Metallica’s Robert Trujillo Talks About His New Jaco Pastorius Documentary And The Bassist’s Influence On His Music

People tend to think that if you play in one of the hardest and heaviest heavy metal bands of all time you must only listen to music that sounds similar to your own. However, most great musicians will tell you they draw inspiration from a wide variety of influences across the musical spectrum, regardless of genre. Such is the case with Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. He first came to prominence playing with skate punks Suicidal Tendencies, then played funk metal in the spinoff group Infectious Grooves before landing a gig with Ozzy Osbourne and eventually taking over the 4-string in the biggest heavy metal band in the world. And his greatest influence is a jazz fusion bassist who is best known for his guest apperences on other artists’ albums and only released two proper solo albums before his tragic death at the age of 35. During his all-too brief life, Jaco Pastorius raised the musical bar for bass players with his innovative and unrivaled technique and helped redefine its very sound, popularizing the fretless electric bass. Trujillo was first exposed to his music in his youth and after befriending the Pastorius family is producing the new documentary Jaco about the bassist’s life and music. Though it will not be released until the fall, the documentary was named the Official Film Of Record Store Day, which is a tie-in with the new Jaco demos collection Modern America Music…Period! which will be released tomorrow as part of the annual event. Robert was kind enough to talk to us about the movie, how he came to be involved and how Jaco’s music has left an a permanent mark on his bass playing and writing.

What was your first exposure to the music of Jaco Pastorius?

Robert Truillo: You know, back in the day, being a young, inspired bass player, I started to gravitate toward jazz fusion. I almost would have called myself an elitist. I got to the point where for a little bit there I was more interested in instrumental music.  Not for long, but I was more appreciative of bass solos and ripping Al Di Meola guitar solos, and John McLaughlin. So I got into that, and I started hearing about this bass player called Jaco—one name, right to the point, you know—and it was intriguing; everyone started talking about this guy. It was like, “Whoa.” I was intrigued by the mystique of the name alone. Before that, it was all about (bassist) Stanley Clarke and there were a couple other players. I was really into Anthony Jackson. And then Jaco just kind of came out of nowhere and started tearing it up.

And then I actually went to see him when he came through the Santa Monica Civic Center, in ’78 or ’79. My parents would actually take me to shows. My Dad lived in Venice, not too far from the Santa Monica Civic and was able to drop me off and pick me up and I was able to witness Jaco for the first time live. And that was when he was really full-steam ahead. I mean, there was baby powder on the stage, I remember him sliding into his bass guitar like it was home plate. You know what I mean? And the backdrop was the New York City skyline or something. And it was really an entertaining experience. I’d been to a lot of rock shows already by then, and this was just as exciting. Of course the first solo album was mind-boggling. It was kind of like hearing Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” for the first time and here’s this dude ripping on the electric guitar and I can’t tell if it’s a keyboard, a synthesizer, I didn’t know what to make of it. It was the same thing with Jaco. Here’s this guy playing this composition, all harmonics and cordal movements and then he’s ripping on a, it would have been “Donna Lee,” like “What is this? A saxophone?” A fretless bass wasn’t as common to the ear, so the growl and everything just kind of swept you away. And then when you saw this guy, what he looked like and how he played, it was just its own, you know, beautiful monster so to speak.

Mike Muir and Robert Trujillo on stage with Infectious Grooves. [Photo: Getty Images]

Are there any Metallica or Suicidal Tendencies or Infectious Grooves songs that you can think of where fans could hear his influence on you?

It’s funny because we did a show here at the Whiskey A Go Go in Hollywood for their fiftieth anniversary and Infectious Grooves had the main closing ceremonial show. In reuniting with that batch of music I realized that all that music—I wrote all that music actually—and that music was completely inspired by Jaco with, of course, elements of Slayer and Suicidal. So all of that music was inspired by it and if people go on there and they give it a good listen, they’re going to hear it. They’re going to hear the moments of harmonics. They’re going to hear the real staccato technique in the bass lines. And 8th notes and the pulse, all that stuff. At the time, I didn’t want to necessarily copy Jaco’s solos or his work directly, so I made a point to not do that. I made a point to try and use his technique and his style in the context of writing.

With Suicidal, actually, that’s very interesting because the opening track on Lights… Camera… Revolution! is “You Can’t Bring Me Down.” There’s a whole little thing at the beginning where I’m playing the fretless bass and it’s a slight little tip of the hat to Jaco. So little bits and pieces. With Metallica, a little less, you know. I’d say more maybe in the pump and drive of sticking on one note and “duh-duh-duh-duh-duh” you know? I’d say the closest thing to that, though it’s not fretless, is “Day That Never Comes.” There’s some stuff in there where it’s driving kind of like a Deep Purple and then, I’m thinking, sort of Jaco in there even though I’m not playing the fretless though the other thing is Jaco didn’t always play fretless. That’s another kind of misunderstanding. We recognize him and his sound on his fretless but he crushed on a fretted bass as well.

Legendary jazz fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius with his famed fretless “Bass Of Doom.” [Photo: Getty Images]

How did the Jaco documentary come about?

About 18 years ago when I was finishing up with Suicidal and heading into Ozzy Osbourne’s band I was able to meet Johnny Pastorius, Jaco’s oldest son. A friend of mine who lived near him in Florida put us in touch and when I happened to be in town with Ozzy, Johnny came to the show and we became great friends. We hung out the whole night. I was making calls back to California, putting Johnny on the phone, you know, with my old guitar player, Rocky George (of Suicidal Tendencies) “Hey look! I got Jaco’s son here”—all drunk, you know. It was kind of a special, cool moment. He gave me a really great, beautiful big black and white photo of his dad. And I had told him, “You really have to share your father’s story with the world and the universe because there’s a lot of people that would love to hear it and learn about your father and his compositions.” And he totally got it. He was also of the age to where he appreciated the Infectious Grooves and stuff that I had been doing. So it made sense at the time. And I don’t know how many years later, we reconnect and he said “I’m working on this film” and I’d always say “If you need anything from me, let me know.”

Then, I’d say about 5 years ago, I was playing in Fort Lauderdale with Metallica and he brought a guy who had grown up with Jaco. His name was Bob and he had done an audio documentary called “Portrait of Jaco: The Early Years.” Bob knew nothing about Metallica and was amazed at the show, like, “Wow, a sold-out show in this massive arena and here’s this Mexican guy on bass who loves Jaco.” So he and Johnny actually sort of pursued me to help them with the project and to join the team, and all of us sort of became partners on the project. When my wife and I and the family moved back down from San Francisco to Los Angeles the door kind of blew open, meaning the opportunities for this film to develop and really kind of take shape suddenly made real sense. I ended up having a meeting with Passion Pictures with John Battsek who you may or may not know had this Searching For Sugar Man film a year ago win the Academy Award for Best Documentary and they’ve had successes with other films as well. It’s probably one of the best documentary film production companies in the world. So at that point I was like, “Okay, now we’re getting serious. Now we’re really going to make a film here and we’re going to do it the right way.” And it’s been a long journey. I can’t say that it’s been easy, but it’s really coming together well. There’s editing going on right now as I speak to you. It’s almost there. We need to have a November release. That’s where it’s at. It is a beautiful film and I know that it’s going to definitely register incredibly well with not just Jaco fans but people that love a good, beautiful story.

What’s the Record Store Day tie-in?

What ended up happening was (Record Store Day manager) Michael Kurtz had footage of Jaco that he shot, I think it would have been 1978, in North Carolina. He was just this kid that would bring his little Super 8 handheld to concerts and film them. And he filmed Weather Report with Jaco, his first tour, and since he knew Metallica and Marc Reiter, our middle manager from Q Prime, he said, “I’d like to get ahold of Robert because I have this footage of Jaco that I shot when I was 17 or 18-years-old.” So that’s how it all started. He had this footage he wanted to donate to the project and then in actually meeting him and sharing with him this trailer we had put together—more of a seven minute short—he really, really got into the potential story here and the film. He invited Johnny Pastorius, myself, and our director/editor Paul Marchaund to attend this International Record Store Day dinner in Los Angeles and we went in there with our little trailer, and there’s about 100 retailers from all over the U.S., and we played this trailer for them, and everybody in the room was speechless. I mean, some of them were almost crying because it was such a beautiful thing to them. At that point we were asked to release the film under the Record Store Day banner. And that’s where we are now. That ended up turning into an Omnivore Records release, which is Jaco’s original demos from 1974. Those are coming out on April 19th, Record Store Day.

Bassist Robert Trujillo played with Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves and Ozzy Osbourne before joining Metallica in 2003. [Photo: Getty Images]

Robert Trujillo talks to fans at Metallica’s Orion Festival. [Photo: Getty Images]

With Record Store Day coming I was wondering, what was the first record you ever bought for yourself?

The first album I ever bought was Santana’s Abraxas. Obviously, I was a huge fan of Carlos because he had the unique guitar sound and he had incorporated a lot of the percussion and really, really fun rhythmic bass lines in there, too. But the other thing was the album covers, man. The album covers were sexy. They were so bad-ass. I think it might have been Santana III or something where he had this kind of cobra flying in the air and like a volcano and you’re like, “What’s that?” And you open up the jacket and you see the band and they all look really cool. You see Neal Schon and he’s like 17-years-old. That was one of the cool things also and that’s one of the cool things about Record Store Day is that they’re celebrating the packaging, bringing it back to the old school. In fact, the Jaco release, which is titled Modern America Music…Period!, that album, even the record jacket and the artwork, everything was done in the same style as the original and how they used to sort of design, the materials used, everything about the original releases. And I thought that was very cool, too, like really, really focusing on the fine details of a vinyl package.

Robert Trujillo on stage with Metallica’ James Hetfield. [Photo: Getty Images]

And finally, of course, I have to ask, what can we looking forward to in Metallica-Land over the next year?

We’re writing man. We’ve prepared one song, which may or may not be on the album, but it’s a lot of fun. We’re playing it live. It’s called “Lords of Summer”. We had some fun putting that together. And there’s a lot of really, really great riffs and possibilities for some great new songs. I’m really excited. I think we’re all very excited. We actually started writing about a year ago and then we kind of had to step aside from it because of the Through the Never film but now we’re back into the swing of things and that’s our goal this next year: to prepare a whole bunch of cool music. It feels like Death Magnetic was the launch pad for what we’re about to do in a lot of ways. That album took a lot of time to make but the good thing about it was it was a way to establish how we work together, at least this version of the band. And now we feel like we’re a better band. We’ve had a lot of challenges in recent years as a unit and now we can take that to the studio and make something great with it. Hopefully everyone will love it.