Interview with bassist Mike D’Antonio | By Nicholas Senior | Photos by Alan Snodgrass
It may sound patently ridiculous, but Massachusetts’ own Killswitch Engage may be the closest thing we’ll ever get to metalcore superheroes. Their landmark eighth album, Atonement, released Aug. 16 via new label Metal Blade Records, might also be the most important—and impressively potent—mission statement in their 20-year existence. Musically and lyrically, there’s a resiliency and strength contained within that make the listener feel like they can run through a brick wall. Killswitch Engage’s motto has always been that your life may suck right now, but we’ll get through it together, one Juggernaut-sized riff and breakdown at a time—and that message feels especially vital right now.
There’s even a nod to an “Avengers”-style collaboration, with one of the album’s most stirring songs, “The Signal Fire,” featuring both of the band’s storied ringleaders, original and current vocalist Jesse Leach and former vocalist Howard Jones. However, it’s Leach’s continued push to light the fire inside and make the world a better place that is particularly commanding throughout Atonement’s efficient runtime.
In a sense, the band even began as a superhero team-up—a Fantastic Four, if you will—rising from the soil of Massachusetts’ fertile metalcore scene after the dissolution of their former bands Overcast and Aftershock in 1999. The fact that Atonement holds a candle to their past genre classics is impressive enough, but the feeling that there’s a new and exciting chapter at hand is cause for the kind of optimism bands 20 years into their careers don’t always warrant. It takes a truly super band to keep the momentum going this long.
“I appreciate that,” bassist Mike D’Antonio smiles. “I don’t know if that’s attributable to us writing too many songs; we wrote, like, 21 or 22 tunes for this new record. We had to say, ‘Stop writing, everyone!’ We were just so excited to write, and things were popping up and sounding great. We just had to end it, because we knew, eventually, we were going to have to give this to Jesse, and he’s not going to like having to do this many songs, because it might explode his brain.”
“Which it did! It actually did explode his brain,” he laughs. “There were just way too many tunes, but to his credit, he was able to do 17 songs’ vocals before he tapped out. The best part was that we could pick from 17 tunes, not have exactly 14 and maybe put two on the special edition. We had so many that we really could pick and choose exactly what we wanted. It’s the first time everyone in the band was like, ‘This is the record. This is what we want to do,’ so maybe that has something to do with it too.”
There was a lot that went on in the background of Atonement—the sociopolitical climate, Leach losing his voice and coming out the other side—which likely added some juice to the idea of getting together with some buds and writing some jams.
“Absolutely,” D’Antonio says. “I can’t really speak to what Jesse was going through, but as an outsider looking in, he was really worried about his voice—as he should be, since it’s the one instrument he has—but he’s a resilient dude. He’s come back from a lot of stuff, many more things than people know. As a band, we knew that he was having trouble with it, but we knew he was going to bounce back and be better than ever. The only thing you can do is be there for your friend and let him know it’s going to be fine. You know he’s freaking out inside. That also adds to how he writes and communicates with people. He’s almost like a guru; he’s gotten me through some rough times, so he’s an honest dude. All those lyrics coming out, that’s not bullshit—that’s the real deal.”
Even superheroes need to lean on each other when humanity’s heartache hits home. That’s why it was important for Killswitch Engage to rally around one another: Leach while rehabbing his voice and, unfortunately, D’Antonio while going through a divorce.
“You know, divorce is a tough thing,” he notes. “It’s really hard on people. The codependency of being with somebody and having that person be your better half, which, for me, was half my life—[it] was a tremendous blow. You lose half your family, with the other person’s family. That can be real tough too, but with a guy like Jesse in the mix giving you pointers and pointing me in the right direction—it was like I did not want to exist anymore, [but] I went from that point to thinking, ‘It’s probably OK that I feel this terrible’ to ‘OK, I’m better now.’ It was just the help of his words.”
Anyone who has ever consumed a superhero comic book, film, or TV show knows that caped crusaders influence each other. Killswitch Engage have been able to meet many of their predecessors in metallic rage, but that all came to a head when they toured with Cro-Mags “JM.”
“It is surreal, and I have to pinch myself all the time,” D’Antonio admits. “I was just talking with the guys and laughing, ‘We’re playing with the Cro-Mags right now! What is happening?’ My 12-year-old self, his head would explode. It’s almost too much to take in right now. I’d also liken it to two other tours we’ve done. We did two tours with Anthrax, and I love Anthrax to no end, especially that bass tone that Frank Bello has. It’s a huge influence on me. [Iron] Maiden—what hasn’t been said about Maiden and Steve Harris, one of the best bass players of all time?”
“Getting to the Cro-Mags,” he redirects, “[vocalist and bassist] Harley Flanagan, who is not in the version of the Cro-Mags we’re touring with, he inspired me—maybe not as a person but his act onstage, the amount of energy protruding from his playing as well as the overall aggressiveness onstage [and] the fact that he could sing too. I’m a lucky person, to say the least. It’s something I’ll look back on and say, ‘Holy smokes, that actually happened.’ Being in the moment, it’s hard to really disassociate myself and look in from a different window. Just know, I’m definitely freaking out every day.”
The challenge of meeting one’s idols is often meeting one’s idols, so D’Antonio is relieved it has been a positive experience.
“I’ve met many and have liked few,” he chuckles. “There are a lot of dudes in my business who want to talk about themselves, and when you get a conversation going with one of those types of people, it’s very easy to just walk away and say, ‘Never mind, I don’t really need to rehash that conversation again.’ The very first conversation I had with [Anthrax vocalist] Joey Belladonna, I walked up to him [and] he said he liked my band and wanted to know what I was doing. He wasn’t filling me in on everything Anthrax or telling me about his off-tour life. He was asking about me; we had an actual back-and-forth conversation. It blew me away. People of that stature can be real people. It doesn’t happen often, though, unfortunately.”
Speaking of superhuman feats, few bands are able to complete a full record deal, but Killswitch Engage actually did, completing six albums for Roadrunner before signing with Metal Blade for Atonement.
“That is probably the single coolest thing about this entire 20 years, is that when we signed with Roadrunner, they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s for a lot of records, but don’t worry, no one ever makes it to the end,’” D’Antonio recalls. “We fucking made it to the end! We did it. We said we were going to do this, and we fucking pulled it off! Now, it’s a fun thing to start fresh, to start brand new. Metal Blade have been nothing but nice to us for years and years and years. We really love [label founder] Brian Slagel; we love all the dudes in the office. They’ve supported us for years, coming to shows and hanging out way back when.”
“We almost wanted to do this record for them, to show them, ‘Thank you for signing us. We know we cost a little bit of money,’” he laughs, “‘but we’re gonna pull off the best record we can, because we love the way your business is run, and we believe in you guys and hope you believe in us. Here you go.’”
D’Antonio is a big fan of comics, and if it’s not clear yet, Killswitch Engage are a bit more Marvel than DC. The band don’t exhibit that trademark scowling nihilism that permeates DC Comics, and while Marvel grapples with the responsibility of power, there’s always an uplifting element at the end of the day.
“To me, the difference between Marvel and DC,” D’Antonio ponders, “is DC is hokey and stuck in the past of superheroes being a cartoon character, whereas Marvel is based in the future and the now, with making the characters relate to real-life situations that could possibly happen any day. It’s way more believable.”
So, who’s his favorite superhero?
“I love the new Spider-Man. I think that dude [Tom Holland] does a great job; he’s the closest to what I think of as who Spider-Man should be: awkward, nerdy, not as outgoing as other superheroes. It re-inspired me to get another Spider-Man tattoo,” D’Antonio laughs. “I love the ‘Avengers’ movies because of the way the characters interact, people making fun of each other—it’s not so serious anymore. That’s the best thing they could have done, adding the humor aspect and not taking themselves so seriously, kind of like we do. We try to have fun with the audience. We’re not growling at them. We want them to participate and have as much fun as we do. We’re not here to command you to put your hands up; we’re here to party.”
As a musical superhero in his own right, it’s inevitable that people will be inspired by D’Antonio like so many people inspired him, right? He’s not so sure.
“It’s a little weird to me. I’m still a little kid looking up to my heroes, even though I’m old,” he laughs.