FLOTSAM & JETSAM (Craig Nielsen) INTERVIEW
I am not going to lie to you guys; I absolutely adore Flotsam & Jetsam! One of the few second generation Thrash Metal bands from the US who continued producing diverse and often quite challenging music, especially at times like the mid-90s when Thrash was dead to most people, these five lads from Phoenix in sunny Arizona are still totally devoted to releasing good quality music. If what you need is evidence, just listen to their latest opus, entitled “The Cold” and you will understand exactly what makes their tenth studio album an absolute must-have. Much to my delight, I managed to arrange an interview with the band’s drummer Craig Nielsen, during which we discussed all things “The Cold”, the current situation with regards Metal music in the states and the band’s future plans! Flots till death!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Hi Craig. I am really pleased to be doing this interview with a member of Flotsam & Jetsam and in doing so help promote your latest effort “The Cold”. I have been following the band’s career since the days of “No Place For Disgrace” and I am happy to say that, having listened to your latest effort, you sound stronger than ever! Excitement is back, not only within the ranks of Flotsam & Jetsam, but within the ranks of the media.
Craig: Well, thank you very much! We took the appropriate amount of time to write the songs this time round. Mark (Simpson: guitar) has become tremendously better in understanding how the riffs from his head can be translated into the studio. It takes a songwriter a few records I think in order to get used to how ideas can get across into the final recording. So, Mark has some tremendous ideas that in his head knew how to get them on tape exactly as he imagined and this comes with time in the studio, so this was a perfect timing for these songs.
- I believe that there was a five year gap between “The Cold” and your previous album “Dreams Of Death”, right? Talking about it, “Dreams Of Death” was quite an enjoyable album, but, and I hope that you will take this the right way, was not the kind of album that would make me sing along to every single composition as “The Cold” is capable of doing. This new album has totally dominated my thoughts and that has not happened for quite some time really. What can I say – I am genuinely excited here!
Craig: You are right, it did take us five years since the release of “Dreams Of Death” in order to create our next album as Mark really started writing the songs for the new record three years ago. He started writing songs and he did it slowly and then I actually tracked the drums for this record August over two years ago! It was as a result of various reasons that our record’s recording process and mixing got delayed. I could go on forever about this but the bottom line is that it was not to be a five year gap between albums – the gap was only really meant to be a two year one.
- Before I make any question directly related to “The Cold” I want to ask what is happening with the band as I am aware that there have been some line-up changes recently. In the past there were some really significant changed happening, with Eric (A.K Knutson: vocals) leaving, so I am always slightly scared when I hear the term ‘line-up change’ in relation with Flotsam & Jetsam. A few people are probably wondering, myself included, what is the atmosphere in the band nowadays.
Craig: Look, Yiannis – Eric left very briefly at the time of “My God” tour (2001) and that was a long time ago. He left for less than six months as he was very disillusioned with a few things that had to do with Flotsam & Jetsam and others of a more personal nature. He wanted to make some changes! This didn’t last very long as he came back very quickly. As for other changes, Ed Carlson (guitars) left and was replaced by Michael Gilbert (guitars). We did some touring with another bass player at some point just because Jason (Ward) has a scheduling problem – he simply couldn’t do the last European tour which was two weeks, and so we replaced Jason for those shows. Jason never left the band; he simply couldn’t do those shows which had been booked for a while. Something came up in his life and he simply couldn’t go, so we hired some guy from Phoenix (Arizona) to do these shows – no big deal. We came back and nothing else has changed for the last fifteen years since Mark and I got hired; we were hired on the same day! So, there are no other changes other than for Ed leaving and being replaced by another original guitarist Michael Gilbert, however neither Ed or Michael had anything to do with the songs on “The Cold” – that’s 100% Mark Simpsons’ playing and Mark Simpsons’ recording; no other guitar players have recorded anything on that record by Mark. The record was made in the transition of Ed deciding, you know, Ed became sober and made some very positive changes to his life. Unfortunately for some musicians when they become sober, they find it difficult to go on tour and be around people who party non-stop, as things become a bit lonely for the sober guy. So Ed decided that he wanted to make a change and Michael Gilbert was more than happy to come and re-claim his position as the original guitar player in the band. That transition came very smoothly and Michael never forgot apparently how to play any of the older songs. When he came we thought that it would take a little while for him to come up to speed but it didn’t. He was already there! He was very, very surprising as to how well he played those songs after all these years away! With respect to your question about how all this affected the new songs, nothing to do with any change of players had anything to do with this record, because this record was always Mark Simpson from start to finish as far as guitar playing is concerned!
- Flotsam & Jetsam have always been classified as a Thrash Metal band, a description that is quite justified in some ways, but, going back in time, you were one of the first bands of the ‘second generation’ US Thrash Metal scene that decided to incorporate non-Thrash elements in your music. The band was always quite daring in such respect, plenty evidence of which can be found in albums such as “Unnatural Selection” (1999) – your debut release as a member of Flotsam & Jetsam. “The Cold” proves again that this successful mixture of Heavy & Thrash elements is still there, so is it accurate to continue describing you guys as a Thrash Metal outfit?
Craig: Well, we separate our work in two sections: our live shows and our studio albums. During our live shows we have to give people what they want and as you have correctly pointed out, especially in Europe, they want to listen to mostly songs from the first four records and we are glad to give them that! Live I would call us very much a Thrash Metal band as eighty per cent of our set is Thrash and we play songs probably faster than they were originally recorded and they were used to be performed back in the day! So, we still Thrash with the best of them live, but when we go to do a record and we have a singer like Eric, he sets the tone that you don’t have to limit yourself! He’s so diverse and he can bring out so many different moods through his vocals that Mark is smart enough to have that always in mind when he is writing that we don’t have to be one style all the time because we could have limitations with our vocalist for instance. There are absolutely no limits with Eric! If you hear songs like “Bathing In Red” from “Dreams Of Death” you understand that he’s so useful in so many different utilities that it would be a shame if we were to only write Thrash songs! It’s not like we’re tired of playing Thrash, but we play so much of it live that we look forward to the opportunity in the studio to create more ‘mood’; in that sense we are like the Pink Floyd of Heavy Metal (laughs).
- What an amazing parallel! What really gets me is that, when you made all those innovations, most people were very closed minded and critical; nowadays, any band which attempts such things is hailed as unique and visionary- quite annoying to me as a fan of Flotsam & Jetsam really!
Craig: Well, without Eric such things would not have been possible! Let’s face it, he is what makes all things possible! I have been in the band with him for fourteen years and I never cease to be amazed by the guy! I have heard a lot of his Country stuff that never got signed and released and if you could hear him sing Country music you would be blown away! I have never heard him attempt to do anything that he couldn’t do. He sings Frank Sinatra beautifully – I don’t know; I have never heard him attempt to do anything that he couldn’t do. Strangely he thinks that Chad (Croeger: vocals) from Nickelback is a great singer and ever since he said that I have been listening to Chad a lot more and Chad really is a great singer (laughs). So Eric seems to listen to some people that wouldn’t be traditionally on his ‘Metal Idols’ list.
- That is a good attitude to have, especially when such elements work wonders in the band’s music. I mean, “The Cold” is such a varied and exciting album, there’s something for everyone there – you guys have done an amazing job here! I cannot stop listening to it!
Craig: And you played it to other people that feel the same way?
- Well, England is a difficult nut to crack but there are a few people here who have already expressed their admiration for “The Cold”.
Craig: Wow, that’s good to know! How often do you get shows over there?
- There is a Metal gig almost every other day. When was the last time that you guys played in the UK? Must have been a long time in order for you to ask such a question!
Craig: We never played the UK ever! The other members did a few short dates with Megadeth back in the early days of the band’s career, so this is a very emotional issue for me and the other members of the band as this line up really wants to play in the UK. We just have to find the right source to book us shows, because, apparently you need a local UK agents for such things.
- Craig, as I said before, I believe that “The Cold” is quite a varied album; however, I feel that there is an underlying theme connecting these ten great compositions. When reading the lyrics of each song, that’s when I get that feeling more strongly. Songs like “Hypocrite” and “Better Off Dead”, which is in my opinion one of the best Flotsam & Jetsam songs ever recorded all express feelings of angst and anger towards something! Who are you guys mad at? Is Eric the right person to ask such a question?
Craig: Eric has become recently the main lyricist; he never was before until the last couple of records. He had help on lyrics always and he’s only been the main lyricist on this new album and on “Dreams Of Death” really. Whatever lyrics you have read come directly from him, he’s not reading somebody else’s lyrics, and I think that probably has a lot to do with the emotion behind it! Eric would probably tell you that there are many reasons why you feel all the rage and anger that you hear in our album and, for the record, he hasn’t had an easy life! Put it this way, he’s raising a family, he has two beautiful kids and a beautiful wife, he got caught up in the American Real Estate disaster and there’s a lot of trouble in his life as a consequence! He works hard to do the right thing and raise his family and he’s always struggling and struggling. So he has a lot of struggle and probably a lot of frustration and, as an artist, he conveys these feelings when he sings!
- What about the rest of the members in the band? What is Flotsam & Jetsam to you? I am asking that question because I understand that today, with the way the music industry operates; it is kind of difficult to base your whole future simply on a band.
Craig: As you are asking me personally, I will give you just my answer. I set out;I am from Connecticut and moved to Hollywood in 1990 and slogged it out in Hollywood for many years, gaining a reputation as an up and coming Metal drummer. I didn’t know anybody in Flotsam & Jetsam but I knew Nick Menza, the then drummer of Megadeth who happened to know that the band was looking for a drummer. He recommended me and, ever since that day, I have accomplished every single goal that I set out for myself when leaving home. For me, Flotsam & Jetsam;I knew thousands of musicians from Hollywood that never had the opportunity to fulfil their dream unfortunately – many good musicians who had all the right ingredients and who gave their whole but which, for one reason or another, did not succeed! I never have to say that about my life, so for me, it has been a validation that the belief I had in myself when I left home and the reputation and belief that I had on myself during those key years in Hollywood put me in front of the right people and that, when the opportunity presented itself, I was recommended and I was able to fulfil all my dreams. I was always the guy who wanted to go on tour and see the world! I have managed to play in eighteen different countries so far so, personally, Flotsam & Jetsam has been the vehicle for me to accomplish every personal dream I have ever set for myself. Without wanting to sound over dramatic, I owe tremendous amounts to this band in that I can go on to my middle age knowing that I have accomplished all those goals. I am a member of a cult legendary band, we write good quality music that sticks out in people’s minds, we have a very loyal fan base that enables us to continue touring and making records - I mean game over! How many bands have only one or two records offered to them by a label and then you never hear from them again? Our career, I think, will last as long as we want to; as long as we continue to write good music and have a fire for live shows we can live up this dream forever!
- I certainly hope so!
Craig: I cannot say enough about what this band has done for me!
- And I cannot say enough about what your music has done for me and for many other people who proudly claim to be your fans!
Craig: Thank you. I know that Mark and I am sure that Eric and Jason will feel the same kinship for you saying that, because you are the reason why we keep doing this! We are not doing it for the money obviously, so it’s for the fans! We developed this legacy and there are fans that really look forward to our new records as such, so that’s why we do them!
- Ok, back to the album then! What we have here is ten beautiful songs, some of which are quite demanding in terms of performances. You, being the drummer, are the one who physically has to endure more hardships and to sweat more than everybody else in the band. Which are the songs from the new album that you found to be the trickiest to perform in the studio and which are the ones that you feel closest to?
Craig: Well, the Thrashier songs are the ones that require more effort obviously. Some people can play mid-tempo emotional music easily from the heart which is easy; songs like “The Cold” and the slower ones,if you play them long enough, it eventually feels like using auto pilot. You have to have the right feel, of course, and the feel will come to those who have it! You won’t have to put too much worry into the technique – in simple song arrangements you depend on the heart to bring out a memorable part. As far as which were the trickiest in the studio, I have to mention sings like “Blackened Eyes Staring” and “Falling short”, you know ,“ the faster ones. There’s so much technical music being put out these days that you don’t want to sound sloppy, now that you have bands like Meshuggah and All That Remains, all these bands which have perfect sounding drums, that triggered sound, that digital sound perfection, you have to be in that league or you then sound sloppy in comparison. So, in creating the Thrashier parts and to sound competitive with what’s going on today, you really have to think about what you’re going to play and that does not come out as “old-school” because there are so many great-sounding drum parts these days on records that you’d better be on top of your game if you want to be relevant! So, I tend to worry more about the thrashier songs, but I think that what I have working for me is that when we do play a slow song, I have a good feel for it and that is something that cannot be taught and you cannot necessarily get out of the studio! A feel is something that an engineer cannot necessarily create! They can create perfection but they cannot create feel! As far as the thrashier songs are concerned, I don’t pretend to be Tomas from Meshuggah or anything like that! I am trying to stay in the same ball park with the best that are out there.
- You, as a band, have a vast experience with regards working in the studio. With regards the recording of “The Cold” how much freedom was given to your producer and engineer in order to bring to life this product of yours?
Craig: In this case, with this record, we really put our faith in our engineer, because the engineer had been hired by Dave Mustaine to re-mix pretty much the entire Megadeth back catalogue. He worked with Michael Schenker, worked with Dave Mustaine and he was pretty much the most qualified person in Phoenix. He knew his gear very well, was very good at ProTools and thus was able to accelerate the recording process. The record ended up taking two years to make but that wasn’t because of the recording itself – it was because Ralph, that was his name, ended up getting hired by ‘Head’ from Korn, who owns our label. Brian ‘Head’ Welch ended up hiring Ralph to do a lot of things on his recordings and on his live stuff. There was a kind of conflict of interest as our label kind of hijacked our engineer for Head’s project and that delayed the mixing and some of the recording for “The Cold” but as far as the reason we wanted Ralph in the first place is because we totally believed in his ear and his technique and so we allowed him quite a bit of leeway in carving out the sound – even making parts suggestions here and there when thinking what would give the best atmosphere in any given part. He made suggestions and a lot of times we agreed with him. I mean, he’s a musician and not a bona fide producer let’s say, but had a lot of useful information, was very good at his ProTools and his recording, so we had all faith in him, one hundred per cent! So really what you’re hearing at the end is very much his sound vision!
- Craig, it seems to me that Flotsam & Jetsam have always had more support in Europe than in the States, right?
Craig: Well, in fact, during the MCA era, MCA never released “Quatro” and “Drift” in Europe and if they did, they never put the band out on tour and neither did Electra. So there was always a problem with Europe, always with this band! These labels gave the band a bunch of money to create records and make videos, a lot of support here in the States, but they did not consider Europe as something that they had to concentrate on apparently! Metal Blade was OK with respects to Europe, Crash, with which we released “Dreams Of Death” and the Japanese DVD, was absorbed into Driven so it’s basically the same label and they have real problems with Europe – they have no distribution there! We just found out that our record on Amazon is 25 Euro in Europe and people find it hard to find it anywhere! The label don’t have a good excuse for it; they have a very good distribution in the States, as riven collaborates with Warner Brothers and that is as good as it gets, but they don’t have a good distribution arrangement for Europe. That really sucks because we are getting really good reviews in Europe and we are going to continue getting good reviews! I have done interviews with people who tell me what the reviews are going to be like and I know that it would make a lot of sense for our record to be available in Europe right now. The label knows that too but there’s nothing that we can do to make that happen – they have to do it!
- I know exactly what you’re talking about as it took me a good month to get my hands on a copy! Amazon was the only place where I could order it from and it took three attempts (two cancellations) before I managed to have a copy shipped to me. Very annoying indeed, but as a fan I was determined to succeed; I am not sure, however, that someone that is not too attached to you guys will bother to go through all that, you know what I mean? Anyway, my question would be with regards the choice of label but you kind of answered that!
Craig: Well, Crash folded into the new entity that was Driven and which was one third owned by the guy who owned Crash, one third owned by ‘Head’ from Korn and one third by some other guy! It was Head’s relationship with the industry that made it an attractive thing, because we went from having pretty bad distribution in the States through Crash to have great distribution in the States with Warner Brothers because of their relationship with Head. So, you know, it’s a give and take with some positive and negative!
- Then, a good question would be how Flotsam & Jetsam are currently perceived in the States nowadays? The US is a slightly ‘temperamental’ market & certainly not as loyal as that in Europe! Europe always supported Heavy Metal music, something that cannot always be said about America. I am aware that things have improved a lot these last three or four years, but have they improved to the point of making you really confident about the album’s potential success in the States?
Craig: Hmm…the album has been picked up by some serious satellite radio stations which have twenty million subscribers. They picked it up a couple of weeks ago an since then the record sales in the States have doubled, so that is something. It’s getting a few requests on that radio and that is a good format. Before satellite radio Metal had no chance in the States on radio – all there was was college radio; some little college programs that played Metal two hours on a Saturday and now you can listen to that stuff twenty four hours a day through a satellite to which twenty million people subscribe to! So really, the potential exposure, if you can get on that programme, is pretty outstanding! I don’t know the numbers per se, how they compare to those of others, but Warner Brothers did not expect so many sales, especially as the climate of record buying is so horrible in the States right now. But, as far as Metal in general in the States is concerned, what happened is that fans got spoiled and they expect three or four headliners on the same bill or they don’t come out! It used to be that, you as the headliner would go out and play with local talent wherever you were and that was good enough – you could expect a decent show. Now, kids don’t come out for one headliner. Like if Exodus went out or Nevermore and they didn’t have another good band to tour with, the show would not be nearly as good as if they were to go out together! But the problem is that, when you package up headliners, everybody wants to get paid and nobody can get paid what they want and it becomes a logistics nightmare. I would hope that the labels would figure – Metal bands here do well when they are packaged up and do not do well when they’re not. I would think that there would be more effort from record labels to put together festival type things like you find in every country in Europe in the summer. I would hope that the United States would catch on to that but, in fact, fewer and fewer festivals are being put on in the States instead of more. I think that they got it all wrong; I think that Metal would still do very well here if labels were to get smart and package up big shows and get more people to come out so that the bands that are out there to perform can actually earn a living out of what they are doing. Nobody has yet stepped up and thought creatively about how to maximize potential. There are three hundred million people here and I am sure that Metal would do well if they packaged up tours better. Now the best you can do is to have two or three bands to come in one bill and that’s what people would come out for. But if you were to put together seven or eight bands, as in a typical European festival, I think that they will really go for that here. Nobody has thought of doing that yet!
- Very strange, especially as your country has given birth to some really amazing and pretty popular acts!
- Craig, what is the audience that Flotsam & Jetsam is targeting these days? Back in the 80s and early 90s the boundaries were quite set and pretty unsurpassable, as Thrashers would only really listen to Thrash. Is today’s open-mindedness by the fans beneficial to your band?
Craig: You know, when you listen to our record against all the other records that have come out there, we sound like we are not re-inventing the wheel here, Ok? There is nothing really mysterious about what we are doing. There are a few old school bands left like Iron Maiden with singers that are versatile – we stand out today because of the fact that there are not too many bands with the vocal ability that we have with Eric A.K which allows us to experiment more with our music. I cannot remember us really having sat down during a creative meeting and deliberately having said “let’s go after this core audience over here”. We just realise which are our best features! We have a bass player who plays melody instead of following the rhythm guitar parts; I don’t necessarily follow the rhythm guitars parts by trying to play off of them. We have a lot of musical technique between us all and we have a great singer, so that means that the options are pretty limitless. I think that people who are listening to “The Cold”, if they find themselves drawn to it, it’s because there’s not a lot of bands out there that are doing what we are doing, and we are not doing anything mysterious. We are playing old-school music, but without making it sound boring. Even band like Iron Maiden seem to be happy playing one specific style and thus pigeonholing themselve- we are not doing that! We will do something that is very mellow, something that is very Thrashy and then something mid-tempo as “Better Off Dead” and then create something pretty much like Alice In Chains sounding as we did with “Secret Life”. We will put five or six different flavours on the record and I don’t know many bands that are doing that! Even Opeth, who are one of my favourite bands, they play either sad/sombre melodic stuff, or fast Thrashy bits with Death Metal growls. They execute this transition perfectly, but the moods they work with are either sad or aggressive Death Metal style! Even some of my favourite bands that seem quite versatile, at the end of their record you hear just a couple of things going on. With Flotsam& Jetsam, you hear more than a couple of things going on. I think that that’s what we are doing right! What we are doing is not the most original style of music but what we do is very effective for that style and also there’s not a lot of competition right now!
- Could it be that massive selling bands such as Opeth have more to lose by becoming something that their fans are not used to and thus refrain from doing so, whereas Flotsam & Jetsam, with a smaller but more devoted fan base, find it easier to indulge in different things?
Craig: As far as Opeth are concerned, I believe that as they evolve at the moment, they are going to become the most creative band ever; hopefully they will go in the right direction.
- One of the reasons why I love Flotsam & Jetsam is with regards the sense of excitement I feel not knowing what you guys are going to do next as there are no two albums that you guys have recorded which sound the same! I want this from a band that I like – I want to be surprised! I prefer having you release an album that I will eventually not like rather than having you releasing a copycat effort!
Craig: Rest assured that our next album is not going to sound at all like “The Cold” because Mark has a vast number of ideas. Songs from “The Cold” did not end up sounding at all like those featured in “Dreams Of Death” and songs from “My God” did not sound at all like those featured in “Unnatural Selection” I think that you can count on us to never write the same album twice!
- I am truly happy to hear that; what I also really want to hear, though, is that you will come to Europe for live shows. Is there such a plan? I understand that you recently played in my country Greece, Spain and a few other places too, but are there any plans of you coming to Europe for a few more shows?
Craig: Yeah, we are just talking with the agent now. There are not any dates just yet confirmed but it looks very certain that we will be coming out there in the summer. We are using the same agents so we know that we can trust him in what he does. I am sure that there are not going to be any UK shows because in order to do that we will have to get an agent who can make that happen! He will for sure put us on for Holland and Germany, but not just the typical countries- we went to Greece on a couple of tours before we concentrated on Eastern Europe, playing cities like Budapest and Prague. We also went to Poland a couple of times where we shot our DVD (note: “Once In A Deathtime”) during a Metal Mind sponsored show. Our best shows, where we seem to have our core following, tend to be in Holland and Germany. We did do well in Madrid, Barcelona not as well, but we will definitely do Spain again! I would love to go back to Greece and Spain and also to places like Holland, Germany and Belgium! So yes, I believe that we will be coming there in the summer!
- Well, as you won’t be coming to the UK I will make an effort to come and see you somewhere close by. I have never seen Flotsam & Jetsam live and that really hurts! Craig, thank you very much for this interview – it’s been a real pleasure talking to you! I wish you all the best for “he Cold” and please give my regards to the rest of the guys in the band! A message to your fans?
Craig: We have pretty much covered everything but I will say this to our fans: we are one of those bands which know why we are here and that is only because of our fans at this point! We hope so very much that we are going to get the chance to play at a festival in England or do a few UK shows because believe me when I tell you – it’s an absolute goal for this band! We don’t take such things lightly – we would love to be able to play for you guys there, so hopefully we can make that happen in 2011! And I also appreciate talking to you too as you sound like you are a nice person and I am really affected by your comments – I really appreciate that! Alright, brother – I am sure we are going to be talking again in the future!
- You bet! Have a nice day!
Craig: You too!
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