EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: AXL AND VINCE DOUBLE-TEAM KILLSWITCH ENGAGE’S HOWARD JONES AND MIKE D’ANTONIO
When Axl posted our Blood Has Been Shed exclusive news bit yesterday, he hinted at a full interview with Killswitch Engage’s Howard Jones and Mike D’Antonio; and here she is. Chatting with Howard and Mike was more like shooting the shit with some old friends than it was a formal interview, even though we’d never met the dudes before. Howard and Mike told as all about the new album, working with producer Brendan O’Brien, the decision to self-title the new record, their work in Blood Has Been Shed and Overcast respectively, the band’s writing process, what it’s like to play arenas, and more.
Howard was sporting a sick beard so naturally we had to comment on it, and that’s where things started:
Howard Jones: On the morning of the photo shoot, it was much beefier, like a buff man’s beard.
Got to keep it looking good for the photos.
Mike D’Antonio: It looked crappy when we were on tour, then when you get home for the wife [Makes shaving noises], nice and clean and trimmed and proper. There’s nobody to impress.
Alright, so new album. I guess the obvious question to kick things off is working with a different producer for the first time. How did that decision come about? How did that go?
HJ: We basically told Adam he sucks.
HJ: We’ve been doing what we do for a while, and we felt it was time to shake things like a newborn baby and just kind of shake it up. We started throwing out names, and Brendan came up and apparently he was a fan of the band.
Did Adam take harshly to that decision? Did he put up a fight at all?
MD: He was stoked that he didn’t have to do it.
MD: He was actually excited.
HJ: Yeah, he actually was. “Less work for me, boss.”
He is still mixing, right?
How was working with Brendan? Was it smooth? Did he kick your ass?
HJ: No and yes. Smooth recording, but I think the last album was about the smoothest recording could get for us.
HJ: We were thrown out of our element. You get accustomed to moving on over to Westfield, do your thing, take it off, and grab something to eat on the way home, that sort of thing. Or head home, play with the cats and dog, see his wife . . . that was the sort of thing that we were accustomed to. [This time] it was like okay, to Atlanta we go.
HJ: It was a big studio with tons of gold and platinum albums everywhere and just every type of equipment you can imagine with engineers and assistants to the engineers. It was like getting thrown into the wolves’ den. We were just like “oh man”, and it was kind of overwhelming.
MD: It’s a very serious/non-serious atmosphere.
MD: When you are in Zing, our old stomping ground, it’s not serious at all.
MD: No stress involved, it’s just like being at home sitting on your couch and hanging with your friends.
Do you feel that that affected the way the album came out?
HJ: To some extent, yeah. I think it was a good idea for us to get out of our element, and it definitely pushed us to go that step further and really try to make an album that we’re going to be really happy with. Also, it made you work harder because you just wanted to get the heck out of there.
MD: [Whines] Why can’t we just go home?
HJ: Seriously, after awhile you were just like “let me out of here”.
Was it hard taking instructive criticism as it were from somebody who was outside of your inner circle?
MD: He’s actually great about it.
MD: He’s really cool. It was more offering suggestions rather than saying “you must do it this way” type of thing. He’s a really nice guy to begin with. I don’t think it’s in him to be like “okay, you need to do it this way or that’s it”. There were a few times with organization of the riffs that we sat down with him and he said “how about trying it this way”. “Oh that sucks, never mind. Don’t do it that way. I have another suggestion, do it this way if you guys want to or not.” It was really cool. It was like sitting down with a friend just discussing things. It was good to have an outside ear listening in as well.
HJ: Usually the things he came up with were pretty good ideas.
MD: Yeah they made sense. It was little tiny tweaks.
HJ: Yeah, it was really cool. There were times when doing the vocals and he was like, “try it this way,” and so I would be singing and was like, “yeah, that did NOT work.”
HJ: “Let’s just stick with what you have”. “No problem”. He really came up with cool ideas and didn’t force them. If you didn’t want to use it, you don’t have to use it.
Cool. Are you satisfied with the album? Are you happy with the way it came out?
MD: Pleasantly surprised.
MD: It was definitely longer than what we were used to, and we still really haven’t seen the end of it. Looking at it from bit of a distance now, I’m pretty stoked on it and excited about it.
HJ: Yeah, I may have to listen to it again at some point.
HJ: Because I haven’t touched it.
MD: It is hard to go back and listen to it now, especially since it’s not completely finished yet.
HJ: There are a few little minor tweaks to make, but we’ll be pretty much on board here very shortly. The music didn’t really seem to change all that much from a lot of the demos, it just sounds a little more bright and dynamic. I was pretty surprised how it turned out. Yeah . . .
HJ: You listen to it and go, “oh wow, this really turned into something.”
MD: It seems catchier than most Killswitch stuff, and we’re already that sort of catchy type hooky band.
HJ: Yeah, and that’s kind of weird to say that, but it is kind of catchy.
Was that a conscious decision to go and write more catchy songs or did it come organically?
MD: I have a feeling that it’s always been our conscious decision to try and write good songs to begin with or songs that we like anyways, and we’ve always been into the catchiness. We’ve been in so many other bands that were so far away from that – Overcast, Blood Has Been Shed, and Aftershock, that it was time to kind of hone in on what sort of worked. I feel like catchiness draws the listener back more times, or it can, anyways.
HJ: I definitely had some brain freeze at times during the writing of this. I was like, “I got nothing right now.” The stress level and everything within but by the end I was like, “wow, where did that song come from?”
HJ: “Well okay, I guess we have a keeper.” We definitely try to write stuff that we can enjoy. We try not to make up songs that are actually just 4 or 5 riffs put together. We really try to write songs. I guess it’s up to the listener to decide if we succeeded at that or not.
What actually is the songwriting process like for the band? I have no conception of it. Does somebody come in with a few songs?
MD: Sort of. At this point we are all demoing ourselves. We’ll do one week on and two weeks off or something like that. Usually I’ll go and work in Garage Band and those guys will work in ProTools and stuff. I actually learned how to play guitar when I wrote demos for this record, which is hard. We’ll kind of come with at least a basic structure with at least a few riffs in a row that kind of work together. Then everyone kind of adds to it or that type of thing, or Adam will come in with 5 songs and go “hey, there you go.”
MD: “You like them, cool, if not I’ll just toss them and write 5 more tomorrow.”
MD: It’s seriously kind of creepy. Everyone else struggles, and he just locks it up. “Here. Oh you don’t like them? Okay, well here’s another 10.”
HJ: He always does that.
Did you guys end up with like 40 songs that you had to whittle down or was it like here’s the 12 or 10?
MD: A lot of times around 15 or 16 we’ll set a cutoff and just say that it should be around enough. Then that will whittle down to around 14 or so usually.
Is Brendan the kind of guy who goes and says “these 2 songs suck, write 2 more”?
MD: There were definitely some songs that he didn’t understand. He’s not a metal guy at all. While we were tracking some of the drums he was like “I don’t get it… but okay.”
MD: But he never said anything like that. It’s not a negative thing.
It seems like you guys have been pretty much on a trajectory that has been going up and up your entire career. Do you feel pressure to match that with each album you release and each tour that you do?
HJ: I don’t really feel that.
MD: You got to keep those expectations low.
MD: Because when reality hits, it’s a bummer.
HJ: Especially in Europe because bands aren’t really selling albums. It’s not that the albums are awful. . .
MD: We did a great job.
MD: It’s everyone else.
HJ: I don’t think that we really think about that. We just write stuff. You can’t really think about that when you go out on tour. It’s like “alright, we’re done. Let’s go on the road, forever.”
MD: Sometimes it’s really just having new material to be able to play and have a little difference going on there and not playing the same old songs in a row all the time.
How has the new material been going over?
MD: Well we’ve only been playing one song, but it seems to be going over pretty well.
And you guys are playing arenas on this tour [Music as a Weapon]. That’s pretty crazy. Is this your first arena tour that you guys have done?
MD: We’ve done a few things like this. We did a Slipknot tour. We did A Taste of Chaos.
HJ: The Slayer tour definitely had some arenas in there.
MD: We’re kind of used to it which is weird to say.
HJ: I think we seem to like big stadiums. We love small shows, but I think we like big stadiums just because we move around.
I was going to say that you do a lot of running around, so it seems like you are very comfortable on a big stage like that.
HJ: It’s good exercise.
HJ: Seriously, it’s kind of fun.
How has the reception been from the Disturbed fans?
HJ: See that’s one thing that you have to give their fans credit for – they’re very open. That’s a cool thing. I mean how receptive is a Slayer fan?
You have to bring your A game.
MD: We survived that one. I was nervous. I definitely had some sort of ulcer going on.
MD: We came away unscathed though.
HJ: I was definitely thinking that, “oh, this is going to be bad.”
HJ: It turned out well. The Disturbed fans are really open. They just want to have a good time.
HJ: And a lot of them just want to drink a lot and have a good time.
MD: There’s nothing wrong with that.
HJ: No, no. It’s actually been a pretty fun and entertaining tour.
MD: Showers every day too, that’s the best part. [Laughter] Yeah, catering!
Catering? You’re moving up in the world.
HJ: Yeah, it ends after this tour.
Well, that’s not true. You guys have Rockstar Mayhem coming up this summer.
HJ: Back to the 10 Dollar Buyout.
HJ: That’s going to be an interesting tour. There’s a lot going on during that tour. It’s kind of a mix between the Ozzfest and the Warped Tour with all the activities and booths and different stages and everything. It’ll be pretty interesting.
So, remind me again what your slot on that tour is.
HJ: I believe we’re 7:04 on the right stage.
MD: 6:30 in the afternoon.
HJ: Is that the time?
MD: I think it’s like 6:30.
HJ: I had no idea.
It’s going to be an early night.
HJ: Yeah. That’s awesome.
MD: Get some sleep.
HJ: Oh yeah, I’m liking that.
MD: Playing late is a weird thing though.
I think that’s indoors, or it was last year.
MD: I think in some amphitheaters.
In Long Island here it was in one arena.
HJ: You know what sucks? Really hot shows like that. I will sweat like it’s my job, and then when you are outside in 90 degree weather, fantastic.
MD: A lot of the times you get so involved with the kids in the front row or whatever and you’re having so much fun you don’t realize it until you get offstage and you kind of collapse.
HJ: It was like “wow, I shouldn’t have done that.”
Yeah, we saw you guys a few years ago in Jersey at Ozzfest, and it was one of the hottest days.
MD: I remember.
It was very hot.
HJ: No kidding. This chocolate bar was melting, my friend.
HJ: It was bad. It was real bad.
So I got to ask a Mike specific question. Sorry.
I got a Howard specific question too.
HJ: Oh go for it.
How much input does the rest of the band have with the incredible artwork that you do? When you are doing an album cover where do you draw inspiration from?
HJ: I’ll answer that.
MD: It’s always pretty varied actually. For instance, for The End of Heartache I had that cover done a year and a half before we even started recording the record. It was something that I was showing the guys to try and get feedback and stuff. With this record and the last record, it was sort of like. “okay. we need a cover real fast, hurry up.” So I didn’t really have any inspiration at all. I just wanted to come up with something this time that was just very iconic, one sort of image with maybe some stuff in the background that people could associate the album with and title altogether.
That’s cool. Do you bring the band multiple versions or this is it?
MD: I did a bunch of color combos and showed them to them on my iPhone. They picked which one they liked, and I handed it to Roadrunner and they totally said no.
MD: I had to do another 20 color combos and they went back to the original. It’s a good story.
What was their impression of the original?
MD: The background was purple, and they said it wasn’t as masculine as they would like it to be. So I changed it to red, and they said it looked too much like blood, go back to unmasculine.
That’s kind of funny.
This is a self titled album. What was the logic behind that, because you guys basically already have a self titled album?
MD: The next 4 are going to be the exact same.
HJ: We’re taking it to the next level.
Is that a statement that this is the definitive Killswitch album?
HJ: No. The statement is that we didn’t know what to call it.
HJ: We had a couple of ideas of what to call it that we were tossing around, but nothing really seemed to click. Since the other self titled release is an EP, it’s warranted. We really did try to push the boundaries of what it is we do. It really did fit well.
Okay, Howard I got to ask you while I have you, a non-Killswitch question.
HJ: Uh oh.
Because there was some news a little while ago that there might be another Blood Has Been Shed album. Are you involved in that still in any capacity?
HJ: Well… yeah.
Well, I don’t know. They said there may be a variety of singers. They made it sound like you might not be coming back to that.
It’s cool. I love Blood Has Been Shed, so when I heard that . . .
HJ: There are all kinds of stuff floating around. We’re just trying to figure out what exactly it is that we’re going to do. Blood Has Been Shed is just one of those things where none of us do it full time, barely part time. We’ll get something out.
MD: It’s crazy, too. I’ve heard some tracks.
MD: It’s pretty nuts, and Blood Has Been Shed is already nuts.
HJ: I don’t know how it went to another level, but whew boy. I can actually say I’ve never heard anything like this.
MD: It might have to do with Corey getting struck by lightning twice.
HJ: Probably. Dude was insane as it is, but now . . . wow.
HJ: Wow. Musically, I never heard anything like it.
HJ: It’s still heavy and very confusing.
HJ: I would just go, “how am I supposed to sing over this?”
You got some time to think about it.
HJ: Dude, time is not helping.
[To Mike D.] How was doing the Overcast thing?
MD: It was really fun getting back with those guys. The original talk was to do a boxset. We just never had the money to record properly back then. Adam really seemed interested in helping us out in re-recording this stuff. I feel it came out the best it could have ever come out, and it was just really fun. It was a labor of love.
It did come out really well.
MD: Thank you very much. We did 3 or so tours in the interim that we had off, and I don’t want to get back in a van again. I’m done.
MD: That’s it.
MD: It was cool. It was really fun.
Awesome. Thanks a lot, guys.
– VN & AR