7 Questions with Kelly David Smith of Flotsam and Jetsam

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by Ryan Meehan

Flotsam and Jetsam, arguably one of the most influential and prominent acts from thrash metal’s birth in the early 80s, returned to Metal Blade Records to release their 2013 album, “Ugly Noise”. It was the band’s eleventh full-length album, and their first release on Metal Blade since 2001, as a follow up to their 2010 album, “The Cold”. The record also heralded the return of original members Michael Gilbert on guitar and Kelly David Smith on drums, who haven’t recorded with Flotsam and Jetsam since “High” in 1997. According to Smith, their decision to work with Metal Blade “was the obvious choice for us after our long-standing relationship and Metal Blade’s 30 year history of metal. You can’t match what they can do with 30 years of experience behind them.” The band has re-recorded their classicalbum “No Place for Disgrace” which is set for re-release on February 15th, 2014. Horns to that, and Kelly David Smith is our guest today in 7 questions.

RM: Could you briefly describe the Phoenix thrash scene in the early eighties? How did Flotsam and Jetsam compare to some of the other artists that were coming out of Arizona at that point in time, particularly Sacred Reich? In other words, what were some of the things that you were trying to do to make your band stand out when you started working with Pete and Dave and eventually when Jason Newsted joined the band?

KDS: I think that is the first time anyone has asked or mentioned Dave and Pete. At that time the local scene was bands like ICON, The Jetsons, Gentlemen After dark and Surgical Steel. Icon was the only signed band (Capitol) among us in 1981 – 83. After Jason joined the band in 1982, the music started to progress a bit, The stuff we were doing with Dave and Pete wasn’t quite where things were headed, there was actually another guy whom I hardly ever mentioned in the history of the band, Colin Daily was the first split from Pete and Dave and started to add classic rock to our repertoire. I had a couple friends I knew one whose brother I actually bought my first drum set from they had asked me if I knew Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Which was fairly new to my ears. I spoke to Jason, and Mark and Kevin joined the band. The way I looked at stuff at 16 – 17 years old was kill off the competition if you can. After AK joined we recruited Ed from a fairly known “high school” scene band called “Exodus” not the band you’re thinking of. We actually wanted the other guitarist but he turned us down. So one night with a bunch of alcohol and cocaine we partied Ed out of his band. Ed played his first gig after that in 5 days. That was 1983. Sacred was not formed yet but we were friends with them and had gone to parties and high school together over the years.  A couple of them were our road crew in the earliest days of Flotsam. Then they started to open for us, from there they followed us into Metal Blade. So at that point in time it was help a brother out and that felt good.  At one point there were 3 bands all practicing in the same complex, Sacred, Sepultura and Flotsam. Around 88-90.

RM: What can you tell us about the process of re-recording “No Place for Disgrace”? You’ve said that “the aim was not really to change but to enhance it with the opportunity with the use of new tools”…Other than that reason, why have you chosen to re-release a new version of that record in 2014?

KDS: There are a few reasons. In 2006 I was involved in the remix and master of our Classic DFTD. I was also out of the band for about 9 years at that point, but was still very dedicated to making that box set happen. Right after that is when the fans started to really come out of the woodwork asking for more. At first you just let it slide off your back as a fluke or fanatics, but it never stopped. As I started to look further into the process, I found in looking at royalty statements that the sales we almost nothing. I checked further on Ebay, NPFD was selling at high prices, as it had become rare. The labels were now falling into a conglomerate hole and at some point they just stopped pressing NPFD altogether. No one knows for sure when it stopped. Now because of the lack of sales we still had some debt owed to the label, which would need to be paid if we were to redo anything. Being as I was no longer in the active band, I just let that go. I had asked Metal Blade about this but there was a lot of grey areas and again, I felt that it was a Flotsam decision. In 2009 – 10, I was browsing Ebay to see what people are selling of Flotsam stuff, old shirts, I came across an almost replica of NPFD but the cover had a picture with Michael Spencer and it was called “No Place for Disgrace” Preproduction. I immediately got ahold of Michael to confront the situation. He had only made 100 of these and none were songs that were used on NPFD, so I let that go but he and I started talking again. He came out to see a Diamondbacks game in Phoenix and invited me to join him. It just clicked we talked all night about the past times and I made some amends and he as well and we shared about our families and I found a new friend. Fast forward 2011 I am asked to rejoin Flotsam. We start the UN process of writing. Once the writing was completed, Jason Ward still had a bad taste in his mouth from the way AK had executed Craig’s termination and that we had brought Newsted in to help with some lyrics. He decided to stay at home and opt out from the touring aspect of things. I understood, been there, done that. No harm no foul. He has a wife and a life outside of Flotsam and at some point you have to live there.  So we started 2013 with Michael Spencer to fill in on live shows until we could find a permanent replacement, at the last minute he wasn’t able to make it so a local fill in bassist to get the machine rolling.  After a successful Testament tour he departed. Michael had shown up at our last gig in Las Vegas after the bassist told us he was moving on. Seemed like it was good timing, or maybe just fate. He again was available to step in and started to fly out to Phoenix at first just to hang and see if the rest of the guys were good with it. From there is when the talk started about the line-up we had and No Place. Seemed like the right time. We did some digging and found that our contract 26 years old said we could re-record after 5 years…..UH WHAT? After the Ugly Noise Pledge Music campaign, it turned this into a no brainer. So after all that, here it is, ownership of rights, recirculation of a classic, reproduction to up the quality of the sound, classic line-up to make it all happen, lastly to feed the fans after 7 years of asking.

RM: 1) What was it like losing your bass player and main lyricist to the biggest band in the world at the time and 2) how did you guys deal with that moving forward? 3) Was it any easier having signed with the label Metallica was on at the time (Elektra) knowing that you were working in the same level of the music industry that Jason was in early 1987?

KDS: 1) We have been asked this question 1000 times it seems. From 1982 until Jason’s departure, we had lived through some pretty tough times and some pretty great times. We grew up together, stood behind each other, partied, cried, laughed and fought each other. During all of that there was always music as the score in our lives. Every band’s goal was to reach “Metallica” status. For one of our comrades to “Make it”, was it. Why else would any of us be doing this? We all want to “Make It”, every band in the world wants to be famous, with no wants unfulfilled. Just like any sports personality, we want to do something we love, be loved doing it and make a pile of cash. Jason was served the silver platter and he took it. We supported it 100%. I remember the first time I saw Metallica on the black album, I was in the snake pit with my father. I was weeping for him out of joy that he made it. Some of that was that I probably never would get to that status but I was so proud of how far he had come. I got to see a dream come true for someone I cared about.

2) Initially during the earliest years I took part in a lot of the business stuff prior to “The Dogz”. Jason slowly took things over as I got more lost in “the Party”. So in 85 the party stopped for me and I was awake again. Jason turned over the business end to me to handle on his departure. I made some calls to keep relations going that he already had going with Metal Blade, Elektra, Andy Somers so we wouldn’t lose those contacts, after all we were the first band to ever achieve a 6K in Kerrang. That meant something. We had previously met Michael Spencer as he had helped get us on a Megadeth show in Sacramento prior to Peace Sells release. He was the “Jason” in Sentinel Beast. Newsted had recommended Michael to play in his position. Phil from Sacred Reich had stepped in to help us cover some shows we had booked, but was already committed to Sacred and I believe Metal Blade was already in talks with them, so he was out. Mike Gilbert was the main writer for the most part always has been the overseer of tunes and main riff dude so there were no worries in that dept. Mainly wanted to just keep the momentum that DDFD had made for us.

3) Tricky question. It is a hard one to nail, at the time that happened it was already in motion prior to Cliff’s untimely death, so either way that is the direction we were headed in. Michael Alago was very into the band, he was the one who had signed Metallica, Metal Church to Elektra. We trusted his lead because his history was evident. Now the easier part, if you compare Metal Blade to Elektra back then. Many things there, MB had a smaller budget, less power as an independent label, less tour support, if any. Now Elektra big budgets, big press, big roster of bands, major responsibility to produce to stay on a major label not as much grass root feeding as MB was doing. Good bad or indifferent. We were 19 -21 in age and we were no businessmen, so EASIER, by no means, easier to ignore and let a manager or A&R take hold of the reigns yes because we were still not grounded in our purpose yet. The purpose for some of us was to build a lifelong career, some of us just couldn’t stop bringing the machine down with drug and attitude issues. So I can say more is not always better. Again Metallica was on its own level, us being on Elektra was just being on a major label, we were nowhere near a level of Metallica.

RM: 1) Why did you decide to leave the band after the release of “High”; and 2) was there any thought you had in the back of your mind that you would eventually return to Flotsam and Jetsam at some point? 3) How much of your decision to leave was due to the fact that Michael Gilbert was also planning to leave the group at the time? 4) Were you and Michael discussing this before your eventual departure?

KDS: 1) There were many reasons; First off when I got home from our last tour with Megadeth there was some stuff that happened during that tour that were defining moments for me between our Manager/TM that helped push me in that direction. Second, we had not been on an independent label since Doomsday at that point, we had really worked hard on Drift and too me that was our finest moment. After getting home from tour prior to recording High, I was ready to leave. There was a separation of sorts within the band as Michael and I were not the party type and more serious about our careers and then there was the rest whom were tied to our TM in the circle of drug addiction. The band was starting to slide off the rails in that respect. Stepping down in my opinion from a major to an independent was a loss of ground at the time in my mind. Alternative music had pushed metal out and the future looked grim for us. Third was I took a hard look at where we were and where I was. I had a 3 year old by this time that hadn’t seen a lot of me and when my divorce was done in 1993 all I had was a car from a friend who committed suicide and boxes. I was living with my father and over 25 grand in debt with no income in sight. It was decision time I had struggled a lot out on the road with being away from my son. I had hoped for a stronger return on Drift and MCA to make my life more stable. After being dropped, it was time to get a life to support my son and I.  He deserved to have that.

2) After I had left Flotsam I had thought of auditioning with Smashing Pumpkins when they lost the drummer, tried to get an audition through people I knew in the Q-Prime organization but later found out they never submitted me, “for my own good”. So I focused on getting my life in order got a career in the IT field, which I still use those skills today to do all the web and social media for Flotsam. I would talk to or see what Flotsam was doing as we were still friends and I would go to gigs when they played in town and sit in sometimes on a couple songs. Once I left, my thinking was until they ask for me, it is out of the question. Craig had earned his spot and I would never try to infiltrate that. If the band asked I would have to determine at that time whether it was a yes or no. So no I never expected to be back.

3) 4) Michael and I had spoken often of our unhappiness and where things appeared to be going. He probably would have stayed if I stayed, once I said I was leaving he made his own decision based on conversations he had after I made mine. I have never asked him directly.

RM: 1) In the fourteen years that you were away from Flotsam & Jetsam, how did you fill your time? 2) What was the most significant musical project that you were involved with during that period? 3) What was the hardest part about being away from the band, and 4) what was the hardest part about returning especially playing an instrument that requires such serious physical demands?

KDS: 1) I went to school to get certified in CIS and started to build a new life. Hung out with my son got married and divorced and married again – HA. Spent time with my family, buried some of them. Just did life.

2) There wasn’t any significant project other than the 2006 DDFD reissue box set. I tried to play with others locally but they always acted like they were in Led Zeppelin or something. Big headed nowhere bands that blew up eventually due to big headedness and stupidity. I am loyal in my heart to Flotsam just never felt right anywhere else.

3) The fans, being on stage.

4) Probably the learning curve as far as how things had changed business wise. Uncovering some of the damages caused while I was away that really IMO and later factually hurt this bands reputation and integrity. Trying to figure out a way to get this train back on the tracks the way it should have been. There was a certain mentality that was present. The element of this is just a hobby and someone else will take care of things. The practice ethics prior to a show were gone, there was no show. Band members would just fly in after months apart some not having played their instrument for months at a time just show up and hope to make it through. That isn’t who we were prior to my departure. So I had to figure out how to get the motivation back into the blood stream. I went through and removed a whole lot of you tube videos that were just not acceptable. Rebuild the website, restructure our public image. The hardest part which has made it really hard to go to places like Japan or Europe was when promoters would say not after last time. Based on what they did last time we aren’t willing to book them. Oli from KIT said he would only speak to Michael Spencer and no other. So there was a lot to overcome. I am not sure of the details didn’t ask and don’t care that’s over now. This upcoming tour is long over due and we plan to make it right again. Yes the physical demands took some time to work out but there is nothing stopping us now we are all ready and waiting to kill it live.

RM: 1) What’s the most significant difference between the way heavy metal drums were played on the records that you grew up listening to in the late seventies and some of what you hear now on the really extreme metal stuff? 2) Do you think it’s possible that some percussionists now subscribe to the misconception that faster always means better? 3) When does a track become “too fast” for the listener?

KDS: 1) Huge difference in technology for sure. Analog can be edited by cutting tape, which was a tedious task for an engineer over time especially if you suck at drums. As a kid listening and learning to play like Peter Criss or Neil Peart, Gerry Mercer, Phil Taylor. My understanding or perception was you get it in one take. You were lame if you didn’t. There were times before digital that we had to make an edit, which made me, upset. In fact one story for you, during tracking of Cuatro I was working on Never to Reveal. I had played it perfectly for 18 months. The middle of the song I do a riff back into the song after Gilbert starts it over. During that song I had a mental block which happens sometimes. After 10 or so tries and people suggesting I take a break, I took my snare and smashed it into the ground as hard as I could because I was so frustrated that I couldn’t get it right. Neil Kernon almost quite right there he was furious with me. Today’s drummers aren’t afraid to use triggers or Pro-tools to make up their parts or substitute their sound. I have never been a trigger guy; to me it’s cheating the art of drums. Might be good for use for on stage for in-ear monitors but not for anything else. You can’t judge skill when your triggers are doing all the work. I have heard the stories of many drummers you probably listen to everyday that took 9 months to record a record because they never actually sat down to play a note they programed it. Others do it in parts and paste it together. I am old school always will be. In general it has gone from music to extremes that at some points are ridiculous. If it doesn’t make you move, it’s lame to me.

2) Urban dictionary: percussionists 1) Someone who plays percussion instruments (i.e. Keyboards, snare, bass, tenors, timpani). Not someone who plays drumset (that is a drummer). A percussionist is well versed in all percussion instruments. By definition there isn’t many that I know in metal other than – Charlie Benante who is multi-versed and a writer of music not just drums. Now when speaking of drummers in thrash, speed is part of the make-up but…..It has to be done well and make sense or it’s just a fast drummer that is not making any sense. If the drummer is not into to a groove whether fast or slow – it makes the whole band suck. People want the energy and I hear some bands get this great groove and just when you catch it…they change and the whole vibe is lost. I think the great drummers and great bands do not need too play super fast because they understand the dynamics of music energy and how to make it translate. I can’t really speak for the crowd but that is my take on it.

3) I can’t speak for anyone else as far as when does someone else think a track is too fast. For me if it’s too fast it has no clarity and becomes a blob of sound that has no meaning or energy, I usually end up laughing my ass off because I can’t see why they would put something out and call it good. Also when it is constantly fast song after song, it becomes mundane and boring. It shows no versatility or skill. Like I said I am old school, shock rock has been around for years. Extremes sometimes just make you laugh a bit.

RM: I read that you use a DW/Zildjian setup…1) What does your setup consist of and what’s your favorite cymbal that you currently own? 2) How many toms do you have in place for live shows, and what sizes are they?

KDS: 1) I do use DW and Zildjian. I have a 7 piece electric turquoise kit. Only 6 are DW my snare is a 6 ½ x 14 Trick percussion snare with a die cast rim. I actually have 2. It is the loudest snare I have ever played and made of aircraft aluminum. I love them. Sound amazing. My DW’s I have had since 1992. I recorded Cuatro, Drift, Ugly Noise and the current reproduction of NPFD with them. I have had many complements on how they sound. When I left the music biz in 1997 I also left all my endorsements, I didn’t feel right when I wasn’t doing anything for them. I was very burnt. So as of today I have no endorsements I really don’t care at this point I have made some calls with no return call back. I get it, I love my kit although I would love a trick set when I get the cash. If the snare is that good the drums gotta kill. As far as cymbals I will always be a Zildjian guy no matter what. They were the first, I have been to the plant on a few occasions and I believe in their product. I have tried a few others but they can’t handle what I do to them. I have a 22” Z ride that I love. 2 – 8” splashes, 2 -19” Z crashes, an 18” crash, 16” crash and a 20” china.

Drums are as follows, 18X 22” Bass drum with a 9000 double pedal, 10X9 Rack, 12X10 Rack, 16X14 Floor rack mounted, 18X16 Floor Rack mounted. The outside shell covering is cracked in a few places and I have some stripped out lugs. The mutha rocks and takes a beating. Playing live the specs will change based on the gig. I don’t always take them with me sometimes I share aback line. In a festival situation you take what you got and kill it anyway, that’s what makes the difference in a drummer and a pro drummer, flexibility and adaptability.

RM: If you had to pick one thing about modern metal music that you absolutely hate, what would it be? Why do you think you find that aspect of the genre to be so irritating?

KDS: 1) Lack of identity, versatility, cookie monster metal singers. 2) BORING, REDUNDANT, there are 1000 bands that if you played them together you wouldn’t be able to tell when you changed bands. That is lack of ability and creativity. Reminds me of the mindless marketing of labels in the 90’s. If one band sounds good then every label would get one and just burn it into the ground. When I grew up there was a distinct variety in Metal, a distinct identity in a singer that you could tell in the first sentence who it was. It was about making good music not about extremes. There are hardly any “singers”, “vocalists”, today at all in Metal. For a couple reasons, free radio still defines anything with a distorted guitar as metal so people would say Volbeat is metal. Alice in Chains is metal. No, sorry – that’s hard rock or rock. Metal only gets played on Satellite or late nights on free radio when the execs are sleeping. Cookie monster metal has no singer. There is a select few that qualify because they are able to have melody in the way they do it.  Examples: Slipknot, System, Slayer, Metallica, Lamb of God and Pantera to name a few. Versatile in their range but just like when I was a kid they are all distinct and unique. I respect that.

RM: What’s up next for Flotsam and Jetsam in the year 2014? Anything big in the works that we should know about?

KDS: We are leaving for Europe on 2/7 to tour with old friends Sepultura and new friends Legion of the Damned and Mortillery, 29 shows across Europe. Then head back home for 3 days, then head out to Mexico City for Hell and Heaven fest. We are co-headlining Keep it True in April. That show will be recorded both video and audio which we will release later in the year. We have Out and Loud Festival, Into the Grave, Sweden Rock, Bloodstock and a few are still in the works. We will be playing shows around some of the festival in areas we didn’t hit on the Sepultura tour. Our goal is to do as much as we can. There is a lot of ground this band hasn’t covered and are goal is to get to as many places as will allow us to play. In the downtimes between shows and tours we will be putting together material for a new release hopefully late this year. This band has been very slow to produce in the past; we know fan attention span is short so the only solution is to keep pumping out the tunes.

Official Website: http://www.flotsam-and-jetsam.com/

Flotsam and Jetsam on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/flotsamandjetsam.official

Flotsam and Jetsam on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Flotztildeath

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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