Photo: Chad Lee
If you ever wondered what a day in the life was like for a professional metal drummer, Jason Bittner provides a telling glimpse. He cancelled our interview last week because his “throat’s on fire” from allergies. At the moment, he’s behind the wheel en route to a Shadows Fall rehearsal. The practice space is conveniently close to where singer Brian Fair and the other band members live, but it’s a nearly three-hour drive for the drummer, who lives in upstate New York.
On top of the epic trek, it’s raining hard on the I-90 as we carry on a conversation. The thrum of windshield wipers, which can be heard in the background, recalls a metronome at super-low bpms.
It’s all good, though. With post—Sudafed clarity, headset engaged, and a thermos of coffee, Bittner is excited about Shadows Fall’s headlining slot on the Party To The Apocalypse Tour, which starts in two days. Matter of fact, he’s got butterflies due to not having played new (or any) Shadows Fall material since summer. “We’re just going through all 17 songs in the set, start to finish, as if we were on stage with all the intros and all that crap in between the songs – pretty much a dress rehearsal,” he says in that refreshingly take-no-crap Ed Burns/Mark Wahlberg in The Departed vibe he gives off. “We got one day left to get it right.”
For a guy sitting on new music for at least six months, Bittner’s still playing catch-up. Fire From The Sky, a smokin’ set of melodic-thrash, is not the usual album cycle. Instead of touring behind the record when it came out, JayBitt got a phone call from his friend and childhood idol Charlie Benante. The Anthrax drummer wanted to know, could the Shadows Fall skinsman step into the Anthrax drum chair on the Canadian leg of the North American tour? Bittner was on a plane to Vancouver in a New York minute.
It’s not the first time JayBitt has done Benante a solid. He filled in the first time in 2006 when the Anthrax drummer’s wife had a baby, and then again on a few South American dates in early 2012 when Benante’s mother passed away. The details of the latest substitution are a little more vague. “[Benante]’s just dealing with some personal issues and had some meetings and some things that preempted him from being able to go to Canada, so I filled in for the Canada run. It’s personal things that I’m really not at liberty to discuss.”
Bittner knows his Anthrax, but there’s more to the whole sub dance than playing your favorite drummer’s parts. It’s a tightrope walk between supreme confidence and utter humility. “I’m stepping in for one of the best metal drummers to ever walk the earth,” he states matter-of-factly. “I’m sure there’s not many people who will contest that statement, so there are very big shoes to fill. And trust me, there has been a lot of times when I’d be doing meet-and-greets with the band where I was like, ’Are you sure you guys want me going out there with you?’”
What amazed Bittner the most was how many times he was able to pull off the charade. “It would be a lot of, Wow, people really don’t realize what the guys in the band look like when they’re going, ’Yeah, I’ve been listening to you for 20 years.”’ And I’m just sitting there smirking and thinking, ’Yeah, me too!’ I just smile and nod and say, ’Thank you, that’s great,’ sign the autograph, and keep it going. But then again, there are those people who come up right in my face, ’Where’s Charlie?’
“’He’s not here right now.’
“’He’s dealing with some personal issues.’
“’Who are you?’
“’Uh, I’m the guy who’s going to do his job today. Close your eyes and you’re not even going to know he’s not here.’ And, hey, I don’t blame them. I’m an Anthrax fan, I want to see Charlie up there; I don’t want to see Jason Bittner playing drums. So it’s got its good points and bad points, man. Any time you’re stepping in for that caliber of a player, it’s going to be a daunting task – just ask Mike Mangini.”
But these things don’t faze the tough New Yorker. Plus, it helps that he is a known commodity. In fairness, Bittner has made a name for himself in the last 15 years not only with Shadows Fall but with his clinics, DVDs, and, increasingly, a reputation as an educator. “If I was just a no-name guy filling in, I think I’d be a little bit more concerned with it,” he says, then adds, “Actually, I’d probably be a lot more concerned with it.”
Bittner wasn’t worried about delivering when he got the call. Having played the majority of Anthrax’s material for two-plus decades, he’s a safe bet as a sub. But JayBitt isn’t happy with safe. He obviously learned the most recent Anthrax material, Worship Music, but it was also a matter of nailing extended song sections, alternate endings, doubling up on solos, etc., to make what might have been a passing understudy role a dynamic performance. “It’s learning all these little intricacies that they throw into the set – and they change every time, and knowing how songs are going to segue,” he says. “That’s more taxing for me than the actual songs – I know how to play the songs.”