With news cycles growing shorter all the time, you may not remember there was an earthquake in Alaska at the beginning of the summer.
At the time, Jason Bittner was in the heart of Palin country, fast asleep in a shabby motor lodge in the hours before a scheduled set with fellow Massachusetts metallers Unearth and Anchorage’s own 36 Crazyfists.
The temblor hit 5.4 on the Richter scale, but this is news to the 39-year-old drummer who slept straight through it. Maybe he failed to notice with all the earth shaking of his own on Retribution, the sixth release from Shadows Fall. It’s all good, because in a few hours several thousand Alaskan metal fans will experience their next set of shockwaves.
A champion storyteller, Bittner is in the middle of a yarn about an upcoming shoot for “Still I Rise” – an Ultimate-Fighting spoof reminiscent of Megadeth’s “Wake Up Dead” video – when it dawns on him that he forgot to pack sticks. A casual hint that he might borrow a pair from 36’s Thomas Noonan brings out the fast-talking, wise-ass from Schenectady we know and love. “I will do that.”
Shadows Fall hasn’t been an underground buzz band for a long time. They left indie label Century Media in 2006 for Atlantic Records, where they put out exactly one album, Threads Of Life. The major was slated to release the follow-up, but as soon as it was in the can the band’s A&R man was sacked – a death knell for any non-priority artist. Facing the possibility of new material getting shelved indefinitely, Shadows’ own label, Ever Black Industries, partnered with New Jersey—based Ferret Music for the release of Retribution.
“I think we just got lost in limbo, basically,” Bittner says of the brief stint at Atlantic. “I really think they didn’t know how to market us and what to do with us, so I think that’s why it was very easy on both ends to just say, ’Hey, appreciate the help, but we need to go back to doing this the way we’ve done it in the past and what works for us.’ So that’s what we’re doing.”
Boy, are they ever. The production on Retributionm is freakin’ crystal, every instrument clear, distinct, and sounding just a little too good. After eight years as a band, the Shadows guys entered the studio knowing exactly how they want to sound. It’s a good thing, too, because the drummer was rusty after not having played for the whole week he was at Winter NAMM in Southern California. “When I get home I’m snow-blowing the driveway and the next day I got sick. And it wasn’t the sniffles, I mean I got sick – on the couch, couldn’t do a thing, laid there four days straight. By Thursday I got off the couch and was like, ’This is exactly what I did not want to have happen.”
He needn’t have worried. Not with Zeuss manning the boards at Planet Z Studios in Hadley, Massachusetts, where the mono-monikered producer has overseen nearly every Shadows Fall record. “He’s just as much of a fan of my drumming as I am, so he knows when that little splash part’s coming up or he’ll go, ’Now, I know you want me to have that fill at 3:28 and blah, blah,’ so he’s got it all planned out. I don’t have to tell him anything, which is very comfortable.”Retribution makes its ferocious impact seconds after hitting PLAY. With today’s marquee metal acts getting all mealy mouthed about musicality, it’s refreshing to see that Bittner is note-ier, busier, and just plain quicker than he was on the already-pretty-damn-intense Threads Of Life.
For a dude who supposedly doesn’t care about speed, he sure spends a lot of time talking about it. “I’ve said in the past I’m not going to sit in my basement and play faster than 230 but I lied,” he says with a sly grin. “What happened with this album is the songs that we wrote called for faster, more aggressive drumming, so that’s what allowed me to branch out a little bit more.”
The tensile strength and athletic attack can be traced to a comeback with Burning Human, a long-dormant side project from the early ’90s, when Bittner’s primary band was Stigmata. Burning Human had been getting belated kudos in the last few years and finally saw the long-delayed release of its debut, Resurrection Through Fire, on Koch Records this summer. Though the B-H songs were 15 years old, their death-metal tempos forced Bittner back into the woodshed, and it rubbed off on him when it came time to do his new Shadows Fall parts.
“Going into writing [Retribution] I was like, ’Oh, you want a blastbeat there?’ I can do it now a lot easier than before.’ Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like it was easy. It’s never going to be easy. The moment it’s easy I must have drunk the Buddy Rich potion. [laughs] I’d say it’s gotten easi-er, but ask me this question three months from now and I might be, ’Nope, it gets harder every night.’”
Laying down a formidable drum part in the studio is a professional hazard in Bittner’s line of work. There is always that temptation to get a bit too quick or complicated in the heat of the creative moment. Think of that guy on the first day of baseball tryouts, who throws his arm out trying to impress the coach. “Why try and play something at a tempo that’s 50 bpm faster than what I’m going to be playing in my band for no reason, just to say that I could do it?”
Funny Bittner puts it like that because if some grindcore nerd calls him out, that’s precisely what he’ll do with “Those Who Cannot Speak,” from 2004’s War Within. It’s the only Shadows track that has never been played live due to the muddiness created by overlapping guitars, and it’s precisely why he saves it for the clinics (more on those later). “If some kid wants to go, ’Well, they don’t play that song live because the drummer can’t play it.’ No, I’m showing you I can do the song. I’m not going to put something down on record if I can’t replicate that live.”
Speed will always be a part of extreme metal, but it was only one of the goals with Retribution. The quasi-shuffle Southern-rock vibe on “Embrace Annihilation” is almost quaint next to the cold, menacing thrash surrounding it. The problem drum-wise with this tune came at the intro to the guitar solo as it was originally written, which wasn’t working with a right-foot lead, so the drummer had to get inventive with the transition. “It’s kind of cool because I play this triplet thing and do a double paradiddle thing over the top of it that the band matches, so it’s like there’s a little progressive element coming out of it too. It’s an example of where the drums dictated to what happened afterwards when they tracked their parts.”
Clocking in around 200 bpm, “Public Execution” is one of Retribution’s most demanding tracks. Maybe this tempo won’t blow up the skirts of cats claiming to hit 240—260 bpm, but big numbers do not impress JayBitt. “If you’re playing those speeds there’s no way you’re pounding out on the kick drums like I do for a 195—200 kind of thing – it’s not possible. You can’t play those fast, insane kind of tempos and have that kind of power. Something needs to give.”
Avoiding triggers like the plague, Bittner has an approach that’s more in common with ’80s thrash drummers than with his peers. A cynic might argue that going trigger-less is merely an excuse to play at a manageable pace, but he doesn’t see it that way. “One of the things that I pride myself on is that I think that I am a very consistent, powerful drummer – that’s what makes more sense to me – and it’s something I teach all my students: ’I would rather hear you play something slow and play it solid with every note sounding the way it’s supposed to sound and play it with conviction rather than playing it fast and having it sound sloppy.’”
Despite leaving one of the country’s most prestigious music institutions before getting his diploma, Bittner has nothing but fondness for his alma mater. Just a few weeks back, he was invited to give an address about the music business to the school’s metal/hardcore club. It’s an irony he relishes, but the taste is bittersweet. “What I did when I was 19 might not have been the smartest thing for me to do and I’m willing to admit that maybe I should have stuck it out.”
His Berklee experience looks a lot like that of many former students: After meeting like-minded musicians, jamming together, and forming a band, the classroom was history. A part of him wants to go back and finish what he started but time and money are an issue. “The other part of me goes, ’Is there any guarantee that I would be sitting here talking to you today doing this interview if I had stayed?’
“I could very well have gotten the five-year degree in performance and education that I was going after in the first place,” he continues. “But I could still be an out-of-work music teacher back in the Capital District [Albany-Troy-Schenectady area], because what’s the one thing that schools are losing first with layoffs nowadays? Fine arts programs. If I were to go back now I would either do music business or I would do MP&E [music production and engineering]. I would go into a field of music that I had some sort of a chance to get a job in.”
When putting on a clinic, Bittner is trying to educate not only the people who pay ten bucks, but also himself. He just came back from a three-week outing with avant-bassist Stu Hamm, the Satriani sideman known for finger tapping and percussive slaps. Each musician performed a separate mini-clinic, then jammed together for 40 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a thrash seminar but if forced the drummer out of his comfort zone. By contrast, a straight-up Jason Bittner clinic kicks off with maybe three Shadows Fall songs, a Burning Human track, and an extended solo. “I play for like 25 minutes before I even say anything.”
During the Q&A segment, the first thing people usually ask about is his foot technique. The “double-bass tutorials,” as he calls them, are scaled-down versions of what viewers get on What Drives The Beat (2008), a DVD he calls “the culmination of who I am as a drummer.” The only problem was that shooting it just about killed him. It was bad enough he had to film the two-plus-hour video all by himself, but the sheer scope of the project, from storyboarding down to last-minute proofing, was way more work than he had imagined. Plus he had to do it all in a single day. “I was very fortunate that Hudson was less involved in the logistics of it than they normally are with any other DVD,” he says. “Aside from Mike Portnoy’s, this is their first metal DVD, so I really have to commend them for having enough faith in me to just take the ball and run with it, you know, like, ’Guys, just trust me. You might not get this, but this is really the way it should be.’”
An unexpected benefit of the camera close-ups led to a greater awareness of behind-the-kit quirks. “Some kid posted on my web site, ’Your left foot looks like it has a life of its own.’ I guess it’s like a subconscious timekeeping thing, I don’t know. I don’t think about this stuff, I just play.”
Unlike the private lessons he gives back home between Shadows Fall tours, making a DVD had no economic motivation. In an era when dozens of instructional videos are released every month, Bittner knew putting one out was mainly for his own artistic satisfaction, and hopefully, to share some hard-won playing tips. “It was for me to show my drumming outside of just being in the band.”
To put the undertaking’s monetary rewards into perspective, the split DVD he did with Chris Adler in 2005 only just now recouped. But before he could hoist a Sam Adams to celebrate, the royalty check went straight into paying off the advance he got for What Drives The Beat.
Couldn’t royalty checks, even small ones, add up over time? “I don’t know,” he barks. “Ask Steve Smith or Thomas Lang.” Speaking of drummers on film, Bittner may be coming to a cable channel near you along with writing partner Tristan Grigsby and ex-Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson, a nameless collaboration that has released the track “Leave It Alone,” a tribute to Pantera’s late guitarist, Dimebag Darrell and available on iTunes.
Turns out some of Grigsby’s investor buddies are helping to fund a pilot for an Inside The Actors Studio—type show tentatively titled After Sessions, featuring a variety of musicians from different genres. Footage was recently shot at Phantom, the Los Angeles—based studio of Simon Phillips. It was a treat for the Shadows Fall drummer, who adds that Phillips could not have been cooler or more generous. At one point, Bittner was dueling with uberbassist Billy Sheehan. “I’m looking around going, ’This is pretty cool. And I’m doing this on Simon Phillips’ drum set!’”
Getting interrupted during interviews tends to bug Bittner. He growls at the tour manager when he barges in looking for a cell phone (“Well, he’s lying to you because it’s not here.”). Next, the front desk buzzes him to see if he would like clean towels (“Yeah, later”).When the topic of drum solos comes up, he pounces: “I should get more of them!”
He confesses to having a conflicted relationship with the spotlight-hogging displays that seem to be tolerated rather than appreciated, especially in hard music. In the past, he felt solos were mandatory. “Now I’m like, ’You know what? I play my ass off on these songs. If you can’t get the gist of what I do listening to these songs [laughs] ... do I really need to do a solo too?’”
Then again, solos are an opportunity to play the kind of beats that would not make sense in Shadows Fall. “I probably wouldn’t do a double hi-hat ostinato with an interpretive experimental thing over the top,” he says. “I can do it in a drum solo and it’s cool.”
When Shadows Fall launches its headline tour at the end of the year, a drum solo will become a regular part of the show – more or less. The real trick will be finding a balance between accessibility and challenging ideas. “You got to remember you’re not just playing to drummers, you’re playing to general people that don’t necessarily know about music. In a clinic setting I can solo for 15, 20 minutes if I want to. Live I have to say what I’m going to say in a 3—4 minute period. Unless you’re Neil [Peart] or someone like that, you want to keep people interested. I always try to remember that, which is I why I do a little audience participation thing at the end where I try to get people clapping along, do that typical kind of arena-rock thing.”
When it comes to the click, Bittner only has positive things to say. Besides a timekeeping aid, it’s a quality-control filter during post-production. “I’m so microscopic when I’m listening to my parts. I’m, ’Was that a mistake’ or ’Did that sound weird?’ And everybody else is, ’What are you talking about?’ Sometimes when you do that much nitpicking, it’s nice to have that click there because if you solo the drums [track] and play it with the click, and if you hear just the click then you know it’s not a mistake.” Over the years, he has also fine-tuned his pre-show warm-up, which begins with some stretches before jumping on the practice pedals, while simultaneously blazing accented patterns, paradiddle inversions, ruffs, or whatever pops into his head. The whole drill used to be done to a click – sped up in 10 bpm increments – but the routine has since been abandoned. “It was making me push the tempos when I wasn’t ready. I find it’s much easier to go at a comfortable pace for 20 minutes or so, get the blood flowing, keep everything going and them I’m ready to hit the stage right off the bat.”
Good thing, too, because he’s pulling out all the stops on a preliminary autumn jaunt in September with co-headliner White Chapel – just to set the appropriately brutal tone for when Shadows Fall headlines later this year. That means no “Picture Perfect,” the most rock-oriented of the new material, no “Art Of Balance” from Art Of Balance, no “Another Hero Lost” from Threads Of Life. As Bittner says, “No ballads on this tour.”
With Retribution pushing modern American extreme metal to its limits, how much more can Bittner say as a drummer with Shadows Fall? “That’s a hard question because I sometimes wonder myself,” he says, trailing off before it hits him. It’s the same feeling that pushed him beyond academia’s ivory-covered walls two decades ago: “Some people may have thought we aren’t as viable as we once were. This record is definitely going to prove we are as viable as we ever were and we still have a lot left in us. My wife asked me this too: ’What’s your five-year plan?’ Well, I hope I’m still doing this.”