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Interview: Jason Newsted Talks New Band, Metal, and Bold Choices

Interview: Jason Newsted Talks New Band, Metal, and Bold Choices

“I’ve done my fair share of headbanging and out-grimacing the next guy, but that’s not what this is about this time," Jason Newsted says. "I want everyone to know how happy I am to be there with them and how happy I am that they are here with me.” For Newsted, it has been a long ride. He recorded with Metallica on …And Justice For All, The Black Album, Load and ReLoad, toured with Ozzy, and played in the fourth incarnation of Voivod. Now he’s working on Newsted, a project that bears his name and his voice (as well as his bass), and released an EP, Metal, in January. Revolver caught up with Newsted as he was preparing for tour and mixing the full-length due out later this year. We talked about his ballsy choices and metal as a global concept.

REVOLVER You’re about to head out on tour. Are you ready?
JASON NEWSTED We’re ready as a band, but I’m not ready in my brain. This is really my baby this time. So I have to be my control-freak self. I have to make sure I’m looking at every single thing from what flight the crew guy is getting to what cymbal is used on what song. That’s what’s going through my mind right now. But I’m glad to be here and I’m glad to be neck-deep in it again.

What made you want to return to the stage?
In 2011, I was out with my punk band Papa Wheelie, where I play guitar and scream. We opened for a few bands, and when I got bit by the bug again, Lars [Ulrich, Metallica drummer] called me and to play the 30th anniversary show with Metallica. The momentum was building and building so I put some songs together. We recorded 11 songs and four of them are on the EP. So we were at it for eight months strong. I’ve written 20 songs since October and I’m building on those to what will become the album now. It really was intended initially to be our own thing but then the labels called. It happened pretty fast.

Are you happy with that, and it has turned into a full production?
I have mixed feelings about it. I wasn’t really planning on doing this again in my life--especially putting my own name on a band. I never dreamed of doing that. But this is what I’m supposed to be doing, playing heavy music. It’s busier than I ever thought it was gonna be and it’s busier than when I was in Metallica as far as hour for hour responsibility things. So that’s kind of overwhelming but the reaction from the fans on social media is not something I could have predicted. It’s so positive and reaching out, like, “J, we’re so glad you’re back.” It makes me feel like I did something right along the way, in a big way.

Speaking of names, naming the band after yourself is one thing but calling the EP Metal is really ballsy.
Ballsy is good. [Laughs] I guess I didn’t look at it as a bold thing but rather an honest awareness thing. Because of the other music I played since I was out of Metallica, I played all different styles of music. So I want to make sure there is no confusion on a global basis, because Metallica’s worked for 30 years as a global band and I was a part of that. There has to be something that’s put across to fans no matter what language they speak that if you’ve been in the metal circle for the last 30 years, you know what Newsted means and you know what the word metal means, no matter the translation. Those two things together, no confusion and you know what you’re going to get. You’re not going to get, “Hey is this pop rock?” No, this is metal and this is Newsted. Now it’s become this thing that has worked to my advantage because of what you just said--it’s ballsy.

So what is metal for you, at its foundation?
It has to do with the influences first and foremost. I wear my influences on my sleeve and in my throat. I mean, you can hear Lemmy is my hero. You can hear Black Sabbath are my main teachers of my instrument. Most of us, in this business, are self-taught players. I learned from my Black Sabbath and Motörhead records. You take metal influences, derive it, it comes out in your hand and it’s metal.

What is the lyrical inspiration for the band? The EP seems to have a war vibe.
Like most artists, it’s my regurgitation on what I see every day. “Soldierhead,” for instance, started out being inspired by the Pat Tillman story [Tillman was a professional football player who joined the military after 9/11; he died in  Afghanistan from friendly fire] and went from there, what would actually be going on in his head, like bombs and bullets. If you read through, it’s pretty deep. “King of the Underdogs” is kind of a personal thing almost. It’s, like, the highest-rated of the underrated. I think people are rooting for me to win as they do with underdogs.

“Godsnake” comes from a Bible story that if God came down as a snake, how long will it take until someone misjudged him? So don’t judge people by how they look. Don’t judge a book by the cover, you know, the old adage. But “Godsnake” also has to do with me judging persons and then getting slapped in the face by their prowess. A short story: I was in Oakland with Jim Martin from Faith No More. It was some years ago when we had some hair. This place is a genuine real-deal blues club. We were the only white guys in the club playing pool and having a drink. I saw this black gentleman at the end of the bar who was very scraggy and very shaky. He could barely bring the shot up to his lips. And I’m like, goddang, I feel for that guy. About four minutes later that same dude is onstage with a slide guitar taking the flesh off my face. Guess who’s not going to judge anyone again? That’s me. Because he kicked my ass and I thought he was just some man who could barely walk.

Mike Mushok from Staind joined the group last month. How did that happen?
We’re very excited about Mike. He’s not only a great person but he’s focused, determined, clear-headed, and a great instrumentalist. I never really knew Staind had that kind of capability but he’s a shredder. The kind of dimension he adds to this band…it makes the heavier that much heavier. I mean, I’m writing songs from a bass player-on-guitar standpoint and he comes in and adds all this color to it. Also, his recent and intelligent experience on the road. I haven’t been neck-deep in this since 2003 with Ozzy. Many things have changed and many things have stayed the same.

He’s like a secret weapon.
That is true. I have two secret weapons in this band because Jessie Farnsworth, the other guitar player, he also can sing. Both those guys, they’re both from Connecticut so they automatically got along immediately and that is a giant, giant task. They actually showed respect for each other right away and that was a big thing.

Have any of the guys in Metallica heard your work, and if they have, what did they say?
I really don’t know if they have. I haven’t talked to them in a while. They’re so busy in their own thing so they probably haven’t heard it. They probably heard I’m doing it.

So you guys don’t talk too much?
No. Not regularly. Last time I saw them was the reunion thing. We’re business partners for the rest of our lives, so that’s how we keep in contact.

You just finished the LP. What do you have in mind as far as presentation goes?
The record company guys are coming tomorrow to hear it for the first time in my home studio so it’s kind of a landmark day. I have 13 tracks I’m playing for them, but it will probably be nine or 10 on the album because they are six- or seven-minutes long. I want to give people the headbang for the buck. The EP is a sampler to let people know what’s going on. But we will be including some of the same tracks but they will be re-recorded. So it goes to proper mix in a couple of weeks. People from the Metallica camp from the past have come out to help me. So one of the guys who is doing the mixing has been working with Metallica since the Black Album. So we’re trying to keep that camp involved a little bit. As far as presentation, I want it to be as honest and genuine as that is my bottom line. It’s following through what we talked about earlier, it’s the global that everybody sees and can understand. No secrets. It’s not all fast but it’s all heavy.

How has your shoulder been since you injured it in 2006, and is it true you has to deal with an addiction to painkillers as well?
I had three different surgeries from 2004 to 2008. It went from the right to the left to the right again so I was one-armed for three and a half years. I got addicted to painkillers and it was an ugly time. But I had to keep my art going. I painted. I’m about 95-percent back now, which is as close as I think I can get because the damage to the flesh and bone is just what it is. A lot of headbanging took place during those years. I’m definitely stronger now at 50 than I was at 40 because I was on pills and stuff. But I’ve been off that for some years now and I got myself clean. I didn’t do any kind of rehab, just music and my wife was very helpful.

The worse thing for an artist has to be not being able to make their art.
That was definitely a hard thing to adapt to. Just like anyone would tell you, you learn to appreciate things greatly. I tried to make the best lemonade I could. I learned to use both of my hands equally now. I’m fully ambidextrous now because of that. Now both of my paintings are done with both hands. All of my paintings have text so I do with my left hand and all the painting with my right hand. So I use both sides of my brain on each piece. That’s kinda nifty.

It seems like you’re very hands-on when it comes to the band. When did you build your studio and have other artists recorded there?
We started the Chophouse in January in 1992. It was when the Black Album did really well and I brought home one of those checks and built the studio. We have done thousands and thousands of hours in there with many different styles of players. Up until this point, we just kind of recorded demos and stuff. Sepultura guys, Exodus, Devin Townsend, Death Angel, Machine Head. Then other players from different styles of music like a hip-hop guy DJ Shadow, jazz horn players, and female soul vocalists. We’ve built it up and tried to keep up with the technology. But for the most part, it’s a very simple place, just a wooden building with one room and we go in and jam.

After years of experimenting with different styles of music, what advice would you give to younger musicians?
Keep yourself a clear head. Take on as many influences as you possibly can. Don’t be tunnel-visioned about the music. You can definitely have your favorite. There were times of course where it was the metal only sound in my life and it’s important you feel part of something when you’re that age and dress your music. Don’t ever lose that. You can grow up and mature but you don’t ever have to stop being passionate about your music. You can still be a metal dude and take on John Coltrane and Ice Cube. That’s what I say-- keep your listening practices diverse. Probably half of the other music I listen to is in other languages or people that invent their own instruments because that is purity.

As someone who loves foreign music and has been all over the world, what are some of the best things you have seen?
I see how much everyone is different and very much the same, especially through this music. If you speak a different language, live in a different climate, have different customs and religions, but when metal comes around, it unifies all. If you are down with metal, you are all the same and that’s the beauty of it. It does unify us. There has been many times where we can have a hundred of thousand watt PA system and the crowd will sing louder than that. I just get bumps remembering that kind of thing now. It’s a unifying factor that I can’t guarantee happens with any other style of music.

You’re not just a metal fan for one summer. When you’re in it, you’re in it. I mean, I got that quote from Rob Zombie when he said, “You aren’t just a Slayer fan for one summer.” The thing that I’ve noticed as a metal player is that even if the lyrics aren’t positive or uplifting, is that they have brought more sheer joy to people than any other feeling. I feel that, too, and that’s what I take as my measure of success. Certainly, we’ve traveled around the world and our bank accounts are good but that’s because we worked hard for that. But the real accomplishment is in how you share with other people and what you make them feel like. That is the shiniest part of my crown. I know I’ve brought more joy than anything else.

Apr 23 San Jose Rock Shop San Jose, CA
Apr 24 The Starline Fresno, CA
Apr 26 The Alley Sparks, NV
Apr 27 Ace of Spades Sacramento, CA
May 01 The Roxy Los Angeles, CA
May 03 Vinyl Las Vegas, NV
May 04 KUPD Ufiesta Mesa, AZ
May 15 Planet Rock Battle Creek, MI
May 17 The Crofoot Pontiac, MI
May 18 Bottom Lounge Chicago, IL
May 21 Highline Ballroom New York, NY
May 22 The Middle East Downstairs Cambridge, MA
May 23 The Stone Pony Asbury Park, NJ

Photos: Halestorm and Bullet for My Valentine Live in Utah