Sunday, May 24, 2009

ALBUM: "Journal for Plague Lovers" - Manic Street Preachers (Sony, 2009)

To this day, the Manic Street Preachers’ third album, The Holy Bible, stands as one of the greatest anomalies in the history of popular music. Previously, the Manics had been known as third-rate Guns’n’Roses wannabes churning out god-awful, meaningless ‘anthems’ like Motorcycle Emptiness under the banner of some undefined revolution. For all the band’s radical posturing, however, to all but the most devoted fans they came across as all style and precious little substance: only the singles La Tristesse Durera and From Despair to Where hinted that there was anything going on behind the eyeliner. When it quietly emerged in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and against the upcoming backdrop of Britpop, The Holy Bible sounded like the work of a completely different band: no-one expected an artistic vision so focused from such an unlikely source, and even fewer were prepared for the savage, grubby, misanthropic brilliance of an album which is rightly regarded as their finest hour. Imagine if King Adora suddenly came out with In Utero three albums in: that’s the kind of U-turn we’re talking about. Witty, lacerating, dark, compulsive, horrifying: The Holy Bible is all these things and more. “He’s a boy; you want a girl, so cut off his cock / Tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want”. Nothing the Manics did before or since has ever come close to topping it; it was, as journalist Keith Cameron so aptly put it, “A triumph of art over logic”.

Nevertheless, it was an album born of circumstance rather than any kind of sustained inspiration or artistic rebirth - namely the increasingly troubled mindset of iconic guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, who disappeared shortly after the album’s release and hasn’t been seen since. Following 1996’s transitional epic Everything Must Go, the remaining trio has soldiered on manfully to become a tired, puffy behemoth churning out album after album of catatonic snooze-rock. If Richey’s still knocking about beneath the floorboards somewhere, even he would be hard-pushed to raise a smirk at the fact that the band’s biggest-seller– the stadium-conquering This is My Truth, Tell Me Yours - was also its most crushingly uninspired, spawning two of the biggest yawn-inducers in recent memory in the form of The Everlasting and If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next (oh, stop it). Even the much-vaunted ‘return to form’ of 2007’s Send Away the Tigers doesn’t really withstand sustained scrutiny: if its breezy summertime romping sounded vaguely… well, good, one suspects that’s only because the records that preceded it were so spectacularly flatulent that even the sound of Nicky Wire farting in a jar would’ve sounded promising by comparison. “I live to fall asleep”, James Dean Bradfield cooed on one particularly emblematic track from the ironically-named Lifeblood. You and us both, mate.

Make no mistake, Journal for Plague Lovers is the band’s shot at artistic redemption. While it’s perhaps unfair to rate their latest efforts alongside one of the greatest albums of the last 20 years, it’s difficult to mistake the band’s intentions this time around. The adverts for the album loudly proclaim “Lyrics: Edwards; Music: Bradfield/Wire/Moore”. Same cover artist (Jenny Saville), same font and typeface; it’s even produced by Steve Albini in a bid to replicate the low-down, grizzly feel of its predecessor. Completists have the option of shelling out for a deluxe edition featuring Richey’s lyrics and artwork laid out for slavish analysis. Clearly, this is IMPORTANT STUFF. It’s the band revisiting history, delving back into the darkest hour that produced a masterpiece. While evidently not quite an attempt to replicate The Holy Bible’s hermetic breeding-ground of self-disgust, it’s an official sequel of sorts, filtering the rage, satire and anguish through a decade and a half of embattled life experience.

And therein lies the rub. Last time around, the airtight synthesis of music and lyrics formed a perfect union: chief musical architect Bradfield was at the very top of his game, winding a series of suffocating motifs around dense, claustrophobic verses whose payoff invariably came at the point of most resistance, triggering a chorus that detonated from within to unleash a burst of melody so colourful that it sounded like rapture erupting from the bowels of Hell. It was invigorating precisely because no-one expected it from a band with just three good songs and a load of hot air to their name. In the years that followed, however, the Manics’ gradual metamorphosis into the lumbering rock dinosaurs one suspects they always were underneath appears to have nullified much of that source of initial inspiration. Consequently, Journal for Plague Lovers is an album packing heat but largely firing blanks, its scuzzy underlying intentions consistently undermined by a creative consciousness unable to cast off the shackles of mediocrity.

It all starts so promisingly with the opening minute of Peeled Apples. The ominous quotes from various media sources – such a distinctive, unnerving distinguishing feature of The Holy Bible - are back. Wire’s bass rumbles in like the bastard son of Archives of Pain; Bradfield and Moore spar restlessly as the riffs spike, slice and rip accordingly. It’s all going so well until… oh, god. They reference Chomsky. Chomsky! Before we go any further, let’s just clear up this matter once and for all: there are certain things that should never appear in any song. The word ‘juxtaposed’ is one (take note, Super Furry Animals). Name-checking Noam Chomsky is another - save it for the 6th Form Sociology essay, lads. It’s an incidental moment, admittedly, but one which ties the song’s laces in knots so that it stumbles to the finish-line rather than sprints.

Indeed, the band’s overly reverent approach to its source text is Journal’s Achilles heel throughout, as demonstrated further in its lead single, Jackie Collins Existential Question Time. A great title in desperate need of a song, on the page it’s a terse antisocial screed hinging on the killer tag-line “Oh mummy, what’s a sex pistol?” On record, it becomes little more than a stand-alone one-liner which deserves so much more than the lifeless, uninspired plod of a hook that accompanies it. By the time the visceral rage of the chorus erupts from the song’s grimy underbelly (the closest we get to a true Holy Bible moment throughout), it’s too little, too late – you want more of that and much, much less of everything that came before. Fittingly, it’s all over within two-and-a-half minutes, at precisely the point when it was becoming interesting.

Indeed, if The Holy Bible had a weakness, it’s that the lyrics – apparently written independently from the music, and thus prescriptive rather than responsive – often put a stranglehold on Bradfield’s ability to weave conventional melodic structures around them. This time around, the verbiage positively spills off the page. For every great bit of off-the-cuff sloganeering (“It’s the facts of life, sunshine!” being one particularly choice soundbite), there’s a dozen examples of Edwards’ words blazing a trail that the band simply can’t keep up with. Facing Page: Top Left is by far the worst offender, undercut throughout by a meter that’s just plain ridiculous. “This beauty here dipping neophobia”, Bradfield croons, apparently oblivious to the fact that what might look effective on the page often has no place in linear melodic form. ‘This beauty here dipping neophobia’?! For the love of Richard Nixon!

Musically, Sean Moore does his part by contributing some rattling 16-beats, but Bradfield’s inability to conquer his worst vice – a penchant for lounge-tinged, easy-listening chord sequences that even The Walker Brothers would’ve balked at – often renders the melodies inert, drab and lifeless where they should seethe and scythe. As Send Away the Tigers suggested, the band are most effective nowadays when they jettison their artier aspirations in favour of a more conventional approach, and the best tracks here are often the most straightforward: Pretension//Repulsion and Me and Stephen Hawking are curiously chirpy larks whose rolling verses shed a ray of melodic sunlight on the proceedings, whereas the Cure-esque Marlon J.D. is a real standout - clearly the song Motorcycle Emptiness wishes it was, both in content and execution.

For the most part though the album offers moments of inspiration bobbing desperately in a tide of mediocrity. This Joke Sport Severed is fairly pretty for about thirty seconds before completely losing focus and then piling on the strings in a belated attempt to add a sense of depth and grandeur. Doors Closing Slowly is drab to the point of abject misery. The title track sounds unnervingly like the Foo FightersLearn to Fly. Generally speaking (and god knows, I’ve wasted hours of my life debating the ‘merits’ of lumpen tripe like Little Baby Nothing to have ample experience in this matter), Manic Street Preachers fans are among the most blinkered, humourless devotees going, but you’d have to be either stone deaf or a complete idiot to consider the album’s closing track, the Nicky Wire-sung William’s Last Words, anything other than an appalling, tuneless dirge. If Edwards saw it as a shot at an unofficial suicide note, it’s ill-served by a man who manages to make lines like “Isn’t it lovely when the dawn brings the dew?” sound like the ramblings of a cheap greeting-card rather than the dignified exit Edwards intended. Atmosphere, it ain’t.

Wire, the perpetually smackable faux-controversy merchant, is no doubt very pleased with himself for putting out an album which, in his mind at least, will re-affirm the Manics’ position as the most revolutionary and vital band Britain has ever produced. Their fans will be all-too-quick to proclaim it a masterpiece. The simple fact remains, however, that only once in their 20-year history were the Manics ever half as clever as they thought they were. The fanaticism of their fanbase has built up an ill-deserved mystique around the band - in terms of influence, significance and overall musical achievement, the Manics just aren't all that important. In spite of its creators’ pretensions, in spite of their empty rhetoric – indeed, in spite of everything - The Holy Bible remains not just a modern classic, but one of the greatest records ever made. I wanted to love their new offering so desperately; more than any release in recent memory, it was something I was eager to get wrapped up in, pore over, digest and savour. As it stands, Journal for Plague Lovers is occasionally good, mostly average, but rarely great. And that’s just not going to cut it for your big redemptive gambit.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

FILM: Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)

There was a fascinating news item recently about a group of kids who began making a shot-for-shot camcorder remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark back in 1981 using whatever limited means were at their disposal. They finally completed their masterpiece after eight years of painstaking work and, following a high-profile magazine scoop, eventually got to present it to Steven Spielberg himself. The ensuing hoopla secured them not just a limited release in selected art theatres, but also an upcoming Hollywood biopic after a producer bought the rights to their story.

I’ve watched the first ten minutes of their efforts online - given the circumstances of its creation (no effects budget, non-professional actors, sets created in their garage), it’s absolutely astonishing. The exercise in itself though raises numerous teasing questions: at what point does an amateur labour of love assume the mantle of being a work of art unto itself? Why is their experiment, conducted outside of the realm of commercial interests and apparently fuelled solely by an intense love of the original film, more legitimate than, say, Gus Van Sant’s much-lambasted shot-for-shot ‘revisioning’ of Psycho?

Michel Gondry, a director who dwells in abstracts more than most, is someone I’ve always had a fairly ambivalent relationship with. His undeniable imagination and knack for innovative flights of visual fancy (anointing him as a not-too-distant cousin of the equally divisive Terry Gilliam) forever seem to detract from the emotional substance at the core of his subject matter. Working from an achingly melancholic script by Being John Malkovich scribe Charlie Kaufman, I always felt that Gondry somehow managed to derail the guttural impact of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by filling it with the kind of exhausting, overblown subconscious comic interludes which would later reach an excruciating nadir in David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. Indeed, the director’s last effort - the execrable Science of Sleep - is one of the few movies I’ve ever felt compelled to turn off, such was the numbing experience of what felt like being bashed around the head with a child’s squeaky toy for 90 minutes.

His latest, though, represents something of an about-turn which might just prove to be the smartest meditation on audiences’ relationship with screen images to emerge from Hollywood since The Truman Show. A hyperactive, postmodern update of themes and ideas showcased in François Truffaut’s ‘let’s-make-a-movie’ classic Day for Night, Be Kind Rewind presents an investigation into the very nature of filmmaking itself: its motivations, its processes, its rewards. Cloaked in the auspices of anarchic surrealism, Gondry’s film operates around a philosophical, metacinematic conceit which works on so many levels that it’s often difficult to try and keep up.

Jack Black and Mos Def play a pair of small-town losers inhabiting Be Kind Rewind, a derelict video rental store in a crumbling neighbourhood which offers the simple pleasure of ‘1 Tape, 1 Dollar, 1 Night’. Its owner (Danny Glover) is a mild-mannered relic apparently oblivious to the threat of DVD and reluctant to take steps to modernise his business on the grounds that it supposedly sits in the historical birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller, and thus ought to be preserved in its current state. Threatened with closure within 60 days unless extensive repair work is completed, the beleaguered owner undergoes a pilgrimage to Waller’s final resting-place in a bid to drum up fresh inspiration; in his absence, Black’s attempts to sabotage the local power-plant (don’t ask) lead to him becoming magnetised and inadvertently erasing the entire store’s contents. Rather than admitting defeat, the pair begins to shoot its own amateur remakes of the damaged films using a handheld camera. Far from infuriating the rental community, their efforts – including uproarious renditions of Ghostbusters, 2001, Carrie, The Lion King and Robocop - prove a massive hit.

Like Gondry’s previous cinematic outings, Be Kind Rewind contains its fair share of scrabbling for wacky laughs (in particular a gratingly superfluous scene in which Black’s magnetised piss attracts fragments of scrap metal), but the ultimate strength of the film rests in its deployment of a multifaceted conceit capable of withstanding numerous interpretations. Aside from presenting a simple but effective metaphor for the twin worlds of independent DIY filmmaking and the lumbering corporate juggernaut which sanctions ‘legitimate’ (i.e. commercially-motivated) forms of cinema, Be Kind Rewind can be read as a treatise on art and commerce, together with the conflicting market forces driving a wedge between them. Indeed, it contains perhaps the best swipe at corporate rental chains since the clueless store clerk in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World mistook 8 ½ for 9 ½ Weeks, when Glover’s character creates a checklist of action-points while perusing the local rental behemoth: more copies, less choice, crushing market dominance and no specific knowledge of the product being offered.

The thin line between pastiche, parody, homage and all-out theft in creative endeavours comes in for passing analysis when, in a hugely enjoyable cameo, Sigourney Weaver pops up as the head of an anti-copyright organisation to threaten the pair with a multi-billion dollar fine or a total of 65,000 years in jail for their sins (the irony being that had the movies been recorded onto blank tapes rather than existing copies which remain “the property of the studio”, they probably could’ve gotten away with it under a legal technicality). Weaver, both key-master and gatekeeper to the store’s fortunes, ultimately orders the destruction of their labour under the auspices of protecting the studios’ commercial interests; “Oh, somehow we’re the bad guys now…”, she sighs wearily as her cronies literally steamroller the Be Kind Rewind team’s efforts beneath the wheels of corporate justice.

Turning in another aggressive comic performance guaranteed to amuse and irritate in equal measure, Jack Black’s character acts as a sort of Shakespearean Fool throughout, commenting on the process from the sidelines with numerous asides and symbolic interjections (in one particularly enjoyable episode which I will admit had me screaming with laughter, he blacks up to audition for the part of Fats Waller and seems baffled to discover that the townsfolk find it even partway inappropriate). To this end, Be Kind Rewind reveals a Brechtian artifice at every turn, from Mos Def’s blank performance in the lead to the fact that even its basic emotional foundations (the fabricated tale of the store’s origins) are a lie.

Be Kind Rewind is a veritable prism of ideas. It can be taken as a critique of Hollywood remakes, which are inevitably sloppier and inferior to the original but invariably more popular. It can be seen as an insight into the authorship process of movies’ conception and execution, specifically the extent to which audiences’ own individual hopes, dreams, ambitions and aspirations are reflected through our relationship with (and investment in) the material onscreen. Through the group’s creation of a fictional Fats Waller biopic, it also offers a window onto the ways in which we’re willing to allow cinema to reconfigure our own history for posterity, even if that means sentimentalising, fictionalising or ultimately constructing it from scratch.

Those who’d prefer to gloss over such conjecture can revel in some deliciously absurd parodies of Hollywood excess through Black’s growing megalomania and conviction that he’s more than just a star - he’s an artist (one fleeting, hilarious gag sees him photocopying his mugshot numerous times with the words ‘For Your Consideration’ scrawled underneath). Mia Farrow has an enjoyable bit-part as a daffy middle-aged sap blithely consuming the manufactured sentiments of films like Driving Miss Daisy as proof of her own compassion and humanity. Indeed, by parodying the inanity of both prestige and throwaway mainstream projects with such razor-sharp precision, Gondry breaks down the mystique of Hollywood lore - the oft-stated myth of “movie magic” - by demonstrating the extent to which apparent feats of technical brilliance can be replicated using primitive means, and meticulously deconstructs Hollywood conventions throughout (most notably when he sabotages a romantic moment beyond Mos Def and Melonie Diaz by reducing it to an awkward discussion of her lip hair).

Ultimately though the galvanising power of the medium is affirmed in the film’s closing shot, in which the town unites behind the group’s efforts at the premiere of their own fictional history. Beyond the final frames of the movie, the world progresses with its grim agenda of destruction regardless: the store is still going to be demolished, rendering its inhabitants homeless and customers destitute. Yet for one glorious moment they become heroes of the community, capable of uniting all races, genders, ages and classes in a moment of shared experience. Perhaps this is why the protagonists’ bumbling remakes ultimately fail to bring about the necessary financial turnaround to save their store: when their endeavours become part of a cynical upward trajectory and just another means to generate capital, they lose the element of creative spark which ignited them in the first instance. The triumph of Fats Waller: Our History – and, indeed, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation – can thus be seen in simple terms: by virtue of their inherently hopeless acknowledgement that art and its potential affects can perhaps never be fully reconciled in any commercial system, they are invested with more heart, love and personality than a comparable big-budget enterprise could ever hope to be.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


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, 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 magazine.

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?

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!

Fight With Tools
is available now on Universal Republic.