An exclusive in-depth Q&A with Jonny 5 of Flobots

An exclusive in-depth Q&A with Jonny 5 of Flobots

See also: Jonny 5's track-by-track breakdown of Flobots' new album, The Circle In the Square.

Jonny 5 is scaring folks in middle America. Literally. But while the Flobots frontman -- better known to folks around here by his government name Jamie Laurie -- has devoted the better part of his adult life to becoming a radical force for change, it's not his politics that are making folks in the heartland uneasy right now. At the moment, they're unnerved by the fact that he's been pacing back and forth -- in front of a bank, gesticulating frequently and excitedly, we imagine.

"Someone just mentioned that they seen you walking back and forth," says a barely audible voice in the background to J5, as he speaks via cellphone from somewhere in Iowa, on the day before his band's big gig tonight at the Ogden Theatre.

Can't really blame folks for being a little freaked out. To be fair, he is stationed in front of a bank, and has been since the band's tour bus came to halt nearby for lunch more than a half hour ago. Knowing Jonny, with that very intense, mystical thousand yard stare of his, though, he probably seems a little suspicious, like he's hashing out the final details of some well orchestrated plan. And while that's more or less what he's doing. It's not what it looks like, folks. Swear. No cause for alarm.

The Flobots frontman isn't laying out some sort of felonious plan worthy of raising the terror level. Rather, he's discussing his band's forthcoming record, the eagerly awaited follow-up to 2008's Fight With Tools. Recorded last year by Mario Caldato Jr. at the Blasting Room over the course of three weeks, Survival Story marks the first new music Flobots have written and recorded since Tools was finished nearly three years ago. Originally released independently, the album was reissued by Universal, the act's imprint, virtually untouched -- an infrequent occurrence in this industry.

Mere months after releasing the album on their own, Flobots were snatched up by Universal and thrust into the limelight, on the strength of "Handlebars," the group's smash single. After Tools was reissued nationally in 2008, Flobots then spent the better part of that year on the road stopping back at home only long enough, it seemed, to perform a once in a lifetime gig with Rage Against the Machine and the Coup at the Coliseum during the Democratic National Convention -- after which, the groups then lead a veterans march of 7,000 people downtown from the venue.

Talk about having all of the stars aligning for you. An ideological -- and, to some extent, a sonic -- heir to Rage Against the Machine, Flobots came to prominence at exactly the right time. Here was a band that -- on paper at least -- was playing a seemingly dated style of music (hybrid hip-hop), whose cache had all been buried along with Limp Bizkit. What's more, it was infused with undeniably political overtones.

As it happens, though, the timing was perfect. Flobots came along armed with a timely activist message during the most emotionally charged political era our existence, when one of the most high profile elections in history was ultimately decided in their hometown, a city where the DNC had just happened to pick to host its annual convention. (Yeah, seems scripted doesn't it?)

Which brings us to now. The band spent all of last year simply being musicians, living back at home, reconnecting with their roots and making new music. Survival Story, among other things, tells the story of Flobots whirlwind experience and how it effected their lives. We caught up with Jonny 5 and asked him about how the band has grown as people and as musicians since releasing Tools and what we can expect from the new album, which comes out this Tuesday, March 16.

Westword (Dave Herrera): Tell me about the new record. The last record Universal essentially re-released what you guys had already recorded. So this is the first chance you've had to record songs since this whole experience happened. Not to mention, a lot of things have changed politically and socio-politically. How has that impacted the new record?

Jonny 5 (aka Jamie Laurie): You know, it was an entirely new experience, pretty much in every possible way. Before, we had to slip in songwriting between our day jobs, and this time it was our day job. That alone was something that we were just kind of in constant disbelief -- wait a second; we wake up each day and we go to the studio and write songs together? That was really the second half of the dream come true.

The first half having your day job be to go on tour. You know, last year we were almost never home. We began to think we didn't live anywhere. This past year, we were in Denver pretty much the entire year, with the exception of a month when we out with Rise Against in the month of November. It was great. We got to reconnect with family and friends.

And we got to all the sense of victory from the first album -- that in many ways felt like a collective victory from all the different folks in the community that had supported us all along the way -- we got to take all those stories and those perspectives and have it really inform our work.

I mean, whether it was people at someone's church -- one of the songs, "Superhero," comes from a story where, at Mackenzie's church, there's a lesbian couple in which one of the women was not allowed in the delivery room because she wasn't actually the official spouse. So stories like that fed the album tremendously.

And the third thing, as you mentioned, the political situation is entirely different. I mean, 2006 and 2007, when we wrote Fight With Tools, it felt appropriate to play off this idea of slogans. We kind of needed slogans. I mean, everybody was using slogans. It was important. It was important to say, 'Wait a second; let's not keep going in this direction. Let's go in this other direction. Everybody rally, and we'll go in this other direction.'

This past year was one where, fine, we decided on hope and change. What does that mean? Let's get down and dirty into the crevices and cracks about the hard work and the contradictions and the hypocrisies and frustrations and exhaustion that can come after the sense of victory. So we applied that, obviously, not just to the political situation but to our album itself, kind of our story, and said, 'Let's get more personal. Let's share a little bit more of ourselves, as people, and not just as ...' I don't know, quasi icons or whatever we were. So we really tried to do all of those things, and it felt like a very, very natural progression.

You always work toward something like that as a band [getting signed] and you always push to get to that level. But it really kind of happened quickly for you guys. You released your album on your own toward the end of 2007 and by February of the next year, you had a deal with Universal. It usually doesn't happen that quickly. Also, typically you sign to a label on the merits of your independent release, and from that point, you go and record a new record. So were you a bit surprised that they wanted to release the record as is?

Yeah, but I think we held our ground pretty firmly right from the beginning, and I think they sort of knew that: Okay, this isn't a band we're going to take and package in the studio. This is a band that has, at the very least, this one single that's doing really well. Let's take them as is. I think it was a strategic move on their part to accept us, because they realized that we were going to be difficult if they didn't.

And that has proved to be a very good thing. That first year, there's some things that we just held the line on, things that maybe now we'd even be flexible about, but I think we just all felt it was really important. We'd never done this before, and we wanted to make sure we were keeping our integrity. So we held the line on a number of things and were sort of difficult, and, I think, got a little bit of a reputation of, you know, don't mess with us on anything artistic.

I think that served us well this past year when we've been willing to say, 'Okay, you know, we don't feel as intensely about these things as we used to.'

What sort of things were you holding the line on?

Early on, they asked if we'd do a remix to "Handlebars" that would be format-friendly, and we just said, 'No. We don't want to do that.' The song was so new, and -- I don't know -- it just rubbed us the wrong way. So we were like, 'No, we're not going to do it that way.' Now if there's a producer we'd like to work with, if there's someone like DJ Shadow, that would be cool.' So we ended up doing that. There is a "Handlebars" remix done by Shadow. So it was more just us saying, 'Let's do these things on our terms,' which is still where we are. But when you look at the scheme of things and how many remixes and crazy little b-sides exist, the stakes are a little bit lower now.

I think we also got enough of a feel for the way the game works, and now we can be proactive. Now we have in mind, 'Oh, they might want a remix of this. They're going to want some b-sides. They're going to want some posters. There might be a TV ad.' So we told them in our last meeting, 'Look, now we know what you guys need, we can start being proactive and make it on our own terms and have it kind of ready for you.'

Stuff like that was just an educational process. It was right of us to be suspicious and to be cautious, and we learned some things from it. It's taken the working relationship to a really good place. So now they're really excited. We didn't do anything with song lengths when we wrote them; we just thought about what the song needs.

So I think they were surprised to hear that, like, 'Oh, no, we'd be open to, if there's a song that might work really well as a single, we'd be open to editing it. Not for the album. For the album, we're leaving every song as long as it needs to be. But we want our songs on the radio, too. So we can do a radio edit.' So I think they were like, 'Oh, really? You guys aren't going to be difficult? Okay! Cool!'   The fact that this whole thing happened so quickly, is there things that you would have done differently on Fight With Tools, given the chance? I mean, were you a bit surprised that it was released as is, or was that by design?

That was by design.

So everything that was on that record was exactly what you intended for your major label debut to be?

Well, I don't think we were thinking in terms of a major label debut. Fight With Tools, we began working on it in early 2006, just with the idea that we should make a really good, solid album, and this will help boost us as a Denver band. I don't think when we made that that we had any idea that it would be what it was.

Had you known that was going to be the way that the world was introduced to you, are there things that you would have done differently?

No. What I've learned from making albums in the past is that you're always -- as you're finishing the album -- going to feel 90 percent proud and 10 percent a little anal retentive about changes you'd like to make. And that's a good place to be. And that's how I still feel.

What happens is you have a few months where you're so close to it that you're like, 'Ah, I'd like to change this and this and this' -- and they're tiny little details no one cares about. And then seven months later, you've moved on. You're a different place in your life, and you look back at the album and go, 'Oh, yeah, that was that time period.'

What about "Handlebars" being the thing that everybody knew you from? At some point did that get sort of wearisome like, 'Oh, you're that 'Handlebars' band'?

I'd say "Handlebars" is kind of like your first kiss. I don't know, maybe there's things that are awkward about it at some point, but you're just eternally grateful that it happened. We know we're way more than "Handlebars," and all of our fans know that we're more than "Handlebars."

But it's exciting just to have a song that helped catapult us to that level. The kind of hardcore fans will complain about the other fans that only know "Handlebars," and I think that's the way any band is. Fans are always trying to out do each other.

Do you feel like the fans still maintain that same level of dedication? Are you still seeing that on the road?

Absolutely. These two shows here and then the ones in November have been a lot of fun because there's these really faithful folks that come out. They're genuinely good people, and they're doing good stuff in their community. It's just really inspiring.

So is it safe to say that you have the same amount of momentum that you had when the record was going strong?

Absolutely. It's these hardcore folks that really propel us forward. We had a show in California in Fresno, and there was this guy. I just saw him as this energetic kid that's just going all crazy in the front row.

Talked to him afterward, and he described himself as an at-risk youth who was in college, at a community college, and not headed in the right direction. And then he heard our album and decided to start an environmental club on campus and start composting around town.

He was doing all this amazing stuff that he attributes in part to being inspired by the CD. Someone like that, you cannot overstate the effect that they have on you, as a band, and the social impact of an album. It's humbling to hear that your music can mean that much to somebody.

So what are the biggest things you've learned from this whole experience? If this ended tomorrow, what are the biggest things you've learned from the opportunity to get your music to the masses?

I learned really to trust our instincts. "Handlebars" was a song that we knew had traction. This new album, as we've been trying to figure out the singles, there's probably nine of the songs, at some point, sure that it was a single. And the fact that that's three-fourths of the album that we think is single-worthy is just really exciting. So we trusted our instincts the last time, and this time, we're just really excited for people to hear it.

I think we've grown so much as a band. All of our November shows, you expect people just to want to hear the old songs. You expect people to want to just hear the songs they know. And at every show, people would come up afterward and say, 'Yeah, man, these new songs show so much growth.' My answer's always like, 'Well, they should. You know, we did have a year of doing nothing but being musicians.'

But I think they really do. It's a whole new level. I think that's what's most exciting. You know, we're six people. We picked the hard way, as far as songwriting. We picked a route where the six of us are all contributing equally, and really, really valuing each other's opinions and pushing each other -- which can be really frustrating and can be really hard. Just to say, you know, 'We're all authors of this song.'

I think it would actually be easier if it was six actual cooks in a kitchen. I think the metaphor is easier than the implementation. So I don't know. I think the songs are really pretty sacred to us because we did pour our blood, sweat and tears into them, and make them a real reflection of the six of us, as people.   Years ago, when I first wrote a feature about you guys, you shared this unique strategy that you had implemented for handling inner band conflict and that sort of thing. It involved going to a retreat in the mountains and essentially locking yourselves in a room, forcing you to communicate with each other. How big of an impact did it have on you when you were sort of thrust into this whirlwind experience? Imagine you far better prepared to handle conflict at a greater level?

It's really helped. Like in "White Flag Warrior," we talk about innovations that need to be made in peace making. We need to sort of put our money where our mouths are, both individually and as a society. We have to invest in the skills of peacemaking, and treat it as a legitimate skill. That's what we've done. I mean, there's a group called the conflict center on 44th and Tejon, and we've asked them to give us some communication tools that we can use.

So for example, there's sort of a rule: If you find yourself talking to another band member about a third band member, don't let that go on for too long. You can vent for a second, but then say to the person, 'Okay, are you going to try to talk to them about it?' And then we do, and it helps. You know? So you avoid triangulation. You avoid having this stuff building up.

It's critical on tour because you're always around each other. It's even more critical in the songwriting process, because not only are always around each other, but you're also making yourself vulnerable every day by placing your opinions and your art out there.

And we're kind of all demanding that we're critical. So you spend months dealing with getting negative feedback -- or the threat of negative feedback, because you're not playing shows and getting that instant gratification of an audience applauding you -- and it really can wear on you. So we have to be mindful of giving each other positive feedback, and just being kind to one another.

We are the people that we're around each other the most. That's why the title [of the new record, Survival Story], even though it came towards the end of the process, really felt reflective of not just the political situation or the thematics, but just where we are, as a band, with each other.

What are the thematics?

It's a theme that I think kind of appeals to people on a surface level but we really realized that we do attract these diehards and fanatics, and we wanted to give people -- when they dig deeper, people have dug very, very deeply into Fight With Tools, and really kind of internalized those lyrics. We didn't realize how much that was going to happen. We didn't know this album was going to go out on the national platform like this.

Now we do, so let's make the most of it. And so, Stephen [Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit] and I spent hours and hours mapping all these cross references in songs and kind of burying treasures within the songs that when people look, they're going to find this little kernel of a story that then relates to another one. Have you ever read any [Jorge Luis] Borges? His stories will have these little hidden cross references. One story is kind of an allusion to a novel that doesn't exist. We took inspiration from that.

So when we say 'story,' there really is a story hidden behind the themes of the album. And the story is one of survival, but it's kind of mythology of what's going to happen in the next few years. What's going to have to happen in order for people on the planet to survive, given all the different limits to resources.

But on the other hand, the way we were looking at it was just how much kind of doomsday energy is out there. There's just this fascination with death energy in movies and Hollywood and religion. Everyone is kind of getting excited, subconsciously, about the world ending, with some calamity just finishing us off and eliminating our problems.

We were like, 'Well, that's not very healthy. That's not a good fixation for everyone to have.' And even reading about within the global warming messaging, I saw this memo that people were writing within the movement saying, 'We have to stop doing this. This actually isn't the way our brains work. By painting the picture of the worst possible scenario, what happens is people start to envision that as the only possible scenario, and then we just subconsciously work towards that.' And so they say, 'We've been doing ourselves a disservice by painting this picture. We need to paint the other picture.'

So something like the Transitions Initiative gets all these different cities excited about converting to renewable energy. You have to get people excited about composting about urban gardening, and show what that looks like. So we thought, 'Let's tell a survival story. Let's be theatrical and dramatic and everything else, but let's tell the story of survival, of how we pushed back the waves and we discovered Atlantis. We learned to live in these new ways.' So we saw this sort of as the antidote to that poison out there.   So that explains the significance of the album artwork with the big wave and the guy standing beneath it.

That tsunami and that kind of desolated scene -- of course, all drawn by Jonathan Till -- is a way of saying, 'We're going to send a white flag into that story.' And if you notice it kind of looks like he might get overtaken, but he's confident and courageous and he's not backing down. So it's kind of this metaphor versus metaphor thing there. We send this white flag warrior in to engage the situation, and you can't tell what happens, but it says Survival Story, so the presumption is that guy must survive. So he faces this negative infatuation and survives.

Was it a big issue with the label -- I'm assuming it wasn't -- to have Jonathan do the artwork?

This entire creative process -- maybe because we established ourselves as really being protective of our creative decisions -- there was nothing ... I mean, the entire album writing process, we put a bubble around ourselves. We said, 'Look, the six of us are the only ones we want to listen to right now. That's enough people.'

We did not want to know and we did not ever know what the label thought of any of the songs -- or even what our manager or anyone thought. We didn't want to hear from anyone besides the six of us until we'd written all of the songs and recorded them with Mario [Caldato Jr]. And we didn't even want to know positive feedback. Because we didn't want them saying, 'Oh, we love this song,' and then have it split the band, where we start doing this weird reverse psychology: 'Well, if they like that, then we should do more songs like that.' We knew whatever opinion we got, it might mess with us.

So you literally just turned in the album as is, and didn't go back and change any of it?

I mean, in the mixing process, we were tweaking things for a number of months, but it wasn't tweaking -- we gave them the songs and said, 'These are our songs.' And Monte [Lipman, president of Universal Records] knows we're a sqare peg. Even "Handlebars," at first, people didn't think that was a song that was going to go on a radio station. We just kind of reminded them that even then, that song did really well, and it wasn't something you'd expect.

So did you guys choose to work with Mario, and why?

Yeah, yeah. He seemed like he would be someone that ... We weren't even sure that we wanted a producer, and then we started thinking, 'Okay, who would work? Who's someone that we could envision working with? And so we thought, 'Well, look, he's worked with Beastie Boys, Beck, Ozomatli -- these are bands that do straddle the hip-hop live music spectrum, in a really respectable way.' We thought it would be cool to be associated with that.

At first, we didn't want a producer. And then we said, 'Well, if we had a producer, what would we want him to do?' Really, we just want him to record -- to bring out the sounds of the songs we'd already written. That's what we ended up doing. We had written everything before we'd even met Mario. And we took three weeks in the Blasting Room, basically a song a day, working with him.

He was really laid back. He would try to bring out the best in each song. He would say, 'Okay, you don't need to do any more takes. You've got some good takes already.' He's all about vibe. Some of us would get so focused on our own part that we think every little detail needs to be perfect. Like we think it matters, and he's like, 'That doesn't matter, man. What matters is the vibe, and you had the vibe.' It was kind of funny how he could be so laid back and have such a positive effect on the process.

What do you think ultimately he brought to the album?

That's a good question. I think it was just an overall sense of the big picture. Like song by song, what does the mix need. During the mixing process, he was incredibly important, saying this is where the spotlight needs to be here and this is how everything needs to fit together. It's hard to describe exactly what he brought to the process, but it's hard to imagine having done the album without him.

Mario recently mixed One Day As Lion, Zach De La Rocha's project. I gotta imagine that you grew up listening to Rage Against the Machine and holding them in a high esteem. What was it like performing with those guys at the DNC?

For me, personally, the moment was marching next to Zach and Tom [Morello] behind the veterans but in the front row holding the banner. That was quite a moment. I was really blown away by Zach's spirit. I mean, he had reporters and fans constantly coming up to him, either for an interview or an autograph, and he just said, very respectfully, every time, 'Hey, man, this is about the veterans. I'm just going to march right now. Hey, this is all about the veterans. I'm just going to march -- just over and over and over.

He was so respectful to them, to the people asking, but also to the event itself, not making it about him.   Describe that day to me. I remember talking to you guys in the parking lot just before the show, and you had kind of this nervous energy.

That day, I just recently watched, like, a video montage of that day, and it really brought me back to how much that was a culmination of so many things for us. I think what was incredible was there was a sense that every single person there was playing such a key role and such a different role.

I mean, our manager helped that event happen in so many ways behind the scenes. It was really inspiring that he was doing that. I felt like we, as a hometown band, was playing our role. And it would have never happened without Rage, because they financially supported the whole thing and then came in and were Rage.

And then just the fact that we all pulled off a 7,000 person march, that everyone was saying was going to be riotous. And it was completely peaceful, so much so that the police -- it was not a permitted march -- but the police ended up helping to guide the march, not only allowing it but basically escorting it. It just showed the power of a group of people who are unified and very clear about their intent.

And then, I don't know, Boots Riley [The Coup] stayed at my house that night. He more than anyone, played a key influence on my life. And I didn't even allow myself to react to that until two days later because I wanted to be normal around him. You know, we went out for sushi. I just blocked it off. 'We're just having sushi together. This is just me and Boots have sushi.' We went to the immigrants rights march the next day.

I don't know, just to see this flag bandannas -- people were starting to wear these bandannas from our album cover. What the hell do those things mean? Like, what do mean by those? I don't want to just look like minutemen. So Stephen and I had a long talk, like what is all this about? This was before the "Rise" video. We concocted this whole plan. You know, we have to imbue these with a meaning that we're comfortable with.

He and I cook up crazy ideas all the time, and half of them happen and half of them don't. We had a spread sheet of twenty things we wanted to do. And looking back, every single one of those things happened. The "Rise" thing happened how we wanted, and we had a website, AmericaWillBe[.com], that showed bandannas on different historical figures. We had a T-shirt that we wore on Leno to direct people to that website. We had that become sort of emblematic in the march with all these different folks with flag bandannas. And then, of course, the march itself.

There's a line in your new bio that mentions American flag bandannas made in China. What's the significance of that?

Part of the plan was well, maybe the label will pay for the bandannas as part of the "Rise" video, and then we can use all of the excess for other stuff and hand them out. And so, when they made them, of course, they ordered them from the cheapest source, and we we're like, 'Oh, yeah, right. We should've probably thought of this.' But to me, it's almost metaphorically appropriate that anything United States is made in China. There's this complex relationship between the United States and China. So I'm the type of person that likes to point out any irony that's there and face up to it and deal with it.

It also seemed like a very subtle dig at yourselves and your movement, saying we're aware of the irony of this, but we're also using it as a tool to implement our ideas.

For a while, I was sort of afraid that it would be like a 'gotcha' item out there. But the truth is, anyone who ever tries anything, there's always annoying people that will come around. Let's say someone's a socialist; someone goes, 'Oh, hey, you're a socialist? Are you selling your book for money?'

There's times when that stuff is valid, but anyone who aspires for something -- especially if it's a comprehensive change in how we live or how society is organized -- you're never there already. You always have to go from here to there. So I think those things are important. I don't pretend -- and I don't think anyone else does -- that anything we do or anyone else does is a perfect, finished product.

Things like our album, for instance: We wanted to have the lyrics in there, but we wanted to have eco packaging. So we went with Eco packaging. And we're going to put the lyrics online. The new album doesn't have the lyrics. But we tried to make it special with some weird, cryptic things on the packaging. So obviously it's important to make choices moving forward that are inline with your values.

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