FLOTSAM AND JETSAM – The Millennial Cold
The Great Recession which surfaced in the late 2000s has affected all spectrums, with the heavy metal sphere being no exception. With the genre arguably being a cult phenomenon to some extent, those who practice its arts tend to do so on a part-time basis, juggling musical commitments with the commitments of conventional employment. Dwindling live performance ticket sales as well as dwindling album sales haven’t alleviated matters, the effects of the recession taking their toll. One metal group who can attest to this is Phoenix, Arizona thrash contingent Flotsam And Jetsam, whose guitarist of 13 years (1997-2010) in Mark Simpson waved farewell to the music world in light of the financial uncertainty which goes with the territory.
“His family has a company in Arizona that are looking to compete and be a huge telecommunications company along the lines of AT&T and Sprint, and all those out here,” explains Craig Nielsen, drummer for Flotsam And Jetsam since 1997. “Times are so unbelievably bad in the United States right now – for our history, it’s as bad as the Great Depression. There’s no more middle class people in this country really; you have the rich, and then you have everybody else – they’ve really eliminated the middle class. You could make $70,000 here a year and still struggle your ass off. Mark had an opportunity to have some security, and he didn’t wanna appear flaky. He wouldn’t have been able to convince them that he was serious if he was still gonna do records and tour. He just decided that at this stage in his life he had already experienced all his rock’n’roll dreams, and he wanted to have security. I would have to say that I would have probably done the same thing; if there was a company that’s trying to compete with AT&T maybe not today but in the future, a growing company, and it’s my family’s company, and they wanna give me an opportunity, I think I’d jump on it right now. I personally have been out of work for eight months and I have a pretty good background, so I’m very, very concerned about my future. If somebody offered me genuine security today, I’d have to take a good, hard look at that.
“I’ve played in 16 countries and I’ve done four studio and three live records with this band, so I’ve accomplished my goals. I don’t know why I would forego future security long-term to do another record or to do another tour, but it just so happens that I’ve been lucky and the rest of the band members have been lucky enough that we seem to get into employment situations that are flexible, situations which allow us to go on tour and allow us to take time off for this or for that. If they put the whip down though and said ‘Listen, you have to make a choice’, everybody would have to take a very hard look at that. A few years ago, you could change jobs every month. Today, you’re lucky if you have a job at all. There’s 25 million unemployed people in this country right now, and I happen to live in the city that has the worst unemployment in the whole of the United States – Las Vegas. Over 20% of people are unemployed here. We’re all very, very nervous for our future as far as economics go, and that was never really the issue just as recently as a few years ago. It’s just a new reality today here, and it doesn’t appear to be getting any better. In fact it appears to be getting a whole lot worse, so these things have to be weighed appropriately and you have to make intelligent decisions for your future.”
Mark Simpson was offered financial security courtesy of his family, and wholeheartedly accepted. Given the uncertain times which follow as a result of the Great Recession, who can blame him? If you were also offered financial security but had to leave Flotsam And Jetsam Craig, would you have to seriously consider such an offer? “I sure would, and I’m telling ya; I’m 44, and so is pretty much everybody else in this band. When you’re 44 and are staring into the future… Ok, just a couple of statistics: the real estate market is than when it was during the Great Depression. In the Great Depression, real estate fell about 28% from its high. Well, real estate has already fallen over 30% in this depression – it’s fallen over 30%, and all the experts say it’s got another 20-50% to go.
“They’re trying so hard on the news to paint a rosy picture about how this and that might be improving, but everything is just horrifying. Pensions are three trillion dollars short, everybody’s losing their 401(k)’s. It’s just so unbelievably scary right now if you’re paying into a pension. Most people in the United States just keep their head in the ground and pretend that it’s not happening. They don’t wanna watch the news – they don’t care. They think that it’ll be alright, that it’s gonna get better. I pay attention, and from what I see it’s not getting better. It’s getting nothing but worse and worse and worse, so yeah, I’m scared. I ain’t gonna lie. I’m scared, and if it came down to being a drummer or surviving into my old age, I’d have to pick surviving. So far though, every job I seem to get seems to be very supportive of my double life. We only go on tour for a few weeks a year. Everybody’s been able to manage it in both ways – being in a band and having a job – but Mark felt that he needed to go head-first into the job and just put everything else behind him, so that’s what his decision was.”
The drummer’s employment was terminated in roughly April 2010 as he mentioned, his position difficult to sustain at a time when consumers are tightening their belts. “I worked at Caesar’s Palace Casino here selling way overpriced art, just high-end retail / sales,” Craig divulges. “Before the economic crash, you could make good money in Las Vegas selling anything because millions and millions of people visited this place and bought things and this is where they came to spend their money. It’s a double-edged sword though when you’re in Las Vegas; when the economy sucks you get it the worst because everybody stops coming, and then when the economy is good you get it the best because everybody’s coming. It just so happens now that it’s the worst, so even though there’s still a lot of people coming here, they’re not spending any money. You get a lower class crowd that just wants to drink beer and that sort of thing. They’re not spending thousands of dollars on necessary shit for their house, which is basically what I’ve been doing out here for four years: selling high-end retail products for the home, usually art.”
Previously, issues with alcoholism had encouraged the departure of Ed Carlson, the man having played guitar with the unit for no less than 27 years (1983-2010). This brought about the return of Michael Gilbert (1985-1997) following his exit 13 years earlier, his return being confirmed on March 11th, 2010. With Mark Simpson confirming his departure on December 12th, the permanent return of Ed Carlson seems to be very much on the cards. “Michael came back for our last tour to replace Ed,” clarifies Craig. “Ed left because he moved to California, became sober and wanted to concentrate on that. Ed was a partier his whole life; he drank, did things that he shouldn’t have done, and he decided at some point that he was done with all that, and that he wanted to change his life. He moved to a beach in California and he started a new life, and he felt that Flotsam And Jetsam was gonna be a negative aspect of that. When you go on tour and do shows, you’re surrounded by people drinking, smoking and this, that and the other, and he wasn’t doing any of that. He knew that that would be the case with every show he went to, so he decided to put that behind him at least for now. So anyway, Michael Gilbert replaced Ed and played with Mark.”
“Now Mark has left, Ed came back for a show. We just played Mexico City two days ago and Ed did that show with us, so it was Ed and Michael together onstage for the first time in like 16 years. Whether or not Ed stays, which would be the ideal situation for the obvious reason – which is now we have the two original guitar players – remains to be seen. That’s up to Ed, and I’m not putting any pressure on Ed to make that decision right now because there’s no need to. There’s no tour. We are gonna make another record, but we won’t even record that record until the fall of next year so there’s no need to put any pressure on him. The more time that goes on where Ed stays sober and learns how to deal with that, the less he will fear coming back into the band full-time because he’ll know how to conduct his life as a sober person and not worry about what other people are doing. I have a feeling that hopefully Ed will choose to stay in the band because there’s not a whole lot of commitment there. He’ll record records and he’ll do a few shows here and there, so I’m hoping that Ed is the permanent replacement for Mark Simpson, but I can’t confirm that yet.”
Obviously, the hope is that Ed Carlson permanently returns, but if that isn’t the case, is there a need to recruit a second axeman, or can Michael Gilbert handle sole guitar duties? “Michael Gilbert could do another record and record all the parts in the studio, and then we could hire another guitar player to do the shows. This is a two guitar player band though, so it’s either gonna be Ed or somebody else.”
Mark Simpson’s swansong statement with Flotsam And Jetsam was The Cold, Flotsam And Jetsam’s tenth studio full-length. Issued on September 14th, 2010, the record is the group’s debut outing for Driven Music Group. “Basically, we were on Crash Music for Dreams Of Death. Crash Music became a part of Driven Music, but it took a little bit of time,” Craig remarks. “We didn’t know Brian Welch at all; the owner of Crash Music is Mark Nawara, and Mark Nawara had a relationship with Brian and with Brian’s manager whose name is Greg Shanaberger. Brian, Greg and Mark formed Driven all together as an entity. Mark suggested that Driven take on Flotsam as one of their first signings because he’s a big fan of the band, and he released Live In Japan which didn’t get released on CD, but as a live DVD from Tokyo. Mark released that first under Crash Music, and then offered us to go into the studio to make Dreams Of Death – which we did. Crash then folded and reopened as Driven, so that was all done between Mark, Brian and Greg. We didn’t have anything to do with that.”
The Cold sold 600 copies in the United States in its first week of release, landing at position 80 on the Top New Artists Albums chart. Driven Music Group has a distribution deal with Warner Music Group, but having said that, in light of the label’s lack of a track record is Flotsam And Jetsam happy with how Driven Music Group promoted The Cold in the United States? “Every band that doesn’t sell well will blame this and that,” stresses Craig. “Today, we have satellite radio; back in the day, metal bands had to fight and fight and fight to get on the radio, and they hardly ever did. There were payments going on and back-room deals going on, but really the main objective was to get on the radio – it wasn’t necessarily to have ads in magazines. There’s hardly any magazines anymore. I don’t think fans buy records because of ads in magazines – I think fans buy records because they hear a song, whether it’s through a friend or on the radio. We got on regular rotation on Sirius XM Satellite Radio, which was very important. There’s 20 million subscribers to that in the United States. I don’t know if you know Howard Stern, but he’s an extremely famous personality who went to Sirius Radio and when he did, millions and millions of people followed him. One of the stations on Sirius is called Liquid Metal, and Liquid Metal decided on their own to pick up the record and start playing it, and they played it every day, several times a day. In my opinion, if your record’s good enough fans will hear about it and they’ll buy it. Back in the day, promotion was more obvious; you had to take out ads because there was no other thing to do, and hopefully the visuals of the ad would generate interest from people. Today though, you can download files, you can listen to clips, you can go on our website and listen, and there’s YouTube. I mean, Jesus, we’re on every single social media website there is; we have MySpace, we have Facebook and we have this and that. I don’t know what a label’s supposed to do to make it happen. We’re on the radio, and we’re on the social media websites – what more can they do?
“I don’t really blame the label for success or failure. Mark Nawara got us our deal with Nuclear Blast in Europe and Australia and Japan, and that was tremendous work. The label also had North American distribution through Warner Brothers, which was tremendous. Other people in the band might disagree or whatever, but I think that they did all they could. They gave us a fair budget to go into the studio, we got a great engineer (Ralph Patlan) who had a reputation, we used great gear, and we had Travis Smith as our artist who’s a tremendous artist – and he got us great visuals for the cover. I mean, fuck. I don’t know what more we can ask for. If the record’s gonna sell, I don’t think it’s because of the label taking out ads in the two magazines that are left in the country. I personally haven’t looked in a magazine in such a long time, and that’s not where I find out about music – I find it on the radio. I think that the cream rises to the top. If fans are gonna buy your record then they’re gonna buy it, but if they’re not then they’re not, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t blame anybody.”
In retrospect, Crash Music’s transition into Driven Music Group proved beneficial. “It gave us more time to write,” notes Craig. “We spent a lot more time actually in the writing process, and then Mark Simpson – the main songwriter for the record – bought a lot of upgraded gear for his home studio so that he could make more professional demos for the songs. We had better gear to work out ideas, and we had more time to work out the ideas. I spent more time with Mark working out the ideas, so we were just more careful at that end of the process. We rehearsed a lot more for the songs, so we were committed to making this record very good and then we were very confident that the engineer / producer that we were gonna use knew how to get good metal tones. We were very disappointed with the mix for the previous record and we were gonna make sure not to make that mistake again, so we got a real metal engineer who had a lot of experience with Megadeth. In fact, Ralph remixed Megadeth’s whole catalogue with Dave Mustaine and he’s worked with Michael Schenker. We had a great engineer and we recorded in a great room with some vintage microphones and great guitars, so it was just more professional all the way through from top to bottom really.”
So in terms of the playing and the mix, The Cold is a superior record from the band’s perspective? “You love every record that you do obviously or you wouldn’t release them. You wouldn’t have any integrity if you released records that you didn’t feel were strong, but what ends up happening a lot of the time is even if you get a good mix then the mastering can fuck it all up. That’s what happened with Unnatural Selection; we thought the mix was great in the studio when we were sitting in the studio, but then they sent it to a mastering house who added more bass drum and so on. It didn’t sound half as good when it was mastered than when it was mixed, so you have to stay on top of the whole process. As far as the songwriting itself though, we felt good about every record we’ve ever done.
“I went back and listened to Dreams Of Death just a few days ago. I hadn’t listened to it actually in a couple of years, and I think the songs on that record are really great, I really do. I just think that what was missing on that record was that the engineer wasn’t really a metal engineer, and we had faith that he could figure it out. In the end though he didn’t, so we made a mistake there and we learnt from that mistake – you always learn from your mistakes. When it comes to writing songs we feel like we always put a 100% into it though, but when you have more time to write, obviously more time usually equals a better outcome. We had more time, and we had better home recording equipment to work out ideas. I can’t say enough how much that helps.”
Released in January 1999 via Metal Blade Records and the outfit’s seventh studio set overall, Unnatural Selection was the first Flotsam And Jetsam album to feature Nielsen and Simpson. “Mark Simpson and I were hired on the same day, and we thought we were just going on the High tour,” Craig continues. “High was the record before Unnatural Selection and after the High record was released, that’s when Kelly Smith and Michael Gilbert decided to leave the band. When I auditioned and got the gig and so did Mark, we thought ultimately that Mike and Kelly were gonna come back after the tour. I think that the band wanted to keep their options open because they didn’t really know myself or Mark Simpson – they knew that they had to do a tour. We did a nice, long tour; we did eight weeks in the States with Nevermore, and we did four weeks in Europe with Anvil and Exciter. Mark and I never really knew until about the middle of that tour that the band wanted to just stick with us, so we didn’t have a whole lot of songwriting ideas going into that band because we didn’t really think we were gonna be the full-time band necessarily. When we got back from that tour, it was pretty much rushed. We had an opportunity to go into the studio and Metal Blade wanted to get us in right away, so we really didn’t spend probably as much time as we should’ve writing. In retrospect, I would say the record to me sounds… The songs are good, but they’re not great. In retrospect, like I said. When we did it we were more excited about it obviously because it was Mark and I’s first record, so we thought that the songs were fine, but hindsight as they say is 20-20. When I look back, I can say that we didn’t spend enough time songwriting and then we got burnt by the mastering. It’s a live and learn experience man. We learnt from that and then we brought the lessons that we learnt from that into My God, and I think that My God was a hell of a lot better than Unnatural Selection because like I said, we learnt some lessons and we didn’t repeat our mistakes.”
Do you feel the songs written for My God were superior to those written for Unnatural Selection? “Well, I think this record has better songs than My God, but I sure think that My God’s songs were better than Unnatural Selection’s, and I think ultimately My God’s also probably a better record than Dreams Of Death. When you have so many records, you can’t say that they’re all equal. You have to say ‘This one’s probably better than this one’ and ‘This one’s probably better than that one’, because it wouldn’t be honest to say they’re all great. I think My God was better than the other two, but I think this record clearly has better songs.”
Dutch magazine Aardschok agreed with Craig’s sentiments, naming The Cold as 2010’s album of the year. “I was blown away,” Craig admits. “Who was number two? Slash from Guns N’ Roses, who’s one of the most accomplished songwriters of all time if record sales are an indication. To beat Nevermore and Overkill and Death Angel and Exodus and all the rest of them was quite an honour. We had no idea – no idea – that that was gonna happen. Not only that, Powermetal.de – which is a huge, very important German website, and Germany is a very important country for metal as you know – gave it Album Of The Month in December over Motörhead. I mean, we beat Motörhead in Germany? I can’t even fuckin’ believe that for a minute.
“The record has really hit the right chord with some people, and I think the reason being is simply because we have one of the best singers in metal, period. We don’t try to write thrash songs and thrash songs because that would be wasting Eric ‘A.K.’’s talent. Let’s face it; the voice of the band is the signature, and A.K. has so much range and versatility with his voice that it would be a crime to try to write ten thrash songs because it just wouldn’t make sense. We could do that, but it just doesn’t make sense when you have a singer like A.K.. I think the best vocal on the record – and maybe ever in his career – is the ballad. Well, it’s not a ballad but it has depressing lyrics. ‘Better Off Dead’ is obviously the slow song on the record, and it’s where he sings the best.
“A.K. has so much versatility that I think that’s what’s making this record stand out; we have five mid-tempo songs and five faster songs, so when you get to the fast song it stands out because if you’re doing ten fast songs, nothing stands out (laughs). I think it was just released at the right time, because I don’t hear a lot of bands that are willing to try to experiment a little bit with their sound throughout a record. If you listen to the new Exodus or the new Overkill, it’s all the same. I love those bands. I love Exodus; I couldn’t love a thrash band more, but they’re so pressured to be American thrash heroes that there’s nowhere to go from there. When you start on ten, where do you go? There’s no 11. Flotsam tries to take that into account; where you have ‘Hypocrite’ which is nice and mid-tempo, you then have ‘Take’ which is mid-tempo, and then you have something like ‘Black Cloud’ which is obviously much faster and thrashier. You then have ‘Blackened Eyes Staring’, and then it brings that back down with ‘Better Off Dead.’ The Cold then ends with ‘Secret Life.’ The album takes you on a little journey, and I just don’t hear a lot of records doing that these days.
“This whole record was written by Mark Simpson. We didn’t sit down and have strategy meetings, and say ‘Let’s write half the record this way and half the record that way, and let’s order the songs this way’” says Craig of The Cold. “We don’t really have a lot of strategy sessions, for better or worse. We don’t plan on what we’re gonna wear. We don’t take a lot of interest in the lyrics necessarily. To us, what’s important is melody. I still can’t tell you the words to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ (by Led Zeppelin, from November 1971’s Led Zeppelin IV) except ‘And she’s buying a stairway to heaven’ – I know that lyric, and ‘When she gets there she knows.’ Seriously though, I don’t know half of the lyrics to the damn song I’ve been listening to since I was ten. I don’t really listen to lyrics, personally. I listen to melody and phrasing and the flow and how it all gels, but some people are very lyric-conscious. I don’t happen to be.”
“I think that we know what our strengths are, which are Eric ‘A.K.’’s ability to find harmony and melody and counter-melody against whatever musical parts are thrown at him. He just has an extraordinary knack for that, so if there is anything that we set out to do as far as strategy – if you can call it that – is to write songs that are gonna give Eric the space to stretch his voice out in terms of melody. That’s our strength, if anything, Eric’s voice. Like I said, when we write we try to think about what Eric’s gonna bring to any given part. People wonder if we sit there and really give a lot of concern to aspects of image and imagery and all that sort of thing. We don’t. We just simply take advantage of what our strongest part is, and that’s the fact that we have one of the better singers to ever exist in the metal world as far as I’m concerned. He’s on fuckin’ fire, man. We just played in Mexico two days ago, and it was one of the best times I’ve ever heard him sing. He never stops. Amazingly, he seems to get better. It’s strange, because he smokes cigarettes and he doesn’t necessarily take care of his voice, and he lives in the hottest desert environment in the United States. He works his ass off with his daytime job, but yet he’ll still come up there and sing better and better and better. I have a hard time understanding how he does it. He’s very gifted, let’s put it that way.”
Craig makes a valid point regarding Exodus and Overkill, in that original thrash bands are pressured into writing solely thrash material, and the same can be said for Metallica’s last outing Death Magnetic. So with all that being said, why hasn’t Flotsam And Jetsam bowed down to such pressure? “Cuatro was not a thrash record at all, and probably their most mellow record was Drift,” the drummer reflects. “That’s the one that the band would say they like the most, and that was before Mark and I even joined the band. It’s just a natural evolution, man. We can’t keep writing Doomsday For The Deceiver. When we do live shows, over half of our set is songs from Doomsday For The Receiver and No Place For Disgrace because we know that’s what fans are coming for, and we know they wanna hear those songs. So fine, we give them what they want.
“Because we play all those thrash songs live, we still feel that we’re very much a thrash band. We take care of that need to be a thrash band in our performances, so that gives us the flexibility when we write a record to not have to be that thrash band all the time. When we play shows, it’s not like we’re playing mid-tempo songs. We’re pretty much a full-on thrash band live; we give the audience what they want when they see us live, so when we do a record we feel that we need to continue to grow. We’re not trying to be counter-cultural or counter-thrash or anything like that. The band has always had a history since the early 90s of experimenting with their sound, starting with Cuatro.”
The Cold was released in North America on September 14th, 2010 through Driven Music Group, and subsequently in Europe on February 18th, 2011 through Nuclear Blast Records.
Interview published in February 2011
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