Headbangers of a certain age will appreciate what it means to play bass in Metallica. If you’re familiar with the San Francisco foursome’s early material, you’ll already be a fan of the late Cliff Burton’s astounding classically-influenced lines. If you came on board in time for the band’s 1988 album …And Justice For All, you’ll recall the arrival of Jason Newsted, recruited to fill the huge boots of Burton, who lost his life in a coach crash at the age of 24. Fast forward through the band’s immensely successful 1990s to 2001, when Newsted quit and was replaced by the incredibly nimble- fingered ex-Suicidal Tendencies bassist Robert Trujillo, who remains with Metallica today. Apart from some demo bass parts recorded in 1982 by Ron McGovney and a single album session by producer Bob Rock, Burton, Newsted and Trujillo are the only bassists to have anchored Metallica through the group’s entire 32-year history.
Of the three, Newsted is regarded by many fans to be a supportive pick player sandwiched between two highly artistic fingerstyle bassists, although this is far from the full picture. During Newsted’s tenure the band’s music devolved from energetic, sometimes highly progressive thrash metal to slowed-down radio metal and then mainstream rock, with little room for him to expand his bass parts. If Newsted had to play relatively unadventurous parts, that’s largely because he had no other option.
The reason for this chin-stroking look back down the memory lane of metal is that it explains the conviction that Newsted is now exuding as he returns from self-imposed obscurity with a new, self-titled band and music. Talk to him, and he is audibly full of excitement. “The guys in my new band have some good chops under their belts,” he tells us. “They’ve paid their dues but never really got anywhere grand with it, and that’s exactly the kind of people that I need. The drummer’s name is Jesus Mendez, Jr. He worked for Metallica as a local crew for years and then he went make music and they work really hard and they’re focused and they’re disciplined. They’re not jaded by the bullshit. I gotta have real people playing with me.”
This is a man on fire, we realise. Listen to him now: “I’ll say it straight up: I wanna be the man this time. I’m gonna be the man! I’ve got a great support group behind me and I’ve put a great team together. We’ve got some heavy shit down. We recorded some stuff and we’re headed into the studio next week again to record the rest, and I’m getting ready to unleash it on people.”
Newsted’s inspiration to get up and back into band life again, when he had no financial need to do so after his successful years in Metallica, came after he jammed with old bandmates, he enthuses. “At the end of 2011 I went and played with Metallica for their 30th anniversary shows in San Francisco. It was exciting leading up to it: I don’t keep up a whole lot of contact with the guys, but I talked to Lars frequently leading up to that. We discussed playing some songs and he asked me if I’d come and jam. I said ‘Of course. What do you guys want to do?’ He asked me what I wanted to do and so I said, ‘Just go to the records and pick out the two fastest songs from each one, and those are the ones I’m going to play.’ So ‘Damage, Inc.’ and ‘Battery’ and ‘Fight Fire…’ – all the things that are appropriate. I wanted to make sure that everybody knew where I was coming from.”
Thrash metal credentials firmly established, Newsted packed his bass and headed to San Francisco for what turned out to be a life-changing experience. “I went up there and we did an hour of rehearsal at the old headquarters, and I hadn’t been there for a long time. I just felt so elated. I didn’t know what to expect from the fans, exactly, and from the whole vibe of everything. The same crew people have been with Metallica forever: it’s the same team that makes that machine go. To see all of the family again… I’m getting a little emotional right now! That is your family: when you spend really hard times and really exceptionally fantastic times together, that’s forever, man. That stuff goes deep, you know. So all of that was kind of brought open again, I was exposed and vulnerable again to all of those feelings and that camaraderie. The strength of that thing is just palpable, like ‘Holy fuck!’, you know?”
The fans made Newsted very quickly aware that he remains a valued member of the extended Metallica family, he adds. “Thirty or 40 different languages were being spoken out there, because I walked through the crowd, listening to the people and what they were doing as I made my way through real quick. I’m hearing all kinds of dialects and accents, just like it’s supposed to be, what we worked for for so long. I get up there and I can’t even tell you, man, every freakin’ mouth and hand in the place is just ‘Raaaaahhh!’ And they start screaming out, ‘Jason… Jason…’ fucking loud. I just levitated, man. Right off the stage, like ‘Holy fuck, man, I miss this so much. This is the one thing that I do miss. The rest of the bullshit, all of the hubbub, I don’t miss that part – but I miss the connection with the people.”
He continues: “That’s what always made me go. That’s what mattered and that’s what gave me the fuel every time, to go and meet everybody before the show and after the show. I was always in contact with the fans, so that feeling came back to me in floods, man: just giant waves of pleasure, that’s the only word I can really describe it with. It was just overwhelming. So this thing came into my head, this epiphany, like ‘Dude, holy shit, they still really love you, man.
They really want to see you up there taking care of business’. When I screamed the ‘Die! Die!’ part in [seminal Metallica song] ‘Creeping Death’, they were going crazy, just like always. The reaction was the same, but multiplied because I’ve been away long enough that there’s another generation and a half of listeners that are there for it, plus all the old fans. It was so powerful. I had four heroic doses of that in one week. Each night got more and more intense, and as I played the songs and
I sang more – I sang ‘Whiplash’ – it was just crazy that it all came over me again. Memories reappear, that’s what it says in one of the new songs. I was tasting the poison again.”
It turns out that Newsted had been writing songs for some time, and that the anniversary shows were what sparked off the momentum to get up and play them. As he explains, “I’ve never stopped working on songs. I’ve been playing a lot of heavy stuff in the last few years, going in that direction again, and I’ve been singing a lot. I’ve been really taking care of my voice and developing a true voice that’s not just Cookie Monster. I can still do Cookie Monster vocals, but that’s not what I do now, I actually sing now. So I’ve been working for about a year, man, since those shows, with this in mind.”
Credit must also go to one of the oldest thrash metal bands still in business, Newsted’s pre-Metallica group Flotsam & Jetsam. As he says: “At the beginning of this year the original Flotsam & Jetsam got back together, and we played two weekends in Arizona, just for fun. We played the album Doomsday For The Deceiver in its entirety, just in a jam room, looking at each other and hardly able to believe that we’re all still alive, let alone that we could still play that fast after all those years. Remember, there were 14 parts per song, and timing, and holy crap, man. When I was listening back to it and trying to relearn it, I was like, ‘Who thought of all this shit? Whose idea was this, man? My God, how do you even remember all this crap?’ We were very busy and young and fast-playing. That really got my juices flowing, playing with those guys. They were like, ‘Shit man, you can still fire it off on that bass, your shoulders are all strong again and everything’.”
Ah yes, he’s touched upon the thorny issue of his physical health. One of the reasons Newsted cited for leaving Metallica was that years of headbanging had left him with critically damaged shoulders, neck and back – but the reality is that his injuries were more severe even than that. He tells us, “My first surgery was in 2004. I was in rehab up until August 2012. I’ve been in rehab for my shoulders, neck and all that stuff after three surgeries, back and forth, since 04. I’m just now coming to a place where my back is all intact. I also tore my bicep muscle completely. I mean completely: it was severed. It lay down here on my elbow, so they sewed all that shit back on. I had to go in twice for them to sew it together, because I actually re-ripped it. It takes a long time for those muscles to get better: the rotator cuff muscle makes all those movements and it’s a very complicated thing. After all the headbanging I did, it was already a little funky in there, so it took a lot to get right again.”
Newsted also reveals that addiction to painkillers inevitably followed. “It got very ugly,” he admits. “I was hospitalised many times. Just like the regular story that you hear about everybody, but I caught it before Heath Ledger, you know what I mean? I was able to control it. I got off of them myself. No help, no rehab. The only rehab I’ve been to is muscle therapy. I’ve never been to rehab for any other stuff: I’ve been able to get myself off that shit every time.”
To clarify, he was hooked on the painkillers? “Absolutely. I was probably four or five years on ’em, solid, because if you think about what happened… I got the first one done, stayed on the medicine, got the therapy, thought my shoulder was OK as the medicine masked the pain, reached down with the left hand to do everything that the right hand used to do and tore the left one. I went over to the left side and had to go through the whole same thing again and then re-medicined again. So I went back on them.”
He sighs, “My injuries are always going to be degenerative, because of the things that I’ve done. But with the strengthening and therapy that they’ve done with my shoulders and back and everything, it has helped my neck. I didn’t realise… I’ve learned a lot about anatomy.”
None of this was made any easier seven years ago when a large amp head fell on Newsted during a practice session. Warning: this story may make you cringe. “At the end of 2006 I was just finishing a project called Supernova. I have an Ampeg SVT head, it was a 74. It’s heavy as fuck, man, like 88 or 89 pounds. It’s the head that made all of the records that I’ve played on, from any album that you could really hear my bass on: from the Black Album all the way to today’s record that I’m going to make next week. This amp is the brain of the bass sound for Jason Newsted. Basically it’s my balls in a box.”
He continues: “It was a late night, I’d been smoking and doing my thing. I had my same old rig, dude, the head I just described and my 8×10” SVT cab that I made payments on when I was doing Flotsam & Jetsam. It still has the Flotsam logo spray-painted on the back that James [Hetfield, Metallica singer] tried to scratch off when I first wandered into the rehearsal place. That’s my rig. It has four mics on it and it is the shit, OK? It’s the head from the 80s with the big bar at the back. I tried to lean it back with the head on top, because I was only going to scoot it over here. I move it, I bump it, and the head slips off and heads for the fucking ground. It’s still plugged in. I didn’t stop and think ‘I’m gonna grab that, let me get a pillow!’ or whatever. I just fucking reacted and I reached my arm out, and the thing fell to the ground and took my arm with it.
I grabbed the side handle on the SVT, the other with the transformer down, went to the floor and jerked my fucking shoulder out of its socket. It took two seconds, it was like a car accident. Just like that. There was no planning or thinking or any of that bullshit, it just happened. The head was fine: I played out of it yesterday and I’ll play out of it tomorrow. It’s fine.”
Things are a lot better now, he tells us. “I’m really revitalised. It took me a long time, though. I’ve had a lot of stuff to go through: things you can’t ignore, with muscles and bones and stuff. You have to work and work to get yourself back. I have high standards for myself and high expectations for my body, and I’m a performer and everything. I set a high bar, so getting back to that place has been a challenge and I’m real close to it now.”
In his time in Metallica, Newsted became known as the guy with the massive bass collection. Google any photo of him back then and you’ll see him with a wide range of instruments, and indeed, he tells us that his thirst for bass collecting is as unquenchable as ever. “I’ve got a bigger collection now, bro,” he chuckles. “You can see me online with the new band playing a 1974 Telecaster bass, the slab with the single big fat humbucker. You really can’t beat that: it has a boom that is insane. Sadowskys are still my everyday basses, though. I have them lined up because I use a few different tunings. I still use the exact same basses. They’re worn in all the right places. The most beat-up basses are the ones that I use the most, because they play the best. I still don’t have an official signature model, but you know the one that Sadowsky makes that kids call ‘the Jason model’, a slew of those have sold but I’ve never signed [a contract] or anything like that. It’s not really my trip, that much.”
As a bass player, has he developed since the Metallica days, we ask? “I feel that I grow all the time, because I keep chasing it,” he says. “I still play with other people all the time and I seek out being better. Physically, I’m not sure I can go as fast for as long as I once could, but I’m always listening to new music and paying attention to where music came from. I still keep my teachers close and I go back to them when I write music. I love Mastodon and Muse and other bands that are putting out cool stuff right now, but I have to put them to one side when I’m writing. I stick to Black Sabbath, Rush and Ted Nugent’s bass player Rob Grainge. The things I learned bass from, I go back to, to remind myself of the fundamentals of what makes songs songs. A lot of guys can blast with big cabs, and it’s all good, man, but you still gotta make songs for people, and I’m not sure I knew that until this year.”
Keep your ears open for plenty of new Newsted, he warns. “My plan is to bring in Michael Gilbert from Flotsam & Jetsam to be my second guitar player, so the live band will be a four-piece. So a chunk of songs will be released on iTunes and that stuff will be followed by some limited edition vinyl and so forth on my label, Chophouse. I’m going to do it in batches. I’m going to unleash the songs on people as we go up to the live shows.
“The guys that run iTunes now are tattooed Metallica freaks: they’re the same age as me and they’re running the show. They know what’s up and they’re really down with helping me promote my stuff in the next phase of my metal career.” As are we, Jason: as are we…
Newsted’s Metal EP is out now on iTunes.