Bass Instincts 

Walnut Creek resident and, oh yeah, ex-Metallica bassist, has a new (old) band.

Jason Newsted's glad it's over. Ask him.

"I was in such deep depression when I left Metallica that I could basically give a fuck about anything, especially music," says Newsted, the band's ex-bassist. "It lasted four or five days." If only Metallica fans could rebound so robustly.

Your neighborhood greasy-haired, suburban malcontent metal freak might still be in mourning over Newsted's departure. Though far from Metallica's focal point, Newsted and his recent exodus have dramatically rearranged the band's feng shui, and at this critical juncture, we'll leave Lars and his pals passionately arguing over where to move the leather couch while Newsted rearranges his whole head.

And possibly yours. Say hello to Echobrain, Newsted's first (not last) post-Metallica musical endeavor.

Echobrain is, we feel comfortable publicly stating, not what you might expect:

1. It's not a new band.

It's seven years old, actually. Newsted met Brian Sagrafena, then sixteen, at a 1995 Bay Area Super Bowl party. Much enamored of the impromptu jam, Newsted instigated one and found himself impressed by the young Turk's jazzy drum chops. A friendship formed. Sagrafena soon introduced the unfortunately named Dylan Donkin, a kindred-spirit musician with guitar, vocal, and songwriting skills of his own. More impromptu jam sessions followed. Songs were written, bonds forged. Christened Echobrain, the trio finally committed itself to tape in the spring of 2000, recording its ten-track debut.

You're only hearing that debut now thanks to the anal-retentive tyranny of James Hetfield, Metallica frontman and douche bag emeritus. Or so the story goes, as represented by a truly loony Metallica article/exposé/car wreck in the April 2001 Playboy, which interviewed each member separately and dug up all manner of antagonistic ephemera. (We have time for one quote. Hetfield on pro-Napster fans: "Why don't you go live in Canada or some socialist country?") The article portrayed Newsted's desire to find another musical outlet -- and Hetfield's zero-tolerance policy regarding side projects -- as both the storm and the eye within it. The term "drip-dick" was also employed. Newsted kindly disagrees (with the article, not Playboy as a concept), cryptically ascribing the breakup to matters of "business."

The result's the same, though: Echobrain's cleared for takeoff, with Newsted the unlikely father figure for two young musicians powering a bona fide alt-rock trio.

Is the project invigorating?

"Hell, yes," says Newsted. "It's a rebirth thing for me, completely. Being able to see things that I once took for granted. Anything that happens is really exciting for them, and being able to live through them brought me back to life again. Shaved twenty years off."

2. Echobrain is not Newsted's band.

"Dylan Donkin is the main songwriter," Newsted says. "He's the gifted one of us, just as Hetfield was the gifted one in Metallica. We're all here to support him."

Echobrain plays fairly standard rock, crunchy and bluesy and willowy in calculated increments. The vocals are front and center, with Donkin trying on styles like so many sombreros: Jeff Buckley here, that Puddle of Mudd guy there, an eerily Yorkeian falsetto in between. The hidden track finds him mugging about with Beatlesque goofiness, right before the kazoo solo. Yes, kazoo solo. Let us be the first to caution Metallica obsessives -- Load was harder than this. Much harder. Turn the page.

The instrumentation you hear on this disc -- keyboards, harmonicas, string sections -- will unnerve you. What you don't hear -- Newsted -- will unnerve you further. One would assume the first post-Metallica Newsted project would find our hero clamoring for artistic respect, stacking a full deck of show-offy bass solos and low-end triple axels. But Newsted sticks to the shadows here, rumbling contentedly and blending into the background like we always assumed he didn't want to do.

"I don't think I have ever been that 'look at me' kind of person," Newsted muses -- perhaps the first person ever interviewed by Playboy to utter these words.

3. Echobrain is not a lightly regarded band.

"Every single person in the room, I can see their reaction," Newsted says with some measure of disbelief, as only a man well acquainted with the faceless, miles-away-from-the-crowd arena tour can. Band to band, his publicity level and venue size have plummeted -- but to his advantage. He can see the crowd now, and they can apparently feel him.

"It's what I would call awe," he says. "They don't want to miss anything. It's kind of like a Japanese audience -- they clap politely, but then shut up really fast, because they don't want to miss a single thing."

The quotient of jerk-offs shouting Metallica requests has been kept to a minimum, both at the shows and during the preshow publicity. "I've had maybe one negative thing said out of the thirty countries I've talked to in the last week," Newsted says. "And that was an Italian thrash magazine, basically saying [in an apparently Italian accent] 'Where is our heavy Jason!? We want stuff to go RRRRAAAAR!' " This sort of thing doesn't ire the formerly heavy Jason as much as you might expect: "I don't see any problem with that. [Echobrain] sounds nothing like Metallica."

Nor does he mind admitting that Echobrain would receive about two percent of the prestige and attention it currently commands were he not a Metallica alumnus: "It gets both of our boots in the door, and it's up to the band to back it up. And I think we can."

4. Echobrain is not necessarily a permanent project.

He'd go back to Metallica. Ask him. "You never say never on anything, man," says Newsted, though he quickly adds the caveat: "It would have to be very special circumstances."

Special Circumstance No. 1 probably involves allowing Newsted free rein to seek musical sustenance elsewhere -- a quest not limited to Echobrain. "I've got another record coming out next week with a punk project," he says. "And another record out next month with another punk project, and another one after that. In the next eighteen months, maybe every month you will see something else coming out." A veritable army of Newsted musical projects led by Echobrain, a blunt little alt-rock trio he feels no need to dominate. He'd rather slink to the back of the stage, thump his bass, and stare straight into your eyes, hoping for a reaction.


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