With the apparently arbitrary exception of Metallica
and Queens of the Stone Age
, the British commercial press seems to have had a real problem with American rock bands ever since nu-metal reared its blustering noggin. In their stubborn refusal to give the time of day to emerging alternative acts from across the pond (particularly any incorporating a hip-hop element), Flobots
’ debut album Fight With Tools
- one of the boldest, most outspoken records to emerge from the U.S. in years - seems to have been largely passed over.
A free-flowing, twelve-legged groove machine channelling the spirit of Public Enemy and Pete Seeger through the kind of snapping funk licks the Chili Peppers once made their own, in the run-up to last year’s U.S.
Presidential election it seemed near-impossible to escape the chorus of Handlebars
, Flobots’ incendiary signature tune. A chillingly lucid delineation of humanity’s conflict between creation and destruction, its duality seemed all-too pertinent to a nation battling to reassert its own political identity. Backed by a powerful video
charting the progression of its narrator from freewheeling innocent to tyrannical plunderer, the song cut a disarmingly profound and even faintly subversive dash in the otherwise depthless wash of the mainstream.
While cynics continue to bicker that you can’t rage against any machine that you’re an inherent part of, the band has focused its efforts on pushing an agenda emblematic of a liberal conscience we’ve seen far more of from the States this last year: an ethos of peace, tolerance, progressive social policies and a desire to effect change through active engagement. Oftentimes political bands are accused of reckless sloganeering – of lacking direction beyond a given set of platitudes, and highlighting problems without proposing any tangible solutions. Flobots take the opposite tack. They know exactly what they stand for – it’s right there in Same Thing
, in which they lay out the band’s own manifesto point-by point. Crucially, the band’s commitment to empowering their audience through political communion has led them to establish a network of Street Teams around their own non-profit organisation, www.fightwithtools.org
. It’s a process that not only gives the sextet a chance to come good on its promise of continued engagement with grass-roots issues in the light of Obama’s election, but also informs their own creative vision. Indeed, though lead MC Jamie Laurie (a.k.a. Jonny 5) claims to be the only member of the band not to have seen it, in many ways Flobots’ message is The Wire
in musical form: a call-to-arms sparked by a Molotov cocktail of incisive social commentary and barely-contained outrage (it even bounces to the same beat).
Having negotiated the Spinal Tap-esque labyrinth of backstage corridors at Birmingham Academy, I caught up with a cold-stricken, bleary-eyed but still strikingly articulate Laurie on their recent UK
trek with politico-punks Anti-Flag
and Rise Against
. The following is a full transcript of the interview scheduled to appear in the May/June 09 issue of Rock’n’Reel
Politics and music have always proven a rather an uneasy mix for a lot of people – there are some who think the two strands shouldn’t be placed together at all, and some who think the link doesn’t go far enough. Your music strikes me as being an inextricable mix of two – it’s almost like the music is a vehicle for a particular form of political activism. Do you see yourselves as musicians first and foremost, or is it the activism that takes precedence?
Well, I think it was Boots from The Coup who said that if he really just wanted to be political, he would just write a speech. That would be his primary thing - he wouldn’t be a musician. So I think first and foremost, for every one of this is how we express ourselves. I’ve been writing raps since I was 16 or 17; it feels right. If I’m upset, and I can put those emotions into something that has a rhythm and a rhyme to it, and has a structure that sounds good, then no matter how bad the thing is, it has now been made into something beautiful, pretty, attractive or pleasing to the ear. So I think on a very basic level, all of us are musicians first. But at the same time, when it’s done right, political music is something that should express something that is genuine, and I think the reason we had success last year is because so many people in the United States, after eight years of living through a Bush presidency and the Iraq war were just kind of fed up, and so it was kind of like the whole country got politicised together. So I do think there’s something delicate about the balance, but if you check yourself and make sure it’s coming from a genuine place then I think you’re alright.
The message of the band seems to be encapsulated in Handlebars, and it’s something Brer Rabbit touched on tonight: you can either destroy or you can create. There seems to be a real drive in the band to inspire people and ‘give something back’ – is that something that’s come from your own relationship with music and your favourite artists, or is it your natural political conscience coming through?Yeah, you know what, I can say on a personal level that when I first started getting into hip-hop, it was between Vanilla Ice and Eminem – there weren’t really white rappers that were well-known. So I had a set of questions I was dealing with around ‘What does it mean to be a responsible white MC?’ This is not the culture I grew up in, it was a culture that came to me through mass media, and yet it felt intensely personal to me, I really felt a genuine connection to it. So, what’s the solution – do I say “Okay, forget it, I can’t do this”, or do I say “Okay, I’ll do it, but I’m just going to ignore all the problems that people are dealing with, all the oppression that led to this art-form in the South Bronx and all the oppression of people of colour” – no, I can’t ignore that. So the answer for me comes with the activism being involved in the music – even just being a fan, if you’re hearing about something that’s happening across town, or in a different borough, or in a different city, I think you have a responsibility to not just say “Oh hey, that’s just a nice beat”, but to say, “How am I linked to the systemic problems that created this oppression, which led to some beautiful music”. And so for me that’s been guiding me from the very beginning as a white rapper, and that’s my portion of feeling why music has to be connected to activism.I think if you look historically, every social movement has had music as a backbone – in the Civil Rights movement they were reworking black gospel songs, and using them to be able to withstand hoses, and withstand dogs. We just did a protest march recently with Rage Against the Machine, and Zack De La Rocha’s at the front with this banner singing “We’re not gonna take it / No! We ain’t gonna take it…” – you know, you need something to talk about when you’re on the frontline of the protest march. So music provides the language, the vocabulary and the guidance for all of these social movements.The thought of Zack De La Rocha singing Twisted Sister songs warms my heart. I meant to ask, just for my own amusement - do you know Rage?We played with them, but we don’t know them – this past summer, the Democratic National Convention was held in Denver, our hometown, and so a lot of people were excited: excited because it was going to be Barack Obama, but also there was all these people organising these protests around any major political convention, to protest corporate involvement in the political system and everything else. So we were involved in both the official DNC process and the political protestors. So we arranged with a group called Ten State Music Festival to end the war, and we helped set up this festival that Rage Against the Machine ended up headlining.Did you meet them?I met them, yeah, I was standing right next to Tom and Zack in the front row of marchers – we were all standing behind the Iraq Veterans Against the War, there was about a hundred veterans marching in front of us. So, we held the concert – it was state radio, The Coup, us and Rage Against the Machine.The DNC was incredible, because it was not a permitted march. We had 10,000 people in the Denver House, and we said we’re all going to go out there and march peaceably but forcefully – and the city ended up providing police escorts because we were so orderly and clear about our intentions.I remember in 2000, Rage played the DNC and there was a load of trouble afterwards…Yeah, actually I was there for that – in the beginning part of that show I was in LA as a protestor.
At the time there was a big outcry in the media and they painted it as “Look at these rowdy liberals misbehaving” – was there no repeat of that this time round?
No, not at all – Rage invested a lot of time and money into making sure that the whole event went well, and that it was peaceful and clear… this was a day where music and activism was truly one thing. Everyone played their role. There were trained activists who flew in that day and made sure that the IVAW folks knew their role – there was a walk-through session that we did with the 10,000 people in the audience, saying “This is how we’re going to march; if you’re willing to risk arrest, this is where you stand; if you’re not willing to risk arrest, stand here; we’re not willing to be violent under any circumstances”… So every single person played a role, and it just felt like this is what music and activism is supposed to be like.
The Democratic Party, and particularly the Liberal movement in America, seems to have become incredibly disciplined over the last four years. I remember in 2004, there was a feeling that no-one could unite behind John Kerry - it seemed like they were trying to get him elected just so it wasn’t George Bush. Is it the case that everyone’s suddenly thought “This is the mission we’ve got to get behind”, and that was what then happened?
I don’t think it was that people couldn’t unite behind Kerry – it was that people couldn’t get excited about Kerry. You weren’t bringing in people who weren’t already Democratic voters. You weren’t bringing in young people who were disillusioned with the system. Michael Moore talked about the fact that the largest political party is the non-voters. I think Obama appealed to the non-voters, and inspired them to become voters. So it’s an interesting time. It struck me while watching the elections that as soon as Bush wandered out of office and Obama was in, it felt like a whole new dawn had come. But I often think that outsiders’ perception of America seem to differ very strongly from what life is actually like in America itself. Has there been a sense that the country has changed?
It’s hard to say definitively. For me, living in a city that’s mostly a liberal area, and interacting with lots of folks who probably voted for Obama, it really does feel like we’ve gone from being the silent majority to actually being in power. It feels like a whole lot of things were rejected on that election day. The amount of dirt they flung at him, saying things like “Oh, he knows this Palestinian professor, he has a Muslim middle name” – the amount of shit they threw at him, every single time I thought it would stick, and was thinking “Now he’s done, because he’s been tied to William Ayres”. And the fact that all that happened and he was still able to be elected, to me that means that we’ve arrived in a new place. I’ve heard people sending around these snippets of him reading his book - in his book he has dialogue from when he was sixteen that has people cussing all over the place. And that’s the kind of thing you would’ve thought with all the puritanical American politics, that
would’ve been brought out somehow – but all that ridiculous stuff, it feels like it’s over. And now there’s this new very real set of challenges – I mean, what the hell’s gonna happen in Afghanistan, he’s sending more troops and as a peace activist there’s a lot to be concerned about. But at least we’ve left behind the people who don’t believe in Global Warming! The question’s no longer ‘How do we deal with climate change?’ – that’s still hard, but that’s monumental. At least we’re not stuck in this retrograde mode.There’s been a sense over the past eight years that there’s been a very small group of awful people doing exactly what they want to do, and ruining the world for everyone else. And the rest of the world is sat there thinking “Hang on, we don’t really want this…!” It seems like the government has been unrepresentative, which I think is why Obama got in – it’s the public saying “No, this is not what we’re like”.
Exactly. It really does feel like what we’re trying to do with our music is say “Let’s be as loud and vocal and forceful about who we believe we really are”. We really believe that we are people who do not want war. And that’s why that line [in Same Thing
] is a little more than just politics – it’s more like a catharsis. It’s like if you were to take the American psyche into a therapy session, those are some of the things it would need to say. It would probably say “We don’t do this, we didn’t want this war, I never wanted this!” And you have people who are at various stages. I’ve been demonstrating since the very beginning, and there were millions of people demonstrating against the war before it happened, but there are a lot of people that went through this change – they voted were Bush, were pro-war, and now are in a new place. And so I think what we’re trying to do with the music is say that even though we’re casting a wide net, let’s look at what we’re seeing and feeling and sensing from everyone around us – not just the people who agree with us, but the people who were really in a different place four years ago. And let’s try to put that emotional content into some simple phrases. I was listening to the album again recently and it seems to be an almost utopian ideal that the band stands for. I noticed on the Fight With Tools site that it says “Flobots do not endorse or oppose any political candidate, party or specific legislation”. Do you class yourself as Liberals? Libertarians? Humanists? Hippies?
[Laughs] Well, I mean, there’s six of us and not everyone voted for Obama in the band. I think because last year was such a rollercoaster for us – we went from being a small local Denver band to suddenly touring Europe
– we really had to think through: what do you do when you get a gigantic microphone? Because when you’re small and you have some cause, you say “Oh, I wish I had a gigantic microphone – I would tell everyone what to do”. And then you get it and you think “I have 14-year-old kids just waiting to do whatever I say” – should I really just say what to do, or should I say, “You have a good mind, you have a better knowledge of your neighbourhood than I do – use your mind, look around you, get active”. And that’s the direction we’ve gone.
Talking to other folks on this tour, that’s the process that everyone’s gone through when they’ve realised, like, “Wait – I can just tell this entire mob to go that way”, or: “Help each other out – if you see someone fall down, pick ’em up”. And that’s why I think punk culture really is inspiring, because I’ve been watching these shows and punk rock culture involves everyone looking out for each other. If someone was to collapse and have a seizure at one of these shows, there’s no doubt in my mind that there’d be several groups of people helping out – and I don’t think that’s gonna happen at every type of show. But it’s something happening with these audiences where they feel empowered. So I think that’s the approach that we take.Going back to what you were talking about a moment ago regarding the band’s progression from a small state act to having a national profile - has there ever any tension between the saleability of the band and its politics?
No, because what happened was that we released the album ourselves – we released it independently in Denver
in September 2007, and it was because of the sales locally that Universal was attracted to us. And so when they signed us they knew what they were getting, and we were very upfront about the fact that we’re clearly not going to bend politically or stylistically against our wishes. And they didn’t really want that - the reason we were comfortable with signing with them is that they said “Look, we’re here to break new acts – you guys are already doing a good thing”. So what it did was to give us a bigger microphone, it gave us a wider audience, allowed us to do more touring, get on the radio and stuff like that. But it’s the exact same album that we released on our own. Right now we’re writing a new album, and we were very clear, like – “We’ll let you know! We’ll let you know when our album’s done”.
Upon first hearing the song Iraq in particular I remember thinking “God, I can’t believe a major label has put this out!”
I mean, here’s the thing. By last year, everybody
was against the war. When Starbucks is writing ‘Yes We Did’ with Obama beans, people are on a different page! Even if they were [disputing the band’s political content], it’s a niche market and they know they can make money on anti-war bands. So I have no illusions about why labels sign bands, but I also think that for a lot of people at the labels, they themselves are opposed to the war, they’re Democrats or they’re… whatever they are, they I think feel some vicarious involvement in the messaging as well. If it were 2002-2003, I’d be very curious whether an anti-war message would’ve gotten through.
I saw that documentary about The Dixie Chicks a while back, Shut Up and Sing – have you seen that?
Yeah, I have.
- Terrifying. My friends and I were watching it thinking, “What sort of a fucked-up country would ever allow that to happen?” [The band was roundly vilified during the opening weeks of the Iraq conflict when singer Natalie Maines made a relatively harmless comment denouncing President Bush.]
Yeah, and I think that people forget. I was in DC for the inauguration week and there was this activist named Van Jones who was saying “Let’s not rewrite history” – we’re in danger of rewriting history since the Barack Obama movement. Let’s not forget, 2002-2003, we didn’t have any leaders - all we had was each other. We had these uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners with relatives who did not agree with us; we didn’t have anybody but each other at that point, and that’s really important to remember. Because there’s things right now, like Palestine – that’s something that I really hope the United States
this year will shift, that conversation will get more open. Or immigration – these are conversations that are not necessarily comfortable to have. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, there’s an ideological monolith of opinion in those areas that I’m hoping we can start to broach a little more this year.Michael Moore always talks about the ‘gap in the system’ which allows artists to say inflammatory things from within the confines of a certain corporate platform, provided there’s profit to be made. Have you ever felt like the label has thought “We need one anti-war band to satisfy our certain quota”, or felt exploited in that way?
No, maybe because I’ve never thought of it! [Laughs]
But even if I was, I wouldn’t have a problem with it - if the market for anti-war or human rights bands is increasing then I’m still happy. I like it when the market happens to go my way! I like Fair Trade chic – I think we should take our victories where we can get ’em. If suddenly it’s cool and trendy to be anti-war, let’s go with that, and then let’s go deeper and say “Okay, you got your anti-war shirt at Urban Outfitters, now let’s look at how your living habits intersect with forces that lead to war”. There’s always a step deeper you can go, but hey, if it’s cool to be anti-war and marketers tap into that, great. I’ll take it, you know?! Thanks for doing our work for us! There are vodka adverts that are like, ‘Make vodka, not war’ – I was like, “Alright! I guess we’re moving along!”Going into the musical anatomy of Flobots, there’s a real sense of the band being a proper cross-genre musical collective. The influences which immediately seem to spring up are Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers, but I also spotted a bit of 311 and Cake in there.
I don’t know 311 or Cake’s stuff very well - Cake we get a lot because of the trumpet on Handlebars
, and maybe my vocals on that song a little more so. But it is true that the rhythm section are very into Rage and the Chili Peppers – maybe 311 also.So what do you consider the band’s roots? Is it more Public Enemy, Jurassic 5…?
All over - I mean, our bass player: Tool, Rage, Chili Peppers, but also we’re all into The Roots and a lot of different stuff. It’s very difficult, because all six of us would have a completely different set of influences. Lyrically I’m into West Coast underground 90s hip-hop – Project Load, Quantum Spectrum, Lyrics Born, Common, Outkast – Outkast’s maybe a universal influence in the band.How do you feel about the current state of hip-hop? It strikes me that that there’s always this perpetual divide between the Gangster side – 50 Cent, The Game etc – and what I call the ‘musical’ or lyrical side of people like Immortal Technique, Jurassic 5 and KRS-One. Does it frustrate you that the more interesting voices always seem to get pushed to the sidelines?
I wouldn’t divide it quite so starkly – I mean, I think that gangster rap can be a lot of other things too, sometimes the cinematic aspect is like gangster movies, you know? But it’s a little less upfront about “Hey, I’m just portraying a character”. But a lot of gangsta rap can be really lyrical too, or a lot of times it’s reflecting an actual reality people are dealing with. But I guess I would flip it the other way – there are a lot of really talented underground groups like Immortal Technique who I wish could break through more, but he’s pretty well-known and he’s independent so he’s getting all that money himself! He has some lines about the fact that he’s sold 80,000 but it’s all straight to him, you know, so he’s made more money than if he went gold. I think he’s making waves and pretty well-known as well, so I guess what I would say is pretty frustrating is that especially younger artists are feeling like “If I want to do the art-form, I have to do this content”. People get content confused with form. If you want to be a battle rapper, that’s great, but I hope more and more people are aware that you don’t just have to be a battle rapper. To be a rapper doesn’t automatically mean to be a gangster rapper – maybe that’s what texture you want to play with, but look at all these other textures out there. But by and large I really think that hip-hop has expanded so much, particularly in the iPod generation who are not strictly looking at one genre, that people looking at all these different cross-pollinations.
The record has a very improvisational feel – does the band jam together and just let the songs evolve naturally?
Yeah. This is our first full-length album together and we really did have to relearn and rediscover the process of songwriting for every single song. All those songs came from a different place – some of the songs start with a viola hook, some would start with a concept, some started with a bass-line, some would start with lyrics – so if they feel that way it’s because they were written so differently. Now with the new album we’ve discovered our process a little bit more, but it’s still coming from all six of us, and each one of them generates some momentum.I read somewhere that this started as a side-project…?
Yeah, I’ve always wondered why we put that on there! I don’t know how you’d define ‘side-project’ – the way it started was that it was first myself and Brer Rabbit and Mackenzie, just the three of us with DJs. And then Andy, who played in another band, said “Hey, why don’t we try putting a live band behind that”. And so this other band backed us up for a test-show and we said “Yeah, we like that”, and then shopped around a bit to get the current line-up. So basically the idea was, “Let’s combine these two MCs and viola player with a live band”, and Flobots was born.I was thinking earlier: what a ballsy move to have a room full of punks cheering a viola solo…
That was our biggest cheer tonight, I’d say!Which leads me to the question I really want to ask – Handlebars. An incredibly subversive record, and it’s not every day that you hear a song with such a strong message get in the charts. Obviously it’s been the band’s calling-card over the past year and is responsible for bringing you to people’s attention – are you sick of it yet?
No… I mean, it’s hard to conjure up the same emotional source that I originally was coming from when I wrote the lyrics for it, but I’m not sick of it. I’ll get waves of resurgent energy around that song – I’ll look out and see a different audience, a new audience, a new set of faces really into it and it suddenly hits me, like: this is how we got here, this song struck a nerve.
I read somewhere that it was [L.A. rock station] KROQ’s most requested record for three months straight. Were you ever worried that when a song reaches that level of ubiquity that it’s going to be misinterpreted and lose meaning or - worse still – idly consumed?
I think things were moving so fast at that point that we didn’t even have time to worry about that. There was a station in Florida that played it for three hours straight – they had an all-request three-hour session and they said “We know what you guys are gonna request, you’ve been requesting it all night, we’re just gonna play it straight” - I think the idea was like, ‘We’re gonna burn you out of this song so you never want to hear it again’! But no, I think with every song – especially songs on the radio – it’s always going to be a spectrum of how involved people are in it. I mean, the four-year-olds that are singing that song maybe don’t catch the deep meaning, and maybe a lot of forty-year-olds don’t either – they just say “Oh, this is that song that’s stuck in my head”. That’s why it’s music: the job is to get stuck in your head, the job is to catch you with a melody. But I figure if you look at the bell-curve of people that in general listen deeper to music, they listen deeper to that song, and just imagining the “Ah-ha!” moments people might be having, like “Oh
… this is a little more than I thought” – that
’s a good feeling, to think that eight million people or however many people who’ve heard the song might’ve gone through that process.Was there ever a feeling when you came up with it of “Hang on a minute - this is the one that’s going to catch on”?
Andy, our guitar-player, I remember said at the beginning “Oh this is gold. This is a hit!” For me, every song I write I get excited about, like right after I write it I wanna go share it with somebody. I think that’s just the artistic ego, when you’re done you’re like “Look! Look how good this!”, so for me it wasn’t more or less than any other one.Has there been any pressure from the record label to repeat its success?
If there has, they haven’t told us about it. They know better than to come to us and say “Give us another Handlebars”! They know we’re gonna write songs and make every song as good as it can possibly be – I’m excited about the new album though, I think we have quite a few songs that to me are hits. I don’t know if they’re radio hits or what station they’ll go on, but musically I’m very excited about this album because we’ve been doing these songs for a year and a half. We had a Colorado
release of 2007, and even then it’d been about six months since we wrote those songs, so we’ve worn these songs pretty through and through.Obviously though this is the first time that people over here are really getting to see the band – does that rejuvenate your love for the material when you see that sort of reaction?
Yeah, new audiences always rejuvenate it - but new material is also priceless, and the time to let that creative energy out. Because we’ve been touring the last six months, it’s been spilling out here and there in soundchecks and writing sessions on the side, and the last month and a half we’ve just been releasing it and it’s coming together so quickly in so many different directions.I remember a famous comedian saying when Bush disappeared from office that his first thought was, “What are we going to do for material now?!” Now that we’ve had this seismic political change, are your lyrical concerns going to stay rooted in grass-roots politics or are you going to be addressing different issues?
I think of it this way: the concept of Fight With Tools
was based around a World War II propaganda campaign – translating that into this war for your mind. And so we were using big shapes, we were speaking in pretty broad terms; it was deliberately propagandist. But every propaganda poster has cracks in it: it was a real person who put it up with contradictions, and it was made somewhere, so to me all of these things are cracks in the surface that are more complex, more personal, harder to deal with – I think that’s where we’re shifting this time. Like, we’ve come together under this banner, there’s been a lot of people who’ve been attracted to the message of Fight With Tools
– but now let’s look at us as people. Let’s try to express ourselves as individuals, and let’s also look at the reality of social movements and their limits.
Very specifically we’re looking at sustainability as an issue – it’s kind of a lens for this album, because that was actually what our Street Teams picked as our focus area for 2009. Over New Year’s Eve we had a conference for Fight With Tools members: about 75 people came, half of those from outside of Denver and Colorado, and people spent three days getting to know each other but also coming together around, “What do we want to focus our efforts on next year?” Last year it was voter registration, what’s it gonna be in 2009? And people said “Look. We need to empower ourselves as communities to create sustainability”. Not just environmental sustainability, but sustainability in the work we do as activists, as organisations, economic sustainability… we have to create that.If you look at the history of American politics over the last forty years it seems like there’s a definite voting trend that goes eight years Democratic, eight years Republican. There’s also this feeling of dread creeping up that if Obama can’t turn water into wine over the next eight years that we’re going to have President Palin with her finger on the nuclear button. There definitely has to be a continued engagement, like: this is a good starting-point, but there’s still work to be done.
Well I think that’s why we try to de-emphasise political leaders too – this isn’t about, like, “Throw that leader up there and see if it works; throw this other leader up there and see if that makes change”. To me, Obama is about having someone on the inside. We have the social movement, we’ve been building it up for years and years and years, but specifically the ant-war movement – like I said before, we didn’t have him six years ago. We just had ourselves. All we have is each other. That’s still
all we have, but now we got this guy Obama who’s in the White House working on the inside, and if we push hard enough then he can make some decisions that’ll complement the movement. So my hope would be that the more people that are cognizant of the movement as the power source rather than the political leader, then if the political leader or the political decisions fail in some way it doesn’t mean “Okay, turn the other direction and move backwards”, it means to keep moving forward.Final question, then: where does the band’s fascination with the platypus come from?
Well, I think we identify with the platypus. The platypus doesn’t fit neatly into
any category. The chronology of the story is actually that on our first EP, before we named it, there were two songs with the word ‘platypus’ in there
- and then someone said “You’ve mentioned the platypus twice!” so I said “Why don’t we make that our album title?” But it felt appropriate once we did it, we were like “Yeah… yeah!