Michael Gilbert of Flotsam and Jetsam

by Greg Prato

When bassist Jason Newsted left Flotsam and Jetsam for Metallica in 1986 after appearing on the group's debut full-length, Doomsday for the Deceiver, it was both a blessing and a curse for his former band. Newsted was one of their main contributing songwriters, but his departure earned Flotsam and Jetsam instant cachet and substantial press attention - it was like a sandlot team sending a shortstop to the Yankees.

In the wake of Newsted's departure, Elektra Records signed the band to their first major label recording contract. The group - without Newsted - continue to issue albums to this day, including the brand new Ugly Noise, which sees the return of original members Michael Gilbert (guitar) and Kelly Smith (drums) to the band, with singer Eric A. Knutson, guitarist Ed Carlson, and bassist Jason Ward rounding out the lineup.

One of Flotsam's primary songwriters, Gilbert returns after more than a decade away from the band. It didn't take long to get the rust off the pistons, as he soon found himself in a jam session with Newsted that would have brought the band back together if it wasn't for those pesky logistics.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about the new album, Ugly Noise.

Michael Gilbert: This is a pretty broad subject. Kelly Smith, our drummer, and myself, have been absent from the band for a number of years. And last year we decided to come back and do some writing for the band. Metal for me is kind of a disease. I always feel like I've got to play. I write music. That's what I love to do.

So when I decided to come back to the band, Kelly was like, "Yeah, I'm on board." So we started writing some tunes. And before we even started doing any of that, we put together a formula. We're older now... are we a thrash band? What kind of metal band are we? What are we doing, what do we want to accomplish? And basically what we decided was the format of the songs; we were really going to let our singer shine.

Over the years, you go back and you look at stuff that you've written previously, and you go, "Man, I should have done this a little bit different," or "We shouldn't have done this right here, that sound is weird." So in the overall scope of writing music, we decided to try to not step on each other's toes. Like a drum fill over a vocal line, or drum fills during the guitar solos, or guitar solos while Eric is singing. Because we used to do a lot of crap like that.

And I think that was just being on fire back then, like, "We're in a band and we're excited, we've got a record label, we're making a record, let's just rock!" We were just really going for it. Now it's about, "Let's put some emotion in it and try to write good tunes."

Songfacts: What are some of your favorite songs on the new album?

Michael: That's a good question. I love "Ugly Noise." That's got a good little story to it. That was one of the first ones I wrote for the record. I was sitting in my studio at home and I was playing this piano part, and I'm like, "Wow, this sounds really cool. I need to make this into a tune." So I got the Pro Tools setup at home, and I got about halfway arranged with the song, put some guitar on it, and I haven't saved it yet. This was a boneheaded maneuver because I haven't saved any of my work at all. And boom! My power goes out. I mean, everything in my house. I'm like, "What the heck?"

So I go outside and nobody else's lights are off, but these kids are just taking off down the street. These kids broke into my power box and pulled all my breakers! So I chased them down, gave them a good scare, and came back and finished writing that song. [Laughing] So that's one of my favorites. But I also like "Play Your Part," too. That's got a pretty good emotion, and it's got a lot of vibe to it. When Eric got on there and all the parts came together, man, I was just like, "This turned out to be really way better than I thought it was going to be." So I love "Play Your Part," too.

Songfacts: How would you compare writing songs now with Flotsam and Jetsam to how it was back in the '80s?

Michael: Oh, it's a whole different beast. We've got so many tools for recording now. We're all at different geographical locations. We can send songs via email instead of having to throw them on a tape and send them to Los Angeles or wherever the heck they were going. And then there's all the tools for recording, all the Pro Tools and the BFC. There's tons and tons of software tools available for that. That's definitely made songwriting a lot easier, but there's still something cool about everybody getting together in a room and writing, just banging it out at full volume. There's a lot to be said for that, too.

That's one of the drawbacks of doing it via e mail and stuff like that. When everybody gets together to rehearse the song, does it have that "oomph," does it have that vibe, is it going to be as powerful? Sometimes it's not. Sometimes it turns out to be crap. But that's just the way it goes.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Michael: Do you know what, this is a great question, because I'm going to go way out of bounds. Being a music lover, I like all types of music, and lyrically one of my favorite songwriters is John Mayer. That guy can write a fantastic tune. Dave Matthews is another one. He doesn't write by the book at all. Some of his changes and stuff are, like, "What is going on?" But it works. He makes it work with his vocal lines and stuff like that.

For metal, I like any metal band that brings the energy level up and can cause some sort of emotion in somebody. Who's a great example of a metal band? Stone Sour does that to me. Corey Taylor, both musically and lyrically, writes some fantastic stuff. He's frickin' awesome.

Songfacts: Let's talk about writing specific Flotsam songs - how about we start with the title track of Ugly Noise?

Michael: When we were starting to write the record, I ended up calling my buddy Jason Newsted. And I was like, "Dude, I'm writing these tunes and I'm just wondering what you think about them." When you're writing something, it's good just to have someone with an outside ear listening to what you're doing, because you could be writing something that's just totally wacky, but you're so involved in it that you don't even know it. And then when someone else listens to it, they'll be like, "What the hell were you thinking? It just doesn't even make any sense. There's no flow..."

So for that song I ended up sending it over to Jason and seeing what he thought about it and just ask him if he could give me some lyric ideas, which I thought was pretty cool.

Songfacts: Going back a bit, what do you remember about the writing or recording of the song "Hammerhead"?

Michael: "Hammerhead," this is actually a song that was written before I was in the band. I was joining the band at this time. And that was the very first song that I ever played with these guys. That song brings back a ton of memories for me. I think Newsted had written that one all on his own, and he gave it to me in the form of a demo way back in the day.

Songfacts: Very cool. And what do you remember about the song from a few years back that was co-written with Chris Cornell, "The Message"?

Michael: It was a collaboration actually. The music was already written for it, and the idea was sent over to him. We never even got together - we didn't even speak to each other about it. I thought it was great for what was going on. That guy is another great lyricist. It just gives me chills because the guy is so on top of it, and conveyed at least his message to me really clear and in a way that is inspiring for me.

Although not exactly on par with Master of Puppets, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying?, Reign in Blood or Among the Living as the creme de la creme of '80s thrash metal, Flotsam and Jetsam's full-length debut, 1986's Doomsday for the Deceiver, has gone on to become a classic of the genre. Metal Blade head honcho Brian Slagel felt so strongly about Flotsam that he co-produced the disc with the band, and when his old pals in Metallica phoned him about a possible replacement for the late/great Cliff Burton, Slagel suggested Newsted. The rest is history. Now that Newsted has been out of Metallica for quite some time, longtime fans hold out hope that he may return to Flotsam for one more go-round. But aside from a recent private jam session, there are no plans for a full-on Flotsam/Newsted reunion.
Songfacts: As far as the whole Doomsday album, quite a few people consider it a thrash metal classic.

Michael: You know what, I will say yes on that. And actually, I love the word "classic." I'm thrilled to be even involved in something that's considered a classic.

Songfacts: When you joined the band, did you help write any of that stuff, or was most of that stuff on Doomsday written prior to you joining?

Michael: I worked on about 50-60% of it. When I joined the band, the first song that I wrote with the band was "I Live You Die." It was a direction change for them, because they were doing some other things. They were more of a real hard rock band at the time. And when I came in the band, I was like: "Metal." I played some of the song "I Live You Die" to them, and they were like, "Okay, let's try it and see what happens." And that became the song that we sent to Brian Slagel [the head of Metal Blade Records], and he was like, "I want to put this on a compilation disc, and we'll get you guys signed and get this thing going." So they decided to keep me in the band after that.

Songfacts: Do you agree that the album cover art for Doomsday is awesomely intense and also grotesquely ghoulish?

Michael: All of the above. Yes, absolutely. But it's one of those things that I look back and I'm like, "Oh, my God, what were we thinking?" I like it.

Songfacts: But if you look at the artwork for a lot of the heavy metal bands at the time, that was pretty standard for a band to have a mascot and for it to have a drawing on the cover.

Michael: We're still working on a way to get the Flotzilla beast onstage!

Songfacts: That would be great. Before, you mentioned Jason Newsted. I was reading an interview with him recently, and he said that last year he got back together with Flotsam and jammed on the Doomsday material in a rehearsal room. What are some memories of that and how did that come about?

Michael: Oh, that was pretty cool. That was just before all the songwriting and stuff came about. It was right around the same time. He was like, "Well, how much can I jam with you guys?" We weren't going to include Jason on the record. Before the record came out, he was thinking about getting together and maybe doing a couple of reunion dates just for the heck of it to see what would happen. The planets weren't all lined up, so the timing was a little bit off, and we were doing our thing and he was doing his thing. So maybe a little bit later down the road we could get together and do some reunion dates. Maybe that whole record in its entirety.

Songfacts: Is it true that the band played the whole Doomsday album in its entirety with Jason?

Michael: Yeah.

Songfacts: How did it sound playing it?

Michael: How long's it been since you rode your bike?

Songfacts: It's been quite a while. But I'm sure it's like something that you don't forget very easily.

Michael: Yes. It's exactly that same feeling. It was phenomenal. We played with a few other bass players and the fullness that he brought to the band, I mean, it's just his own style of playing and the chemistry between the members, it never left. 20 years later, it took us maybe into the first verse of the first song that we played, and everybody was like, "Oh, yeah, that is still there."

Songfacts: And what are the future plans for Flotsam and Jetsam at this point?

Michael: We are looking into touring, touring, touring, and touring. Hopefully that's what we get to do this year. We're looking to do festivals over in Europe, probably in 2014. But up until then we're going to be out on the road and try to get to as many people as we can. That's the one thing that we've lacked doing over the years - we release a record and we end up touring for two months, and then it dies out. I'm anticipating that that's not going to happen. We've got some pretty good reviews about the record and people seem to be pretty excited about it, so I think we're going to have a busy year this year.

Songfacts: Lastly, something that I've always wondered about is who exactly coined the early phrase "Flots till it rots" and what exactly does it mean?

Michael: Oh, man. That is way back in the days, back when Newsted used to be in the band. It was just one of those things, like people do it now, they go, "Metal!" Our little chants, we'd always say, "Flots till it rots!" or whatever. And it's just like, "Flots for life," or "Metal for life," I don't know, that's a good question. I've never been asked that before!

May 15, 2013
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Comments: 1

  • Jay it means flotsam til death.... and they were and still are better than metallica and megadeth, just seen them with testament, the best show i have ever seen.. jason newsted got smart and left metallica.. would love to see him back with flotsam...
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