Rock and roll never forgets. At least that’s what former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted hopes. From 1986 to early 2001, he was a member of unarguably the world’s biggest metal band, touring the world, making millions, and creating landmark albums including . . . And Justice for All and Metallica (a/k/a “the Black album”).
But then he wasn’t. The reasons were manifold: Newsted’s health issues and a resultant painkiller addiction, plus the classic “creative differences.” As drummer Lars Ulrich said in a 1996 interview: “Me and James [Hetfield] used to guard [Metallica] like the fucking crown jewels. I think we found ourselves even guarding Metallica a little bit from [guitarist] Kirk [Hammett] and Jason in a very, very bizarre way.”
A dozen years out of the band and a bounty of diverse musical and artistic projects in his repertoire, it’s still Metallica that’s stirring Newsted’s creative juices. The end result is the newly revealed band Newsted (featuring drummer Jesus Mendez Jr. and guitarist/backing vocalist Jessie Farnsworth) and a newly minted four-song EP, the excellent and unequivocally titled Metal.
“This was created because of the fans,” Newsted says of Metal. “I went to play the 30th reunion with Metallica in December 2011, at the Fillmore (in San Francisco), and I got completely lit up by the fans. It was a fan-club operation, about 30 or 35 countries represented, all kinds of languages screaming at me. It made me want to come back to this. I’m doing it for them.”
While 11 songs are recorded, the four cuts that appear on Metal—two about war (the thrashy classic “Soldierhead” and “Skyscraper”); two more lyrically personal (“Godsnake” and “King of the Underdogs”)—are intended to “feel out the waters, to see if anybody remembers who Jason Newsted is.” Without the behemoth Metallica machine behind him, the buoyant musician seems genuinely tentative about his place in the music firmament. “I’ve played many different styles. With Echobrain (the side project that caused a schism within Metallica), Voivod, Gov’t Mule, DJ Shadow, all those different styles. There’d been mixed reactions as I reached out into those places, so when I come back with what I do best, the old-school metal, that’s why it’s getting the [positive] reaction it is.”
Metal marks the first time in a 30-year career that the 49-year-old musician has total creative control, hence the self-titled band. “It’s Michael Jordan, four seconds left,” Newsted analogizes. “You get the ball, you make it—rad!—you’re on everybody’s shoulders. You miss it, you go back to the locker room by yourself. But I’m ready for it.” That said, it’s a big step out of his comfort zone. “Live, we switch instruments, guitars and bass, to keep it interesting. Lead vocal with lead guitar is quite a step. Bass with lead vocals is a step but more comfortable, of course. It’s new ground that I’m excited to tread.”
He claims the longevity and/or permanence of Newsted depends on fan reaction—and thus far, he’s “a bit surprised but very happy.” It helps that he’s both a super-fan and a super-fan-friendly rock star. Post-Metallica, in an odd switcheroo, he played with Ozzy Osbourne in the bass slot once occupied by Robert Trujillo, who replaced Newsted in Metallica. Onstage with Osbourne, Newsted reverted back to being a teen fanboy.
“He called out a song that I hadn’t rehearsed ever before, and I’m in front of 22,000 people,” recalls Newsted. “Ozzy screams out ‘The Wizard.’ He looks over at me. . . . But because I learned from Black Sabbath when there was only vinyl—needle back, needle back, needle back—it was all the way from my toes. I go: ‘OK, how old am I? 16?’ And there I was. I have posters still adhered to my bedroom wall in my room at my dad’s house in Michigan—Black Sabbath,” he confesses. “I saw them this Christmas. When the guy that taught you to play metal asks you to be in his band, it’s a surreal experience.”
Newsted relates to his own tongue-tied fans: “Everybody assumed their roles in Metallica. James was the songwriter, Lars was the business guy, Kirk was the artist, and I was the people person. I always was pushed out front—because no one else wanted to do it at the time—with fans and also the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the cancer kids. That was my bag: traveling across the country, across the world, to do some of these things on Metallica’s behalf. Little did [Metallica] know that they were the ones missing out. But because I was the ambassador for the band, I became [spiritually] rich from it.”
Which explains songs like “Godsnake,” in which he writes about remaining humble and nonjudgmental. “In our society now, at least in North America, the encouragement in reality TV is to be judgmental,” he says. “The biggest loser, the addict, the pregnant teen, judge, judge, judge. It’s the exact opposite of what’s supposed to happen to make this world go round.”
That said, he’s no Pollyanna. Metal rocks as hard as, well, Justice-era Metallica. Newsted’s philosophy: “Yes, I am the tallest midget, the king of the underdogs,” he says, laughing. He tackles the subject in the autobiographical “King of the Underdogs.” It’s a call to power where Newsted, the voice of experience, urges: “Don’t let anybody Keep. You. Down. Do your own thing, fly your flag, get loud as hell if that’s what you want to do.”
Newsted’s Metal is out this week.