Interview: Shadows Fall Refuse to Compromise on “Fire From The Sky”
Guitarists Jonathan Donais and Matt Bachand give 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.
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.
Do you ever not put a part on record because it might be too difficult to pull off live?
Donais: Let’s put it this way: I won’t write anything that I can’t play. I mean, who wants to look like a jackass up there?
Speaking of difficult, the opening track, “The Unknown,” is an alternate picking tour de force.
Donais: I really like to work out the fine details of my picking. Even when I write out my solos, I try every combination like picking some notes, picking all of them, or doing legato.
Bachand: I was always more into rhythm guitar. I always wanted to be the Scott Ian or the James Hetfield. I’m more about writing a song for structure and being memorable as opposed to showing off, which is amazing, but nothing that I ever personally wanted to do.
Jon, your solo on “Lost Within” contains concise and distinct phrases, all neatly arranged into four-, eight-, or even two-measure chunks. Where do you get your sense of structure?
Donais: I always like to balance things out. I feel the solo should be a part of the song. You want to hear that solo live because it’s a part of the song just like somebody singing a chorus. I like to do a couple of measures of going crazy, then slow down and play melodically to let somebody who doesn’t play the guitar have a chance to get into the solo. Plus, people who do play the guitar will like it, too, because there’s some fancy stuff in there.
You guys have seen the music business totally change since your formation. How have you adapted to this?
Donais: It’s a lot harder now. It’s just totally different from when we started. The record companies don’t have any money to support you. A lot of people that don’t see that side of the business don’t really understand. They’re like, “The music should be free and you can make money on the tickets.” Well, no because now everyone wants a cheap ticket price and a stacked bill so bands can’t afford to go out on tour like they used to. People have families and houses to pay for. It’s kind of tough to get out there and do your thing for the fans when you’ve got a friggin’ day job at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Bachand: It’s a pretty scary time in the business. I don’t think anyone can adapt to it at this point. When you think you’ve got it figured out then something else just gets in the way and it completely changes again. There really isn’t any structure anymore and it’s kind of hard to guess what’s going to happen next.
Does this affect how you operate as a band?
Bachand: Obviously we want to make the best record we can, and make it sound as good as possible. But at the end of the day, the budgets that the labels are giving to record an album are that much smaller because no one’s buying records. And if you simply don't have the budget to record it, there’s nothing you can do. Say you have two weeks in the studio and that’s all you can afford when normally you’d have two months in the studio and have time to put out the best product you can. Well, now you’re rushing to get it done because you only have X amount of dollars.
Matt, I understand that you also took some music business courses at Berkleemusic.com, even after you guys were already established.
Bachand: I strictly did the music business course. Yes, we were already busy and doing stuff but the number one thing band members can do to help themselves is to learn the business because if you don’t, someone is going to come in and they are going to screw you over. There’s so much to learn as far as publishing and mechanical royalties, and all of these things that people don’t really understand. I’m not saying you have to know it backwards and forwards but it’s definitely helpful for a band to know at least a little bit about what’s going on in terms of business because there’s so many other sides to it besides just making records and going on tour. On a certain level, you simply can’t afford to live just on being a touring band anymore. I’m always looking for new projects.
Matt, Is that why you engage in side projects like Times of Grace and Trumpet the Harlot?
Bachand: I’m a workaholic, man, I’m going 24–7. I can’t stop. I’m one of those people that gets real bored, real easily. I don’t have any of my own “relax” time, where I sit in front of the TV and do nothing. It just doesn’t happen. I’m always looking for something to do, whether it’s repairing amps and guitars, recording stuff in the studio, or helping other bands. I’ve been booking tours for Trumpet the Harlot and helping them on the management side of things now. I’m just trying to stay involved in any way I can, staying busy within the business.
Tell us what got you interested in working with B.C. Rich guitars on your signature models.
Bachand: The first thing, obviously, is that they’re willing to build us what we’re looking for with the exact specs. They were proactively interested in working with us on all kinds of levels like putting us on clinic tours, which I’m interested in starting to do as well, as opposed to a company that just says, “Here’s a couple of guitars, have fun.”
Donais: Right now I’m playing a regular, USA-made Gunslinger. Grover Jackson is actually making them, and I’m totally psyched about that. This is the only model he makes for B.C. Rich. I have a B.C. Rich signature Gunslinger coming out. I moved the volume knob out of the way on that one. A big problem for me used to be that I would accidentally turn the volume knob down because I play with my fingers open.
Like the way George Lynch has his picking-hand fingers splayed out?
Donais: Yeah. Now I just move everything out of the way—any kind of toggle switches or anything—so it will be comfortable for anybody who plays with that kind of fanned fingers out.
What about amps?
Donais: I’m using a Rivera Knucklehead, the reverb one. I was at NAMM and started talking to Paul Rivera Jr. and he said, “Hey man, just come in the booth and check it out,” and I plugged it in and was like, “Wow, this is awesome.”
Bachand: Since I made the move to ENGLs amps, it’s been exactly what I’ve been looking for. I have the Fireball and the Powerball.
Jon, did the NAMM noise police interfere with your trying out of the Rivera amp?
Donais: Rivera had one of those soundproof booths so I could kind of get an idea. But I wanted to run the amp with my guitars and pedals to see how it worked with my setup, and also use it to jam with the band to see how I liked it, so they sent one over to me and I fell in love with it right away.
Matt, which ENGL are you bringing on the road?
Bachand: I will make that decision today actually [laughs].
What’s going to be the deciding factor?
Bachand: I don't know. I really don’t. I’m just going to plug both of them in tonight down in the basement and see which one I like better.
Jonathan Donais’ Gear
B.C. Rich Signature Gunslinger
Rivera Knucklehead Tre Reverb
Dunlop Jimi Hendrix wah, Maxon OD-9, MXR Carbon Copy (through effects loop), Boss NS-2
DR Strings .010–.052, tuned to D and dropped-C
Dunlop Jazz III XL
Cables and Straps
Matt Bachand’s GearGuitars
B.C. Rich Signature, Takamine ETN10BC
ENGL Fireball head, ENGL Powerball head, ENGL 4x12 cabinet
Rocktron Hush, Maxon OD808, BBE Acoustimax
DR Strings Dragon Skin .011–.050
Dunlop .88 mm
Cables and Straps
Watch Shadows Fall cast doom upon their fans in the following clips on YouTube.com.
Lead guitarist Jonathan Donais dominates sweep-picked arpeggios (2:45) during Shadows Fall’s Grammy-nominated hit “Redemption” at the 2007 Download Festival in Donington Park, England.
Shadows Fall brings the sound of American metal to the land of the rising sun while performing at Shibuya Club Quattro in Tokyo, Japan.
Shadows Fall pay tribute to the Ozzman with “Bark at the Moon.”