“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