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Soundcheck: Jonny 5 

Flobot

Earlier this year, Denver's hip-hop/frat-rock group Flobots rolled into town on the coattails of the popular single "Handlebars," a catchy hip-hop number that carried a message of self-empowerment and activism. They've just finished the follow-up to 2007's Fight With Tools and are now playing several songs from it. MC Jonny 5 recently talked about the band's interest in social issues and recalled their last show at Peabody's ,when they shredded a copy of Scene because of a negative write-up they'd gotten.

I think the last time you were in town, you took issue with a write-up you had gotten in Scene. Do you recall any of that?

I do. We had fun with that. It enhanced the show.

I heard the show was a blast despite the negative review.

We had a good time. Bad reviews happen. I thought the show was great. There was a guy who climbed up a pole and was hanging from the ceiling.

I heard you dedicated a cover of "Heartbreaker" to the guy who panned your music. Is that the first time you played the tune or is that a regular in the set?

We play that regularly, but we never dedicated it to anyone. So he should consider himself enshrined.

On one level, "Handlebars" seems like a straightforward summertime jam. But it's really a metaphor for social change and self-empowerment, isn't it?

Yeah. It hit me all at once. The lyrics came in one fell swoop. It was coming from a heavier place. It helps that it's catchy, though.

Is there seriously a thriving underground scene in Denver?

Yeah. I think because it is in the middle of nowhere, Denver gets people from all over the area coming looking for something. We don't have a whole string of other cities where we can go tour, and we have to build on the local scene. So there are a lot of great venues and a whole lot of support. We are a musical island. We all came together in 2004 and 2005 from a variety of musical backgrounds wanting to see what we could do together. We all shared a commitment to bridging the musical gap between genres.

Were you always committed to activism?

Yes, though I think first and foremost, we're about music. We've each experienced the transformative power of music in different ways, whether it's teaching a five-year-old kid to play violin or through rallies and activism where music becomes the audio banner for the event.

Were you a fan of Michael Franti and Spearhead?

Oh yeah. I remember falling asleep and waking up to [Spearhead's] Home.

How'd you end up with a viola player in the band?

She was the third member of the team. In early 2004, [MC] Brer Rabbit and I met her at a show and said, "Let's try this out." It really worked. She filled the role that a DJ might. Andy [Guerrero], our guitar player at the time, was in a different band and said he could have his whole band back us up. We tried it out and it really worked and we formalized it. We did that in 2005 and the rest is history. Well, our little personal history.

I see on your website that Onomatopoeia is for sale again. What's the history behind that release?

That's something I did in 2001 with a friend named Yahktoe. It was before the Flobots. It was just a solo thing. It got mentioned in Wikipedia, and we just wanted to release it. The proceeds are going to our nonprofit organization. It's a good fundraising thing.

You guys have your own webcomic series. What's that all about?

Last year, we were contacted by a guy named D.J. Coffman, who really liked the band. He's become central to everything we do. He runs our website, and he started a comic based on the imagery on the album but also fans who come to the shows. We have a lot of people serving in Iraq who gravitated toward our music, and we wanted to reflect that back as gratitude and as a way for everybody else to know what are some of the things that veterans are facing when they come back. We have that song "Iraq" and it plays off that song.

You're working on your next album, which will be about climate change. Did you consult with Al Gore before you started writing the songs?

Is Al Gore in charge of climate change? I didn't realize he was the go-to man. Yes, we just finished the album. It should be out in early 2010. It's about all sorts of things. We're tentatively calling it Survival Story. We're up against the limits in a very real way. We don't want our future to be the earth from Wall-E, a big landfill. We need water and air, so we are in a place that we have to tell ourselves how to survive. A film like 2012 makes it seem like we are all screwed and the end is near. The idea about the album is, Let's tell a different story about how we survive. What do we have to do to survive? We need to tell a different story on the big macro level. If you tell yourself you won't be happy, then you won't. It's more personal too. It all fits together in a way that will become clear.

Have you ever met a nonprofit you didn't like?

Yeah. There's a lot of organizations that are inefficient. We try to look at what things are important to us and who is effective and who we have relationships with. We support this campaign that the Energy Action Coalition is doing called "It's Game Time, Obama." It's saying the December 7 climate-change summit in Copenhagen is important, and Obama should go there. People who want to see something done about the environment put him in office and want to hold him accountable. We just try to stay up on things. There's a lot going on.

jniesel@clevescene.com

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