Sometimes Denver can feel like a very hip Mayberry. While waiting to meet the founding members of Flobots at the Denver Bike Cafe, I ran into Jason Heller -- musician, author and former Westword contributor. Oh, and former comic-book king. That's how Jamie Laurie and Stephen Brackett first knew Heller, when they were kids who'd browse the stock at the Colfax Avenue comics store. And Heller easily recognized the pair -- but they were a lot taller, he said.
I'd met Brackett eight years ago, right when a proto-Flobots band was forming, when we were both cast in Silver City, the political/environmental potboiler that John Sayles filmed in Denver. I played a reporter, and had one line. Brackett played the illegitimate son of Daryl Hannah and a pro athlete; he definitely had more lines -- and delivered them better.
I'd heard of Laurie, and heard Laurie's music, for years before I actually met him: at the memorial service for Sandy Widener, Westword's first managing editor, her husband, John Parr, and their daughter, Chase, who'd all died in a horrible car crash right before Christmas 2007. Parr had been a mentor of Laurie when he was at East High School, a place the entire family supported, and we knew that Laurie and company would be the perfect performers at the service, along with the East High Angels. So Flobots took the stage at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, where the memorial was held, and had the entire place -- students, colleagues, journalists, past and present mayors and governors -- on their feet for "Rise." It was an inspiring anthem of optimism on a sad day.
So when Laurie asked if I'd write a bio in advance of the release of Flobots's third album, it seemed like the least that I could do -- even though it gave Backbeat editor Dave Herrera, who knows my (lack of) taste in music very well, a good laugh.
I may not have great taste in music, but I have very good taste in the people who make Denver a wonderful place to live....people like the members of Flobots.
Here's some of what I wrote after that morning at the Bike Cafe:
On the first day that Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out in New York last September, the five members of the current Flobots lineup were in a recording studio for the first day of work on their third record. And the tweets were coming in from all over: What are you going to do about this?
Their answer: make music that continues to tell a political message.
Over the next six weeks, bassist Jesse Walker, drummer Kenny Ortiz, violist/vocalist Mackenzie Roberts Gault, and emcees Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 crafted what would become The Circle In the Square, released this month by Shanachie Entertainment.
Occupy Wall Street wasn't the only political movement that provided the backdrop for this most recent work. In the fall of 2011, the impact of the Arab Spring was continuing to reverberate around the globe."There was a lot of energy around the world," says Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit. "You could taste freedom in the air; it was a palpable thing. It informed the process in a subtle and broad way. We were inspired by that, we were witnesses like everyone else. We were rich because of it."
Rich with the promise of freedom -- both for people around the world, and for Flobots themselves, after a disappointing second release with Universal Records.
"There's no denying that headlines themselves can have an emotional impact, especially living in a one-degree-of-separation world in which we're more and more likely to know someone affected by any given event," Laurie, aka Jonny 5, says. "The 'stories' in newspapers are real. Plus, through technology, we all have been essentially deputized into mini-bloggers, cranking out a steady stream of status updates. We are saturated in media because we are all constantly creating it. If we keep our hearts open to the steady flow of experience we receive through our relationships, then there's never a need to answer the question 'What's your message?,' but only a much simpler one: 'How are you?'"
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From the start, Flobots have felt free to break the rules. Brackett and Laurie met back when they were in fourth grade, and were both rappers at East High School. Bracket wore a stocking over his head for his first solo; Laurie didn't need any costume. "It was shocking for a white guy to rap," Brackett recalls.
Almost ten years ago, the pair formed a "protoflobots" act with friend and viola player Mackenzie Roberts. The band was about three months old when Jesse Walker caught a Flobots show; he'd been at school at one point or another with both Brackett and Laurie. "After about one song, I was spellbound," he remembers. "Thunderbolts were going off in my head as before me I saw the project for which I had always been looking." By the fall of 2007, veteran musician Kenny Ortiz had joined the lineup and they completed their first full-length album, Fight With Tools, a self-financed, self-released effort with a hit single, "Handlebars," that soon spread to every market in the United States.
"I was not surprised that Flobots were successful, because I felt that what we were doing and the music we were making was unique and cool, and could easily reach a certain population of listeners," Roberts says. "I was shocked, however, at how Flobots became successful and how quickly we took off once 'Handlebars' hit the airwaves. I don't think any of us ever expected to be signed to a major label, perform on late-night TV shows or open for Metallica in front of 40,000 people. But we did those things, and I think there is a lot more we will do with this upcoming release."
"This album feels like the first album," Laurie says. "It's the best of both worlds. The second time, we did a good job of guarding ourselves against the sophomore pressure, but even that had its own effect. This time, it was only us."
The title track was born on a plane as Laurie and Brackett headed home from a two-week visit to the Middle East; they had been only a few hundred miles away, in Amman, when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. "It was quite an exciting time," Laurie remembers. "The whole world was watching." As their flight landed in Denver, a melody came to Laurie, and he started writing a rap to it: "Hands in the Air/Presidents Prime Ministers/They said that we didn't care/But we're the circle in the square."
While they recorded that song as well as the others that appear on this album, musicians heard about Occupy Wall Street movements emerging around the country, the other actions around the globe. "Now that we are looking," Laurie concludes, "we see them everywhere. We realize it has nothing to do with the national borders. It has to do with us, something happening with this generation. We are the circle in the square."
Flobots will be at the hi-dive tonight with Ian Cooke and Princess Music celebrating the release of Circle in the Square, and at Twist & Shout on Tuesday, August 28, for some local performances before the act heads off on a fall tour promoting the new album.