Danger! Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! This warning is being sent to you in order to maintain truth in advertising since the system is so unforgiving. Should you receive this message just know, fair readers, spinning on the planet known as Earth, currently moving through space at 75,000 miles per hour, Jonny 5 of Flobots was there, is there, will be there, moving for all eternity. In fact, current conditions indicate the situation at hand is, in some small, perhaps even large part, his fault.
The year is 2008. Barack Obama is not yet president of the nation at the time known as the United States of America ... blink. We have transported you to Denver, Colo., where the band is based, in order to show you some reasons to be thankful on the holiday formerly known as Thanksgiving. Do not adjust your set. We have assumed control.
Denver. A half-year, perhaps, before the Democratic National Convention. Up and down Colfax Street, the longest and straightest street on American soil, all of the good people are a-hub-bub about the new Flobots album, Fight with Tools, which offers the track, "Handlebars," currently on the classic rock playlist all of the way to Star Date 2223. The circular play device called a CD could be purchased in indoor spaces Earthlings called record stores. Words sung from that title track for the album were as follows:
"Echo, echo, one-nine
Hear the call through fault lines
Smoke signals, old rhymes
Shorted lights in store signs
Spelled in a broken code
Find that it is time to
Breathe, build, bend and refine you
We sky tenants
Give it all but won't give up
Radio soul antennas
Radio to lift spirits
Call sign commando
M.O. is independence
Scream 'til the walls fall
Dissolve all the limits"
And then, the chorus:
"We need heroes
Don't put your fist up
Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands
We're the architects of our last stand"
And dissolve they did. In the cafes and bars and restaurants along that main long row heading east or west on Denver's compromised plain at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, there were all kinds of forms--or lack thereof--of authority. In fact, "Question authority" was the biggest bumper sticker of the age. It was time to Re-Recreate '68, as one of that town's main grass
roots advocacy groups called themselves.
The album cover features artwork of the members of the band wearing red, white and blue bandanas covering their faces, very much like the revolutionaries of southern Mexico. Now, as Oscar Wilde once said, "If a man puts on a mask he will tell you the truth." And so, this Flobots album is visceral and intense in its truthfulness.
"There is a war going on for your mind," Jonny 5 sings. It’s the kind of thing you say when you are trying to ignite a revolution. The music starts with the crackles of an old analog record player, the plaintive violin brandishing swords of anger, insurgency and most of all, a tragic sensibility. Then the hip-hop of it all is throwing words at the listener, as the form is now taking on a kind of symphonic complexity, much in the same way that Camper Van Beethoven turned the three-minute college radio ditty into a sprouting organic lotus flower 20 years before.
In the time since then, well, truth has become an adjective instead of a noun, and the tools for fighting seem to be running the show.
Just one example is the song "By the Time You Get This Message," where he sings: "The stars I see aren't even there/It's only light in the air."
The track has a muscular bass line as the band rips through a rumination about the passage of time, when using those tools providing communication across great distances in real time. Jonny 5 says the song is about how the message he had just sent might be received by a woman he was seeing at the time, but was about to leave the country and was trying to convince her not to do so.
"That's from a moment when I was in college and there was this wonderful woman I had a brief connection with," he says. "I was at the airport during a six-hour layover and I was considering how far it was to where she was going. The first verse is imaginary, and has her actual voice on the song explaining why this isn't going to work. And then there's this delayed response, with me saying, 'I don't know when you will get this.'"
Another example of this trouble with tools, "technical difficulties" as the Flobot station made the first shot at a telephone interview.
"Technology and the internet ... we are being driven mad by them," says Johny5 from Laramie, Wyo., at 9 a.m. while on tour. "We are actually training ourselves to not be able to focus or think in depth."
To correct that imbalance, the new Flobots album, Noenemies is a prescription for bringing the people of dissent into clearer focus. Released earlier this year in May, it encourages "community singing, collective singing." Indeed, many of the new songs have an anthemic quality. Stuff to be sung together, at least in the choruses, by those within listening distance.
"Noenemies has the feeling of a lot of group singing, but it takes a different form whenever it appears," he says.
This style of performance brings Jonny 5 back to his roots as the son of a Presbyterian minister in Denver.
"The First Presbyterian Church, that was part of my upbringing," he says. "A whole lot of songs we did came from hip-hop worship services. We wrote songs for church services that embraced our own art to express lamentation, a sense of vision."
It's a question of balance. He says there is a difference between the outrage of the band's musical style and how he is the rest of the day. Flobots is merely the mask. He may be a Flobot, but the man is not a robot.
"It's something you can see on stage, the urgency, but then there's daily life," he says. "We have tried to look at ourselves as a part of a social movement and there's a kind of spectrum of emotions you go through. You are expecting to change everything one day, and then it seems like at that point it's going to change, but then it doesn't change that day. We try to deal with all of those things on the new album. It's about the full spectrum of these kinds of emotions."
See Flobots when they play at the Green Room, 15 N. Agassiz St., on Tuesday, Nov. 28, with opening act Bang Data. Tickets are $15 in advance, or $18 at the door. Visit www.flobots.com for more information.