Metallica Bassist Robert Trujillo Celebrates Jaco

Ivor Levene on December 31, 2015

Unless fusion is your main course at the musical buffet, you can be forgiven for not knowing the self-titled “world’s greatest bass player” Jaco Pastorius. On the other hand, if you have listened to Joni Mitchell, Metallica, Weather Report, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rush to name a few, you are in a sense listening to his work, as he was very much a part of these groups, either directly or through his influence on the bassists.

Metallica bass player Robert Trujillo has directed a new documentary about Pastorious, titled Jaco. Typically, films in this genre either educate or entertain, and predictably tilt heavily in one direction or the other. Jaco strikes the perfect balance between the two. This is Trujillo’s first attempt at filmmaking and he has hit a home run. Not bad for a first at-bat. The film is an emotional journey through the life and career of Pastorius, leaving nothing out, covering the highs and the lows.

Known to fellow musicians as “The Jimi Hendrix of the bass”, Jaco is perhaps not as well known to the average listener as he is to other musicians, and this film is a brilliant attempt to broaden his fame and showcase his amazing virtuosity.

Produced with the cooperation of the Pastorius family, the film lovingly documents Jaco’s humble beginnings in the speakeasy-style jazz clubs in South Florida, through his rise to prominence with The Weather Report and Joni Mitchell, and his unfortunate battle with bipolar disorder, leading to his tragic death.

Appealing not only to bass players and fellow musicians, the film strikes a resonant chord with the average listener. In the end, you might just be forced to recalibrate your perception of the bass guitar.

Robert, was this an emotional journey for you?

It was and still is an intense journey. For the past six years there hasn’t been a minute where I don’t think about Jaco to some degree. It’s a very consuming emotional journey for me, and that’s why sometimes it’s almost funny that it doesn’t have anything to do obviously with being a bass player sometimes.

How involved were you in the making of this film?

When you do a documentary film there’s so much involved on so many different levels. A lot of people may not understand that. It’s a little different than just clocking it in. You have so much responsibility whether it’s to the family or the subject. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this man, the film, about what we were doing, many different aspects.

Does playing in Metallica suppress the inner Jaco in you?

I’ve got to thank Metallica because honestly I would never have been able to make this film without their support. Even just using the incredible Yankee Stadium footage towards the end of the film; that could’ve never happened if Metallica wasn’t connected and being supportive. So, I have to thank Metallica on that level.

On a musically creative front inside of Metallica, there are moments when I’m channeling Jaco here and there, but his influence shows more in terms of the attitude and the energy behind my playing. Jaco may not be present in Metallica on the musical side, but he’s there in everything else that I do.

Were you able to channel Jaco more in previous bands?

Take a band like the Infectious Grooves. That was a band that was completely influenced by Jaco Pastorius that was very different. We were doing punk, funk, jazz, and speed metal. I was the main writer of that band, and Jaco was my main inspiration for the music. It was a similar situation in Suicidal Tendencies; the songs are completely channeling Jaco.  He’s also present in Mass Mental, which I still do to this day. A lot of the transitional music in the film is Mass Mental.

Did the making of this film affect the trajectory of Metallica at all? I think it took you, what, five years to make this film?

It’s actually six years that I have been directly involved in this project, and that’s a long journey. I was 45 when I joined the team and I commandeered the project About a year later I committed to financing it and I realized that if I’m going to take this on, I’m going to have to commit the money, the time, the passion and the energy.

What did you take away from the making of this film?

I learned a lot about filmmaking in these last six years, it’s like I went to school and I got a degree. I feel like I’ve learned the hard way because I literally ran out of money heading towards the finish line. I had to do a pledge campaign to raise the last bit of money for just licensing, song, clearing photos, and all that stuff. You never think about it, but it’s an enormous task and enormous financial responsibility.

I heard that you put $800,000.00 of your own money into this film.

I wish I put $800,000.00 into this thing. I put $1 million into this thing, so it’s probably more than $1 million now. I’m not completely finished yet, so, it’s complicated. But, at the other end of that, I don’t give up. I’m not a quitter. I like to see things through that I’m passionate about.

Do you hope to recoup any of this, or is it just purely a labor of love?

I would hope that someday I might. It took Metallica ten years to recoup the money on Some Kind of Monster, but the deal is, you can’t make a documentary film with the intention of making money. I didn’t write the Black album, so I don’t have a mega-hit on my roster. When you take something like this on, you have to believe in what you’re doing and accept that you’re not going to make that money back ’cause it isn’t about that. It’s about bringing the magic to the screen and sharing the story. That’s what was important to me, not making money.

At the end of the film Jaco says he wanted to “spread it around”. That’s essentially what you’re doing, isn’t it?

Jaco represented creative freedom, attitude and an edge. What I learned from him is that there are no boundaries to what you can do with. This is where Flea, Geddy Lee, I, and so many others get their energy.
When you listen one of his solo records you hear the magic and the freedom.

On his first album he had a song called, Come on, Come over, which is the ultimate, funkiest R and B track that you could ever imagine. On the second album he plays The Beatles’ Blackbird; he’s just embracing it all and sharing it with the world.

Jaco was a great collaborator. He made incredible music with Joni Mitchell. He didn’t even know much about Joni Mitchell when he got involved with her collaboratively. He just adapted and was himself. And together they wrote some great songs.

When did you last speak with Joni Mitchell? How’s she doing?

The last time I spoke to her was probably a month before the accident that she had. But, I have gotten messages from her through mutual friends, and I probably will be seeing her in the next month or so. I know that she’s improving and that she’s getting better.

What was it like to work with her?

I have to say that Joni has been an angel for this project. We didn’t have any contact with her for the first four years, and then she came on board a couple of years ago.
I have nothing but respect for her; she really is an amazing human being, just a complete sweetheart.

The director takes the stage, photo by Ross Halfin

As a teen, were you ever ridiculed by your peers for not purely being a rocker?

I grew up around many different tribes of people, and I was able to adapt like a chameleon. I was fine with the punkers. I was part of that tribe, but at the same time I was also a part of the R and B funk crew, the guys that were playing Earth, Wind, and Fire. I went to a junior high school at one point and it was all black kids that would be bussed in from the inner city, and they were amazing because they were playing all the hits, Ohio Players; Earth, Wind, and Fire, Parliament. It was inspiring to be around that energy.

Sometimes, the tribes didn’t respect each other but I learned that it’s okay to be country, it’s okay to be speed metal, it’s okay to be James Brown and all of that Motown, because that’s what I grew up on and of course I play in Metallica and that’s just one side of what I do, what I enjoy, and what I love.

Who were some of your earliest influences?

My father was a flamenco guitar player by hobby, and my earliest memories were him playing the flamenco acoustic guitar and my mom dancing in her hot pants to James Brown and Motown in the living room.

In one scene in the movie, you’re seen tearing the frets off of the bass, and you look really surprised. Was that your first time de-fretting your own bass?

Actually, I did that when I was 16 or 17 years old and it was a disaster. I thought I’d be clever and create a fretless bass, which was inspired by Jaco. It’s funny you ask that because I only remember that now. I’ve never talked about that, but I actually did tear the frets out of one of my little beat down basses that didn’t really even work through an amplifier, but I did it, and it wasn’t good. Luckily, it was a bass that I could sacrifice.

I relate to that. About five years ago I tore all the frets off a bass I was hardly playing anymore. The electronics were shot, and I was like, “Well, I’m going to tear the frets off of it and fill it in with wood and sand it down.” It was a huge mistake. I just wrecked the thing.

Yeah. Well, you live and you learn. And that’s part of growing up as a musician and maturing. You’ve got to try things and make mistakes.

How early did you start playing?

I started playing bass around 15, somewhere around there. I went through phases where I wanted to be a drummer, and I wanted to be a keyboard player, and bass kind of found me. It was the funk, it was the rhythm section that was making me move and groove and really connect with my soul. When Jazz-fusion really started to hit home with me with Stanley Clarke and Jaco I was like, “Wow, the bass can also be a lead instrument. This is amazing. This is what I want to do.”

I was a little surprised that there’s a notable absence in the film. Tony “The Fretless Monster” Franklin

Tony Franklin has been a huge supporter of the film, and the truth is that you can’t get everybody in the film. A lot of people asked the same thing about Pat Metheny, and Pat Metheny recorded with Jaco.  There’s a lot of history there, but Pat didn’t want to be interviewed. We’ve got Joni Mitchell, and we got Jerry Jemmott, who was Jaco’s favorite bass player. I have a Jaco story that’s not in the film, and I made the film!

You must have drawn from a huge number of sources.

We did over 75 interviews. We did a whole contingent of people down in south Florida that grew up with Jaco, as well as people in New York and LA. These are people that mostly knew him and had experiences with him. We have a lot of love from a lot of people who, some of them were interviewed from the film and didn’t make the cut. Some of them were extras, and some of them are just there, to support the project because they love Jaco.

Roughly midway through the film, the tone of the film changes very suddenly. It’s like a shock to the viewer. Was this deliberate?

We’ve had six years of edits and cuts and there have been versions of the film that were a lot darker. There were versions of the film that were light and fluffy and disingenuous to his story, which isn’t right, so we had to find a balance. Jaco was murdered, tragically and was bipolar, and there’s a lot of sadness to what happened.

I feel, in my heart that Paul Marchand, my Director, has just blown me away and has exceeded what I could ever imagine for this film. What has become on the screen exceeded everything that I had visualized, it’s so beautiful and well made, but at the same time I’m not going to lie and say it was easy or was a cakewalk. Paul Marchand was in the edit bay for years and years and years and years, almost sequestered and completely engulfed in this film.

Just before Jaco was killed, he was at a Carlos Santana show, wasn’t he? And he jumped on stage, and they threw him off. Do you think that provoked him into the rage that got him killed at the Bottle Club?

Jaco was murdered by a bouncer in South Florida, that’s what happened. Yes, Jaco was at a Santana concert. He went from the show to a bar, and a bouncer beat him to death. I think that the only people that know the exact truth to that moment are the bouncer and Jaco, who is not with us. It’s sad.

Jaco states in the film, “A hundred percent of the music business is a rip-off.” And that was back then. What do you think he would say today? What do you say to that?

At that time there were a lot of shady businesses, a lot of musicians were getting ripped off. I’ve had the good fortune in my time with Metallica to see an independent spirit where the artist can control their situation, whether it’s creatively or in business.

As the band gets bigger you have to find the team and your tribe that you trust. It’s all about trust. So many bands have gotten ripped off over the years on so many different levels, whether it’s pay for play or whether it’s getting ripped off by the record company.

Metallica has the machine that’s been well earned because of the hard work all these years in bringing Metallica to the surface, but you’ve got to pay your dues for all that. It doesn’t just happen. Metallica toured hard back in the day, seven days a week. Now there’s a certain level of comfort to be able to tour the way we do, but you have to pave your way and you have to work hard to get to where you need to be. It’s not an easy ride.

What message do you have for aspiring young musicians who want to follow in your footsteps?

I always tell musicians or young bands, have fun, believe in what you’re doing, play from the heart, and most of all before any kind of money or any of that crap, just enjoy what you do. Just enjoy the people that you’re creating with and really just have fun, and that’s where it needs to come from. The idea or the concept of, I’m going to sell a million CDs and make a ton of money, that’s wrong. That’s not a reality.

Selling a million CD’s in today’s musical landscape is a pretty unrealistic expectation.

Exactly. Enjoy your music and have fun. My son is a bass player, he’s 11 years old and he’s a great writer. He comes up with amazing riffs and bass lines, and I’m so impressed with him, but I always tell him, “Keep writing and keep having fun.”

I guess it doesn’t hurt to have Robert Trujillo as your teacher now does it?

I teach him when I can, but the beauty of it is he takes on so much on his own, and he’s kind of his own teacher in a lot of ways. He’s like a sponge. He’s absorbing it all and he’s bringing it out through his music, not even mine. I even offered him a couple of grooves. I said, “Hey, I got some cool grooves you might like.” And he says, “Why do I need your grooves when I have my own?” I said, “You know what? That’s true.” And that was the perfect answer.

I read that you actually did meet Jaco at a guitar show and you didn’t speak to him.
Were you intimidated?

It was in a hotel in 1985, and each room was delegated to a guitar company or an amp company or a pedal company. I had heard this loud bass. It wasn’t great. It was just noisy. I went in that room, and it was Jaco, and he was sitting there playing a bass. It was just the two of us for about a minute, and then the room filled up. I didn’t say anything because I was very shy. He started to play so beautifully, and it was a memorable experience because the room filled up, and we all had these big smiles on our faces.

He did not smile, he kind of stared at every one of us and almost stared through us, it was almost like he was sizing us up, like he could kick our ass or something. If you can be sized up by your hero, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis or whoever, I mean that is a beautiful moment, so it was great for me to be there. And then his girlfriend walked in, and she had two cans of beer in her hoodie sweatshirt and said, “Come on, Jaco. Let’s go.” And he got up, and he left us all there with these big smiles on our faces.

Do you regret not speaking?

I only wish that I wasn’t so shy because I swear I would’ve invited him for a burger or to go to the beach. Knowing what I now know about him and what I’ve experienced from this project, knowing that he loved the ocean, oh my god, in a heartbeat, “Jaco we’re going surfing, or I’m going to buy you lunch and dinner.”

Jaco stated that he was the best bass player in the world. Who do you think is the greatest living bass player today?

There are so many bass players that are still alive that were a part of my universe when Jaco was alive, and even in the late 70s, guys like Stanley Clarke, or Alphonso Johnson, or Anthony Jackson. So, those guys, Geddy Lee, Geezer Butler. Those guys are still my heroes ’cause they’re still kicking ass. I’m the type of person where I’m finding greatness in all different kinds and types of players. I think that Pino Palladino is just amazing. I love what he does with D’Angelo, and I love what he does with The Who. He’s one of my heroes right now. Lemmy from Motorhead, he’s another hero of mine, so, it’s another difficult question.

I’ll tell you a guy who really blows me away is Armand Sabal-Lecco, he was my partner in Mass Mental. Armand is really an incredibly amazing bass player because he’s incorporating not just rock and incredible funk, but he’s also bringing African rhythms to the instrument. I’ve never seen that in my life, and it’s such a joy to be creative with a player that has that in his DNA but also in his vocabulary and his library of creativity.

It’s a great time to be a musician. But people are getting older and we are losing some of these players. Jerry Jemmott is another incredible bass player. He was Jaco’s favorite bass player. He is a dear friend of mine now, so I feel blessed to be around my heroes.

Are you going to go see Sabbath on their final tour to see Geezer?

Oh, yeah. Of course I am. In fact, Geezer wanted to be at the screening in Los Angeles the other Sunday when we had the premiere. He couldn’t be there because he was on tour with Ozzy in Japan, so I will probably have a private screening for Geezer of Jaco in the next month or so.

I’d love to be in that room. Geezer was the guy that inspired me to play bass.

Oh, yeah. He’s one of my biggest inspirations for sure, absolutely.

The Havana Jam, is there any more video to that? I know there’s a live album, did you get to see more of that video?

Well, the video is a true treasure. We came about that because we were at a meeting at Sony in New York, and this is what has happened. You’ve had very charitable people who happened to have a treasure that you don’t know about. That’s why it took so many years as well to create because we were being presented with amazing treasures along this journey over the course of time, and those treasures are a blessing and a curse.

So, one final question for you, Robert. What’s on the horizon for you and Metallica?

A new album. We’re working hard on this, and I’m very excited about it, and yeah, we’re in full-blown production right now. It was getting a little bit complicated for me between – I just pulled it off getting the film to the finish line and working that schedule around my Metallica universe. So, we’re in a good place now and it’s great. I’m enjoying the new ideas, new songs, and next year – we’re looking at next year.