Whenever Jason Newsted launches a project, he makes shirts commemorating it. The latest shirt is notable in that on the back, it has a screaming two-word statement framing a picture of the former Metallica bassist from behind, furiously headbanging onstage.

JASON'S BACK!!!

And that's exactly what fans have been saying since the Walnut Creek resident released a handful of pulse-pounding songs on iTunes, written and sung by him, under the moniker "Newsted."

In the hard-rock world, news that Newsted is delivering ferocious music again is a cause for celebration. He was the bassist for Metallica for 15 years, during which time the pioneering San Francisco metal outfit became one of the biggest bands on the planet.

Jason Newsted, at front, rehearses with his new bandmates, guitarist Jesse Farnsworth and drummer Jesus Mendez Jr. (Courtesy of Jason Newsted)
Jason Newsted, at front, rehearses with his new bandmates, guitarist Jesse Farnsworth and drummer Jesus Mendez Jr. (Courtesy of Jason Newsted) ( jm )

He left in 2001 when he clashed with bandmates over his desire to do side projects. And he did indeed branch out, into everything from jam-band rock to TV to painting.

Now, at an age when a lot of rockers start slowing down, Newsted is back playing the "old school" metal he's best known for, fronting a serious band and doing all the writing for the first time.

"I don't have any grand expectations," says Newsted, 49, sitting behind the mixing board in his home studio, the Chophouse. "I plan on working my way back up."

Musical detour

Newsted is wearing an old jean jacket emblazoned with patches -- including a Metallica logo -- looking like the thrash-rock kids that idolized him more than two decades ago. When Newsted joined Metallica in 1986, after the death of bassist Cliff Burton, Metallica was on the verge of a breakthrough. In the next 15 years the band would grow into a stadium-headlining, worldwide phenomenon, and Newsted had become a metal icon. That's why his departure was a shock to so many fans.

But when Newsted's desire to expand his musical career with side projects was vetoed by the band, he went out on his own -- and explored. He started a rock band, Echobrain, with two Bay Area musicians. He had a stint with the pioneering Canadian metal band Voivod. He played bass for Ozzy Osbourne. He played with jam-band Gov't Mule. He was part of the reality TV show "Rock Star: Supernova." He formed a band, Papa Wheelie, with a couple of buddies and played locally. He got into painting seriously enough that he had his own exhibit in a San Francisco gallery.

But now he's all about metal. Or should we say, "Metal." Newsted and his new band have released four tunes from an upcoming album, "Metal," on iTunes and on Newsted's website (http://newstedheavymetal.com). A vinyl version of the EP will come out this month. A full album is scheduled for release May 14. Meanwhile, the video for the pounding "Soldierhead" is nearing 200,000 views on YouTube.

"The return? I'm not sure he ever left," says Phil Demmel, guitarist for Bay Area band Machine Head. "He's always been a metalhead through and through. A teeth-grittin', horns throwin', front-row head-bangin' brother in denim and leather. Metal needs more like him."

It was only recently that Newsted felt the urge to return to his thundering roots and form his own serious metal band. And, fittingly, the inspiration came after he was invited by his former bandmates to play during Metallica's 30th anniversary shows in December 2011 at the Fillmore in San Francisco.

"The kids started chanting 'Ja-son, Ja-son' while I was standing there ready to go on," Newsted says. "I felt like I hadn't felt since I was 19. They screamed me back into this, and I'd be a fool to ignore it."

Lining up talent

Newsted pondered his options and decided to front his own band with two quality players he'd jammed with over the years: guitarist Jessie Farnsworth and drummer and former Metallica employee Jesus Mendez Jr., both of whom live in Fresno.

"It's kind of surreal," says Farnsworth, 31. "I grew up in the Metallica generation. I had him on T-shirts. He was my favorite guy."

Mendez, 45, says after last year's Metallica shows at the Fillmore, it was full-speed ahead, which he says is generally how Newsted approaches any project.

"It was like, 'We're going to be in a band. So here's your songs. Learn them.'"

They apparently did. The new material is going over well with listeners.

"This EP shows that not only can Jason write, play, produce and sing, but that he's got a penchant for old-school technicality and heaviness that makes you wonder if it was written last year or last century," says Nikki Black, an on-air personality for hard rock radio station KSAN-107.7 FM (The Bone). "In short, it kicks (expletive)."

Newsted says the timing is finally right for his own serious project.

"I could never have been this good if I was still in Metallica," he says. "I had to do those other (projects) to get down and write these songs. I had to get my abilities. I had to play all those different styles to develop my style. It took me that long, with all those experiments, to be confidant enough to bring this to the people. It's old-school metal."

Newsted says his lyrics are "positive, instead of negative. There's an awareness. There's too much negativity in metal."

As for concerts, Newsted says he has a three-year game plan, which calls for touring four to six weeks at a time. He'll start with Bay Area shows in the next few months, followed by TV appearances in the spring with perhaps more concert dates. Then the band will do summer stadium festivals in Europe, the scope of which neither Farnsworth or Mendez have come close to experiencing.

"I'll probably pass out," Mendez says, laughing.

Newsted, as is his nature, is tackling the new band and its upcoming tour with equal parts enthusiasm and ambition.

"I've played in 46 countries in my career," Newsted says. "I want 60."

Follow Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.

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