|Crossroads: Bassist Jason Newsted of Voivod|
Pivotal moments in musicians careers propelling them from obscurity to infamy
by Mark E. Waterbury
From L to R: Piggy, Away, Snake, Jasonic
There were probably quite a few people three years ago who wondered why someone would want to leave one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Jason Newsted didn't wonder why. After over a decade as the bassist for metal goliath Metallica, Jason felt the need to explore more sides of his own musical ideas which he had been working on through side projects during Metallica's breaks. Eventually, his involvement with those projects caused some friction, and Jason departed the band that he had been with during their ride to the top of the mountain. And now, being the owner of his own indie label Chophouse Records, recently joining veteran metal band Voivod and also receiving a call to join a band led by another legendary performer, Jason is looking towards a satisfying future.
Late in his teens, the Kalamazoo, Michigan-born Jason realized that he wanted to be a musician so he chose the bass as he listened to Black Sabbath, Rush and Motorhead. He dropped out of school and headed west to California, where in 1982 he met with Kelly Smith. The two performed together in a number of incarnations over the next few years, most notably in the band Flotsam and Jetsam. "When I was in earlier bands, I never really had a serious idea about what the hell goes on in the business or how to present a show or anything like that," Jason remembers. "In Flotsam, we learned it over time, and looked at how bands like Motorhead and Iron Maiden handled their business end of things. Just basically do-it-yourself approach that the British wave of new heavy metal bands developed."
In 1984, Jason discovered the music of a new band from Montreal called Voivod, who like Flotsam and Jetsam were on Metal Blade Records. "We came up about the same time and were a bit competitive for a while. But in Flotsam we looked up to Voivod. They really had a look, and image and a concept. Incredible musicianship and incredible innovation. They were definitely one of the most original and coolest bands of this type."
In 1986, the same year that Flotsam and Jetsam released "Doomsday for the Deceiver", tragedy took the life of one of Jason's inspirations on the bass. Cliff Burton of the up and coming metal band Metallica was killed when the band's tour bus skidded off an icy road in Sweden. When Metallica came back from a near two-year hiatus and drummer Lars Ulrich along with his staff began searching for a new bassist, the name Jason Newsted was suggested from several sources. "I was very busy being basically the leader of Flotsam, as well as tape trading and correspondence around the world with my music and sending flyers about everything Flotsam was doing. I even bugged record company people so that they knew my name because they were annoyed when I called them to try to get their attention. But numerous people who were very important to Metallica that I had relationships with suggested me to Lars." At first it was tough for Jason to fill the shoes of Cliff Burton, a popular player with both the fans and his bandmates. But his playing styles opened up some new songwriting ideals for the band, even though his actual songwriting credits were limited on his first album with the band, "...And Justice For All". "They were just starting to gain more attention when I joined. We went to a number of places they never played in after I joined, little third world countries and such. But it was a lot of really hard work to keep it polished. A lot of hard work, lost sleep...a lot of people don't see that side of it."
The hard work continued to fuel the band's rise, and the next album with Jason, simply titled "Metallica" became a blockbuster. All of a sudden, Metallica was at the forefront of heavy metal and, for that matter, the rock scene in general. The popularity continued to be massive into the 90's, even after a near tragic incident when lead singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield was seriously burned in a pyrotechnic accident. Millions of albums were sold and hundreds of large venues were sold out. Even when a band is achieving massive success, there can be a downside. "There's more demand of your quality time as the band gets bigger," Jason notes. "You get so involved with so many different aspects and have less and less time to put your hands on your instrument with the amplifier turned on. That can affect the overall monster and I think that's what happened over time. And there were emotional things that we did not realize until two or three years ago. We were so busy making sure the machine moved that we weren't paying attention to what was going on with the gears. It was very trying at times, but with all the rewards, you tried to turn a blind eye to the trials."
In his years with Metallica, Jason kept busy during his time off with several projects. He created his own studio called the Chophouse, which was open to musicians of many styles to come in and jam, and eventually evolved into a record label that released albums by several of his side projects. He also joined with guitarist Piggy and drummer Away from Voivod for a co-songwriting project called TARRAT. As Metallica's "Reload" tour ended and the new millennium approached, Jason realized he needed a change. "Over time it became an issue of respect. I wanted to be able to play in Metallica and give my all like I always did, and when they were doing their own things on their off times, I wanted to be working with my other music projects. I thought that would never affect Metallica, and they seemed to think it would. There were things they did not understand that made me happy and made me alive. And I felt making my other music made me more happy and productive in Metallica, but they did not see that. And that's when I had to voluntarily step out of the band."
When Jason departed Metallica, he was not exactly leaving with no place to go. He was busy with Chophouse as well as recording an album with the band Echobrain. He also fanned the flames of what the TARRAT project had kindled several years earlier, when he became the newest member of Voivod. Jason, Piggy and Away had been talking for several years about persuading original vocalist Snake to rejoin the band, which they were finally successful at in fall of 2002. Voivod had released twelve albums over their career, and Jason was more then happy to become the band's new bassist, taking on the moniker Jasonic. "After playing together loud as hell for three days in the Chophouse with amplifiers facing each other like the old days, we knew we wanted to make it a real band. Spiritually and hungry wise and living for heavy music was all intact. Voivod has been together for so long and been through so much shit that would leave most bands in a puddle on the floor. And they still want to go out and kick ass. They're f**kin' real, and all of the life identity in their music was created out of necessity." Voivod hit the studios in late 2002 and emerged after forty-five days of working a minimum of sixteen hours a day with the self-titled thirteenth album. They sat in the studio of engineer George Marino, who mastered the album along with all of Metallica's records and countless others to listen to the finished project on his incredible stereo system. "George cranked it up and left the room, and the four of us sat there together, and ran through the emotions. Laughing and crying and jumping up and down and punching each other. And when it was done, the guys told me it was the best album they had done. As a fan and the producer, it was a great feeling of accomplishment. It felt like I was a kid getting rewarded for the first time for achieving something. And that's a great measure of success."
The album is already starting to create a bit of a buzz as one hundred thirty college stations added it to their playlists in the third week of February. Voivod is poised to begin a co-headlining tour with Sepultura in March. They are also going to be the band coming on just before the headliners on the second stage at this summer's Ozzfest. That may have helped lead Jason to another upcoming gig, as he has just become the new bassist for Ozzy's band for the Ozzfest tour this summer. But even with an upcoming stint with another huge act, and reflecting on his previous fifteen year run with one of metal's most titanic acts, Jason is looking forward with great anticipation to his work with Voivod. "One of the reasons that I'm doing this is and putting my money and time into this is that I've been a fan so long and respected them for so long that it's time people got up and gave them some props. And people are starting to pay attention to Voivod who never did before, and they are getting exposure they never did before. If we end up just being the underground thing, then that's where we'll stay and we'll be happy kicking ass there. I'm doing this on Chophouse Records which is a label with two other staff members that's office is in my dining room at home. And I still have that ethic, still sign all the envelopes myself and fill out labels and stuff envelopes; I'm not beyond that. Metallica sold millions and millions of albums, and that did very well by me and my family. But that has not changed my hunger to get out there and crunch."
JASON'S ADVICE TO MUSICIANS: "You need to do things like trade tapes and form connections with people by corresponding with people. Build a mailing list and friendship with all of your fans to make sure that they know you are out there and help to spread the word. Don't go out with any huge expectations or think that you can be at a level where you're not. Just try to get to a level where you are happy."