James Cassells: Point Of No Return

james cassells

Beyond 'Core Values

One of the most irritating tics in metalcore is the bass drop, the dub step—y dwoooohm that signaled the beginning of a breakdown, usually part of the preprogrammed sequence controlled by the soundman, or, in Cassells’ case, triggered by an electronic pad. “We used to use those,” he says with an air of derision for the genre tropes of 2009. “I used to have an 808 pad where I’d hit it and it would be like a boooom. We would be playing small clubs without a sound engineer and we could never dial in the right sound, but [these days] our sound engineer can make my kit sound fantastic. So we don’t use a kick trigger anymore, and we don’t use any bass drops really at all anymore either.”

But forget the drops. No samples or triggers of any kind are used in live performance. (Recording is another story, which we’ll get to in a minute.) “It’s all completely natural. The only time there would be any sort of drum replacement live is if, say, there was a swell into a snare hit during an atmospheric part. That would be the only time I would say there is any sort of extra [machine-assisted] drum parts.”

Factor in that From Death To Destiny – with its strings, keyboards, etc. – is much more saturated and lush in songs such as “Believe” and it becomes instantly clear why Cassells had to be more conscious than ever of his time and economical with his beats. “We would have to have about 100 people [to re-create the symphonic aspects live],” he says. “That would be so expensive. So I’ll play to a click. We all play to a click and the choir and all the electronic sounds are playing along with that click track. [The soundman] can mix that with our live sound and make it as if the orchestra was playing with us.”

Prior to tracking Reckless & Relentless, Asking Alexandria didn’t have access to a studio or practice space to write the songs, so the drummer sequenced in rough beats for the songs into a MacBook. “I was just wracking my brain to come up with things, you know? Whereas with From Death To Destiny we’d come a lot further as a band, and we had more money to spend on this, so soon as we’d come off stage we’d jump in the back and start preproduction for the album.”

The band discovered that the post-show rush is the best time to get cracking on the new material. “I feel like when you come off stage your adrenaline’s pumping and you’re just completely buzzing and I feel like sometimes you can come up with great ideas and great riffs at that point.” In an even greater feat of time management and preproduction, Cassells could jump out of his bunk in the morning and start to demo ideas. “And so when we went into the [actual recording] studio these songs were pretty much written and then we’d sort of like tweak little bits and bobs when we got in there. So by the time I was tracking the drums, it wasn’t so much just getting the parts down [like last time], it was getting the parts down just right.”

As for creating the actual drum tones for From Death To Destiny, it was a man-meets-machine thing, where producer Sturgis recorded naked tones from each drum, including from separate microphone angles, and then tweaked them for the desired sound, or blended the virgin drum tones with samples from a library. “A lot of people would frown upon that but to be honest, you can’t [be that way] really,” he continues. “I think every single record that’s come out in [hard rock and metal] for the last however many years, this is the process they go to. It’s the modern way of doing it. Some traditionalists might look at it and be like, ’That’s not completely real.’ And it’s like, ’Come and see us play live and you can ask yourself whether or not I can play the parts.’”

Sheiks And Geeks

Of all the cities for a metalcore band to get started, Dubai is not the first place you would envision. But the United Arab Emirates, where the Bruce family had temporarily located, is exactly where guitarist Ben Bruce found himself when he started Asking Alexandria. After Bruce Sr.’s work contract in the UAE was up, the family moved back to the England. Once there, however, the other members of the fledgling band were not feeling Bruce’s decision to reinvent Asking Alexandria’s sound so they moved back to Dubai, at which point Bruce decided to wipe the slate clean.

With his stripped-down kit, tattoos, and occasionally peroxide-blonde hair, Cassells has self-taught metal kid written all over him. But looks can be deceiving. As Bruce was getting settled back in the U.K., Cassells was deep into the drum and percussion curriculum at Academy Of Contemporary Music (ACM) in Guilford. “Some people can not have [instruction],” he says, “But I think every drummer should.”

Even before enrolling, the teenager was already serious about his music education thanks to two deeply influential instructors. The first, Ian MacPherson, was a longtime drummer in the British military. “He could compose a bloody symphony if he wanted‚” Cassells says. “He taught me how to hold the sticks, how to read music, different styles of music, all sorts of stuff. I went all the way through my grades with him.”

Taking his pupil as far as he could, McPherson put Cassells in touch with Stuie Ellerton, a noted drummer and instructor, also in the North of England, where the pair worked through “crazy Dave Weckl play-alongs” and hybrid Latin stuff on the kit. “I really wanted to be a session drummer,” he adds. “And Stuie was training me to be a drum teacher as well.”

Meanwhile, guitarist Ben Bruce, still kicking around North Yorkshire and despondent at the breakup of his band, happened to be at a local club where he caught a set from Nailbead, one of the bands Cassells had formed with friends. A full year into the program at ACM, the drummer’s gigs with Nailbead were limited to whenever he was home on vacation from the school. (“I think we wrote a grand total of four songs in two years,” he jokes.) But at the show, Nailbead’s aggressive beats were exactly what Bruce was looking for in the soon-to-be resurrected Asking Alexandria. On the spot he asked the drummer if he wanted to tour America in a new band. It was no easy decision. Nailbead wasn’t serious, but life in a touring band spoiled plans to become a session drummer. Yet the guitarist’s sales pitch was too hard to resist. Heck, Cassells didn’t even have to audition. “He just saw me play live, like, ’That’s the guy I want.’”

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