Now solidly into the incredible co-headlining Killthrax Tour, Killswitch Engage have been delighting metal fans all spring with their influential take on metallic hardcore. Released in 2016, the band’s latest LP Incarnate demonstrated that, even after seven albums and two vocalist changes, there are few modern metal acts that measure up to the Massachusetts band. Bassist and founding member Mike D’Antonio took a break from the band’s busy touring schedule to talk to mxdwn about the Alive or Just Breathing 15th Anniversary reissue, the group’s foray into adult beverages and what the future holds for the seminal metalcore masters.
mxdwn: So with the band in the midst of the Killthrax Tour, can you tell me a little bit about how it is going?
Mike D’Antonio: So far it’s been awesome. We are at about the halfway point now. Anthrax couldn’t be a nicer bunch of dudes; we are getting along great.
We had run into them before here and there at festivals and we know Jon [Donais] from Shadows Fall so it kind of felt like we were a little bit family anyways. But you never know what’s going to happen with the crew and stuff like that when you walk into a tour. It’s been amazing. Their crew — right down to everybody, the bus drivers are super-duper nice and everyone is into making the show as good as possible, not making themselves look as good as possible, which can happen on stupid tours. We feel blessed to be on this tour and are super excited about playing for everybody and letting them see how cool this thing is.
mxdwn: Are there any differences between this tour and say, the co-headlining tour with Lamb of God?
MD: Well, we know the Lamb of God guys a lot better. We’ve done many tours with them. We don’t quite know Anthrax that well. Is there a difference? I don’t know – we’re all old?
There’s the nostalgia factor of Anthrax and listening to some of my favorite songs every single night when I’m taking a shower or heading back to the bus. That’s a really cool feeling. It’s like a soundtrack to your life when you are walking around. It’s pretty awesome! I really can’t remember a better tour than this that we’ve had in a long time.
mxdwn: How did you end up partnering with Anthrax for the tour?
MD: Well, like I said, Jon from Shadows Fall, he plays second guitar for [Anthrax] now, taking over for Dan Spitz. He came on our bus about a year ago, and said, “Hey, I heard the great news!” I said, “What’s the great news?” He goes, “Well Scott Ian was talking about us touring with you guys in a little bit.” I was like, “Whoa! That’s kind of awesome.”
So I heard about that and I immediately called our management and said, “I don’t know if this is true or not but if you can get Scott Ian on the phone then we can figure this out and it would be pretty rad.” It took about a year, but that’s exactly what happened! So I don’t know if Scott Ian can see the future or what, but he was right.
mxdwn: Do you enjoy the fast pace of life on the road?
MD: The faster the better on the road! The least amount of days on tour is always the best amount of days on tour, because we tour so much. We never get a chance to be home and it takes a toll on wives and family members.
If there’s a bad thing about this job — and there aren’t many — it’s that we miss every holiday, birthday. My wife refers to me as the “Snuffleupagus” because I’m that person everyone refers to but no one ever sees. That’s not the greatest feeling in the world, but it’s overpowered by how rad this job is. There really isn’t a better job out there.
mxdwn: With the vinyl reissue celebrating 15 years since Alive or Just Breathing, how do you view the record when you look back on it?
MD: I’m pretty proud of it. I still enjoy the songs on there — though it’s not like I sit around listening to my own music. But it’s really fun to play those songs live.
[The reissue] was really a cool thing to be able to do. For the third time I was able to take apart the cover and redo it. To rip that thing apart and make it new and fresh was probably the most exciting thing about it. Being a graphic designer, I just love big vinyl pieces. They just look cool, and when you see them they are nice and big. And this is a gatefold, so there’s like a million/trillion photos; there’s a giant collage right in the middle. I think people will be really stoked on it.
mxdwn: Speaking of Alive or Just Breathing, tell me a little bit about how the Cigar City Brewing Alive or Just Brewing IPA came about?
MD: It’s been about two years that we’ve been talking with Cigar City. They had been doing some stuff with a band that I used to love growing up called Sam Black Church, from Boston. I was fortunate enough to do the labels for that project and got to know those dudes [at Cigar City]. Meanwhile in the background, Adam [Dutkiewicz] started talking them and they asked us if we wanted to do the beer.
It was a cool privilege for something like that to happen; but then we had to think of what beer is going to stand out, what it is going to taste like and look like. There were all these ideas being thrown around. A lot of the names, apparently, the government does not like. We had to throw out a bunch of different names that we really wanted to use.
Then we saw down the road that it would be coming out around the same time as the Alive or Just Breathing re-release, so we wanted to tie everything together. That’s pretty much what we were going for.
The brew is actually made from pine needles and cranberries, and it’s an IPA. I’m not an IPA fan; I heard that and I thought, this is going to taste like dandelions or grass or something. But it’s remarkably smooth, even I can drink it and I’m a Coors Light guy. And it comes in the big bottles, the 22 ounce bottles, so you gotta commit!
mxdwn: You designed the artwork for the beer’s label, and of course the band’s album artwork and merch. Have you been involved in graphic design as long as you’ve been in bands?
MD: Yeah, it was the thing that got me into bands. I went to high school for graphic arts, which is like printing presses and stuff like that. I just always had friends that needed stuff: flyers, seven inches, stickers. All that stuff I could do and I could do it without the teachers looking. I would throw things on the press real quick and rattle off some demo covers.
I saw all my friends doing this band thing and it looked like the most fun thing in the world. Bands were something to do when you weren’t skateboarding. All of a sudden it turned to something that I thought, “Maybe I can try that.” Graphic design kind of goes hand-in-hand — it’s all art, really.
I’ve always constantly jumped back and forth. I’ll be a band guy for a couple months and then I’ll jump into graphic design. A lot of times on the road I can break out the laptop and just get rid of the monotony of not doing too much during the day and kind of escape where I’m at, being away from home and missing people. Graphic design is what I did before the band and it’s what I’m going to do after the band. All those kids out there that don’t have a backup plan — it’d probably be a good idea.
mxdwn: As the second album after Jesse returned to the band, was there any difference in the writing and recording of Incarnate versus his first album, Disarm the Descent?
MD: With Disarm the Descent we had already written the music. We had 16 tracks and said, “Okay, we’ve got to stop here because whoever is going to sing on this — if someone is going to sing on this — they’re going to have a tough time getting all these lyrics down.” That was kind of a thing where [Jesse] came in at the end.
[On Incarnate], he had a say. The writing process is that everyone goes to their own rooms at home and writes for like two weeks. Then we bring demos to practice and all sit around and listen to it, have a demo party, rip apart things and talk about what could be better with certain stuff. Or we’ll just say, “That’s great, we love that one.”
But the ones we rip apart, we’ll walk over to the Pro Tools rig and redo the demo right there in front of everybody. Adam will turn around and say, “Hey Justin [Foley], do you like this fill or that fill?” and, “Hey Joel [Stroezel], what about a solo here?” And we all can have an opinion on the songs. It’s a really streamlined way of [writing]. This time Jesse was in on all that, had his opinion thrown in the mix. It helped a lot and I feel like made for a more cohesive record.
mxdwn: With Incarnate’s release a little over a year ago, are Killswitch Engage working on new music or planning a new album, or can fans expect something more like your last three albums with a break of four and three years?
MD: I think with this touring cycle we learned we may want to stay home and write more. So we may pump out more records than tours. We are getting older. It’s always a great time to play the music; it’s one of the most exciting things to do. But I think we’re going to limit the amount of time we are on the road. Or maybe just make more time in between tours. This is a very exhausting cycle for us.
We are talking about recording new stuff and doing demos right after this tour, as a matter of fact. I think for the first time ever Adam is writing on the tour and I’ve never seen him do that. He’s either a tour guy or a writing guy. He never mixes both and it appears he is having fun doing it. I’ve already written some stuff; I’m one of those guys that need to do it over a few months’ span rather than, “You have two weeks, write something right now.”
With recent news that Adam and Jesse are working on new Times of Grace material, I was curious if you have any other musical projects when you aren’t actively working on Killswitch Engage? Or do you mainly focus on your graphic design work?
MD: I do focus a lot on my graphics, but I can’t not have something else going on. I’m in a band called Deathray Vision with my old pals from Overcast, Brian [Fair] and Pete [Cortese]. It’s more like straightforward, punk rock metal with shorter songs — even shorter than Killswitch songs. It’s just in-your-face with lots of breakdowns and stuff. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about writing — balls-to-the-wall breakdowns.
At one point there was an interim between Howard Jones and Jesse and we weren’t sure we were going to do anything else. The band pretty much broke up at one point so I started [Deathray Vision] just to play. I just missed it, whether I’m with two people or a hundred people or a thousand people, there’s just this weird rush that you get from it. Getting off stage after you’re done and saying, “Wow, we just pulled that off.”
Photo Credit: Boston Lynn Shulz