YOU’D THINK A BAND WOULD BE PRETTY MUCH SET BY THE TIME IT ROSE FROM THE trenches of a self-produced debut to become one of the most celebrated new metal bands of the decade—and to then ink a deal with the bigwigs at Atlantic. Not so for Massachusetts-based Shadows Fall.
Guitarists Matt Bachand (rhythm) and Jon Donais (lead) may have brandished enough lethal riffs and ripping leads to earn their outfit spots on almost every significant metal tour of the 2000s, but it wasn’t enough to save them from floundering when their advocates at Atlantic got axed before the release of 2008’s Threads of Life. Though the album was Shadows’ most critically acclaimed since 2002’s breakout The Art of Balance—with the single “Redemption” garnering a Grammy nomination—Bac- hand, Donais, vocalist Brian Fair, bassist Paul Romanko, and drummer Jason Bittner felt abandoned. “They’re just not a metal label,” says Donais. “So we were scared that we were going to write this heavy record and they wouldn’t give it the time of day—and no one would ever find out about it.”
Believing Atlantic had shortchanged them by not putting adequate marketing muscle into Threads, Shadows Fall made— and won—its case for walking away from the deal and beginning an independent venture with Ferret Music and Independent Label Group. Whether it’s intended that way or not, the band’s first post- Atlantic release comes across like a middle finger to their former label in every way: Retribution brims with blistering rhythms, raging riffs, lightning-fast leads, lilting acoustic interludes, and vocals that are both more confidently roaring and more melodic and hook-laden than ever before.
It sounds like the business side of things got pretty hairy there for a while. How did all that affect you guys on a musical level?
Donais:Writing the record, we were all pretty angry because we didn’t know what the hell was going on with the label. We knew we needed a change and we couldn’t get a final answer about whether we could leave or not. It puts you in a mood where you just want to pick up a guitar and write heavy sh*t because you’re pissed off.
Bachand: Right now it’s a really good situation, but we definitely had a problem with Atlantic. A lot of people make up their own stories as to what they think happened. All the haters say, “Oh, they got dropped because the record sucked,blah, blah, blah.” And that simply is not the case. We were going to do another record with them and then we said, “Look, you guys dropped the ball— can we leave?” And they let us walk. A few key people there—the CEO of the company and our A&R guys—ended up getting fired before the last record even came out. If those people didn’t leave, we would probably be having a different conversation right now.
Did you approach the writing and recording of Retribution differently than past albums?
Donais: Not really. We started writing in May of last year, and we were in the studio by January. What usually happens is that Matt and I will get a blueprint of a song together, and then we’ll bring it to the guys and everybody helps work it to what it ends up being.
Bachand: We’ve brought back some of the “metal epic”-style song that we’ve done in the past—with really long lead breaks and more complex structures. That’s something we haven’t done since our Art of Balance record, and I think it turned out pretty great. In a lot of cases, the songs were maybe half arranged in our heads before we even played them for each other, and then the two of us sat down with a drum machine and mapped everything out before bringing it to the rest of the band to fill in the holes.
A lot of guitarists out there have never worked closely—or perhaps not very effectively—with another guitarist. Do you have any tips?
Bachand: I would just say know your role and don’t let your ego get in your way—especially if you’re both lead players. That’s just not my thing. That’s Jon’s deal, and I let him do it. But you can’t step on each other’s parts just to show off. Respect each other. Don’t be all high and mighty thinking your stuff is better.
Does it pose any problems that Jon also writes rhythm parts while you have no interest in playing lead?
Bachand: No. I just try not to repeat what’s going on when he writes a song. I try to play off his parts, rather than just playing a part identical to his. And for the rhythm under his leads, I’ll try to really strip it back so it doesn’t step on his notes. I write the notes around where the lead is going—write the rhythm underneath it.
Donais: Also, if I write a song, I’ll play all the tracks on the record. And if Matt writes it, he’ll play all the guitars except for the leads. You have to be so precise in metal that you could miss the exact way the other one is palm-muting something, and there are little notes you could miss here and there. You’re never going to play it the same exact way, and we want it to be as tight as it can possibly be. So we just let each other do it. That way you save a lot of headaches and don’t have to stand over the guy’s shoulder and frustrate the beauty out of it.
Matt mentioned the longer lead breaks this time around. And I definitely detect an Yngwie vibe on some of the solos—like on “My Demise.”
Donais: Absolutely, man. If you like to shred, you’ve got to go through an Yngwie phase.
Who are your biggest influences in that regard?
Donais: I’m really into the melodic shredders— the guys who can shred but still write great solos without playing a million arpeggios the whole time. My guys are more like Zakk Wylde, Dime, Alex Skolnick, Randy Rhoads. I really liked rock-blues shredders like John Sykes and Gary Moore. And then I also loved a lot of the hair metal guys like Warren DeMartini and George Lynch.
Speaking of days gone by, how has your playing evolved over the 14 years you’ve been together?
Bachand: I think that mainly I’ve learned a lot more about respecting Jon—to know my role and not think as an individual guitar player. You’ve got to think as a team.
Donais: I’m not sure. I’m always trying to keep some shredding in there to keep the guitar players happy, but also to keep melody in there so people who don’t play guitar still appreciates the solos.
So you put a lot of effort into making your leads more hummable or memorable?
Donais: Yeah, I try to come up with some good hooks in there, and in some solos I don’t shred at all—I try to think what someone like David Gilmour would do instead of what Yngwie would do. I try to bring the best of both worlds into my solos.
Can you detail your rigs for me?
Donais: I use a Rivera K Tré head and cabinet with Celestion 75 speakers, and a signature ESP guitar with EMG 85 and 81 pickups. My pedalboard is pretty simple. It’s got a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix wah, a Maxon OD808, an MXR Eddie Van Halen Phase 90, and a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor. I also have a Korg tuner and a Shure wireless system. I use 1.35mm Dunlop Tortex Sharp picks and DR .010-.052-gauge strings.
Bachand: My guitar is an Ibanez MBM1 signature model with an EMG 81 in the bridge position and a 60 in the neck. I use the 60 for clean sounds. I use .88mm Dunlop Tortex Sharps and DR Extra Life .011-.050-gauge strings. With amps, I’m actually between rigs right now. I’m toying with a few different companies, comparing stuff from Engl, Randall, Peavey, and that new EVH 5150 III. As far as the basic layout of the rig, I keep it nice and simple: I don’t put anything in front of the amp except a Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor and a Rocktron Hush rack unit. If I’m in the states, then I’ll use the rack. If I’m flying somewhere outside the country, I’ll take the Boss pedal. Oh—and for clean tones, we run an A/B switch to a BBE Acoustimax DI that goes straight to the front of the house.
Do you use the Acoustimax in the studio, too?
Bachand: In the studio we tend to mix it up. We use a Roland Jazz Chorus for some electric stuff, we’ve used Line 6 PODs, and we used the Takamines a lot on this record.
What are you looking for in your amp journey?
Bachand: I’m looking for a really bright midrange that’s going to cut through, but also a thick bottom end that doesn’t get lost and muddy. It needs to be really, really tight— like Testament or Anthrax. That really tight chunk that lets you distinguish what’s going even when there’s fast playing.
How did you mic your amps in the studio?
Bachand:We close miked Jon’s amp with a Shure SM57 and blended it with a condenser that was about six inches from the cone. Another thing our producer, Chris “Zeuss” Harris, does is use two cabinets, because he’s noticed a difference in tone if you only use one cabinet with heads like that.
What tricky gear considerations do you have to worry about that you might not have to if you were the only guitarist in the band?
Bachand: We try to have at least slightly different tones that blend well together. If they’re exactly the same, it just doesn’t sound right in a live setting. Jon tends to have a little more midrange and not too much gain, and I tend to use a lot more gain to get that saturation and make the mids cut.
What albums might fans of yours be surprised to know you’re into?
Donais: Let’s see…I’m a huge Hall & Oates fan. I’ve always been a Michael Jackson fan, too. Everyone’s going to think I’m saying that because of what just happened to him, but nope—I’ve been listening to him for years. We’ll have stupid dance parties on our bus where we crank Madonna and stuff like that. We love Duran Duran, too. I like good ’80s pop.
Bachand: Lately, I’ve been really getting into the Fray, Snow Patrol, and things like that. I also have the entire Yanni catalog. I’ve seen him live four times—can’t get enough. [Laughs]
Even though he shaved his mustache?
Bachand: That is a little disappointing, I gotta admit.