See also: - Jonny 5 reflects on the Occupy Movement and the new album, 11/11 - Flobots ink deal with Shanachie Entertainment, 4/12 - Flobots no longer on Universal Records, 12/10 - Q&A: Jonny 5 of Flobots on Survival Story, 3/10 - The Fray Scars & Stories: A track-by-track breakdown from Isaac Slade and Joe King
It's been two and a half years since Flobots released their last record, the presciently titled, in retrospect, Survival Story, on Universal Republic. While it turned out to be the group's major label swan song, it was not a death knell -- nor was it half as bad as some critical assessments would have you believe, or as some might've inferred from the act's subsequent split with Universal. In fact, it was actually rather good, in much the same way that Pinkerton is vastly superior to "The Blue Album" by Weezer: While it may not have been as well received commercially, it was much better considered artistically.
Thematically, from the concept to Jonathan Till's masterful artwork, it was a more vibrant expression. And while Story didn't produce another blockbuster single on par with "Handlebars," it also didn't boast the same kind of heavy-handed sloganeering that often weighed down the outfit's debut. Quite a bit's happened in the intervening years since Flobots first piqued the interest of Universal honcho Monty Lipman, who was evidently impressed enough with the group and what he heard that his label ended up essentially re-releasing the independent, self-produced version of Fight with Tools as is, a rather unique proposition for any freshly inked act.
The act, of course, soon took the world by storm with the tuneful, initially endearing, but ultimately grating "Handlebars," and parlayed that cresting acclaim into a second record that seemingly underwhelmed more fickle music fans. As a result, Universal presumably lost interest and moved on to newer, shinier objects. The band parted ways with the label in December 2010, and not too long after that the outfit also split with founding guitarist, Andy Guerrero, and then spent most of 2011 keeping a relatively low profile. Whatever momentum that had been generated at that point appeared to begin to diminish. A lesser band might've folded, and it appeared that we may have seen the last of Flobots.
Turns out, the remaining members took some time off to recharge and devote their attention to other things, like catching up with friends and family, tending to Flobots.org, their non-profit, or maybe just even living a little, all of which allowed them to regain their focus. For their part, Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett (known to the rest of the world outside of Denver as Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit) took a trip to the Middle East.
That sojourn and the subsequent burgeoning, grassroots uprising that had begun to take shape in this country ended up providing the pair with ample inspiration when the two reconvened with the others and started working on new material. Eventually, the quintet headed back into the studio -- the Blasting Room with Jason Livermore, on their own dime this time -- where they were free to follow their own muse, on their own timeline, without any sort of pressure or scrutiny.
"Well, you know, I think the industry as a whole, in many ways, is crumbling," Laurie noted in a previous interview this past November, while Flobots were still working on the new record at the Blasting Room. "It's not crumbling for artists. It's crumbling for the industry. So it feels really good and freeing to be on our time table. I think from an artistic standpoint, it's a psychological game. When there's someone else involved, it affects you, even if they don't affect you. If you're spending your time making sure that you're not making a song that somebody else would want you to make, it becomes this weird sort of mind trip.
"And there's no mind games right now," he added. "It's all us. It's all about the music we want to make. The Blasting Room is great. They listen to us. They say, 'What's the vision for the song?' and they help us implement it. I think, in many ways, we feel all of the perks and benefits and responsibilities of being completely independent."
The results can be heard on Flobots new album, The Circle In the Square, which is slated for release this coming Tuesday, August 28, on Shanachie Records, the outfit's new imprint, who reached out to the band just as the members were in the midst of recording. The label's timing was fortuitous. "We're excited to get the album out," Laurie declared. "They believe in their artists. We feel good about them, and we're significant to them because they're getting into the world of alternative."
"The band's activist, socially conscious stance fits in the tradition of other politically oriented artists championed by Shanachie, Fela, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Mutabaruka," noted Monifa Brown, Shanachie's Entertainment's VP of publicity, in a statement announcing the addition of Flobots to the label's roster this past April. "Armed with musicianship, intelligence, and an ingrained sense of rebellion, FLOBOTS are looking to engage and activate fans one mind at a time."
Aesthetically, The Circle In the Square is a departure. The packaging is notably more spare than its predecessor with a rather minimalistic, water-color painting from Mackenzie Gault (formerly Roberts) adorning the cover, supplemented with some design work by Matter. Musically and lyrically, however, it feels like an organic link between Tools and Story, and in a way, it is.
"It's not like you have to have your activist self separate from your having-fun self or you're friends and relationships," says Laurie. "It's more like when you care about people, when you homes being foreclosed on, or when you see people who can't get married, or they can't go to college because they're undocumented, you care about it. And when you care about it, you engage with it, and that's where that activism comes from." That sentiment is definitely felt on this record: To be engaged, you don't necessarily have to an ostentatious, flag-waving zealot having to shout in order to be heard. In fact, sometimes you can be just as effective by just being.
Rest assured, if you're a fan of Flobots -- meaning you truly appreciate the heady intellect that has always informed this band and you relate to the compassionate, activist-beating heart that pulses beneath the songs -- there's plenty to love about this incarnation of the group and particularly this album, from the estimable guests (the ladies from Paper Bird, Esme and Genevieve Patterson and Sarah Anderson, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jon Wirtz, Texanna Dennie and Aaron Dugan) to the flavorful melodies to the primal, funk-steeped rhythms to the wordplay to the act's dependable hidden nuances -- the buried treasures for diehard fans to unearth.
Without giving too much away, let's just say you should pay close attention to the pull-out poster that contains the lyrics. You'll notice strikeouts in some of the verses, as well as lines that have been purposely redacted. We'll have more on that next week, but in the meantime, below, you'll find an exhaustive track-by-track breakdown of the new album straight from Jonny 5. While the rest of the band was sound-checking in Omaha, Flobots' frontman found an echo-chamber doubling as a bathroom to told us the stories behind each track, what inspired them and how they were written in some cases, and also gave some insight into lyrics.
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This song began as a rhyme of the day. I wish I could remember the date, sometime in June 2010*. We were... where were we? I think we were in Kansas City, and the green room for that show was just a house -- I don't know, maybe it was the office of some administrative department. It was completely empty, and somehow, I was alone there. Other people were sound-checking or something. I was going to the bathroom, and I started humming in the room -- much like the room I'm standing in now, which is also a bathroom -- the room had this incredible echo to it. I was like, "Oh-oh-oh-uh-oh-oh-oh."
I liked it, so I recorded it, and then I played the recording and started banging on the toilet-paper holder, and somehow I recorded that -- I don't know how I recorded them both. And then I was doing my Rhyme of the Day series, so I had to write a rhyme that day, and I think I was just feeling this kind of empty loneliness of being in this empty house with this flickering light. That verse was written then.
And when I was looking over the Rhyme of the Day stuff -- you know, and trying to figure out is there anything that needs to be a track on this new album, not just one that people in the band really liked, I loved the way that one fleshed out: The swing to the beat that Kenny brought to it, the way Mackenzie just took the thing I hummed and ran with it, Stephen's verse, which I think just takes it to a whole other level. And then Jesse's bass line is so beautiful.
So I'm really with the way that song fleshed out. And it forces me to do something on stage, something that I haven't always done as much is sing. To me it's always a rap, like a melodic rap, but I understand now why some people think I'm singing.
*Laurie's memory here is actually pretty close. See above: The original video was filmed on 4/17/10 in the alumni house at Webster University in St. Louis. He revisited the track a week later in his Rhyme of the Day series on 4/24/10 with clip titled "Tell'em about the loneliness II." -- Ed
This is one that very early on in the fall of the 2010, Mackenzie put the idea for this song together, and immediately we thought the hook was infectious. We knew that was going to be for sure something we were going to work on. And again, it was just fleshing it out into a full song. You know Stephen and I, we loved the image of the rose and the thistle, and we kept trying to make a story about it. "Okay, here's what this is saying: It's saying, 'Your rose is my thistle,' or 'Let's imagine a world where everyone has thistles, and someone brings a rose, and they think it's ugly.' Let's try that.
And everything we did just felt like it was messing it up. The rose and the thistle, they both have thorns. People get it, and we don't need to editorialize more on that. So I think some of our verses were kind of our effort to let the chorus do its work. So I was just like, "Look, I like rappin with a new vocabulary. I'm going to use some garden imagery here. I'm going to rap the names of a bunch of flowers, which Stephen was also doing for that hook.
So I'm really pleased with how that turned out. We let the chorus speak for itself and do its job. Kenny loves him some '80s funk type beats, and so he did that. And I love this little bass turnaround in the bridge, where it's like he's doing a snowboarding trick or something. That's one when people hear the album that I think will really stand out. Basically, it hooks people right away.
We didn't want to decide what the story was there. I think the image gives people something to latch on to, and it's going to mean something different to everybody. It really did feel like making any sort of comment on the meaning was taking away from its possibilities -- especially if you notice, a lot of these songs, we do have serious ideas about what they're about. But this one, we didn't want to know. The rose and the thistle is very personal to Mackenzie, as well.
This one came from two different song ideas that Jesse had brought to the table. They ended up morphing into one song in a really funny way. It was basically like the "A" part and the "B" part of this song, and then this other song, we were like, "Wait a second. This 'A' part really goes with this second song, and the 'B' part, maybe we set aside." And so we discarded that, but that ended up being the melody for the hook -- the "dah-da-dah-dah-da-duh" was originally a bass line. All the bass lines were pretty captivating, actually, so we went with them.
It was actually one day, Jesse was just kind of vamping on that bass line, and I started doing this cadence -- "dah-da-duh-dah-dah-da-duh-dah," and it just felt right. Stephen was on cowbell, and he's still on cowbell. This is his cowbell debut. He plays cowbell with some studio wizardry from Jason Livermore -- I don't want people reading this to think that he needs the studio for his cowbell skills to shine, so don't let anybody think that, but it was helpful to have some of the wizardry of Jason Livermore to bring out his natural cowbell ability. I'd like to say a little more about Stephen on cowbell at this point... [laughs]
Lyrically, this is the other song that might lead people to believe that it's more about something than it is. It's clearly inspired by the fact that Occupy was happening, but to me, it's about a soul coming to the earth, and the last verse is about a soul leaving the earth, and the chorus is everything in between.
Again, this is one where the music, I think, just brings so much possibility for the person listening to kind of imagine and relate in different ways. We didn't want to pin it down to much. We didn't want to use words that were going to take people into this political, analytical place -- except for, obviously, the title, and I think that's just trying to expand this sense of Occupy as a political movement.
When you're living life, you're occupying earth. And that's something we hope people will do is see the connection between... It's not like you have to have your activist self separate from your having-fun self or you're friends and relationships. It's more like when you care about people, when you homes being foreclosed on, or when you see people who can't get married, or they can't go to college because they're undocumented, you care about it. And when you care about it, you engage with it, and that's where that activism comes from.
This one was a ton of fun to mess around with, and I'm really psyched it made the album. It was definitely our most kind of experimental song. First of all the bass line is just.. when Jesse brought it to the table, I loved it right off the bat -- this can go on forever, and I'll never get tired of it. So, we experimented with a bunch of different kind of lyrics. I think that the third verse, where Stephen and I are rapping at the same time, we were thinking about Latyrx -- that's the first time I ever heard two guys rapping on the same track, simultaneously.
I remember hearing that: You pan to the left, you hear one of them. You pan to the right, you hear the other one. In the case of Latyrx, I don't know how they recorded it -- I don't know if they did it at the same time or separately -- but they played off of each other just a little bit in terms of cadence or flow. Or maybe they were just some happy accidents there, where there was one time they hit the same word. But every other time, you could draw connections or not. So we thought how can we sort of take inspiration from that and do like a 2012 update. So we thought, "Let's land on a lot of the same lines; let's weave our lyrics back and forth," and so that's what we did. I really like how it turned out with this build up.
The storyline...well, again, the story I'd like to kind of leave to interpretation, but I felt it was these two people that had been in this battle or conflict or war situation, and they were kind of making efforts to meet afterward, and begin a journey towards maybe reconciliation. Who knows what it is. Before they can even reconcile, long before that, they have to meet -- they have to meet in the same place. You know, the chorus talks about "when it's all worn off, where do you go?"
I think when you're in the midst of battle, there's a lot of things fueling you: There's adrenaline or there's -- we talked about this on the last album -- elixir, if you're caught up in materialism or caught up in some ideology; there's a lot fueling you. But when that's worn off, where do you go? So anyway, the last verse is these folks just meeting and it's kind of this simultaneous, dual catharsis that happens for both of them in that process of meeting.
This is another one Mackenzie brought along as parts, kind of ready made; she had the hook. We had talked about the idea of doing an album called "Stop the Apocalypse," so I think she had that in her head and made it into a song. Again, she brought the gist of it in, and when Jessie got a hold of it, he did some wizardry with the bass line and took it to whole new places, and that turnaround section is something that happened in the recording space. The song just got more and more epic as it kept going.
And you know, really, on Survival Story, our last album, we talked a lot about the power of self-fulfilling prophecies and how it's dangerous as a culture when this, or anything else, you become obsessed with Armageddon, apocalypse, the end of the world. That's dangerous because you have the power to bring it about, when you stop working toward a future that you don't believe will happen.
So this song is the flip side of that: You have to stop the apocalypse. This is 2012 and everybody's talking about the apocalypse. We need to stop that. And we thought the best way to do that is for us to just get ridiculous, cartoonish and just go all out. So we're thinking of Godzilla-sized monsters attacking the city. We're thinking like...in Stephen's whole verse about the Anti-Christ and his whole conversation with the Anti-Christ. Let's just bring it all in and kind of lampoon it. I think our favorite part of that whole song is once we get to perform it -- we'll find out tonight [in Omaha] -- when we get to yell, in unison, "Dennis Kucinich."