In 2002, Jason Newsted quit one of the biggest heavy metal band in the world. It was a decision that could have meant the end of his career. Indeed, for the past ten years, the bassist was in a state of semi-retirement, only occasionally emerging to guest on a Sepultura album, or play a few low key shows with his experimental punk/metal project Papa Wheelie. Mention the name Newsted to a heavy music fan, and the most likely response would be "oh yeah, that guy from Metallica."
Yet, flash forward to 2013 and the one-time Metallica bassist is at the helm of one of the most surprising, and welcome heavy metal comebacks in recent years. His debut solo album, the aptly titled "Heavy Metal Music," is a brutal slab of retro metal goodness that has received near universal critical acclaim. The accompanying tour has seen Newsted bring his unique brand of old school heavy to fans across the globe. No longer just the man who was in Metallica, Newsted's latest endeavors have shown that the bassist/vocalist can stand on his own two feet and throw down with the best of them.
UG: "Heavy Metal Music" is an album with a definite, balls to the wall, old school vibe. Would you say that recording it allowed you to get back to your roots?
JN: Yes, in many different ways. It's the first time that I've really bared down and wrote all the songs top to bottom; all the parts, all drum programming, all lyrics and all voice. So it's quite ... going back to roots. Like the Flotsam and Jetsam days, where I would do close to the same thing, composing songs from the get go. So, in that way, it's old school. Also, in the way that we did everything here in my garage, in my studio. It's my old equipment and all those things. In a very old school way we go in together and play all the songs together; very few overdubs, let the mistakes go and let as much human factor exist as possible. For all of those reasons, yes, it's old school all the way.
You've previously stated that, with the new band, you feel like you're "19 again and just ready to kill it." What is it about the new set up that has revitalized you to playing music?
I think coming back all the way to my roots. After venturing out into many different styles over time and having the privilege to play with all different kinds of players from different genres and things like that, I've come back to what I know best. In that way, that makes me feel young again. It's the same style as where I started with Flotsam. I'm getting back into it. As you said, it's balls to the wall right from the get go, heavy metal all the time.
I guess it comes down to remembering why you started doing it to begin with, y'know? Getting reminded of all the newness. I've been away just long enough for there to be an innocence to this again. I think that's what it came down to; me feeling really young and rekindling a connection with the fans ... long time fans that I had already known, and then new fans that hadn't seen me play yet that had only seen videos of stuff. There's new fans to impress and new people to show off for, so it's new in all those ways.
I wanted to pick up on something that you'd said there about having been away for a while. I was wondering if your time off the scene and away from the limelight has affected your approach to making music?
I think it affected it in the way of appreciation. I'm coming back into it after trying to get away from it, in any serious manner, for a long time. I did some underground stuff with Voivod and did Echobrain records and many other recordings with different people of different styles ... there was always music. I couldn't go for seven or eight days without having a jam session with some of my friends somehow or other, whether it was a jam on the porch or a full-blown live session in the studio or whatever. I had to keep the music going in order to keep my balance. So I kept it alive the whole time. But coming back to it in a serious manner ... it all was for a reason. I never planned on having a band of my own like this, coming back out and being in the business again or anything like that, let alone having anything with my name on it. Never ever.
I thought I was retired. I retired from Metallica, I retired from any kind of heavy touring. I'd do one-off shows and do keg parties with Papa Wheelie and different stuff like that, but I'd never planned on being in the big time again. So now that I'm back ... I guess there's a reason for all of that. I was gone long enough to really enjoy it again this time. You mentioned that Newsted is the first project that we have seen you fronting. Does being in that position daunt you at all, and does being a front-man change the way that you approach live performance?
It's not daunting. It's only challenging. There's a nervous excitement to being able to present myself and to show off again in a different way, to wear all these new hats and all that stuff. I have bitten off a pretty big bite to chew now, but challenges are what make us get better and keep us alive. The particular scenario of mine ... it's like a guy who hits the dot com boom or someone who wins the lottery ... all of a sudden, you've got a whole bunch of freakin' money and all the time in the world, and you have to challenge yourself so you don't go soft, or get drunk, or get addicted to gambling, or go f--king mental or whatever. I found myself in that situation after I left Metallica, with all the money in the world and all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted to do. And so I really had to figure out how to create challenges for myself. And so from the time I left that band I've created challenges for myself in Voivod, Echobrain, all my art pieces, Sepultura, jamming with different players, and now this great challenge, some 12 years after I left Metallica. It's so important in my life to keep challenging myself so I continue to stay alive.
To pick up, again, on something you mentioned, you suffered a shoulder injury in 2006 that resulted in you being unable to play for some time. This led you to take up painting. I was wondering if your working in another creative medium had affected the way that you approached making music once you recovered?
There's a direct correlation. No question about it. It's the same kind of wild colors that go on the canvas that go into the music. The collectors so far ... I know a dozen people that collect multiple pieces ... and their consensus is that the paintings look like the music sounds. The intensity of the music is matching the intensity of the artwork. It's from the same hands and head and heart. The way that I go about either of them ... they help each other along. Painting helps the music, music helps the painting in a way of seeing how things go together. Some colors really go together, some really wont. Some notes will work really well together and some really wont. I think it's helped me stand back and look at it a little bit deeper than I would have before. That's what I learned taking the ideas of painting to the music. I step back from a song, look at it a little bit deeper than I would have in the past. That's maybe why we have some of the compositions that we have on the "Heavy Metal Music" LP; because I've taken a little more time with the compositions as opposed to Papa Wheelie songs and stuff like that where I just blast through them. There, whatever it is, it is. You put the microphone in the room, blast through the song, and boom, you've got the record. On these ones, I took a little more in depth look, like I would with a painting.
Re-listening to the record, I noticed that there's a defiant edge that goes with several of the songs, particularly tracks like "King of the Underdogs." Was that an intention of yours when you were writing it, or something that came out through the process of doing it?
I think that there's a common thread in the lyrical content of most of the songs about an underdog type thing where you stand up for yourself, you follow your heart and you do what you believe in; nobody else is in your shoes, only you, so you have to make decisions that are right for your life. Standing up against people who don't believe in your, or standing up for your beliefs; that's the common thread that flows through it. If there's any message that I really wanted to consciously get through with this music, it is that. Probably a lot of people do write about that, but in my thing it's a very real aspect, and a thing that I've lived in life. It's a thing that I do live in life every day and lead by example; doing it my way, and coming up as an underdog in some peoples' eyes. It's all about doing your own thing, even if it's against other peoples' ... maybe nobody can understand why I did what I did at the time, but it's right for me, and now that the smoke has cleared, we see that it was right for every one. So, there you go. Stand up for yourself.
You've been involved in the business of making rock and metal music since the 1980s. What has changed for you since you got started? Do you think it is harder for artists to get ahead in music these days?
A lot of things have changed, especially since I was ... well, if you go back to the '80s then yeah, a lot has changed. The last ten years, when I was out of it really, the technology has ramped up incredibly. The piracy and the stealing of music has changed all that a lot in terms of what was projected for us to earn through our lives and be able to put away for our people to go through college and our parents to be taken care of. That's changed the outlook for most of us who were able to make money at music once upon a time. That doesn't really happen any more. You do have to work four times as hard for about half as much.
Some things haven't changed; a couple of very important things. You've got to still take the music to the people live and win over one fan at a time. You've got to convince them, or re-convince them, or reaffirm what they already knew in my case. That hasn't changed, so I'm happy about that. If we go all the way back to the '80s, when I started tape trading, if I wanted the tape to go to you in England tomorrow, or next week, or whatever, I had to take one envelope, one customs form, one tape and one promo pack, and then send it to you for a Dollar eighteen or whatever it was back then. And then that gets to you a week later, you listen to it, figure "that's neat" or whatever and then send me a copy of a tape by another band and we go round and round and round. Today, you push a button and three million people can have that song instantaneously. That has changed a lot. It's like "here comes everybody and there's so much competition with everybody vying for the same dollar and how do we get attention for our band" and all those things. So, the crowd is bigger. The world has shrunk because of the internet, the number of people to expose yourself to is greater, but the amount of people that are actually going to come and pay for your stuff is a lower percentage than it used to be...
It has good and bad sides to it. I have just begun to embrace social media. In November of last year, I got my website up. In my case, since I did 30 years of legwork without the internet, I've got a pretty good foothold because the fans are already convinced from a surface way rather than through a computer; they've seen me play live or they've been able to take in the music over time. What I've figured out now is that the album is the calling card for your band, to spearhead attention to your live show. You let somebody know that you're coming to their town to play live music, and you try to sell them some merchandise when you get to their town. You have to figure out something they cannot download; a t-shirt, a trinket, a necklace, a headband and a live concert experience. These are the things that can't be downloaded. So you've gotta let them know where you're at with the album and go and sell them a shirt. That's the only way to let any ends meet in this business now.
So that album has now become the promotional material?
Yeah, it is. The calling card, the promotional material. It used to be the thing that could make you a couple of bucks, or the tour would take you out and you'd make a little bit off the tour and a little bit off the album together. That's not the case any more. The album just pays for itself, if you're lucky, and the t-shirts have to make the profit to put the gas in the bus to go round the world and take it to the people. That really is the real deal. And if you're lucky to have some good designs and you can sell a bunch of merchandise, then maybe you can make some profit.
Following on from that, if you were to give one piece of advice to Ultimate-Guitar readers, many of whom are aspiring professional musicians, what would that be?
A couple of things that we've already touched on. The first thing is to not take things personally. When you're in a band, an outfit, a combo, or whatever, don't take things personally. If you have your quest, and you want to get out there and play some music for the people, you have to form a tough skin. Don't break up. Don't break your band up. Don't take things personally and keep your band going no matter what you have to sacrifice. Because you will have to sacrifice every single thing that you know. Relationships, family, money, food, comfort; everything you must sacrifice in order to be successful, so be ready to do that. If youre not ready to do that, go find something else to do.
Finally, where are you planning to take it next?
"TO THE TOP, TO THE VERY TOP!" ... Isn't that a Beatles quote? Uh ... let's see ... I wanna take it forward. That's it. I really don't have any crazy, grand expectations about this thing. I'm really doing what I feel. I'm happy about doing it. I feel really strong about doing it again. I've got some guys that I feel support me and believe in me and that's such a great feeling. I'm happy about the music that we've produced so far and the amount of time we've produced it in. That keeps it honest and pure, which I'm happy about as well. The live shows have come off pretty good. For what we had to work with and some of the situations we were put in, I think we really rose to the occasion and kicked a lot of ass in the first fifty shows we've played for the people.
I don't know what's gonna happen in the music business. I cannot predict what next technological thing is going to screw us up or help us, what we're going to be able to harness with downloading so that we can eventually make some profit on this. So I will continue to write some songs, I will continue to seize the opportunities that are given us. My quest is still the same as it's been since the beginning of Flotsam and Jetsam; to be able to take the music to anywhere that will accept for us to play our westernized rock and roll. I've played in 50 countries so far, and I'd like to play in more if I could some day. That hasn't changed. So depending on how the world changes, I'm gonna continue on my quest and keep taking it out to the people as long as I can. It's important for me that you know that these 50 shows that have happened with this band up to this point; I've paid for. I bankrolled all this stuff. I bankrolled Echobrain, I bankrolled Voivod; it's all a labour of love. This Newsted thing now, it cost me money to go out and play to the people. When you saw us at Donington; that cost me for us to go and play at Donington. But I do it because I wanna do it. So I'll keep doing it as long as my body keeps going, as long as my shoulders keep going and as long as the people want to share it with us. As long as the opportunities are decent, I'll keep taking us out there and as soon as it doesnt make sense any more, then I'll stop.
Well, we're grateful that you do keep doing it, so please do keep on doing it.
Thanks man, appreciate it.
Interview by Alec Plowman Ultimate-Guitar.com 2013