At their recent tour stop in Cincinnati, I had the chance to sit down with James Laurie (aka Jonny 5) and Mackenzie Roberts of Flobots. They dished about music, their rise to fame, politics, and much more. Here is what they had to say…
For the record, can you please state your names and what you do in the band?
Mackenzie: My name is Mackenzie Roberts and I play the viola and sing. James: Jonny 5 and I am an emcee.
One of the things that has struck me about you guys and your rise to fame is the fact that not a lot of people outside of Denver really visualize the city as some sort of bustling music capitol, but in one of your interviews, you refer to it as a “music mecca.” Was it therefore tougher to stand out or get noticed?
Jonny 5: I think it makes it easier in terms of the number of venues and the people looking to go see that sort of music, and the overall support out there for music. Mackenzie: Yeah, I don’t think I’d say it is any easier or harder than it is in any other city. Anytime you’re in a big city, there are a ton of bands and a ton of artists. And for us, I think what worked is that what we were doing was really different from everything else that was going on at the time. So, just like in any city with any music scene there are going to be trends – you’ve got your indie rock, you’ve got your hip hop – so anything that sort of breaks out of the mainstream genres at the time is going to get a little more attention.
So did you tend to identify more with the rock scene or the hip hop scene in general?
Jonny 5: Well the six of us are all coming from different places so as a band we all brought different things to the mix. And I think people know us as a group across the spectrum of different genres.
You guys obviously wrote the material for Fight With Tools a few years ago, but did you ever feel the themes on the record would be so relevant? Especially now, I listen to a track like “There’s a War Going on for Your Mind” and in the current state of politics it seems almost eerie how true is still seems.
Jonny 5: I think for better or for worse, a lot of the issues we’re talking about are here to stay. It would be nice if the idea of materialism or mass advertising was a 2007-era phenomenon, but that is definitely going to be around for a while. So the situations we are talking about are still here at this point, but we are trying to move beyond that and push for better circumstances in this world. But we’re trying to also just describe the world around us as it changes slowly.
On the outro of “Stand Up,” you seem to take a bit of a jab at the empty state of hip hop and the propensity for misogyny and all that kind of stuff. What are your thoughts on the rap and hip hop state of affairs as a whole?
Jonny 5: Any genre suffers when it is graded purely on its commercial value, and I think especially with hip hop, there is a weird sort of distortion that has happened as a result of how and who it is marketed to. So if you have this art form that stems out of people of color in oppressed communities, it then later contorts to fit the wishes of more suburban audiences who are not in touch with that oppression on a daily level, then what they want to see is that stereotype, and the people marketing it want to sell it to them. At one point there was this study that said 70% of hip hop buyers were white suburbanites, and they have a place in it too, but if it is catering to the stereotype more than it is talking about life experience, you are going to get that distortion.
Do you think that is something we will ever outgrow as a general trend or is it here to stay?
Jonny 5: I think Nas raises some really interesting questions on his new album, where his asks his suburban fans, “Are you really with me? Are you really going to support the deeper issues with hip hop?” I think everybody is thinking and changing, so eventually the majority of hip hop fans might decide they want more content as well. I think everything has potential to change.
Going along with that in a sense, a lot of people that know you as a band might not know you beyond the song “Handlebars.” Does it ever frustrate you to encounter people that know that track and just take it at face value without looking deeper into that song and the rest of the album?
Mackenzie: It is kind of a risk you take as a musician. You put your stuff out there and people are going to take it however they want to. Whoever are fans of our music, we love and appreciate those people and if they only song they know or like is “Handlebars” then that is fine. Ultimately, that is not really what we’re about, but what we have found is that there are a lot of people that just know us from the radio, and then there are another set of fans that know the whole album and come to shows. It is almost shocking to see how many people sing along to “Stand Up” or “Fight With Tools” and know the words to those songs too. So, those people that come only knowing “Handlebars” will come to the show and later we will hear form them saying, “Wow, I had no idea how much deeper it went.” So they come away from the show having had a really positive experience and hopefully will have learned something during that 75 minutes.
Does it make you at all nervous as you release your second single, trying to match that success or break through again?
Mackenzie: Well, “Rise” is already out as a second single and it is doing pretty well at radio. When you have a hit as big as “Handlebars,” you can’t really expect to emulate that again. I don’t think we’d try to create another “Handlebars.” We just make the music we make, and what is true to who we are, and if people like it, they like it – if they don’t, they don’t. It’s been a great ride so far, and we’re just hoping to be able to continue.
Were you surprised how much that song blew up?
Mackenzie: Oh yeah.
When you wrote it, did you ever think to yourself, “Now, this is a hit.”
Jonny 5: I think we thought it was a hit for us as a local Denver band, but we didn’t know exactly where it was going to take us. Mackenzie: It is a little quirky, so I don’t think any of us ever thought it was going to be some radio smash.
When people hear the song for the first time, do they ever confuse you for other groups or other emcees?
Jonny 5: Yeah, actually – in Detroit I heard someone called in requesting the new Eminem song, and everyone likes to draw the comparison to Cake based on that song – I guess because there’s rapping, a trumpet, and rock.
I have heard people call into the radio here and think it was Eminem also, and one person thought it was Atmosphere.
Jonny 5: It’s cool to be compared to respected lyricists like Eminem.
As you went along in the process and gaining popularity, how was the process of signing to the dreaded major label?
Jonny 5: The decision itself was something we measured out very carefully and it was only because we were going to release the album untouched, so creative control was a non-issue. They understood that is who they were signing – a band that had both creative and political control. I think the scope of going from being a local band to suddenly being on every radio station in the US and touring Europe has been incredibly fast. It’s been good so far though.
As you grow in popularity, do you ever worry about having the time to devote to your social initiatives? And likewise, do you ever feel the need to dumb down your message to appeal to a wider audience?
Jonny 5: I have never thought about it that way before, and I don’t think we’re going to change that. We want to appeal to people in general, , but we aren’t going to change what we represent. I mean, our lives have changed, right – the things we’re thinking about, our lives being on the road now – we are living this new existence. So that is going to come up with the new material, but still in a genuine way. I think we’re all really excited about this next album, because we have so much more to say now that we are experiencing this and we’re talking to people. So we don’t cater to our audience in thinking that people will only like dumb music, but we do reflect what we hear from our audience. If we’re talking to people after the show, and they say, “Look, here’s my situation” – whether they know someone in Iraq, or they spent all their money to come to the show – those types of things will show in the music. I don’t think we’re dumbing it down, but actually we’re getting smarter as we go forward.
I would think that likewise, both politically and socially, the environment of the world would be ripe for a band like you to pull inspiration for writing material. Have you found yourselves thriving in the past year or two with that new material?
Mackenzie: Yeah, definitely. Playing the same songs over and over again every night gives you a kick in the pants to come up with new stuff and we have really been enjoying that process. I don’t think any of us feel like we’re at a loss for creative inspiration. We have come up with a lot of new stuff, new ideas, and we’re excited to put them into songs. I think we’re headed in a very positive direction.
What came first to you guys as a group? Was it the music or political and social activism?
Jonny 5: It was the music that brought us together with a backdrop of activism. Our first show we played, it was Mackenzie, myself, and Brer Rabbit back in 2004 in Denver. And what brought us together with the other musicians was that Andy, the guitar player, wanted to try out a live band setting for a Rock the Vote show. So, it was a political show, but it was the musical experience of getting to play as a live band that inspired us to go that route.
How was it playing this year alongside Rage Against the Machine at the DNC? Was that pretty intense?
Jonny 5: That was cool. Mackenzie: You can say it was intense. It was amazing – the crowd was great and overall it was a really great experience.
I am guessing the whole week was pretty wild up there?
Jonny 5: Yeah, that was definitely the culmination. It was cool not only to get to play alongside them, but also to march alongside them. As bands, everyone know why we were there. No one was getting paid, and Rage actually helped support the event and make sure that it actually happened. We were all there to support IVAW – Iraq Veterans Against the War – and it felt like the truest form of success, with musicians bringing all our talents to this larger cause.
You mention your opposition to the war and support of IVAW. Is the war the most important issue of the current election cycle, or is there something else that has come up?
Jonny 5: It may be different depending on who you talk to in the band. I think something like a war weighs on us in ways we don’t even realize as you’re going into the sixth year of it. I think it’s pretty significant that any sense of identity we have as a nation – you can’t extract that from it – the fact that this nation is occupying another country. The fact that this nation is sending people to kill and to die in a country where we don’t need to be. So, it is sort of this post-traumatic stress that we are receiving and we have to deal with. For me personally, it probably is the most important. It drains resources away from everything else, it ruins our reputation in the world, It creates damage on both sides – to the people in Iraq and our people who are there. Obviously there are elements we hope will be constructive, but compared to the entire project as a whole, it’s miniscule.
You guys tend to blur the line between music and politics. As an artist, do you feel compelled to speak out and use your voice? Conversely, do you feel there are other artists who abuse their influence and shouldn’t do so?
Jonny 5: I don’t think there is really a line between music and politics to begin with. I don’t think we’re blurring the line. Mackenzie: I don’t think there is a line between music and anything. Anything can be put into music – it’s not a matter of music being something separate where the world exists around it. You can sing about anything; you can write about anything; you can play about anything that moves you. So politics happens to be something that moves us, and we speak out about it in ways we feel are appropriate. We talk about issues that are important to us, and we try to educate people on things that we feel they need to know about, and we encourage people to educate themselves on topics that are important to them. So, I think that is where we are coming from politically – we don’t try to impose our views on anybody. In general, it is less important to make people believe what you believe than to just encourage them to think for themselves. As far as this idea of the war going on for your mind, if you’re thinking, you’re winning. Any artist that has a voice and has an issue they feel is important, should address the issues in a way they feel is appropriate. There are a lot of people out there blindly endorsing things or people, not for any particular reason. When I see Beyonce wearing an Obama t-shirt, it’s hard to know if that’s because she really supports him or if it’s just the cool thing to do. That’s not for me to decide. There are people who use their celebrity for good and there are those that use it in a negative way as well.
You talk about empowering people to use and exercise their own voice. I am intrigued behind the idea behind the Fight With Tools (www.fightwithtools.org) website. Can you talk a little about that – how it started and what is your ultimate vision for that project?
Jonny 5: To tie off the last question, I have to say that anytime you bring politics into music, you run a risk. I have had the experience where I listen to a song where I like the person, but I disagree intellectually with what they are saying. So it takes me out of the song emotionally, because when I get to that part, I want to say, “Yeah, but you…” or “But what about…”
Any specific examples you can think of?
Jonny 5: Well, Dead Prez has a song, and I have cousins in the military, that says as far I’m concerned, they die they day they register. And I think, “Wow, that is pretty harsh.”
Anyway, we are aware what might happen with our music too, and one of the thoughts we had was that as people come to our shows and they might get inspired, but there was never really any next step. So what we wanted to provide was both a next step both for activism, and for dialogue about lyrics and about those disagreements. We were thinking about this about two years ago as a way to integrate the activism and the music and serve as a tool for nonprofit organizations that never have an audience – they don’t get to speak to the 15 to 30 year olds on a regular basis that we do, but they have real projects that need volunteers. So the thought was, why don’t we marry these things into a project that can point people toward these organizations, so that there is follow up to that inspiration.
Okay, well here is sort of a random question.
Jonny 5: Well, I’ll be sure to give you an arbitrary answer then. (laughs)
Biggest blunder of the Bush administration is…?
Jonny 5: Platypus. (laughs) Mackenzie: How do you pick just one? Jonny 5: Well, I think being elected would be one. (laughs) I think there is a general arrogance, a general lack of curiosity, a general lack of acceptance that we are one nation among many, rather than the parent nation that gets to set the rules.
So then do you fundamentally disagree with the ideology that the US is somehow this “shining city on a hill”?
Jonny 5: Well, is goes along with the so-called “end of American exceptionalism” – the idea that we are somehow set apart and that we are the managers of history. That’s the new conservative ideal. I remember a while back when I was in Argentina studying for a few months. I was looking into the history of Argentina, and I remember thinking, “Wow, they have their own history and it is every bit as complicated as our history.” I realized I had expected Argentina to only have like one chapter’s worth of history, because that is all it would have in a US textbook. As much as we can try to argue with ourselves that we are just like any other country, I don’t think we honestly believe that. We grow up thinking, “I could have been born anywhere, but I was born in the United States. I’m so lucky!” We have a lot of good things about our country, and it is a populous and powerful country, but we are not a country that is inherently better or superior to other countries. And likewise, people in America are not inherently better than people anywhere else. Mackenzie: I sort of feel like the US is sort of like the popular kids in high school – everyone kind of wants to be like us, and everyone knows who we are. But it comes down to it, most other people only respect us or look up to us because they are afraid of us.
We are becoming the Paris Hilton of the world then, aren’t we?
Mackenzie: We are kind of the Paris Hilton of the world – popular for all the wrong reasons. Jonny 5: When you start to think on a global level, there are social movements and history, trends, innovation, and technology from all different countries that is valuable. The things that will help us create a better world involve us adopting the best practices from all those different places.
A lot of your lyrics reflect sort of a populist or humanitarian message overall. When we now find ourselves in a period of economic distress with limited resources, do you feel our allegiance should now be towards our own citizens, or do we still have a duty to care for everyone in the world universally?
Jonny 5: My uncle used to say, “If everyone is my brother, no one is my brother.” We have to prioritize resources the people closest to you – the same way you prioritize your family above just people in your city. I think that is true, but from a moral standpoint, it isn’t actually correct. Even if it is easier to prioritize those lives around you, it still doesn’t mean those lives are worth more. But I think that’s a challenge of the global sort of society we live in. We are able to be aware of what is happening in Darfur, and poverty in other parts of the world, and yet it is difficult to do enough to address all those things. I think honestly we have to be thinking we are living on a spaceship. You have to think as if we are people on the same ship – we share the same ecosystem, same set of resources.
I saw in an interview where you don’t support Obama uncritically. What are some of your issues with him?
Jonny 5: Well, I think some of his positions on Israel and Palestine – saying to AIPAC and then later retracted it that he wants an undivided capitol. So there is a concern with moving towards a peaceful solution there if that’s going to be his position. You know, he also wants to boost the military presence in Afghanistan – I’m not sure that’s the most effective way to solve that. A lot of his rhetoric has been militaristic, so there needs to be s push on him to question a lot of the war or terror. I mean, any leader you have to push against them, because they are sitting in the chambers of power to cater to whatever pressures they feel that day.
Okay, one last quick question then. What sort of stuff can people expect from the new album?
Mackenzie: We know as much about the next album as you at this point. Probably looking at a Fall or later 2009 release. All I know is that it’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be sick.
I think it will be tough to top the success of "Handlebars," because unfortunately, I think a lot of people perceive it as sort of a novelty hit, and those are customarily one-hit-wonders. Fight With Tools was a pretty good record, but I haven't listened to it since its release week. I'll have to give it a return visit soon.
I think anyone who supports a politician uncritically doesn't really understand what a healthy democracy is all about. I'm glad these guys get it. I am a fan of Obama, but I'm really nervous that a lot of people who support him are going to freak out when he makes a decision they don't like.
im not really a fan of their music...
i gave it a try, dont get me wrong i LOVE the lyrics but the music style just hasnt hit me the right way. I think i am going to give them another try and hope for the best.
I love how their Street Team is more of a big Community Servace Project with the other fans.