Jason Bittner Fills Big Shoes

jason bittner

For the hardcore Anthrax fan, it means that Bittner – quite literally – is treading on sacred ground. “I think the Anthrax material is more hand-intensive – there’s faster-paced things involving the hands – where I think Shadows Fall is a little bit more foot-intensive. Not that Charlie’s not foot-intensive. We were kind of joking around about how Shadows Fall is moderately fast to very fast most of the time. Charlie’s is two speeds: It’s either moderately fast or insanely fast, there’s no in-between. For me the challenge is more just playing [Charlie]’s parts correctly, using his inflections, and making people think he’s still up there. I don’t play Anthrax to show off Jason Bittner’s chops, let’s put it that way. I don’t really take many liberties in that band at all. I play the songs pretty much how he plays them live. Any extra double bass or live fills or anything like that are something he’s done in some capacity, whether it was from a DVD from 2005 or a video from 1989 or whatever. That’s how much I know his material and know his playing. Anything that I add is always something that he’s already added somewhere down the road.”

At the same time Bittner has to be on his toes when handling his hero’s drum parts, so he’s not too robotic with their execution. “I can’t go on autopilot with Anthrax. In Shadows Falls I can.” Case in point, just the other day at rehearsal the band was playing “The Light That Blinds” from The War Within, and he totally zoned out, kind of like the highway hypnosis from a long drive. “I blazed right through even the drum solo section part of the song and didn’t even realize I was actually doing it. [laughs] But with the Anthrax stuff I’m always thinking, ’All right, what’s next?’ Even though I know the song there’s always that added pressure of it not being your band.”

The Educator’s Dilemma

By the time you read this, Bittner was supposed to have done a clinic at PASIC in Austin, Texas. Instead he suffered a bout of pancreatitis and had to cancel. Had it gone down, though, the theme would have been “metal drumming and beyond,” a concept that he touched upon in his 2008 DVD, What Drives The Beat. The idea is applying non-metal drumming styles into a metal setting. “Yeah, I play metal and that’s my forté, but I can also play other styles of music. The more well-rounded you are, the more work you’re going to get. So I’m really trying to get more into the educational aspect of that.” The doctor says he can probably resume the second leg of the Shadows Fall tour.

An interest in music education has been building in the drummer for a while now. A Zildjian-sponsored clinic tour of Europe when he came aboard with the cymbal maker last year was an incredible experience, feeding a passion for drum instruction. Unfortunately the days of globe-trotting clinic tours are becoming less frequent – for everybody. “They have dozens of artists on the rise,” he says of his endorsement companies. “They can’t give me 20 clinics every time I put in a bid, so it’s understandable they just can’t do that every year.”

In the meantime, the drummer has approached instrument retailers directly. The response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic – they just won’t pay anything. “It’s not like I’m asking an arm and a leg to do these either,” he says. “Like, normally, when the sponsors chip in, then we’re all taken care of. The problem is that the endorsers just don’t have the clinic budget they used to because everybody’s just tightening their belts.”

Instead of full-blown clinic tours, sometimes it’s hustling to get the one-off gigs. In late 2011, Bittner was invited to the grand opening of Vic’s Drum Shop, a retail mecca in Chicago, along with Mike Portnoy, Charlie Benante, Matt Byrne, and other extreme-metal dudes. JayBitt gave lessons for six hours straight in the architecturally dazzling new facility. He recalls a conversation about teaching that he and Portnoy had at dinner later that evening. “[Portnoy]’s like, ’Dude, I don’t know how you have the patience to do that. I could never do that.’ I started teaching kids when I was 18 when I came home from Berklee, and it’s just something I’ve always done. Granted there are those days I wake up and I don’t feel like teaching, but there’s also those days I wake up and don’t want to play that night either. [laughs] But lessons are fun to give. It’s rewarding for me.”

The biggest difficulty with giving private lessons from home is that every time Bittner builds up the practice to a respectable number of students he’s got to leave for six months with Shadows Fall. Luckily, a lot of those pupils are extraordinarily faithful. “Even if they only get a lesson once every two months, they’re always there,” he says. “But when you get younger students, especially people that are just starting to play drums, I feel bad when I teach someone for a month, and then I’m not going to be around for three months. You can’t do that with young students.”

So far he has been pushing them off on his own longtime former instructor Ted McKenzie, a noted educator and Buddy Rich scholar. Or he gives them to one of his advanced students. “I’ll basically sublet the lesson out to them for a little bit of a fee. I can’t give them everything for free, but hey, you charge 25 bucks for a lesson, you give me five, and you still get 20. That’s 20 bucks that you didn’t have before because you didn’t have the students because they were mine.”

Bittner is also is in talks with the Drummers Collective music school in New York City about helping to write a metal/hard-rock curriculum. But with this guy’s discipline, resilience, and chops, why not become a permanent sub? Like a Josh Freese of the extreme-metal world. “That’s a great idea in theory but I don’t know if that’s a path you could follow,” he says. “I live in Upstate New York. If a producer needs me in New York City, yeah, I can be there in three hours, no problem. If someone needs me in L.A. we’re talking about a six-hour flight at least. Unless it’s a situation where someone says, ’Look, I want him to play drums.’ That could happen, but let’s face it: How many great drummers are there in L.A. that could easily handle the task? I’m just being realistic about this. Not that I wouldn’t want to be that go-to guy.”

Fortunately, the various facets of drumming life reinforce each other. Bittner wouldn’t have been invited to PASIC if he didn’t have the name from Shadows Fall. Doing clinics helps him as a teacher because when preparing new material, it’s the same material he will teach the kids as well. This big-picture view is what helps him make sense of it all and keep his sanity. “And it’s also a vice versa thing,” he adds. “When I’m teaching kids something comes up and I go, ’Wow, that’d be a really cool thing to put into a clinic.’ Everything helps every other thing basically.”

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