With a less-than-booming music industry and the economical realities imposed on bands today, many have no choice but to cut corners during the recording process. Shadows Fall lead guitarist Jonathan Donais notes that with the steep decline in record label budgets, “a lot of bands are putting out records a lot faster than they used to, and you can definitely see that it’s getting watered down, like, ‘I heard this before already.’” It may have surprised some industry insiders when Shadows Fall actually took a year off from the road to write and record Fire From the Sky, their seventh studio release. This was not an easy decision for the group. “You used to be able to sit back and write for as long as you needed, and be able to pay your bills,” says Donais. “You can’t do that anymore. You have to just get right back on the road to keep making money.” But the band refused to compromise on quality. “We’re not quick writers; we’re not one of those bands that come in with 20 or 30 songs. We concentrate on trying to get 10 or 11 really strong songs and then we’ll have one or two left over, if we’re lucky, ” explains Donais. While some bands use spare time together on the road to write, he says that this would have stifled Shadows Fall’s creative juices and ability to jam as a band on tour. “We don’t write on the road—we won’t even think about writing a record until that tour cycle is over. It keeps you excited to write again because you haven’t done it for so long.”
Shadows Fall went to great lengths to secure mega-producer Adam Dutkiewicz’s services for the recording. Dutkiewicz produced Shadows’ 1997 debut, Somber Eyes to the Sky, and soon after, both Shadows and Dutkiewicz’s band, Killswitch Engage, exploded on the scene, ushering in the New Wave of American Heavy Metal movement and injecting new life into the moribund metal landscape. Shadows Fall had wanted to get Dutkiewicz back in the producer’s chair for years, but scheduling conflicts continually thwarted these plans as Dutkiewicz became one of the most in-demand producers in the metal scene, having shaped the sound of influential artists like The Devil Wears Prada and As I Lay Dying, among many others. When Dutkiewicz hired Shadows Fall’s rhythm guitarist, Matt Bachand, in 2011 to fill in on bass for his project, Times of Grace, they were finally able to sync their schedules so that Dutkiewicz could produce Fire From the Sky. From all accounts, it appears the band’s valiant efforts have paid off. Dutkiewicz pushed the band to its limits and many consider Fire From the Sky to be the band’s strongest effort to date.
Donais and Bachand recently gave us the lowdown on their new album and their new B.C. Rich signature guitars, as well as what it’s like to navigate the shark-infested waters of the music world.
How did Adam Dutkiewicz end up producing Fire From the Sky?
Bachand: We’ve wanted to work with Adam but the timing just never worked out. When I joined up with Times of Grace, it gave us an opportunity to talk about it. During that tour, I spent time with him playing demos and picking it apart, so the pre-production process actually went on for quite some time—more than usual, actually. We had a lot of time to digest the material because I was out with him for several months.
Did having him onboard result in any unexpected surprises?
Bachand: Over the last 16 years, we’ve pretty much thrown everything out there, stylistically. I wouldn’t say there are any surprises on Fire From the Sky, I’d just say it’s an evolution forward.
In what way?
Bachand: We’re trying to take everything that’s been great and turn it into one complete album, rather than just having a bunch of filler songs. We’ve seen over the years what type of songs actually work with the band and which ones aren’t so popular. Adam really helped us with adding layers and trimming the fat.
Listen to "Nothing Remains" from Fire From the Sky:
Tell us about the writing sessions.
Donais: First, Matt and I demo a lot of stuff together and then we bring the skeletons in to the rest of the guys. I play guitar every day and write and record ideas on the road into my Zoom H2, so I always have a stockpile of stuff. As I record ideas, I’ll specify whether the riff is a verse or a chorus, so I’ll have an idea when I bring it to the guys.
Bachand: There was only one exception to our usual songwriting approach that happened on this record. It turned out that we just needed some extra material. We were halfway through tracking the drums and I was just struggling with some parts, trying to slap another song together. I had a bunch of pieces and it just wasn’t working out. I was like, “Shit, I gotta get this thing done,” and somehow it just came together in the studio over the course of an hour. Jon just came into the room and said, “You need a chorus? I got your chorus,” and he just played one riff then put down the guitar and said, “I’m done.” [Laughs.]
Which song is it?
Bachand: It’s the track, “Divide and Conquer.”
The opening riffs on “Divide and Conquer,” and songs like “Walk the Edge,” sound seriously tight. Do you guys work out the fine details of the riffs—like picking versus hammer-ons and pull-offs— to make it sound like one massive guitar?
Donais: We don’t go that far. For our recording process, whoever writes it plays it on the record. If it’s my riff, I’ll play it, and if it’s Matt’s riff, he’ll play it. No matter how great two guitar players are, it will sound different because everyone plays different, and gets a different tone because of the difference in their hands. For instance, I’ve noticed sometimes Matt might do a pull-off and I won’t. We’re playing the riffs right, we’re just not locking up as one person playing it, obviously. But we’re getting it as close as we can. In a live and loud environment, I don’t think anyone can hear the difference. Maybe some super Berklee guy with dog ears can pick it out.
Bachand: Live, there’s always room for interpretation and improv. We also don’t like to play the exact same thing all the time. In a lot of cases, it’s out of necessity. Since I do a lot of singing as well, there are just some riffs that are too damn hard for me to sing and play at the same time.
What do you do in those cases?
Bachand: Even if it’s a crazy riff on the record, I might just strip it back a little when playing it live. I’ll find the root note and maybe play octaves on top of it just to add another texture. It’ll still make sense in the song but will be easier for me to pull off both at the same time.
So you might not necessarily reproduce all of the recorded parts in a live show?
Donais: Live, if it’s a lead harmony, it won’t be done because Matt doesn’t play lead, and I don’t use any harmonizer pedals. In that case, I’ll just play only one of the guitar parts. If it’s a rhythm part that’s harmonized, we’ll do it. Some of the fast runs I do on the record might not be exactly the same each time live but I’d say I play 90 percent of what’s on the record. I come as close as I can.