James Cassells: Point Of No Return

james cassells

Moving from the North of England to southern Texas is a jolting experience for a young Brit. Or so we learned after speaking with James Cassells, who’s currently sweating his bum off in the heart of the Lone Star State in the middle of August. “Bit of a culture shock,” he says on the phone from San Antonio. “It’s lot drier, a lot hotter, too. But I like it.”  

Unsurprisingly, the 24-year-old drummer is not trying to start a tejano band. As is so often the case with rock musicians, he blames the geographical shift on a girl. Asking Alexandria’s new album, From Death To Destiny, is a whole other kind of shift. Whereas 2011’s Reckless & Relentless was all metalcore insanity, From Death To Destiny is a grooving batch of tunes, hitting a broader range of heavy styles while staying sufficiently brutal. This has as much to do with a need to creatively stretch as it does being in a better headspace. “Even now, Reckless & Relentless still seems a very pissed-off record, whereas From Death To Destiny is a lot more rounded,” he says. “I think it’s got a lot more positive notions going through it, instead of just a lot of anger.”

The differences between the new music and the previous album can be felt all the way down to the tempo, patterns, and feel of the drums. Reckless & Relentless, while super-tight and polished, sounded a lot like other metalcore records. From Death To Destiny, embellished in part by a chamber orchestra, combines aggression and lushness without being grandiose. “I think both lyrically and musically as a band we’ve evolved massively,” he says. “Our song structures, from the chords to the drum beats, everything’s just a better sound now than we’ve ever had before.”

To bring about this evolution, Cassells made the potentially ego-bruising move of thinking less like an individual artist and more like a supporting player. “Writing a great song is not down to the drums,” he explains. “Effectively, what I’m there to do is keep the guys in check. I’m there to keep the rhythm going, keep the feel going, but I don’t want to put a million notes everywhere I can. I don’t want to put double bass all over the place. I think it’s almost like I’ve taken a step back in terms of technicality with this album, but five steps forward in how the drums help the song.”

Brake A Leg

Armed with two years’ worth of road-hardened chops, the temptation for Cassells to unleash them while recording the new record, again helmed by Joey Sturgis in Connersville, Indiana, was overwhelming at first. Once in the studio, however, it was obvious that a maximalist approach wouldn’t do. “I think it was kind of refreshing to step back a little,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still some intricate little cool bits, but it’s just finding the right place to put them in and really letting the song breathe.”

It defies common sense, but by not thinking through everything to such an exacting degree, Cassells ended up with more sensitive parts. It was more about the sensations of arms swinging, the pleasant burn on his shin muscle, the visceral pleasures that no musician experiences to the degree that drummers do. “[I was] getting into the way I’m playing the drums and the sounds I’m creating more than just this ... pattern,” the last word lingering like an aftertaste. “I feel like they just flow really nicely rather than being all dvooh-dvooh-dvooh-dvooh-dvooh all the time like in Reckless & Relentless.” What might be a minor change in other genres is a bigger deal in extreme metal where there is scant time and space for finesse. With the intensity a tad dialed back, Cassells ended up highlighting the twin-guitar attack of Ben Bruce and Cameron Liddell. For example, he cites the choruses of the tunes, where he’s adding more retro-sounding galloping rhythms.

Don’t worry, fellow extreme-metallers: From Death To Destiny is still an Asking Alexandria record, and the drums still sound like Cassells. A heel-toe player, Cassells’ approach is still bass drum—centric in terms of note quantity. But the drummer’s foot control has quantum-leaped this time around. “Whenever you’re hearing a quick pattern on my bass drums I’m actually doing two beats with each foot,” he says. “It’s almost like doing a roll instead of doing singles, so the actual movement of my whole leg is not as much, it’s my feet that are moving more, and I think that helps me achieve a rounded consistency with my notes. Whereas before my right foot would be going haywire the whole time. So if I was doing, like, a triplet, I would do two [beats] with the right, one with the left, rather than right-left-right, which I feel a lot of guys aren’t doing on the quick sort of biting drum parts because their right foot is going constantly the whole time.”

Is he a masochist? In fact, Cassells would rather strain his tibialis than his gray matter. But the need to make drumming life harder than it has to be is a compulsion with him – even if it doesn’t always feel good. “It can sometimes feel a bit forced,” he adds. “It doesn’t always feel smooth or easy when I’m doing it.”

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Beyond 'Core Values

One of the most irritating tics in metalcore is the bass drop, the dub step—y dwoooohm that signaled the beginning of a breakdown, usually part of the preprogrammed sequence controlled by the soundman, or, in Cassells’ case, triggered by an electronic pad. “We used to use those,” he says with an air of derision for the genre tropes of 2009. “I used to have an 808 pad where I’d hit it and it would be like a boooom. We would be playing small clubs without a sound engineer and we could never dial in the right sound, but [these days] our sound engineer can make my kit sound fantastic. So we don’t use a kick trigger anymore, and we don’t use any bass drops really at all anymore either.”

But forget the drops. No samples or triggers of any kind are used in live performance. (Recording is another story, which we’ll get to in a minute.) “It’s all completely natural. The only time there would be any sort of drum replacement live is if, say, there was a swell into a snare hit during an atmospheric part. That would be the only time I would say there is any sort of extra [machine-assisted] drum parts.”

Factor in that From Death To Destiny – with its strings, keyboards, etc. – is much more saturated and lush in songs such as “Believe” and it becomes instantly clear why Cassells had to be more conscious than ever of his time and economical with his beats. “We would have to have about 100 people [to re-create the symphonic aspects live],” he says. “That would be so expensive. So I’ll play to a click. We all play to a click and the choir and all the electronic sounds are playing along with that click track. [The soundman] can mix that with our live sound and make it as if the orchestra was playing with us.”

Prior to tracking Reckless & Relentless, Asking Alexandria didn’t have access to a studio or practice space to write the songs, so the drummer sequenced in rough beats for the songs into a MacBook. “I was just wracking my brain to come up with things, you know? Whereas with From Death To Destiny we’d come a lot further as a band, and we had more money to spend on this, so soon as we’d come off stage we’d jump in the back and start preproduction for the album.”

The band discovered that the post-show rush is the best time to get cracking on the new material. “I feel like when you come off stage your adrenaline’s pumping and you’re just completely buzzing and I feel like sometimes you can come up with great ideas and great riffs at that point.” In an even greater feat of time management and preproduction, Cassells could jump out of his bunk in the morning and start to demo ideas. “And so when we went into the [actual recording] studio these songs were pretty much written and then we’d sort of like tweak little bits and bobs when we got in there. So by the time I was tracking the drums, it wasn’t so much just getting the parts down [like last time], it was getting the parts down just right.”

As for creating the actual drum tones for From Death To Destiny, it was a man-meets-machine thing, where producer Sturgis recorded naked tones from each drum, including from separate microphone angles, and then tweaked them for the desired sound, or blended the virgin drum tones with samples from a library. “A lot of people would frown upon that but to be honest, you can’t [be that way] really,” he continues. “I think every single record that’s come out in [hard rock and metal] for the last however many years, this is the process they go to. It’s the modern way of doing it. Some traditionalists might look at it and be like, ’That’s not completely real.’ And it’s like, ’Come and see us play live and you can ask yourself whether or not I can play the parts.’”

Sheiks And Geeks

Of all the cities for a metalcore band to get started, Dubai is not the first place you would envision. But the United Arab Emirates, where the Bruce family had temporarily located, is exactly where guitarist Ben Bruce found himself when he started Asking Alexandria. After Bruce Sr.’s work contract in the UAE was up, the family moved back to the England. Once there, however, the other members of the fledgling band were not feeling Bruce’s decision to reinvent Asking Alexandria’s sound so they moved back to Dubai, at which point Bruce decided to wipe the slate clean.

With his stripped-down kit, tattoos, and occasionally peroxide-blonde hair, Cassells has self-taught metal kid written all over him. But looks can be deceiving. As Bruce was getting settled back in the U.K., Cassells was deep into the drum and percussion curriculum at Academy Of Contemporary Music (ACM) in Guilford. “Some people can not have [instruction],” he says, “But I think every drummer should.”

Even before enrolling, the teenager was already serious about his music education thanks to two deeply influential instructors. The first, Ian MacPherson, was a longtime drummer in the British military. “He could compose a bloody symphony if he wanted‚” Cassells says. “He taught me how to hold the sticks, how to read music, different styles of music, all sorts of stuff. I went all the way through my grades with him.”

Taking his pupil as far as he could, McPherson put Cassells in touch with Stuie Ellerton, a noted drummer and instructor, also in the North of England, where the pair worked through “crazy Dave Weckl play-alongs” and hybrid Latin stuff on the kit. “I really wanted to be a session drummer,” he adds. “And Stuie was training me to be a drum teacher as well.”

Meanwhile, guitarist Ben Bruce, still kicking around North Yorkshire and despondent at the breakup of his band, happened to be at a local club where he caught a set from Nailbead, one of the bands Cassells had formed with friends. A full year into the program at ACM, the drummer’s gigs with Nailbead were limited to whenever he was home on vacation from the school. (“I think we wrote a grand total of four songs in two years,” he jokes.) But at the show, Nailbead’s aggressive beats were exactly what Bruce was looking for in the soon-to-be resurrected Asking Alexandria. On the spot he asked the drummer if he wanted to tour America in a new band. It was no easy decision. Nailbead wasn’t serious, but life in a touring band spoiled plans to become a session drummer. Yet the guitarist’s sales pitch was too hard to resist. Heck, Cassells didn’t even have to audition. “He just saw me play live, like, ’That’s the guy I want.’”

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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.