Joel Stroetzel is a kind and seemingly gentle man. His faced glows with a smile as I take a seat on the couch next to him. "I have to change the strings on my guitar," he apologizes in a soft voice, "do you mind?" "No apology needed," I reply. He is simply sharpening the tools of his trade and it is neither a hindrance nor distraction to the scant few minutes that I will need to complete my interview.
As I dig through my bag searching for my notes, life in the room continues on. Howard Jones, vocalist for Killswitch Engage, sits on a folding chair intently peering into the screen of his laptop as if it holds the secret to his salvation. I guess in a way it does. The brightly colored pixels offer deliverance from the boredom of a life on the road for yet another night, in another city somewhere in America. With a simple monthly subscription youíre always a mouse click away from where ever you really want to be. To a musician it is a luxury worthy a kingís ransom. For you and I, itís $24.95 a month.
The others are huddled around the deli trays and a couple young women who are somehow associated with the band. Having just finished sound check, the band gleefully peruses all that is being offered before settling on some finger foods and cold drinks. After all, there will always be time for another selection later.
I immersed myself in the music of Killswitch Engage on the drive over. The aggression was a sharp juxtaposition to the men standing before me. I know itís not fair to draw a parallel, but the most disturbing serial killers in the world appear outwardly mild mannered, God fearing normal people. Why too canít this group of guys, average in most every respect, write music that tears your face off?
Back to my notes, letís see, ah ha here they are. As I turn to Stroetzel he looks up from his work and smiles again. Instantly I place him. He has a look that I remembered from the very first time I watched Killswitch perform. It was on the second stage at Ozz Fest and there was something recognizable about that grin. But it wasnít until this instant that I can place it. For all his onstage head banging aggression, at this moment Stroetzelís smile betrays his inner "Spicoli"! Then again, maybe itís just me! Beyond that smile he certainly doesnít come across like a Spicoli.
As I fumble with my tape recorder I ask about the current tour. "Itís going incredible!" Stroetzel beams. "We just returned from Australia and Japan. It was busy and hectic but a real good time."
Such are the perks of having an album thatís moving up the charts. On May 5th, their new record "The End of Heartache" was placed #1 at CMJ Loud Rock, FMQB, and CMJ Crucial Spins. Not too shabby of a debut. I mention these numbers to Stroetzel as I offer congratulations and Iím surprised to find him almost oblivious.
"Weíre a little bit surprised," Stroetzel admits. "I donít think we really knew what to expect with this record. The songs are just a little bit different and we have a different line up. But it looks like people are liking us so Iím happy!"
I mention to Stroetzel that I was listening to the latest KSE record on the drive over. It makes for great driving music, especially here in Los Angeles. The intensity, along with in-your-face vocals, helps to distract you from four million other "Ricky Racers" weaving their way up the freeway seemingly to your destination. A little hard-core groove can sometimes give you that edge as you're cutting off that soccer mom in a mini van who actually has the nerve to do the speed limit in the fast lane! I ask Stroetzel if they had set a goal on this album to produce some of the most intense music known to man.
"We just pretty much get everyone all together when we write the songs," Stroetzel explains. "Adam was away here and there doing projects and such so he wrote mostly on his own. Some of the others wrote together too. But we definitely wanted to make it pretty brutal, balls-to-the-wall with lots of riffing and metal guitar. The bulk of the writing was done at home or at a rehearsal space. A lot of us have little digital studios at our house where we can just kind of go home at night and write riffs. We would meet up a few times a week to rehearse and try to put thinks together."
As is found with most young bands, there is a tremendous growth that takes place over the first couple of records. KSE certainly isnít immune to this phenomenon. Perhaps itís the hours spent staring out of the bus window as itís moving down the interstate. Perhaps itís the chance to tour around the world and witness your music touching fans everywhere. I ask about that growth and what Stroetzel thinks the difference is between "The End of Heartache" and "Alive or Just Breathing."
"I think the song writing is a little more cohesive," Stroetzel says. "These songs feel a little more like songs. You know, theyíre simple structures but we really tried to make sense of everything. We made sure that the parts flowed and were catchy, at least to us anyway, so we could go out on the road and play them every night without getting bored. I think thatís the biggest thing. We wrote songs that we liked and that we would listen to."
Perhaps the addition of Howard Jones on vocals has also changed things. He stepped into KSE at what had to have been an extremely challenging time, as he came on board only a few short weeks after the release of "Alive or Just Breathing." The band was obligated to tour in support of their new record and Jones had to prove to the audience each night that he was worthy to stand on that stage. The rest seems to be history. Jones is a formidable presence-- when he grabs that microphone and steps to the front of the stage, he leaves little doubt why he is a member of this band.
Ozz Fest has long been a huge opportunity for bands to get out on tour and have their music heard in large venues in front of large audiences. Last year KSE took advantage of that opportunity by kicking some ass all across North America.
As he began pulling another new string through the guitar's bridge, I question Stroetzel on the importance of Ozz Fest and what it meant to KSE.
"Itís a staple of the whole underground metal scene and I think it helped us branch out. It was kind of a long grueling tour. It wears on you after a while just being in a parking lot every day, only getting to play five songs. At the same time, every day those 20 minutes were the most fun ever. Anytime you can get on stage and play for that many kids itís great. It was definitely a stepping stone for us," he explains.
The guitar is often the signature element of a metal band. With this release, Adam Dutkiewicz stepped out from behind the drum kit to join Stroetzel on the six-string. This move allowed the two to structure opposing guitar parts, rounding out the overall sound of the new record.
"I think thatís part of the reason why this record is a little more metal than the last one," Stroetzel suggests. "The whole last record was written and recorded as a four piece. Adam was still on drums at the time. Now with Adam moving to the other guitar we can actually write music with two separate guitar parts. It made it a lot easier in the studio because we were able to have the guitar parts planned out. Obviously we could layer over dubs to bring some parts out. Having an extra guitar player allows us to do a lot of this stuff live too."
As Stroetzel has eluded, for the past couple of years Killswitchís line up seems to have been in a state of flux. This album marks the addition of drummer, Justin Foley.
"Iím not sure why weíre in flux. We lost Jesse initially. As soon as we started going out and doing four to five week tours he said, ĎYou know what, this isnít for me.í He was having throat problems and he had a wife at home. He just wasnít happy. That lead to us getting Howard and that turned out awesome. Right over there is Tom," Stroetzel motions across the room toward the deli trays, "heís our old drummer. He did Ozz Fest with us and did a lot of touring. He moved out here to L.A. to go to school and live with his girlfriend. So we picked up Justin from Blood Has Been Shed. But Mike, Adam and myself have been around from the start. Other than Jesse, we havenít really lost members, weíve just been adding!"
It has been said many times in music that nothing is ever completely new. There are only so many notes; so many chords that can be used to create a song. Itís not a slight to suggest that many of the newer bands have borrowed a page from the metal bands before them. But at the same time they have brought their own style, perspective and intensity to the music. Where do you think KSE is coming from?
"We have a lot of strange influences," Stroetzel confesses. "The metal influences for me any way are the old school thrash bands like Testament, old Metalica, Megadeth, old Slayer and stuff like that. Mike has always been big into hard-core, the same with Adam. And Adam listens to a lot of pop and rock and roll as do I. We try to get all of our influences in there."
Itís always interesting to discover the hidden influences and try to discover the place elements that all come together to create music. Some elements that are never really noticed until someone calls them out.
"Ours are not so much in the style of the music," Stroetzel continues. "But maybe in the style of the song writing or in the structure. Even though we are playing metal, there are times that you want things to flow like a pop song for example. You know, parts that build and come down."
I made a little joke at the beginning of the interview by warning Stroetzel that he had already heard many of my questions. Much like writing a song, there are only so many questions a journalist can ask. The goal is always to find a new perspective. So I thought that I would turn the tables on him if for only a moment.
I smile and say, "OK, I have one final question-- what havenít I asked you?"
Stroetzel looks at me with a puzzled expression, "What havenít you asked, let me see."
Diverting his thoughts momentarily from his guitar he pans the room searching for an answer. Suddenly it all becomes so clear. "The food," he says proudly. "You havenít asked about the food. Thatís an important topic to this band. We love to eat and weíre always concerned about what weíre having for dinner!"
Are you sure itís the food, I ask. I interviewed a band once that swore to me it was the socks!
"No, itís the food," he avers. "I can live without socks for a while!"
We end with a good laugh as I begin packing up my gear. Stroetzel has to finish stringing his guitar and then of course there is dinner to worry about. The rest of the band is still making its way through the deli trays and Stroetzel is going to have to hurry if he wants to get a snack before going on stage.
I watched Killswitch Engageís performance that night from the photo pit. A year after first seeing them at Ozz Fest there certainly has been growth. Not only in the music but also in the fans coming to each show. And I can hardly wait to see what happens next!
Check out the website! www.killswitchengage.com
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