Echobrain: how one band almost killed Metallica

Metallica 2000
(Image credit: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Throughout the 1990s, Metallica were an unstoppable force. For every 'sell-out' accusation and jibe about Friends haircuts, the band drowned out their detractors with the sound of tickets, albums and merchandise being sold en masse as they became one of the biggest bands on the planet. But by 2000, things had started to go sideways. 

Metallica's court case against filesharing platform Napster had soured public opinion on them, so much that the band were booed when attending the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards (and trolled by Napster founder Sean Parker, who came onstage in a Metallica t-shirt). But their biggest conflict was playing out behind the scenes, battle lines drawn over Echobrain, the side project of then-bassist Jason Newsted

Formed during extended periods of inactivity in the Metallica camp, Newsted had envisioned Echobrain as a way to explore his creative energies while his bandmates were spending time with their families. Ostensibly alt rock, Echobrain closer resembled early 2000s indie rock or latter-day Queens Of The Stone Age than even Metallica's most transgressive mid-90s material. But that didn't stop tensions arising, particularly with singer James Hetfield who openly opposed the idea of Newsted doing anything away from Metallica. 

"The only way you can get out of this band is if you die," Hetfield told Playboy. "When you say Metallica, you know who that is: Lars, James, Kirk and—uh, what’s that guy? Jason [laughs]. When someone does a side project, it takes away from the strength of Metallica. So there is a little ugliness lately. And it shouldn’t be discussed in the press."

On November 30 2000, Jason Newsted played his last show as a full member of Metallica. Appearing at the VH1 Music Awards, Metallica played live renditions of Fade To Black and the Anti-Nowhere League's So What. As Kirk Hammett later recalled in an interview for Metallica's MTV Icons, the band had agreed to talk things out after they played. "It was the first time in months all four of us were in one spot for a few months. We got off-stage and Jason wasn’t around."

Although Jason Newsted had been a member of Metallica for almost 15 years, he was still very much the new guy and the band would later confess they had treated him "brutally". Frozen out of creative decisions and unable to pursue other projects, Newsted had finally had enough.

Speaking later to Scuzz TV, Newsted recalled, "[Metallica’s management] had told me, pretty convincingly, 'This is a great record, we've been playing it around the office, that's all I’ve been hearing, it's fantastic, this kid has a great voice. Let's do something with this.' Then James heard about it and was not happy. He was, I think, pretty much out to put the kibosh on the whole thing because it would somehow affect Metallica in his eyes, because now the managers were interested in something I was doing that had nothing to do with him."

Six weeks after their VH1 performance, Metallica reconvened in a San Francisco hotel room to discuss the future. There, Newsted proposed that they should take a year off. When the rest of the band declined, the bassist announced his departure from the group. Discussing the split almost three years later on MTV Icons, Kirk Hammett recalled that "I got really emotional and started bawling, like ‘is this really how it’s gonna end?’"  

While Metallica had weathered personnel changes in the past, Jason Newsted's departure exposed the toxic and fractious relationship that had developed between the individual members. That now-notorious Playboy interview exposed this even further; conducted in late 2000, the interview was published after Newsted's departure from the band, and saw its members trading barbs. 

It didn't take a therapist to recognise that Metallica in 2000/2001 were extremely dysfunctional, but the band enlisted the help of one anyway to try and facilitate a recovery process. Phil Towle's work with the band was explored in the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster, a film which showed just how fractured the band were as they wrote and recorded 2003's divisive Saint Anger.

Towle's presence in the documentary split fans, some who felt he was an interfering presence, but Lars Ulrich later admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that Towle had "saved Metallica."

While his former bandmates were healing and getting back on track, Newsted finally took Echobrain out into the world. The band's self-titled debut album was released in 2002, but didn't catch on commercially in the same way as his work with Metallica had. 

Echobrain's second album Glean fared little better and the group ultimately disbanded in 2005, vocalist Dylan Donkin admitting that the record label's insistence on trying to link the band to Newsted's past in Metallica.

"“They didn't get it," he told Digital Noise Network in 2005. "They were going for 'the guy from Metallica in the new band' kind of trip. I think that's what kind of helped nail the coffin. Everyone thought we were a metal band[...] We weren't. We're a completely different band. None of the metalheads were buying it, which I don't blame 'em for. If I was a metalhead, I probably wouldn't buy it either.”

Speaking to Hammer in 2022, Newsted admitted that the odds were always stacked against the band. "There was already a bunch of cards stacked against [Echobrain] because of that negativity. It was just the project I took most seriously; it was never meant to be that I left the band for that project. So it was a bummer that all of that was on them."

Jason Newsted had few regrets, however. Though in interviews he has admitted to sometimes wondering "what if", he has also repeatedly admitted that the decision was correct for his career, seeing him play with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Voivod to solo projects like Newsted and, more recently, Jason Newsted and The Chophouse Band. 

Read more with Jason Newsted in the brand new issue of Metal Hammer, featuring Halestorm on the cover and on sale now.

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Metal Hammer issue 361

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Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.