Catching Up With…
by David Ciauro
As Shadows Fall goes into hibernation, the drummer reconnects—
and makes his mark with—an early influence.
In 2007, at the Sounds of the Underground festival in Phoenix, Arizona, where Shadows Fall was on the bill, Jason Bittner heard that Kelly Smith, drummer for the thrash veterans Flotsam and Jetsam, was in attendance. Bittner first met Smith back in 1988, shortly before leaving home to study at Berklee. “[Our soundman] came onto the bus and mentioned that he saw Kelly, so I ran down to talk to him,” Bittner recalls. “Ironically, Kelly’s son was a fan of Shadows Fall and my drumming, so he was excited to meet me, but I was telling him how much his father had influenced me.” The two drummers reminisced and then kept in touch.
Fast-forward seven years. Bittner had finished up some touring fill-in work for Anthrax’s Charlie Benante, and Shadows Fall had gone on an extended hiatus, when a call came from Smith, who had to leave Flotsam and Jetsam for personal reasons. Bittner was his first choice to be his replacement. The timing couldn’t have been better. “I was really on the fence about what I was going to do with my life at the time,” Jason says.
Stepping into an established band and replacing one of its original members posed some creative challenges for Bittner. Although he proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, he’s worked hard to establish his own style. “At first I approached how I played with Flotsam through Kelly’s eyes,” Bittner explains, “but the guys told me they wanted me to do my own thing. There are rules and limitations when you join a band with a history, so it was a conscious effort on my part to keep that spirit alive, while not being afraid to do the things that I’m known for.”
From a compositional standpoint, recording the band’s recent self-titled album was also a new experience for Bittner. He tracked seventeen potential songs, unsure of which tracks would ultimately make the record. “I was kind of flying blind,” Bittner says, “but Eric [Knutson, singer] told me not to worry, because he’d just write around what I played. That was the first time I heard a singer say anything like that! The band is sounding more like it’s of this era, rather than what they sounded like thirty years ago.”
Bittner’s stamp is all over the album. “Monkey Wrench” features his fiery X-hat, bell, and splash combos; “Iron Maiden” boasts some telltale two-handed ride assaults; and the 210 bpm “Taser” is tattooed by intense double bass and the first blast beat on a Flotsam and Jetsam record. “I really love ‘Life Is a Mess,’” Bittner says. “It was the second song I was sent as a demo, and I connected with its energy immediately. My drumming on that song showcases all my old-school influences: Lars Ulrich, Charlie Benante, and Dave Lombardo.”
Bittner will be on tour with Flotsam and Jetsam for the remainder of 2016 and into 2017, doing some clinics, lessons, and sessions along the way. And if you’re interested in hearing Jason’s funkier side, check out Coconut Donut’s debut album, Musically Delicious, which he also produced.
Jason Bittner first hit Modern Drummer’s radar in 1995, due to his playing with the New York–based hardcore band Stigmata. In 2001 he joined the Massachusetts outfit Shadows Fall, and his work with the group helped win him several MD Readers Poll awards and earn him a spot in the 2005 Modern Drummer Festival lineup. An experienced clinician, session player, and educator, Bittner authored the method book Drumming Out of the Shadows and released the instructional DVD What Drives the Beat. Jason appeared on the cover of the May 2007 issue of MD.