In the music industry, 30 plus years of recording and touring usually means you have been widely regarded as being in the upper echelon of your genre. Some bands and artists for whatever reason never seem to garner that level of recognition, in spite of a collective body of work and a seeming never-ending presence on the road. Flotsam and Jetsam, the five member metal ensemble formed in the Phoenix, AZ area, are one such group. They initially burst on to the scene in 1986 with their debut record, Doomsday for the Deceiver. Their follow-up record, 1988’s No Place for Disgrace appeared to solidify them as one of the standard bearers for the metal scene. That level of esteem just did not materialize. Perhaps this was due to the changing winds of music in general in the early 1990’s, or perhaps lacking cohesiveness after original member Jason Newsted departed to assume bass duties for Metallica, in addition to several lineup changes at that position over the next five years.
Whatever the reason for not achieving that elusive level of “success”, it certainly would not be the result of lack of effort. On the heels of what many consider to be their definitive release, 2016’s self titled release, Flotsam and Jetsam, the group is back with an auditory steamroller titled The End of Chaos. On a brief break between a European tour in support of the new release and the onset of their U.S. tour which commences on May 10th in Denver, CO, Michael Gilbert, the band’s long time guitarist and founding member took some time out to share his thoughts on the making of the new record and the state of the band.
When complimented on the strength of the new record, Gilbert related, ” I think we kind of crossed over into something almost like some power metal going on, with the big choruses and A.K. (vocalist Eric Knutson) just crushed it on his own. This year he really made an effort to make his choruses stand out, as well as his verses too, but big choruses. It’s kind of a crossover thing for us.” The vocals on this album are particularly strong, Gilbert ascribes the following regarding Knutson, “You know he’s getting older, but it gets better too. The guy is like Ironman, just totally strong as fuck, like his vocals are totally killing it. He’s one of my best friends, but you know, he amazes me every night.” According to Gilbert, Knutson brings more to the table than just his vocal abilities. Apparently he is pretty handy with a set of tools. He continues, ” He’s a total maniac, on the last tour we did of the United States, we had a bus, I won’t mention the bus company, but we had a bus that wasn’t doing well, like every other day. We had problems and the company was having issues getting repairs done. A.K. he’s like ‘fuck it, you know give me a set of tools’ and he had our bus running. He changed out the axle on the trailer, the generator, the generator broke down I don’t know how many times, he’s like our dad, what a front man should be.”
Flotsam and Jetsam has seen its share of member exits, additions and a few re-entrances. The most recent entrance is the arrival of drummer Ken Mary. As it pertains to the entrance of Mary and the departure of Jason Bittner, Gilbert recounts, “That’s a good story, because when Bittner decided he was going to go over to Overkill, which by the way I’m super happy about that because Jason’s a great friend of mine. When he called me and had the news, I was like, ‘you got to take that’. So I’m stressed out, I want my friend to be successful obviously, but also I’m worried about who’s going to take his place.” Steve Conley, Flotsam’s other guitarist had been working with Mary for a number of years on other projects. Conley had asked Mary if he was interested in sitting in on their upcoming tour. “The second he came in and started playing, I was like man, this is the dude.” Gilbert continues, “This is the guy that’s got to take Jason’s place. Seriously, it took maybe 10-15 seconds into the first song, I was like yeah, this guy’s a bad-ass. We asked him if he wanted to join and he was all up for it.”
Being the lone wild card on the current record, as this is Mary’s first time recording with the group, Gilbert was asked what Mary’s addition might have brought to the production of The End of Chaos. “He’s a jack of all trades, he came in and helped out with arrangements on songs and played some incredible drum parts. He’s got a good sense of, okay, like way back in the day, we were all just kind of jamming together, see how fast we can play. It wasn’t about writing a great song. If a great song came out of us just jamming, that’s killer. But now we’re really trying to take the time to structure it. Everybody knows we can play, but can we write a good song? It’s nice to be able to work with somebody and have a conversation and not argue about the flow of a song. But he can also back it up, you know, he’ll say I think this part right here might sound a little better over here. He’ll edit it and send it back to me and I’ll be like, yeah, that’s pretty cool. It’s another valued opinion that comes in on a song, and I think the five of us working together right now, it’s the best rendition of the band.”
30 plus years into a career is an unusual point at which to hit one’s stride as a recording group. Gilbert offered the following, “Well, you know when we first started out, our first two records, there was something… there was definitely a fire going on right there. Then, a couple of other albums afterward, there was more of a smoldering I guess than a fire. It’s hard to explain, but maybe when members get defeated when they look at their goals as far as their career in music, and it’s not happening the way they think it’s supposed to happen, they end up either failing or disinterested.” Having just completed a tour of Europe a few weeks earlier, the subject of how new songs that were worked into the set had been received. Gilbert proudly shares, “See, that’s always the thing when you play new songs, because with our type of music they always want to go back to the classics, the first two records. We threw four songs into the set just to see what would happen on the first night we played. Out of those four songs we played, they were singing along with three. By the time we got to the end of the tour, all four of them, they were chanting all four of them.”
Now, as the band prepares to embark on a roughly six-week tour of the United States and Canada, Gilbert discloses some of the places he particularly looks forward to playing. “I always look forward to Phoenix (their hometown), they treat us well here. And there’s Dallas, we’re not doing Dallas on this leg, but we’re going to hit that on a second leg. Of course, California is always good. It’s been getting better there throughout the years.” Speaking of the long since closed Reseda venue, he adds, “When we first came to California, on the first two records, we were always playing the Country Club. Those shows were always sold out and it’s sad that place is gone now. That was one of my favorite places, but we have the Whisky.”
As the conversation winds down toward its conclusion, Gilbert, being a man with 33 years of recording experience has spoken throughout the conversation with great enthusiasm. If one wasn’t familiar with the tenure of Flotsam and Jetsam, they might think they are speaking with a 20-year-old talking about his band’s first record. That youthful enthusiasm carries through as Gilbert proffers some final thoughts. “I’m just super excited about this record, I’m just really proud of it, all of us are. We spent a lot of time just making it as perfect as we could for everybody and trying to get back in the game and we hope everybody listens to it and enjoys it. Come check out the shows if you can.” And for anyone that thinks that The End of Chaos is the end of Flotsam and Jetsam, think again! Gilbert emphatically dispenses this kernel of information, “We’ve got a bunch more songs that we’re writing right now, and I’m excited to get those out next year. They’re going to be way over the top!”