James Cassells: Point Of No Return

james cassells

Relentless Improvement

If there’s one thing Cassells would add to his chops wish list, it would be endurance. From Death To Destiny’s opening track, “Don’t Pray For Me,” which according to him is not a technical song at all, is a constant reminder of this fact. “I’m always conscious that I need to nail that first double bass section because it’s super quick, and it’s super long. It’s hard to hit every note as hard as possible and I hate that because I want the audience to be smashed in the face.”

While many extreme metallers come blasting out of the gate only to run out of steam after three songs, Cassells is the complete opposite, gaining strength during the show. The solution would be to play “Don’t Pray For Me” later in the set it would seem, but the drummer isn’t buying it. “No matter how much you warm up backstage you’re never fully warm,” he says. “Honestly, toward the end of the set – tired and hot and sweaty and I’m aching or whatever – that’s when you still play best because you are so loose and so into it.”

After a grueling tour, Cassells will hit the refresh button and stay away from the instrument. This drum-free period lasts for all of three days before he’s back on the kit and/or practice pad, trying out new licks and riffing on rudiments. Lately he has been getting into paradiddles between right hand and right foot and other drills to challenge himself. “Just stuff that I wouldn’t really ever use per se in an Asking Alexandria song.”

There’s the rub. Whether or not the exercise has a real-world application has nothing to do with Cassells’ desire to master it. It’s still helping him with his Asking Alexandria drum parts. He paraphrases something he learned while viewing Thomas Lang’s Creative Control DVD from 2007. “He said, ’You’ve got to learn to play all the really insanely difficult things so you can play the easy stuff better.’ And I think that is a really truthful statement,” he says, letting the concept marinate. “If you can play really difficult stuff with ease, the easy stuff is so easy that you just focus more on it sounding awesome, you know? Hitting the drums just right. Your tempo is so solid. I think that is the proper way to feel about it.”

Though nothing is firmed up yet, there is talk of adding more drum gear. These days Cassells rolls with a full crew, bigger budget, and roomy trailer, so he is tempted to do it. As a kid he rocked a 7-piece Pearl Masters, Neil Peart Sabian cymbal packs, dual hi-hats, the works. But in the early days of touring with Asking Alexandria, with no one to help schlep equipment, a super-sized kit made no sense – or cents. “It was cheaper to maintain because you were breaking one cymbal rather than breaking five.” If he does go bigger, it wouldn’t be about nostalgia or appearances (though he admits huge kits look cool). Firstly, he would add a second bass drum. That the slave beater is always slightly off center on a twin-pedal/single-bass setup is one of his pet peeves. Secondly, more cymbals would offer a wider palette of sounds, one of the few ways extreme-metal drummers achieve variety in an otherwise undynamic style. “If I added another of the same cymbal it would just be another note,” he says. “So I might make my left primary crash a more trashy one. We use the China cymbal an awful lot, like a lot of guys playing this sort of music do. I want a lower one that doesn’t decay and then I want a tighter one, and then I want, like, a real super-tight one almost like a stacker cymbal.”

For Blokes About To Rock

Changing up the parts live isn’t a conscious thing with Cassells, just something that happens. “When you’re playing the same hour-and-20-minute set every single night, you just get a little bit like, ’I want to play this a little different,’” he says. It’s also a surefire way of winding up their soundman, who knows the drummer’s beats note for note so the slightest change in a fill gets the desired reaction. “It’s just a way of having a laugh,” he adds. “I always look over, and he’s smiling like, ’I know what you’re up to.’” Seemingly random licks between songs are a signal for the other members to do variations on the tunes in an effort to give each performance its own thumbprint. “That’s also when we have like a little jam in between,” says. “We start playing a new song for a few bars, getting the crowd a bit into it. It’s little things like that that get everyone at the show stoked and make it special.”

If Cassells has any words of wisdom for aspiring extreme metal players, it’s don’t get too caught up with trying to play the most insane beats you can. “I don’t think it’s going to get you noticed, really. As awesome as you might be, I bet there’s another drummer that can play the same thing faster and harder than you. It’s about the tune. Don’t think of yourself when you’re playing.”

But the drummer is less willing to dispense advice than heed his own, which he benefited from the hard way toward the end of the last tour when the band’s partying was a Jäegermeister shot shy of out of control. “That was always an issue with us,” he says. “As much as we work our asses off we did get a level of success extremely quickly, and it’s very easy to get caught up in a lot of that s__t. But we have grown a lot. This is our career, this is our lives.”

It’s cliché to say that music is a business. But in this case the business part doesn’t feel like work – not with a band of mates as tight emotionally as it is musically. “We are the best of friends, and it’s still always fun for us,” he adds. “It’s just finding that balance between it being fun and it being a job. Because I can’t imagine anything better than being onstage.” 

james cassells setup

Drums Truth
1 20" x 20" Bass Drum
2 13" x 7" Truth Black Brass Snare Drum
3 12" x 8" Tom
4 13" x 9" Tom
5 16" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Sabian
A 14" AA Medium Hi-Hat
B 19" AAX X-Plosion Crash
C 15" AAX X-Treme China
D 20" Vault Crash (used as a crash/ride)
E 7" Ice Bell (inverted)
F 21" AA Holy China

James Cassells also uses Remo heads (Emperor Clear, toms; Emperor X or Powerstroke 4, snare; Clear Pinstripe, bass), DW 9000 series hardware, Axis 21 Laser double pedal, and Vic Firth 2B wood tip sticks.

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