Flotsam and Jetsam have had to struggle for every last scrap of success they've managed to wrench from the thrash-metal heap. And they've been together for 36 years (yes, 36).
Hailing from Arizona rather than the Bay Area or New York didn't exactly help their careers, but they chose to stay in the AZ out of love and respect for the state.
Here's a band who's devoted themselves to metal, as musical trends have come and gone—and when rock 'n' roll is no longer a kid's game—proving to be real-deal road warriors. They never struck it rich and almost certainly never will. They adore what they do, and that makes them a band. Flotsam and Jetsam are, officially, an Arizona rock 'n' roll treasure. And that ain't no slight.
Like any proper rock 'n' roll band continuing to count nickels while hammering the gauntlet, F&J has suffered numerous lineup shifts. For example, Singer Eric AK (real name Eric A. Knutson) joined back in '81 and is the sole survivor from the beginning. Guitarist Michael Gilbert joined in '84 but took an 11-year break between '99 and 2010. Similarly, bassist Michael Spencer originally jumped aboard the F&J train in '87, but left between '88 and 2013. Notable musicians have passed through the ranks, most famously Jason Newsted, who played bass on the first album, Doomsday for the Deceiver, before splitting his Phoenix buds in '86 to famously join Metallica. His replacement was Detroit's Troy Gregory, who has since played with The Witches, The Dirtbombs, and Prong. Only this year, drummer Jason Bittner left to join Overkill.
Before you call the combo a thrash-metal feeder band, remember that AK's attitude stays appropriately defiant. He's convinced his band is doing something important, and challenging. He's always been that way. It's why F&J have so far released 12 stink-free albums on heavyweight labels like MCA, Elektra and Metal Blade.
"I think we've evolved and changed on every record so far," the singer says. "Everything we've done is across the spectrum as far as the metal genre goes."
Rather that being a conscious effort to avoid the "Slayer trap"—that dreaded rock 'n' roll existence that sees fans demand the thing that they love over and over again—AK says the band simply writes and plays whatever it is they're feeling. Then they make a new record. (A working formula The Rolling Stones pretty much made up later in the '60s.)
"It depends on what we've been listening to separately," he says. "Every member in the band has always listened to completely different stuff from each other. When we mix it all together, it comes up however it comes up."
Yes, F&J's uphill battle has frustrated AK—you can almost hear it in his voice—but he's doggedly determined. While he'd love to have had more success, quitting was hardly an option. He wouldn't know what else to do. That fact makes him a musical force.
"I love to sing, for one thing," he says. "As long as there's singing involved, I'm good to go. But pretty much everybody I've ever had in this band has been in love with being up on stage in front of people, performing. The touring part of it is really a pain in the butt more than anything else, but that hour or so that we spend on stage makes it all worth it. That's a common bond that we've had with each other, and what keeps us going."
Still, having to teach songs to new band members, to create bonds with new colleagues, must be emotionally draining. As we speak to AK, he's searching out a new drummer, and his voice betrays fatigue.
"It's always best when you know who's in the band and who's gonna be in the band," he says with zero irony. "When you learn each others' personalities, quirks and you're alright with everybody—it's always nice to have that stay there. Right now, we're back to being a little unstable."
It's testament to AK's never-say-die attitude that Flotsam and Jetsam released one of it's best albums to date last year, taking the unusual step of self-titling the 11th studio effort. After a few years of experimentation, AK says this one's a crowd-pleaser.
"It kind of put us back to the point where we had a falling out with the rest of the world and the fans, meaning that we just kind of fell apart and started writing music that people weren't too sure about," he says. "All the weird records that we put out in the middle of our career, this kind of erased all of those and it seems like it should have been the fourth or fifth record."
Will the album mark a new beginning for Flotsam & Jetsam? Who knows. A "new beginning" might not even be possible in rock music anymore. Most likely, it'll be another quality but under-appreciated long-player listed on the band's respectable discography. Don't blame Arizona though. Despite the presence of like-minded bands—like, say, Sacred Reich and, later, Max Cavalera and Soulfly—Phoenix isn't quite a thrash-metal stronghold—despite myriad square miles of sweltering, desolate suburbia, the perfect breeding ground for such.
"There are some advantages to being a Bay Area band, for instance, or a New York band," he says. "You have other bands who have contacts they can go to and are buddy-buddy with. In Arizona, anybody that's from here doesn't have those contacts because we don't live in the same place where all the contacts are. [Living in Arizona] just hasn't given us the extra boost that you get by schmoozing with the right people."
More, the singer doesn't believe there's any great animosity between the Phoenix and Tucson metal scenes—despite years of undocumented rivalries between the music scenes. AK thinks the two metal scenes are pretty much identical.
"Great bands that need some kind of push or backing behind them," he says. "I'm assuming it's the same in Tucson. Always has been. Atrophy is a great band from there. It's always been neck-and-neck. It's an Arizona thing, not a city-to-city thing."
So when Flotsam and Jetsam return to Tucson this week, what can we expect? AK says the set will mix old and new.
"There are some songs that we have to play or people get mad at us," he says. "We'll throw some new stuff in there. It's really hard for us right now to come up with a cool new show of songs we've never played live because we're in the middle of writing, and we just simply don't have the time and energy to relearn songs that we haven't played forever. But we're definitely going to play all the classics and favorites."
When this tour is over, the band will be preparing for a run of shows and festival dates in Europe, before hitting the states for another tour. Then they'll be writing a new album and start the whole cycle again. And the next album will probably be great, but won't sell for shit. Such is this band's lot in life and such is songwriter's lot in life. And such is the life of an Arizona metal warrior like AK.