FLOTSAM AND JETSAM - My Secret Place
January 24, 2017, a year ago
Ever had a secret? One that is so dear to your heart that you’d never want it to slip away. That’s the feeling about Flotsam And Jetsam. Yeah, the band that bassist Jason Newsted jumped to Metallica from. They are the band that (now sell-out) UK magazine (Kerrang!) gave the ONLY six-K review of their debut album, Doomsday For The Deceiver, in 1986 (the mag halted that practice immediately after). This is just silly trivia that badly overshadows the genius of their art. I call them the most under-rated band in heavy metal. So why has life been such a roller-coaster ride, jumping from label to label, band members floating in and out. Why don’t people get it? And to quote one of the songs on the band’s latest self-titled triumph, they’ve always been on the verge of tragedy. Close to the edge, but have never fallen over.
Back stage at the State Theater in St. Petersburgh, Florida recently, treasured singer Eric “A.K.” Knutson sits reserved and ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience. His vocal prowess exceeds virtually everyone who holds a microphone. Clear, concise and powerful. He dances as elegantly as Rocky Balboa, and doesn’t think twice about verbally bruising you. Not that he’s a violent soul. But he truly ranks with the best; Freddie, Bruce, Ronnie, Rob. You know the short-list. But more on that later.
So what clicked this time to make Flotsam And Jetsam one of the band’s top-notch records?
“It's the new lineup we got now,” he says simply. “Everybody put a lot of work into this record. We picked up Steve (Conley), his writing style just fucking sparked the rest of us. It kind of kicked us all into gear. When we were listening to stuff that he wrote we were saying ‘how fucking cool is this, I need to write something better.’ It was back-and-forth because then he would say ‘I’m gonna write something better than you!’ So it worked out really well; he's been a great addition to the writing team. (Michael) Spencer had a couple of songs that were written for No Place For Disgrace and those are on there. We kind of a revamped those. Those are ‘Forbidden Territories’ and ‘LOTD’. Those were both written for No Place…, but they didn't make it on the record. He’s just been hanging onto them. So we had Steve and Mike (Gilbert) kind of go through them and they turned out really cool.”
But “Iron Maiden” was the first song that you decided to debut to the world last April. What was the reasoning behind that.
“It was the first thing we had done,” A.K. laughs! “I went into a friends studio to try vocals on it and it turned out great. That was like ‘cool that one is finished.’ It is one of our favourites on there in terms of song writing. So that was the one that we pushed first. The more I can take about six months, but we worked around a lot of crap. And we had 18 songs to choose from. And we got to the end of the first 12, we thought that they were pretty cool, so we went with those and finished them up. We've got more on the back burner for the next record already.”
So this album has really shone a spotlight back onto Flotsam And Jetsam.
“This record is really doing it's job. We got a lot of people showing up to shows knowing all the songs off the new one, so it's kind of nice. Places where we expected only a few people to show up we are getting a lot more in attendance, so this record is really doing it's job. It's a nice little boost. We haven't done a US tour in a long time.”
But you rarely cross the border up north.
“Well that's looking like the spring.”
But weren’t there some “legal” issues that you were dealing with back in the heyday.
“We’ve got ways around that now. Instead of going through the border and saying ‘here's my stuff’, you pull up to the Niagara border and say ‘we’ve got no gigs, we just want to go over there to the casino and spend some money for a few hours and then we will leave.’ And they're like ‘sure come on in.’ They don't even check the passports. So we go over and gamble for an hour and then we head off to the gig. They don't know any different.”
So is your new fan base familiar with the history?
“We run into a lot of people that kind of know the history about the band. There are a lot of kids where their parents are bringing them to the show. A lot of young metalheads who have parents that are huge fans of Flotsam. We are getting generations showing up now.”
OK now you are dating yourself at your young age!
“Well, I've been in this band since 1792, and I'm still only 29 years old. It's kind of a weird thing to explain to people.”
You don't look a day over 30! But its a bit surreal to sit here and talk about your treasured history and then speak about this fantastic new album.
“We've been through a lot of crap. And for a while I had a lineup with me that was just together to go out on vacations then have the promoters pay for it. It was like ‘we're going to go to Europe for a couple of weeks and see all the sites and some promoter is gonna pay for it while we do some gigs. And it's a little different now, we are back to a real band making a stab at growing and becoming a bigger entity in the music industry. And we are all kind of on the same page which is really cool. Everybody is here to work and nobody's here for a vacation and to have a good time. That’s just one of the perks. But we are all here to push this record, sell some merch and have as many people as we can to see us.”
So what was the thought behind signing with a German label instead of a US one?
“We’ve always been a little bit bigger in Europe than we are in the States. We had six or seven offers from labels and AFM were the only ones that said ‘here's the budget we will give you, and here's the marketing plan etc.’ They had everything laid out in terms of videos, touring. They had it all written out and ready to go for us. And the other labels just said ‘this is what we're going to give you for a recording budget.’ End of conversation. The guys at AFM were huge Flotsam fans, so that made a big difference. So far we haven't been disappointed.”
And your voice is still on fire despite the fact you're only 29! What's the magic, what's the key ingredient to keeping it alive.
“I'm not really sure. Back in the day I was Superman, I could do whatever. Three chicks and a bunch of coke all night and I can still sing the next night, there was no problem. Once I was getting older, I had to start taking care of it. Now I'm in a groove I think. I have the right amount of water every day, the right amount of sleep. I just get into a groove and my voice is working really well. I try not to look a gift horse in the mouth and change anything too much. There are no secrets, just tons and tons of water. I had several throat doctors tell me water is the key to everything. You’ve got to keep the vocal chords slimy.”
As I mentioned, you have such an overlooked history. How do you think your catalog has stood the test of time?
“I got some favourites over our career and there are some that I don't wish to ever listen to again. So there's every spectrum in there. Up until this new one came out, The Cold was my favourite record. Before the cold, Drift and Cuatro were my favourite records. We have a lot of fan requests from Cuatro, Drift, the first two and the new one. The middle stuff, there's some great parts and pieces of some songs, but some of those aren't complete albums. We kind of threw some songs on to just get to the number of songs we needed. So some of them didn't have the attention that they should've had when we were recording them. Well there really aren't any horrible records on the line-up, just some that are better than others. But there are no B-sides or filler songs on the new record. Every one of them we were saying ‘this could be the single, this could be the single.’ And when we finished we had to get somebody else to decide because we thought they were all cool. It was a nice change to have every song on the thing be one of your favorites. Everyone of us had a couple of different favourite songs on the record and they all ended up on there.”
So how tough is it to build a set list?
“Yeah it's tough, because there are some records that nobody in the line-up is on but me. So it's a little hard to push those songs into the set list, because there are so many that they are on that we could be doing. But we have a pretty good selection of our career on the set list.”
It’s interesting about your catalog and yes I realize everything is digital, but there were times where you couldn't even find some of these records. There may have been one pressing, it sold out and the label decided not to repress it.
“There’s been a few labels that kind of forgot about us. It was like ‘something happened, we didn't get them where we wanted them to go so let's file them in this drawer over here and forget about them. And stop pressing because were not gonna make a million off of them. When we were signed to MCA, they wanted to us to be their Metallica basically. Shortly after that Seagrams bought MCA and they went through the list - ‘we’ve never heard of this band get rid of them, never heard of this band get rid of them.’ And we were just one of the ones that they never heard of even though we were supposed to get a big push. So it's been one little stupid thing after another that’s kind of knocked us back down a couple of steps, but we get back up and then we get knocked down and then we get back up!”
So how does it feel to be at the end of a Sharpie and get scratched off the list?
“Especially when the Sharpie has no speakers on it and they aren't listening to it, they are just crossing shit off. That's a little disheartening, but it happens to everybody at one point or another. It's happened to us a few times. It is what it is. The industry part of the music industry is saying: ‘this band just gave us this record all done. We sell the rights to a bunch of different countries, we made all of our money back. Now we can throw it away. So you really need to get somebody that believes in your stuff and that's where we are at with AFM right now and the agents we have right now are all really psyched about our touring package and the new record, so we'll see what happens.”
Last March when I was serviced the new record it also coincided with the death of BraveWords mascot Hendrix and it was very therapeutic when I got to the end of the album with the song “Verge Of Tragedy”. So you take people places emotionally.
“That's our job. When we are writing and recording would like to take ourselves to a different spot. When you're feeling the riffs and you're feeling the vibe of the song - I kind of like it when it takes you into another place or another dreamland when you're listening to stuff. So that's part of the joy of recording.”
So why do you think that some people just don't get you guys? You should be larger than life. Struggle may not be the word, but it's still a battle.
“Yeah it's still a battle. But a lot of it is knowing what and when to do stuff and I think after all these years we kind of know a little bit more about that. We also realize that you've got a build up slowly because nothing is going to come hit you in the face; here’s one million dollars and a one million fans. It's just not gonna happen. Every time we restart something we got to start all over again. Start with our base fans and build from there and we are on the path of doing that right now. The European tour we did with Destruction was just awesome. And a lot of people saw us and a lot of people knew the new songs. I think when we go back and headline in the next few months we’ll have much bigger shows than the last time that we headlined. We just want to get out there and let people see that we are still a viable band. We’ve got a great lineup and we’ve got a great show and hopefully the next time we come back around the crowd will be twice the size.”
What's the next focus track on the record?
“I don't know. We all have a favourite that hasn't been pushed too much yet. 'Verge Of Tragedy' it's going to be one of the next ones that we at least put on the set. I’ve got a video planned for 'Taser’, but I'm not sure if these guys are gonna like it, but I got one planned in my head. 'Verge Of Tragedy' is just a really cool song, but I'm not sure what we're gonna do with it. Whether it’s going to be a proper video, or a lyric video. Or are we just gonna listen to it a bunch because we like it (laughs). I've had people request 'Smoking Gun', which I didn't think was the top track on the record.”
Fast-forward an hour to the long-awaited chat with original guitarist Michael Gilbert who left the band after 1997’s High, only to return in 2010. He found his legs again with 2011’s Ugly Noise and the rerecording of No Place For Disgrace in 2014. But you can sense the immense accomplishment of Flotsam And Jetsam the album is once again fueling the fires of creativity in his soul.
“We are super proud of it,” Gilbert begins. “When it was all said and done and we were finished mixing it, we all took a listen and went ‘wow’.” Because when you are involved in it you don't really know what the end is going to sound like. We do a lot of the production ourselves, Steve and I work on the engineering. He also does the drums and stuff like that. So throughout the recording process it changes so much that by the time you're actually done I don't really know what it's going to sound like until the mix comes back. It's a stopping point from an engineer’s standpoint, because I get to take a breath for two to three month period, then I get to hear a different product come back to me. And then I just went ‘wow’. So when it came back Steve and I high-fived! So it worked out really well. We are super proud of it.”
Biggest complaint that I hear is that there is such a debate about what song to release as a single, what to produce a video for and what to play live.
“We had 18 songs to pick from. A lot of bands write music for a record and they don't rehearse it, so they don't really know what the energy is going to be like. We got together a few weeks before the recording and worked really hard on the arrangements to make sure that the energy was there when we do it live. So we ended up picking the 12 strongest songs, and that's what turned out. This is going to sound killer.”
What do the rest sound like … the next record?
“Yeah hopefully they'll be a couple we can salvage out of there. But I'm kind of a fan of fresh ideas, and I have a lot of fresh ideas.”
So your heart is back in this band after a few years of you being AWOL?
“Yes I was missing for a while, seven or eight years. I just had some personal issues and stuff that I had to take care of. A.K. asked me back to do a couple of shows and then he wouldn’t let me leave (laughs). This has been my baby for a long time … but we had management issues, we had label issues. We had all kinds of stuff going on. There was a multitude of reasons why I left. It wasn't because of any of these guys, they are all brothers and they all understood where I was that.”
So you think you can hear that in the record the fact that you were missing and now you're not?
“There was a person that was involved with what we were doing that was too involved. But I kind of look at it like this; it starts with the five of us and that's the nucleus of it. If it goes beyond that and other people have their irons in the fire, it affects our creativity.”
And what are your thoughts about a legacy that continues to get overlooked?
“A.K.’s vocals are what makes our band and who we are. He's very unique, there is nobody else like him. He’s a fantastic singer. I used to be on his ass because he smokes, he drinks. He’s a JD guy. I was always the guy at fourth of July with the hose, waiting for a fire to happen. I'm totally paranoid. So I was like ‘A.K., stop drinking and stop smoking.’ I finally let it go, and I took a seat. But the dude gets better and better. There's a song called “Verge Of Tragedy” on this record where I did some of the engineering for the vocals and he was doing the vocal line and I was sitting there just getting the chills.”
I was telling A.K. the story that when I first got service the record in March I just suffered the loss of my pug and the BraveWords mascot Hendrix and “Verge Of Tragedy” helped me with my mourning. Like many Flotsam And Jetsam songs, they pull at your heart strings. I was in tears listening to this great song so thank you. Once again total therapy.
“It's a powerful song. I'm sorry to hear that by the way. 'Verge Of Tragedy' and 'Taser' are my favourite songs from the record. So when I write a song I always think about it being tension-based. You’ve got to try to bring some tension to it and then you’ve got to leave everybody hanging. And A.K. does a great job of doing that in that song. He finishes it and then you want more.”
Do you think the fans understand the heritage?
“That's an interesting question. It's 50-50. There's some people that don't know any of the history and then you got the older friends that know everything. They know the dates when I left, they know the dates when James (Rivera; Helstar, Seven Witches) filled in for A.K. It's crazy. European fans especially.”
Do you even listen to the catalog?
“I do and I compare it to a lot of the new stuff that's out. For example I liked Drift a lot, it was a different style of writing for us. That's when we really started to develop our song writing.”
Well it's great to see that you are back in the zone.
“This is in my blood.”
Flots ’Til Death … A Catalog You Should Own!
Doomsday For The Deceiver (1986) 9/10
History speaks for itself and Flotsam’s debut is considered a speed metal work of art, but it’s not my immediate go-to record. Yeah, we’ve heard the 6K Kerrang! hype, but there were better things on the horizon, notably album number two! But the band are still peppering the set with the pit-friendly anthems such as "Hammerhead”, "Desecrator”, "She Took An Axe" and the glorious title track "Doomsday For The Deceiver" which laid the groundwork for their epic sound, while many bands stuck with much shorter vicious intents!
No Place For Disgrace (1988) 9.5/10
And I had to laugh when A.K. told me that “Forbidden Territories” - my fave tune off the new album - actually originated from these writing sessions (by bassist Michael Spencer) but never made the cut! Anyway, genius from start to finish, although the “focus” track for marketing purposes was Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”. There is so much depth and attitude on this album starting with the title track, “Dreams Of Death”, “Hard On You” and “I Live You Die”. Not sure why it was necessary to re-record the album in 2014.
When The Storm Comes Down (1990) 7.5/10
Jumping from Elektra to MCA, this was a label priority. I wasn’t alone being a bit puzzled when Alex Perialas recorded Kelly Smith’s drums which stand-out strangely in the final mix. But this is a dark and morbid effort led by "The Master Sleeps”, ”October Thorns" and ”Suffer The Masses”.
Cuatro (1992) 8.5/10
One of A.K.’s faves as he says, this is the first example of Flotsam nestling into a comfortable nest of forward-thinking progressive speed metal with plenty of melody and depressing overtones. "Natural Enemies" and "Never To Reveal" shine with power and velocity. However it gets much deeper and thought-provoking, "Swatting At Flies" (“the only thing I made in my life was a fist”) and the all-consuming ”Wading Through The Darkness”. Flotsam And Jetsam are in the zone and it continues…
Drift (1995) 9/10
One of the diamonds in the rough and an example of a piece of catalog, severely overlooked and tough as hell to find. “Me” and “Empty Air” lead the charge while “Smoked Out” showcases an almost industrialized metal focus. The suicide-driven “Missing” is a daring highlight where the piano will crush your cranium and push you into tears. One of the highlight’s in the band’s career without a doubt!
High (1997) 8.5/10
I love this album and it’s return to speed with "Hallucinational”, "It's On Me" and ”Final Step” with it’s collage of acoustics that last 90 seconds! But the most entertaining are the obvious title track and closer “Everything”. Once again those darkened mellow moments that take you on a ride!
Unnatural Selection (1999) 6/10
In retrospect, this is one of Flotsam’s rushed and lacklustre affairs and an obvious low-point in their career where everything must’ve looked like it was crumbling around them. A perfect example of the band working on Side A and going AWOL on Side B. Stand out tracks are “Dream Scrape” and “Liquid Noose”.
My God (2001) 8.5/10
My God saw the band get back on the horse with some outside-of-the-box masterworks and some truly creative songwriting. "Dig Me Up To Bury Me” retains their thrashy roots, but it’s "Nothing To Say”, the title track and “Trash” that showcase the band’s lyrical grasp. “I don't know if I'm down in the dumps, but it sure smells like trash to me.” When Flotsam And Jetsam are one cohesive unit, vicious melodies and soaring vocals, they are unmatched!
Dreams Of Death (2005) 8/10
This album still scares the hell out of me, dealing with the theme of death-related nightmares. A.K. shines as you are in the shoes of the criminally insane as he goes on his killing spree. So if you can handle the content, “Bathing In Red”, “Childhood Hero” and the bruiser “Straight To Hell” are the go-to tracks. But handle without any sharp objects within range!
The Cold (2010) 7/10
Nearly five years later the band regroup, but this is no doubt a reason why Flotsam could easily be forgotten when your output in almost ten years is two albums. Metallica or Def Leppard ring a bell? Anyway, The Cold is a decent affair with the cranium crunch of “Blackened Eyes Staring”, and lead-off track “Hypocrite” once A.K.’s mellow intro sinks deep. The title track clocks in at over seven minutes and sees a rollercoaster of seething emotions, along with the troubled “Better Off Dead” and closer “Secret Life”. Yes, the cold is not an upbeat opus!
Ugly Noise (2012) 7.5/10
Despite my distaste for PledgeMusic, it did aid in the creation of the band’s eleventh studio album before Metal Blade picked it up. Ugly Noise saw two original members return since 1997's High: Michael Gilbert (guitar) and Kelly David Smith (drums). And with a dramatic and serious tone, we are graced with piano as A.K. invites, “in the circle, take your place.” “Gitty Up” is another pit-friendly anthem, bouncing to-and-fro, whereas “Rage” and “Motherfuckery” just add to the beating. But cue up “Run And Hide” and the inspiring “Rabbits Foot” for a real treat.
And check out my glowing review of Flotsam And Jetsam at this location.