Big Bottoms: Mike D’Antonio from Killswitch Engage
If you listen to Killswitch Engage, it’s probably not for great bass playing — and that’s just fine with Mike D’Antonio. Known mostly for his raucous stage presence and enduring visual artwork, D’Antonio is more than happy to leave the spotlight to the other guys in his band.
Just like his instrument, D’Antonio is nothing if not for his ability to support and make everything else come together just the way it should. He’ll downplay his facility on the bass, but D’Antonio does what needs to be done and knows when to get out of the way to let someone else shine.
Below, D’Antonio describes the fluke that got him playing his instrument, his hatred of practicing, how he feels about being turned way down in a mix, and the recent hacking and slashing of metal staff at Roadrunner Records.
What can you tell me about your approach to bass playing?
Unfortunately, I think more like a rhythm guitarist than I do a bass player whenever I write. I write the rhythm guitar stuff and then add the bass later. I don’t fool around with a lot of fills, a lot of noodling. I don’t like to muddy up the sound. I like to let the guitars speak for themselves and just help it along the way, keep the foundation. I’ve been known to add fills when needed, but for me the focus is not going too crazy with the bass because then it can muddy up the overall sound. I like to choose wisely where to be picking and where to stray off the path and come back in again.
The new Killswitch actually has some pretty rad bass tone going on. I started using a Rusty Box pedal from Tronographic. It’s this rad pedal that I got introduced to when I was recording the Death Ray Vision stuff in Boston a couple years ago at Mad Oak Studios. They turned me onto this pedal. It’s kind of like a compressor/overdrive, but it’s actually just considered a preamp pedal. It does pretty much everything you could possibly think of. It squashes the tone, but still lets that rad bass underlay come through. I’ve been using it ever since.
I love getting that insight into your style. I spoke to Joe Lester from Intronaut before you, and it’s an interesting contrast. He comes from a jazz school of bass playing, so I really wanted to get your perspective, kind of from the opposite side.
Yeah, I’m all self-taught. I wish I wasn’t and I wish I had more time to actually go in and learn more intricate stuff.
I had one friend selling a guitar and one friend selling a bass and I tried them both out, and I really liked the guitar but I could only afford the bass, so I stuck with that. That was when I was 15 and I’ve been playing ever since.
I’m really just self-taught. I learned some Misfits songs; I learned some Ramones tunes and got off the ground from there. I just started forming bands and writing as much as I could. I just kind of learned on my own how to write riffs and put them together. I would listen to other bands and learn how to figure out structures and make things work. That was kind of the birth of my old band Overcast. Just not knowing anything about anything and trying to make a band that was a bit more epic than things I was hearing back in the early ‘90s.
It was trial by fire. Everything was DIY. I was doing all the graphic design, I was booking the shows, I was selling all the merch, stuff like that and still teaching myself how to play the bass at the same time.
Fast forward 10 years later and Killswitch started and I was fortunate enough to get in a band with Adam [Dutkiewicz] and Joel [Stroetzel], who are two of the most amazing guitar players I’ve ever seen. Pretty much every practice and every show we played was a learning experience with those guys, trying to figure out their style and adapt to that.
Coming from such humble, weird beginnings to turn into an actual bass player—I don’t know. It was a bit of a struggle. But I guess I persevered; I’m still going.
Do you practice bass much?
I hate practicing. I guess that’s probably my downfall. A lot of bass players sit in their room and noodle and do all that stuff. I hate it. I think it’s the most boring thing, to practice. I just like writing riffs, playing them in GarageBand and stockpiling tons of riffs and going back to them later and figuring out which ones work for songs.
I don’t know if that’s a good or bad way to learn how to play bass, but that’s the way I learned how to do it.
Well, bass guitar, at its core, is all about support. To hear all those things you’ve done for your bands—artwork, booking, writing—it seems like your instrument has become your personality in a way.
Yeah, for sure. It definitely is a support instrument, especially in metal. It can really help or hurt, depending on where it is in the mix and depending on how intricate you’re getting, compared to what the guitars are doing. I don’t think Killswitch lends itself to being a noodle bass guitar band. It would really muddy up the whole situation.
So I like to lay back and maybe chop things in half. If the guitars are galloping, I’ll sometimes do it at half pace, just to make it a little stronger. A lot of mosh parts and stuff like that, I tend to dumb down—especially live it just gives you that thick feel, which is something that I think a lot of bass players would not want to do. I’m not that guy. I don’t want to show off at all.
I like to just be there and have fun. Let the crowd show off. I don’t need to do any of that shit.
Now that you’re playing all the Alive or Just Breathing songs live, have you become aware of certain evolutions in your playing style over the years?
Yeah, I feel that way. When we started we had a little bit of a different outlook and that bass was a little more a part of the sound. I think we reverted for a little while in pushing the bass down a little bit because the guitars were just so crazy that I didn’t want to ruin anything that those guys were doing. Now I think it’s come full circle.
The new record sounds more like our older stuff. So I’m back to being able to pop out into the front frame and play a little bit more and give the people a little bit more bass. If I had to compare the new record, it’s kind of like Alive or Just Breathing meets Daylight Dies.
It’s really aggressive. We had a couple years at home to twiddle our thumbs and sit in a corner and stew about not being on tour. Personally, I got pretty mad that we weren’t playing and it definitely shows in the music that I wrote for the record.
The new record is currently being mixed. I think this is the third round now. There’s going to be at least another one or two more. It’ll be out in early spring.
A lot has been written about all the changes that have been going on at Roadrunner. KSE signed at a time when RR didn’t have that many metal bands, correct?
Yeah, they were on the cusp of just going straight radio rock. Slipknot was breaking really big, but Roadrunner also had Nickelback and a bunch of bands that were making a lot more money being on the radio than they had ever seen before. So they kind of had stars in their eyes, thinking that was the wave of the future, getting stuff on the radio.
They pretty much told us that we were the last chance they had at metal and if we didn’t work, they were just going to say forget it. So we were writing Alive or Just Breathing thinking, “Okay, this is our one opportunity to show the world what we play and we are most definitely going to get dropped afterwards. So let’s just write the best record we can write and screw whatever happens after that.”
It sort of looks like they’re going back in that radio rock direction. Does that concern you at all or, given your first experience with them, do you see it as the natural flow of the business?
Does it concern us? Absolutely! Everyone we knew and loved over there is gone now. It’s a ghost town. They went from almost 300 people to four or five. All our friends are gone, so it’s frightening but we feel like once they get everything situated, hopefully the strength will come back. I don’t know. It’s a scary time right now, so we’ll see what happens.
Well, that’s a pretty sad note on which to end an interview; is there anything you want to add?
Well, I have my third signature bass from Ibanez coming out this coming year. It’s based off a Destroyer model, which kind of looks like an Explorer. I love it. I’ve been playing it a lot lately. So people can watch out for that.
The new Killswitch will be out around next spring. Check that out. I think a lot of our older fans are going to be really, really stoked. There’s some blast beats and lots of aggression, so I think the older metallers are really going to take to it as well. And of course Jesse’s back, so people will be stoked on that.
Finally, my other band Death Ray Vision’s new record should be out fairly soon on Bullet Tooth Records. It’s old hardcore, kind of. People should be stoked on that as well.