Though the group was originally founded in 2000 by Jamie "Johnny 5" Laurie, Flobots went through a metamorphosis before it made its impression on millions of people in 2008 with the massively successful single "Handlebars." Flobots combines alternative-rock instruments with hip-hop vocals and lyrics that make you think, and although the reception to the follow-up to their popular debut album was lukewarm, they've returned with their third studio album, The Circle in the Square, which is bound to make some waves with its politically and socially charged content, especially at the peak of an election year. Laurie spoke via cell phone on his way to an Orlando tour stop about the inspiration behind the album.
Your new album was originally going to be titled Stop the Apocalypse, but later you changed it to The Circle in the Square. Why did you change it?
The image of Circle in the Square came to us after we had already been working on the album, and it just felt right. It felt like it summed up a new feeling around the world; that there were these groups of people, these communities forming in public places that were issuing a global call to action, around a different vision for our global future. So that was exciting to us, and it seems more hopeful than the image of Stop the Apocalypse, which is sort of more cartoonish.
I assume the title pertains to the Occupy movements of last year?
The image comes from the Arab Spring; [singer] Brer Rabbit [Stephen Brackett] and I went to the Middle East when the Arab Spring was happening in Egypt, and the image came to us of a circle of people inside a square. And of course when Occupy kicked off, we were already in the studio, but there were some songs that we hadn't finished yet, that we were still working on, and that was for the American Homecoming for the global democracy movement.
You guys have played in festivals with Metallica, Atreyu, The Offspring, Chiodos, Rise Against; this means you were performing for crowds that preferred a style of music that wasn't exactly what Flobots had to offer. Was that challenging for you?
We're used to it. When we opened for Metallica in Arizona, there were Flobots fans sprinkled in the audience. We definitely won some people over, but not every Metallica fan was an immediate Flobots fan — there were some middle fingers in the air; some of those middle fingers were signs of approval; some of them were more traditional.
Your lyrics are very politically charged. Have you ever pissed off your friends or families with the messages you convey in your music?
Every single album, I worry that it's gonna happen. And as far as I know, I haven't. I think people are just happy to hear someone express themselves fully. We've have had fans say, "Hey look, I don't agree with you on every issue, but I love your music." I've actually been shocked at how appreciative people are to hear opinions voiced.
So there are people who enjoy the music but they don't agree with the messages you convey. Does that aggravate you, or are you at peace with it?
No, I'm really grateful that they take the time to listen and continue to listen. And I think it's that it creates conversation. And I've had great conversation in email and in person with people who really engage with it. I prefer that; it's kinda weird to just be able to just say a lot of stuff and have people accept it. I wanna know where other people are coming from and how they interpret the music we're making.
One of my favorite encounters — well, I don't encourage this — we did a show, and I said something in between songs about the illegal war in Iraq. And I think it was the first time I phrased it that way, and this guy from 15 rows back throws a drink onto the stage that lands on my feet, and he's just swearing at me, and then his friend ushers him away before security kicked him out. And that night I got an email from him that was still just profanity. And I wrote back to him, I said, "Look, when you threw that, I thought to myself, 'You probably just got back from Iraq.' I bet you were there, and I bet you lost friends there." And he wrote me back and said, "You know, that's true. I got back two days ago, and it's complete culture shock...," and we kinda kept going back and forth. We exchanged 20 emails between us, and we didn't agree on every single thing, but it was so much more about what I had said felt like I was spitting in his face, and I completely understood that. To me, that was so much more valuable than a concert where everyone agrees with everything you say. I think we both grew from it.
It says on your website that you believe in global warming. How does it make you feel when you hear about the numerous people who just dismiss global warming as "just a theory"?
Well, I think there's a temptation to kinda block out any information that doesn't fit neatly into the life path that you're on. And I think climate change, the state of the earth, and the resources of the earth is a scary topic. So it's not easy to think about because it involves actually charting a course towards living differently. So I can see why people want to block that out, but it something that they need to think about because it's a justice issue, because the wealthy nations that use the resources disproportionately are gonna continue to do that. So if you're all right as a Christian, or as a person, or as a whatever-you-are, with letting people on the other side of the planet suffer for our convenience, then fine, proceed on that path, but I don't think those people are all right with that, it's just easier to just believe that it's not happening.
In one of your songs, you say you want "to speak and inspire like Dennis Kucinich." Have you invited him to your upcoming show in Cleveland?
No, would you please invite him to the show? That would be incredible.
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