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.