"We had outsold Hannah Montana," says Flobots' co-frontman Jamie Laurie aka Jonny 5. "In Denver," he quickly adds.
Topping the kiddie character's ticket sales was no easy feat, but the Mile High City is the Flobots' hometown. Disney Channel be damned.
During one week in 2008, everything started to fall into place for the Denver music scene's new sextet. Flobots' first album, Fight With Tools, debuted at No. 3 on Billboard's rap and alternative rock charts by way of KROQ and a late-night television performance of the single "Handlebars." The band headed out on an American tour, followed by an invasion of places like Dublin, Paris and Amsterdam, which garnered Flobots a worldwide fanbase by year's end.
Two years later, Survival Story represents make-it-or-break-it time for Flobots. If Fight with Tools was Flobots arming for battle, Survival Story is the band's shock-and-awe attack on American apathy. The band's growth is evident halfway through the new record, which divides its themes between a rant on Earth's destruction and a commentary on a soldier's demons. ("I was rushed to a new landscape / And ripped away from family scraped into a politician's mistake," raps Jonny 5 on "Good Soldier.") Survival Story brings something more engaging, more biting from this hip-hop crew of live musicians.
"The last album was about slogans, and that was deliberate," says Jonny 5. "This time we said, 'No, we want to go deeper, we want to be more nuanced. Let's tell stories.'"
Survival Story tells more like a diary. With a nod to Jay-Z and a hat tip to Al Gore, emcees Jonny 5 and Brer Rabbit trade tirades on global warming in the album's opening rhymes: "Sandbags, bring 'em out / It's hard to yell with the Atlantic in your mouth." Mackenzie Roberts' rapid-fire viola bow strokes and angelic vocals in songs like "Good Soldier" solidify Flobots' musical relevance and political awareness in an era fatigued by war.
"We're really into speaking our minds and being involved, and people were hungry for that sort of thing after our shows," says Roberts.
Flobots does more than deliver lip service--these activists mobilize their movement by teaching music at the Denver Children's Home and maintaining a green-friendly community center in the heart of Denver's River North Art District. While on tour prior to Obama's election, the band registered hordes of young voters and even played the Democratic National Convention. And they're not down with the whole Tea Party thing--Flobots also operate the Fight with Tools Institute, which encourages young people to challenge the ultraconservative movement and create social change through art and cultural expression.
"Their commitment to investing in the community and using their success as musicians to improve the community is so unusual," says Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who recognized Flobots with the Mayor's Award for Excellence in the Arts in February. "They demonstrate very pointedly that we can all be part of the solution."
"Super Hero"--Survival Story's standout track--coldly confronts the challenges domestic partners face every day ("When it come to populations to disparage / Gaza's on the list right below gay marriage," raps Brer Rabbit), while "Defend Atlantis" chillingly warns, "The world is an island now."
Survival Story cracks open the Flobots' arsenal and reveals more of what the first album lacked: breathing room. At times the sharp, thoughtful lyrics get somewhat lost in the occasionally bloated production. The guitars and rhythm section overpower otherwise catchy songs "White Flag Warrior" and "Infatuation," and the message gets lost in the mix. Producer Mario "Mario C" Caldato clearly wants Flobots to sound aggressive, but the band's finest moments happen when they're not working to fill every bit of space. This concept album about American arrogance is in good hands with Mario C, who produced the 1992 Beastie Boys masterpiece Check Your Head. The Beastie Boys classic demonstrates what live instrumentation did for hip-hop almost 20 years ago.
"I think Flobots have a unique sound and have a good chance at being noticed if people just listen," Mario C observes.
"Good Soldier" and "Airplane Mode" make for some of Flobots' best work. Here the band strips away some of the electricity, allowing Roberts' stunning vocals and viola to shine more than on the previous album. The precision of Kenny Ortiz's firecracker snare, Andy Guerrero's gritty Chili Peppers-style riffs and Jesse Walker's hammering bass line sounds more effective and measured this time around.
"They treat each other with an egoless love and make every attempt to bring the best out of each other," says Greg McRae, who engineered Flobots' first album. "The band was democratically involved through its evolution."
These socially conscious rockers could have easily recycled their sound this time around, but that would have contradicted the message of change the band advocates to its audiences around the world.
"We want to have as many bullets as possible," says Jonny 5, "and I think we've got a fully loaded album."
A version of this article originally ran in the Orlando Weekly.