FLOTSAM AND JETSAM’s MICHAEL GILBERT - “I’m Sorry If We Hurt ELTON JOHN’s Feelings, But I Gotta Make A Public Apology”
October 6, 2020, 24 days ago
It was just eight months ago that we were cruising in the Caribbean on this boat called 70000 Tons Of Metal. Flotsam And Jetsam certainly one of the highlights as they stormed their way through two sets, one inside and one by infamous Pool Deck stage just in front of the main hot tub, I mean mosh tub. As you’ve read many times on BraveWords, the event is an adventure that is hard to describe. And we’ve been honored to build a great relationship with the band. That’s why it’s hard to reflect on those treasured moments as we all face new current realities. How fast life can change within a few months.
Despite the world hurting, and the music industry in particular getting gutted, creatively we may just see a massive wave of new material, as like most people, bands are stuck staring at the same four walls. Why not pick up an instrument and noodle, maybe write a few songs. And in the case of Flotsam And Jetsam, with each member laying down ideas for what it appears will be the third album of a trilogy, following 2016’s self-titled magnum opus and 2019’s The End Of Chaos.
“We’re just pounding away at new tunes,” Gilbert confirms. “We’re getting close to completing the new album. It’s right along the same lines as End Of Chaos so I’m super excited about it, it’s going to be bad ass. It’s weird, our writing process has changed over the years. We all have pretty good home studios, so we just pass everything around. It’s like a hot potato - an idea will come out, and I’ll pass it over to A.K. or Steve will pass an idea to A.K. and if he feels he can write something killer over it then he’ll send it back and ask us what we think about it. Then we’ll send it back to him and Ken will start working on it - Ken’s got an ear for writing lyrics and choruses and stuff like that. He’s been a huge asset to the band, as well as being a kick-ass drummer.”
BraveWords: Have there been any times when you’ve passed something along that you feel super passionate about to A.K. or someone else and they come back saying that ain’t going to happen, and a big battle ensues?
Gilbert: “That just happened today. There was a song I sent back out yesterday and asked, ‘Hey do we need to revisit this? I like this tune and then you get back the well-worded email that says, ‘Well, you know, Bob, we’re going to have to move you down to the basement now.’”
BraveWords: That’s hilarious.
Gilbert: “It’s happened so many times now. But you know there are victories too, when you send something off, and then when A.K. really feels good about something and it starts to come together, that’s when you get the songs like how the End Of Chaos turned out - the mighty choruses and stuff like that. You gotta take the good with the bad, and maybe you’re passionate about a riff but who knows, it might be revisited next year.”
BraveWords: How do you think the current times have affected the mood, the sound and the lyrics of this new record?
Gilbert: “You mean with the pandemic; A.K. has a pretty good lyric base that he had even before all of this was going down. Whatever we write, from when this all started to now, he might come up with something about it, but I haven’t heard too much about current times or anything like that. He’s kind of in his own little world. He’s like stuck inside A.K. and the A.K. experience.”
BraveWords: How much does it cost to take a ride on that experience?
Gilbert: “I think it’s a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
BraveWords: So the record is done, you just need to put a bow on it?
Gilbert: “Pretty much. We’re still writing just in case one pops out - it’s like an assembly line kind of thing - we try to have 10 or 12 keepers, but if something pops out that’s better, we’ll take whatever the worst one is and shuffle it away, put it on the shelf for another time. We don’t want to have any sleeper tracks on the record at all. We’re trying to maintain consistency with our records now. We’ve been all over the map for so many years, and now we’re starting to write, ever since the self-titled record, from The End Of Chaos to the next one, they’re going to have titles that are kind of related. Drift was kind of an experiment for us, we were all over the map, it was so different from our very first record Doomsday For The Deceiver. If you listen to them both next to each other you would say it isn’t even the same band. So if you listen to these three, including the one we’re writing right now, the most current records, you’re gonna say this is definitely all the same band. Even though all the songs are different, you can tell. We’re not sticking to the same formula or anything like that - a lot of bands have a formula that they stick to and they always sound the same - and they’re always successful and they never let their fans down. For me, that’s kind of boring.”
BraveWords: Can I ask you a somewhat private question? Where is your creative zone? What do you do, and where is it? Can you describe it?
Gilbert: “Man, that’s one of the best questions right there. It’s nothing you can force, it has to happen naturally. You don’t know where inspiration is going to come from. Sometimes I’ll just sit in my studio and listen to music, and the next thing you know I’ve got a guitar in my hand because I’m inspired by something, by a player, or I’ll want to learn a riff from somebody. Then that riff, I’ll change it around, and next thing you know I’ve got a song. Other times I’ll just sit down and play and it’ll suck and I’ll say man I should go get a job! So, the inspiration can happen anytime, but whenever I get that buzz, something happens. I’m supposed to do guitar solos today and every time I open up my Pro Tools set, I’m getting the spinning wheel of death, I can’t open any of my sessions. I’m ready to go, I’m like a horse that’s just ready at the gate, but the gate’s failing.”
No Place For Disgrace! The Flotsam And Jetsam Catalogue Dissected
BraveWords: Let’s talk about your catalogue. Do you ever go back and listen?
Gilbert: “Yeah, I do that every time before we make a new record. I might make some people mad saying this but I just think there’s a lot of things that need to be produced again, or remixed. There’s just some not so great sounding records in our catalogue and I ask myself, ‘what the hell were we thinking?’ And we’re a guitar band, there’s some stuff where you can’t even hear the guitars. That’s like Iron Maiden making a record with no guitar. A.K. is always prevalent, but there’s a couple of records where it sounds like he’s not even playing with the band because of how the mix happened. So I go back and listen to that and I get a good idea of what not to do. Then I listen to The End Of Chaos and I think yeah that’s the right track as long as we keep doing this. That’s what I was saying a little while ago, that we kind of developed a path with these last three records, they sound pretty close.”
BraveWords: Are you familiar with the band Anvil, like Metal On Metal, and Forged In Fire?
BraveWords: Great answer. Just a quick little side story because those two records were really iconic, not just for Canadians but for metal in general, in the early ’80’s and then they started to falter. BW&BK was very critical. It’s not like Lips and I were mean to each other, but I was just very truthful with my reviews. Years later we were doing an interview at Heavy Toronto and he said, “Tim, every fucking thing you said was correct. We didn’t have the budget, and those records were weak, but sometimes it’s out of your hands.” It was a sweet little moment. In your case, I don’t think any of the records are weak, but do you understand where I’m coming from?
Gilbert: “Yeah, I think that’s pretty much what happened to us. We had too many cooks in the kitchen. Everybody in the band right now can mix a record if we wanted to, but it’s going to cause all kinds of internal issues. So we just take our tracks that are finished and we give them to someone else to do it, so that way none of us are butting heads. Someone will think the drums are too loud or the bass line can’t be heard, and the next thing you know, everything is pushed up so high it just sounds like crap. Knowledge of over 30 years of doing this crap. I’m not necessarily a believer in all the nuances and everything - the science of this and the science of that - you want to get a great sound. Once you put a mic in front of something and it sounds good, that’s it. Your ear’s not going to lie to you.”
BraveWords: What’s going on with the rights to the catalogue?
Gilbert: “The first two we’ve renegotiated out those, but maybe When The Storm Comes Down (1990). I’ve always said I’d like to get hold of that and give it to somebody to remix properly because I think the songs are great, but for me there’s a lot of weirdness going on.”
BraveWords: In 1986 when your debut Doomsday For The Deceiver emerged, Flotsam And Jetsam were the only band that the UK’s Kerrang! Magazine gave a 6K rating, when their system only went to five.
Gilbert: “When I put on Doomsday you can hear the fire, we were young, and we didn’t know what we were doing but we were doing something. It totally translated. I guess that happened during the second album too, but some things got lost. I think some corporate stuff started to come into play because that’s when we landed on Elektra. That had a lot to do with, where you’ve got a lot of chefs in the kitchen and nobody can agree on anything. And then your money runs out.”
BraveWords: Because they know more about Elton John than Flotsam And Jetsam!
Gilbert: “I love Elton John man, I grew up on his songs. We butchered that Elton John song (‘Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting)’) so bad, I don’t know if I want to butcher anybody else’s songs.
BraveWords: I’m not saying you butchered the song, but you definitely gave it the Flotzilla treatment!
Gilbert: “That’s what we were trying to do, so I guess mission accomplished. But man, I’m sorry if we hurt Elton John’s feelings, but I gotta make a public apology.”
BraveWords: When The Storm Comes Down arrives and the production was a bit off - the songwriting rocked, but it’s the drum sound that just sticks out. Very strange.
Gilbert: “We had a drummer (Kelly David-Smith) at the mix, which might have had something to do with that. The drums are a little louder than everything else. It’s like a ‘drums and A.K.’ record. It doesn’t even sound like he’s singing with the band, it sounds completely different.“
BraveWords: Cuatro should have been your breakthrough record, brilliant from start to finish. But the grunge era was starting to take over. What was going through your mind?
Gilbert: “Yeah, that was a weird time. Everything was just changing, the cycle started ending, and people just wanted to hear something else. Grunge came in and it sounded good to people, and us metalheads were all told to be like, ‘Sell your pointy guitars, no more pointy guitars!’ Devil lyrics and all that. Metal bands just kind of got lost in all of it in ‘92.”
BraveWords: This is where it breaks my heart - Drift is simply heavy-hearted genius. So melancholic and uplifting at the same time, but perhaps it was so far above people’s heads that it didn't click with the metal masses. Songs like“Me”, “Empty Air” and “Missing” rank with some of the greatest tracks the band has ever written.
Gilbert: “We were still trying to change the band from what we were doing - from a thrash thing to something that would appeal to a larger audience. Still heavy, but some of the songs are a lot slower. We slowed it down a bit and we tried to get more singing choruses in it - A.K. wanted to do that. I love that record. That was one of my funnest records that we made.“
BraveWords: High was another overlooked album. Who says “Play some fucking music” to kick it off?
Gilbert: “That's A.K. screaming. You know, that was my exit record right there. I was starting to bail because we were just having differences with the band and management and stuff and I couldn’t take it anymore. When I saw the back cover of the record with all the names of the songs, I thought it didn’t look like something from a big band, it looked like a demo. With the management on the table, that was the worst part of it for me, so I chose to bail.
BraveWords: Who did the initial guitar riffs on “Final Step”?
Gilbert: “Ed (Carlson) that did that. It’s a good record and the production got way better for it. Again, over 30 years of learning how to do stuff and what we’re listening for. Going into the studio and listening to it on someone else’s speakers is a lot different that you hear it at home, and it sounds totally different to you.”
BraveWords: Were you paying attention to the records that you weren’t on? (Those being: 1999’s Unnatural Selection, 2001’s My God, 2005’s Dreams of Death, 2010’s The Cold).
Gilbert: “Yeah, I did. I gave them a listen and also with a bitter taste in my mouth because for lack of a better term, that’s like someone else fucking your wife or your girlfriend. I know I left, but man that’s my slot you know? That's what I’m supposed to be doing. It was just bitter for me. But when I came back it was one of my happiest days.”
BraveWords: Well, ten years is a long time to leave a band that you started. And I won’t get into any of the personal stuff, what was happening during those ten years.
Gilbert: “You know, I had kids and I hung out with them. And concentrated on getting them through school and being a single father. I was still recording and stuff like that. A lot of the stuff that I wrote ended up being on Ugly Noise (2012) when I came back.”
BraveWords: I will say that My God is also one of my go-to Flotsam records, kind of like Drift part two.
Gilbert: “Yeah, I've heard people say that. I agree.”
(Top live photo by James Garvin)