As I walked up the steps of Dado Tea next to The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA before the Flobots show, I saw a man wearing a striped shirt and glasses sitting outside sipping the rest of his drink and trying to get one of the blueberries out of the bottom while looking at his phone. We introduced ourselves and asked the basic questions before getting into topics like what music means to him and people in general, rallying with Rage Against the Machine, social media addictions like Instagramming with animals, fantasy collaborations and jobs, and learning to speak 8 new languages in 2013. And keeping the creativity flowing with possible new Flobots songs coming soon.
He was also 3 for 3 with hugs of his friends randomly walking up to say hi to him.
Read the interview below!
Let’s start with your latest album Circle in the Square, tell me about the writing process, things that you think stand out about it, and anything else as far as you’ve for reception.
This is our third album, it was written kind of beginning of 2011 and throughout the year, and what was happening in the world at the time was things like the Egyptian Revolution, the Tunisian Revolution, and Occupy Wall Street, and so those world events shaped a lot of the themes of the album. But it was also kind of a personal album too. We really had a lot of fun with the album. We didn’t have a label, we didn’t even have a manager, it was just us. We funded it ourselves, we made songs that we wanted to make, and brought in a lot of guests from Denver, where we live, so you’ll hear a lot of different voices, and I don’t know, new sounds on the album. We just had a lot of fun with it.
I read that you guys are really big into the Denver local scene, is that kind of like, giving back to your roots?
Denver’s a city where, it’s not New York, it’s not Boston, where there’s tons of big acts from that place, at least it hasn’t been. So when anything, like an actor or comedian, gets any degree of fame, the whole city is like, “Oh my God, that guy is from Denver, did you know that? That guy went to my high school!” So people really claim, we really claim our successes. So when we became a Denver success, the whole city really celebrated it and helped us be successful. We try to give back as much as we can. Or as I like to say, just try to uplift it as much as we can.
We’re on tour with people called Wheelchair Sports Camp. They’re an incredibly talented group from Denver.
Ok, I was going to ask how you found them as openers.
Yea. And then the MC from Wheelchair Sports Camp, she’s actually an instructor in some music programs that our non-profit organization does, Flobots.org.
Cool! Back to your albums being socially and politically charged, do you just turn on the news and get your inspiration? How are you more comfortable writing?
Sometimes it is that, like I think everyone, we all sort of experience the world through media these days. So I do just like anyone else, experience the world through the news. We also try to draw from personal experience. More than anything, a lot of conversations we have with fans after the show, that will often influence what we want to talk about. For example, we’ve had a lot of people who were in the military or veterans who will tell us that our music meant a whole lot to them at crucial points where they felt like they couldn’t speak out about certain issues. And that really encourages us to want to speak directly to them in a way that’s kind of inviting their full humanity.
So you think that putting these topics into music makes it more relatable?
I think so, yea. I mean, the whole idea of a song is that it should get you on a gut level. It’s catchy, the music hooks you, and then I think that your intellect hopefully follows along too.
A song that you recently written “Bradley Manning,” I know a little bit about all the trials that have been going on, but explain more into that, and what you’re looking to do with that.
So, Bradley Manning was a military analyst, who, one month into his service came across a video where two Reuters reporters were shot by soldiers and their cameras were mistaken for guns. And then several civilians were also killed in the process trying to help the reporters who were on the ground. The video was not released at all at first. The Reuters, the news agency actually asked, “Can we see the video so we can help our reporters not to be hurt later” and they wouldn’t give it to them. The authorities were not being forthcoming with information, and Bradley Manning decided to leak the video, he leaked it to WikiLeaks and a lot of information to WikiLeaks, and now he’s being court marshaled for that process.
We read his story, read his telling of his own story, and were very much inspired by, what sounded to us like one of our fans. It sounded like the people we talk to after our shows. It sounded like people in the military who wrestle with serious problems, and really serious questions, like, “What do I do? What is right in this situation?” and we just felt like we kind of owed it to him to create a song.
With that song and the song “Rockmine” are you thinking or already planning new material, or B-sides?
“Rockmine” was like a B-side from the first album we wrote. It was just kind of a fun song. But yea, “Bradley Manning” is the first of a whole, new batch of songs. We just feel like we should always be writing as a band. Especially these days, people kind of plow through your material so quickly, you always need to have some new stuff out there. We have a lot of other songs that are like, 75% finished or the idea is there and we’ve got to bring the lyrics or whatever. So, there’ll be some new music.
And you spoke of doing your collaborations with all of the Denver artists, and also the one with Tim McIlrath, are you planning on any future collaborations or what would be your dream collaboration?
I mean, nothing specifically planned right now, but I think our plan in general is to sort of start with the foundation of some songs and then invite people into the process that makes sense for that song, you know? Because I remember growing up, I’d see these hip hop collaborations between these people I always wanted to see doing a song together, and I’d listen to it and it would suck. And I’d be like, “Are you kidding me? How could this song suck? These are three people I love.” So I think we always want to make sure that we’re doing the collaboration because the song calls for it and it’ll make the song better, because the last thing we want is people to be like, “I like them and they worked with them and it sucks.”
But all that said, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Tyler the Creator.. this is all one track.. and whoever your favorite artist is. We’re going to get them all.
Haha, just get Muse and space theories.
I mean, just the keyboardist from Muse.
Their touring musician, Morgan Nichols.
Yea, we’ll get Morgan Nichols!
On that line, you’ve played and toured with many artists, what’s something that you thought was the best artist, or thing that stands out?
The best show or?
Either the best show, or best memory, or moment?
One thing that is really cool when you talk about collaborations is, that Tim McIlrath from Rise Against, whenever he’s in the same town that we’re in, like Chicago or Fort Collins, Colorado where he records a lot, he’ll just come out and perform “White Flag Warrior” with us. The audience just goes apeshit, people love it so much.
It’s so fun to watch people’s expressions. Like, we’ll just start the song, and he’ll come out half way through when people are like, turning and grabbing another person like, “look!!” So that’s always super fun.
What’s the most influential place you’ve toured?
That’s a good question.. honestly, every city influences us in a different way. But, we went to Tucson during the controversy several years ago about SP1070, which was the anti-immigrant law, which triggered a boycott of the state. Are you familiar with it?
It was a law that basically mandated, if police suspected someone was undocumented, they had to request their identity.
Ok, yea I am.
People saying, “Well this is a racist law” and they called for a boycott of the state by musicians. We already had our date set there, and we were driving to LA, so we’re going to go through Tucson whether we play there or not. So if we decided to play there we wanted to do it the right way. It just so happened the day we were playing was May 1st, May Day, and there was a huge rally planned, a pro-immigrant rally, on that day. We called the organizers off the post and were like, “Hey, we’re Flobots, we’d love to play. Do you need performers, could we play it?” It was this older guy who didn’t know who we were, so he was like, “Well, I need to check first, there’s a music committee and I need to check with them, because there’s a process we have to go through.” And we got the callback the next day, “They said they would love to have you, and they were frankly surprised I even asked and didn’t say yes right away.” (laughs). So we went and performed for this rally, I performed this bilingual rap that I like to do. And then we also performed that night, and it was so cool because the people from the rally came to the show. It kind of transformed us because we got to be a part of that experience.
Sorry, I have one other one if you don’t mind, one other performance.
Haha.. I have ten more stories for you!
List ALL of the stories!
“It all began…” So, in 2008 when Obama’s inauguration happened in Denver, our hometown so we were there, the Iraq Veterans Against the War were holding a rally. They were doing something in partnership with Rage Against the Machine, and us, and several other groups, where it was a concert and a rally. So we all performed in the Denver Coliseum. It was a free show, 10,000 people. And when we finished, we went into the streets and had a march. It was not a permitted march, but the police just let it happen because it was 7,000 people. So it was Rage Against the Machine, us, The Coup, State Radio, Wayne Kramer, that was the line-up, we were right before Rage. And after the show we just all spilled out and we were in the front row holding these banners right behind the veterans. That experience was really, really transforming, because it was like, here’s a concert, here’s a rally, and they marched up to the Democratic Convention and demanded to meet with Obama about ending the war. And the veterans got their message across, they were successful. No one was arrested, even though there were some very tense moments. And it just showed the power of people and strength in numbers. And the power of music more than anything.
That’s awesome. Isn’t Rage one of your influences on all of that?
I think especially on the political firm. Actually, I listened more to just traditional, straight up hip hop, or traditional alternative hip hop in the 90s, then I forgot about music for 8 years. But I think politically, how Rage was able to kind of tie in different issues to their music, I’ve always admired that.
Going with all of that, you guys have Flobots.org, can you give me more of an insight on any new projects you guys are doing with that?
Sure. Flobots.org is an organization we founded in 2007 when we were just a local band trying to figure out how to, not just talk shit about making change but actually give concrete steps to people who are interested in following up on that, the message they were hearing in the music. So it’s taken a whole lot of different forms, it’s grown a whole lot. Currently, it’s actually really big and very distinct and it’s a self-sufficient entity, I’m not even formerly involved in it, but I’m definitely an ally of it. Brer Rabbit is the board share. What’s happening right now is, Flobots.org is building a youth media studio in this neighborhood, where, basically the housing projects have been redeveloped to be mixed use, mixed income, retain the original residents, but have more services and opportunities for them. So there will be this 4,000 foot space where Flobots.org will create a place where young people can make music. The programming already does that, our program already invites people to use music to tell their own story, to help change their community, to use the computer to as an instrument to gain computer literacy. That’s already happening in classrooms, in treatment facilities, but this would be a place where it could happen in more detail and with more technology in one place, if that makes sense.
Yea, definitely. So how importantly is music education to you personally? How did it form you?
I think for me it was writing. So I had the opportunity to go to writing camps as a kid, short stories, poetry, some of the schools where I went, they kind of fostered a sense of creativity through writing, and then that’s kind of gradually become the lyrical aspect of music for me. But I think, some form of self-expression is so crucial, especially for teenager. When you go through these crucial times, you need some kind of safety net inside yourself that you can rely upon when no one else really has your back. So I think that’s crucial. And that’s what we want young people to have, the confidence that, even if everything else around them is failing them, they have something inside themselves.
You did the write a rhyme a day..
Oh, you dug deep..
Haha, I’m good at research..
I appreciate it..
This year, you said in your bio that you wanted to write a rap in 10 languages..
I didn’t say I’d do that by the end of this year. That’s just..
It said in 2013 you were aspiring to..
Did I? Who said that? Haha, I just mean, in general, as of 2013 I aspire to someday write a rap in 10 languages. Wait, what was the question?
…How’s the progress on that? Haha
I’m done.. I just can’t do it for you right now.. No. languages are amazing because, as somebody who works with words, English has a whole lot of different types of words. Spanish or Japanese, those are the other two languages I’m more familiar with, what makes the rhyme interesting is going to be different. I want to have that experience in other languages, of trying to figure out how do these sounds link up? It’s just such a fun experience for me, playing with words, that I want to do that in multiple languages.
So, how’s progress? I’ve written raps in English, I’ve written raps in Spanish, I’ve written raps in Japanese, I’ve not written raps but I’ve written lines of raps in Arabic, Swahili I did a line or two. I don’t count those, so I’d say I’ve done like, 15% there.
What other languages?
This is like my dream question. What I’d like to do is, English, Spanish, Japanese, French, sign language, I do speak some sign language, people have done interpretations of our songs, Arabic, Mandarin, Swahili, German, and Hebrew. I decided those will be the 10.
Do you know anyone other than English, Spanish, and Japanese?
I say all of those to some amount.
You went to Brown, right?
Yea, I went to Brown.. Where’d you go?
(Off topic convo about school)
I know a little bit about all of these, I can say a thing or two. I can say the least in Hebrew, which is why I’m glad you didn’t write it down.. oh now you did.
(At this point, we’re joking about on the record, off the record, when his friend Shawn waves to him and shakes his hand)
Sorry, back on task..
You’re clearly into politics and education, so what would you be doing if you weren’t doing music?
I always wanted to be a high school history teacher. I think it’d be fun because you just kind of get to keep learning and relearning history. And there’s so many layers to history.
More like social studies, or contemporary American issues or?
I don’t know, just like the general U.S. history course. But here’s how I’d teach it.. you’d start in the present, present tense.. Like me shaking hands with Shawn, and then you say “What happened before that?” And you ask the kids, “So what do you know about the world, tell us about the world right now?” They could name the main characters, they could name countries and events that have happened. And then you start, the next week you do ten years ago, and then you just keep going backwards and backwards, just make sure you get to the American Revolution. I feel like that would be way better than the way it is now, where you start at things that are completely irrelevant to people, and then you maybe get to the Civil Rights Movement and you just lose all connection to the present day. That would be my fantasy alternate job right now.
Would costumes be included?
I mean, that sounds like your fantasy job, that you thought of.. but I will incorporate it into my fantasy if that’s ok.
On a fan site, well the Flobots Facebook page, I saw a fan tattoo of one of the comics..
The Anne Braden one? My face, and a woman’s face, and a comic strip on a leg?
Yea! So what’s the craziest thing a fan’s done, including that or anything else?
There’re definitely people that have some of our lyrics tattooed on their body, which I always feel honored and guilty about at the same time. One time a guy showed me, he had this stuff on his neck, and he was like, “Check it out” and I was like, “Cool tattoo… holy shit!” It said, “I can ride my bike with no handlebars” all over his neck. I was like, “wow” and I was looking to see if his parents were around, if they were mad at me or anything.
The dad would punch you, turn around he’s standing right behind you..
“I didn’t write that song.. they just hired me for this tour to sing it.. don’t get mad at me.” Haha. No I thought that tattoo, the Anne Braden on her legs was really well done. And that one, you’re just completely honored. Like, I can’t believe my face is on somebody else’s leg, and it’s right next to this icon who I wrote a song about because I was inspired by this woman, Ann Braden, a southern white woman who was involved in the Civil Rights struggle. It’s very much like a good feeling, that you feel like, I can’t believe someone did to this.
..Until they try to stalk you.. no, I’m kidding..
You know, depends if they do it respectfully.
You guys run your own newsletter and all of your own social media sites, how is that important, what’s the importance of the direct relationship with fans?
I think everything where we can build a relationship with fans is so satisfying. You feel like the whole process is reciprocal. If you think about everything in terms of activism or social change, there’s only so much any one person can do, we all have to find our role. And if you ever forget that, then you feel really disempowered, because you’re like, “What am I doing? I’m just standing up here singing a song. I’m not helping people get better wages at their job, I’m not doing that.” But there’s a labor organizer, who is doing that, who comes to our show and says thank you for your music it inspired me. Or, I’m not in the classroom dealing with kids who are dealing with gun violence, but there’s a teacher that is dealing with that who comes to our show and thanks us for our music. And it means so much when we hear people say that. So when we get that at the end of shows, when we get it through social media, wherever we get it, it just helps you feel encouraged to keep going.
Also, who else are you going to tell about, the bagel shaped like Texas that you come across at a rest stop by yourself, but everyone in the world? One time I was just like, “listening to Spanish rap” on Twitter, “Who knows some good Spanish rap?” and everyone just hit me back, Los Rocos, and I’m like, alright.
That’s what Instagram is good for too..
I just got into Instagram, and I’ve found a lot of animals on this trip. I found a snail, a raccoon, I started taking pictures with me and the animals. Who else is going to look at that?
It could be a new feature..
It is a new feature! If you were up a little more on my Instagram, which I’m ashamed to find out you’re not.
Yea.. I’m really addicted to Twitter.. that’s my thing.
I do like Twitter.
And Instagram doesn’t show up in Twitter anymore.
Yea, they’re fighting.. It didn’t show up one bit?
It used to show the picture.
Yea, it used to show up automatically. What’s up with video on Twitter? I can’t post any videos that work. Maybe I’m old and just don’t get it?
I don’t know? I haven’t used TwitVid.
Doesn’t the other person have to have Telly?
…All of this is off the record.. we both know everything about social media and need no help.
I was helping you out there..
What artists have you currently been listening to? You know, that Spanish rap album..
Los Rocos I like. I fucking love Das Racist. I can’t get enough of it. I always forget, who’s somebody that came out recently.. Oh Kendrick Lamar! I love Kendrick Lamar. I like Chance the Rapper. I like this whole new generation of rappers that are coming out. I feel like they have this new wisdom that’s really exciting.
There’s only so much Jay-Z and Kanye..
I like them both too, but I think there’s a next level of creativity coming out.
What are your plans for the rest of 2013?
Apparently I have to learn 8 more languages according to you..
I’m not keeping count! No, you have to post daily updates on Twitter like “Just learned French.”
Yea, “I just learned ALL of French.” Well I guess that’s about me.. This is about the band. We’re doing this tour, and then we’re going to work on songs, create a lot of new music. Definitely do some more shows, maybe do some more touring. Basically just keep the creative juices flowing.
Cool! Anything else you want to add?
Actually I will say Flobots.org will be opening the youth media studio doors this September. Opening the doors on the Denver youth media studio.
Will you guys play a show there? Live stream it?
We’ll see. I think we’ll be present.
Anything else I need to know that’s dire? More snails?
If you want to see a picture with me and a snail, look up Flobot5 on Instagram. If you’re curious about our music, maybe you’ve only heard “Handlebars,” maybe you’ve heard we’re that we’re like a political band and you don’t necessarily agree with our politics, set all that aside and just come to a show, because we’ve always taken great pride in our live performances. And we always feel sad when we play a show in a city and the next day we get a message saying, “When are you playing in Atlanta?” and we’re like, “we just played Atlanta last night.” So don’t miss us, look us up on our website, and come to one of our remaining shows on this tour, and you won’t regret it
Alright, thank you!.
Writers note: At the end of the interview, he laughed as he apologized for his pants being dirty. The band went oyster farming in New Haven earlier in the day.