Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica)

by Greg Prato

If you think that the return of ex-Metallica bassist Jason Newsted to the metal scene via his new project, simply dubbed "Newsted," was pre-planned or years in the making, you would be 100% wrong. A "cart before the horse type of thing," he calls it, explaining the happenstance that brought him back to the vanguard.

And judging from the title of Newsted's full-length debut, Heavy Metal Music, the material should satisfy the needs of his legion of headbanging admirers. Comprised of Jason on lead vocals and bass, guitarists Jessie Farnsworth and Mike Mushok (the latter is also a member of Staind), and drummer Jesus Mendez Jr., their first single "Soldierhead" spread through word-of-mouth, which is when the agents came calling.

Initially, Newsted came to the attention of underground metal listeners as a member of Flotsam and Jetsam, for which he co-wrote the music and penned the majority of the lyrics to the group's 1986 debut, Doomsday for the Deceiver. But it was upon occupying the spot vacated by the late Cliff Burton in Metallica that Newsted was introduced to the metal masses -- playing on a total of four full-length studio albums, including such mega-selling classics as 1988's …And Justice for All and 1991's The Black Album.

After exiting Metallica in 2001, Newsted has been spotted as part of a variety of projects, including Echobrain, Voivod, and Ozzy Osbourne (his 2003 touring band), and was even part of the reality TV show, Rock Star Supernova, where he formed a short-lived band featuring drummer Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe), guitarist Gilby Clarke (ex-Guns N' Roses), and show-winning singer Lukas Rossi.

Newsted was more than happy to chat about the story behind his new group, as well as how he finally embraced modern recording technology, his love of a musical style not usually associated with metalheads, and co-penning one of Metallica's fiercest thrashers.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start off by talking about the new album, Heavy Metal Music. How did that come about?

Jason Newsted: I got together with a couple of guys, Jesus Mendez Jr., who plays drums, and Jessie Farnsworth [guitarist]. They're both from Fresno, California. We've been playing music in my studio, The Chophouse, for about six years together, just kind of bashing around improv jams and having some fun. Last year I wrote a demo for the first time top to bottom; all the tracks, programmed the drums and everything on my iPad on GarageBand - it's actually the first time I've ever tried to do that in my career. I've written all kinds of riffs - in Flotsam and Jetsam I wrote everything on bass and the guitars kind of copied that stuff - and I wrote in Voivod, same type of thing. Metallica, I'd write a riff here and a riff there, and then James would make it into a song. So it's never anything where I sat down from top to bottom. This was the first time.

So I did that about one year ago, actually - it was August last year. I gave the demo to my boys, and they learned the songs. Then we went to our buddy's studio - a real styling studio, real fancy. He offered to let us go in there for a week and make some noise, so we took some songs in there.

The main song was a song that I'd written for my wife for our wedding last year, and I talked my boys into recording it with me. We spent two days doing that, the cellos and acoustic guitars, real nice stuff like that. I had a couple of other songs in my pocket and we had a couple of days left over, so I said, Do you guys want to hit these songs? And it ended up being "Soldierhead," "King of the Underdogs," "Godsnake" and stuff like that. We had five or six songs in that first session.

It really was a labor of love and also a personal thing. For the three of us to make a recording that we could have for ourselves, like, "Check us out, we're rocking," it really was a very innocent kind of thing.

One of our friends who had worked as Lars' assistant in the past and worked for Metallica since the '90s got a hold of "Soldierhead," and he played it for a couple of people. It made its way to Eddie Trunk, and Eddie Trunk played it on the radio - "Soldierhead," the single. And then it kind of took off.

We decided to release the EP on iTunes, and it got all kinds of attention. And then managers and agents started calling. We went on a tour and now we've got an LP in, so it was not really intended, never planned or sat down with a meeting with people saying, "Jason, you're coming back. You used to be in these big bands and now we're going to market you this way" and blah, blah. There was never any of that. It's all been very much a catch up thing, cart before the horse type of thing, where some people showed favoritism to the sounds and then they started planning out things. They probably had 50 or 60 shows booked for me before I had a band together to play live, actually. Once they got the word that I was going to play, it's like, "Okay, let's go!"

So Mike Mushok [guitar] joined our band in February this year. The band that we toured with and we made the LP with has only been together about six months total, so it really has been moving together very quickly considering when we started and how much has happened in that amount of time. We've played in 17 countries and put out an EP and LP within that six months.

Songfacts: How did you approach the songwriting for this album?

Jason: It was very much a fresh new thing with the iPad. It was my first time for a computer. I got a hand-me-down from my wife. I'd been repelling the computer stuff and social media stuff for a long, long time, probably to my detriment. To be "the analog dude," I'll keep my one black boot in analog forever, but then I'll reach out with the other boot to check out other things and use the Protools for capturing the performances and things like that. But I'm really careful about computer things.

So I got the iPad and the GarageBand application and started messing with it, and just realized how fantastic of an invention it was, especially for somebody like me. I was kind of a simpleton when it comes to the recording stuff - keep it real basic - and the GarageBand thing was almost bass player proof. I could put all my tracks on there and it would hold them and retain them.

And I think most important was the immediacy of it. I was able to still have my instrument in my hand and whenever the idea fell from the sky, I was able to capture it right at that second on that GarageBand application. Up until that time I was still using my Tascam cassette player to record my ideas, and I'd have to rewind and go back and miss a lot of ideas and miss a lot of things that could turn out to be pretty cool compositions. In this case I didn't miss the ideas, I was able to capture them immediately.

I think that probably has to do with the appeal of the music to a lot of people, because of its rawness and because I was able to capture it so quickly and in a genuine manner with the GarageBand thing. So I'm in a lot of praise of that thing right now. I still have just the iPad, the very first one with the first GarageBand application, but it works for me.

Songfacts: Who would you say are some of your all-time favorite songwriters?

Jason had the songwriting chops, but Metallica compositions were dominated by the Hetfield/Ulrich duo. His compositional contributions can be neatly listed as three songs: "Blackened," "My Friend of Misery," and "Where the Wild Things Are." You would assume that since Newsted had a hand in penning these numbers, the bass would be at the forefront, and in the case of "Misery," this is the case (as heard by its bass intro). But as explained later, "Blackened" sounds completely stripped of Newsted's bass stylings.
Jason: Well, metal-wise, heroes like Black Sabbath - Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, that kind of thing. And Rush as songwriters. Even like Derek St. Holmes from the Ted Nugent Band, great songwriter and great lyricist, melodies and lyrics. That's my original teacher pile, when I was 12, 14, 16 years old, my original teachers.

And as I've gone through time I have a lot of respect for the guys of Muse, who have fantastic songwriting abilities. Kings of Leon, great songwriting abilities. Lady Gaga, great songwriting ability as far as melody and lyric go. I'm not so much about her band's boom-boom computerized stuff, but as far as lyrical melody, fantastic.

There's quite a few. I like Mastodon - I like the honesty of their songwriting, the rawness, the ugliness, but still with a little bit of sense of humor in the vibe within the lyric and within the songwriting. I like that a lot: when they don't take it too serious. That's very important.

The Slayer guys, I love what they've put together. Of course, Metallica has done some really cool shit. Voivod's done some amazing arrangements. Gov't Mule has done some amazing arrangements - Warren Haynes, very good songwriter. Zakk Wylde, great songwriter. There are a lot of people out there that I have respect for in that way.

Songfacts: I remember reading an old interview with you and you said that you were a big fan of also the old stuff from Motown, as well.

Jason: Oh my God, yes. Anything with James Jamerson on bass, there's no way you could do any wrong with that, because those are the records that I wore the grooves out of first as a young man, like a lot of people of my generation. But definitely the Motown thing had a lot to do with inspiring me with the bass-dominated arrangements.

Songfacts: I'm surprised more metal musicians don't go back and study those old albums by the Motown artists.

Jason: I was fortunate enough to be brought up in Michigan, so there was a lot of that music being played all the time on the radio and in my household by my older brothers. Now that I go back and analyze it, I think it played such a giant part in me gravitating towards the bass in general, and maybe the aptitude of songwriting and what sounds good, like what the flow is.

It's all about the flow. It's all about the feel and the toe tappin' without you having to think about it, and that's what that music was king of. It was infectious. You had to tap your toe to that music.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of the specific songs you wrote, your memories of writing and recording them. What do you remember about the song "Soldierhead"?

Jason: There are a few songs that came very quickly, that just kind of fell from the sky - the same thing happens when I'm doing paintings. When you write just for yourself, you can tap into your stream of creativity, and the more you tap into it, the more familiar you get with channeling that stream down. That's what happened over time with my songwriting, and I finally just hit a stride where it's ready for me and I'm ready for it. It's the first time I've tried to tap into my well to really write songs with a kind of serious manner.

So "Soldierhead" was one of those that the riff came right away. It just showed up, and I got it on my iPad, that first quick riff, and started building from there. The composition probably came together in less than an hour on the iPad as far as the puzzle pieces.

And the lyrical content is based upon the Pat Tillman story, the NFL football player that went to be a hero and died of friendly fire in Afghanistan. So it was about standing up for yourself and being a hero. He was a gifted person; always could jump higher and run faster than everybody and wanted to use those abilities to protect what he believed in. The song is about standing up for what you believe in, and being willing to give your life for what you believe in. So even when you have it really good, you'll still stand up for something you believe in, even though you wouldn't have to. So that's the subject matter in that one.

Songfacts: One of my favorite songs from when you were a member of Metallica was "Blackened," which is a song that you co-wrote. What do you remember about your contribution to that song, as far as writing it?

Jason: That was a very special time in my life. This was when James [Hetfield] and I were first becoming friends. He was someone I looked up to greatly before I joined the band - we all did. Anybody in any other bands, even the guys in the bands around us, even Exodus and Violence, we all looked up to James. He was just a special gifted person, still is.

So we were getting to be friends and we'd stay over at each other's house or apartments, and we'd take care of each other's animals when we went on vacations and these kind of things, got to be pals.

We were in my one-bedroom apartment. I had my little four-track Tascam set up in the corner of the bedroom, and we were jamming on our guitars, just playing through some riffs. And I played that [vocalizes the riff - play the clip to hear it]
That "Blackened" riff, and he goes, "Dude, what is that?" Because it was really pretty crazy. The original thing is a very fast alternating thing. Man, it's pretty tricky, actually. I mean, the one that ended up on the record is pretty tricky, too, but the original one is really tricky.

He picked up on that and we recorded that bit. And he goes, "Let's build it to this, and build it to this." It was a moment. I was actually composing a song with James from Metallica and he was approving my riffs and saying, "This is going to be a Metallica song." That was a big, big moment for me. We had already been on tour together, and so I had a giant Damage Inc. tour poster on my bedroom wall right above my little station where I had my speakers and my little four-track and the two or three guitars in my collection.

And there we were, I could paint that picture for you very plainly. It was a very, very big moment for me, because I was getting approved from The Man to have my first chance on having one of my compositions on a Metallica record. So that was a very special time.

Since 1988, one of the great mysteries/controversies amongst metalheads was why Newsted's bass playing is inaudible on Metallica's 1988 album, ...And Justice for All (which spawned the band's first true MTV/radio hit, "One"). What proves even more baffling is that the band (with Newsted in tow) released an EP the previous year, Garage Days Re-Revisited, which does bring out the bass. So why the sudden absence of the 4-string on Justice? It may forever remain one of the great metal mindbogglers.
Songfacts: This year is the 25th anniversary of the release of the Justice album. I'm sure a lot of fans were hoping that Metallica was going to put out the album again as a reissue and bring up the bass. Would you like to see that happen as a possible reissue?

Jason: It's their band and if they decide to do that, that's all good with me. You know, over time there's been so much hubbub over this thing and people make so much out of it, but whatever it is that they make out of the blend of the whole thing, to me the album is perfect. Kill 'Em All isn't perfect, but it's perfect. And Van Halen I isn't perfect, but it's perfect. ...And Justice For All isn't perfect, but it's perfect. Because it captured that time for those people.

And going back and changing things and doing "the Sharon Osbourne thing" [replacing previous musicians' recordings with newer ones, as evidenced a few years ago with reissues of Ozzy's Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman], going back and re-recording albums that were already classics, I'm just not sure about all that stuff.

So if they decide to do a remaster and they bring up the bass frequencies or the low end frequencies and all that, right on, man. Send me a copy and I'll blast it just like anybody else, just like a fan of Metallica. But for what it is, it does just fine. It still sells a lot of copies every day and I'm pretty happy with the outcome of the whole thing, actually.

Considering what I knew about playing bass guitar at that time, I'm not surprised it's as low as it is, really.

Songfacts: I recently interviewed Michael Gilbert from the band Flotsam and Jetsam, and he mentioned that he'd like to work with you again. Would you ever entertain the thought of maybe doing some shows or a new album with Flotsam and Jetsam at some point?

Jason: Well, I wrote a few songs for their new record, Ugly Noise. I gave them the title for the album and lyrics for the main song and all that kind of stuff. That's all my stuff, so I contributed to the last one. They have actually asked me this week to play on the No Place for Disgrace re-recording, and now we're in the same territory of the last question again. I don't believe, really, in that kind of thing, going back and re-recording stuff. It just doesn't seem right. It seems like stepping backwards to me, and I want to move forward.

I was up until 5 o'clock this morning working on a new song that Mike Mushok and I have together, and I really think we have something with this one. So I have enough of my own stuff going on and I'm moving forward with new material.

So bless them for going back and doing No Place, and that's all good. But I won't be taking a part in any of that. I'll always be a supporter of Flotsam and Jetsam, but I'm not going to be in their band or anything like that.

December 19, 2013
Photos: Fran Strine

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 2

  • Chuck from St. Petersburg, FlHe doesn't approve of re-recording Blizzard with another band member, but, when his original band wanted to re-record an album, he had a sort of double-standard and didn't want to participate. Don't get me wrong, I still wish he was part of Metallica. I still haven't embraced the whole Robert Trujillo changeover. But ... whatever. LOL!
  • Paul from AustraliaVery level headed guy - it would be easy to fall into those trappings and do a "Justice" re-record for ego. He's very much in the "present". Love it.
see more comments

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