On the first day that Occupy Wall Street protesters camped out in New York, the legendary Flobots were in a recording studio for the first day of work on their third record. And the tweets were coming in from all over: What are you going to do about this? For Flobots, the answer was to do exactly what they’ve done since the act first formed in 2005: Engage the listener with music as compelling as its political message. Over the next six weeks, bassist Jesse Walker, drummer Kenny Ortiz, violist/vocalist Mackenzie Gault (formerly Roberts), and emcees Brer Rabbit and Jonny 5 continued to craft what would become The Circle In The Square, now set for release on August 28, 2012 by Shanachie Entertainment.
“Your audience is a greased pig,” Jamie Laurie, aka Jonny 5, remembers his grandfather once telling him. “They’ll get away from you if they can.” But by now, Flobots have their audience hooked, completely occupied with both the music and the message.
There’s no escaping the compelling Flobots sound…or the meaning that colors every track of The Circle In The Square. After all, Occupy Wall Street wasn’t the only political movement that provided the backdrop for this most recent work. In the fall of 2011, the impact of the Arab Spring was continuing to reverberate around the globe. “There was a lot of energy around the world,” says Stephen Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit. “You could taste freedom in the air, it was a palpable thing. It informed the process in a subtle and broad way. We were inspired by that, we were witnesses like everyone else. We were rich because of it.” Rich with the promise of freedom -- both for people around the world, and for Flobots themselves.
From the start, Flobots have felt free to break the rules. Brackett and Laurie met back when they were in fourth grade, when their first shared obsession was comic books. But words soon became more important than pictures, especially when they discovered hip-hop. Laurie was drawn to the wordplay, while Brackett focused on the power behind that wordplay. For his first solo performance, he wore a stocking over his head. Laurie’s first performance, in an inner-city Denver high school, didn’t need any costume: “It was shocking for a white guy to rap,” Brackett recalls. After high school, Laurie went to Brown University, where he got more active in political causes, including protests at the WTO in Seattle; that work continued after college, when he joined AmeriCorps in Providence for three years. One day he was in a car with a group of kids, and even though those kids were incredibly diverse, they all sang along to one song. “They all identified with hip-hop music,” Laurie remembers. “That subculture was the most powerful.” What would happen, he wondered, if he could create music that would be the voice on the radio? Meanwhile, Brackett was back in Denver, juggling school and numerous jobs. His schedule was about to get a lot busier: When Laurie returned to town, they formed a “protoflobots” act with friend and viola player Mackenzie Gault. Their first gig was a Rock the Vote show, and it was a turning point – with no turning back. From that very first performance, Flobots had their audience fully occupied. Their music got people moving and kept them moving, its message speaking directly to a generation without direction. They were the voice on the radio.
The band was about three months old when Jesse Walker caught a Flobots show; he’d been at school at one point or another with both Brackett and Laurie. “After about one song, I was spellbound,” he remembers. “Thunderbolts were going off in my head as before me I saw the project for which I had always been looking.
These guys not only had something to say that needed to be said, but I had immediate visions of working together to bring to life some terribly exciting musical ideas. The incorporation of Mackenzie on viola with hip-hop elements was exactly the kind of experimentation I had always wanted to be a part of as a musician.
I approached the guys afterwards and it turned out they were still looking for the right fit in a bass player. I went to a few practices, played a gig, and it was on.” Within a few months, Flobots released their first EP; it sold 3,000 copies. By the fall of 2007, veteran musician Ortiz had joined the lineup and they completed their first full-length album, Fight With Tools. It was self-financed, self-produced and self-released. It was also a hit: The song “Handlebars” soon spread to every market in the United States, propelling Flobots onto the national scene and earning the act a major label re-release of Fight With Tools, as well as an international touring schedule.
“I was not surprised that Flobots were successful, because I felt that what we were doing and the music we were making was unique and cool, and could easily reach a certain population of listeners,” Roberts says. “I was shocked, however, at how Flobots became successful and how quickly we took off once ‘Handlebars’ hit the airwaves. I don't think any of us ever expected to be signed to a major label, perform on late-night TV shows or open for Metallica in front of 40,000 people. But we did those things, and I think there is a lot more we will do with this upcoming release.” And Flobots have a very specific tool that enables them to do more: Flobots.org, the non-profit they formed to put the message in their music into action. “It's not enough to expose somebody to a concept and expect someone to run with it,” Brackett explains. “You need to create a throughline so that they can run with it.”
The initial plan was to have the band and its political organization as one entity, supporting each other, but the musicians soon found that in order to do the job right, they needed to split the project in two. That’s because by 2008, there were increasing demands both for Flobots performances and for the political message of Flobots.org, which gained in power, and poignance, in that pivotal election year. With its fervent appeal to bring about “The Other America,” Fight With Tools spoke directly to young voters ready for change, hoping for change. The album shot to #15 on the Billboard charts, the single to #3. It was the best debut single by a new band in ten years, and it became the soundtrack for those who made possible the election of Barack Obama. He accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Flobots’ home town. But as it turned out, not all change was hopeful. And audiences were again adrift when Flobots recorded their second album, Survival Story, which explored new sonic pathways with critically acclaimed songs woven together by a self-fulfilling prophecy. That album, and parting ways with Universal Records, opened up Flobots to the possibilities of exploration, to “that crucial step of freedom when you realize you can be as free as you want to be,” Brackett remembers. As Flobots.org grew as an organization -- allowing the non-profit to take on new projects, including the ground-breaking Youth Media Studio for which it’s partnered with the Denver Housing Authority – the musicians themselves could travel in other directions. Brackett and Laurie, for example, last year took an educational trip to the Middle East with Seeking Common Ground, which is where many of the songs on The Circle In The Square came to life.
“Rapping at its best locates the author; if one raps outside of their experience it rings hollow,” Brackett notes. “In general, I find that we do our jobs best when we aren't trying to write a song about the issue itself, rather our experience of the issue. That is why we went to South Africa, and Palestine, and Israel, and Tucson, and Nogales; writing from the headlines is the polar opposite of rapping from the heart.” But you can’t sever the connection between the heart and the head – not when current events come right into the recording studio through tweets. “There's also no denying that headlines themselves can have an emotional impact, especially living in a one-degree-of-separation world in which we're more and more likely to know someone affected by any given event,” Laurie adds. “The ‘stories’ in newspapers are real. Plus, through technology, we all have been essentially deputized into mini-bloggers, cranking out a steady stream of status updates. We are saturated in media because we are all constantly creating it. If we keep our hearts open to the steady flow of experience we receive through our relationships, then there's never a need to answer the question ‘What's your message?,’ but only a much simpler one: ‘How are you?’"
Judging from The Circle In The Square, Flobots are very good indeed. This newest batch of songs is aimed directly at the heart of the profound transformations taking place around the world, with unforgettable, hard-hitting tracks that draw from international influences in both subject and sound.
Those tracks range from “The Rose and the Thistle,” which entwines a rock-solid rap about “a hard place” with a lyrical, almost folk-music refrain about two plants that “both have thorns,” to “Wrestling Israel,” with old-world rhythms that link Gilead with the very new-world Halliburton, to “Occupy Earth,” which builds slowly, hypnotically, as the musicians remind us “we have the tools, so we sing out loud, so we all stand up and we all fall down.”
“This album feels like the first album,” Laurie says. “It’s the best of both worlds. The second time, we did a good job of guarding ourselves against the sophomore pressure, but even that had its own effect. This time, it was only us.” “We have undergone some major changes over the last couple of years, including a lineup change, but it still sounds like us and we are incredibly proud of what we have created,” Roberts says. “The Circle In The Square is 100 percent pure Flobots. We wrote, recorded and produced this album on our own, with no pressure from labels, managers or outside sources. We wrote songs from our hearts that speak to who we are and where we are as individuals, as a band, and as a country. We felt a freedom in creating this album that we had never felt before, and I think that comes across in the music.”
“I think my favorite part of the new release is hearing our growth as songwriters and still being able to surprise ourselves with what we create,” says Ortiz. “We’re constantly challenging ourselves to push the boundaries of what Flobots can be and what we can do musically and lyrically. It’s still exciting when it comes together in such a positive way. The guest musicians on the album really knocked it out of the park and their contributions added to the strength of the record. It’s awesome having artists that we have such respect for add to the mix and we are grateful.”
“We have been on a roller coaster for the past four years, and this album took every last breath we had to write and record,” says Walker. “We had no idea what the outcome was going to be when we set out to start writing, and it was just the faith we had in each other and the weird cosmic fireworks that happen when we get in a room together that kept the record moving. We took a huge risk by funding it out of our own pockets, and it paid off. We are more proud of this record than any other -- both musically, and given what we went through to make it. I love the sound of this new record. Musically there's more space, and it provided opportunities for each of us to not only experiment sonically, but also to write songs in a more deliberate and complete way. I love the song-writing from everyone on this record, and I can't wait to share the unique sound of this record with our fans.”
Now, when people are occupied, and preoccupied, with the promise of global democracy more than ever before, Flobots are back with the soundtrack, ready to mobilize listeners with The Circle In The Square, and the world tour that will follow. Ultimately, The Circle In The Square is a celebration for all of those who already recognized their own power, and an encouragement for all those who have yet to do so. For any who doubt this is possible, Flobots provide the evidence.
The title track was born on a plane as Laurie and Brackett headed home from a two-week visit to the Middle East; they had been only a few hundred miles away, in Amman, when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. “It was quite an exciting time,” Laurie remembers. “The whole world was watching.” As their flight landed in Denver, a melody came to Laurie, and he started writing a rap to it: “Hands in the Air/Presidents Prime Ministers/They said that we didn’t care/But we’re the circle in the square.”
While they recorded that song – which begins with a voice on the radio -- as well as the others on this remarkable album, the musicians heard about Occupy Wall Street movements emerging around the country, the other actions around the globe. “Now that we are looking,” Laurie concludes, “we see them everywhere. We realize it has nothing to do with the national borders. It has to do with us. Something happening with this generation. We are the circle in the square.” The whole world is watching…and will soon be listening.