Jesse Leach: "Heavy Music Is A Beacon Of Hope. It Saved My Life And The Lives Of A Lot Of My Friends"

Jesse Leach on his departure and return to Killswitch Engage, his Christian upbringing and the power of heavy metal

Jesse Leach: "Heavy Music Is A Beacon Of Hope. It Saved My Life And The Lives Of A Lot Of My Friends"
Kiran Acharya
Header Photo:
Travis Shinn
Band Photo:
Justin Borucki

Jesse Leach left Killswitch Engage just as their second album Alive Or Just Breathing made metalcore an international driving force in heavy music. In 2002 the song My Last Serenade had broken the band across America and Europe, but Jesse was breaking apart inside and walked out as the touring cycle began.

After his departure, Killswitch sold 500,000 copies of The End Of Heartache with their new singer Howard Jones, and in 2005 found themselves nominated for a GRAMMY Award. After the gold-selling album As Daylight Dies, a second self-titled record, and nine years as frontman, Howard would leave to better manage his type 2 diabetes and lead the four-piece Light The Torch. Jesse rejoined Killswitch in 2012, and a year later the album Disarm The Descent brought a second GRAMMY nomination for single In Due Time.

But Jesse, the son of a once-vehement Christian minister, returned only after contending with an upbringing in which he and his siblings were moved from city to city as his father explored Pentecostal Christianity, Presbyterianism, Calvinism and Lutheranism. “I’ve lived the touring life since before I was in a band,” he says. “That gypsy spirit is a huge part of who I am, and that has a lot to do with my upbringing, having to readjust and adapt.”

The authoritarian atmosphere led Jesse to find his tribe in punk rock and extreme music, embracing everything he was meant to be shielded from. “Protecting us from the world, in the long run, made me run towards it even harder,” he says. “I ran into music, I ran into drugs. You name it, I wanted it. All that stuff that I couldn’t have? I wanted it.”

His return to the band has meant a significant lifestyle adjustment, including self-care and career-saving vocal coaching with tutor Melissa Cross. In 2018, doctors discovered a polyp on his vocal folds requiring surgery. While Jesse was under anaesthetic, the surgeons found another hidden polyp surrounded by scar tissue. Recovery time was three to six months of total vocal rest and relearning how to speak and sing.

“Within four weeks I had my first show, opening for Iron Maiden in front of 10,000 people in Tallinn,” he says. “I had vibrato, I was able to do things that I had never done with my voice before. I left the stage with tears in my eyes and thought, ‘That’s it, the next chapter of my life begins now.’”

What was happening in your life when you left Killswitch the first time around?
“Now being a grown man, looking back on being 22 or 23 years old, I didn’t really have a sense of who I was. I didn’t have an identity. I didn’t really know myself. Being thrown into a touring situation with guys that I didn’t grow up with, and didn’t have a strong bond with, there was no real communication for me. I was going through anxiety and depression. All this crazy, conflicting thought was going on in my brain, and I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I kinda drove myself crazy, fell into a depression and lost all my passion, my drive and my love. So I bailed. I hit the ejector seat and got the hell out. I had to sort out who I was as a person before I could be an artist or someone performing with confidence onstage. I needed to disappear. Part of it was spiralling into a major depression, but I didn’t have the language for it. I was a kid. I did a lot of living after I left Killswitch, and I don’t regret it.”

What did you do after leaving?
“Well, I had to get a lot of jobs for income, because I had nothing. I worked three jobs pretty much non-stop for about a year, from four in the morning to 10 at night, four or five times a week. It instilled a work ethic, a sense of accomplishment and of becoming a man, really. The way I see it, I only started to become a man after I left Killswitch; busting my ass, working and not complaining about it, and realising that this is how I’ve gotta live my life. It was very humbling and centring. It really helped me develop and figure out who I was as a human.”

Which three jobs did you do?
“I’d wake up in the morning and drive 40 minutes to an organic bakery in Jamestown, Rhode Island, called the Village Harvest. I studied under an Italian baker, making breads and pastries. Everything was cooked in a wood-fired oven, so they needed someone to chop the wood. After my shift at the bakery I would drive to the yard and chop wood with an axe for a good two to three hours a day. From there I would drive back up home 40 minutes and work with a woodsmith who made antique windows for the Historical Preservation Society of Rhode Island – the only guy who was able to accurately recreate the windows from the turn of the century. There’s a section in Providence called Benefit Street where all the houses have to have historically accurate handmade windows, with old glass in them. I was his assistant, so I would do that from five to 10 o’clock every day. I was working with my hands constantly. My hands were swollen and my fingers were constantly in pain.”

How did music return to your life?
“At the time I joined the band Seemless and started writing the blues, which was perfect. I wrote a song called Lay My Burden Down about working those three jobs. I realised I needed music in my life, so I wouldn’t go even more crazy. Music found its way back in. Even though I was working all those jobs, I still found time to start gigging on weekends.”

Was it difficult to return to Killswitch?
“At the time I think I pumped myself up with so much confidence – overconfidence, maybe – to just get out there and stand and deliver. After a few years out on the road cranking it out, I realised I was scared shitless; coming back to a band that’s way bigger than it ever was when I was first in it. We were still opening for death metal bands in front of three or four-hundred people a night. Killswitch had skyrocketed to huge success with Howard. And here I am, a punk rock hardcore dude that doesn’t have the greatest singing voice in the world, coming in to sing material that I hadn’t written that was sung by this bellowing, beautiful voice. It was very intimidating – and having to deal with opinions and constant comparisons. It was, as they say in America, fake it ’til you make it. I was scared and insecure, but I put my best foot forward. And I think I got better because of it.”

What is the most helpful thing you’ve learned with respect to mental health and happiness?
“Speak up. Just say to somebody or admit to somebody that you’re not okay. That simple act has saved me many times. If I’m inside my own head and don’t know what’s going on, instead of sucking it up and moving forward like I used to, I say something. I try to reach out and let people know I need help.”

Are young men in the U.S. still encouraged to ‘man up’ and keep their emotions hidden?
“Absolutely. Call it what you will – some people call it toxic masculinity – and to me it’s all posturing. There’s this weird posturing of being a ‘macho man’, of being somebody who handles their shit. I still get told, and I’m sure a lot of people who encounter mental issues get this, ‘Just suck it up’, or, ‘Shut up and deal with it’. Especially, ‘You’re a musician. You’re living the dream. How dare you complain about your mental health?’ And yet we see musicians and artists taking themselves out. It’s terrible, people feeling like they can’t speak up. People feeling like they’re alone, feeling like there isn’t somebody there to listen, to care, to help. And there is. It’s always been an issue in my life. And now that I’m aware of it, and we have a name for it, and the awareness of mental health is slowly but surely becoming more of an acceptable thing, I’m right there. I’m an advocate for it. I’m a mouthpiece for it. Speaking up and asking for help is much braver, takes much more courage than shutting up and sucking it up. To me that’s cowardly. We’ve got it all backwards. We’ve got it flipped all wrong. It’s brave to speak up.”

There’s been an epidemic of suicides amongst middle-aged men in America. What do you think causes people to despair in this way?
“Disconnection. We live in an age of social media where we’re talking through screens and we’re not hearing the sound of somebody’s voice. We’re not seeing the body language or the way their eyes are when they say something. That emboldens people to say cruel things, and it disconnects us from that human touch and interaction which we need to communicate. It’s electronic. It’s done through machines and digitised. And a digitised ‘I love you’ is way different from someone looking in your eye, holding your hand, touching your shoulder or hugging you and saying it. As humans we need that connection. We need physical touch. We need to be able to look in each other’s eyes and read the energy that surrounds us. That’s a huge part of who we are as animals, and our instincts. You can’t use your instincts when someone’s typing to you. You can’t feel cosy, loved or comforted by a screen. People feel lost. They feel alone. That’s when suicide pops into your head. You don’t see another option. And for people experiencing mental health issues it happens a lot quicker than ‘normal’ people. This disconnection is everything. It’s detrimental to our health and interactions as human beings.”

You had a displaced upbringing and a particularly religious father. What can you tell us about your dad’s journey?
“Well, I have a great relationship with him now. He’s changed a lot from when I was a kid, but when I was young he was an authoritative figure. For a while he was a pretty fundamentalist guy. I remember my brother bringing home Number Of The Beast by Iron Maiden on cassette in the ‘80s. My father found the tape and he gave us a fire-and-brimstone sermon as he smashed it under his foot saying, ‘The devil’s music isn’t allowed in this house.’ That’s pretty much who he was up until maybe I was in high school. When he retired from being a minister, stepped away from the pulpit, and became a professor at a local college, his worldview shifted. He started to meet people who were gay, lesbian, Muslim – things fundamentalist Christian religion preaches against. He started to see the world differently. It’s been amazing to see him become more compassionate and more understanding. In his older age he’s become a very gracious man. He now wears a Killswitch hoodie and supports my band totally.”

As a boy you lived in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Rhode Island and a farm community in Wisconsin. Was that because of your dad’s different religious assignments?
“Yes. That’s exactly what it was. Some of it was that he felt called, and other times the church actually gave him instructions on what to do. He used to be a biker and a raging hippie who found Jesus in the ‘70s. So he went from being an outlaw to being a minister. He had a very adamant stance and he believed he could hear God speaking, calling him into the ministry. In the early days it was him in his own mind feeling like he was doing what God wanted him to do. And then it turned into him becoming a minister and having a church tell him what to do. It was all because of his ‘calling’, if you will.”

Did you ever think that he might actually be clinically insane?
“When I was younger I feared him. He was the authority. He was my father and the hammer of the law. As I became a teenager and those rebellious years creep up, I definitely remember being like, ‘What’s up with this guy?’ But we’re also talking about a highly educated man. He’s got two masters degrees and a PhD. He’s a very learned, smart person. I definitely disliked him, and we did not get along for a while. But I don’t know if I ever thought he was crazy. That’s a good question. Maybe I did.”

What was life in Philadelphia in the ‘80s like?
“We lived in Germantown, which was predominantly black, so we weren’t exactly welcome in the neighbourhood. We lived next door to a woman whose son was a pimp named Moses, believe it or not. Moses carried a sawn-off shotgun under his trenchcoat to protect my family. We had protection because they respected my father, who was in Bible college. The black community was very religious and they believed my father was a holy man. So we had protection, but it was very violent. I remember hearing gunshots; lots of drugs and crime. We were basically confined to our little fenced-in yard, and if we were going anywhere, Moses would escort us to the train station. My world was my private school, way out of the city, and then my teeny back yard. Unless my parents would take us down the block to get groceries, and even then people would catcall my mother and call us racist names.”

In hindsight, was a Christian education before high school valuable?
“I do value it, as far as I learned Latin, I was able to take archery, and to do things that you wouldn’t in a public school – especially in a lower-income public school. We were never well-off. My family’s always been either poor or lower-middle class. I received a good education, but along with that the dogmatics of religion were constantly being reinforced. You’re going to church three times a week as the son of a preacher man, and then you’re going to school Monday through Friday and getting dogma shoved down your throat. The joke became that my brother and I were like the Flanders kids from The Simpsons. I remember being all wound up when I was six years old and walking into my family’s house for Christmas. My uncle had a young girlfriend. They were living together but weren’t married. I knew to go up to him and tell him he was living in sin. I was a zealot up until a certain age, believing that I was doing God’s work, believing that I was a servant. And that definitely affected me negatively. I had to unlearn a lot of things. I had to deprogram myself in order to become who I am today.”

Which of your songs would you hold up as the best example of your work?
“If we’re talking about current events or the ‘political’ side of things, I’d say Hate By Design is a pretty shining example of something I wrote that I feel captured a moment in time and in my life. I’m proud every time I sing that song because it speaks of how we are manipulated and how we are taught hatred. Hatred is not something that’s in us inherently.”

Why do you feel people need heavy music in their lives?
“It’s lack of expression. Some people don’t know how to channel angry feelings, feelings of separation, loss and all the stuff we don’t really talk about in society. The feeling of not belonging was huge for me. With extreme music, I found my tribe. Controlled aggression was so huge for me. I didn’t take it out on another person – I let the music come through me, and that’s healthy. It speaks to me and it speaks to us. That’s something that’s never going to die. Heavy music is a beacon of hope. It makes you feel less alone in this world. It saved my life, and I know it saved the lives of a lot of my friends.”

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