As footage of the capitol riots circulated online, James Laurie, aka Jonny 5, watched with a unique kind of discomfort. A discomfort that stemmed from familiarity. Some of the rioters looked like they could have been at a Flobots concert circa 2008 — an era where the band’s merch was decorated with stars and stripes and their music was the soundtrack to protests against the Iraq war.
Not one to stay silent during trying times, Laurie took to the band’s blog.
“When we put on flag bandanas and declare ourselves new American insurgents, we are appealing to a very specific American lineage – to a path paved by abolitionists, suffragettes, freedom riders, labor unions, and movements of marginalized peoples building solidarity based in compassion.”
Flobots’ music has always been political, but it’s not divisive. Instead of didactically dissecting a specific issue, the band taps into the emotional experiences that come along with it — shared trauma, competition, love.
Take their platinum-selling single, “Handlebars.” The song that started it all, at its core, is a meditation on human potential.
“I can lead a nation with a microphone… and I can split the atom of a molecule.”
But, in this political moment, Laurie felt that he needed to clarify something: Flobots did NOT stand for this. What do they stand for? When BandWagon caught up with the band, Stephen Brackett, aka Brer Rabbit, laid out the band’s most fundamental shared values.
“Brass tax – everybody is human. Everybody should have access to love,” Brackett said. “If you’re going to insist on the humanity of all people then you will most likely make sure that you’re advocating for the people who’ve been excluded.”
It is this philosophy that has cemented Flobots’ place in the pantheon of protest bands. They have sustained through the end of the Bush era, the Occupy movement and two major waves in the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, their music is relevant.
This summer, Flobots return to the stage after a winter of sparse, restricted concerts. On June 5th, the band’s sold-out show at Levitt Pavilion in Denver was cancelled last-minute due to lightning hazard, though it has been re-scheduled for July 2. On Saturday, July 3rd, they will play their first ever show at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre in Bellvue with the Burroughs and Wasteland Hop.
For Brackett, the prospect of stepping back into the spotlight is both nerve-wracking and electrifying, so to speak.
“The role that music can play is really amplified right now, because people are really realizing how much they miss it,” he said. “When people have that kind of longing, you have to make that connection happen. Which means, we have to step it up even more than before.”
These shows will also be the testing ground for the new music that the band has put together over the past year. Their latest single, “When It All Falls” directly addresses the tumultuous, to say the least, landscape of the past year – one which mobilised, yet polarised much of the nation on both intimate and massively public scales.
“We started [‘When It All Falls”] during the George Floyd protests and finished it just after January 6th,” Jonny 5 states on the band’s website. “In between, there was also, you know, an election, one that infused daily life with profound anxiety. We wanted to speak to all of that.”
The single the band released in May, “Me & You (Happy 2gether),” is an old crowd favorite cover/sample of The Turtles’ song with undeniable energy. In April they released “Roshni,” a call to action that features the words “together we rise” in more than a dozen languages.
On the same day as Joe Biden’s inauguration, the band leaked a demo of “We Win the Day,” a hooky track about the collective power of people working towards change — however small each individual action might feel.
“When every movement is digital, you could be fooled into thinking that you could be at the front lines of every movement every day. Especially during quarantine, that temptation felt strong,” Laurie said. “I would love for anyone who might feel overwhelmed or conflicted or confused right now to say, ‘Well, what is your role? What is your set of tools?’”
For Flobots, it’s clear. Their “set of tools” is music. The band’s members co-founded Youth On Record, a nonprofit that connects at-risk youth with music education in Denver, in 2008. Last year, on the same day that Colorado’s stay-at-home order went into effect, Brackett was appointed as the state’s music ambassador. During the second year of his two-year term, he hopes to expand the concept of “music response teams,” throughout Colorado. The trial run of the program brought mental health professionals, peer mentors and bands together to combat the increased risk of suicide for teens during the pandemic in Brush, Colorado.
“We were able to use music as a delivery method for something that is very much needed right now,” Brackett said. “With the remainder of my tenure as the ambassador, I’m looking to put more of those systems in place.”
After years of raising their voices publicly and marching in the streets, this is the kind of activism Flobots are most interested in now. As important as it is to fight for change, sometimes it is more important to create it. Brackett described the band’s maturing perspective by invoking Langston Hughes.
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Turning a phrase of his own, Brackett says: “Our patriotism is future-facing.”