Jessie’s just a joy to be around. He’s a nice guy, a great frontman and it’s just great to have him back. He’s so excited to be there and doing it, and he’s always so fired up about everything and just that positive energy has been really good for everyone else. Everybody’s been in a really good state of mind. It’s been great.”
When Howard Jones eventually departed the band in January 2012 after a long hiatus, Killswitch Engage was thrown into a state of uncertainty. Both Leach and Phil Labonte of All That Remains had filled in for Jones on tour, but once he had given his final notice, there were no guarantees that the band would continue. That they did, and were able to release their sixth album Disarm the Descent was a relief and a high point for Joel Stroetzel.
“Putting out [Disarm the Descent] was a personal highlight for me,” he says. “For a couple of years we weren’t really sure what we were going to do. Howard was leaving and we weren’t really sure if we were going to continue as a band or remain as Killswitch or what we were going to do. It was good that things came back around and Jessie came back and that we were just able to do it. Once we finally got that record out, it was a load off the shoulders. We’re all very happy that it’s been well received and we’ve been having a lot of fun playing the new songs live.”
As Jones is touring with his current outfit The Devil You Know at the time this interview is taking place, it seemed only appropriate to ask his former bandmate if he has heard his new music.
“I’m keen to check it out,” he says. “I heard that one song, and it was really cool. I’m keen to hear the rest of it.”
Stroetzel describes the process of working out which new songs work best in the live environment as “a whole other adventure”, especially as they now have six albums to choose from, over-flowing with popular tracks. Yet with Disarm the Descent cracking the Top Ten in both Australia (#6) and the US (#7), there was always going to be a good chance that the new songs would be well known by the time the band rolled around to play live.
“The new songs have a little bit of everything in there,” the guitarist says of the current material. “The first one we did the video for (‘In Due Time’) – people kinda knew that one, so that was an easy choice. It was tough to pick the other ones, except ‘New Awakening’. ‘Always’ we weren’t sure about. We made a video for it that was like a short film, but it’s a slow tune, so we weren’t sure how it would translate into the set. But we’ve being doing that and there’s been a buzz. People seem to know the words. It’s not a mosher song but people sing along and clap.”
Fourteen years into their recording career, Killswitch Engage continues to spread their wings as an international touring band. Eastern Europe beckons after their Australian visit, as well as a South African tour later in the year. Their schedule was meant to see them appear in Ukraine, but the chances of that are probably slim now. Despite this, Stroetzel would still love to go there.
“We’ve all been trying to keep up with the news and see what’s going on there,” he says – the Russian invasion of Crimea had still not happened at the time we spoke. “I’m really hoping everything works out. I hear that Kiev’s a really cool city and there’s a lot of freaky stuff going on there at the moment, but I hope we get to go there and do that because the people there could probably use a rock show! Hopefully it all works out.”
Even if that road is closed to them for the moment, Killswitch Engage has seen a lot of the world since they first got together in 1999 and will probably get to see a whole lot more of it before their journey ends. Even after all this time, Joel Stroetzel is still amazed when a sea of people at some place far away from home sing his band’s songs along with them when they perform.
“It’s a crazy feeling when you go somewhere you’ve never been and so many people know your songs. There’s really no way to describe it.”
Killswitch Engage is touring with Kill Devil Hill this month:
11/4: Eatons Hill, Brisbane QLD
12/4: UNSW Roundhouse, Sydney NSW
13/4: The Palace, Melbourne VIC
15/4: HQ, Adelaide SA
16/4: Metro City, Perth WA