Interview by: Marianne Jacobsen
MGM: Hey, Michael Spencer!
MS: Hey, how are you?
MGM: I’m doing well! It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and I live by the water, so life does not suck.
MS: Wow, that’s a triple winner there!
MGM: Way more than triple!
MGM: Ok, I’m here where are you? Arizona?
MS: Well, the band is based out of Arizona. I’ve kinda been a California boy my whole life, so…
MGM: You are Bay Area boy?
MS: Yeah, kinda. Close enough. I was born out here and my dad was in the Air Force. So, I’ve lived in England, Japan, Crete, Germany and then he just retired back here in California. At that time I just figured “Hey I was born here, I might as well stay here”. When I joined Flotsam and Jetsam in 1986 and then went to trade school…
MGM: What trade did you study?
MD: HVAC service tech. Heating and Air Conditioning!
MGM: That’s big bucks man good for you!
MS: Yeah, I’ve actually been a mechanical contractor and owned my own business for the last 14 years.
MGM: So, again this is showing that making music has to be for the love of the art not the money, yes? I call this the Working Man’s Era of music.
MS: Yeah, you’ve gotta have a passion to still be about to do it, whether you have a job or not. It’s one of those things that you don’t want to stop what you’re doing, if playing music is a passion. Being able to get on the road is one thing. So as long as you have time to book gigs and tours get put together, then it’s worth it.
MGM: I don’t believe in the Big 4 – I believe in the big 400. I think there are a lot of bands from that era of music that did not get the credit or attention they deserved because the big record companies weren’t behind them. Of course, that has all changed and now musicians are more free to decide how they want to do PR and media.
I think its exciting – for you guys you can represent yourselves the way you want to as true artists.
MS: The musical industry landscape has definitely changed.
MGM: I was told never to say industry to a musician because this is your art and when it becomes and industry it becomes exploited.
MS: I think that’s what Flotsam went through too as far as their direction of morphing into a different sound. You’ve got the record label influencing your writing or expecting a certain style of music and everyone was supposed to write the next “Black” album or whatever the sales pitch of the day is.
(Conversation goes into off the record; Jason Newsted discussion)
MGM: Do you feel that self titling the new album is almost a full circle statement for the band after 30+ years?
MS: It could be considered that. You could also take it from a full circle of just taking the “Doomsday”, “No Place” starting point – with that being the sound of the band that was introduced to the world. With a guy like me who played with the band in 1987 where we basically played all the songs off those two albums while we were touring and then you bring a guy like Jason Bittner in – who as a 17 year old kid was playing those songs in his bedroom. He’s been a Flotsam fan since he was a kid. To him and the rest of us newer guys in the band are saying “that’s our favourite era of Flotsam”. When we went to re-record “No Place” we were playing a lot of material from those first two albums live, before started writing music for the new album. We just kept that old school vibe growing and growing and it helped to make a natural transition to embrace that vibe and that sound because the goal wasn’t to force it. It just started coming naturally with us all writing songs that just fit along with what we are doing. It just felt good and looked at it as a whole new starting point which was the whole point of just keeping it a self titled album. It’s a new beginning of a legendary band that has made as statement. Nice fresh start with new energy, but embracing the legacy of the band.
MGM: Do you think that this new musical representation or ensemble of Flotsam and Jetsam? I use Megadeth as the example. I almost think that the rotation of musicians makes for a more diverse and interesting band to listen to from all of the different eras. Do you think the same thing can be said about Flotsam and Jetsam?
MS: Yeah. You’ve got the Newsted era then you have Troy Gregory albums which have a slightly different vibe. Troy is such a musical dude that – even beyond bass player. He’s a singer-songwriter, guitarist, piano player, he plays a ton of instruments – so you know, Troy is just so diverse. That ended up on some of the songs that they wrote where he’s doing pop and slap bass lines which you would think wouldn’t even be considered thrash thing.
We were very lucky with a label like AFM – they never told us how to do anything or what to do in the studio. All they did was hear 3 tracks and say, “We love it. Do your thing!”
MGM: With so many members over the years do you think that all the creativity has brought Flotsam & Jetsam to the place they are today?
MS: Yeah, at least with the nucleus of these guys. If you look at the creative element – primarily it was Gilbert with a little bit of Ed, as the musical direction. Before Jason left it was more of a Newsted/Gilbert kind of thing with Ed throwing stuff in there. Then it became a Gilbert and Troy, then Gilbert and Ward. There was always a bass player who would step in and Ed was always throwing in one or two songs per album in, but sort of the musical genius behind a lot of Flotsam’s direction has been Gilbert.
Then you have Jason Ward who did “Cuatro” and “Drift” – I think he might have almost wrote all the music in Drift – if I’m not mistaken. The band itself was going through a lot of frustration and Jason was going through a lot emotionally at the time with his brother committing suicide so he had a lot of things to say musically that he wanted to get out on the album.
MGM: What a beautiful cathartic way of expressing yourself.
MS: Yeah, it’s definitely a therapy session to have a voice to get out some emotion.
MGM: And a platform of people to hear it.
MS: Yeah, and people can relate to that stuff – especially when Eric’s lyrics are written that sort of touch on those subjects. Its kind of like getting away from the storytelling – “I Live You Die”, let me take you to another world type of lyrics – it went more into personal stuff. So you get away from that – which to me is a more of an old school heavy metal thing where the goal is to take a listener on a musical journey vocally.
MGM: Oh yeah! I love that music. I’m a Dio-child! First concert was Black Sabbath Mob Rules with Dio. Ruined me for all else.
MS: I saw that exact same tour in Davis, California!
MGM: Yes! Dio was a magical dude and we are very lucky to have experienced his genius in our lifetime!
MS: Very true.
MGM: Do you think that by members going off and pursuing other projects that upon return’ each member also bring new ideas and perhaps treasures they have learned while away to the band?
MS: I think any musician would be hard pressed to not have anything they do musically not affect them moving forward. Whether it’s just listening to the David Matthews Band or something. Or in my case, let’s just use Jamiroquai, a UK funk/groove band, as an example. As I’m listening to back to the song “Iron Maiden”, a few weeks after tracking it, it feels like I’m playing the bass line to “Time Won’t Tell”. There is a three note walk in bass line that the Paul Turner does in that song and there is no way anyone would know that this is a bassline from Jamiroquai.
MGM: Wouldn’t you say nowadays it’s almost impossible to mimic something by accident or chance?
MS: Like I said, everything has been done musically – the question is “What’s your intent?” You know, are you intentionally trying to knock off a tune? We actually were kind of concerned that “Iron Maiden” might get fans upset by that one song because it sounds like such an Iron Maiden song.
It was one of the first songs Steve Conley brought to the table – it had that Murray/Smith sound and so during rehearsals we nicknamed the song “Iron Maiden” before there were any vocals or lyrics to it just because we felt that it sounded like Maiden. However, once Jason started playing drums – it went away from being as Maidenesque, because Nikko McBrain isn’t a double bass drum player and Jason just RIPS double bass on that tune.
MGM: What do you think is the key to the longevity of Flotsam and Jetsam? You guys have been around in some way shape or form for 30+ years now…
MS: First of all, wanting to keep the Flotsam brand and name moving from lineup to lineup has been the important thing. AK has always been the anchor of the band. Kelly Smith and Gilbert left just after the “High” album – in came Mark Simpson which kept the machine going all the way until 2012. Everyone was moving out of the Phoenix area. Craig’s in Vegas and Jason’s in Chicago and that was when Kelly and Michael rejoined the fold.
MGM: I’m terrified of Vegas.
MS: Really? Vegas? That’s where I saw Iron Maiden this year at the Mandalay Bay Arena
MGM: What a great show though right?!? I’m very excited by the late bloomer editions as well as young fans that are checking out the metal scene and not feeling as intimidated by the experience as before. It’s gone from being scary to a family affair…I love it.
MS: Yeah, you go over to Europe and the guys are bringing their 13 and 14 year old kids to the shows and they are the ones in the mosh pit. When we were in Poland it was kind of cool when we did the Sepultura tour – right against the rail here are all these young people – which is that whole new generation where they actually are embracing that 80s thrash scene that exploded back in the day.
MGM: Like I said, there are so many other bands that actually carried that Bay Area thrash sound and never compromised. Like Testament, Death Angel, Exodus. Like, Metallica is from LA…has everyone forgot that? DID I SAY THAT OUT LOUD?
MS: Yes, you did. I don’t think that has ever been discussed in the media before though.
MGM: Ok, keeping that in mind we will save that discussion for when you come to Toronto – how’s that?
MS: Sounds good.
MGM: So tell me about the new album.
MS: The new album for the most part was tracked in 2015. We had it mixed by Chris Collier who has mixed Lynch Mob, Prong and KXM albums. When we were shopping for someone to mix the album to give us the sound we wanted, he quickly became our choice after hearing his test mixes. You could hear Jason cymbal work great. And because Chris is also a drummer – he sort of said “that’s the focal point of some of these songs”. So, people might think that the drums and bass are a little of front but he believes that the whole band should be heard, along with certain dynamics with bass tones or just where it sits in the slot of the mix with the drums.
MGM: Do you mean sitting in the pocket? It’s like the only musical term I know!
MS: Did you Google that just now?
MGM: No sir! I have been told that when the drummer and the bass player really connect they make a baby and it’s called The Pocket.
MS: Yes. It feels natural. You feel like you belong together you feel like you are playing without thinking. Especially, when you improv and stuff – unfortunately metal is not that well known for that. Like if Jason is trying some new things and we happen to do the same accents at the same time – it’s kind of a cool thing.
MGM: And it must be fun to have a partner in musical crime!
MS: Yep…we are the ones who make people move!
MGM: Ok last questions – and again thank you so much for your time: I find that a lot of bands that never got the credit they deserved are finally getting their day now. Are you looking forward to the future?
MS: Yes. Especially, with this album and the response that it’s gotten. Virtually every review has basically been the same thing. That this album is THE BEST, if not one of the two best albums that Flotsam and Jetsam has ever put out. The fans have been following suit once the album finally got released – the fans liked the journey that the songs took them on. You can tell that the album flows but there are three different songwriters putting the music together that it’s a good musical journey that we have tried to do with the sequence of the songs because they are so different at times. We tried to keep the listener engaged right off the top. We get a little epic with the first song. Then we shove metal down their throats with “Life is a Mess” which is a little more simpler, musically and more old school. So, allowing the album sequence to almost musically structure itself felt good, too. Also, it feels good moving into the future of the album hitting 192 on the Billboard charts – which is the first time Flotsam and Jetsam have hit the Billboard chart since the 90s.
MGM: Well I think this is long overdue. Welcome to it.
MS: We’ve got some decent tours coming up that I’m looking forward to.
MGM: WHEN ARE YOU COMING TO CANADA?
MS: Canada…ummm, probably be November or December.
MGM: Ok so we will see you then! Until then thank you so much and have a great tour!
MS: Thank you! Great talking to you and thanks for the support.