Music » Music Stories & Interviews

The good fight



"We had outsold Hannah Montana," remembers Flobots frontman Jonny 5, adding, " … in Denver."

He remembers that week in 2008 when everything fell into place for the Mile High City's prolific sextet. Flobots' debut album, Fight with Tools, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's rap and alternative rock charts by way of Los Angeles radio station KROQ (106.7-FM) and a late-night TV performance of their breakthrough single, "Handlebars." An American tour followed and, later, Flobots invaded places like Dublin, Paris and Amsterdam.

If its debut saw Flobots arming for battle, Survival Story is the band's shock-and-awe attack on American apathy. The sophomore record — partly a rant about Earth's destruction, and partly a concept album of a soldier's demons — brings something more biting and more thoughtful from this hip-hop crew backed by live musicians and a haunting viola... courtesy of Mackenzie Roberts.

"The last album was about slogans, and that was deliberate," says Jonny 5, aka Jamie Laurie. "This time we said, ‘No, we want to go deeper, we want to be more nuanced. Let's tell stories.'"

Fittingly, Survival Story plays like a diary. With a nod to Jay-Z and a hat-tip to Al Gore, MCs Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit trade tirades on global warming in the album's opening rhymes: "Sandbags, bring 'em out/It's hard to yell with the Atlantic in your mouth." The song "Superhero" confronts the limits domestic partners face in a hospital's delivery room, while "Defend Atlantis" chillingly warns, "The world is an island now." Mackenzie Roberts' rapid-fire viola bow strokes and angelic vocals on stories like "Good Soldier" solidify Flobots' musical (and political) relevance in an era fatigued by war.

Flobots does more than deliver lip service; these activists mobilize their movement by teaching music at the Denver Children's Home and maintaining a green-friendly community center through, the band's nonprofit website. While on tour, prior to Barack Obama's election, Flobots registered hordes of young voters and even played the Democratic National Convention.

"We're really into speaking our minds and being involved, and people were hungry for that sort of thing after our shows," says Roberts.

"Their commitment to investing in the community and using their success as musicians to improve the community is so unusual," says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who recognized Flobots with the Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in February. "They

demonstrate very pointedly that we can all be part of the solution."

Survival Story cracks open the Flobots' arsenal and reveals what the first album lacked: breathing room. Even considering its moments of bloated production, their concept album of the world's arrogance and ignorance is in good hands with Mario Caldato, Jr. "Mario C," as he's known in the hip-hop world, produced many Beastie Boys masterpieces, including Check Your Head, the 1992 album that defined what live instrumentation could do for hip-hop.

"I think Flobots have a unique sound and have a good chance at being noticed if people just listen," says Mario C.

Kenny Ortiz's firecracker snare punctuates Andy Guerrero's gritty, Chili Peppers-style riffs, while Jesse Walker forces the listener to feel the weight of his every bass line. "They treat each other with an egoless love and make every attempt to bring the best out of each

other," says Greg McRae, who engineered Flobots' first album. "The band was democratically involved `throughout` its evolution."

These environmental rockers could have easily recycled their sound this time around but that would have contradicted the message of change the band advocates to its audiences around the world.

"We want to have as many bullets as possible," says Jonny 5, "and I think we've got a fully loaded album."

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