The Australian alternative scene has struck gold again, this time with Sydney’s Pretty Thrills who are …
Jesse Leach’s 2018 was soul-destroying by most people’s definition. Like a Phoenix, he arose from the ashes of his life and was reborn. Not to be too dramatic, but he kind of hit back at life when life kicked his ass.
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Last April, Jesse underwent surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York to remove polyps from his vocal cords. Polyps, if left untreated, could have silenced him as a vocalist for life. Getting that news is like violinist hearing his fingers are crushed; a marathon runner her spine is severed from the waist down. It’s a lancing blow at one’s very personhood. Staying silent for over two months and little by little, he recovered. He recovered enough to begin singing and screaming once again. Though the human condition reared itself again; he and his wife of sixteen years Melissa, broke up. Melissa, for Jesse was his “biggest fan, biggest critic, best friend, partner in crime and the love of my damn life.” He took to social media in January of this year saying he was “getting help” for mounting depression. ” I won’t be another statistic of suicide!!!!! I’m fighting for my future and I refuse to give up or give in!!!,” he wrote.
Far from a statistic, he mustered up the courage to document his pain, lending it a new-found voice on upcoming album Atonement. What follows could be the best years of his life. Starting from so far below, it’s all uphill from there.
Hysteria: 2018 would be the definition of what we Australians call “a shithouse year.” You had polyps that were removed. You broke up with your wife. What happens when a doctor tells a vocalist he can’t sing any more? Perhaps forever?
Jesse: Yeah, that was pretty intense, man. I mean not only did I have to deal with the news that my career may or may not be over, but I had to be quiet for the better part of two months. So it wasn’t like I could talk to somebody about it or vent to anybody, so it kind of spiralled me into a pretty dark place for a little while, but also a very contemplative place, a very monastic sort of state where I was listening a lot more than I ever have in my life and analysing… You know, the voice, if you think about it, we have such a gift, and a lot of us just abuse it to speak spite, to speak hatred and angry things. And I was able to really gain a lot of perspective of people that surround me and just the world in general and realise what a gift we have and we waste it on such fickle and strange things.
So it was a very profound two month period, and coming out of that and having a new instrument that sounded better than it ever had before was just a blessing in disguise. And my career was saved because of this surgery and because of the training I received. So I think it all happened for a reason, and I have no regrets and am very happy with the way that it turned out. With that being said, I did juggle with the idea of what would I do if I could not use my voice for music any more. I was able to get perspective on my life and come to peace with it. So it was very gratifying and beautiful experience in the long run.
Did you see yourself as “Jesse Leach, vocalist for Killswitch Engage,” as a point of identity? Did you have to recalibrate your entire self-perception?
I think I’ve always had a sense of identity outside of it, because I did spend a good part of my life, when I left the band initially, working regular jobs and becoming sort of a blue collar worker, “normal person” for a while. So I do have that background thankfully. But, since rejoining, yeah I definitely feel like it can happen to anybody. You sort of take things for granted. You can’t help it. You got something that’s given to you. It sits in your lap. You work for it; you get it. You wake up every morning and think to yourself, “Well this is what I do.” So there was definitely a moment of like, “okay, well this is what I do, but what if this is no longer what I do, and how easy would that transition be for me mentally and physically to just start doing something else?”
So it was pretty heavy, but I’m happy to say that I had enough balance in my life where it wasn’t a total freakout. Well this thing that’s sort of been in the back of my mind here and there, I’ve got to start leaning on that more, like what if situation. What if this is it? What would I do? So it was an interesting conversation to have within my own mind, but I’m at peace with it now.
What I got from the new album Atonement was like a comeback album for your vocal cords. Did you push yourself further, knowing this could be over in a second, like you said?
It is but it isn’t. Because the cool thing about learning a technique and learning how to do it properly is there’s less push. I think my older style required me to push more because that’s what I thought I had to do to hit notes, to have the screams as “brutal” as they were. But learning the new technique, it’s all about leaning back on less pressure and allowing the body to resonate. They call it the ringing of the voice, that you can hear there’s a roundness to my voice that was not there in previous recordings. And that is just about laying off on the pressure and allowing the sound to travel through your body uninhibited.
So it’s a very Zen-like thing where the performances may sound like I’m pushing my “style” and being ambitious, but in essence I’m actually more relaxed than I ever have been on this record. So it’s a really cool dichotomy of like I’m happy with it, I think my performances are right there, but the cool thing about it is replicating those things is not going to take a lot of effort because they were recorded with ease. Previously when I was recording, I would push until I was almost without a voice in previous records. I would go, go, go, and then like, ugh, “I got to take a week off. I’m dying.” With this record, it was like, oh, three or four days on, a day off, go right back to it with the new technique. So it’s definitely a whole new world for me, and I’m stoked on it, man.
Was it classical training?
Classical training…[laughs] The training I got was actually more for metal because I went under the training of Melissa Cross, who has made a career out of The Zen of Screaming, so a lot of what I learned was from her. And she basically taught me everything I know. So props to Melissa Cross; she’s a lifesaver.
There’s a bit of a European flavour on this record too. There is a lot of switching things up, exploring new territory.
Yeah, I’m happy to say it came from a very natural, organic place where we all went our separate ways, and everybody wrote their own demos and presented them, and we all worked on them together. But there was no conscious discussion of switching styles or pushing genre boundaries or whatever. It was very much an organic process that the stuff that was presented sounded the way that it did when it came on a demo, and then we just embellished upon it. And I think it just so happens, in my opinion, our most diverse, sonically sounding record, and I’m proud to say that just happened by being cohesive writers and having a synergy that exists between all of us.
You know, the voice, if you think about it, we have such a gift, and a lot of us just abuse it to speak spite, to speak hatred and angry things. And I was able to really gain a lot of perspective of people that surround me and just the world in general and realise what a gift we have and we waste it on such fickle and strange things.
As for the song I Am Broken Too, you basically pour your heart out. Following you on social media and seeing you struggle with anxiety, depression, the loss of your voice; do you feel like it was vital to say “Yeah, I’m this larger than life figure on stage, but I’m no better than you, I struggle too.”
I do think it’s important because I think that that empowers people, number one, and also it just makes people feel less alone. I think half of the struggle in why people do eventually commit suicide and have all these issues and get wrapped up in addiction is the lack of connection, the lack of feeling like you have somebody you can relate to that understands what you’re going through, that can sympathise with you, not just empathise but sympathise. And I think for me it’s important because I’ve met those people in my life who have encountered me and I’ve had conversations with where something as simple as somebody saying to you, “I understand what you’re going through. Here is my issues. Here’s what I went through. No one knows this about me, but I’m going to tell you because I think you need to hear it.”
So that’s definitely important. And that song is actually written about someone I love very much and is a very dear person to me that was fairly recently diagnosed with bipolar and has been having mental issues for years and didn’t understand why. And as someone who’s been fairly outspoken about mental illness, to me it was me extending a hand to that person saying, “Look, you are not alone. There are many of us.” And I believe firmly that that is something that can save somebody’s life. So it’s a very important message, I think, especially nowadays with the disconnection through social media where you can have arguments, you can have discussions, you can have full relationships with people and not even see their body language, not even see their eyes, not even hear their actual voice. You’re getting it off of a text message or off of social media, and that “connection” that we have on the internet is actually a disconnect form all of the things we need and crave as human beings. And I think it’s very detrimental to us, as a species, because it’s causing us to find loneliness and to find this sorrow that didn’t exist before this. And I think that’s why mental illness is on the rise. I think people are recognising that this is something that has happened to more and more of us because of that disconnection of human contact.
It’s interesting you say that. I’m reading a book at the moment called Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff. He talks about MP3s, and as you know, they are a lossy codec. When coding the file, the algorithm actually discards certain frequencies to save space. Our ears are crying out for frequencies that just aren’t there. But do you think Instagram and Facebook are “lossy” formats? We’re crying out for human connection that just isn’t there?
Yeah, absolutely man. I mean, you read a text that says “I love you” with a little heart emoji, that’s one thing, but if you hear somebody with their voice look at you in the eye, grab you by the arm or touch your skin and say with passion “I love you,” and you can hear the inflexion of the voice, which is more powerful? And you take that out of the equation, man, that’s going to fuck with your head. Of course it’s going to fuck with your head. It’s fucking with all our heads, dude. Of course it is.
Well, I love you too man. Just as an aside.
Yeah but if you saw my face, you would have saw the fucking sarcasm.
There wasn’t any from me, Jesse.
[Laughs] I’ll take your word for it.
Are you coming back to Australia on this tour cycle? You’re here so often, you’re more or less Honourary Aussies at this point.
Yeah, at this point there is no plan, but I’m sure we’ll get there. The Australian fans have been so good to us, and I think this record’s going to take us around the world again, so I’m sure we’ll get there. But at the moment, there are definitely no solid plans outside of doing this next U.S. run, doing the European run, and then go from there. I think we’re trying to be mindful about not burning ourselves out. I think the past six years or so we’ve been going full tilt, and we’re all a little burnt out. So we’re going to gauge ourselves and pace ourselves, but I mean Australia has been a place that we do really well in, so there’s no doubt we’ll get there on this album cycle.