Kicking Down Walls With Shadows Fall
By Robert L. Doerschuk Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s July 2006
Ask Jason Bittner about what part of his chops needs the most attention these days. The answer will surprise you.
“Same as it’s always been,” he’s quick to reply. “Double bass.”
That’s kind of like Barry Bonds saying that he’s got to work a little harder on hitting home runs. Bittner, you see, is already a legend in an era dominated by drummers whose sound rests on a foundation of impossibly fast kick patterns. What makes him different is that he knows that it’s not only about velocity. In fact, he’ll tell you he’s not the fastest pedal pusher out there. He’ll even admit that he’s slowed down a bit, a natural consequence of not being 21 years old anymore.
Yet his work with Shadows Fall is unlike that of any other metalcore drummer. The key is in the details: Throughout their new album, Fallout From The War, Bittner maintains the inhuman double-kick clip that people have come to expect from him – but if you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s not just a machine-gun stream of thirty-second-notes. No, this rapid-fire blast comes in phrases that suggest there’s more to a quick kick lick than speed.
Check out, for example, the opening track, “In Effigy.” On the first verse alone, listen to how Bittner varies the kick pattern: It hammers, it stutters, it plays off the snare – and in the second chorus, it even skips into a string of triplets. Kick drumming in this fashion is often mechanistic; Bittner’s is organic, and that translates into an exhilarating sense that anything can happen in the next couple of bars. And often, it does. >>
That’s not all. Fallout consists mainly of original material, which adheres pretty much to the feel of “In Effigy.” But it also offers three covers, and on these Bittner shifts to what might be called an old-school approach: easy on the pedals, the whole part stripped down, the feel reminiscent of Zeppelin or AC/DC.
The message here seems to be that the sound that drives modern metal bands has antecedents in what was played years before. At least that’s the intended message; in fact these tracks emphasize the differences between then and now even more. As we hear it, Fallout From The War establishes Bittner as a revolutionary: Where metalcore seems to have sped itself into a rhythmic dead end, Bittner has kicked a hole in this wall and found a way out for drummers whose feet have something original to say.
Blame It On KISS. You wouldn’t have guessed 25 years ago, when Bittner was growing up in a particularly blah suburb of Albany, New York. Nobody in his family was especially musical, although a much younger half-sister would eventually show talent as a pianist and singer. Maybe it was some genetic defect, then, that drove Jason, while barely old enough to walk, to start grabbing pencils and banging beats on his father’s 8-track tape cases.
Or it could have been that he was emulating the music he heard around the house. His father happened to like The Who, and so Keith Moon left his mark on Bittner’s innocent ears. A lot of two-drummer bands were also on the family stereo at the time, in particular the Doobie and Allman Brothers; as soon as he could read, Bittner began devouring liner notes, magazine articles, and any other information he could get about the guys who drove these bands.
Then, one day, Dad made a critical mistake. “He saw a copy of Destroyer in a store,” Bittner remembers. “He was like, ‘Hmm, what’s this band? KISS? It looks interesting.’ So he bought it, hated it, and gave it to me. It was all downhill since then.”
Destroyer convinced Bittner that his destiny was to play in a rock band. But he wasn’t yet persuaded to become a drummer until his school began offering drum lessons to students when they reached third grade. In junior high, he studied with his band teacher, a saxophonist who doubled on drums and had no problem letting Bittner use the band room to practice on his own for up to 45 minutes once classes were over.
By this time, Bittner had his first kit. It began as a Del Rey 3-piece with red-sparkle finish. He started adding to it around sixth grade, including a hi-hat that he remembers mainly as “being so bad that the bottom cymbal would invert if you stepped on it too hard,” he says. “Then one year the Drum Fairy came. My mom bought me two concert toms, and my dad bought me a floor tom and two smaller concert toms. It was this mixture of Tama, Rodgers, and the Japanese red-sparkle kit, so it was silver, red, and white – not too easy on the eyes, but eventually I had seven toms, so once Iron Maiden came along I could play all those fills.”
He knew them too, thanks to another instructional resource. “I’m a child of the MTV generation,” he explains. “When MTV debuted, I was about 11 years old, and I would go home every day after school, crank up the TV next to my drums, and play along with Iron Maiden, Siouxsie And The Banshees, Split Enz, Robert Palmer – whatever came on.”
In high school, Bittner played in marching band, concert band, jazz band, and so on. During his junior year, he also began taking lessons from Don Bush, the top drum teacher in town and, for fans of drum trivia, Vic Firth’s roommate when both were enrolled at the New England Conservatory. Their main focus was reading because Bittner had decided that he wanted to apply to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston. “During high school, I wasn’t paying too much attention to reading,” he says. “Instead, I was jamming along to records at home or playing gigs. So we began by concentrating on the Podemski book [Benjamin Podemski’s Standard Snare Drum Method], [George L. Stone’s] Stick Control, and the Garwood Whaley books. He also immersed me into syncopation and jazz comps. I was a rock/metal guy who wanted to go to a school that’s known primarily for jazz, so I needed insight into what I was going to be up against.”
Fish Out Of Water. With Bush’s guidance, Bittner’s reading and technique sharpened to the point that Berklee approved his admission for the Fall semester of 1988. Even so, when he arrived in Boston, the new kid on campus was emotionally unprepared. “In high school, I was the big fish in a small pond,” he says. “I was 18, full of piss and vinegar, but I was naïve. I would say that within the first ten days I was at Berklee I didn’t see one drummer that didn’t blow me out of the water. I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m in the wrong place! I don’t belong here!’ Going back to Albany, where I was the kingpin, suddenly sounded like a good idea. But then I came across this kid who was struggling to play 2/4 rock. I was so happy! It was like, ‘Finally! Here’s someone worse than I am!’”
Reassured, Bittner auditioned for placement in the percussion program. “I was playing the snare, all happy with myself, when Joe Hunt, who was a real stickler, stopped me and said, ‘Your pinky fingers came off the stick. You’re in Drum Lab I.’ So here I am in the starter class, doing a book I’d done two years before with Don Bush. But then the devil on my shoulder said, ‘Well, at least you don’t have to practice this crap, because you already know how to do it.’ So I didn’t practice anything in Drum Lab I – but I did practice keeping my fingers on the stick.”
He was already shedding on double bass too. “I was the double bass guy on my floor,” he says. “You’d go down to the practice rooms at the end of the hallways, and there seemed to be two guys that people would always stop and watch. One was me – maybe because I was a spectacle, this guy in a little cubicle going dugga-dugga-dugga while everyone around me was doing jazz comps. The other guy everybody stopped to watch was Brian Tichy, who lived down the hall from me, just because he was a phenomenal drummer. I’d practice what I needed for my labs, but not until I’d played what I wanted to play for an hour and a half.”
About Face. Bittner never did feel totally comfortable as the token thrash metal drummer at Berklee, so after maybe a year he and two friends of his from the school decided to drop out and put a band together. The bizarre twist on this story is that they agreed to do it in Missouri, for no other reason than that was where the guitar player came from. It made sense at the time, though, and so after the guitar player had flown back home, Bittner and the bass player loaded up a van and started driving west. They were somewhere in the fields of Ohio when the bass guy suddenly pulled the plug on their dream.
“He turns to me and says, ‘You know what? We should’ve stayed where you live. There’s a lot more going on there than where we’re going.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh. Great. Did I just shoot myself in the foot?’”
Shortly after that, they pulled into Columbia, two hours outside of Kansas City. Bittner spent four days there, glumly scanning the landscape. And then he and his bass player traded looks, got in the van, and drove back east. They’d never even unpacked. Settling in Schenectady, they started a metal band and made themselves known among musicians in the area. After a few years, Bittner’s reputation had grown to the point that when a choice drum gig opened up, he was among the first to hear about it.
Stigmata was based out of Troy, New York, not far from Schenectady. Bittner had gotten to know the guys through playing on the same circuit and through the occasional battle of the bands. They had a strong drummer at the time, but he wasn’t a double-kick specialist, which was what the rest of the group wanted. At that moment, Bittner was in another band that wasn’t exactly setting the scene on fire. “It was a makeup band, like Slipknot or Cradle Of Filth,” he says. “Basically, it was a gimmick. Now, I love Slipknot; they’re one of my favorite bands and the guys are all friends of mine. But where they turned this idea into a million-selling, extremely successful band, I was doing the same thing back in ’93 and people were just laughing at us.”
That alone was reason enough to accept Stigmata’s offer to join up in early ’94. Immediately his horizons expanded, through bookings beyond the local territory. Eventually they put out an album, Do Unto Others … that inspired Jason D. Taylor at allmusic.com to single Bittner out as “the hidden gem waiting to be found.” By that time, though, early signs of problems to come were taking shape. As their sound began to move away from its original metal foundation and more toward hard-core, Bittner began feeling less satisfied with what he was being asked to contribute.
“It’s a more minimalist approach, and less dense, than thrash metal,” he says. “You might have a fast double-bass run, but it’s going to be four measures instead of 16 measures long. It’s still aggressive. It still takes stamina. And you have a lot of the same beats. But I was starting to hear a lot of, ‘Hey, Jason, can you not do that fill there? And I don’t think double bass belongs in this other part of the song.’ See, I was still very young, and I wanted to play as many notes as possible to show people I could do it. Stigmata was really my introduction to learning more about playing for the band more than for me. It was a great experience, but after seven years we were all getting a little tired of it.”
In 2000, after releasing Do Unto Others … and touring Europe, the band came home to write for their next album. The results were disappointing, and after talking it over everyone agreed that Stigmata had pretty much bled itself dry. They decided to organize a farewell show for the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2001 and hang it up after that. As the date approached, Bittner felt that the time had probably come to bring the rock star fantasy to its end. He’d recently turned 31 and had found a steady job doing computer operations for the state government in New York. It was an emotional time for other reasons too: His mother had succumbed to cancer in August that year. And he’d started dating the woman he would soon marry.
As all this was coming to a head, word reached Bittner that Shadows Fall was looking for a drummer.
Two Degrees Of Separation. Once again, there was personal history involved. Stigmata had shared a number of bills with bands that included future Shadows Fall bassist Paul Romanko and singer Brian Fair. A little curious about what was going on, he contacted their management, who asked him to submit a press kit. It seemed like too much trouble at the time, so Bittner advised them that the guys in Shadows Fall knew where to find him. Several months passed. Then, about a week before the final Stigmata show, someone called Bittner and asked if he wouldn’t mind coming in to jam with them. More or less on a whim, he said sure, picked up a copy of their second album, One Blood, learned five songs, and drove over to their rehearsal spot.
Everyone hit it off, but Bittner was still doubtful. Still, when the band asked him to sit in during their upcoming European debut tour, he figured, why not? “I still didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I had a good job. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this ‘ride-around-in-a-van’ thing anymore. So I told myself I’d just do the tour and make my decision about the band after we got back. Well, after we talked that over, we got as far as crossing the street from the management office on our way to a bar when I just said, ‘All right, I’m in.’”
Good call. Shadows Fall turned out to be the perfect vehicle for Bittner at this stage of his career. Its music pumped aggressively yet allowed space for musical nuance where appropriate. Their songs were wide open to his interpretation, in part because he was integrated into the writing process along with everyone else in the band. Following their first album together, The Art Of Balance in 2003, they plunged into an 18-month tour that included head-turning side-stage shows on Ozzfest. Their next album, The War Within in 2004, moved further toward incorporating Bittner’s double-kick virtuosity into the essence of their sound. But Fallout From The War goes further still, as Bittner continues to explore his role.
Testing His Limits.“Fallout is my most extreme record,” Bittner says. “There was more freedom for expression than I’ve ever had. My approach was to take the drum machine ideas on the demos and throw in everything but the kitchen sink on top of that. Then if they asked me to take something out, I’d take it out. The cool thing was that there wasn’t much of that; it was more like, ‘Can you do something extra here?’”
Maybe that stems from the fresh approach Bittner took to coming up with drum parts. “I didn’t spend as much time analyzing my parts as I did on the first two albums,” he says. “Partly that was because we didn’t have that much time, so I didn’t get the chance to over-think. If you go back to ‘The Light That Blinds’ [from The War Within], that was a totally calculated part, right down to the middle section, which is a four-section fill, like Neil Peart did with ‘Tom Sawyer’ [from Rush’s Moving Pictures]. I’d play it in my basement, re-record it, listen to how it sounds, and keep working until I got it right. “But on ‘Seize The Calm,’” he continues, referring to the fourth track on Fallout, “the last two minutes are basically a drum blur. The guitar riff starts with me doing a Mike Portnoy/Terry Bozzio double bass/China thing, which goes into a two-handed ride pattern over a constant double click that shows the influence of Gene Hogland. Going into the recording, I knew I would do something like that when that section came up, but I didn’t know exactly what. [Producer] Zeuss was like, ‘All right, what happens here?’ I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going to go for it.’ And we did a few takes, with Zeuss saying, ‘The first part sounded good. Keep that and do something else off of it.’ That’s how we came up with that part; that’s the contrast in styles, right there.”
But what about the double-kick stuff? How did he straddle that line between keeping his parts musical and standing up to his own reputation – and his genre’s conventions – of light-speed execution?
Bittner laughs. “Look, I’m not the fastest double bass player out there. When I was a kid, yeah, I wanted to be Dave Lombardo or Charlie Benante. But I’m 36 years old, and at this point I’m not going to go into my basement with a metronome and beat myself up for two hours over not being able to play over 205 bpm with a constant double kick. I don’t have that anymore. In fact, if you listen to ‘Going, Going, Gone’ [from Fallout], that’s the fastest thing I’ve ever done, but you’ll notice little breaks in the bass drum runs, where it drops out for half a measure. There’s only one reason, and it shows that I’m human: If I tried to play that part all the way through without those breaks, I probably wouldn’t make it to the end without losing a kick here and there or slowing down. So I did what I had to do to make the part solid and be able to play it live.”
And there are other issues. “I know I’ve obtained a level of notoriety in the drum community,” Bittner admits. “And I’m very happy for that. So when I construct my drum parts, a thought might go through my head: ‘Did I put enough double bass in this song so the kids who like my drumming are going to go, ‘Cool! That was awesome!’? Or is this the track where they’ll go, ‘Hey, you didn’t do double bass here!’ I’m constantly at war with myself over whether I’m doing enough to satisfy the drummers, when I really should think about whether I’m doing enough to satisfy the song. If the song calls for a lot of double bass and tom fills and craziness, fine. But if it doesn’t, don’t put it in there. In the extreme hard rock music that we play – really, in any kind of music – that’s the drummer’s job.”