Jason Rullo

For twenty years, the time he’s put into improving the things that he does with his hands and feet has continuously elevated the music of Symphony X. Recent events have found him working through matters of the head and heart as well, raising his craft in new, unexpected ways.

Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Jeff Hildenbrandt
Jason Rullo is one lucky dude, getting to throw down technically crushing drumming with the famed New Jersey–based progressive metal band Symphony X. But Rullo’s actually lucky to simply be alive.

In 2013, Jason experienced heart failure, sidelining his drumming career with months of rehab and serious soul searching. “In the hospital I had that truthful moment of accepting death,” he says. “And there was a shift there. I needed to accept it, and then I could get better. After that moment, all the stuff you think is important gets a lot less important.”

With support from his family and the band, plus his renewed interest in non-drumming activities, Rullo has fully recovered and assumed the throne he’s sat on for two decades. Symphony X’s newest release, Underworld, continues the group’s eclectic metal style with tourniquet-tight guitar riffage, soaring vocals, entertaining neoclassical elements, and hammering drumset brilliance. Of course there’s a generous helping of double bass, with enough varied patterns and fills to keep you busy transcribing and shedding. But there’s also a good amount of epic mid-tempo rock to showcase the group’s strong songwriting and Rullo’s ability to bring the heat with fewer notes.

MD: Growing up, did you gravitate toward music that was heavy and more technical?

Jason: I come from a pretty musical family. I was raised on Motown and funk and soul. I got into my parents’ records, so I discovered Zeppelin and all the classic-rock stuff. Drumming-wise, Van Halen was really my first band, seeing Alex in that “Unchained” video and thinking, I need to do that. Then I started getting into heavier stuff.

Reign in Blood came out and I got into Slayer. Then I got into Rush and all the progressive, odd-time stuff. I was about fifteen when I heard [legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet odd-time jazz hit] “Take Five.” I also heard that [famed drummer/educator] Sonny Igoe was living in my town, though I didn’t know who he was at first. But I started taking lessons with him, and that was like starting over. Technique, reading, jazz, independence…. From there I discovered Weckl, Chambers, Colaiuta, and that fusion stuff really became the driving force behind my style of playing. It was more challenging and more interesting to me.

MD: How did those fusion cats inform your metal playing?

Jason: All that stuff helps so much. Each style has its own dynamics. I love the independence of the Afro-Cuban style, which I studied.

To me, Symphony X is really just a fusion band. Yeah, we’re a metal band, but we have so many styles. It’s worked against us sometimes, because people don’t know how to label us.

MD: Underworld features some great production. The drums hit.

Jason: That goes back to me liking different styles of music. Even live, I don’t have the typical metal thing. I just love raw, open drums. Our guitarist, Michael Romeo, loves all the same drummers I loved growing up, so he knows where I’m coming from. Even though it’s metal, he helps me find that happy medium.

MD: Did you do anything different this time in terms of coming up with parts?

Jason: The band is based in New Jersey, so when I was around I’d get snippets of ideas and go back and forth with Mike. Now I live in New Mexico. This time Mike just locked himself away in his studio, the Dungeon, and then all of a sudden he told me he was just about done. So I didn’t have nearly as much time.

But the record is really song oriented, and everything flows. So I just made sure all the feels felt good and that I was supporting the tunes. There’s some progressive stuff, though it’s not necessarily our most progressive work. There wasn’t a ton of technical stuff to work out; it was just about getting the pockets right.

MD: Are the first ideas you try usually the keepers? Or are you sketching patterns out?

Jason: The first ones, for the most part. But when Mike is doing preproduction, he’s programming drum machines, playing keyboards, playing everything. He’s so musical that a lot of the meat and potatoes are already kind of there. If it’s a slick idea, I might change it slightly—or not at all. I try to sit with it and just listen for a week or two. If I have time I’ll do rough charts for a more intricate part or fill. Plus we’ve been playing together for twenty years now, so when he’s programming stuff he’s thinking about the way I play. It’s still fresh, but I almost know what’s coming, the way certain parts resolve. It’s familiar.

MD: In 2015, how do you keep things creative and avoid referencing other great players or even yourself?

Jason: There are so many killer players now, but I don’t listen to a ton of metal these days. When I was younger I’d stop listening to certain drummers, because I didn’t want to sound like “that guy.” At this stage it happens more by being inspired by life. I’ve gotten back into mountain biking, and I have young kids. So if I’m out there being inspired by life, when I get back into the practice room, that’s when things will come to me. It’s all about the balance.

MD: Is it important for you to pay attention to all these new guys who keep upping the ante?

Jason: There’s a certain demand for it. In any business you have to keep up with the marketplace, so to speak. We listen and try to stay hip to what’s happening, but our main thing is to keep growing as a band, whatever that means for Symphony X. There’s some faster stuff on this record, so maybe that’s a bit of what you’re saying, but the second half of the record kind of goes back to our roots with some more ambient and groove-oriented stuff.

Mike’s not calling me to ask, “Can you do 300 bpm?” But we all have our pride, so we put it on ourselves to stay on top of our craft. And I’m thankful that we’re in the progressive genre, but Mike writes songs.

MD: There’s some cool double bass work before the guitar solo in the middle section of “Kiss of Fire.” What do you do to practice that kind of thing and keep your feet and hands solid?

Jason: I find that if I haven’t played in a bit and it’s time to get back into it full force, hands come back quickly, because it’s smaller muscle groups. But you can’t let the legs go too long, because then you’ll have to work that much harder. For me it’s about consistency. That’s why I got back into mountain biking, because it’s so good for your legs. I also have a kick practice pad for the double pedal, and I’ve put in the extra hours there.

MD: How has the live gig evolved over the years? Are you playing to a click?

Jason: I don’t play to any clicks. I do a metronome blinking-light song starter for myself. We don’t use many samples, just one or two spots in the show that have backing vocals that I need to lock into. From years of doing this, I can still be at the right tempo.

That’s the biggest thing for me about maturing as a player live. I used to rush—and it was so hard not to, because you have so much adrenaline and you’re playing this crazy stuff and you’re just smashing. And you listen back and you’re like, Wow, we’re flying. [laughs] But now I’m more settled in. We’ve talked about playing to a click when we go out with some more production.

MD: Has your gear changed?

Jason: Not really. If I’m setting up from scratch, I can do it with my eyes closed. Here’s my first air stroke—that’s where my snare should be. Here’s where my tom and ride should be. So it’s ergonomic. I’m not a huge guy, so my setup is real tight. When I’m home I’ll set up a four- or five-piece just to keep it fresh, because it makes you play a little bit differently. I’ll have a mix of music that I’ll play along to, just different styles thrown at me.

MD: What kinds of stuff do you enjoy playing along to?

Jason: Honestly, I just like to be surprised. That’s why I hit shuffle. Some jazz fusion or Latin fusion. I like living in the moment, so I enjoy the spontaneity.

MD: Are you working on ghost notes and other little things you don’t get to do as much with Symphony X?

Jason: I’m actually playing a ton of ghost notes with the band. You just don’t hear them. But I work on different techniques. Sonny Igoe taught me the old-school fulcrum wrist snap—George Lawrence Stone stuff. From there, I remember studying the first Simon Phillips video, and that’s where I got the finger technique. And then I got into all the Moeller stuff. So I look at my technique as a combination of those three techniques. Nowadays I’m working on mostly the Moeller. And lately a lot of Moeller for the feet.

MD: How does that whipping motion translate to the feet?

Jason: When you’re exaggerating and practicing it slowly, your whole leg comes up for that first stroke. Up and down. If you’re doing triplets, the second stroke is the tap, and your heel is way up on the third stroke, just like in the hand-technique version, where the stick taps as you’re going up. So you’re kind of dropping the stick as you go up. It’s the same thing with your foot—you’re dropping the ball of your foot as your ankle rises, and then your leg rises again to get back to that first motion.

MD: So you’re playing heel up the whole time?

Jason: My heels are always up, but they’re lower for the slower-tempo double bass, and as I go faster the heels will come up more. When you’re playing it slowly, you feel it more, because you’re exaggerating and feeling each stroke. The difference between the accented and the unaccented stroke, if you’re accenting the first stroke, is more significant, and as you speed up it becomes more of a flowing motion.

MD: Where are you on the footboard?

Jason: I’m pretty much in the middle. On the Iron Cobra, I can look down and see the word Iron. I start a little higher, and as I’m speeding up I move down a little further to about there. And there’s a difference between the triplet and the 16th-note version of it, because it’s a little bit of a different balance thing. Once you get comfortable with it, it feels good. It makes things easier when I’m on the road.

About fifteen years ago Don Famularo turned me on to the Moeller and gave me examples of how to practice it. Eventually I want to put up some instructional material on my site—some Symphony X tunes, but also [examples of] my technique, my approach to odd meters, and some conceptual stuff.

MD: Mike Romeo has said that Underworld isn’t necessarily a concept album, but that you’re going for a cohesive statement. How do you keep people’s attention nowadays?

Jason: It’s going to be interesting to see what the feedback is and how many people do listen to the whole record. It’s such a crazy landscape right now, and does anyone have the attention span to listen to the whole thing? I think on iTunes you can buy the singles, but only if you preorder the record, so we’re trying to encourage people to check out the whole thing. I hope that works. But you just do your best and hope everybody likes it. The press is one thing, and the Internet, with fans and everybody else, is another. You kind of just sit back and see what happens. And you can still make a living touring, but that’s making the touring market saturated. We go away for two years in between records, but we’re very lucky, because we come back and our fans are still there.

MD: How is your health now?

Jason: Everything’s great, thanks. I’m not even on any medication anymore. I’m on a yearly checkup at this point.

MD: Are you thinking about it while on stage?

Jason: If I said I’m not thinking about it, I’d be lying. But it’s not in the front of my mind. I’m not worried about it. But there’s also hard stuff that goes along with the heart stuff. Just thinking that you may not be able to tour anymore. But there wasn’t one moment when I thought I wasn’t going to fully recover. I was brought up with a more Eastern philosophical outlook, so I’ve always meditated. And I was cooking for myself and ended up buying a food truck as a side business, because I didn’t know if I could ever tour again.

Once I got healthy and was cleared, all this mental stuff started to mess with me. I lost my income and I had to miss a couple of shows, and that had never happened. It was weird that somebody was going to go and play my gig. A lot of ups and downs. I’d never had that. I was always a consistently positive person. So I realized I was dealing with depression. It took me a year to realize I even had it. A lot of times men who deal with heart issues will get depressed. Maybe it’s a macho thing. I never thought I was losing the gig permanently or anything, though. I knew it was on me. I was lucky enough to have supportive people around me—my wife and kids, and the band.

The other thing was forcing myself to go out and live life. Going out on a hike or going camping or just feeling like you’re contributing and being a part of something. That was a big part of it for me. Drumming had always been my contribution to society, and if I couldn’t do that, how would I be of use? But if you’re out there and involved, go help somebody else out. It’s all about energy and sharing the love these days for me. I’m happy to be alive, and I’m thrilled to have my seat in the band, of course. But I’m happy to be there for the family.

Tools of the Trade

Rullo plays a Tama Starclassic Bubinga kit featuring a 5×14 auxiliary snare; 7×8, 8×10, and 9×12 toms; 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms; an 18×22 main bass drum; and an 18×20 bass drum to the left (operated by a separate double pedal), plus a 6×14 G-Maple main snare. He also uses four low-pitch Octobans (two to the left and two to the right) and a 20″ gong bass drum. His Sabian cymbals include a 16″ AA Raw Bell crash, a 12″ AAX Mini Chinese, a 7″ HHX Evolution splash, 8″ and 10″ Choppers, 14″ HHX Stage Hats, a 15″ AAX X-Treme Chinese, 16″ and 18″ Paragons, an 8″ AAX splash, a 10″ AAX O-Zone splash, a 20″ HHX Raw Bell ride, 16″ and 18″ AAX Chinese, a 17″ Vault Saturation crash, an 18″ HHX O-Zone crash, and a 20″ AAX crash. He uses a Tama Power Tower rack, Star series hardware, and Iron Cobra 900 series Rolling Glide double pedals. His Evans heads include EC Reverse Dots on his snares, EC2S Clear tom batters and G1 bottoms, and an EMAD bass drum batter. He uses Beatnik pads, Cheetah cases, Westone in-ear monitors, and the Kelly SHU bass drum mic mounting system, and his stick is Promark’s 101 wood-tip model. This is the setup Rullo used to record Underworld. He played the same rig on the road, minus
the second bass drum.