Latest Release: The Cold (Nuclear Blast/Riot!)
When you think of thrash metal legends it’s easy to rattle off names like Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica, yet other icons go unmentioned. This year Flotsam and Jetsam are celebrating thirty years together in a business you’re often lucky to last more than five. Like a lot of their peers Flotsam and Jetsam were regular visitors to the Bay Area, sharing the stage with Megadeth, Armored Saint and Exciter to name just a few. The band made a name for themselves through blistering live performance and in 1986 released their first studio album, Doomsday for the Deceiver, that became the first album to receive a 6K rating in Kerrang! magazine. Most recently they released their tenth studio album The Cold, which has met with their most positive reviews to date with magazines and websites across American and Europe it as album of the month, and best released so far this year. Cameron Edney caught up with Flotsam and Jetsam’s long-time drummer Craig Neilsen recently to discuss the band’s latest album, the possibility of touring Australia and their approach to writing new music thirty years on.
Q: Hey there Craig. Congratulations on The Cold. You have certainly done a great job with this one. No doubt you guys are pleased with the outcome?
A: Yeah the outcome of the record and the outcome of the response, we’re pleased one hundred percent all the way around. We had no idea that it would be received like this. We just found out that Rock Hard in Germany, which is by far the biggest and most important metal magazine in that country and as you know, a very important country for metal music, just gave us the album of the month, which is an honour. In Belgium we were given album of the year over Slash… Slash from fuckin’ Guns N fuckin Roses and over Nevermore and Death Angel and all the rest of them. Powermetal.de which is a huge website from Germany gave us album of the month over Motorhead. It is unreal. I think what’s going on with that it that it’s just the perfect timing for this record. I listen to a lot of music on satellite radio and there’s just not a lot of singers like Eric A.K anymore period. He’s got so much melody and such a great feel for phrasing and all that kind of thing. He’s standing out today as something different. We’re not re-inventing the wheel or doing anything mysterious that hasn’t been done before. We’re doing it with conviction; the album has a feel that runs through the whole record, it doesn’t sound like disjointed disconnected songs. The magic is Eric A.K and I think he shines through on this record better than any record that we’ve ever done. I think he’s amazing on this record and when you have amazing vocal parts the album stands out. We always knew that Eric A.K could read out a phone book and the fans would love it and in fact he did read a phone book on the song ‘Smoked Out’ from Drift. The beginning of the song is Eric actually reading a fucking phone book and that ended up being the biggest song on that record.
Q: It had been five years between studio albums. When it came time to record the new album did you approach it in a different way to some of the albums you’ve done in the past?
A: No, the formula was pretty much the same but what was different was the time. We had more time for Eric to define his vocals and to work on leads and guitar parts. If you give a song writer enough time he should be able to come up with phenomenal things, if he’s a good songwriter. I think time is the enemy. We had a lot more time to write it. When we got home from the Dreams Of Death tour we didn’t have a record deal cause Crash Music was folding and they were going to re-emerge at some point as Driven Music but that took some time. Mark Nawara who was the owner of Crash got together with Brian “Head” Welch, best known from Korn and another partner and they formed Driven. They had to get their distribution ironed out which was with Warner Brothers, then they finally had a budget to do a record and that took some time. Our engineer got hired by Brian Welch to go on tour with him for his solo record and we thought that it would be a few months delay but it ended up being more like a year delay. I think the process was the same but the circumstances were totally different, the studio was much better, and the engineer really knew his gear and had experience with Michael Schenker and Megadeth and had a real metal connection. We had better microphones, better drum rooms, we had better guitars, every single last thing about this process was better.
Q: No doubt that made it a much more pleasurable experience to albums in the past?
A: Absolutely. Mark (Simpson, guitar, who has left since this was done to be replaced by original guitarist Ed Carlson) and I joined on the same day over fourteen years ago to tour for High and we did a lot of touring for High, and when we got home Metal Blade wanted a new record pretty much right away. We started writing and recording Unnatural Selection pretty rushed and then we went straight out and toured for that. When we got back Metal Blade suggested that we go into the studio as soon as possible, and we ended up doing My God which I think was a lot better than ‘Unnatural Selection’ in every way but still not the one. When we got home from touring from My God and got a deal with Crash Music we released a live DVD from Tokyo and then went back into the studio for what became Dreams Of Death and again… there really wasn’t a lot of time. I really liked the songs on Dreams of Death but the problem there was we had an engineer that didn’t know fuck all about metal! He came highly recommended from people on the street and in the know, so we decided to give him a shot and we ended up making a mistake there. A lot of people have talked shit about that record because of the sound or whatever but I think if you gave that record a better sound and mastering it would sound entirely different. I don’t think the songs on it are the problem!
Q: Getting back to The Cold, now that the album’s completed and you’ve had some time to go back, listen and reflect, in regards to the writing and recording process, is there anything you would change or wish you’d done differently?
A: No not this one, not really. I think in retrospect everything worked out really perfectly except for the delay with the engineer that I just mentioned, that would have been the only thing that I would have changed but I don’t know if that ended up being a good thing? I think the timing of its release was perfect, I don’t grudge the engineer or Brian or anybody, we had better gear to write with at home, we had a longer time to arrange, Eric had a lot more time to get the vocals the way that he wanted, I don’t think I would’ve changed anything. I couldn’t say that about any other record that we’ve done, but this record was pretty much just how we wanted it.
Q: This year Flotsam and Jetsam celebrates thirty years together in the business. I’m curious though, from a writing and recording view… as time goes on do you guys find it easier or more difficult to come up with new material without falling into that trap of repeating yourselves?
A: Well no, that would be the case if we’re trying to write thrash records every time. Four or five songs are always thrashy songs but when you have Eric A.K you have endless versatility, you can write Better Off Dead and it comes off cool. Because of him we’re not pigeon holed into one style. When we play live we play a whole lot from Doomsday and No Place, the classics that everyone insists on hearing. We’re not a band that says “Fuck that we’re gonna do it our way and just play the new shit”. We know what people want to hear. We feel that we’re definitely still very much a thrash band cause when we play live that’s pretty much where our set is, but when we do a record because of all you can get out of Eric A.K it would be a complete waste of his talent if you didn’t write with variation and nuance. We don’t feel pigeon-holed or like we’re repeating ourselves in the writing cause we know that we could pretty much write a Pink Floyd style of song and Eric A.K is gonna make it fuckin’ magical, there is no limits to what we can do!
Q: Craig; I want to talk to you a little about touring and life on the road also. You’ve had the pleasure of touring various parts of the world for years now… are there any plans in the works to finally get Flotsam down to Australia for some shows?
A: The answer is that we’d really love to play Australia if only we could find an agent that would make it happen! It seems that the record is being well received in Australia. These are the first interviews I’ve ever done in Australia so maybe this is the time for Australia? That would be fuckin’ fantastic if that happened. I really want to go! I just did an interview with someone in Australia and I explained that we never had an agent that had any contacts in Australia. We got an email about two months ago from somebody in Australia that claimed he was a sound engineer and he knew the big agencies and he thought that he could organise a tour and I went with it. I knew he wasn’t the guy, but he wanted to be the middle man and it turned out that he was talking some shit and when it came down to it, I don’t know if he was bullshitting to the very end but he claimed that the agency was stacked up until the end of September and blah blah blah. I think that he put his mouth forward where he shouldn’t have. If you know any agents, believe me, we want to go to Australia, I have played in eighteen countries with this band and the last country that I feel that I really want to play in, and everyone would agree, is Australia. When we found out that it might be on the table everyone was very fuckin’ excited and when it didn’t happen everyone was really bummed.
Q: Looking back over the years, what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you whilst performing?
A: The craziest thing that ever happened to us happened a couple of weeks back in Mexico City. It’s funny you should ask that! For the very first time in twenty five years we got burned for every dollar! The promoter didn’t even buy round trip tickets; he suckered us out there with what appeared to be round trip tickets. He made reservations but only paid for one way, it was a scam from top to bottom and it was very unfortunate because we had actually done business with this promoter before. We played in Mexico City about a year and a half ago with Testament and it went really smooth. He contacted us again to go play at another club and it was supposed to be two shows, and it ended up being one show, the second show was never booked, never was meant to happen and by the time we found out he had turned his phone off and we were stuck in Mexico City for real. This is a fuckin’ country where people are getting their fuckin’ heads chopped off every day. We were stuck out there and had to come up with fourteen hundred dollars for plane tickets to come home. It was a fucking nightmare. Not in all the band’s career has anything close to that ever happened. I have been the tour manager for this band for fourteen years and we’ve never been shorted, but one time in Texas about ten years ago for about three hundred dollars. Out of all the tours we’ve ever done it’s only happened the one time except for last weekend we got burned for about five thousand dollars in one of the most dangerous countries on earth! That has to be the craziest thing that’s ever happened. It was uncalled for; we’re still licking our wounds and learning lessons.
Q: You’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with many great artists over the years… Whilst on the road who has given you the best touring advice and what was it?
A: Nobody, probably Megadeth… the band’s toured with Megadeth quite a bit but unfortunately that wasn’t with Mark and I. Dave Mustaine bought Flotsam and Jetsam on tour just because he liked the band. Many years ago Megadeth went on tour with Fear Factory, Korn and Flotsam And Jetsam and in fact Fear Factory and Korn opened for Flotsam and Jetsam on many of those shows. Dave had a real personal liking for the band and he probably gave them a lot of advice that I can’t tell you cause I wasn’t there. I think the coolest band that we ever toured with and a band that made us rise to the occasion night after night after night was the first tour that Mark and I ever did when we toured with Nevermore. I was in Nevermore for about eight months, so it was very thrilling for me to know that they would be opening for us on a tour in a van and we were in a forty five foot bus. That was a personal high point but with all due respect I love that band and have nothing but respect for Jeff Loomis and Warrel Dane and all the rest, I discovered Jeff when he was fifteen years old in Wisconsin when nobody knew who he was. He was a freak show, a complete prodigy, unheard of, he was as amazing a guitar player at fifteen as he is today; he was a fuckin’ freak! To play with them every night and have them open for us meant you couldn’t slack and that pretty much set the tone for me personally and for Mark Simpson for the rest of our career. If we had a sloppy three days or whatever the story was, if we got the flu and we heard that Nevermore kicked everybody’s ass we had to rise to the occasion. We have a legacy to live up to and we cannot be blown away by some fuckin’ opening band, I don’t care who it is. We had to rise to the occasion every single night for nine straight weeks, which was a great lesson and forced reality check of the music business right there!
Q: Besides your work with Flotsam some metal fans would also be aware of your work with The Alien Blakk tell us how you became involved with that project?
A: Joshua Craig from Hollywood moved to Phoenix and convinced David Ellefson somehow, who is one of the most accomplished bass players on the planet. He had convinced David that he had written this instrumental record that he claimed to be his life’s work and he was going to call it The Alien Blakk. We were friends and I was in Flotsam at the time but I don’t know if I would have done it if it weren’t for David Ellefson being involved cause that was a personal dream and milestone for me to be playing on the same record with a guy that had sold twenty million records. David Ellefson being on that record had a lot to do with my involvement. No disrespect to Josh, I have respect for his artistry but I have at this point a name and a reputation that I was very closely guarding and I had to pick and choose things wisely and the fact that David Ellefson was on that entire record with me makes it something that I’m very proud of.
Q: Craig, just before we wrap it up… the new Flotsam and Jetsam album will be released in various parts of the world throughout February and early March; no doubt more shows will be booked shortly. It’s also the band’s 30th birthday, what plans do you have in place for the immediate future, are there any special shows planned to commemorate the anniversary?
A: Well we’re just cautious not to book just yet cause the new album comes out in Europe, Japan and Australia throughout February. Because we’re anticipating a strong result we’re waiting to book because we’ll get better offers. If the record does as well as we expect we will be able to play with bigger bands, even if we go as a headliner we will be able to play better rooms and expect a better showing, get better money on our guarantee. We have to be business conscious as well. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to book a tour right now but one thing that I really want to do this year is get on some of the bigger festivals. I want to do Bloodstock in England and I want to get on the main stage of Wacken and hopefully those sorts of things will happen now that we’re associated with Nuclear Blast, cause they seem to be very good at what they do and they know we want to play those festivals. It’s something that Flotsam has never done… We’ve never played the main stage at Wacken and we’ve never played Bloodstock and we never played some of these big festivals that go on in different countries. We’ve played festivals and headlined festivals that had two – three thousand people but we want to be out there playing to thirty – forty thousand people so hopefully that will happen this year!
Q: It would be fantastic to see, that’s for sure… unfortunately we are out of time today, but I do thank you again for your time and wish you the very best of luck with the new album and upcoming shows. Do you have any last words for our readers?
A: Understand that we have not avoided Australia for any other reason except that we just didn’t know who to contact, we didn’t have any agent that could get it done.