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About an hour later, Jamie re-emerges and continues translating "Handlebars" into French — in anticipation of a slate of shows in France — before cueing up DJ Shadow's recent remix of the hit single on the bus's P.A. system.
This is their afternoon.
"One of the most unbelievable things about becoming a national band is that people know who you are before you know who they are," Mackenzie says. "Going and talking to radio stations is really strange, because they have a relationship with you and your music already, and for them to care enough to want to talk to you and get to know you as an artist, you must be making some kind of impact over the airwaves."
It was that impact over the airwaves that first signaled to drummer Kenny O that the Flobots weren't in Denver anymore. "We had gone on a small tour to L.A., and the day that we were driving out there, we found out that they had added 'Handlebars' to the KROQ play list," he remembers. "We were driving around L.A. that night, and sure enough, our song comes on. I mean, that's arguably one of the biggest stations in the nation. That was a big 'Whoa' moment for me."
For Jesse, as calm and collected a character as I've ever met, it's "looking at shows a few months down the road and seeing gigs in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, London. That really blows my mind."
After a while, the energy from last night's mammoth show subsides and most everyone heads back to their bunks to crash. As the miles tick away, though, Jesse's thoughts turn to food. "Hey, Daniel, do you think we'll make it to the Applebee's in Kansas before it closes?" he asks the driver. Then pauses. "Wow, did that statement just come out of my mouth?"
The Applebee's in Kansas most likely will close before the bus arrives, so Jesse and I begin scouring the Internet for anything relatively decent and come up with a pizza joint in Goodland, Kansas, a quiet town off I-70 with a gigantic roadside easel depicting Van Gogh sunflowers towering over it. We shuffle off the bus and sleepily devour our dinner in this small-town pizzeria that offers pies in the shape of hearts. No other customers are in the place, and not many words are spoken as the sun begins to set outside.
The teenagers working the counter here in the middle of nowhere are polite. They wait till the Flobots finish to ask for autographs.
A short list of the organizations that members of the Flobots have either volunteered, fundraised or worked for in some capacity over the last few years includes: PeaceJam, Art From Ashes, Colorado Progressive Coalition, Denver Children's Home, Developmental Disability Resource Center, CodePink, Ethical Trade Action Group, Project Angel Heart, Veterans of Hope Project, United Church of Montebello, Faithtrek, Ambassadors of Hope II, United Church of Christ Regional Youth Conference.
As catchy as "Handlebars" is — which is all radio programmers probably needed — it's safe to say that the Flobots are a group of politically charged activists. Anyone who has given a Flobots song even the most cursory of listens can tell that there is a current of social consciousness and awareness running deep in the music. "Handlebars," for instance, questions the danger of unchecked political power:
My reach is global
My tower secure
My cause is noble
My power is pure
I can hand out a million vaccinations
Or let 'em all die in exasperation
Have 'em all healed of their lacerations
Have 'em all killed by assassination
I can make anybody go to prison
Just because I don't like 'em and
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command
These aren't the type of lyrics typically heard in a summer anthem. Ditto for "Same Thing," which culminates in a cipher between Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 as they name-check democratically elected leaders overthrown by the United States government and chant "Shut down Guantanamo Bay."
Stephen and Jamie became friends in elementary school, bonding first over their mutual love of reading and drawing comic books, and then over hip-hop. By the time they were in high school, a loose-knit collective of friends and fellow MCs were recording tapes under the name Flobots, but it wasn't until Jamie graduated from Brown University that he realized he really wanted to give music a serious try.
"I remember the exact moment I decided that I wanted to come back to Denver to do music," Jamie says. "I was working at Youth in Action in Rhode Island, and I was driving some kids home, and they were singing to 'Always on Time,' by Ja Rule and Ashanti, on the radio. They were singing every word. And I just remember thinking, 'What if that could be my voice coming out of the radio, talking about things that were important to people's lives?' That's the moment I realized that making music could be just as powerful as community organizing. Prior to that, I viewed music as a self-indulgent thing, something I enjoyed but that didn't contribute to the struggle. That's the moment I gave myself permission to try and make a music career."