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Hear the Drummer Get Wicked
Capital Region native Jason Bittner was to finally call it quits with the music biz, but when Shadows Fall took him on as drummer, it was a short trip from DMV to metal glory

Don’t I look cooler here than I did behind the DMV counter? Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall poses with his drum kit. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

By Bill Ketzer

Jason Bittner is tired as hell, and with good reason. For the past three years, the former computer programmer for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles has literally traversed the planet with the critically-acclaimed metal outfit Shadows Fall, occupying the drum throne with what has been described as a fierce alacrity, an exact, primordial precision. After numerous stints in popular area bands like Stigmata, Burning Human and downstate’s Crisis, the 34-year-old finds himself on the fast track, having overcome personal challenges to become one of the top young drummers in the country, with a band whose writing prowess and seamless, aggressive attack have caught the attention of metal fans worldwide.

Shadows Fall’s most recent European tour was a grueling mix of club shows and larger festival dates that were rife with pandemonium and unwashed heathens climbing over each other in alcoholic delirium. The final trip home from Germany was torturous, plagued with flight delays and other mishaps that left Bittner and his bandmates without sleep for about 30 hours. Yet, he dutifully calls for the interview from his Schenectady home the day after his return, still somehow on point, focused, and excited to discuss the story of his success with the group that is heralded by many as the leader of the “new wave of American heavy metal.”

“What happened was, in 2000, Stigmata went to Europe and was finally doing something after all those years,” he explains. “We were on this European label, and the tour was fairly successful. We came back and Victory Records was putting the record out [in the states], and we were supposed to do some more stuff. I was working third shift, still with the state, one guy had two kids and Bob [Riley, now with Murderer’s Row] was working third shift too, and it got to the point we could never play shows on the weekends because everybody always had something else to do. So after a while we were like, ‘Who are we kidding here?’ It just wasn’t fun anymore.”

The year to follow was not kind to the Capital Region native. Not only did he stand at the crossroads of his career as a musician, but he also suffered a horrible personal loss. “At that point, my mom had just died, and she was my best friend,” he says. “I had a good job at DMV, so I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna do. The last thing I wanted was to play in another band. Stigmata was calling it a day, I was 31 years old, and I just said, ‘OK, I guess I’m not gonna make it in the music business.’ And I was resigned to the fact that I was gonna work for the state for the rest of my life. I had come to terms with it, and I was all right with that. Fine. I tried, and that’s all.”

At about the same time, however, he learned that a promising band from Massachusetts called Shadows Fall was desperately seeking a solid sticksman to complete their roster for an upcoming tour. Seemingly out of habit, Bittner reached out to local promoter Ted Etoll, and was put in touch with the band’s manager, who he had met years ago when Bittner was in Crisis.

“It’s an incestuous kind of scene, this whole New York-New England thing,” Bittner says. “For example, Paul [Romanko, SF bass player] used to play shows with us up here when I was in Burning Human. When Brian [Fair, SF vocalist] was in Overcast, Stigmata used to play shows with them, and so did Crisis. So I had already known them, and they offered me a jam, but I kind of hesitated once I got there. I had a lot of personal shit going on, and they were cool with that, but they asked me to keep in touch because they were going through hell trying to find a drummer. They went nine months without one after trying everybody under the sun. So about a month and a half later I got an e-mail from them saying, ‘Look, we’re really having trouble here. Would it really kill you just to come down and learn five songs? ’ ”

Bittner sighs. “So I said ‘All right, twist my arm.’ I took a week, I learned five tunes, I went down to jam, and I never left. Here I am.”

The initial deal was that he would fill the position for a pending tour with Kittie in Europe. Although he was confident that he could win a permanent slot, he remained apprehensive after just getting out of a similar situation with Stigmata. “They were still a struggling band, so I had a lot to give up if I was going to do it [full-time]. But I wanted them to be able to build their presence overseas, so I did the tour. And I gave myself to the end of it to decide. I figured if I really liked the guys and I liked the situation, I was gonna go for it.”

He laughs when he recalls the futility behind all his concern and careful planning. “From the time it took to get from the management offices (after their first meeting) to the bar across the street, I said, ‘Ah, fuck it, I’m in.’ The tour hadn’t even started yet!”

There came an even more significant moment where the true leap of faith was required, a point where the comfortable ties to a steady paycheck were severed in order to reach the next level. With literally thousands of people on state waiting lists pining for the solid benefits such employment brings, some might have considered him insane to take such a deliberate risk.

He takes a deep breath and clears his throat. “Here’s the thing. I had a feeling about it. I knew [the band] was solid, and I really feel that my mom passing away has also allowed me to do this. Seriously, I don’t think I would have gone forward if she hadn’t, you know, left this earth.”

Doors close, windows open.

“Yeah, and dude, the window opened twice. I turned them down and they called me back,” he says. “Besides, I was facing an ultimatum. I had so much time saved up from work that I could do that first tour, but after seven or eight months of doing that I ran down all my personal and vacation days. Work was like, ‘Look, we don’t want you to leave,’ but I said, ‘Well, you have to give me a leave of absence, then,’ which they refused to do. So they forced me to resign. I had no other choice.”

It was a good choice. Since that time, Shadows Fall were signed to leading independent label Century Media, whose stable includes such seasoned metal acts as Lacuna Coil, Arch Enemy, Iced Earth and Napalm Death. They were elected “Best Underground Band” in 2003 by Metal Hammer, one of Britain’s top music magazines. Their last release, The Art of Balance, sold more than 100,000 copies without the benefit of airplay—no small feat in their realm—finally carving such a niche of success for the band that Bittner no longer has to take a job when he gets off the road.

“Shadows Fall is full-time now, but don’t let me paint the wrong picture for you,” he warns, pointing to the fact that he already had money saved to pay his bills when he returned home from that first tour. “We only started to actually make money after Ozzfest, and we didn’t get paid to do that—we paid to play. That’s how it works for the younger bands. The only reason we made anything was because we sold a shitload of merchandise. But the thing is, we did so well on the Headbanger’s Ball and Take Action tours that followed Ozzfest that I came home with enough money to wind up in a good situation. I own a house with my fiancée, I have a mortgage to pay, I have taxes, I’ve got a lot going on. Sure, I inherited [my mom’s] house, but I also inherited all the bills and headaches that came along with it.”

Bittner also says that, even if he wanted to find work while off the road (he doesn’t), his schedule has reached a point where doing so is impossible. When the band finished its latest European jaunt, they proceeded directly to the studio to record the heavily anticipated The War Within, which is due in stores on Sept. 20.

“To be honest, we couldn’t both work and write and record the album at the same time,” he explains. “There wasn’t enough hours in the day. Before, I had to worry about what the hell I was gonna do [for income] for three months while I wasn’t on tour, so I was forced to start teaching over at the Only Guitar Shop two nights a week, which was enough for me and my fiancée to get by. But it’s not even an option anymore. Also, I’m making more money now because I’m not paying for gear.”

Gear is expensive, especially when it must endure more than 200 shows a year, thus Bittner’s warm welcome to full endorsements from Tama Drums, AA Meinl Cymbals and Pro Mark Drumsticks, to name a few. Almost anywhere in the world, one can walk into any store with a magazine rack, pick up the latest Revolver or Metal Maniacs and there’s Bittner, stumping for Pro Mark or proudly walloping his $8,000 Tama Star Classic Maple drums. One gets the sense from Bittner’s glib-but-learned perception of the music business that such endorsements are more than enough, given the fact that he is literally living the dream and making a living to boot. To his surprise, however, he was also recently singled out as not only one of metal’s finest technical drummers but as one of America’s best drummers on the whole. Modern Drummer Magazine, the most widely recognized trade magazine for drummers in the United States, recently awarded him Up and Coming Drummer for 2004, a title that makes his journey even more surreal.

“The plaque is up in my living room now,” he says, still sounding amazed. “I can’t help staring at it every day. I also just got confirmed for a feature in Modern Drummer in either September or October, which is gonna be great, because that’s when the new record is coming out. We’re also getting the cover of Revolver for October, I believe. I’m still pinching myself over the shit that’s been happening to me.”

He attributes his achievements to being realistic about drumming in general, about the role of drums within the context of each individual piece of music.

“I always try to not overplay,” he explains. “If the song needs something sick, then that’s OK, but if it doesn’t need it, I don’t put it in. You gotta put your ego aside. If I don’t do a ton of double-bass runs, well, so what? I know I can do it, does that mean I have to? If Dave Lombardo doesn’t lay down a single double-kick pattern on the new Slayer record, well, who cares? You know he can do it. It’s not like he all of a sudden sucks!”

Yet another perk is that he also gets to rub shoulders with his heroes, metal drummers like Lombardo who blazed the trail he now grooms so impeccably with his unwavering meter and dynamic approach to the heavy sport. One of his most prized possessions is a picture on his refrigerator, a glossy of him sandwiched between Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante and his Slayer mentor backstage in Japan in 2002.

“If you ever told me in 1988, when I was putting pictures of these guys on my walls, that I’d be sharing the bill and hanging backstage with them and calling them my peers, I would have told you to go shit in your hat,” he says.

According to Bittner, however, now would be the worst time to rest on such laurels and bask in the glow of newfound fame. Like any other career, the job requires daily maintenance, meeting the endless demands of management, promoters, PR personnel, record labels, engineers, crew, bandmates and fans. By the time this article sees print, Shadows Fall will have returned to the tarmac for one last shot at secondary and tertiary markets before the release of the new CD. There is talk of signing on in direct support of an immensely popular act in both Europe and America at that time. Bittner cannot disclose the name of the band, but confides that such a venture would bring the band to big theaters and small arenas, something that has eluded them when out from under festival formatting. If the deals falls through, the band will headline larger clubs.

“Either way, we have to be out there running when the album comes out,” says Bittner. “And wait until you hear it. We’ve gone above and beyond with the musicianship, the songs . . . just the whole package is incredible. It’s Art of Balance times 10. We’re not sticking to formula. We like to take chances, and those chances work. Then we’ll probably head back to Europe, although nothing’s written in stone right now.”

Europe is a necessary evil for most metal bands looking for long-term longevity, its staying power much more formidable than in the fickle U.S. markets. Shadows Fall understand this, despite the glaring differences in how they are treated overseas as an up-and-coming band presently.

“In the U.S., we have a bus, a crew, and we get paid what we’re worth,” Bittner explains. “In Europe, we live like animals. But there’s a purpose behind it, and that is to build an international following. It’s the best thing for us to do, because you’re in trouble if it gets to the point where your popularity wanes in the states. I mean look at a band like Overkill. They’re lucky if they can draw 100 people here. In Europe, man, they’re still playing large venues, drawing thousands. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re up against. If it gets to the point where we can’t draw here, you bet we’ll be over there. If you can still make 30K a year over there, you’ve still got something to look forward to.”

But today, Bittner isn’t going anywhere but his living room.

“When I’m home, man, my friends all try to get me to come out and see their bands,” he says. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but the last thing I wanna do when I get home is go to a fuckin’ show. I can’t get even get off the couch. I tell ’em I have a date with my TV.”


Rough Mix

TO MARKET, TO MARKET Are you a musician or music enthusiast who wants to get rid of (or acquire) some equipment, records, clothes, etc.? Then get ye to Valentine’s at noon on Saturday, Aug. 28, where owner Howard Glassman will hold the Great Rock & Roll Flea Market and Swap Meet. The market will take up both floors, but table space is limited (if there’s any left), so interested dealers should call the club at 432-6572 to reserve space.

HEART ATTACK, FINALLY! A long-awaited 7-inch EP from local neo-pseudo-Americana luminaries Kamikaze Hearts is finally available on Matto’s record label, Peterwalkee Records. Foxhole Prayers consists of four songs and is available with a mini CDR version for $5 (postage paid) when you write to Peterwalkee Records, P.O. Box 14794, Albany, NY, 12212; make checks payable to Matto Laque. Also, the vinyl version of the Kitty Little/Kiss Ups split is now available, and you can buy it from the band or at www.artoftheunderground.com. There are other new releases from Peterwalkee that are now available; write to the label for more details. By the way, Matto tells me that www.peterwalkeerecords.com should be up and running soon.

ROCK GODS DISAPPOINTED Trinity Church (or Trinity Hall, whichever you prefer), the unlikely downtown Albany venue that has been host since springtime to all-ages punk, metal and hardcore shows, has ceased to be available as a music venue any longer. Most of the scheduled shows have been moved to Saratoga Winners. Details of the shut-down have been sketchy at best, but from what I can gather, the church’s Center Square neighbors were anything but thrilled with the idea that kids were seeing music there, even though the shows were drug and alcohol free and provided a safe and legal way for people, especially those under-aged, to see some of their favorite bands.

NORTH ALLEN DOES YOUR DIRTY LAUNDRY . . . WAIT, NEVERMIND . . . Rockers North Allen have been working their lil’ butts off gigging in the local rock circuit since they formed in 2002. Recently, they’ve seen some of their hard work pay off: Their song “Without Say” has been chosen to be the lead track on a promotional CD compilation called In the Wash. In September, mtvU (the newest of the many MTV networks) will distribute laundry bags filled with samples, including the CD, which will be distributed to 50,000 students at the nation’s top 50 colleges. If you happen to not be included in that group of people, not to worry; the song will also be featured on the band’s album, Walkabout, due out this fall. The band also signed a major distribution deal with iPod and a Boston radio station will be doling out the single. See North Allen next at Artie’s River Street Stage (194 River Street, Troy) on Aug. 26. Check them out at www.northallen.com.

HERE’S YOUR WELL-EARNED SHOUT-OUT Local hardcore-metal outfit the Sofakingz’s Web site claims that Metroland has never helped them out by promoting their band or their shows. Well, despite the lack help from us, these guys won a battle of the bands last month (in which North Allen also competed) sponsored by Jillian’s, Budweiser and WQBK-FM (the Edge radio station). On Aug. 4, Sofakingz won the city competition, and then went on to battle one band each from Boston, Buffalo and New Jersey for the Northeast competition. Again, Sofakingz won, and they’ll now go on to represent the Northeast at the national finals in Louisville, Kentucky, this Saturday (Aug. 21). If they win this one, they will be bestowed with a vacay to San Francisco and all sorts of music equipment. Go get ’em, guys! To find out more about the Sofakingz, visit their Web site at www.sofakingz.com.

—Kathryn Lurie


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