By now the story of how Jason Newsted made the leap from pit to stage has become part of Metallica legend. Even after 14 years, Newsted is still genuinely respectful when he explains what a tall order it is to fill Cliff Burton's shoes. And he's proud at having earned his place in the band that many consider successors to the metal crown that Led Zeppelin once held. But landing the Metallica gig, as Newsted will tell you with great enthusiasm, was just the beginning of a long evolutionary process that's still going on -- one that has in some ways brought Newsted's musical odyssey full circle.
Before Flotsam & Jetsam, the band he formed in Arizona prior to joining Metallica, Newsted had played in a gaggle of hard rock bands and grew up immersed in a wide variety of music. In recent years Metallica's adventures in sound have given him an opportunity to dabble outside the metal box, but he's also been exploring even more far-flung possibilities during down time from Metallica, partaking in an ongoing series of jams with a revolving cast of players. One particular ensemble, Echobrain (which features some of the symphony musicians he met during the "S&M" project as well as Kirk Hammett and former Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin), has just completed an album's worth of studio material which Newsted hopes to unleash soon. On the eve of Metallica's performance on the MTV Movie Awards, Newsted took some time out to talk shop.
Guitar.com: How have you grown most as a player?
Jason Newsted: Opening my mind to the possibilities and the beauty of other types of music, how it can influence you subconsciously if you feed your filter enough quality stuff and keep trying new things. You can always learn, and the cooler the stuff you listen to, the cooler your playing's going to be. It's going to come out of your hands without you even knowing it if you practice good listening. A lot of people can play, but not a lot of people listen, and to be a good listener [means] knowing when not to play, to let the song be a song and the band be a band, whether it's four guys playing loud electric guitars or if it's 50 strings. Let everybody play their part in order to make multidimensional, cool-sounding stuff. It's not important to be so abrasive all the time or to be super gnarly. Do it when you want to get heavy, but you don't have to be raspy to be heavy. You don't have to go fast to be heavy.
Guitar.com: There are many facets of heavy.
Newsted: There really is. I learned a lot about listening. When you play with somebody else, especially from another style -- which I try to do a lot -- you're always going to learn something. If I have jazz guys over or horn players or a singer or whatever when we jam, I don't pretend to know their style or try to be all slap bass or whatever. I play my style -- kind of distorted, cool fast bass with a pick. That's how I play. That's my style and they come in and they play their weird stuff that I don't understand, but it all sounds cool together.
Guitar.com: Does that kind of jamming keep you fresh for Metallica?
Newsted: Yep. That is exactly it. When we get together we have a good work ethic. We kick ass and do what we need to do and get serious when we need to get serious. But as far as other things -- you know the other guys are married. James [Hetfield] has a couple kids now and Lars [Ulrich] has a little guy and the priorities have shifted as time goes by but they haven't shifted a whole lot for me. Music still is my hobby, passion, occupation, everything. That's the difference. I guess I just want to keep playing all the time. We had about 45 days off from Metallica so I decided to make an album.
Guitar.com: Were you influenced by music other than rock?
Newsted: I was always into funk music and soul music 'cause of where I was raised. Our town in [Battle Creek], Michigan was half way in between Chicago and Detroit on the main highway, so you'd get lots of 45s for 12 cents down at the record store -- weird funk bands and soul bands. My brothers were five and eight years older than me so I got to hear a lot of stuff early. I heard Hendrix when I was nine and a lot of that weird soul music and different funky garage music, so that was always probably closest to my heart and may be why I ended up playing bass. That's still my favorite kind of music, but when Flotsam was happening, I was more into heavy metal and hard rock -- the hardest stuff possible, and a little bit of punk. But mostly Iron Maiden and California [bands] like Exodus and Metallica and Slayer.
Guitar.com: Punk has always emphasized attitude over technical skill and metal is more about chops. Metallica draws on both. Were you always into technique?
Newsted: I was not as attracted to the technique as I was to musical music. Some music can be super heavy and fast and still be listenable, and I guess that's always been the thing. Punk wasn't as listenable for me. For me, the music was more important than the attitude and then after a while you get to have equal measures of both and the you could do something with it. I think Metallica is a very good representative of that - equal amounts of attitude and musicianship.
Guitar.com: What were the biggest obstacles in the transition from Flotsam to Metallica?
Newsted: Mutual respect was earned and it took a long time. It was not easy by any means but the music, the fire and the passion -- that's what I had to rely on. The toughest thing no matter what, probably in a lot of businesses but especially in this one where we live this accelerated lifestyle and you're with each other all the damn time in close quarters, is you have to learn to respect each other's space and be cool with each other. You're not going to agree with everything somebody says or like all of their friends or girlfriend or their wife or whatever. You have to learn to deal with shit and we did. We somehow collectively kept that and the vision together -- to see the big picture, what we have to go through and put up with in order for it to all happen. The hardest thing about it is the emotional tests. The out and out human contact and understanding and compassion and consideration. Those are the big things. I mean, there's a lot of killer players out there, a lot of wonderful players, a lot of guys that could play circles around us in different manners, but that's not what it's all about. It's about magic that's created between people that can deal with each other. And we've proven that we can work it out.
Guitar.com: Was there a particular point where you realized you'd made it?
Newsted: No. It was a thing that happened over time, which is good for everybody because a lot of times we see people that have things happen to them too quick. They've been asking for it and asking for it and working hard for it and when they do get it, it just crushes them. Chews them up and spits them right back out. Fortunately our thing was a long hard up climb before we really got any kind of recognition so we were kind of set and seasoned before the shit really started hitting it and accolades started coming our way.
Guitar.com: There are people out there who take what you do very, very personally. That kind of pressure can be hard to bear. Do you ever feel uncomfortable with it?
Newsted: I feel only positive. I shake 500 people's hands a week on the low end. And out of all this time I've had maybe five people come up to me with something negative to say or something that really bugged me or disturbed me. I can't even recall them right now. In the early years, mostly. Recently everybody comes with positive, good energy. It's really crazy to think about it I don't mind being some positive model but I don't want to think of myself as an idol. The way I look up to B.B. King or Eric Clapton. I don't want to consider myself that way because I feel if I get sucked up in that I could really get too ego'ed out. That kind of trip you see usually with people that haven't paid their dues yet.
Guitar.com: Do you have particular favorites live?
Newsted: There are songs I like because of the challenge of playing them each time no matter how many thousands of times you play 'em. "Battery," and "Master of Puppets" are actually still challenging to play right. Actually no Metallica songs are easy to play correctly -- no matter what anybody says. But some are just really technically a challenge quick things and the off timing and all that kind of stuff. I think "The Outlaw Torn" is a very good recent Metallica composition. It's just such another level of song writing and so wonderful to listen to for so many people's ears. It's not something that's too harsh or too soft but it's just got that certain melancholy and there's a certain power that really gets me. It's also a long song which is a challenge to maintain proper, consistent playing.
Guitar.com: Any words of wisdom you'd offer to some one who's just starting to play?
Newsted: The most important thing no matter what instrument you play is listening to as much music as possible, keeping an open mind, open ears. To try to grow from other people's experiences. You can tell people that are more experienced by the way they play -- their nuances, their technique. B.B. King has been touring since 1952 but every time he nails that note -- whatever crowd and whatever language they're speaking out there, he crushes them. An incredible showman. No matter what, you're not going to see a bad show.