The phone rang promptly at 1 p.m. Kenny Ortiz, drummer for Flobots, introduced himself with the confident bellow of a radio DJ. Unlike most musicians at this unholy hour, he sounded chipper—like healthy breakfast, half-hour on the treadmill chipper. Though it was only the second day of a six-week tour that will zip the band across the United States then off to Europe, it's hard to imagine Ortiz losing any of his infectious enthusiasm along the way.
If Ortiz doesn't seem like your typical Billboard-topping musician, it's probably because Flobots are a far cry from the average Courvoisier-swilling hip-hop band. With anthemic, intensely political songs and instruments that range from viola to jazz trumpet, it's easy to see why. The group's founder and main emcee Jonny 5 has labeled the band "indie hip-hop fusion." They sound like a 1996 alt-rock radio reunion: Cake vocals, Sublime beats and Rage Against the Machine messages. Whatever label you try to slap on them, the meteoric climb of their single "Handlebars" has thrust these seven Denver, Coloradans into the limelight.
"That's the great thing about this band, we seem to play across multiple genres. While we consider ourselves a hip-hop band, we're played a lot on what I guess is called modern rock radio. That seems to be an audience that is very receptive to us," explains Ortiz.
Flobots' current lineup has all the wholesome charm and diversity of an after-school special. Three years ago, emcees Jonny 5 (James Laurie) and Brer Rabbit (Stephen Brackett) teamed up with guitarist Andy Guerrero, violist Mackenzie Roberts, bassist Jesse Walker and trumpet player Joe Ferrone. For a while, the band struggled to find a drummer who was both competent and committed, but after only one practice rehearsal with Ortiz, they knew the pieces had finally fallen together.
The band started playing around the Denver music scene, garnering attention from their local alternative radio station. After winning the station's battle of the bands, their single was put into regular rotation and their shows began selling out. From beneath the rubble of the fallen record industry, executives heard the moo of a cash cow. Universal Republic offered to release the Flobots' self-produced first album, Fight With Tools, completely untouched.
"When you think of indie labels, you think that those labels are a lot more open to allowing you to be yourself and do what you do both politically and musically," says Ortiz. "You feel that an indie label would give you a lot of creative freedom to be yourself. But Universal Republic definitely gave us that."
One benefit of signing to a major label has been increased exposure for the band's nonprofit, Flobots.org. Social and political activism have been pillars of the band's worldview since its inception. The song "Fight With Tools" readily indicts "the system where the poor get poorly paid to hold the ladder where the rich get ricocheted into the stratosphere." But, as the Flobots are quick to explain, illuminating the world's ailments is only the first step in advocating change.
"It would be unfair to get people excited about our music or message and inspire them to create change, then not give them an outlet to do so," reasons Ortiz.
Currently, the band's goal is to organize street teams around the country that can mobilize to tackle issues like universal health care, homelessness and voter education. In Denver, Flobots have teamed up with the Denver Children's Home to offer weekly music classes to residents. They also aim to register 50,000 people to vote in the upcoming election.
"It's very ambitious ... we're seeing what works and what doesn't. We're just trying to create the model to see what's successful in our hometown and then try and take that to a national level," says Ortiz.
What the band has successfully taken to the national level is its unique sound. Fight With Tools debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard Top Album Chart. The Flobots recently made appearances on both Last Call with Carson Daly and the sex-advice radio program, Loveline. Though Ortiz admits he's only driven through Boise once before, he says the band is amped for Thursday's show and continually amazed when people outside of Denver show up to their concerts.
"I think most bands probably get excited for the big city stops, but we're finding that some of the small cities that we play in are the most fun."
July 17 with Doomtree and P.O.S., 8 p.m., $13. Knitting Factory Concert House, 416 S. 9th St., 208-367-1212. knittingfactory.com.