The Flobots rise and shine
One-thirty in the afternoon on a blistering Monday in late July, and the Flobots are hardly forming like Voltron. The tour bus was supposed to leave from this Save-A-Lot off Federal Boulevard at 12 p.m. sharp to make it to a gig tomorrow night in Dallas as part of the group's national tour, but it's nowhere to be seen and we're still missing several bandmembers.
On tour, it's a lot easier. Head down to the lobby, hop on the bus and they're out. Oftentimes, the band will board the bus immediately after a show, simply grab some shut-eye and wake up ready for sound check in a new city. But the late arrivals this morning, the prolonged goodbyes of being at home, upsets the pace of things.
"I could tour for months on end with no problem if we didn't stop back through Denver," says Jamie Laurie, aka Jonny 5, one of the Flobots' two MCs. "On tour it's like you're sleepwalking; you're on autopilot. But when you come home, you're reminded of all the people you're not seeing, the life that you were living before, and it feels a little weird."
So weird that Jamie chose not to sleep at the apartment he shares with bassist Jesse Walker the previous evening, opting to crash at his dad's house instead. Something about the stillness of the apartment, the backed-up mail, just felt odd. Denver was just a pit stop this time around. The Flobots played the inaugural Mile High Music Festival, performing in front of their largest crowd to date, a throng estimated at 10,000 to 15,000, and now they're back on the road. Almost.
At about 2 p.m., the bus — a battle-tested road warrior — finally pulls up, and the band loads equipment and luggage with Tetris-geek efficiency. Parents and grandparents look on proudly, snap photos and wave as the bus departs. The whole thing feels reminiscent of camp. Then again, maybe that's because I went to camp with some of these people.
Jesse, 28, and I have been friends since we played recreational soccer together in City Park, and I went to elementary school with MC Stephen Brackett, 29, aka Brer Rabbit. Jamie, 30, and I went to East High School together — I can still remember listening to a song of his, "Angry White Male," about affirmative action, from back then — and I met guitarist Andy Guerrero, 27, as a teenager. I've been following the band since its first handful of performances — at Herman's Hideaway, the EP release at Bender's Tavern — and in the past few years, I've gotten to know viola player Mackenzie Roberts, 24, and drummer Kenny Ortiz (Kenny O), 38, pretty well, too.
And it's strange to watch your friends get famous.
I experienced the whirlwind of buzz around the group after the single "Handlebars" worked its way into rotation on KTCL/93.3 FM and relished the excitement of hearing my friends on the radio. I knew they had a good sound, but I could never have predicted how fast their socially conscious brand of hip-hop would take off. Neither could they. But when Universal Records signed them last March, things went into fast-forward; the band was suddenly so in demand that I only got to catch glimpses of how their lives were changing: the occasional phone calls about being wined and dined by the head of a label, strange run-ins with bizarre celebrities like Kiefer Sutherland and Joe Pantoliano, who "loved that one song 'Handlebars.'" It all sounded glamorous and amazing, and the accolades were adding up: appearances on Carson Daly and Jay Leno; "Handlebars" working its way to number ten on the iTunes hip-hop chart; the corresponding video on MTV; articles in Rolling Stone. It was surreal.
But seeing it firsthand on the bus is even more so. (My mere presence on board had to be cleared through the proper public-relations channels.)
The Flobots have been touring non-stop since May — they were signed for a healthy sum that allowed all of the bandmembers to quit their day jobs and dedicate their lives full-time to music — and the two black leather couches at the front of the bus have morphed into a sort of mobile Flobots World Headquarters. Mac laptops are brought out, and new press clippings are shared among the band, as well as with driver Daniel Kellner, a 24-year-old former safety-bus driver at the University of Colorado who converted this Greyhound into a tour bus, and Casey McDaniel, a former soundman for Tim McGraw.
Jamie's cell phone rings as the bus makes its way toward the Kansas state line, and he heads to the back to field an interview for a Fox outlet. He can be heard murmuring about his experience protesting the World Trade Organization as he disappears into one of eight bunks.
In anticipation of their European tour, which begins in early September, a U.K. music television station needs the Flobots to make a top-ten list of their favorite videos by tomorrow, so members of the band huddle around a wireless laptop in shifts to compile videos, adding Pharcyde's "Drop" and Busta Rhymes's "Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check" to the list. In between, Mackenzie and Andy answer fan e-mail — one from a young woman in Louisiana who's confident that the group and her daddy can work out a price to have the Flobots play her Sweet Sixteen.
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."
Jamie moved home, and slowly but surely the Flobots came to be, incorporating such eclectic members as Mackenzie, a classically trained violist, and guitarist Andy. But for such a varied group of musicians, it was hard enough having the music meld into a coherent sound, let alone a progressive vision.
"I'm coming from a place where I really wasn't part of that world," says Andy, a staple in the Denver music scene who, until he began touring full-time, fronted the funk band Bop Skizzum. "I'm still not an expert. But I was one of those people who was afraid to ask questions because I didn't want to sound stupid. Jamie is someone who helps you get over that fear, who encourages you to engage politically."
"Handlebars" has been called Eminem meets Cake, but in reality, the Flobots' sound is one of those genre-defiers, a Gorillaz, a Gnarls Barkley, an OutKast or Rage Against the Machine. And as the Flobots continued to hone that sound, so, too, did they hone their vision of activism. By the time they released their LP, Fight With Tools, they already had a nonprofit aimed at recruiting fans to participate in community activism.
"I felt like there was more that could be done," Stephen explains. "If you're up there really getting these kids hyped, you should point them to what's next, where to channel that energy constructively."
But while they were busy figuring out what, exactly, to point those kids to and the best means to do it, their music blew up. Recruiting fans to register voters at shows and teaching music classes at Denver Children's Home was suddenly not an option. They had signed with a major label. They were no longer Colorado's secret.
"It was amazing how fast it all happened," comments Carol Mehesy, executive director of www.flobots.org, the band's nonprofit.
Mehesy met the Flobots while she was working with PeaceJam, the educational peacemaking program that brought ten Nobel Laureates to Colorado in September 2006. They stayed in touch and began discussing the notion of a Flobots nonprofit in February this year. By April, Mehesy was running it.
Almost from the get-go, she's been playing catch-up.
"I think there was this pent-up demand for the message they were providing, that we are headed in the wrong direction and that change is possible and that getting involved to make that change is the way to go," she says. "The goal of the nonprofit was to translate the energy the fans feel at shows into action. But when the band went to the scale that they did, our challenge really became trying to match that."
"From day one, we have been in this position where we had the momentum and the people," comments Seth Donovan, who coordinates groups of Flobots "street teams" around the country. "I came and sat down with Carol Mehesy, and she said, 'Okay, we have 2,000 people waiting to be organized.' I couldn't believe it. Usually a job is building momentum. Here we had all this momentum already built. The goal became harnessing that energy while building a sustainable template to work with."
The website www.fightwithtools.org, which is a social-networking site for Flobots fans willing to work to effect change in their community, has become that template. Using the site, Donovan helps steer new members to street teams in their area or to create new ones. But rather than hang posters or hand out fliers, like street teams for other bands, Flobots street teams participate in WATS sessions (Wake up, Activate, Transform, Step up) and are then sent out into the community.
Voter registration has been the focus of the program thus far, and in the Denver area, 132 street team members have registered more than 1,000 voters.
When voting registration closes after October 5, Flobots street team members will participate in a partnership with Let Us Rise, a Colorado campaign designed to create independent, positive visions for communities — the goal being to turn young leaders into listeners before attempting anything too broad. At the end of the year, the national Fight With Tools conference will take place in Denver, where new, potentially geographically specific goals will be determined.
And the Flobots army will be unleashed anew.
"The concept of connecting fan bases with social-justice work is not a new idea," Donovan says. "But the way we are doing it, on such a mass scale and with a social networking site, is."
Backstage at the House of Blues in Dallas, the Flobots are sound-checked and waiting for the show to start. So is Doomtree Collective, a Minneapolis hip-hop troupe that has opened for the band on the last ten or so tour dates.
The pairing has proved mutually beneficial. In a musical landscape where the Flobots are consistently painted as "alternative," having an underground opener signed to the much-respected Rhymesayers label offers a certain amount of hip-hop street cred. For their part, the members of Doomtree get to open for a headliner with a bona fide radio smash and have the chance to perform in front of large crowds that would normally never see them. But beyond the merits of this arranged marriage, the groups seem to genuinely get along, and laughter bounces off the green-room walls as the groups catch up and shoot the shit.
On his laptop, Jamie shows me some new material he's been working on. One track, "Werewolf," is completely in Spanish; the other, "Make It Change," seems perfect for a mixtape, aggressive in nature with extremely sharp wordplay. A few lines in particular stand out:
We're from the Rocky Mountains
Somehow the spotlight found us
We hold up mirrors
And reflect on all the blocks around us
The line of concert-goers snakes from the front of House of Blues, through the massive restaurant and out onto the front porch. When the doors finally open, the predominantly teenage fans flock to the front of the 400-person room, pushing themselves up against the stage.
Doomtree goes on first and murders it. Many of the teenyboppers here have probably never heard the group, but they're drawn in by the way this bunch of talented MCs shows up with a turntable and takes over.
Then it's the Flobots' turn. Before they're even on stage, the crowd begins chanting their name. Stephen, Kenny and Mackenzie come out first, to loud applause, and are soon followed by Jesse and Andy. As the music starts up, Jamie bounds onto the stage and launches into "Same Thing."
While I was half expecting fans to shout "Handlebars" at every song break, these kids are singing along with every word to every song. When Jamie sings, "Where the fuck are the rescue workers?" from the song "Mayday!!!," the words echo loudly back. These kids are clearly familiar with the entire album.
Before launching into "We Are Winning," Jamie, Andy and Jesse pull American flag bandannas out of their pockets and tie them around their faces. Stephen takes the mike. "Dallas, Texas, you see this flag?" he asks.
"Texas!" someone screams.
"This flag is from the future. This flag represents what America will be."
He explains that the flag stands for non-violence, peace, dialogue and equality.
"We are building a movement!" he concludes.
Most of the audience pays little attention to the words and continues applauding. "Texas" continues shouting "Texas!" loudly. But toward the back of the crowd, two kids take out American flag bandannas and tie them around their faces in solidarity.
The bandanna imagery was something Jesse's cousin, photographer Matt Walker, came up with during a photo shoot with the group, essentially because it looked cool.
But Stephen was already working on one of the main concepts for the album, that there is "a war going on for your mind," and given the politicized dissatisfaction with the system inherent in most Flobots music, tying an American flag bandanna around the lower half of their faces seemed a good way to illustrate that — vaguely threatening but cool insurgent masks — and the imagery worked its way onto the album cover.
"I guess if we're the new American insurgents, we wear flag bandannas, right?" Jamie says with a laugh.
But then the fans started coming to shows wearing the masks, too.
"That was scary, to look down into the crowds and see those kids wearing them," Stephen recalls. "It's really provocative imagery. That got me thinking that it would be very easy for some fourteen-year-old to put that flag on and go down to a protest, and suddenly things get crazy and he decides he's going to hit a cop: 'I feel angry and I feel powerless, and sometimes the Flobots make me feel powerful and I'm wearing this flag and yeah!' So we decided we should try to explain what we meant more clearly."
True to Jamie's mixtape rhyme, it seemed, the spotlight had really found them. The blocks that the Flobots were reflecting were getting larger and larger. It was time to get some bigger mirrors.
Jamie and Stephen had been intrigued when Barack Obama was mired in a scandal involving the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ and Wright's controversial comments regarding race in America. Obama would eventually distance himself from Wright in the now-famous "A More Perfect Union" speech.
"That was an amazing speech," Jamie, an outspoken Obama advocate, says. "But it was frustrating that someone like Obama, in order to be successful, had to completely distance himself from any of the harsh truth of what Jeremiah Wright was saying."
So on a brief stop back in Denver, Stephen and Jamie walked around Park Hill, brainstorming. Several talking points kept coming up. One, how could the Flobots get their eclectic mix of fans — from activists to evangelicals, potheads to conspiracy theorists — talking with one another? Two, unlike Obama, the Flobots weren't politicians, so they didn't have to shy away from unpleasantness or controversy. Three, how could the Flobots create a presence at the upcoming Democratic National Convention beyond just chasing the biggest gig or the one that got them closest to Obama? Four, D.J. Coffman, the creator of the graphic novel Hero by Night, was interested in working with them; how could they incorporate him into the bigger picture?
The result was www.americawillbe.com, a website referencing the Langston Hughes Poem "Let America Be America Again." That poem contains a stanza that is often quoted by Dr. Vincent Harding — a professor and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a personal mentor to Jamie and Stephen — which reads, "Oh yes/I say it plain/America never was America to me/And yet I swear this oath — America will be!"
The Flobots view www.americawillbe.org as another arm in the same fight as www.fightwithtools.org, one that capitalizes on the flag imagery that fans suddenly find so attractive. On the America Will Be site, various revolutionary scenes and figures in American history are presented as links, all with American flag bandannas Photoshopped on their faces, from Chinese workers striking while constructing the Transcontinental Railroad, to the Boston Tea Party, Harriet Tubman and Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. Each of the links directs visitors to information about each of the events.
"One of the biggest problems we can point to is how not involved the people are in their democracy," Stephen explains. "How disempowered they feel, how patriotism is now used as a word for very oppressive thinking, where we're trying to interpret as if you're a dreamer: Where does your dream fit in the American dream? Because the American dream is supposed to have the hopes and aspirations of all of us in mind. 'America Will Be,' the poem itself, is talking about how it hasn't been like that; that never really approached reality for the people who live here. So we're calling on folks to think about that again, to visualize that again, to dream again. Because if we dream again, we're going to start thinking about what is different from that dream and what we have now and how we can change that."
Never ones to shy away from another project, self-proclaimed comic-book geeks Jamie and Stephen incorporated D.J. Coffman into the mix. Coffman came up with the notion of the Flobots as robots from the future, sent back in time to fight the good fight, using the tools within them to find their own specialized purpose. It made for cool web comic-book fare, and the Flobots dug the concept.But they also figured, why not use this entity as well to push the notion of the flag bandanna that was popping up everywhere?
"Then we just got to thinking, what if we told people that this flag is from the future?" Jamie recalls. "And by telling people what it isn't, we can acknowledge what it has been. This is not the flag of genocide; this is not the flag of racism, slavery and illegal wars. It's a way of saying it has been that flag, but in the future, this is the flag of sustainability, of peace and non-violence, of engagement and dialogue. That's when it all started coming together."
When it came time to shoot their second video, for the song "Rise," the band decided to incorporate the flag imagery, inviting participants from various Denver organizations and nonprofits to the Gothic Theatre to appear in the video as new American insurgents, bandanna-clad, recognizing the dark truths of the past yet socially engaged and willing to work to realize a new dream, what America will be.
The band pushed the flag imagery even further at a July 3 Rockies game, during a protest organized by Students for a Democratic Society titled "Funk the War." Weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin had donated thousands of American flags to be handed out at the baseball game, and SDS staged a peaceful protest outside the stadium replete with breakdancing and free American flags. Jamie performed from the flatbed of a truck, and many in attendance wrapped the flags around their faces, Flobots style. Recently, Coffman's web comic, "Rise of the Flobots: Architects of Change," went up on www.flobots.org as well, illustrating fans' ability to make change.
It's all very ambitious, and the Flobots are the first to admit that it's a learning process and that there are bound to be some hiccups. But hiccups are a good thing, Stephen says; they help you learn and grow. Which is why the band has no qualms about aiming high during the Democratic National Convention, where the Flobots will be ubiquitous. "We have always believed that music is a platform for social change," Jamie wrote in a press release. "So what better platform could we have than the camera lenses of the entire globe pointed at our home city at the same time when our music is getting national attention?...We will perform for protesters and politicians, reporters and residents, music insiders and music fans, convention delegates and unconventional activists, people from down the block and from all over the world."
True to their word, the Flobots will play the protester-organized Tent State Music Festival to End the War with Rage Against the Machine and the Coup, as well as Mayor John Hickenlooper's more mainstream private party.
"I guess the goal is to have these flag bandannas popping up everywhere," Jamie tells me. "At protests, in the convention, having some of the delegates wearing them, having some concerts where kids are wearing them and committing random acts of kindness, pushing for change in constructive, productive ways. We want a sea of people out there, embodying what we hope the new America will be."
We don't get back to the hotel after the Dallas show till around 1:30 a.m. The concert ended at about eleven thirty, but the bandmembers stuck around signing autographs until the crowd had completely dispersed (though many fans hung around out back for hours to try and snag a Flobot en route to the bus). After that, there were drinks in a bizarre upper level of the House of Blues known as The Foundation, which looks a little like the Maharishi's club house — Persian carpets and strange Buddhist statues in an unending, connected series of rooms — and a lot like something out of a Kubrick film.
At the hotel, I point out that we are a block away from where Kennedy was assassinated, and the Flobots, high off their performance and maybe a little Dos Equis and tequila, beeline to the grassy knoll and immediately begin calculating trajectories, studying the path of the bullets from an upper window of the schoolbook depository, the X's painted in the pavement where the bullets hit.
Understandably, no one is exactly chipper at 6 a.m. as we take the tour bus out to suburban Dallas for an interview with Kidd Kraddick in the Morning, a Top 40 radio show on KHKS-FM/106.1. No one seems to understand why the group is doing a radio performance the day after a show, when they're leaving for the next town before playing again in Dallas, but tour manager Christie Osbourne, who has rejoined the crew from Denver, shushes all complaints as the bus pulls up to the station.
Inside, an ebullient Kraddick greets the Flobots and tells them to make themselves at home while they finish up a segment; then the band can load their equipment into the minuscule studio stuffed beyond capacity with interns and drive-time sidekicks. Framed on a wall in a hallway is an article from the Dallas Morning News on one such sidekick, Al Mack. "Al's humility has no memory," the article reads. "Al embarrasses himself on a daily basis — and not just for the show."
As if on cue, the discourse inside the studio shifts to a caller who is frustrated that her man can't put the toilet seat down and has taken to using her feet to do it. "I can flush the toilet with no handlebars," Mack begins singing. The whole studio chimes in, over and over: I can flush the toilet with no handlebars. Jaws agape, the Flobots take it in.
"I definitely wouldn't rather still be asleep," Jesse says to Kenny, whose eyes are barely open.
Seated on the floor reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Stephen lets out an audible sigh.
To his credit, though, Kraddick knows his stuff. He asks the group about their first EP, Platypus, and mentions a clip making its way around YouTube of a Flobots song about Iraq in which every word starts with the letter I, R, A or Q, in that order. There are a few dumb questions, like when Mackenzie is asked which bandmember she would kick out (she says Jesse, because he's the only one with better hair). But soon enough, the mike is turned over to allow the band to perform.
A gaggle of fans have gathered outside the studio window to watch; one has a sign that says, "Flobots, look at me!" It's amazing to see them, losing their shit at being able to catch the Flobots in person. At 6 a.m. On a Wednesday.
In suburban Dallas.
The band works its way through a stripped-down version of "Handlebars," and then, at Kraddick's request, belts out "Rise." The performances are tight but moving, and upon their conclusion, all idiocy and shock-jock antics have ceased. Rather than playing down to their level, it appears that the Flobots have made everyone else rise to theirs.
The group drops www.fightwithtools.org, thanks Kraddick for his time, and begins loading equipment.
Secretaries and interns crawl out of the woodwork to meet the Flobots in the narrow back hallways. Even Al Mack goes out of his way to tell Andy how that was one of the best in-studio performance they've ever had on the show — and this from a dude who once had Denny's deliver his food to him in a bathroom stall.
"I've made the comment on air that if you have 'Handlebars' as your ring tone, you're really missing the point," Kraddick tells me in his office, checking e-mail before going back on the air. "You have to listen to it all the way through. Listeners are getting the point now; they're responding to the whole album. It's actually kind of incredible. I've started playing 'Rise' a few times. You wouldn't believe the response it's getting."
But that's the thing, Kraddick, I think as I head outside the studio to hurry the band through autograph-signing and picture-taking so we can all get back to the hotel and get some more sleep. I absolutely would.
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