Flotsam and Jetsam are on a boat…

Although the name Flotsam And Jetsam may not ring any bells for some of you, for others it might make you think of a name you would find right next to a historical date. In the same way that one might think, 1515 – Marignan, any metaller keen on music history will think 1986 – Flotsam And Jetsam. Why 1986 you ask? Well that’s because it’s the year that their acclaimed first album Doomsday For The Deceiver was released, featuring a certain Jason Newsted before he was sacked by Metallica a few months later. Then there are the others, whose mouths water every time this band is mentioned. These are the people who have gone beyond their historical knowledge and just love to hear unstoppable power-thrash albums like Cuatro and Drift, which truly are timeless forgotten gems.

It is now 2011 and Flotsam And Jetsam are still unfailingly around or just about. This was due to a few periods of doubt, disparity and personal reorganisation. However, the band from Phoenix was able to pull itself together and gather again. Their new album is called The Cold and it’s one hell of an album! Those who may have mentioned its similarities with Queensrÿche’s power-thrash sound through their power and subtlety were right on. Proudly signed to Brian “Head” Welch’s label (ex-Korn) and Nuclear Blast Europe, Flotsam And Jetsam have taken everyone by storm with The Cold and managed to rise up the endless album charts. So don’t be afraid, jump right into this talented band’s discography and why not even start with their latest gem.

In the meantime, here is an informative interview with the friendly Craig Nielsen, drummer in the band since 1997.

« It would be a waste of AK’s talent if all we did was to throw heavy riffs and speed metal at him all day. […] He’s got a real voice, so we have to write some mid-tempo stuff, to stretch him out a little bit and make him stand out.« 

You got a new album out, called « The Cold ». It was apparently mostly written and recorded over 2008 and 2009. That is a pretty long time, but do you think that it was needed to end up with such a quality album?

Well, it surely did not hurt. We did not plan it this way. It was delayed by over a year because our engineer was hired by the original guitar player from Korn, Brian “Head” Welch, who actually founded our label. He had a solo record and needed to tour to support it. At the last minute he asked our engineer if he wanted to be in that band to do that. We did not know how long it was going to take, and it took longer than we thought. We were happy to be working with that engineer, he knew exactly what we were going for, so we were willing to wait for him. But that added quite a bit of time to it. I actually recorded the drums for the record two and half years ago. So a lot of the rhythms and tracks were recorded a long time ago. Our engineer’s commitment took longer and longer…and then you know, you have to schedule mix and mastering, and then you’ve got to get the art and everything printed, and then it gets released… so that’s another year. It seems a long time but you know, that’s pretty much the way it this business works.

At the beginning of 2010, you declared that « The Cold » was going to sound like a metal record. Does it mean you have some regrets about « Dreams of Death » for it not being metal enough?

I would not say that about « Dreams of Death ». I hadn’t listened to it for a couple of years, but I was listening to it just the other day, in my car, and I like it more now than I ever did. I think it’s a metal record. I think that the majority of songs of « Dreams of Death » are metal. There are only two songs that are not. « Bathing in red » and the instrumental are pretty slow, so it makes the listener think that there is slow material on it, but « Dreams of Death » is mostly a metal record actually. I don’t know how you define metal anymore, but for this record, we needed to get the most out of our singer. That’s what it’s all about, it’s about our singer. It would be a waste of AK’s talent if all we did was to throw heavy riffs and speed metal at him all day. You could do that, but why? He’s got a real voice, so we have to write some mid-tempo stuff, to stretch him out a little bit and make him stand out. When you have a singer like him, it would just be a waste of time and talent, to just try to write nothing but speed metal riffs all day for him to sing over. And you know, that’s not challenging enough for him. He’s got a melody and all that, so he needs to take advantage of that. We try to write with that in mind so that we give a fair amount of fast and mid-tempo material.

The album has a more modern production, compared to « Dreams of Death ». Is this something that you wanted, to have a record that is more contemporary?

No, that’s simply a matter of tones, that’s the engineer’s specialty. We’re not sitting there bored, recording and mixing: we just know when it sounds good. If he ended up getting a mix that sounds more modern, that’s just a great bonus I guess, it depends how you look at it. We did not sit about or had a meeting and said, « let’s try to sound more modern ». We were just hoping that we had a really good engineer who knew his gear, and that’s exactly what we had. He was a master at his gear, he had great microphones that he brought with him, great guitars that he got Mark to play. He also had great ideas, because he’s also a musician. He made suggestions that actually worked. It was a pleasure working with the guy. And when he mixed it, when it was mastered, well I guess it ended up having some modern tones and sound quality too, which is, as far as I’m concerned, good.

Flotsam & Jetsam is generally considered as a thrash metal band, but on the other side, you don’t limit yourself with a genre, we can hear a lot of power metal in your music, a bit of grunge, a bit of gothic, or even progressive touches and other stuff. Do you think people tend to categorise a bit too much and too easily music and metal in particular, nowadays?

Yeah, I have to assume it, because when I was growing up, there was only one metal scene. And there was none of this fragmented… if you were into Iron Maiden, you were into Ozzy Osbourne, you were into Slayer, you know, you were into anything that was out there: it was still one banner of heavy metal. And everybody who was a metal fan joined in that stuff, whether it was a concert… or whatever. We used to wait for tickets, freezing our ass off, waiting for the ticket line to open so we could go…you know, it was just one metal scene. I think it’s very unfortunate that everything’s so fragmented today: the power metal versus the death metal and black metal versus the old school or whatever… All these differences of banners! I think that’s unfortunate. Hopefully it will come again as a unified scene one day.

« Eric has a different perspective because Eric was there when we were with MCA Records and Elektra Records: we had huge budgets for recording but yet he never made any money.[…] Everybody else was making money but him, and that’s true, managers make money, agents make money, everyone makes money… but you don’t make any money. So he has every right to feel that way. »

The band has known a real ballet of guitarists last year. In March Ed Carlson left the band, and was replaced by Michael Gilbert. Then Mark Simpson left to be replaced by the returning Ed Carlson. First of all, why did Ed leave to then come back the same year? Was the band surprised by this move?

No, Ed wanted to make some different sorts of changes in his life, he wanted to stop drinking and partying altogether and he moved to the beach, in California, in his brother’s house. He just took himself out of a lot of negative energy that was around him in Phoenix and he wanted to take a new start. That included sobriety for him. When you’re on tour, that’s the last thing everyone around you is, « sober ». It becomes a challenge for you to enjoy yourself in that environment, if you’re the only one not doing what everybody else is doing. So he wanted to take a break and concentrate on things that were important to him and we all told him that we supported him. When Mark decided to leave, it was for an entirely different reason. That was more for future professional opportunities with his family’s business, giving him some security for the future. The economy in the US is very, very, very bad right now. It’s not like a few years ago, when you could change jobs every month. If you were in a band, you never worried about a job, because you could just get another one. Well that’s not how it is today. If you can get a good job, you’d damn well better get it and stay. That’s what it’s coming down to, at the moment, it’s getting really scary in that country for that sort of thing. Mark saw some security and he decided it was time for him to concentrate on that and we supported him on that. And then we had a show booked in Mexico City, we already had that commitment, so I called Ed and asked him if he wanted to do those shows. He said yes. You know, it’s everyone’s guess, to say if he’s going to stay. We played in Mexico last weekend, just a few days ago. We had a great time and I did not put any pressure on him to give me decisions on what he’s going to do forever, but it would be ideal if he wanted to come back… so we’ll just wait to see what he says.

When Ed left, was getting Michael Gilbert back an obvious choice for the band?

Yes sure, it was. I mean he lives in Phoenix and he had already come up. We had hired Mike on a few occasions over the past 14 years, when Ed had other commitments or whatever happened. Mike has come up to perform with us before. We did a couple of shows in Phoenix, he and Kelly Smith came up and did a song or two as well. It’s not like we had not talked to him in 16 years. It was really easy to call him up and ask him if he wanted to come back, and of course he wanted to. It’s his legacy after all, he wrote a lot of songs and everybody heard about the band because of those songs. He had a lot to do with that, you know. It’s his babies, from the beginning. So he very much wanted to come back, he knew all the songs perfectly, he stepped right in into the first practice. I mean, he was really prepared, so it was an obvious choice.

And do you think that the chemistry between Ed and Mike is back like in the old days?

Yeah, I’d say it is. The matter is to know if Ed wants to continue. But the chemistry is there.

Did these line-up movements have an impact on the release of the album? I mean, we saw little promotion for it up to now, and in Europe, it’s coming out six months after the American release.

Well, you know, we did not have a European deal. We had to decide when to release the album in the States of course. Driven Music had not secured any European deal for any of their music, including ours, so that just took more time. We had to release it when we could in the States, we could not delay to see if we got a European deal. As it turned out, we did get a European deal, but the band does not really have anything to do with any of that, that was all done between Driven Music, the label here, and Nuclear Blast there. We never communicated with Nuclear Blast on it. I don’t know why they’re waiting to release the album, but I’m not upset. I’m sure they have good reasons for when they release records. But we can’t be happier than being with Nuclear Blast, we know they are a very respected and professional company up there. We’re very happy with this relationship.

The song « Better Off Dead » is quite moving. There is such a sense of despair in Eric’s voice that we can only imagine that it comes from experienced events. What is the story behind this track?

Well it is a question for Eric, I could not tell you exactly. But I’ll tell you this: he doesn’t feel like he’d be better off dead, he’s not suicidal or anything like that. I just think that Eric’s got so much potential vocally. He’s been practicing a lot, bleeding up to the recording of the record, because he sings in his little country side-project and he is also singing for a side-project with Wiley (Arnett) from Sacred Reich. So he’s been singing a lot, and it was really easier for him to dig in and get the emotion required to make that part work. That part would not work if he didn’t sing with so much emotion. It has to be sung like that to work. He’s got talent but I would not say that it’s coming from some deep place within him and that he feels the meaning of those lyrics. I don’t think that he really sings lyrics that are that personal. He’s interpreting other people’s pain, I don’t think it’s a reflexion of his own. But I do believe that he put all he had into that song. I don’t think that’s unusual, when you know the guy and what he’s capable of. We played in Mexico City a few days ago, and we had not seen each other in 8 months, and he sang so perfectly (laughs), I just could not describe it! He surprises me all the time with what he can do… but I would not say that he wrote that song from any personal space.

« The association with Jason Newsted has been very positive for this band. Metallica was elected to the American Music Hall of Fame. […] The first band Jason thanked in live television in front of Metallica was Flotsam & Jetsam. And it got out to millions and millions of people. How could that be considered negative? »

With all the quality music that the band has produced in 25 years with a remarkable constancy, we would have expected it to have much more success today than it actually has. Has the band ever put into question its future because of that? I know that Eric was demotivated at one point and did leave the band in 2001 to be replaced by James Rivera, before coming back in 2004..

Eric has a different perspective because Eric was there when we were with MCA Records and Elektra Records: we had huge budgets for recording but yet he never made any money. So Eric has the feeling that he’s been burnt but myself and Mark Simpson would tell you, and I’m sure Jason Ward would tell you too, that we have a totally different perspective. We joined that band, and even though it didn’t rise to the success of the Big 4 or even the Big 8, or wherever you want to put us on the list, we can still go on tour whenever we want, we have a lot of fans, we’re album of the year in some very important publications, stuff like this. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Aardschok Magazine in Holland. They sell a lot of magazines, like 25, 30 000 per month or something like that, and they gave us « 2010 album of the year » above all of our peers, Nevermore, Exodus, Death Angel, Overkill, all of them… Forbidden… Even Slash from Guns N’ Roses. You know, we are all these years into our career and we release a record that a magazine of that size would put as number one of the whole year…so how do you define success? I don’t know. Nobody really makes any money, even bands that are bigger than us don’t make any money. You can’t look at success with how much money you’ve made in a year. If you went on tour, then you made a little bit of money, but you can’t stay on tour all year. At the end of the year, add it up, you can’t live on it, unless you’re a really big band you know. If success is defined by that, I guess we’re not that successful, but we can always go on tour, we can always do the next record. While we’re on it, we’re going to do our next record after this fall or something like that. So I feel that it is successful… I don’t know how much more I can hope for! But Eric sees the case differently, because he’s remembering the time before I met him. He had the potential for the biggest success and it didn’t happen for him the way he was said it would. Everybody else was making money but him, and that’s true, managers make money, agents make money, everyone makes money… but you don’t make any money. So he has every right to feel that way. But I can tell you: these three guys who were in the band for the last 14 years don’t feel that way.

Mark and his influence and contribution were obviously very important for the band. Can we say he helped to maintain the ship going at a time where the other members began to lose faith in the band? For example at the time of the « My God » album: it was mostly composed by him…

Basically, when Mark stepped in, it allowed everyone else to start being lazy. They had written every song of 8 studio records. Then Mark came, had all these songs ideas, and I guess everybody else decided to be lazy and let Mark run with that. But yes, his contribution is the signature of the last 2 or 3 records sound. He’s been a huge contribution, it will be really hard to replace him as a songwriter. The next batch of songs will probably sound a bit different. Hopefully Mike Gilbert will write a bunch of them and Jason Ward will come back as a writer. Jason is a very good songwriter, when he wants to be and when he has to be. He wrote pretty much all of « Cuatro » and « Drift » and I personally love those two records. My friends here in the States love those two records and pretty much all of Jason Ward’s writing. So we have two great writers: Mike Gilbert wrote all the early songs and Jason Ward all the mid career songs. Therefore we already have writers right now. But it’s going to be hard to get the kind of vibe that we got in the last couple of records. It’s going to sound different without Mark, that’s for sure.

One of your band mates has been quoted talking about your « undying determination to keep the band together and playing all over the world ». Are you that much of a driving force in the band?

Well I’m the manager, in the way that I deal with all the agents or festival promoters who present us shows offers. I deal with the details of everything. I stepped into that after our last manager was fired. I’m definitely a tour manager, I don’t know if I can call myself a professional business manager… we have a business manager who deals with the accounting. Yes, I’m pretty much what you can call a tour manager, I deal with all the details of all the shows, from A to B, to Z. I’m a tour manager more than anything else.

Flotsam & Jetsam is mostly known from the majority of metalheads almost only for being the first band of Jason Newsted (ex-Metallica), which represents a very small part in the band’s history. Isn’t it a bit frustrating to be known for this kind of anecdotal fact rather than for the excellent music the band has put out throughout the years?

No… you know, MTV has the Metallica special and so does VH1… Major television networks put out Metallica biographies, they always have to include the Flotsam & Jetsam story, and they always do. The association with Jason Newsted has been very positive for this band. Metallica was elected to the American Music Hall of Fame, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it. They had Jason come up and make a speech. He was the first person that they called to make a speech, live on stage, in front of millions of people watching, and screaming, and whatever. The first band Jason thanked in live television in front of  Metallica was Flotsam & Jetsam. And it got out to millions and millions of people. How could that be considered negative? It’s been nothing but positive. Our name gets out there to millions of people, who would not have known it otherwise, because of this Jason Newsted thing from 25 years ago, so that’s a good thing.

Have you noticed people checking out the band because of that?

Yes, I’m sure they are! I’m sure that if Jason Newsted comes up there live and a bunch of kids are looking at the television show and he says « I want to give it up to the band that started it all: Flotsam & Jetsam »…if I’m a music fan and Jason Newsted just came up there on my television to give tops to a band called Flotsam & Jetsam, I’d get online to have a look at it, sure!

Interview conducted by phone in january, 2011.
Transcription by : Sandra.

Flotsam And Jetsam’s website : flotsam-and-jetsam.com

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