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Rise to Power: An Interview with Don Slater

Don Slater

You know you’re doing something right when metal mainstay Kirk Windstein is singing your praises, and that’s precisely the case for Don Slater of Battlecross. The bassist brings an intense energy to the stage every night with a unique voice on his instrument.

Battlecross is now gearing up to release Rise to Power, a 10-song collection that combines their thrash and groove metal influences. We reached out to Slater to get his background, his take on the new album, and his path to finding his tone.

How did you get into music?

I started playing bass in high school. I had two friends, and all three of us were big into punk music. One was a drummer and one was a guitar player. They said, “Hey, we want to start a band but we need a bass player.” I said, “What’s that?” So they took me to this local music store called Scanlan Music in Taylor, Michigan and showed me what a bass guitar was. It was the first time I really saw one. I still have it, too. It’s now a two-string bass that needs some serious repair, but it’s one of those relics that will stay with me. [laughs] It’s an old Eastwood four-string. I think I got it plus an old Crate combo amp for $200 by doing a bunch of lawn jobs when I was 16.

I started out using a pick, and the guys were like, “No, no, no, no. Real bass players don’t use a pick. You’ve got to use their fingers.” So I just started playing. No formal training, just three guys in a basement room cranking it up. The rest is history.

Who was the first bass player that caught your ear?

I believe the first guy I heard was Fred Turner from Bachman Turner Overdrive, the guy with the gravelly voice. The first song I learned was “Not Fragile”. [It’s] nice and simple. The guys said, “This is a good introduction to bass.” Listening to punk rock, of course, I wanted the image of Sid Vicious. They said, “Well, you need to actually play the bass.” So they got me into Matt Freeman from Rancid. That guy plays all over the fretboard. I was nowhere near that, but I definitely looked up to him. I was introduced to Les Claypool from Primus. You know, just all the popular bands from the ‘90s, essentially. I didn’t hear any other influences from jazz or funk until later in life, but at the time it was just a lot of punk rock bands.

Of course I wanted to learn how to slap. It took a long time for me to learn how to actually stand up and play. Every time I went to play slap, I had to be sitting down. I don’t know why. [laughs]

You’re a great player, but has image always been a big part of it for you? I know you’re a big GWAR fan.

Not necessarily image. I mean, I rock a skullet. On the third day of our tour, Kirk Windstein from Crowbar nicknamed me the Skulldanavian. I said, “Ok, well this has to stick around now.” The chops help, too. I figure, nobody rocks the old mutton chops, but people who do look awesome.

As far as presence and appearance on stage, it does matter. I’m not a fan of the dudes that just sit back by their amp bobbing their head. It’s like, “I know you’re keeping the groove, bud, but c’mon and get into it more.” I’m by no means trying dress up like GWAR. People are split on them. Most people I talk to love GWAR just for the stage show. I like to play, but you also have to give [the audience] something to watch. You can’t just sit there staring at your shoe tops and expect people to really get into it. You have to look at them in the eyes.

What’s the story behind Rise To Power?

Battlecross: Rise to PowerIt’s a good culmination of our work and the experience from the last two albums that we had. Pursuit of Honor was definitely a thrash fest all the way. I think with War of Will we started to establish that we like some groove. Pantera was a heavy influence on [guitarists] Tony and Hiran, so that kind of groove started to come out. They actually had two-thirds of Pursuit of Honor already written by the time I joined the band. I’d like to say I helped institute that feeling of groove. It’s good to play a bunch of notes as fast as you can, but you have to have a solid hook. I think that’s where this album is coming in.

Personally… I don’t want to say I held back, but I definitely established a tone. I always wanted to find my own tone, because in Pursuit of Honor and War of Will, the bass isn’t there. On Rise to Power, it’s there. It’s got a great, thick tone to it. I like to think that musically I’m learning how to complement their riffage without necessarily over-riffing myself.

There [are] three schools of rock, and one of them is from Gene Simmons. I remember a quote of his saying that sometimes just a solid root [note] is more powerful and stands out more than two-handed tapping. I’ve seen plenty of tech and death bands that go to town doing all of this “widdly” stuff – two-handed taps, sweeps, and whatever they can do – but, I can’t distinguish them from the rest of the band. But if you just get someone out there like Michael Anthony, it’s there and it just sounds so good. On our latest single, “Spoiled,” the very beginning sounds like something straight out of the ‘80s. I’m talking Judas Priest. I just laid that root down and halfway through the riff I thought, “This is beautiful.” [laughs]

How did you arrive at your tone? What did you use?

As far as in the studio, we used a plugin through Pro Tools that emulated a SansAmp. It gave it some drive and bite and brought up the presence. A lot of the tone essentially comes from the fingers and the bass guitar, though. I just played around with that until I heard a good sound. The initial mix was really good. When it came to mastering, Mark Lewis brought it down and I asked him to give just a little more bite to pop through. I’ve always admired the tone of guys like Matt Freeman from Rancid and Steve Harris from Iron Maiden. Especially Geddy Lee, too. I’ve always liked just a good biting bass: something that will kick through and can fight two guitar players that are thrashing as heavy as they can. I like it to bite, but not be too obnoxious.

I try to keep it simple. When we go to Europe, I just keep a small pedal board with a tuner and a SansAmp. I just use that and mix it. It’s got the treble and bass so you can scoop it just right, then you can blend in the natural tone with the overdrive of the SansAmp. I would take that to practice and just adjust it while everyone was playing to find just the right bite.

Having good front-of-house engineers with us on tours, I would always ask them, “Hey, what do you need from me? This is the sound I’m trying to get.” Before the set we would discuss different options. It was pretty much a good culmination of touring that I finally discovered that tone. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a tone goblin and I’m not a huge gear head. I’m more of a player than anything. I just love to play. I understand the importance of a good sound and a good tone, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who pride themselves on having the ear for knowing that tone. I just say, “Look, I need to learn from you.” It’s the same situation as surrounding yourself with better players. How do you get better? Hang out with people better than you that know more. You will learn and glean as much information as you can. Even if you don’t realize it, you’re learning all the time.

You guys do a whole lot of your own promotion right?

For the most part, yeah. Metal Blade helps us out a lot, but as far as promoting goes, we run our Twitter and our Facebook: individual and band pages. Our management helps out too, but she usually does timed posts for promoting and doing email blasts and the like. We don’t necessarily have a PR company, though we did hire Jon Freeman to help us out with the new album, but we’re very hands on with him as well for promoting. Jon is awesome. He’s done a fantastic job with us. We don’t have big PR teams, we essentially have Jon.

Most of our promotion honestly comes off of social media and good, old-fashioned face-to-face interactions. In my opinion, there’s no greater advertising than word of mouth. I’d much prefer someone say, “Hey, you need to listen to this band,” because that’s how I heard of bands instead of just seeing some band come up or get some message on Facebook saying, “Check out my band!” Just talk to people. It’s really that simple.