Jim Cassells: He’s Just Asking
Jim Cassells: He's Just Asking
Talk about change. It was hard enough for James Cassells to abandon his native England after marrying an American girl and relocating to Texas a few years ago. But then Asking Alexandria, after wrapping the tour cycle for its previous album, threatened to fall apart when frontman Danny Worsnop announced his departure. It seems Worsnop wanted to take Asking down a new path, one that left the rest of the band doubtful. On the phone from home in Austin, Cassells doesn't mince words. "It was either he was going to stop going on that way or we were going to kick him out."
Enter screamer par excellence Denis Shaforostov, a Ukrainian national living in Russia who the guys knew from Down And Dirty, a one-time labelmate from Asking's Sumerian Records days. After watching Shaforostov perform, Asking saw what it had been missing for awhile. "He looked the part, he acted the part," Cassells says of the new singer's fast-tracking: "We didn't bother with auditions. We met up, connected, and it was like, nothing's wrong with this — let's go!"
The only hitch was that the band's latest demos were written with now-departed Worsnop in mind. Naturally, the band chucked the whole lot and wrote riffs more suited for the new guy. That fundamental pivot is what the ferocious track "Sometimes It Ends" is all about, but it raises a question: Does the new frontman change Asking Alexandria, or is it the other way around? "It was a bit of both," Cassells says. "It's more, I think, that he's given the band a reboot, put us back more in the right direction. We were happy with how [2013's] From Death To Destiny came out, but the die-hard fans wanted to hear more of the influence from the Reckless And Relentless days. I feel like with this album we've taken elements of all three of [the previous] albums and put them together so everyone can be happy, but in the end we have come up with a sort of fresh sound."
The Black has all the djent-y guitars, thunderous breakdowns, and soaring choruses that are hallmarks of the deathcore/metalcore genre, but a novel writing process caused a major shift in the way Cassells approached his own parts. Instead of the usual method of laying down beats first on the kit (going off guitarist Ben Bruce's scratch tracks) the drummer used Cubase to program the beats he would play during the recording. "If you're just tapping it in in the program it sounds awesome, but then to actually sit down behind the kit and do it, I had to rethink it. I couldn't fall back on the usual bag of fills. If I had a half bar fill that was just dugga-dugga-dugga-DUH, I'm leading with my left hand because it's impossible with my right. In the past I might have been done tracking in three or four hours. Seeing all these complex structures and technical things at the outset took a lot longer, but I think it was worth it." A good example might be the title track, which Cassells considers the album's biggest technical challenge. "I wanted to better myself as a player, you know? Do more intricate, tasteful sort of things, but keep it Asking. That was always very important."
Like its genre peers, Asking Alexandria is simpatico with electronics — or used to be. The Black's overall aesthetic is not as hybrid-y as past records." That was our thing, but we were getting tired of that sound and knew we couldn't continue doing it. If you listen to our songs there's still a lot of electronic and synth based stuff behind the music, it's just that now we've gotten rid of whole sections that have that electronic vibe."
Though he's not from a musical family, Cassells' parents, still living in rural Yorkshire, played no small part in helping their son live the dream. "Oh, they were incredibly supportive, man," he says. "We used to get noise complaints, I was playing so much, and they got me a soundproof room built. I lived on a sort of farm and there was an out building, and it was converted with insulation. Bands would come and stay and we'd play all night." He gives credit to one-time instructor Ian McPherson for taking his foot speed to the next level. McPherson, a former music director in the British military, was not a metal fan but hipped his student to new rhythms, method books, and approaches, like the heel-toe technique, which was a game changer for Cassells. "In some ways I feel like you have to work more and less at the same time. I don't know — I'm just using a different set of muscles. It's more of a flicking movement than an actual slap. I still get a lot of power, but a lot of guys are slamming their pedal and leaving it in the head. They can't get their foot off again fast enough to get power for the next hit, whereas I'm continually moving my foot up and down. It's learning to control your heel and toe on the actual footboard together continuously. There's no separation."
Significantly, he avoids the blippity digital sound of high-tempo double-kick, instead delivering powerful thuds without triggers. "I used to a long time ago," he says of triggering his bass drum, "but we've got our own sound technician. He can make them sound almost triggered because they're extremely well miked." Though amplified, it's still the unadulterated tone, so Cassells can hear any potential unevenness and correct it. "So if I'm doing a [double-bass] run — dug-dugga-dugga — I know if my left foot is a bit weaker and I need to put more emphasis on that. So it's stil forcing me to play strong on every note." Speaking of hearing himself, Cassells' in-ear mix — click track, vocals, and guitars — conspicuously omits Sam Bettley's bass guitar. A monitor under the drum riser takes care of the low end. "That's preferable, because for my in-ears I just want a lot of attack, quite a lot of treble, so that I'm being accurate: My snares, my kick are dead on the click and I just sort of feel the bass."
Before shows, the warm up routine is thirty-seconds on the hands and eighth-notes on feet, a ratio he gradually switches between upper and lower limbs. "I don't do it half as much as I used to. But I do keep up on stuff, particularly the faster stuff, because you have to stay on top of that. It's more about keeping up my power, smashing through some parts for half an hour. Doing rolls, running through singles, doubles, keeping my fingers limber."
As they prepare to support The Black, there's no getting around the central fact of life on the road: "Touring can really be boring, particularly when you've done it as many times as we have." Cassells doesn't mean the performing part, but the other 23 hours of the day. "People go, 'Oh, you were in Moscow? That must've been great.' Well, yeah except we flew in late and we were knackered. And we had a chance to go see Red Square but it was minus 20 outside. It's that whole part of touring that no one understands."
The term "metalcore" is a distressingly broad descriptor these days, but Cassells doesn't much care how people categorize Asking. "It boils down to we're a heavy band. That's what we set out to do. What we really want is approachable music, where people go, 'That's a good song!' We want people to jump around at our show, to sing along, and have a good time."
"Send Me Home"
Asking Alexandria isn't your garden-variety English metalcore band. High-tempo thrashing is heard alongside elements of electronica, classical music, and '80s rock. James Cassells is an absolute powerhouse throughout The Black, but in "Send Me Home," he shows his funky side, playing an extremely syncopated verse groove. Check out how Cassells builds tension by focusing in on the e and ah, and adds texture by using the open hi-hat, in both short and long durations.
Band Asking Alexandria
Current Album The Black
Birthplace Harrowgate, North Yorkshire, U.K.
Influences Joey Jordison, Thomas Lang, Mike Portnoy, Lars Ulrich, Chris Adler
GearDrums Tama Starclassic
Sticks Vic Firth American Classic 5B pedals Axis 21 Laser double pedal