"Check out the low end on this thing, man--it's sick." Whooom! With a wack of his hand, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted coaxes a sternum-shaking note from an African djembe drum. As the sound echoes around the live room of his Northern California home studio, Newsted continues giving the BASS PLAYER crew a tour of the 32-track facility. "We broke in this bad boy on Elvis's birthday," he grins, standing in front of a mouth-watering vintage instrument collection that would make Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel proud. In the control room, Charles Mingus and Sepultura CDs litter the face of a Tascam M-3500 mixing board, while house engineer Raymond Anthony tweaks files on a Macintosh. It's quite the crib.
Millions of record sales have made it all possible. The proof hangs in a den just to the left of the control room: dozens of gold and platinum discs--each engraved with PRESENTED TO: JASON NEWSTED--stretch all the way up to the ceiling. The band's latest album, Load, should add a few more plaques to his walls. Five years in the making, the disc continues to recruit legions of new fans who flash the band the legendary, two-fingered "devil" sign.
Veteran Metallica-heads, however, may wave other hand gestures at the tender, country-tinged acoustic sounds of "Mama Said." Newsted insists it's all part of the band's evolution. "We're always trying to do different things with heavy music," he says. "Bands who take the metal in different directions--like those who incorporate tribal rhythms, samplers, and sequencers into their tunes--will always get great respect from me. You have to keep exploring and going forward. No matter how many violins we put on a Metallica song, it'll always have an edge."
Load is Newsted's fourth record with the quartet since leaving metal outfit Flotsam & Jetsam. It's by far his best performance: Jason's bass no longer plays second fiddle to massive, MESA/Boogie-driven guitar tones. Instead, his guttural, growling 4-string--tuned down a half-step--drives the band along with drummer Lars Ulrich's wicked kick drum. Newsted even braves a fretless fingerboard on "Until It Sleeps." Will he finally earn the props he deserves?
Don't be fooled by his aggro-metal onstage antics--Jason can play. Throughout the photo shoot for this story, Newsted ran through a textbook of bass riffs on a Sadowsky 4-string, including Stanley Clarke-style double-stops, Jaco-esque delay-loop soloing, and thumb-mute reggae. He even let loose with some thumbstyle funk. Clearly, there's more to his talent than what we hear with Metallica.
During our initial phone conversation before the interview, Newsted politely requested we "not talk about what string gauges I use," but rather we "let the tape roll and rap about music." Armed with a big cup o' joe and a Guild acoustic bass guitar, Jason sat down in the center of a melange of recording gear, stomp boxes, and lava lamps. He looked like a mad scientist of low end as he busted loose home-brewed grooves on his Roland sampler, while inviting me to "kick it freestyle." Later, with the acid-jazz sounds of the band Ming filtering in from the control room, I placed my tape deck on the table between us, hit RECORD, and let the tape roll....
We're surrounded by ethnic percussion instruments. Have you spent any time learning to play different rhythms on them?
No, I just bang on 'em [laughs]. A lot of people who aren't necessarily musicians visit the studio, and I keep various noise-making devices around--drums, knockers, nose flutes--so they can play along. I love watching instructional videos, so I bought the Santana rhythm-section tape From Afro-Cuban to Rock [Latin Percussion]. It shows five general rhythms and how you apply them--but once the musicians start doing their thing, I just sit and watch in amazement. I haven't spent enough hours learning how to play those rhythms.
What type of music have you been recording in your studio?
This week, I'm recording a project of mine called Papa Wheelie, which is based around stuff I sampled in my spare time during Metallica's '96 European tour. When everybody else in the band is out drinkin', I go back to my hotel room and with a keyboard, a Tascam 4-track, and this [points to Roland MS-1 sampler], I create loops. No rules whatsoever. I try to develop rhythms and put lyrics or stupid poetry over the top. It's all experimenting, but it's fun.
Have you done many live sessions here?
Sure. It usually starts out as a blues-based rock thing, but there have been more serious projects where people stay at the house for days at a time. Most of the time, though, it turns into heavy metal or punk-101 types of songs with cool lowered tunings. The guys from Sepultura, Machine Head, the Melvins, and Kyuss have all recorded here. Devin Townsend--who sang with [guitarist] Steve Vai--has done the most recording with me; he's really gifted. So it's usually Devin, myself, and Tom Hunting, who was the drummer in Exodus.
Do you ever engineer?
Sometimes I end up mixing, but Raymond [Anthony] does all of the recording. He wired up the studio, and he's in the control room so I can create the songs. We trust him to get everything onto tape and to get good sounds so we can come in here and just start trippin'. A couple of the demos we've done have leaked out into the underground, which wasn't very cool. I never meant to take away from Metallica and "weaken the fist."
This must be a good creative outlet, though.
It is. It also helps me to be a good player in Metallica and to keep things fresh. I really want to learn from other players--not just bassists but horn players, singers, and electronic musicians.
Who has inspired you lately?
Mostly dudes I've played with here at the studio. A couple of them have made records, but they're not those kinds of players for the most part. There are jazz and avant-garde guys from San Francisco, drummers, and even a guitar-synth player. They're stars in my eyes, and I learn a lot from them in the way they speak their language. I hope they learn from me, too--although some of them look at me funny when I play my fast, galloping bass lines or silly, pick-style stuff.
It sounds as if you've been through some musical changes since the last Metallica record.
My musical interests keep getting wider. I love listening to tribal, indigenous peoples' music and to [folk archivist] Alan Lomax's recordings and the Smithsonian Institution stuff. Most of it is music that's been passed down for thousands of years. Its purity has opened me up to the "no rules" thing--just lettin' it fly and not worrying about how long a song is.
There's a custom in some cultures where there's one song that's your name. And when it's time for customary celebrations, you sing your song and present it to the village--so you might sing, [howls chant while tapping chest]. The idea that music can be so internally instilled makes me think very deeply.
I've also been reading about blues and jazz players to see how certain types of music were created.
Yeah--[acoustic slide guitarist] Son House, man. He's tops for me. And Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly... there are tons of others. As for jazz, I like some of Miles Davis's older stuff, some Coltrane, and older big-band stuff, such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Louis Armstrong did amazing things as far as presenting crazy music to white people and eventually getting mixed bands to play for mixed audiences. I like Charles Mingus, too; I just bought a video recorded in 1968 that shows him in his apartment loft shootin' holes in the ceiling with a shotgun. He'd walk around, sing to himself, and then go over to the piano and knock it out. It's so brilliant. I've also been listening to a lot of soul and funk: Parliament, Bootsy, James Brown, early Jackson Five, the Four Tops, the Gap Band, Brothers Johnson, and Larry Graham.
Let's talk about the new record. The bass is very big-sounding.
Musical, yes--there's more room for the low end to breathe.
The construction of the songs was the main factor. The band just celebrated its 15th anniversary--it was my tenth with the group--and we finally discovered how you're supposed to put things together. This time, we applied the bass like an old rhythm & blues thing, where the bassist plays with the drummer for a rhythm section! [Laughs.] We used to be much more meticulous in the studio; James [Hetfield, singer/guitarist] would come in six hours after I was into the first song and say, "Dude, what's up with that?" It was a breathin'-down-your-neck type of thing... "Get that bass shit happening!" So this time, I went in with [engineer] Randy Staub and [producer] Bob Rock, and we went crazy on the bass. If the bass line just went dun, dun, dun, dun, I'd make it swing like it never did before. The other guys would come in after two weeks and listen to the bass and ask, [enthusiastically] "What's that?" They expected it to be straight--but after they had listened to it three times, they'd start snappin' their fingers. And after they listened five times, they'd say, "I can't believe how it swings!" They even changed guitar parts to go with the bass, which was the first time that's happened.
There was also a lot of counterpoint playing and feeding off each other. The first single, "Until It Sleeps," was actually the only song we've ever written in the studio while jamming. Somebody played a riff, we counterpoint-played for a second, and that was the first single. It was a special, cool thing.
So on this record you're continuing to go back toward a more traditional style of bass playing?
Yeah, I'm still evolving in that direction. The parts are more simple; if you let 'em get going too much, they could easily get away from you and lose their strength, vibe, funk, and groove. It's easy to turn on the faucet all the way for an hour. [Mimics full-bore playing while shaking head.] But to be able to do that for ten minutes, and then go to a mid-tempo song, and then go to "Nothing Else Matters" [Metallica] and try to sing for real instead of just barking--that takes more focus and control. Fast doesn't equal heavy. Even when you're playing a slow song, you can create a heavy mood. That's part of being an entertainer.
James had a lot to do with the bass parts on this record; he planted the seed in me that the bass can go to different places. His songs are always really good, but now I've realized it's up to me to make them great. His songwriting is always going to be up here [holds hand high], and I'll always write metal-101 songs and love 'em. That became clear to me by the time I went in to play my tracks on this record, so I just applied myself to the songs and focused on the pieces.
Did James ever make any bass line suggestions to you?
If he did, it was when I first heard the songs in Lars's Dungeon, which is an eight-foot-square room with a full drum set and three Marshall stacks [laughs]. The first time I was shown the tunes, I'd take notes and then record my parts; if James heard something that was clashing, he'd let me know as we went along. It used to be more of a "Do this" kind of thing, but now it's more of an approval and an appreciation. James had heard some of the tapes I made in my studio and knew I had been playing a lot, so he just showed me the songs and said, "I know you can do it."
So you're happy with the outcome?
I really am. Five years ago, I'd be kind of down if I didn't have a writing credit for the initial riff of a tune on a record. But being the bass player in Metallica and making James's songs better is how I have to approach it. "Shut up and play yer guitar," as Zappa said. When we did the tour for the black album [Metallica] and the record was selling 14 squillion copies and every show was sold out, it seemed like I could do a freakin' four-minute speech and the crowd would always go crazy. I could say anything: "Your mama was great last night!" Then I'd do eight minutes of bass meandering. But it was crap, and I would never subject people to that again. Now, I do a one-minute-long bass solo and that's it--no more words, unless I have something special to say that day.
I hate to use the word "maturing," but....
I don't mind "maturing," because I think that's good--although sometimes it sounds more like "aging." I'm still young inside and I'm such a big fan of music. You don't have to grow up, but you can get older and become more considerate. And you can make grown-up decisions, which we all have to do.
There are a couple of tunes on this record that will surprise Metallica's more hardcore fans.
Hey, I'm down with the guys who want Napalm Death and Sepultura--that shit is cool, man. Sepultura is my favorite band on the planet. And I can appreciate the people who want us only to go fast. If you dig those bands, please buy their records and see their shows so we can keep it alive--but don't disrespect the people who paved the way and broke down the doors for so many of the groups you enjoy now. One of the bands that played a big part in that was Metallica. We're the guys who wrote "Damage Inc.," "Fight Fire with Fire," "Whiplash" ... you name it, we helped to invent it. And we can still play it better than anyone. I'll go up against any death-metal band--pound for pound, hour for hour, we'll crush 'em. I have great for respect them, but those are the facts.
Is midrange still a crucial part of your tone?
Yes, because our guitars sound like this [draws a scooped-out-midrange EQ curve in the air], so the bass has to be like this [draws EQ curve with mids boosted]. [Producer] Bob Rock showed me how to fit the bass into the mix so you can still hear it on a Kraco car stereo. I used the same instruments as on the last record; one of them is this '58 P-Bass. [Hands it over.]
I used this '81 Spector NS 4-string, though, for most of the stuff. It used to belong to Phil Soussan, so it's been on a few Ozzy albums. It's quite a special instrument, and it's still got the goobers on it from recording Load.
Spectors are known for recording well.
They have good growl and really good thunder. It's probably the best-sounding bass I've played for my style. But the P-Bass is the most workable-sounding bass. I also used a Zon fretless on "Until It Sleeps." I didn't get my Sadowskys until after we had mixed the record, but the Sadowskys are now the shit in my book. They've been very roadworthy, which has been a problem for me in the past. Roger built nine basses for me, and they all have a warm tone with great mids. They're basically a "turbo" Fender for the '90s. [Ed. Note: For more on Jason's Sadowskys, see page 42.]
So the Sadowsky is now your main bass?
Yes. I've had a lot of trouble with sweat getting inside my basses; the Spectors were built really well, played well, and sounded excellent, but the sweat problem was ugly. We did an outside show on the last tour, and by the end of the gig, there was one functioning bass out of six--bad news. And when a bass going through 250,000 watts of PA all of a sudden goes [mimics loud, shorted-out feedback sound], people are not happy! [Laughs.] When I was trying to figure out who was going to build my basses for this tour, I told the builders they had to make them waterproof. So they were waterproof--but not saltwater proof. To test each bass, I'd fill up a big tub with super hot water, dump in some salt, and submerge the bass.
Talk about an acid test!
[Laughs.] Then, I'd take it out of the tub and put it in front of a coil heater for a few minutes. I'd repeat this same process three times with each bass. [Ed. Note: We don't recommend you try this at home. You might damage your tub.] Then I'd beat the crap out of it for a while in my studio, and finally I'd let it sit on a stand for a couple of days. Usually, the bass corrodes and doesn't play anymore. None of the basses passed that test and kept working except for the Sadowsky. We still have to change the bridge screws on the Sadowskys every week, though, because no matter how much they're anodized, the plating comes off. But I've had really good luck with them.
The Sadowsky has a different tone than the Alembics you previously used.
It's radically different, which I discovered as I listened to bass players on soul records. You've got to have that pumpin' low end rather than a lead bass sound.
So the bass you use in the studio is different from the one you use live?
Only because I don't know if I'll ever find one that records like the Spector or the P-Bass--but I haven't put them up against my favorite Sadowsky in the Bob Rock recording domain. I'm hoping to be able to use the Sadowskys both in the studio and live.
Can you describe that recording domain?
We used three rooms to record the bass for Load. The smallest--which was the "crunch" room--had an old Gibson Skylark guitar amp, a 9-volt Marshall practice amp, and a MESA/Boogie 1x15 combo. The "meat" room, which was also the drum room, had two old Ampeg SVT cabinets with no horns, a '74 SVT head, and three MESA/Boogie 15s with SWR heads. Then, the low-end room--which I shared with James's "Tent of Doom"--had two MESA/Boogie 15s and a Fender folded-horn 1x18 cabinet that goes with the 400 PS Bass head. A solid-state Marshall 7400 head ran the cabs in the low room. I also used an Evil Twin tube DI to go into the board. All of that was blended together for most of the songs, and I stepped on different pedals.
Do you plug straight into your effects?
Yeah--it took me ten years to figure that out, too [laughs]. When we jam, I set up my pedals and I have control. But when we'd play live, I'd have three racks of fancy shit with lights flashing everywhere, and I'd plug in and hear, ping, ping, ping. It sounded like crap. As the years have gone by, though, my rig has gotten simpler and simpler. Now, I use just a bunch of Boss pedals and plug into an SVT. That's it.
For Load, I used a Boss Flanger, an MXR Phase 100, a Mu-Tron, a Korg G5 Bass Synth Processor, and an original Electro-Harmonix Big Muff with the 'pi' symbol on it.
What dictates which amp combination you'll choose?
The song. You're not going to put a load of distortion on a fretless tune. For example, on "Until It Sleeps," I used only the amps in the "meat" room and put a little flange on the signal. But almost every song has some underlying distortion on it.
Was that the first time you've recorded with a fretless?
Yes. It was also the first time I've recorded with my thumb, which you can hear during the middle of "Cure"; it's a percussive, Chili Peppers kind of thing. James had a couple of things to say about that--but after he listened to it about ten times, he thought it was cool.
You owned 70 basses the last time we talked, in 1991. How big is your collection at this point?
[Pauses.] It's a little out of hand [laughs]. I pulled out some of my favorites for you today. This '63 Gibson EB-3 is the first bass I bought for my collection; it was $100 in a pawnshop in Michigan. Check it out, man--it sounds great. This Gibson EB-6 6-string is cool, too. The '68 Fender Telecaster Paisley Bass is bad; I bought it in Australia from AC/DC's original bass player, Mark Evans. I use the Hamer 12-string for minor-key pick-bass songs. And I have a Chandler Metro Baritone with lipstick pickups, which is great for distortion. Over here is a 1933 National Dobro and a Parker Fly guitar. And this Hagstrom 8-string is hard to keep in tune, but it's a great collector's piece. [Ed. Note: Look for a photo essay featuring Jason's collection in a future issue.]
If you had to pick one instrument as your favorite, which one would it be?
[Holds up the Guild acoustic.] And if I'm plugging in, it would be the '58 P-Bass. It's the holy grail, man.
I notice there's an acoustic upright in the corner of the room. Do you spend much time playing it?
Not much; I mess around with it, but I use it mainly for samples. One of my goals, though, is someday to study with someone who will show me how to play the thing. My hands would be about five times stronger than they are now. I'd also like to learn some piano.
Any other aspirations?
My hunger is to do some of my music in a more serious manner. I have six solid projects with different lineups, and each one has ten songs. When I get a green light to let people hear the stuff, I'll form my own record company and release a few tapes. It won't be the Devin Townsend Project or the Jason Newsted Band, though--it'll be our band.
I also want to keep learning. As long as my hands and eyes are still connected, I'll keep absorbing and running whatever I've learned through my filter and keep spittin' it back out. Jason Newsted owns nine of Roger Sadowsky's handcrafted basses: four 4-strings and five 5-strings. He carries eight of them on the road, while one resides at his home studio. (All of the road instruments sport maple fingerboards.) The 4's include a Lake Placid Blue Vintage model with an alder body and a morado fingerboard, a black Vintage model with an ash body, and two PJ models with quilted-maple tops (one cherry sunburst and one caramel sunburst). The 5's include three Vintage models (two black, one cherry sunburst) and two black 24-fret models with EMG-40J pickups. To accommodate Jason's aggressive, downstroke-heavy pick attack, Sadowsky places the neck pickup on the 24-fret models about an inch closer to the neck than normal. (For more on Newsted's picking style, see Sept/Oct '91.) All Vintage models include Sadowsky exposed-polepiece pickups, and every bass features the Sadowsky preamp. Each also has a special modification; Roger Sadowsky explains.
"Jason voiced his concerns about moisture and reliability; apparently some of his basses were having an intermittent output, and when his tech would remove the output-jack plate, water would literally run out of the control cavity! The guys in the band don't like to be cold while they play, so they don't use the air conditioning during a concert. It turns out the humidity levels at the shows are so high from the heat, water runs down the front of the amplifiers! And moisture was building up inside the control cavities from condensation.
"Our solution was to put a thin rubber gasket on the back of the control-cavity plates and underneath the football-shaped output-jack plate. We also sealed the holes going from the pickup cavities to the control cavities with silicone sealant to keep any moisture that might come in through the pickup routs from flowing into the cavities.
"Everything else is stock. We didn't charge Jason any extra for the waterproofing service--but at the same time, I really want people to know he paid full price for eight instruments. I sent him the ninth bass as a gift. He didn't try to do the typical artist-endorsement thing with me; he was a real mensch. So the new Sadowsky promotion is, "Buy eight and get one free!"