[Editor's note: This interview previews Flowbots' show at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at the Waiting Room. Air Dubai and Purveyors of the Conscious Sound open. $13 adv./$15 dos. Find more info here and purchase tickets here.]
by Layne Gabriel
Flobots have combined social consciousness with a sound unlike any other, well worth a critical listen. Now on the verge of the band's third full-length release, The Circle in the Square, Flobots realizes its maturity and returns to where it all started by bringing its newest sounds to fans in its favorite medium — onstage.
Here, bassist Jesse Walker talks also about the band's genesis, continuing on after a popular song and how a change in administration has affected songwriting, if at all.
Hear Nebraska: Tell me a little bit about how Flobots got started and how you became a part of the band.
Jesse Walker: [Emcees] Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 have known each other since they were small children, and they were rapping together and working on various other projects including actually designing comic books and stuff like that. They’d been doing that for several years, and in about 2004-2005 they kind of started thinking that maybe they wanted to start taking music a little more seriously and try to make it more of a consistent project.
They started working with Mackenzie Gault on viola and they started doing some small gigs around Denver with just the three of them. Then the idea kind of got going to turn it into a full band and Kenny [Ortiz, drums] and I got added to the band, and that’s really the story.
What brought us all together and I think the reason that we are a band is we all sort of share this common urge to push boundaries a little bit, so we’ve kind of been working on a project, Flobots, which doesn’t fit nice and neatly into a typical genre box, and I think that’s the way that we like it, and I think that’s the kind of stuff that we’re all really interested in doing. There’s a lot of great bands out there and there’s a lot of bands that also all kind of sound the same. I think we wanted as best we could to create a unique sound.
HN: Politics is a huge theme in your music. How did that come to be and do you think there’s a certain responsibility that comes along with that?
JW: I think that the fact that we tend to touch on social issues and occasional political issues with our music does not come from something that was a conscious choice. It wasn’t like we were sitting around and we decided that, "OK, our angle is that we’re going to be a political band."
I think as artists, the concept that we put out just comes from the summation of who we are and our shared experiences on the planet. For us, we’re people that try to think very hard about issues in the world and we want to know how we feel about them. So we spend a lot of time talking about them as a group and talking about them with other people. We spend a lot of time trying to cauterize our opinions about the issues of the world.
When we go to start writing, the content that comes out in the songs is really just a natural projection of who we are. It’s nothing more conscious than that. I guess your question whether or not we have a responsibility — I think that you have a responsibility to express yourself as seems best and seems natural and that’s just sort of what we do. That’s the best thing I think you can do as an artist.
HN: "Handlebars" got huge in 2008. How did you go about getting your new fans to look beyond a rad song and get inspired to become involved politically?
JW: We were really fortunate with "Handlebars." When we were first starting as a band, we had no vision of being on the radio or having any kind of mainstream appeal — I think primarily because we were trying to operate on the frontiers of our genre that we didn’t really feel that we would ever have that kind of appeal. It never really was something that was on our mind.
When "Handlebars" came out, it just happened to walk this line on alternative radio of being something that barely fits in the format but also didn’t really sound like anything else in the format so I think when people heard it, it really stood out. It really caught people’s attention and then the song itself just sort of encouraged people to look deeper.
So we were fortunate in that way because we really got a lot of big success as a result of the success of that song. So what happened was we kind of got a big influx of fans. Slowly, I think some people who were there just because they liked "Handlebars" kind of started to drop off a little bit, but was left behind was this really amazing strong fanbase of people who really love the band for more than just "Handlebars."
And I think also the people who are really big fans of the band, I’m not even sure they really like "Handlebars" that much. A lot of the stuff that people really love hearing when we’re at shows is not necessarily "Handlebars." I don’t think it was anything we did consciously other than just trying to be who we are and continue to make music the way we knew how to make it. I think that was successful in hooking people after they kind of got past the initial first of "Handlebars."
HN: Do you think young adults get more energized by political music versus the standard methods of trying to get them involved in the political process or social consciousness?
JW: I think music can be very powerful, certainly for young people. Most young people I know and certainly the way I was — I know when I was growing up, music was a very central part of your life. The music you listen to can have a larger impact than I think even you realize in terms of shaping your views about the world and so on.
I think it can be effective. I don’t know that it necessarily always is, and it’s hard to say exactly how much effect we have as artists in that way, but certainly it does have that potential and I think we recognize that. I think that’s certainly something we’re aware of when we’re writing and performing.
HN: How has the political scenery during the Obama administration affected your music compared to what was going on in the Bush administration. Have things changed a little bit, has your focus changed?
JW: When we were writing Fight with Tools, that was nearing the end of the Bush administration, and it was a time when a lot of people were extremely disillusioned because there were a lot of policies in place that were failing and harming a lot of people. I think that it was very easy and natural for us to draw on what was going on at that time as inspiration for music.
With the Obama administration, I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed as much in terms of what we’re looking at, but I think there’s been different events during the course of the Obama administration that have inspired us. So for example, the song "The Circle in the Square" was inspired by the events that happened in Tahrir Square and by the Occupy movement.
Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 actually happened to be in the Middle East the day that [then-President Hosni] Mubarak stepped down in Egypt. They were there, and they were kind of in the middle of it and they were really feeling the energy of it. It was interesting because Jonny 5 was watching the news and watching CNN, and he was seeing pundits come on and say that their democracy would never happen, it’s impossible, it’s like trying to square a circle.
And then at the same time, what did you see on TV? You saw a circle of people in Tahrir Square demanding democracy. They came back from that trip and they started sharing these ideas with us and it certainly really struck us, and we started to write songs based off that energy.
HN: Tell me more about flobots.org. That’s a really cool project, you guys have a lot going on there.
JW: It was something that we co-founded several years ago and the band doesn’t have as much connection to it now as it used to, which is kind of by design. We’re trying to sort of build this organization that’s autonomous and self-sustaining and there’s actually probably never been less of a connection between the non-profit and the band today.
But the non-profit is doing some very cool things. They’ve recently gotten a large grant from the city of Denver to be able to build a Youth Media Studio in a relatively low-income neighborhood in Denver. It’ll be a place where kids from the neighborhood can go in and work on music and record music. It’s a great thing.
HN: What was the process involved with getting the non-profit started?
JW: When we were first starting as a band, we actually had the idea of potentially forming the band as a non-profit. As I was saying, we didn’t see ourselves having mainstream success. We didn’t see ourselves ever attracting attention from a label or radio or anything like that, so we really felt that any way we would be successful that we were going to have to do entirely on our own.
Because we had the connections in the city and we had a certain kind of social agenda and we had certain kinds of skills in terms of teaching and things like that that have allowed us to sort of do some more in-depth programmatic work, we thought about trying to form the band as a non-profit. As we got into it, we kind of realized it was probably going to be better to maybe have two different entities, one for non-profit events and a business entity for the band.
The early work of it was just a few of us from the band literally working our way through the paperwork and trying to navigate the complexity of the 501(c)(3) world and trying to raise some money. We were fortunate early on that we had a donor who was really interested in the projects that we were doing and so she funded a lot of the early stuff, but the organization has since moved on to a variety of donors and people who work with us.
HN: With so many things you guys have going on as a band between the non-profit and your political message and that sort of thing, what are you the proudest of?
JW: I will say the thing right now that we’re the most proud of is our new record. It’s by far and away our favorite record. We had a tremendous process writing this record, it was really fun, and we felt like we drew from the right places when we were working on it. And really, this being our third full-length record, we feel like we’ve matured quite a bit as artists and songwriters and even in terms of our production skills.
So the record that we did this time just really reflects a whole lot of maturity as artists. I’m so proud of the work everyone did on the record in terms of songwriting. I think these are some of the best-crafted and well-constructed songs that we’ve ever done, and we’re really, really excited about releasing this record and performing these songs for people.
HN: We kind of touched on some of this already, the things that inspired the album, but what do you want your fans to get out of listening to the record?
JW: Interesting question. I don’t know if that’s necessarily for us to say. I think there’s a certain kind of energy that we get out of writing the songs and we get out of playing them. I would never actually want to pigeonhole anybody in terms of what I would hope for their experience. I would hope that they have an experience listening to it that inspires them in some way, and really beyond that, I don’t think I would ever want to be more specific about it.
HN: You have such a unique sound. How did you go about cultivating that and what sorts of bands have inspired you to create your sound?
JW: A big thing that allows us to kind of push boundaries is Mackenzie [Gault] on viola. It’s definitely one of the more unique things about the band. She’s a classically trained violist, and she brings a perspective to the band that’s different than everyone else because she’s inspired by Bach and Chopin and… Shostakovich.
And the emcees obviously come from a strong hip-hop background. Kenny and I come from a rock and roll, funk, just a little hip-hop, punk background. What we do is we just kind of... the writing process is very democratic. Everybody really has an equal say for better or for worse. When we’re in a room together, we throw ideas out and then just kind of push and pull from our own perspective and what comes out is something that is just very unique.
I don’t think we ever try to sit down and say, "We’re going to write a song like this," or, "We’re going to try to write an album like this." It’s just sort of what happens. It’s the magic that happens when the five of us all get in a room together.
You asked about bands that have inspired us — I think that... there’s so many. It’d be really difficult to just pin it down to a few. We’ve always been impressed with what The Roots have been able to accomplish artistically. Hip-hop is often an emcee and a beat, and that’s great — there’s so much amazing music that’s been done in that way. But there’s a little bit of added flexibility when you have live instruments because you can get a certain kind of spontaneity out of it that maybe you can’t necessarily get out of a turntable or a programmed beat.
I think that’s something that we love about The Roots, that their music is so diverse and so groundbreaking in so many ways, and I think their incorporation of live instruments has really added to their ability to do that.
HN: We’ve talked a lot about what you’ve had going on offstage, and you have a tour coming up, so what can people expect out of the show experience if they’ve never been to a Flobots show?
JW: Well, when we first started as a band, our goal was to just put on the best live club show in the world. We work extraordinarily hard on making the live show a really fun experience for the audience and also a really highly energetic experience. It’s interesting because when we started we just assumed that if we would ever get any success it would be through our live show. Even after our first couple records, we still felt like our strongest asset as a band was the live show.
I think with this record, we’re actually starting to feel like maybe the records are starting to catch up to the live show. If anyone has never been to a Flobots show, I would certainly encourage them to go because it’s a fun experience, it’s an interactive experience. It’s so important to us that people come away from our shows feeling like they had a great time and feeling inspired, and we work so, so hard to make sure that that happens.
Layne Gabriel is a Hear Nebraska contributor who's been on a giant concert binge and can't wait to see Flobots for the first time. Reach her at email@example.com.