An exclusive in-depth Q&A with Jonny 5 of Flobots

Categories: Interviews

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See also: Jonny 5's track-by-track breakdown of Flobots' new album, The Circle In the Square.

Jonny 5 is scaring folks in middle America. Literally. But while the Flobots frontman -- better known to folks around here by his government name Jamie Laurie -- has devoted the better part of his adult life to becoming a radical force for change, it's not his politics that are making folks in the heartland uneasy right now. At the moment, they're unnerved by the fact that he's been pacing back and forth -- in front of a bank, gesticulating frequently and excitedly, we imagine.

"Someone just mentioned that they seen you walking back and forth," says a barely audible voice in the background to J5, as he speaks via cellphone from somewhere in Iowa, on the day before his band's big gig tonight at the Ogden Theatre.

Can't really blame folks for being a little freaked out. To be fair, he is stationed in front of a bank, and has been since the band's tour bus came to halt nearby for lunch more than a half hour ago. Knowing Jonny, with that very intense, mystical thousand yard stare of his, though, he probably seems a little suspicious, like he's hashing out the final details of some well orchestrated plan. And while that's more or less what he's doing. It's not what it looks like, folks. Swear. No cause for alarm.

The Flobots frontman isn't laying out some sort of felonious plan worthy of raising the terror level. Rather, he's discussing his band's forthcoming record, the eagerly awaited follow-up to 2008's Fight With Tools. Recorded last year by Mario Caldato Jr. at the Blasting Room over the course of three weeks, Survival Story marks the first new music Flobots have written and recorded since Tools was finished nearly three years ago. Originally released independently, the album was reissued by Universal, the act's imprint, virtually untouched -- an infrequent occurrence in this industry.

Mere months after releasing the album on their own, Flobots were snatched up by Universal and thrust into the limelight, on the strength of "Handlebars," the group's smash single. After Tools was reissued nationally in 2008, Flobots then spent the better part of that year on the road stopping back at home only long enough, it seemed, to perform a once in a lifetime gig with Rage Against the Machine and the Coup at the Coliseum during the Democratic National Convention -- after which, the groups then lead a veterans march of 7,000 people downtown from the venue.

Talk about having all of the stars aligning for you. An ideological -- and, to some extent, a sonic -- heir to Rage Against the Machine, Flobots came to prominence at exactly the right time. Here was a band that -- on paper at least -- was playing a seemingly dated style of music (hybrid hip-hop), whose cache had all been buried along with Limp Bizkit. What's more, it was infused with undeniably political overtones.

As it happens, though, the timing was perfect. Flobots came along armed with a timely activist message during the most emotionally charged political era our existence, when one of the most high profile elections in history was ultimately decided in their hometown, a city where the DNC had just happened to pick to host its annual convention. (Yeah, seems scripted doesn't it?)

Which brings us to now. The band spent all of last year simply being musicians, living back at home, reconnecting with their roots and making new music. Survival Story, among other things, tells the story of Flobots whirlwind experience and how it effected their lives. We caught up with Jonny 5 and asked him about how the band has grown as people and as musicians since releasing Tools and what we can expect from the new album, which comes out this Tuesday, March 16.

Westword (Dave Herrera): Tell me about the new record. The last record Universal essentially re-released what you guys had already recorded. So this is the first chance you've had to record songs since this whole experience happened. Not to mention, a lot of things have changed politically and socio-politically. How has that impacted the new record?

Jonny 5 (aka Jamie Laurie): You know, it was an entirely new experience, pretty much in every possible way. Before, we had to slip in songwriting between our day jobs, and this time it was our day job. That alone was something that we were just kind of in constant disbelief -- wait a second; we wake up each day and we go to the studio and write songs together? That was really the second half of the dream come true.

The first half having your day job be to go on tour. You know, last year we were almost never home. We began to think we didn't live anywhere. This past year, we were in Denver pretty much the entire year, with the exception of a month when we out with Rise Against in the month of November. It was great. We got to reconnect with family and friends.

And we got to all the sense of victory from the first album -- that in many ways felt like a collective victory from all the different folks in the community that had supported us all along the way -- we got to take all those stories and those perspectives and have it really inform our work.

I mean, whether it was people at someone's church -- one of the songs, "Superhero," comes from a story where, at Mackenzie's church, there's a lesbian couple in which one of the women was not allowed in the delivery room because she wasn't actually the official spouse. So stories like that fed the album tremendously.

And the third thing, as you mentioned, the political situation is entirely different. I mean, 2006 and 2007, when we wrote Fight With Tools, it felt appropriate to play off this idea of slogans. We kind of needed slogans. I mean, everybody was using slogans. It was important. It was important to say, 'Wait a second; let's not keep going in this direction. Let's go in this other direction. Everybody rally, and we'll go in this other direction.'

This past year was one where, fine, we decided on hope and change. What does that mean? Let's get down and dirty into the crevices and cracks about the hard work and the contradictions and the hypocrisies and frustrations and exhaustion that can come after the sense of victory. So we applied that, obviously, not just to the political situation but to our album itself, kind of our story, and said, 'Let's get more personal. Let's share a little bit more of ourselves, as people, and not just as ...' I don't know, quasi icons or whatever we were. So we really tried to do all of those things, and it felt like a very, very natural progression.

You always work toward something like that as a band [getting signed] and you always push to get to that level. But it really kind of happened quickly for you guys. You released your album on your own toward the end of 2007 and by February of the next year, you had a deal with Universal. It usually doesn't happen that quickly. Also, typically you sign to a label on the merits of your independent release, and from that point, you go and record a new record. So were you a bit surprised that they wanted to release the record as is?

Yeah, but I think we held our ground pretty firmly right from the beginning, and I think they sort of knew that: Okay, this isn't a band we're going to take and package in the studio. This is a band that has, at the very least, this one single that's doing really well. Let's take them as is. I think it was a strategic move on their part to accept us, because they realized that we were going to be difficult if they didn't.

And that has proved to be a very good thing. That first year, there's some things that we just held the line on, things that maybe now we'd even be flexible about, but I think we just all felt it was really important. We'd never done this before, and we wanted to make sure we were keeping our integrity. So we held the line on a number of things and were sort of difficult, and, I think, got a little bit of a reputation of, you know, don't mess with us on anything artistic.

I think that served us well this past year when we've been willing to say, 'Okay, you know, we don't feel as intensely about these things as we used to.'

What sort of things were you holding the line on?

Early on, they asked if we'd do a remix to "Handlebars" that would be format-friendly, and we just said, 'No. We don't want to do that.' The song was so new, and -- I don't know -- it just rubbed us the wrong way. So we were like, 'No, we're not going to do it that way.' Now if there's a producer we'd like to work with, if there's someone like DJ Shadow, that would be cool.' So we ended up doing that. There is a "Handlebars" remix done by Shadow. So it was more just us saying, 'Let's do these things on our terms,' which is still where we are. But when you look at the scheme of things and how many remixes and crazy little b-sides exist, the stakes are a little bit lower now.

I think we also got enough of a feel for the way the game works, and now we can be proactive. Now we have in mind, 'Oh, they might want a remix of this. They're going to want some b-sides. They're going to want some posters. There might be a TV ad.' So we told them in our last meeting, 'Look, now we know what you guys need, we can start being proactive and make it on our own terms and have it kind of ready for you.'

Stuff like that was just an educational process. It was right of us to be suspicious and to be cautious, and we learned some things from it. It's taken the working relationship to a really good place. So now they're really excited. We didn't do anything with song lengths when we wrote them; we just thought about what the song needs.

So I think they were surprised to hear that, like, 'Oh, no, we'd be open to, if there's a song that might work really well as a single, we'd be open to editing it. Not for the album. For the album, we're leaving every song as long as it needs to be. But we want our songs on the radio, too. So we can do a radio edit.' So I think they were like, 'Oh, really? You guys aren't going to be difficult? Okay! Cool!'


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