Interview from Access to the Music Zone Vol 3 Number 3 February, 1999
Flotsam & Jetsam
An interview with AMZ's Vinnie Apicella
Like the shattered remains they derived their name from, this battle-hardened
South-Western metal unit just continues to litter the rock landscape year after year
with their same loud, aggressive music from a bygone era, leading one to ponder the
question, how can they keep doing this? Weren't they dead in the water after “When
The Storm Comes Down” flopped during metal's decline at the break of the new
decade? Many were unexpectedly surprised to see that in 1992, not only was the band
back in full force, their release “Cuatro” was the sleeper hit of the year that saw them
reach perhaps their fullest potential for creativity. All looked righted again for the band
and their music yet it seemed too many still hadn't stood up to take notice. “Drifting”
along the tide in ’95, that year's release saw the band return to their power-metal roots,
with a powerfully conceived album that pressed hard at the nerves of an industry that
still had too little to offer heavy music followers. Phoenix's "Flotsam & Jetsam" have
released seven albums altogether, the latest taking something of an ironic jab at
themselves in titling it “Unnatural Selection.” Nearly fifteen years after the band first
sprang on the scene with “Doomsday for the Deceiver,” F&J still survive. Oh, they've
changed plenty over the years—hopping from this label to that, and enduring untimely
band member departures, yet they've never lost sight of their approach to
music—something that thankfully hasn't changed. Taking their place right alongside
others of those who make up the lower tier of once promising big name metal acts of
yesterday, it's conceivable they'll never reach the status of some of their commercially
adaptable peers. But as they head into the dawn of a new millennium, retooled and
refreshed, new drummer (and well-versed band historian) Craig Nielson speaks
insightfully of the past leading up to the completion of their newest project and the
future that lies ahead.
AMZ - I’d first like to address the band's new album before getting more involved with
the band as a unit, and then touch a little upon your current status as one of the
newest members. First of all “Unnatural Selection ” is a terrific new release as usual…
we pushed it to number one on this week's charting here at the radio station (WARY
F&J - Thanks a lot… and it's number one?
AMZ - Number one for metal or “loud rock” releases on this week's chart.
F&J - Far out! Are the fans calling up diggin’ on it?
AMZ - Yeah, we had a couple of calls today from some fans that are into the old Metal
Blade artists, and so the band came up… I’ve been pushing it since day one. Being a
product of the 80’s when metal was so hugely successful (or at least dignified in its
obscurity), well I’ve been following F&J since the early days, so yeah, I’m pushing that
F&J - Awesome brother. What are your favorite tracks on it?
AMZ - “Braindead’s” got a cool groove to it. “Chemical Noose,” the first add, “Fucker’s”
is great though I’d have to bleep out every other sentence to get it on the air! But I
really dug “High” when it came out
a couple of years ago. I was all for that whole, “It’s Metal So Fuck Off” attitude that
characterized the release. I’ve actually enjoyed all the material the band’s done over
the years though I wasn’t too crazy about “ When the Storm Comes Down, but it did
have one of my favorite tracks Suffer the Masses.
F&J - And we dont even play one song off that record live.
AMZ - You've got to play that one, its awesome!
F&J - Yeah, were gonna probably start doing that one.
AMZ - Unnatural Selection is a slight change in musical direction from where you left
off with High which boasted more of a metal ideal. This one sounds as though it were
conceived with the purpose of trying to move ahead and lean towards what heavy
musics evolved into today, I hate to use the expression, Aggro-rock.
F&J - I think basically what happened was Mark Simpson, the new guitar player, hes a
fairly young guy not even in his mid 20s yet, and he listens to a lot of or hell stay up late
on Sunday night to hear the late metal programs in Phoenix and I guess you could say
some of the new styles must have rubbed off on him naturally because hes been
listening to a lot of current music. Whereas on High, it was pretty much written by
Jason Ward (bassist). That was right at the time where they were going through that
split with Kelly Smith and Mike Gilbert. Pretty much the whole record, even the guitar
parts were written by a bass player. So I think that people might hear more riffs and
heavier grooves going on in this record cause it was written by guitar players. Ed
(Carlson) stepped up and wrote a few songs; Mark has at least four or five songs on
the record, and Jason has a couple too. So it wasnt just written from a bass player
perspective which is not necessarily bad, but I just think on this record, the tracks that
tend to sound a little more aggro, coincidentally, are Mark Simpsons songs. Mike
Gilbert and Mark Simpson are pretty different in song writing approach and Im not
saying which ones better, I certainly love a lot of material Mike wrote, but I think that
youll find the future Flotsam is gonna be a little more aggro because weve got a couple
of new, myself included, guys in the band whove sort of got more current rhythmic
idealswere both kind of on the pulse. You know we dont want to jump on a trend but
we definitely want to borrow certain elements I appreciate what some of the metal
bands today do. I dont necessarily love all the songs but I dig that they found a new
sort of vibe, that aggro, angry vibe. Theres nothing wrong with borrowing elements
from it and incorporating it into your style without actually stealing it or becoming that
way. And I think that a lot of the new sound is probably Mark Simpsons doing.
AMZ - So an influx of fresh blood and an overall contribution to the song writing are the
main sources of the bands progression, and yet while youve moved forward here, the
material sounds fresh but still sounds enough like F&J for the transition to be a smooth
one. A lot of bands seem to lose focus on what theyre doing, or what theyre trying to
do and get completely away from their own identity and find themselves hanging on for
dear life Hey, if we dont hurry up and make ourselves over, were gone! F&Js never
been short on talent and it takes an insightful group to recognize their past, accept it,
and approach change with both feet on the ground to keep moving forward. I think
youve done that with this album.
F&J - Thanks. Probably because it had a lot to do with the fact that we didnt have a lot
of time to get anal about analyzing the approach. We got back from tour and the label
said, Wed like to have you guys in the studio sooner rather than later, so basically I
went straight up to Phoenix one month after our tour was over and we started writing
and we had a target date to get into the studio like within a month after that date. So
we forced ourselves to be creative for about a month and then went into the studio
with those ideas rather than some bands, who will take up to six to nine months just to
write. Theres nothing wrong with that, sometimes greatness takes time, but I think
theres something to be said for, and I think we captured on this record, an element of
spontaneity and freshness. We just went into rehearsal and slammed these ideas
together in a month and then refined them and started the recording! I think that might
also be why it sounds new. Some bands think about their approach too much and take
themselves too seriously and I dont think F&J could be accused of that. Thats the vibe
on the record. The fact that we didnt spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with,
maybe we should try this direction specifically. There was no calculated strategy
behind it, it was just what riff do you have today?
AMZ - On the last F&J album, it seemed as though it was contrived to make it a full
metal recordfrom the music right down to the Monsters of Rock display that made up
the song listings on the back. Maybe thats what you guys were geared for at the time.
F&J - High was one persons half-hearted effort. It was at a time when two original
members were leaving. It wasnt a great time to write a record but they just got back on
Metal Blade, they wanted to put out a good product, and it just so happened that Kelly
and Mike sprung the bomb on them that, Hey, maybe were just not cut out for this
band anymore. And so Jason was kind of left to fill the gapsa position I wouldnt wish
on any band member. No guy wants to be the only songwriter. That was probably hell
for him. So High was a good record Im glad you pointed out you liked it. We
encountered some people on the road who said they just fuckin loved that record! But
it was just written under forced negative circumstances, where on this record, it
couldnt be more the opposite. We were really loose, we had a good vibe together, we
were fresh off tour we werent sick of each other. We really got along very well on tour.
It was just a good time for us to start writing. Im already looking forward to starting
another record even though this one just came out two days ago! I know the guys are
even more confident that they can put out a really special effort the next time because
well have more time to spend on it.
AMZ - Thats good news to the fans out there who still believe, and for
the metal community as a whole. You touched upon the two original members leaving,
Kelly and Mike. Whos actually left from the original band, Erik A.K. and Ed?
F&J - Jasons been in the band for ten years now, so hes almost original. But yeah, its
A.K. and Ed.
AMZ - You said this album was written under better circumstances yet it
has what seems like a definite angrier vibe to it, particularly on the song Fuckers. The
band always seemed directed toward writing of personal observations, more like what
was found on Cuatro and Drift,
and here its got the same feeling. Was that the prevalent emotion, anger, that fueled
the writing process?
F&J - I cant really speak from the lyrical perspective because A.K. was pretty much
constantly changing and rewriting and refining the vocal ideas up until the minute he
was recording them. At least as far as the rhythms and the beats and the music go,
we were just fresher. I think angry music is better played by people with chops. I just
think coming off ninety shows together, when we got into the rehearsal room, riffs
were just flying out of Mark Simpson because we were just right off the road, it was
easy to jump into that kind of aggro vibe. It wasnt like a forced thing. I dont think anyone
was pissed off about anything specifically. We did fire our manager at the time we
were writing that and I guess you could say a couple of members had an emotional
response to that whole event. Really its kind of easy to if youre used to playing fastwe
made sure we played faster songs on every night of the tourand so the chops were
there. Really its just natural when Mark plugs in his guitar and those are the kinds of
ideas that flow out of him. If you know the guy, you wouldnt say he was a particularly
angry person, but he communicates with his guitar with that emotion and I guess you
could say I do too with the drums. Im a real physical player. Jason Ward is an
extremely physical player. He likes to play a lot, I like to play a lot, and Mark likes to play
a lot and if you have guys that like to play with that much emotion, its going to come off
with that aggressive vibe.
AMZ - Speaking of playing faster, I noticed there werent really many fast songs on this
record, which was always something of a staple for the band from years past though
not as much recently. The speed aspect seems to have been pushed aside in favor of
a heavy groove. Does the band purposely veer away from that past thrash element
where it no longer fits in with the current song writing approach?
F&J - I think what happened is A.K., his voice has evolved. When you listen to
Doomsday and No Place when theyre playing all those fast songs, hes also singing
real high. It seems like once you cross the line with your rhythms and it gets into those
speed or thrash patterns, then your singers gonna kind of do one of two things. Hes
either gonna sing like every other thrash singer with that death growl approach, or hes
gonna sing high. You know, with A.K.s voice the way it is right now, he doesnt want to
sing the way he did when he was eighteen with those Queensryche-ish high notes.
Not that there was anything wrong with that back then, its just that its not part of his
vocal style today and neither does he want to go and do that cookie-monster thrash
vocal thing either. I mean, we could sit there and write a song like on Doomsday
tomorrow; certainly the energy and the ideas and the chops are there. We could go
write another No Place for Disgrace but then how would A.K it would seem a little
unnatural for him to keep up with those parts nowto start singing like a thrash singer or
like he used to on Doomsday I think now he likes to stretch his voice out with more
AMZ - Now hes afforded the opportunity to expand as a vocalist which hes done quite
well, but he still must need to open it up now and again playing them on stage. When
you mentioned the word unnatural before, that gives me the lead-in to my next
question regarding the new albums title, Unnatural Selection. What was the idea
behind this name? Was there a concept?
Craig: Actually the album cover concept Jason came into rehearsal one day after we
all had a few beers, and it was a metaphor he coined to describe bands like ours out
there in this music marketplace that were in today, the way he saw it, it was this
process of unnatural selection that we were still able to go out there and tour and
reach fans in all these different countries when all these other bandsthese so-called
radio bands todaycouldnt dream of just touring in some of the places we just went to
last year. Even though they have songs that you hear on the radio every day here in
America, they still couldnt just get out there on the bus and tour the continent of
Europe. And it was Jasons idea of unnatural selection for bands like "Flotsam &
Jetsam" to still thrive and reach so many fans in so many places in todays harsh
AMZ - Its ironic, but hey, more power to you. Im honestly surprised the bands still
around and that half the bands that started back when you did are still around.
Thankfully, Europes always been a friendly place to turn when other markets are a
F&J - Seems like in Germany, everyone still wears their concert T-shirts of their
favorite band. Every time they go out man, these people with the patches on the jacket
and stuff, not just in Germany, but it seemed like everywhere we went out in Europe it
was the same way.
The fans were really, really loyally into their bands more than any Americans. I love
American crowds, dont get me wrong, I love playing in America, but its just something
else over there. Theyre way more committed to metal.
AMZ - It really is amazing the difference from here to there, but theres no denying it.
Metal still lives on overseas! I want to shift gears here and turn towards your role in the
band individually. You just took over on drums replacing Kelly David Smith shortly after
the completion of the last album. Whats your musical background? Where did you
play before landing the gig with F&J and what interested you in joining this band?
F&J - First of all, things I did most professionally before F&J was I was a drummer in a
band called Nevermore. Theyre on Century Media, and
have a real good following building, and I was in Nevermore for about nine months.
Theyre based in Seattle and when I went back to L.A. and left the band about six
months after that, they got their record deal. I didnt have any pro gigs in L.A., I just
played in a lot of L.A. bands. Flotsam had heard about me though Nick Menza in
"Megadeth." I was actually playing in Nicks old band before he was in "Megadeth" and
he had a lot of respect for my playing and told them about me out there. I didnt even
know they were looking for a drummer. They called and asked
if I was interested in coming down and of course I was. "Flotsam & Jetsam" was a
band I grew up listening to certainly they were one of my ten favorite metal bands who
were out there. But it was really a hard gig, but I thought it harder than it was. I learned
about fifteen songs in a week or something like that and went down there and nailed it.
And it was tough shoes to fill for me; Kellys a great drummer.
AMZ - Your drumming adds a powerful presence to the overall sound which you can
pick up right away on the new disc. But getting back now to the
band itself, touch upon the future from a newcomer, though insiders point of view.
Even though record sales may not be overwhelming, F&J does have a considerable
following overseas as you pointed out, and now with new talent and a solid new
release under your belts, whats the attitude toward tomorrow? Can it get better?
F&J - Yeah, I certainly dont see why not, 'cause as players, weve got
as much energymyself, I have as much energy as two sixteen year olds and I think
thats the same for everyone in this band. Were not tired or feeling like its time to call it
a day at all. Theres so much music
left especially now with Mark, the guys barely in his mid-20s and has nine million guitar
ideas, and I dont see how we would ever theres a knack with F&J. We get together
and it sounds like F&J. Theres a signature sound there. It didnt really go away just
because they changed members, thank God. It probably has a lot to do with A.K. I
think as long as were on a record label that supports making records and touring, we
will stay out there until someone drags our old carcasses off the stage! I just dont see
how anyones going to quit playing now. And were not that old. Were all just like 31 or
32, so we definitely got a lot of time left just look at The Stones!
AMZ - Back when High was recorded a couple of years ago, you had just crossed
back onto Metal Blade Records from MCA which was the bands home for several
years. What prompted the change?
F&J - MCA, when they were taken over by Seagrams, like what always happens in this
industry and more and more with this consolidation going
on, they dropped maybe half of their bands when this acquisition happened. Flotsam
was just one of them. They never really had the support from the top guys in the
department anyway, but they certainly made it possible for them to do quality records
and do videos. MCA gave
em a lot of money but unfortunately, the money was spend on certain things that
wouldve been better spend elsewhere. And they couldve gone about marketing them
differently. But coming back to Metal Blade has in no way been a negative transition,
because they hadnt even toured Europe one time in eight years when they were with
MCA. MCA didnt want to put up any money for it; they didnt think it was worth it. Theyd
give all this money to do records and videos, but wouldnt take an eighth of that money
and send em over to the continent where the music was biggest! They had a twisted
approach to breaking a band like F&J. So really, it was no big deal going back to Metal
Bladesome people would look at it as going from a major to a lesser, but Metal Blade
is the largest independent label in America. Brian (Slagel, President) and his team
over there know how to market heavy music. Theyve been doing it forever and they put
us in Europe right away. That was something we wanted to do. We played like ten
countries and they kept us out there for over ninety shows! Then they immediately
put us into the studio to do another record. I think Brian has a soft spot in his heart for
this band. We were one of his first signings way back when and Doomsday did well
for the label, and I think he sees us as a great live band. And if you like the records,
boy, come see the show, cause we put a lot of energy into our shows. So I think Brian,
every time he comes to see us play, has been more convinced that hes got a good
band. Hopefully hell continue to support the records 'cause we definitely want to refine
the new lineup and make it better and better. Im sure that we can make it even better!
AMZ - I figured the return to Metal Blade where you first originated, would give the band
a boost, or a rejuvenation of sorts, which it certainly seemed to with High there was a
lot more hype surrounding it I think than with Drift anyway. But I think the support
difference you find between two labels such as those the push youll get from a Metal
Blade might not be misdirected, lets say, as seems more prevalent from some of the
bigger ones not necessarily toward the betterment of the band.
F&J - Metal Blade let us we didnt have to write twenty songs to choose ten for a
record. We got to write the songs we wanted; we didnt have to change them to suit
anybody. We ordered the songs the way we wanted, we chose our own record art, we
chose the artist, we chose our 8x10 promo picture. They let us choose every last thing
creatively that had to do with this record. And what more could you possibly ask for in
a record company? They didnt step in one minute and say, We dont like this, or we
dont like that. Brian had total faith. We went in there with an engineer, we didnt take
one of the prescribed producers, and the studio that we chose, wrote our own songs,
didnt change them at all. And they had so much faith in Eric, that they let us go into the
studio without even really knowing what the vocals were gonna sound like. Thats how
much faith they have in this band. You couldnt possibly ask for a better situation in a
record company/artist relationship!
AMZ - Its got to give you all the confidence in the world knowing how much they stand
behind you and it definitely comes through in the playing on the final product.
F&J - Im glad you think so. You know, we hear little flaws on it, production-wise and
what not. We couldve done this or that differently and even a few little mistakes we
couldve fixed but didnt. It has that raw spontaneity that most people are catching onto
thankfully. But in the next effort, I keep referring to the next effort, youre gonna find that
it's going to sound even better! Youll see what I mean, because we really just got off
tour and were like, Lets just make a record. If we go in and do another one, well spend
maybe not a year writing it, but at least two months instead of one and youll get twice
as excellent an effort.
AMZ - Id have to say that for me, the jurys still out as to whether I prefer this one over
High, but this ones different in many ways. Im still stuck a bit in the past which biases
my opinion a lot of times since Im not hearing enough of the music like that which was
on stuff like say a "Doomsday for the Deceiver or No Place But I think as long as you
maintain that aggressive edge and keep a modern mindset, theres limitless
boundaries. You know, I havent seen you guys since back in 86 when you played with
"Megadeth," touring for Doomsday! So you gotta hook me up and play a few of the
older classics for me.
F&J - Oh we do em all man! We rotate between almost every song from Doomsday
and No Place In a night, youll hear at least five songs from those two records, maybe
six, which is more than most bands play from there. You know, if you get a band out
there with seven records, how many of them are playing seven songs from the first
two recordsnot many. We definitely recognize a lot of fans want to hear those songs.
Were not up there to satisfy our own ideas of what the fans should hear. We want to
give the people what they want, so well definitely play a lot of older material.
AMZ - So Ill be out there screaming Hammerhead! Iron Tears!
F&J Oh yeah, we still open the show with Hammerhead usually. Like I never missed
anything in thirteen years! And hey, I just thought of something cool. The amazing
thing with F&J is theyve managed to stay around and not just exist but excel and
exceed expectations even if theyre not recognized as superstarsat least not here. But
theyve never tried to resort to a gimmick like saying, Hey, were the band that gave
"Metallica" Jason Newsted! Look at us! So all of the newly assembled "Metallica" fans
can go, Hmmm this is the band where Jason Newsted started out in maybe we should
check them out! (So Ive done it for them) And at the suggestion that I refuse to play
any of the new "Metallica" on my metal radio show due to their clean cut sound and
commercial aspirations, Craig brought up a good closing point: Would you still be
hungry with 40 million in the bank? No, I dont think that I would. So heres to hoping F&J
continues to measure success not by monetary gain, but rather dependability and
longevity in a market that doesnt want them.