Alumni Profile: Jason Bittner, Heavy Metal Drummer

Danielle Dreilinger
April 27, 2009
Jason Bittner '89 talks to fans at a clinic.
Photo by Ivan Chopik

At 31, heavy metal drummer Jason Bittner '89 accepted the reality: he would never make it big.

He played with Stigmata, a hard-working Albany, New York band that had even toured Europe. Yet he kept missing the big break. He'd get the chance to try out for a headliner and call two days after they took someone else. "All these times I thought the door was open—boom," he said.

Rock stardom? "Not gonna happen," he said.

Looking at the student fans filling Berk Recital Hall for Bittner's April 8 clinic, it seemed wildly improbable that the drummer, with long hair and a dark polo shirt, almost stopped there. But as his band broke up, his romantic relationship ended, and his mom passed away, the email finally came: Rising metal band Shadows Fall needed a drummer.

Bittner turned them down. "I was done," he said.

Two months later, the tour manager emailed again. Bittner agreed to give it a shot. He knew exactly, he thought, what Shadows Fall wanted: a drummer who could play intricately but also lay down a rock beat. Barely three songs into his tryout, it clicked.

Driving home, still undecided, he saw a shooting star. "That to me was really my mother saying, 'This is your last shot,'" he said. (To top it off, he was on his way to meeting up with his new girlfriend—who's now his wife.)

Eight years and two Grammy nominations later, Bittner is proud to make his living as a heavy metal drummer. The lesson? "If this is really what you want to do, you never know when it's going to happen," he said.

Not that it's all been parties and champagne. Two students who played with the metal/video game band Powerglove asked about finding a manager.

"I don't want to paint a bleak picture about the music business for you, but I'm not going to sugarcoat either," Bittner said. "It's not always an easy ride."

Shadows Fall has had enough differences of opinion with record-label execs for Bittner to joke, "We're like a VH1 Behind the Music." He advised students to get an agent or manager only when the business gets too time-consuming to handle alone. Even so, he spends two hours a day on business, he said.

Still, his overarching piece of advice on that front came from the autobiography of Yes drummer Bill Bruford, he said: "Enjoy where you're at. Enjoy making music. Worry about the business later on."

Bittner certainly has enjoyed the music. He talked about playing Ozzfest and the Headbangers' Ball tour. He made the cover of Modern Drummer magazine. Shadows Fall toured with Damageplan, the band fronted by now-deceased Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell. Said Bittner, "I was the first dude to play 'Walk' with Dime who wasn't his brother."

And he's excited about Shadows Fall's upcoming album. Creatively, the band's in sync. "There's a lot of people who think we're down for the count, we're not heavy anymore," he said, giving an evil-sounding chuckle. "Not with this one."

Another question about the nuts and bolts of touring concerned wear and tear. Bittner's dedication took its toll physically: he has tendonitis and a herniated disc. That's what happens, he said, when you spend your 20s playing thrash metal for two-and-a-half hours, then hitting the gym.

Rest wasn't an option. "When you're hurting and you have 18 shows to play and you can't cancel them, you have to play in pain."

Instead, he's relied on "massage, acupuncture, chiropractor—that's my holy triad." He wears a brace to play, stretches for "40 minutes to an hour" before each show, and ices his shoulder afterwards. He told students to start taking care of themselves now.

After the two-hour clinic, Bittner stayed around to talk to excited fans, including members of Berklee's Hardcore and Metal Club, who gave him a club T-shirt. (It was their first alumni event, said coleader Ivan Chopik afterwards.) In a change from Bittner's time at Berklee, graduating student guitarist Ben Cohen said, "There's a good number of metalheads now, especially in the Guitar Department."

Maybe some of them will meet Bittner again. Now that he's in Shadows Fall, he said, "I'm friends with all my idols." It feels as special as his teenage self thought it would. "I'm a peer, but I'm still a fan. I still get goosebumps when I hear Slayer play 'Raining Blood.' The only thing that's changed is—now I'm backstage."