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Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach: “This year I had my entire life turned on its head”

In this powerfully honest conversation, the metalcore frontman discusses his mental health struggles, moving to the countryside and recording with his one-time replacement Howard Jones

When Killswitch Engage singer Jesse Leach posted a message on Instagram earlier this year explaining he was taking time out from the social media platform “to rebuild and focus on my mind and body”, fans of the Massachusetts metalcore veterans were understandably concerned. Jesse has spoken openly with both intelligence and great insight about his mental health in the past — too often a rarity within the bruising world of heavy music — but his condition has overwhelmed him significantly during his life to date. In 2002 he went so far as to leave the band entirely, telling his bandmates via email that he was stepping away. 

I didn’t have the mental energy to face them, or even call them on the phone,” he said of the incident. “I was at a point in my life where I just didn’t want to face any of them, so I wrote them a long email explaining, like, ‘I’m just done’.”

Jesse returned to Killswitch in 2012 and when the band’s eighth studio album ‘Atonement’ arrived in August this year, fans were rewarded with one of the most engaged and exciting records that Killswitch has ever made. Jesse sounds recharged, re-energised: the demons had been slayed — or at least shoved into a flightcase and locked away for a while.

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NME thought it was about time we checked in with Jesse to ask, “What went right?” What follows is a feel-good story within an often feel-bad world.

Hey Jesse. How goes it?

Jesse Leach: “I’m good, dude. I’m at that point in the tour where I feel like I’ve hit my stride. My energy is good. I’m not jet-lagged. My voice is doing what it’s supposed to be. Today I am in Stockholm. It’s cold. It was snowing yesterday. I’ve heard there’s wolves here. Fucking badass. I love wolves.”

The latest record, ‘Atonement’, is really good. You’ve been back in the band for seven years now. You must feel properly bedded back in now?

“Yeah, it’s probably the best it’s ever been. We’re communicating well, we’re writing cool material and our performances continue to get better. Ever since the vocal surgery I had I feel like we’ve been in a really good place. Having the damage repaired has meant I’ve been able to sing like I want to sing. That’s been huge for me.”

This is the surgery you had last April to remove nodules from your vocal cords, right? Tell me more.

“It happened when we were recording this record. We were five or six songs in and I got to a part of a song, which is well within my range, where I just couldn’t hit the note. Adam [Dutkiewicz, guitars] was beating me up about it and it was just screwing my head up that I couldn’t hit the note. Me and Adam have worked together for so long that he just knew something was wrong. So I booked a flight from California to New York to see my doctor and, long story short, they told me I had a polyp that needed to be removed…”

Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach
Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach

Not what you want to hear if you sing in a metal band…

“Oh, it was a whole thing. They needed me to be silent for a month and there was no guarantee my voice would be what it was after the surgery. It kick-started a really strange time in my life where I started to re-prioritise what was important to me, which was a total blessing in disguise. It forced me to start taking better care of myself. I’ve always had problems with sleep, and with anxiety — I think too much. And in order for me to be able to sleep I would drink a lot of alcohol, just to numb my brain. I was doing that way too much…”

You think it was starting to become a problem?

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“I was just partying too much. That, added to a lack of rest and not having proper technique just destroyed my voice. I’d come off stage and vomit blood into the sink. Then I’d become obsessed that I was dying of cancer. And, instead of telling anyone about it, I’d just drink the pain away and try to forget it was happening. I thought I was being punk rock, but I was being stupid, really.”

We’re starting to talk more about mental health in music, but the lifestyle you live — late nights, screaming, relentless travel — is not especially conducive to a healthy life…

“It’s a lifestyle that lends itself to being a fucking maniac. Every night you get off stage people are cheering, there’s alcohol everywhere — and you feed into that, you want to keep the feeling going by going out and having a good time. The adrenaline keeps you going. But I just did too much. And with regards to mental health, I’ve always had anxiety and depression. Every day is a gamble as to how I’ll be. This year I also went through a divorce and had my entire life turned on its head — I moved out of central New York to the country; it was a crazy year. So I really needed to take stock and try to get back on track.”

You’ve moved to the Catskills in upstate New York, right?

“Yeah, near Woodstock. It’s beautiful. I love it. I went from Brooklyn where I had no garden and people and sirens screaming all day, to waking up in the morning to birdsong and leaves falling from the trees. My neighbours are deer and bears. I live on my own and I love it.”

Does the solitude help or exacerbate the depression? I can see arguments for both…  

“It is a bit of both. Too much isolation isn’t good for anyone. But thankfully I’ve started to make friends in the area now, and I’ve got a new girlfriend, who understands mental health — she’s been to hell and back too, we’re partners in crime, really. But I think I really needed that solitude at that point. It really helped me sort through my brain.”

When did you get diagnosed with depression? Due to it, you left Killswitch Engage for around a decade in 2002, subsequently being replaced by Howard Jones…

“Officially it was only five or six years ago, I finally saw a therapist around then. I realised that anxiety and depression kind of come hand-in-hand with me. I’ll get unbelievably anxious and then, from trying to suppress that I’ll get anxiety attacks, and then after that I want to sleep for days. I was like that for years. I either wanted to sleep or disappear. But when you have a language to put to it — like the doctor did with their diagnosis of me — you start to gain tools and methods in how to deal with it. Before that I just thought I was nuts. Now I’ve started to accept that it’s part of who I am and like every facet of me, I need to learn to manage it.”

How do you feel when you think about the time you spent away from Killswitch?

“I just think the depression got really bad in my thirties. By 33 or 34 I was starting to have all these suicidal thoughts creeping in. It was almost romanticised, thinking that by doing it I’d finally have peace. When I was away from Killswitch I formed a band called Times Of Grace and we made a record called ‘The Hymn Of A Broken Man’ in 2011. Around that time, suicide felt like the only option. But then I got some tools. I learned meditation… and I started to use a very low dose of psychedelics…”

Killswitch Engage

At this point we’re going to have to make it very clear to readers that this isn’t a recommended course of action… 

“Yeah, I know it’s not a very mainstream thing, but it’s helped me a bunch. And it’s not the only thing I do. I exercise, I have breathing exercises… but I was doing some research about it online and it’s really helped. I used to do acid as a kid. Then I had a really bad trip when I was 17 and didn’t touch it again. I was scared of it. But from doing research and learning about people with dementia being reanimated with small doses of LSD and people in the sixties and seventies experimenting with art and acid, it became something I started to give more thought to… I think I took 1/16th of a hit of LSD and it was just… joy. I can’t understand why we aren’t researching the benefits of this drug more. I can’t understand why it’s illegal. And then I tried a similar thing with mushrooms and found them both beneficial. Obviously this isn’t something anyone should do without doing your research and knowing what you’re doing. And these drugs are illegal, after all.”

I really like the song on ‘Atonement’ that sees you and Howard Jones singing together. It’s kinda neat to have two generations of Killswitch Engage vocalists on the same song…

“Oh, ‘The Signal Fire’? Thanks! Me and Howard had been acquaintances for a long time – never really friends, but we knew each other. We had respect for each other as singers. When he parted ways with Killswitch he went through his own personal shit and when he’d come through a lot of that stuff, the band decided to invite him up to a show. To see how he was, to check in with their friend. I was really quite nervous singing his songs in front of him…”

I can imagine. He’s a big part of Killswitch Engage’s history…

“Oh completely. But when we hung out at the show we got along great. We really hit it off and realised we had a lot in common. He had this great song that he was working on with his band Light The Torch, and I really wanted in on it. I thought this song could be about unity and people getting on together. I remember I’d been watching The Lord Of The Rings, and you know the bit where they light the fires to signal to their allies that they need help? That’s exactly how the creation of the song played out. The day he came out to sing on the song was the day I found out about my vocal polyp. We had studio time booked but I couldn’t sing. He literally came to our aid!”

After an interview that’s largely been about suffering, that seems like a nice point to end this…

“It does, doesn’t it? We just wanted to show our fans that we’re family. You might like the songs Howard sung. Or you might like the songs I sung. Either way, you’re a Killswitch Engage fan and we’re all in this together. Life should be so much more about unity.”

‘Atonement’ by Killswitch Engage is out now on Music For Nations/Metal Blade

For help and advice on mental health:

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