Jason Bittner Fills Big Shoes

jason bittner

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.”

Mr. Last Minute

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.’

“’Why?’

“’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.”

Reasonable ’Thrax-imile

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.”

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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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Lost And Found

Shadows Fall’s career trajectory is a familiar one for an extreme-metal band: Major label doesn’t have a clue. Band leaves, joins a succession of indie labels. Band remains unhappy, forms its own label, and so on. Despite the lack of mainstream support, Fire From The Sky is the most ferocious, cohesive, and compelling set since 2004’s The War Within – “that’s [the album] fans seem always to talk about the most,” says Bittner – if not superseding that record all together. “Your style is going to be your style, but you’re always going to try and find some way to re-vamp it. I just don’t want to play the same stale stuff every time around. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tap the creative genius if the genius isn’t there. Just because you’re looking for something doesn’t mean you’re going to find it.”

jason bittner

Bittner’s Shadows Fall Drum Set

Drums Tama Starclassic (Volcanic Blue Burst finish, black chrome hardware)
1 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2 14" x 6.5" Tama Charlie Benante Signature Snare Drum (or 14" x 6" Tama Warlord Praetorian Snare)
3 10" x 9" Tom
4 12" x 10" Tom
5 14" x 12" Floor Tom
6 16" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 20" Z3 Rock Ride
B 16" Oriental China
C 14" A Custom Mastersound Hi-Hat
D 18" K Medium Thin Crash (custom brilliant finish)
E 8" K Custom Splash
F 17" Z3 Medium Crash (or A Custom Projection Crash)
G 10" A Custom Splash
H 18" A Custom Projection Crash
I 21" Z3 Custom “medium” Mega Bell Ride
(one-half the thickness of reg. version)
J 13" A Custom Mastersound X-Hat
K 18" Oriental China
L 19" K Medium Thin Crash (custom brilliant finish)

Electronics Roland
M SPD-S Pad

Jason Bittner also uses Tama hardware, two DW 9000 single pedals, Pro-Mark Jason Bittner signature 5BX sticks, Remo heads (Clear Powerstroke 3, bass batter; Clear Emperor, tom batters, Ebony Ambassador tom resos; CS Reverse Dot, snare; Clear Ambasador, snare side), Puresound snare wires, Kickport bass drum port, DrumART bass head graphics, Maxonix Zero-Gravity stick holder, XL by Gator cases, and Calzone flight cases. On the Anthrax tour: Bittner used Charlie Benante’s Tama setup (including Starbucks Metal Forever custom kit) but swapped in his own cymbals, pedals, and heads.

Clinics only: LP JamBlock with Gajate bracket and DW 9000 pedal (left of the main hi—hat); LP micro snare, LP Charlie Benante cowbell or mambo bell; DW 9550 remote hat (placed to the right of the main kick pedal, operating 10" Zildjian ZHT mini-hats and an LP hi-hat tambourine).

With Fire In The Sky the search was successful. Not only as a musical whole but as far as the abundant drum details, which are most salient on the title track. “That’s a hard song speed-wise,” he says. “If I start too fast it just gets away from me and those triplets just become slop and that’s the last thing you want to do live. But I do like the yin-yang of just the slow-moving rock beat there [up top]. But it’s got a lot of little cool elements to it, you know, like that whole middle section which we call the Anthrax B section.”

On the evening of a headlining tour, the drummer has the confidence of knowing he’s going out there with a quality product. But the rock and roll lifestyle’s inherent disconnect between glamorous surfaces and their less glamorous reality continues to rankle him. That tour bus? $500 a day to rent. The driver? $200 per day. Oh, and if you want to keep any of the money from ticket sales, you’ll be sharing the bus with another band. “I’m really not trying to paint a negative picture here,” he says. “But there’s not a lot of money to be made in extreme metal – there just isn’t. All these labels want 360 deals, which means they get a percentage of everything – your publishing, your merch, your tour money, all that stuff. And anybody who has been in the business for over ten years knows that you don’t sign a contract like that. That’s why I feel so bad for baby bands. Basically there’s no way to get ahead.

“If you are lucky enough to be in a band that can sell a few hundred thousand albums, then at end of the day you are going to make some money,” he continues. “But for a lot of bands, it’s a very small window to be able to do that. That’s why you see so many package tours lately. And if you want to stay viable and if you want be a musician, my suggestion is to get involved in every single other aspect of the music business or anything else. That’s why I do all this other stuff.”

A Season For Change

JayBitt is not one to get sentimental during the holidays. He has, however, parlayed the yuletide spirit into another excuse to play drums. Santa And The Effects Of The Claus, a project he is backing with his own production company, recently released Bigfoot Town: A Christmas Rock Opera. The album’s original sing-along tunes are geared toward kids, but there are enough wrinkles and sly asides that adults will enjoy it, too. “The drumming is very simple, you know?” he says of the songs, created with a Roland TD-20 and a very small budget. “However, the one tune that I did [“Compromise”], we did an alternate version for iTunes that has a drum solo in the end.” It also has fast double bass and bell-pinging breakdown sections. Once an extreme-metal drummer, always an extreme-metal drummer.

On Bigfoot Town the majority of drums were composed by Bittner’s student Brian May. May’s father wrote all the music and lyrics. A second CD is currently in the works and his partners are using Kickstarter to raise funds. It will also up the drum-star factor with appearances from Horacio Hernadez, Todd Sucherman, Giovanni Hidalgo, Liberty DeVitto, and other name-players slated to perform.

“It’s another iron in the fire,” he says. The drummer recently sold his stake in a tattoo parlor, and has since become a part owner of a holistic spa. “If you told me 20 years ago that I’d be playing drums in Anthrax and then collaborating with people on a Christmas musical I would have thought you were insane. But these are the things that come up and I figure this is a good avenue for me, just something else to get involved in. And who knows, if it kicks off it could be the next Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ten years from now I could be walking around in an orangutan costume onstage. And I’m not kidding.”

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Daily Operation

With two siblings in Brooklyn, JayBitt has contemplated couch surfing a few nights a week in order to be where the work is more plentiful. Relocating to the New York City area, especially music-obsessed Brooklyn, makes perfect sense but is sadly not an option. His wife has a terrific job and after 18 years in the Upstate area, they have no desire to leave. “Our house is paid for too,” he says. “That’s another beautiful thing. Not many 40-year-old couples can say their home is paid for.”

The lifestyle of a touring metal drummer is a daily stress test for the Bittners’ marriage, the eight-year anniversary of which the couple celebrated yesterday. “It’s extremely hard,” he says. “I have to commend my wife for dealing with it. She comes home at night and she’s with the cat and I’m in East Bumscrew, Missouri, so I’m thankful that she is supportive of it.” With the remaining dates of the tour cancelled while he recuperates, they’ll hopefully get some Q.T. together.

And sometimes a crappy economy plays in your favor. Thanks to the depressed housing market, the Bittners got a screaming deal on a condo in Florida. But with fellow extreme-metaller Derek Roddy two doors down, there’s not a whole lot of relaxing going on. “Me and Derek go to his drum warehouse [where Roddy keeps all his pet snakes] and stay there for hours on end,” he says. “It’s quite the drum fraternity we have down there: Me, Derek, Patrick Johansson, who’s Yngwie [Malmsteen]’s drummer, and Nicko McBrain. He lives in Boca. It’s tough with the schedule Maiden leads, but we always go and see him at some point. Usually we just go over to the restaurant he owns [Rock ’N’ Roll Ribs, in Coral Springs] and hang with him. It’s awesome.”

For now Bittner is taking it one day at a time. The drummer’s life is a take-it-as-it-comes proposition where the recent past is ancient history, the next gig is always in the back of your mind, and no matter how small the present task, you approach it the way you would a final performance. Like the title of that Shadows Fall album from 2002, it’s the art of balance. “I enjoy this,” he says. “I try to keep my slate as open as possible and my eyes as open as possible and my ears to the ground. But I’m where I need to be for right now – being on the road and being in my band, and that’s it.”

jason bittner

The Killer B: Charlie Benante

Shadows Fall drummer Jason Bittner was stoked to fill in for Charlie Benante throughout this year. But is it equally thrilling for the Anthrax drummer to see somebody else playing his parts? “I watch videos and I see someone going up there who is really confident,” Benante says while driving around Chicago. “It’s a little bit of half and half: He’s got the approach that I have in the song and he puts a little spin of his own onto it, and I like that.”

Bittner, who filled in on three tours this year alone including Rockstar-Mayhem, is an old hand at subbing for his hero. Other than being hugely influenced by Benante’s playing, how did the Shadows Fall drummer become Anthrax’s go-to guy? “I think he sat in for a song one time and that’s how it started,” Benante explains. “I knew he could handle the material. When my daughter was born Jason was the guy we called and he filled in for two shows and did really well, and so that always stayed in the back of our minds that he was someone we could rely on.” Benante has also had Gene Hoglan step in on a few occasions.

The timing on the latest sub gig, the Canadian leg of the Anthrax/Testament coheadline, wasn’t exactly convenient. Having just released Fire From The Sky, the Shadows Fall drummer ended up having to postpone his own band’s tour to help Anthrax out because, well, that’s just the kind of guy JayBitt is. Moreover, there was new Anthrax material from 2011 release Worship Music that still had to be learned. “He came to a show or two and saw me playing the songs so he knew the tempos and the segues and stuff like that,” Benante says. “I remember there was one new song we were doing, “In The End,” and that just kind of has this groove to it and if you push it, it loses its groove. So I remember he was doing the show at the Best Buy Theater in New York and he was playing it during sound check and I just kind of went behind him and tapped his back, you know, ’Here’s the tempo,’ just so he would see that ’Oh, I’m pushing it a bit.’”

While we’re on the topic of substitutions, we might add that Charlie has never stepped in on any profile gigs himself, unless you count the time he sat in with Iron Maiden for one song when Anthrax was touring with the NWOBHM kings. “It was awesome,” he recalls. “I played ’Sanctuary.’ And I jammed with Metallica one time. We did ’Helpless.’”

At the rate Benante is leaning on Bittner, though, he’d better start learning some Shadows Fall tunes because he may have to return the favor one of these days. “I don’t know if I can handle that. [laughs] Their stuff is fast. The faster double bass stuff we don’t play – I shouldn’t say we don’t play it … ”

Seriously. If Anthrax classics “Among The Living” and “Gung Ho” aren’t fast, what is? “But I noticed with Shadows Fall, even in choruses, he’ll throw in double kick,” he clarifies. “Where I’ll usually break it down.”