Ja­son bit­tner


Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: david west

“It’s very frus­trat­ing when you come home and you can’t pay your bills be­cause your tour was twenty grand in debt, and that’s what hap­pened on our U.S. head­lin­ing tour”

For the bet­ter part of a decade, Shad­ows Fall were at the fore­front of Amer­i­can heavy metal, pow­ered by one of the most dy­namic and creative rhythm sec­tions in the genre, thanks to bassist Paul Ro­manko and drum­mer Ja­son Bit­tner. Since Shad­ows Fall went on in­def­i­nite hia­tus, Bit­tner has made a habit of play­ing with the big­gest names in thrash. He’s cov­ered for Char­lie Benante in An­thrax on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions, played on Flot­sam And Jet­sam’s superb 2016 self-ti­tled 12th al­bum, and now he’s taken the drum seat va­cated by Ron Lip­nicki in New Jersey’s thrash pioneers Overkill. “It’s nice to be back in an East Coast band,” says Bit­tner. “It’s bet­ter for me at this point to have a three-and-a-half hour drive to prac­tice rather than a seven-hour

“One of my big­gest char­ac­ter­is­tics that I pride my­self on is my con­sis­tency. That just comes from be­ing a Neil Peart freak for years”

flight across the coun­try.” Orig­i­nally from Al­bany, New York, the Berklee ed­u­cated drum­mer has played bru­tal hard­core with Stig­mata, re­leased an in­struc­tional book and DVD de­tail­ing his ap­proach to metal mas­tery, and been a colum­nist for this very magazine. When Rhythm talks to Bit­tner, he’s pre­par­ing for his first live dates with Overkill, join­ing Bobby Blitz, DD Verni, Dave Linsk and Derek Tay­lor in one of thrash metal’s most en­dur­ing, iconic bands.

Have you been wood­shed­ding for the Overkill tour?

“While I was on tour with Flot­samI started lis­ten­ing to the ma­te­rial ev­ery night. We got home mid­dle ofApril, and by the last week of April I was out in my stu­dio working on the Overkill set. I did about three weeks of re­hears­ing on my own and be­cause Blitz, DD and Derek are in New Jersey, I’m in New York, but Dave is in Florida, it’s not like you can just as­sem­ble ev­ery­body for a prac­tice. We knew that we were go­ing to have a week of re­hearsals with the full band in June be­fore we go over­seas to Rus­sia, Ukraine and Den­mark, but I didn’t want to wait seven, eight weeks to jam with the band. I said, ‘Can we prac­tise just one time without Dave? Can the four of us get to­gether soI can see how this is go­ing here?’ be­cause it’s one thing when you’re play­ing ev­ery­thing tight to the records, but when you have to be there without that record­ing in your ears, you have to re­mem­ber where the song goes, it’s a to­tally dif­fer­ent story. Luck­ily, we got to­gether two weeks ago on a Mon­day and went through the songs for the set. For a first-time jam it went pretty smoothly. It was good for me to know that I was def­i­nitely pro­gress­ing in the right di­rec­tion, all the work that I’d put in was solid. I’m feel­ing way more con­fi­dent than I was a month ago be­cause now I know what it’s go­ing to sound like. I’m still re­hears­ing al­most ev­ery day.”

Is there any­thing par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing in the Overkill set?

“The older ma­te­rial is re­ally not that much of a big deal be­cause a lot of those songs I played for so many years when I was a kid grow­ing up but some of the newer songs and some of Ron’s drum­ming was very chal­leng­ing, very creative with very cool parts to play. One of the songs off the new record, ‘Shine On’, he’s got some very cool jazz-ori­ented fills where you can def­i­nitely hear the swing in it. They’re triplet-based fills and some of his phras­ing is very cool, like wow, I wouldn’t have thought to play that. When I’m learn­ing some­one else’s ma­te­rial, I’ll find parts that I call place­hold­ers. There are those ‘go back and re­visit later’ sec­tions where you think of some­thing that you do in your own style right now that can fill the gap. Once I have the ar­range­ment in my head and I know how it’s go­ing to go from part A to part B, then I go back and fine-tune those lit­tle in­tri­ca­cies to get them as close to what the drum­mer be­fore me played.”

Have Bobby or DD asked you to repli­cate what’s on the records?

“Yes and no. DD says the fills are very im­por­tant, not as far as we want you to em­u­late things note for note, but we want it to be con­sis­tent. If you’re go­ing to play this fill, play that fill ev­ery sin­gle night. Es­pe­cially on end­ings, if we’re wait­ing for an end­ing and we know it’s sup­posed to end on four snares, don’t make it two snares and two hi-hats the next night. Which I to­tally un­der­stand be­cause I would hate that too. I say well, you’ll have no prob­lems with that be­cause one of my big­gest char­ac­ter­is­tics that I pride my­self on is my con­sis­tency. That just comes from be­ing a Neil Peart freak for years. I try to do the ex­act same thing night af­ter night af­ter night, so it’s as close to a drum ma­chine as it can pos­si­bly be.

They’re like, ‘Feel free to in­ter­pret it the way you want and add your own thing to it, we’ll let you know if it’s too much.’ We’re still in that phase right now where I’m com­fort­able play­ing what’s on the records as I’m just get­ting into the groove of it. As we start tour­ing, I’m sure more and more of me is go­ing to start crawling out be­cause that’s ex­actly what hap­pened with Flot­sam And Jet­sam.”

The al­bum you did with Flot­sam And Jet­sam in 2016 is tremen­dous.

“Thanks, that record came out great, man. I’m def­i­nitely very proud of that record, it’s one of my favourite record­ings I’ve ever done.”

So it’s sur­pris­ing that you’ve left the band!

“You can feel free to write in the in­ter­view: ‘Long pause…’ [Laughs.] All right, ev­ery­body spec­u­lates, why did he leave? I’ve heard things on the Flot­sam pages, ‘He said Flot­sam was one of his favourite bands, how could he quit and join Overkill?’ I get it and I love both bands to death. I re­ally loved what was go­ing on with Flot­sam. I loved the guys in the band tremen­dously, I have four other broth­ers now ba­si­cally, and I had a great time play­ing and cre­at­ing mu­sic with that band, help­ing Kelly’s legacy con­tinue on, Kelly David-Smith who was the orig­i­nal drum­mer and my very good friend, but the sad part about it is, this is a busi­ness. Flot­sam just does not have the op­por­tu­nity that Overkill does. Flot­sam doesn’t have the tour­ing power that Overkill does. It’s very frus­trat­ing when you come home and you can’t pay your bills be­cause your tour was 20 grand in debt, and that’s what hap­pened on our US head­lin­ing tour. We came home $20,000 in the hole and you’re like, ‘I love you guys and I love do­ing this but we all have houses, mort­gages, peo­ple have kids,’ and you just can’t do it any­more. Overkill can af­ford to keep them­selves on the road and make their ma­chine work. It’s just a way bet­ter op­por­tu­nity for me as a player and as a ca­reer mu­si­cian. We were at the point in Flot­sam And Jet­sam, and all of them will back up ev­ery sin­gle thing that I’m say­ing, af­ter this last tour in Europe, we re­ally had no idea what the fu­ture was be­cause we were sim­ply not get­ting any US tour of­fers or any­thing worth­while where we could sus­tain our­selves to go out. The con­sen­sus at that point was, let’s con­cen­trate on do­ing the next record be­cause we’re con­tracted for an­other record and then we’ll see what hap­pens. Our book­ing agent dropped us, things weren’t working out with man­age­ment, so there were all these neg­a­tive things. We had this Euro­pean tour, there was Wacken and a few fes­ti­vals in Au­gust, but aside from that there was no more work, so it was look­ing pretty grim. Op­por­tu­nity knocks only once in a while, I’ve been lucky to have it knock a few times. Overkill is def­i­nitely more of a thrash band, in my heart that’s where I’m the most com­fort­able play­ing and if I’m go­ing to stay in this game, I just want to be in a thrash band. I want to get out there and kick ass likeI’ve been do­ing for all these years and now I get a chance to do it again with an­other leg­endary band.”

“You just stum­ble off the bus and walk into a

venue which is like a war zone. ‘Why is the tour man­ager scream­ing? I just woke up!’”

How im­por­tant are clin­ics, mas­ter­classes and teach­ing in mak­ing life vi­able as a mu­si­cian?

“I don’t want the whole ar­ti­cle to dwell on the gloom and doom of the mu­sic in­dus­try, but younger kids and up and com­ing drum­mers re­ally should think about the re­al­i­ties and the se­ri­ous­ness of what you’re go­ing to get in­volved in if you’re go­ing to pur­sue this as a ca­reer. It’s not just tour buses and groupies and par­ty­ing, it’s hard work. It’s not very re­ward­ing a lot of the time. I al­ways say that tour­ing is like go­ing to war, you fight a dif­fer­ent bat­tle ev­ery day. Some days you make it through easy, some days you don’t. But yes, all those things do help as far as keep­ing an in­come flow com­ing in. How­ever, all of those things have waned in the last cou­ple of years too. Let’s say 10 years ago, right af­ter my ca­reer was blow­ing up, I was get­ting all this at­ten­tion in Shad­ows Fall, I had all these things go­ing on – writ­ing for Rhythm magazine, I had sig­na­ture sticks, a sig­na­ture ride cym­bal, clinic tours, you’re do­ing ses­sions when you’re off the road, but then five years later, things start dwin­dling. Now you’re not the flavour of the day any­more, the ride cym­bal doesn’t sell the way it used to, the stick sales slow down, clinic tours are now with the next up and com­ing guy. The clinic peo­ple don’t do that many clin­ics any­more be­cause peo­ple don’t go to them and mu­sic stores don’t sell equip­ment and that is the bot­tom line of why they’re go­ing to have a clinic in the first place, to sell gear. Peo­ple nowa­days feel it’s so much eas­ier to go, ‘Ah, I know he’s go­ing to do a clinic two miles down the road, but I can pull up YouTube right here on my couch and watch him play­ing from the stu­dio.’ That’s never go­ing to re­place be­ing able to sit eight feet away from Den­nis Cham­bers watch­ing him play.”

Do you have any tac­tics for sur­viv­ing life on tour with your men­tal and phys­i­cal well­be­ing in­tact?

“As I’ve got­ten older, I try to en­joy my­self on tour

more than I used to. I just blindly went through tour­ing years ago, like with Shad­ows Fall it was al­ways just so much all the time, it grates on you. One day runs into the next, ev­ery night you’re drink­ing and par­ty­ing and you feel like crap, and that’s just not the way I ap­proach tour­ing any­more. I stopped drink­ing five years ago for health rea­sons, so I don’t have al­co­hol in my sys­tem any­more which con­trib­utes tremen­dously to feel­ing bet­ter phys­i­cally, feel­ing bet­ter men­tally on tour be­cause you’re not think­ing, ‘God, I feel like crap now I’ve got to go play!’

“None of that ever goes through my head any­more. I’m just like a her­mit on tour. I get up in the morn­ing, if it’s a walk­a­ble area I go sight­see, find a Star­bucks, have a cof­fee, just get out and clear my head. I do a lot of yoga on tour and re­sis­tance band train­ing, I do my lit­tle gym rou­tine to keep me happy and healthy. That’s what re­ally helps me on tour, hav­ing a lit­tle bit of my own per­sonal time of the day just to breathe, get a lit­tle med­i­ta­tion in, get cen­tred to deal with what could pos­si­bly hap­pen that day, be­cause tour­ing is not a pic­nic. I’m not set­ting it up to be a terrible thing but you never know whether or not the mon­i­tors are go­ing to suck tonight, or whether the cater­ing is there, the PA is not suit­able for the venue, all these lit­tle things that hap­pen that you don’t know are go­ing to hap­pen un­til you get there. But at least if I’ve got­ten up, done my lit­tle yoga rou­tine, have a lit­tle breakfast, have some cof­fee, my head is on straight, I can walk in and then be bom­barded with, ‘Why is the crew mad? What’s go­ing on with this venue?’ rather than be­ing punched in the face by it the mo­ment you wake up. That’s hap­pened too, you just stum­ble off the bus and walk into a venue which is like a war zone. ‘Why is the tour man­ager scream­ing? I just woke up! Stop scream­ing!’”

Will Shad­ows Fall ever re­turn to ac­tive duty?

“Ev­ery­body is do­ing things with ei­ther ‘A’, their re­spec­tive bands they play in or ‘B’, their chil­dren. That’s the ex­tent of Shad­ows Fall right now. The busiest guy al­ways seems to be Jon [Don­ais] be­cause he’s in An­thrax. I would say I’m prob­a­bly the sec­ond busiest tour guy. Then you have Matt [Bac­hand] play­ing with Act Of De­fi­ance with the old Me­gadeth guys, so the three of us are still ac­tive in other bands and Brian [Fair] and Paul are home rais­ing their kids. Brian had his sec­ond kid a cou­ple of years ago so we’re like, ‘Does that mean pretty much we’re done? ’Cos that’s an­other life change even though you al­ready had one.’ He’s like, ‘No, I’m def­i­nitely go­ing to want to get away from this at some point.’ We’ve al­ways got tunes and ma­te­rial ly­ing around. We have some songs that we were working on a cou­ple of years ago. When we had some free time me, Matt and Jon were fart­ing around. We don’t know if we’re go­ing to use it for some­thing else with a cou­ple of other peo­ple or if even­tu­ally it will turn into Shad­ows Fall ma­te­rial, but I think once ev­ery­body’s tour sched­ules die down a lit­tle bit, once Jon is done with the An­thrax cy­cle, maybe by early next year when we start slow­ing down, there might be some time to get back to­gether and do some­thing. Some day. I don’t think it’s over, I just don’t know when it’s go­ing to hap­pen again.”

Over a decade of your life was spent with Shad­ows Fall!

“It’s eas­ier to think about it now but prob­a­bly we all dealt with it in dif­fer­ent ways when we stopped play­ing. I know it was a lit­tle hard for me at first but it was one of those things where I was like, ‘How did this just stop? Wait a minute!’ It felt like it came to an abrupt stop, which it re­ally hadn’t. It had been slow­ing down for a few years but I was like, no, it will get bet­ter! It wasn’t get­ting bet­ter which is why we de­cided to take a break. Maybe some­day we can do what Car­cass did, come back 15, 20 years later and be big­ger than you were the first time. You never know!”

Ja­son came to drum­mers’ at­ten­tion through his play­ing with Shad­ows Fall, and he had a tour di­ary in Rhythm too!

Ja­son: “I just wanted to be in a thrash band, get out there and kick ass like I’ve been do­ing for all these years”

“As we start tour­ing, I’m sure more and more of me is go­ing to start crawling out,” says Ja­son of his new Overkill gig

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