Jason Newsted: Epiphany on Stage

By Jeb Wright

It is hard to believe it has been well over a decade since Jason Newsted left Metallica. When he was chosen to take the spot of deceased bassist Cliff Burton, a fan favorite, no one thought this skinny kid from the band Flotsam and Jetsam could replace him. Jason proved them wrong. In fact, his time with the band was the most successful era Metallica has ever had, leading to them being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After much abuse from his bandmate’s Newsted could take no more and retreated from the popular Metal scene. He played with the bands Voivod and Echobrain and has guested with several artists including such diverse acts as Gov’t Mule and Tina Turner. Real Metal, however, remained his passion.

After playing at Metallica’s 30th anniversary party Newsted had an epiphany. He wanted to go back to his roots one more time and pump out the music that he loved the most. He put together the band Newsted and released a four song EP online that has sold in high numbers and has been well received by fans and critics alike.

In the interview that follows, Newsted frankly discusses his friendship with Metallica, the new band, when we can expect an album, the backlash he has received to his song “Soldierhead” and what he thought when he first heard the song “Enter Sandman.”

Jeb: I have been enjoying these four songs that you’ve released. My only complaint is there are only four songs! I want an entire album.

Jason: It worked perfectly; that’s exactly how it was supposed to work. We recorded eleven songs in our first session, so what you’re hearing are the first four of those. I plan on recording around fifteen songs, total. Our target is to have the full album out by the middle of May. The other seven are in the can and the other new ones I really want to share, so I want to get them out there.

Jeb: You’ve been active the whole time you’ve been out of Metallica but, dude, you’re back.

Jason: It took a while. I had to wait for it because the timing had to be right and I think we’ve found the right time.

Everything happens for a reason; there was absolute purpose and karma with this, for sure. I started out doing a couple of teaser gigs with Papa Wheelie in 2011, playing guitar and screaming in that band. Four the last sixteen years we have been doing improvisation slabs of stony metal in that band. We take it out every once in a while and I have a lot of fun with it. I got bit by the bug a little bit while we were messing with that.

Lars [Ulrich, Jason’s bandmate in Metallica] called right about that same time and told me that they were doing the 30th anniversary for Metallica at the Fillmore. He told me they were inviting [Judas Priest vocalist Rob] Halford, Geezer [Butler, Black Sabbath bassist] and Armored Saint; you know, all of the people that have been around since day one to help us. I wanted to be there to see the family.

I went down and we started rocking and the people went crazy. It was unexpected. I knew it was going to be fun, but I had no idea I would get that kind of response; they really missed me. I didn’t have a perspective on it and I could not fathom it. I got bit big time. I had an epiphany on stage.

About the third night of that week, I knew I had to give it one more good shot, as the people wanted to hear from me. I went home and started thinking about my options. I got the original Flotsam and Jetsam band back together. It was the 30th anniversary of Flotsam, also. It was also the 25th anniversary of the Doomsday album.

We got together and blasted out those tunes for a couple of weekends and it was a really good time. It was great to hang out with each other again. I didn’t really see the full potential of that band, though. They have their own thing going on anyway. Next, I put the guys together that I have now. Jesus Mendez Jr. is playing drums and Jessie Farnsworth is playing guitar. We’ve got about five years under our belt from improve jams but since August of 2012 we have been full focused on these tracks.

Jeb: It sounds like you found yourself again.

Jason: Oh for sure. I discovered something I knew was always there, as playing old school Metal is my forte. I came back to that for sure. I re-discovered that part of me.

When I decide to sit down and really focus on writing songs, then that is what shows up. Even though I’ve played with Gov’t Mule and Echobrain and a whole bunch of other styles, over time, what you hear on those four new songs is what showed up.

This is the first time that I’ve written a full album, top to bottom, with my music, all the instruments, my songs, my voice, my lyrics, which is why we, appropriately are calling this ‘Newsted.’ I used to write back in Flotsam on the bass and the guitar, but it was never full, top to bottom, like this. I definitely discovered something that was there, but not ready yet. Now, it’s ready.

Jeb: Are there any feelings, even with a half grin to Metallica that you can do this on your own without them? Is there any middle finger to them?

Jason: There is nothing vindictive or anything like that. There really isn’t any negativity at all between us anymore. Its all water under the bridge and it has been 12 years now. That kind of sour and silly stuff was quite a while ago. It was mostly reactionary, I think. Now, it’s really strong and pretty awesome. They’ve got their band kicking butt like always and I’ve got my new band and I feel like I’m 19 again—I really do feel that way.

We got this fricking EP, only four songs, to number one on iTunes for two weeks out of my garage with me and three other dudes. We are competing with big companies and bands that have full albums out; that’s pretty cool. That’s saying something. My answer to your question is to let the music do the talking. There are no digs to anyone and there is nothing negative. Let’s just fucking rock.

Jeb: Let’s talk about these four songs. “Skyscraper” reminds me of Judas Priest.

Jason: That song is a few years old and it has developed over time. To me, that really has slabs of American Metal. It has really loud guitar and it has a lot of great riffage. The song has a really good message to it and it is really strong. It will be a great live song as everyone will be chanting “NO WAR.” It will be wicked.

Jeb: I know you sang a couple of songs live with Metallica, but you were never a lead singer. This album shows you can be a lead singer.

Jason: That took a long time. I’ve always done the Cookie Monster type vocals; that’s what I’m known for. Dylan Donkin from Echobrain can really sing good and I picked up a lot from him. I had to sing in pitch—what a concept!

I got exposed to the Gov’t Mule guys and they can sing. I did a number one international single with Tina Turner. I spread out and did a lot of different stuff over the last ten years. It is all new territory for me, singing up front and playing bass.

I spent six to eight years trying to find that real voice in me—not just the Cookie Monster voice. I work on it quite a bit. We have captured a lot of great performances on these songs and I want to make sure I do them proud. I take a lot better care of my voice than I ever have before. It is a new voice in this old school body. I found my voice, but it really took a while to get there. My experiences with James [Hetfield, Metallica guitarist/vocalist] and my experiences with Snake from Voivod really taught me a lot.

Snake uses English as a second language and he uses no filler words. No words are wasted and he uses his voice as an instrument and it is just so tricky. The way he puts lyrics to music is very unorthodox and different than anybody I’ve ever worked with. I think it is super cool. I really learned a lot from him, but I didn’t realize it until I started to do my own thing. Delivery has a lot to do with it and Snake really helped me with that.

Jeb: “King of the Underdogs” is my favorite vocal performance you did on the EP.

Jason: Thank you. That’s a catchy one and I think by the time you get to the second chorus everybody will be singing along. I am proud of that one. It has come a long way. It is really catching on and I have a feeling that one is really going to do something. I could see it on a soundtrack.

Jeb: Talk about “Godsnake.”

Jason: “Godsnake” is my favorite for the weight of it. The tuning is a little different and it gets a little scary. It is about not judging people. You don’t judge the book by the cover because, in this day and age, it is the wrong way to go about things. A lot of people that have millions of dollars still dress in their jeans and t-shirts; I know I do.

I’ve been around the globe five times now and the things that I’ve seen made me realize that it is not wise to judge the book by the cover. I think in North America, with reality TV, people, without even knowing it, are being encouraged to judge. The Biggest Loser, the drug addict, the rich lady…we have to judge all these people and they feel they are so much better than you. Without even knowing it, people are being sucked into judging people. That is what I’m talking about, “If God came down as a snake, how long would it take before somebody misjudged you.” You have to be very careful with that.

Jeb: Your lyrics are very clear. You get the point.

Jason: I have been around thirty years and if you can stay around that long then you get generations of listeners. As listeners grow with the band there are things that are more appealing to them.

There is a place for DSI and there is a place for Five Finger Death Punch—there is a place for everyone. But with this one I hit a certain chord. It is still aggressive. You can interpret it your own way, but I think I give a very clear message.

Even if you can’t hear everything I’m saying on “King of the Underdogs” you still get the message. You go, “I could hear him say ‘leading the pack’.” The people who are what I call Deep Cut Listeners and who wear the t-shirts proudly, who are true metal fans, appreciate that.

You’re not a Metal fan for one summer; its just not that way. I stole that from Rob Zombie, by the way, so give him all the credit. Once people are so loyal like that then it makes you want to keep doing it and to get better at it.

Jeb: You have a video for “Soldierhead.”

Jason: We got a quarter of a million views in the first week the video was out. I think that is pretty cool because, once again, we did it from my garage. People are responding to that song. “Soldierhead” is pretty clear in its meaning. It is what I would think would go on in a soldier’s head if he, or she, was in the thick of it. It is my nod to our servicemen and women. I’ve met thousands of soldiers over my years of touring and they have always been really supportive of Metal. I am giving this back in that way. I think the freedom they provide for us to go out and play the music as heavy and as loud as we want is pretty wonderful.

I have gotten some backlash from people from other nations because they say that I am wishing bad upon them when I pay tribute to the soldiers. I mean, hang on! They need to look a little further into the record. “Soldierhead” says, “Why am I here?” At the end of “Skyscraper” I say, “No War no more.” I am being straight and real about this. I don’t want people shooting bullets at each other and I don’t want people dying for stupid shit. All I’m doing is tipping the hat to people who are loyal, through and through, who make it possible to jam around the world.

One of the things that I am working on with our new agent is to play at military bases around the world. The backlash can come, but I know what I feel and what I mean. My intentions are pure and positive.

Jeb: Can you give me any hint on what we will hear on the other seven songs that have not come out?

Jason: I want you to think about what the words on my logo say. There is Newsted with Jason in the middle. Then there are three words: ‘heavy metal music’. Those three words stand together. This EP is Metal, but we’ve still got heavy and we’ve still got music to come. There will be some that are an uglier cousin to “Godsnake.” There is a nice kick-ass eight minute song with acoustic guitars and violins on it that gets really heavy at the end. We’ve got heavy and music to come, but the Metal will always be there.

Jeb: Last question: When you heard “Enter Sandman” did you think that song would change your life?

Jason: No, I certainly didn’t. When I first heard the riff, before it was honed, I found it very stock. Then, James got hold of it and did what he did to it. It was Kirk’s [Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett] idea to give it to James. He grew the tree and then we all ate the fruits. I was pretty stoked when the song came together because the bass was shaking the room.

Jeb: You are also a painter. Are you still active with that as a medium?

Jason: Yes, I’m in my art studio right now. I still paint, but I have not had enough time these last couple of months. I go into painting just like I go into anything. It is all or nothing and it goes on for days on end.

I have three different studios across the country, but this is main one. I am looking at 600 pieces here and the other studios have a couple of hundred each. I am looking at everything from little tiny drawings to six foot and eight foot canvases that weigh over one hundred pounds.

I just do acrylic and inks. I don’t do oils. I do sculptures. When my shoulder surgery occurred I was one armed from about 2004 through 2008. I had two surgeries on the right shoulder and one on the left. I learned how to paint one handed each time, so now all paintings are done with both hands. The text is done with my left hand and all of the painting is done with the right. I use both sides of my brain.

It has developed over time. I do have some collectors that have eight, or ten, of my pieces each. They pay a lot of money for them and it is just crazy. I’m proud of it. It is definitely another purpose that I feel appropriate about. I have been called to this and it came to fruition to me through my hard work and diligence. I think I will always do this.

All of the designs from the band are my designs. I do all of the sketches and Mark Devito, a longtime Metallica artist, cleans it up for me, but it is all my stuff. I will continue with that. When we do the vinyl for the full album I plan on putting my artwork in some type of lithograph.

On my website there is a program from my first San Francisco exhibition if you want to see some of my art.