Hard core rocker talks of 25 years since Metallica’s Black Album and his new adventures in American roots music
By Gary Graff
August 22, 2016
When it comes to music, Jason Newsted has been on the proverbial long, strange trip that’s taking another left turn this year. The Michigan native is known mostly as a heavy metal bass slinger whose credits include Flotsam and Jetsam and, between 1986-2001, Metallica, which included the landmark Metallica (aka The Black Album) that’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year as well as an induction for Newsted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The past 15 years, meanwhile, include a short-term membership and production role with Voivod along with Echobrain and a stint in Ozzy Osbourne’s band. In 2012 he began fronting his own group, Newsted, that released an EP and album and toured but is currently on hiatus — though, Newsted maintains, is not over.
But it’s taking a back seat to his surprising latest endeavor — a pair of acoustic groups, the Chophouse Band (named after his four recording studio facilities around the U.S. and featuring a fluid roster of players) and the adjunct duo. Both play songs from the great Americana songbook and elsewhere, with some surprising contemporary material and a few originals.
Newsted himself is focusing on acoustic guitar these days rather than bass, and, like the 21st century equivalent of a boxcar-hopping troubadour, he has ambitious plans to bring the Chophouse to a venue near you as soon as possible. He was at home in northern California when we caught up with him for this chat.
FBPO: There’s so much talk right now about the 25th anniversary of The Black Album, and we’ll get to that, but it’s also 25 years since you opened your first Chophouse studio, which has everything to do with what you’re doing now.
Newsted: That’s right. When The Black Album started doing really good, I had been brainstorming about a studio and then the dough was finally coming in, and I designed it in a garage, and then it became the Chophouse. It was supposed to be a jam room, so everyone could have some place to go when you were between two weeks on a tour somewhere. In those days everyone was thriving — the Exodus or Sepultura guys, Devin Townsend, these people were all on tour, rockin’ their stuff. It was mostly Bay Area bands, some made it big, some didn’t. But they all came to the Chophouse on their down time to play music that was fun and to get away from the rigors of making an album or coming off a tour and just dig back into the music.
FBPO: So how did it grow from that into a live concept?
Newsted: We’d all play together and do all these crazy songs — “John Henry,” Carter Family songs, Neil Young songs — and we’d do private keg parties with our buddies up the street. We’d take our Fender amps and load up the trucks and hack through the songs. Whoever wanted to be included could be included. We’d take hand drums, and people who weren’t even necessarily musicians could be included. It was like a porch jam. And we did that for years, just our friends, and finally this year I decided we were going to start sharing it with more people — if they gave a crap. But we’ve been talking about it for a long time.
FBPO: And it’s something that’s loose by design.
Newsted: It is. It’s the same exact people, just brought out in front of the people. The band is different every night, just whoever is available at the time to come play the show. I try to give them 15, 20 songs — old, cool songs, American songs — to refresh themselves on and go over with us. They show up on the stage and we rock it. So whatever happens, happens. There’s a lot of beautiful imperfections.
FBPO: Fans can’t help but wonder how one of the titans of heavy metal has such an affinity for folk and roots music like this?
Newsted: It’s kind of a deep thing. My mom started getting sick, and everything else took a back seat. I could’ve had another Newsted record on its way, but it wasn’t in the cards this time around. Once something with mom takes place, everything else come after that. We lost her the last day of March, and I spent a lot of time with her these last couple of years, and she liked a lot of these songs and this music. I would play it for her, and I started to collect these songs, and it was an important thing, coming down from that heavy music for a second and getting to take a breath again. And I saw a couple documentaries about American music and old roots music, and everything combined really started to inspire me. I think I was pretty open-hearted and open-minded and seeing things from a different perspective. And spending so much time with my mom really reminded me of how valuable things are and sent me down that path.
FBPO: Was the actual playing a big adjustment? Did you find yourself starting to headbang automatically, even though you had an acoustic guitar in your hands?
Newsted: [laughs] Well, I think all the limbs are moving. I played til my fingers were sore to really learn how to play the acoustic guitar. I had always messed with it but never really focused it on it like I am now. I still just play cowboy chords, all at the end of the neck, like Johnny Cash. Mostly I’m just trying to dig and dig and dig and collect songs. My book is getting fuller. I’ve got about two years collecting songs, and I’ve got ’em going back to, like 1610 and songs about King George IV, a really badass Celtic song, and a lot of songs from the 1800s that have become public domain, mining songs and train songs, coming all the way up to George Jones and Johnny Cash and Son House and blues, anything that built what they call Americana now. And some newer heroes like Justin Townes Earle and Jason Isbell. We’re just digging, digging, digging to keep it fresh for ourselves.
FBPO: Have you tried to work up arrangements of Metallica songs or other metal material?
Newsted: Oh yeah; my friends are all over that. A friend of mine said: “Why don’t you try ‘As The Crow Flies’ or something like that, calm it down and make it your own and put it in this place with these instruments you’re using now?” But it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be. I thought you could slow down the tempo and do this and that, but it’s not like that. There’s got to be a real change of flavor, so it’ll take some time to make it equally cool to the way it was done originally.
FBPO: Do you think this will be a recording endeavor at some point?
Newsted: I really haven’t thought very seriously about it since most of the stuff is songs a lot of other people have [on] recording. There’s a handful of originals, maybe a dozen, I’ve got together in this style. But I’m not ready to do any kind of recording with it. I’m kind of digging the idea that I just play it as much as I can and share it with people. The shows so far have only been 70 people or a couple hundred people, and it’s people who WANT to be there. That’s what I want. It’s a grassroots vibe. We’ve been offered bigger shows for this from the agency; the initial offers were 700 people in a room, 900 people. That’s not OK. We haven’t earned that yet with this outfit. I want to build up the right way and earn it. I’m not in a hurry that way. I’m going to cherish every minute I do it, but I’m not going to hurry it up and ruin it.
FBPO: So what did happen with the Newsted band? That seemed like it had a whole head of steam a couple years ago.
Newsted: I put the cart before the horse with that, I think. I was trying to take on too much stuff at once. I think too much anticipation probably got the best of me. You can only do so much and make it work right. I won’t call it over ’cause I did write a whole nother record, but it just hasn’t been put together. It hasn’t been recorded all the way. It’s not ready for the people. That’s something that’s just on the back burner right now.”
FBPO: It’s a landmark year for the Metallica album, as we noted before. What’s your perspective on it 25 years later?
Newsted: Y’know, it could’ve been about three weeks ago as far as I feel about wanting to play music. I’m proud, man. I’m proud of what we did. I’ve talked to Lars [Ulrich] a couple of times in this last couple of weeks, and it’s just awesome, really.
FBPO: What was it like in the studio making it? Did you know what you were getting?
Newsted: There was obviously a culmination that took place. It was 10 years after the guys had started [Metallica] and 10 years, basically, after I’d started Flotsam. Everybody had built themselves up through hard knocks and whatever scars and so forth to be ready for what was coming. And then we had [producer] Bob Rock come in and of course we weren’t used to that kind of thing. He whipped us into shape about the tonality of things and the power of things and actually sound quality. We were ready for it, he was ready for us, the world was ready for the sound. Everybody put their nose to the stone and worked hard, like Metallica always did, and then we got the fruits from it.
FBPO: Do you have a favorite song or moment from it?
Newsted: My favorite song is “Sad But True” because of the weight, the six-string bass and just big, big bottom that make me feel good. But “My Friend Misery” was quite an accomplishment for me to be able to do something like that where the bass was introducing the song and leading that song, which was not the easiest thing to do at that time within the band. I presented that as a whole piece and we kind of picked parts out of it to make it that song. Those guys kind of bowed and said: “Let her go, man. Put your song on there.” As opposed to being part of the team I got to be myself for a minute there, which was really special.
FBPO: There’s been talk and rumors about a book from you. Truth to that?
Newsted: As the Newsted thing was winding down, I had a book offer. I was just about in; they wanted to send money for the advance, and I had a few conversations with publishers about choosing a [co-]writer and everything. It just didn’t work out, though. I realized I didn’t want to do it right now.Maybe someday. I’m hoping I can build some more stories with this and then write [the book] some time along the way when I settle down. I still want to do this [music] while the skills are intact, while the functions are intact and everything is cool. I want to make sure that’s the way it’s gonna go and not get sidetracked from that just yet.