Nine years after their hit single "Handlebars" propelled them into the public eye, Flobots are back with their new album, No Enemies. With a renewed passion for social change inspired by the work of the late Dr. Vincent Harding, the Denver collective weaves stories of heartbreak, hope, and activism against a backdrop of hip-hop beats and alternative rock fury. In 2017, Flobots are emerging as a strong voice for positive social change and unity, with a more grown-up sound and more complex musical styling. We spoke with vocalist Jamie "Jonny 5" Laurie about Flobots' powerful message and how the new album came about.April Fox (Songfacts): I've been listening to No Enemies, and the subject matter seems really relevant right now. Before we get into the details about some of the songs, can you tell me about your songwriting process? What does it look like when you guys sit down together to write a song?
Jamie Laurie: We've had a different process for not only every album, but every song has had its own process. I think it's because we've always done things really collaboratively, and the band is made up of people with a pretty wide variety of musical backgrounds and strengths, so we always have to discover the process for every song. I wish we had a process that was more straightforward where one person brought something to the table and everyone chimed in, but even though it's a harder process I think it makes for more rewarding music.
For this album, we did something that we hadn't done before. We brought in a friend of ours [Gabriel Otto], who has also been playing bass with us, as a producer. We asked him, "What is your vision for what this could be, aesthetically?" We had a vision formed by this project we had been doing. We were saying, "How do we return signing as a tool back to the community, as a tool for social movements?"
We had been asking that question in a lot of ways, and we wanted the album to be a reflection of all of the triumph and agony and excitement and disillusionment, the full emotional spectrum that can go into anyone who is involved in a social movement in any way. That was something that, three years ago when we set out to do this album, we knew we wanted it to be about. It's been fascinating to watch during that time: you have Black Lives Matter, you have all these other movements that sprang to life, and most recently we have this kind of mass awakening with the new administration, with people just taking to the streets. Everything we wrote has felt more and more relevant as time went on, and more and more people have stepped up to be a part of it.
Songfacts: You mentioned the new administration, and you released a new song called "Rattle the Cage" on November 8. Tell me about that song.
Jamie: That song is fascinating because the origin is really mundane. Mackenzie [Gault], our viola player, has dogs. They were inside the crates, shaking the crates, and she was saying, "Don't rattle the cage if you want to come out," telling them to calm down. That melody came to her and she brought it to the table and said, "Look, what do you all think of this?"
She didn't know exactly what those words could mean beyond that moment, but looking at the song, it just felt like the way we're stuck in our little filter bubbles on the internet and we vilify one another in this way that's almost like a mirror image of the other person. On the internet, it's so easy to become so afraid of each other and so angry at each other, and so separated from each other that you make the other person into this caricature, into a monster. At the same time, you're being made into a monster, and at some point you want to break free of all that.
So the song is about trying to find, hopefully, some commonality in our own distortions, our own ways that we pigeonhole each other and distort one another and make each other into monsters, while at the same time we don't want to be made into a monster. There's something in common there. Maybe it's that we have some common fears, even if they're mirror images of one another. The hope is that if we at least recognize that, we can have a starting point.
Songfacts: On January 20, you released "Pray." The video for that is intense - it's very provocative in some ways, but maybe it's necessarily so. I'd love to hear more about that song and where it came from.
Jamie: It seems like when we talk about race, we sometimes go in circles. We'll talk about the need to act and dismantle systems and at the same time acknowledge systems, and I think there's this missing piece that affects the spirit. The founding divisions of this country are still profoundly painful. They're these deep wounds that still keep us from seeing each other as fully human. In the spiritual realm, if there's a demon in your midst, you need to exorcise it. It's not about making an enemy of any one person, it's about saying, "What are these spiritual forces that are infecting us and infesting the air that we're breathing?"
That song was an attempt at an exorcism, to say, "Let's really treat these deep divisions as the demons that they are, and what would a song sound like that exorcised those?" It would be intense. It would be frightening. Ultimately, it would be healing.
Honestly, I think for any healing to feel credible, it has to be a little bit intense and a little bit frightening. But by the end of the song, our hope is that there's some kind of sense of relief or solidarity or transformation that feels credible, and isn't just on the surface. I see people doing the work: I see people working to dismantle systems of racism and I see people acknowledging the past, but there has to be something beyond that that digs deep.
In the first Flobots single, "Handlebars," Jonny describes a guy who learns he can do anything. As he rises to power, he becomes dangerous:Concretely, that song came from a very interesting aesthetic journey. We'd been looking at traditions where people sing together collectively and use that as a source of strength, especially in moments of social movements. We'd never been exposed to this tradition called Sacred Harp singing, and someone mentioned it to us. It's this tradition of mostly Southern, rural singing, and it's done not to perform, but just to sing together. People sit in four sections according to their parts, face each other, and sing in this very distinct way. One of the songs is called "Antioch," and it was one of those songs that even when I couldn't discern the lyrics, it felt like it had a very specific thing to say. It conjured up this picture of a group of folks who believed that they were white and were buying into the idea of whiteness in the 1800s, and had suddenly woken up in horror at what they were doing to not just their own human family, but often their genetic family, actual family members, by buying into the system of slavery. We were imagining what it would be like if people rushed to the town center and were trying to repent of this, and crying out to their gods around it, and that's what that song sounded like - it sounded like people intensely repenting for something. That song "Antioch," which is a staple of the sacred harp singing tradition, became the foundation for the song "Pray."
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command
I can guide a missile by satellite
I can do anything with no permission
I have it all under my command
I can guide a missile by satellite
Songfacts: You can definitely hear a lot of traditional singing and old gospel music in that song.
Jamie: Even more intriguingly for us is that we actually tried to do some Sacred Harp singing with the community here, and then some folks attended who said, "We already have a Sacred Harp group that we do." We visited there, and the introduction to the song, the extended mix, actually has a recording of the local Sacred Harp group singing a new set of lyrics written for that song. That song has both a live rendition and a sample of an older rendition.
Songfacts: It sounds like there's a clear thread of spirituality that runs through the entire album.
Songfacts: Was that intentional? Were you trying to get that spiritual aspect in there, or is it just part of who you are coming through in the lyrics?
Jamie: It's both. I think it's first and foremost who we are. Many of the songs were written in the church that several of us go to - we wrote and recorded a number of things physically in that building. I think the spiritual grounding of being part of that community is a big part of who we are, and it's been a big influence.
Songfacts: Speaking of influences, you worked in education for a while, is that right?
Jamie: Yeah, I was a paraprofessional and [bandmate] Brer Rabbit [Stephen Brackett] actually got his certificate.
Songfacts: Was your songwriting influenced at all by working with kids?
Jamie: It influenced us in a lot of ways, just being around kids and seeing through that lens. On the one hand, I think it makes us less likely to want to just tell people what to think. When you're working in a classroom or working with teenagers you're aware that the most powerful thing you can do is to help offer people critical tools to make sense of their world, rather than just simply slogans and banners and causes that you tell them they have to believe in.
On the other hand, there's this level that I think you can operate on when you're not the teacher in the classroom, which is to speak a little more directly, a little more real, to the person you were when you were 15 or 13 or 17, who needed to be talked to on a more real level. I think it's important to remember that when teachers and students show up in class, everyone has to be polite and there's this etiquette that everyone follows that neither group really follows. Like, everyone cusses in the hallways when they're not around each other, but suddenly the adults and students can't cuss around each other. We can talk to each other a little more openly now.
I say that, and we don't actually swear on the album. There were a few places where we found that it actually felt more transgressive to not swear, and possibly more convenient too. There were several places where we swore, and by replacing those lyrics they became stronger.
Songfacts: That's cool. The first song on the album is "Failure Games," and the lead-in to that is "Philia." It sounds like a fairly mundane voicemail, and then it goes into the song, and the song kind of draws you in and makes you hold your breath. What's the story behind that?
Jamie: There's a temptation to look at social change and protest music as this snapshot of one moment: the stereotypical person holding a sign with their fist up at a march. That moment certainly exists and is exhilarating, but people who are involved in this work throughout their whole lives face these other moments, where they feel failure. You feel it in ways large and small, whether it's just losing energy or having no money, or any of those things, all the way to some really serious consequences to people who might lose their life to the movement, or lose their life to depression and burnout.
This song actually is about someone who was a friend of the other emcee, Brer Rabbit, Stephen. He ended up taking his own life, and [Stephen's] verse is all about reflecting on that depression that can be so ever-present in people who commit their lives to social change, and his own feelings. Like, "Was there something else I could have done, as a friend, as a brother in the struggle? As somebody else who wanted to see a better world, could I have done something more?"
It felt important right away to acknowledge that, and to go from there. We didn't originally intend for that to be the first song, but when we were looking at all the different ways to tell the story, it was actually Brer Rabbit's wife who said, "You need to start with that." And it's actually my mother's voice on the voicemail [on "Philia."]
Songfacts: I was going to ask you about that too.
Jamie: I was thinking I should put one of her voicemails on there. My brother travels a lot, so if he's in Turkey, or France, he's often been in these places when a terrorist attack happens, so I'll get these calls from my mom wanting to know if I've heard from him.
Ultimately, this album is about family. Everything from "Pray," where the system of slavery literally divided people from their family members through the invented color line, and the last song about being related.
Songfacts: Can you tell me the story behind that song ["Related"]?
Jamie: Sure. Our producer, Gabe [Otto], who is also part of a band called Pan Astral, has a song called "We are Related." This is basically a reinterpretation of that song. It always struck us because as we were looking at songs we could sing together, as a group, that just felt like this beautiful affirmation of our fundamental connectedness. Then as it became clear that this was an album about what divides us as a family and how to reassert ourselves as a family, that became the obvious place to go, the obvious destination for all the other songs.
Songfacts: Another one I'd like to hear about is "American Dreams." What can you tell me about that one?
Jamie: That song is a beautiful sounding song, aesthetically - it's very pretty. We wanted to acknowledge how beautiful the dream is, of this country, and at the same time sort of dig in to the stories of the tension between the dream and the reality that's been present throughout the country's history. We didn't want to do just a cynical song about America. That's been done plenty of times. But of course we didn't want to ignore reality, either. The song is sort of trying to take the listener through a balance of the two. There's a little bit of a sense of wonder and fascination, and a little bit of a sense of tragedy. I think above all, there's a yearning for something.
A mentor of ours, Vincent Harding, would always quote Langston Hughes: "America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath: America will be." In a lot of ways, I think that poem sort of informed the song, even though none of the lyrics are present.
Songfacts: There's a line I really like from the song "Buried Alive" that goes, "A little bit of wisdom is a dangerous thing." What's behind that line, and the song?
Jamie: That's the other emcee [Brer Rabbit] so I'd be speculating, but so many of his lines are like that. They'll just sit with you for a long time and you'll really think about it. I think it speaks a little bit to how easy it is to become arrogant, and to think that because you know a little something, that you're entitled to wield power over other people. That'd be my interpretation but you'd have to talk to him.
That song in general, though, is how often two things happen when there's a tragedy. One person might be killed, and whoever remains alive is essentially buried alive and shamed and becomes this non-entity. That can happen even with the smallest of things, it can be part of our kind of activist culture, where if someone gets something wrong or does something wrong, they're done. We shame them and they're no longer part of the community.
I think it especially happens in online cultures, so easily, where we're looking to get each other. If you don't acknowledge or have any concept of forgiveness, then that's going to happen repeatedly, and it will eventually happen to you.
Songfacts: You make a good point, especially about online communities and how easy it is to just throw somebody out and ostracize them.
Jamie: Right, and in the extreme, when it's anonymous like in YouTube comments, you don't even know who that person is. They could be 7 years old, they could be somebody who is living with a profound intellectual disability, it could be anyone. It could be someone who speaks a different language and has no sense of what they just said. It becomes absurd, the degree to which we'll judge each other based on our digital transgressions or mistakes in language.
Songfacts: That's something I could stand to remember sometimes.
Jamie: We all could. We're all working on it.
Songfacts: Your latest single is "Carousel." What do you want people to know about that song?
Jamie: In a lot of ways, that song was looking back on a song like [Nena's] "99 Luftballoons" that's able to be both very poppy and catchy and actually speak to something deeper the more you listen to it. And I guess also like our first single, "Handlebars," it kind of does the same thing. "Carousel" on the one hand is about this feeling of exhilaration - spinning around and feeling the world spinning around you - but it's especially once again about the bizarre digital world that's so ever-present for all of us.
It's funny because it's everywhere, but it's hard to write about it in a way that feels fresh. In this case, we're thinking about how before you get involved in anything, you have this weird set of like algorithms that are presenting things to you. It's a very fixed and stagnant way that they present things to you, that's tailor made to you, and so the world becomes all about you and what the computer thinks that you want to see, what the algorithms say you want to see.
It's a really bizarre way to live, but it can be really satisfying on the surface, to be like, "Oh, all my enemies have been presented as caricatures and all the things I want to see are being spoon-fed to me." It's both bizarre and dangerous, but also really satisfying, and the song is about all those paradoxes.
Songfacts: The album has been described as a collection of protest songs, and I'm curious about what protest songs spoke to you when you were younger and influenced you to write about social change?
Jamie: I'm not sure I had many protest songs growing up. What I had was a church that was committed to, for lack of a better term, social justice. I think the church would have seen it as being committed to the gospel of Jesus, but it manifested as social change. There was a man from Nicaragua who had been brought into the sanctuary movement in the '80s because he feared for his life, and he lived with one of the church members and played soccer. There was a coupon program that helped provide services and support for the homeless population in the neighborhood. Right now there's a shelter for homeless women in the church. We also shared the building with an openly LGBT Catholic community that's been there for about 30 years.
That's the set of values that I grew up with, and so expressing those values publicly and standing up for people who were being marginalized or attacked just felt natural. But I don't think that I had songs that spoke to that, other than just the songs we sang at church.
It was really our mentor, Dr. Vincent Harding, who wrote speeches for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was a constant presence here in Denver and a mentor to many, many people. He would always ask us, "You're in a band, that's wonderful, where are the songs for today's movements? Where is the singing? Maybe you, my young hip-hop friends, maybe you can help with this."
He would always charge us with that task, and it wasn't until he passed away in 2014 that we really took that task more seriously and started gathering people to actually create those songs.
April 25, 2017.
No Enemies is scheduled for release May 5. Get it, and more info at flobots.com.