Drummer Spotlight Interview with JASON BITTNER from SHADOWS FALL @jbittnerdrums @TAMA_USA @zildjiancompany@shadowsfallband @anthrax
Why did the drummer stare at the frozen juice can?
Because it said, “Concentrate”.
Drummers always get a bum rap. Why is that? Ever seen a good band with a shitty drummer? No. Know why? BECAUSE THEY DON’T FUCKING EXIST.
Drummers rule! We hit stuff, get peoples’ butts shaking, and ultimately determine whether or not the band is going to perform well. You CANNOT have a solid band without a solid drummer, so all you 6-string wankers out there with your tapping and flooded solos can suck it… This one is for the hitters.
I sat down with Shadows Fall’s percussive madman Jason Bittner on February 16th in Syracuse, NY to get talk about how he got started playing, what he’s currently beating the hell out of, and what he’s got going on in 2013. Take note: He’s available for lessons, touring, and recording sessions, so if you want a metal legend backing you up from April until August, I’ve got the guy!
G- Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today, Jason!
J- You’re welcome, and happy birthday!
G- Thank you very much! Lets just get right down to it… How long have you been playing drums and when did you get started?
J- A long time. Let me think… I have to really think because… 30+ years.
G- Of drumming?
G- Right on! You start in the academic sphere?
J- Yeah. I mean, I was banging on pots and pans when I was a kid, but I started taking formal lessons the moment that I could, which was 3rd grade. I was like 10, so 33 years I started taking lessons in school, and just progressed through middle school and high school, and did the high school band and orchestra and all that stuff. Then, I went off to Berklee after high school, and the rest is history (laughs).
G- Right on. I remember you back in the days when you were playing with Merauder, and you’ve been in bands…
J- Stigmata, actually.
G- Stigmata, that’s right!
J- But you’re confusing that because we used to play with Merauder all the time.
G- It’s that split 7” you guys did together.
J- Exactly, yup!
G- I have that in my collection and got it confused. But, you’ve been in bands for years and years and years, so how long have you been playing professionally, and tell us about your first project.
J- Well, I think my first band was in high school when I was like 15. It was like a Top 40 band just getting together with people to actually play. My first real, original band wasn’t until after Berklee when I came home in the late 80’s, ’89, and I started forming my own projects and just trying to do the play-as-many-shows-as-possible and go out and send your demo tape to people, back in the day when you still had cassette tapes! When you still had demos and there wasn’t the internet to steal everything, and there wasn’t a billion bands ad everything else.
But, I really don’t say that I was playing professionally until I joined Stigmata, because that was my biggest band out of my early days, when we were doing regional touring and the states tours, and we did a few European tours and put out records. And then, after that, you know 1997 is when I really started touring full time, when I was done playing with Stigmata and I was playing in a NYC band called Crisis. So, I did 6 months of touring with them, and then after I left that band and came back and did some stuff with Stigmata for a couple of years, we put another record out and did a couple of European things, and that band kinda really called it a day officially at the end of 2001, and I was literally doing my last show with Stigmata when I was rehearsing for my first show with Shadows Fall. So, it was just like one door closed, and another one opened. So literally, I’ve really been touring since the mid 90’s, but touring nonstop since the end of 2001.
J- From 2001 until now, if there’s been a period where I’ve been home for 6 months straight, it’s been an absolute miracle. I don’t think that’s happened in the last 12 years.
G- Alright. That’s a good thing for all the aspiring drummers out there to hear!
J- It is a good thing.
G- You could be waking up and going to a full-time job like me and hating it.
J- I still might be doing that (laughs)! That’s never out of the question!
G- Right on. Well, let’s talk about the all-important gear for a second… What is your current rig looking like? What kind of drums and cymbals are you using primarily, what configurations, and what companies are backing you up at this time?
J- (With a sports newscaster delivery) All of the following information can be found at www.jasonbittner.com/gear (laughs)! I’m kidding. I’m not kidding, but yeah.
My current set up is… I’ve been endorsed by Tama for over 10 years. I’ve been playing Tama for almost 30 years now… Once again, dating myself.
It’s a Tama kit. It’s a Starclassic, but it’s a hybrid kit. The toms are Starclassic maple, the bass drums are Starclassic BB, birch and bubinga. So, the kicks are 18×22, the toms are 10/12,14/16 floors. The snare is the Warlord bell brass.
All my cymbals are Zildjian. I went to Zildjian over 2 years ago, and I should’ve went there a while before that. I’ve been there for the last 2 years now, and it’s been great! They’re a great company, and any cymbal sound I want to hear, they can provide for me, and they can provide it for me literally within a day of me saying ‘Can you make this for me,’ so it’s pretty amazing and I’m really, really happy to be over there.
So, with my (cymbal) set up with them, and what I’m using for Shadows Fall… My (cymbal) set up varies on what gig I’m doing and what I’m playing… But for this band, and for when I’m doing any kind of heavy stuff, from left to right, going from the left, is a 20” Z Rock Ride for my auxillary Ride, Hi Hats are 14” Mastersound A customs, 16” Oriental China, 18” K either Medium Crash or Crash/Ride depending on how I’m feeling, 8” K splash, 17” Z Custom Medium Crash, 10” A Custom Splash, 18” A Projection Crash, 18” Oriental China, 19” K Thin Crash, 13” Mastersound Hi Hats on the X-Hat, and my main Ride is a prototype Z3. Actually, the Z line has been incorporated into the A line, and basically it’s just an A Custom Mega Bell Ride.
But what they did for me is they lathed the cymbal down to half the thickness and it has an unlathed finish, so it’s basically a one-of-a-kind, like a prototype of the Mega Bell Ride.
G- And how do you feel about that cymbal right now?
J- It’s the most amazing Ride cymbal I’ve ever played on, and I get a zillion compliments on it every night, and it’s one of those things people keep asking me about… ‘Is Zildjian gonna put this in production?’ I don’t know. They should!
G- Maybe get a little signature thing going on there?
J- Umm, probably not because they don’t really do signature cymbals for artists, but what they do is they have an artist contribute to a cymbal that they do put into production. I know you get a percentage of it or what not, but if they do, that’s great! But if they don’t, that’s fine, too. As long as I have one to play on, that’s all I care about.
G- And how about heads and sticks?
J- Heads, I’m endorsed by Remo. Everything is clear Emperors on the batters and clear Ambassadors on the bottoms. Snare is a CS Reverse Dot, kicks are Powerstroke 3’s, and sticks are my own Pro-Mark Jason Bittner 5BX signature model.
G- So, you’ve got most of the heavyweights!
J- I’ve got a lot of great endorsers in my corner.
G- That’s excellent! Now, you mentioned clinics, you’ve got your band… Let’s talk about some of your other undertakings, because I know that you provide lessons and are a very busy guy…
J- I try to be.
G- What other artists are you currently working with, and do you have anybody in particular that you’d most like to work with in the future?
J- Well, there’s plenty of people I’d like to work with, but we’ll see what happens in the future.
As far as what I’ve been doing recently, I just did a record with Marty Friedman last year that just came out in the states called Tokyo Jukebox #2, and anybody who is actually that ignorant or doesn’t know who Marty Friedman is, first of all you should go get schooled (laughs), second of all he was the guitar player in Megadeth when Megadeth WAS Megadeth of yore, and he is just one of the most amazing guitar players I have ever shared any space with and was ever able to play with. So, that was cool!
Obviously, I did the whole tenure playing with Anthrax last year filling in for Charlie (Benante). That’s ended for now, considering that I’m back to my own band (laughs), and now, ironically, our guitar player Jon (Donais) is filling in for them.
J- So, that’s another ironic change! Right now, I have some things going on back home. I did another record with this band called Half Past My Sin from Massachusetts last year, and that’s going to be produced by Clint Lowery, and I think he’s going to be doing some of the writing for it as well. I just cut drums last year, and they’ll email files and I’ll hear it when it’s done. That’s coming out.
I’m getting ready right now to, I can’t really make an announcement about it because there hasn’t been a formal announcement yet, but I’m getting ready to do some writing and some pre-production with an old legendary progressive metal band, thrash band, that’s reuniting to do another record, and I’ll be doing the drums for that. So, I’m really looking forward to that. I wish I could tell you more about that, but just stay tuned… You’ll know soon enough! So that’s probably going to take up most of my Summer, and it’s good because I’m going to have the summer off due to the fact that Jon is going to be with Anthrax and our singer Brian (Fair) is having his first baby, so where kind of on a temporary hiatus until August because of Jon being gone, and Jon literally comes back when Brian is waiting for his kid.
So, after this tour we have some spot shows. We have a week long tour with Anthrax which will be fine because Jon will be there and will just do the double-down thing. But after April, we’re pretty much on a hiatus until August, so that’s why I’m doing as much as I can. I have some clinics that are being booked right now… I have a clinic on February 23rd in Holyoke, Massachusetts, one pending in Charlotte in April, and I’ve been in talks with Guitar center and there’s been some talks about contributing to their Metal Month in July and doing some clinics and seminars around the country, so I’m hoping that that comes together.
G- Dude… Awesome! So yeah, you’re staying busy!
J- I’m trying to. I’ll put out there, too, that during hiatus time, if any touring or any other sessions that I can get involved with, I’m throwing my hat in the ring, so to speak.
G- I don’t think you’re going to have a hard time filling that in!
J- We’ll see. We’ll see.
G- Now, you’re very well versed in the studio, and you’re very well versed in live performance… Do you find that your approaches to the kit differ between the two?
J- Well, a little bit. I mean, they don’t differ in the fact that I want to do the best job possible for whatever it is, live or studio. So, that’s always going to be the same mindset… I want to do the best job possible.
For the studio, you have to remember that this is for life. If you don’t get it right right here, or if you don’t go back and fix the mistake, whatever it is, and I’m still using the words ‘on tape.’ It’s on TAPE! It’s on file for life! So, you know you’re going to want to make sure you do 110% in the studio.
Not that you don’t want to do 110% live, but if you make a mistake live, it’s gone. You made the mistake, and hopefully you can get past it and play the rest of the show without making any more mistakes. It’s different… People will forget about that with their 5-minute attention span live. But if you leave the mistake on record, every time that mistake plays on the record, someone will say ‘Oh yea, he messed up right there. Why didn’t he just go back and actually fix that?’
G- Right on.
J- So, my attitude is basically just to do the best job I possibly can, regardless of whether it’s in the studio or live, whatever it is. I take a little bit more liberties live than I do in the studio, not that I want to play it safe in the studio, but there’s definitely nights where I’ll put more fills in than normally exist in the songs, if I’m feeling it. But, in the studio, you try to be really cognizant of what’s going on around you with the other musicians. The last thing you want to do is put a drum solo over the chorus.
G- (laughing) Very true. So, just a couple of last questions for you today. I’d like to know, in your personal estimation and given your vast amount of experience, what is your craziest or most memorable performance, in terms of either location, crowd response, or just the one that sticks out in your mind as one you’re most proud of?
J- There’s been a lot of those in time. I hate to really say it, because it’s not even my band, but one of the best shows I’ve ever played was with Anthrax in Montreal last year. I don’t even know why it was that show that was so impressive to me, but it was just one of those nights that, to coin a phrase, was just magical!
The show was sold out, and it was a place that Shadows fall had played a few times on our own, but this was different playing with a different band. The place sold out, and everyone was singing, and the band was on fire, and I played great, and it was one of those nights that was really, really, really cool. So, that one. Any Anthrax shows! The first time I filled in with the first lineup of the reunion tour was great, with Joey and with Dan Spitz still playing. Those were great!
But Shadows Fall has had so many amazing moments, and those definitely are not foreshadowed by that event. The Anthrax Montreal show just sticks out because it just happened last year and I was like ‘Wow! It feels so good tonight! Why was it so good?!’
But, as I said, we’ve had so many great, great events. Anytime Shadows Fall has been able to play Download Fest has been amazing. We played a festival in China in front of 110,000 people. We played a festival in Bogota in front of 225,000 people… It’s night like that that you’re like ‘Holy crap… Is this even happening right now?’ So, it’s really, really cool.
But, you don’t have to be playing in front of a million people to have a great show or to have a memorable show. Our DVD shoot in the Philippines was with 15,000 in an outdoor arena, and that’s probably one of my highlights, too. At least we have that on DVD for the world to see.
G- Right on. Now, there’s plenty of drummers out there, picking up sticks, buying their first kits and things along those lines… You’ve been doing this for decades, and you’ve obviously had peaks and valleys as every drummer does, and you’ve worked very hard and very diligently for a long time to make this happen for yourself as a drummer…
J- Yup. In a valley right now as we speak (laughs).
G- Nah, but what advice would you give to some of the up and coming drummers out there who…
J- Quit (laughing)
G- Quit?! That’s terrible! C’mon now, you’ve got to have something better than that! Quit.
J- (laughing) I’m old and jaded. A lot of the stuff I’m saying, I’m joking in a sense, but I’m not joking, too. I don’t mean quit and don’t follow your dreams, because I’m exactly the opposite… If this is what you want to aspire to, then fucking go for it! That’s all I’m saying.
But, what I want to say is… Why I say ‘quit.’ Kids nowadays have this lax attitude that all they have to do is learn how to play 3 chords and three beats, and I can get in a band, and I have a studio in my basement and I have my own record label with my laptop.
Times have changed, and for that mentality of thinking you’re just going to go out there and be the next big thing, and you’re going to be in a tour bus and making millions of dollars and all that, that’s a very far-fetched reality. The reality of this business is that this is a very, very hard business to succeed in. Any kind of success.
Just because we’re in a bus right now and we’re sitting here and it looks like we’re living high on the hog, we’re not. The reality of this is it’s a break-even tour. We go home making not one cent of profit. I don’t know about you, but can you go to your job for 4 weeks and come home with no paycheck?
G- Definitely not.
J- That’s what I’m getting at. Now, I’m not trying to disillusion people to make people not want to do this, I’m just trying to show that there’s a lot of stuff that goes on to make this happen. This bus costs $1000 per day, and when you’re making $2000 for a show, that’s half your guarantee right there. You gotta pay the crew, and you’ve gotta pay for everything else. And diesel is $5 a gallon, and just for this thing to sit here and idle for an hour costs $10.
So, all I’m gonna say is, if this is what you want to do, get into the real world, learn how to read music, learn how to do other things in the music business. As I’m saying, I try to teach, do clinics, do other things to offset my income. But, if you can do it, have a fall back plan. That’s what my mother told me for years. If you’re going to school, that’s awesome. Go to school for engineering or accounting or something that you can get a job in after you’ve tried to pursue the music thing. That’s all I can say.
Or, if you’re going to go to school for music, don’t go for performance. Everybody can play! Go for production and engineering. Go for something you can get a career out of later on, something that can make you money, so if the touring band doesn’t work out, there’s still something to fall back on and a way for you to make a living. That’s what it comes down to.
Kids that are 20 years old and living at home with their parents? Sure, they can go out and tour in a van and make no money and have a great time on the road for a month. But when you’re 40 years old and have a family to support, it doesn’t work like that, you know? And it gets harder and harder and harder to do this, because there’s a plethora of bands out there, and everybody is stealing from each other, and this business is basically going out of business. That’s what it is. The music business is cannibalizing itself because nobody buys things anymore. Nobody buys records. The only people that buy records are you and me, the guys that are over 30 and still buy this stuff. 25 and under? Forget it. These kids don’t know about buying records! All they know is ‘I’m going to go on a torrent site and steal your record.’ That’s it.
If I come to your house and steal food out of your refrigerator, you’re not gonna like that, right? That’s exactly what that is! I’m not just sitting here trying to preach and getting on my high horse, but I’m trying ot tell it like it is, man. This is a very hard business. If this is what you want to get involved in, fine. But just be prepared that it is an uphill battle…
J- And it always is. No matter what position you’re in, it’s always an uphill battle because there’s always 5-6 bands that want your spot, and that’s why bands have to go and tour and tour and tour until they kill themselves, because the moment that you leave the road, you’re forgotten about. If you’re a band like us in the mid-level tier, unless you’re someone who’s huge like Slipknot, who can go away for a year and be able to come back and retain their fan base, that doesn’t happen with a lot of bands, especially bands like us, like I said. You’re out there hitting it hard for 2 years and you want to take a year off before you make your record? No… That’s not gonna happen. It can’t, and we’ve seen it. We’ve taken that time off and it was like ‘Oh man, maybe we shouldn’t have taken that time off,’ because now it’s rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding.
You’ve got to stay out there, and you’ve got to stay viable.
G- Right on. Powerful, honest words from someone who’s been doing this for a long time.
J- Which I’m sure will be misinterpreted by some people who read it who are just ‘Ohh he’s complaining about…’
I’m not complaining AT ALL. I could be home changing oil for a living, or punching a clock and, as I said, I could be doing that 6 months from now. I really could, because I am by no means a rich man. If I’m lucky enough to be able to sustain myself by giving lessons and doing clinics, the occasional tour and everything, that’s awesome! And that’s what I want to try to do. But I’m not blinded by a façade of thinking ‘Oh I’m a well-known drummer and going to be well off.’ No. Just because I’m a well-known drummer does not translate into money in the bank, and well-known drummer doesn’t equate to anything in the real world sometimes.
If you want it, it’s attainable and go after it. But just be smart!
G- Right on. Well, if any of your reading this would like some lessons or need a sick touring/studio drummer for your project…
J- JBLESSONS@AOL.COM is where you can find me!
G- And there it is! Look man, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with Live High Five today!
J- You’re very welcome!