“The stakes feel so much higher when you’re talking about life and death issues like police violence, war, or even just healthcare.”
How do modern-day protest artisans get their music heard above the din of partisan rhetoric — without appearing overly preachy?
In the case of the Denver-based alt-hip-hop trio known as Flobots, the key was to start at the grassroots level, and then see their message of active participation get disseminated organically. That’s exactly how they planted the seed for the past two-plus years, working with local artists while preparing the music for their multitiered, Kickstarter-funded new album Noenemies, out in numerous formats today via their own label.
“We actually spent a lot of time immersed in building community power through collective singing,” Flobots emcee Jonny 5 told Digital Trends. “The focus wasn’t on performance; it was to get groups of people to claim their own power through singing together.”
To that end, gospel singers like Spirit of Grace lent their heavenly harmonies to numerous backing vocals and created standalone interludes that appear between various tracks on Noenemies. The result is a bouillabaisse blend of hip-hop, alt-rock, and even jazz, ranging from the built-up drama of Blood in the River to the war machine fallout of Quarantine. In fact, Noenemies is the perfect bookend to Flobots’ breakthrough 2007 megahit, Handlebars (“I can keep rhythm with no metronome… I can lead the nation with a microphone”).
“The album is designed to speak to different emotional moments within the lives of people trying to engage in social movements,” Jonny 5 continued. “We want those moments to shine through lightly and fully each time they’re happening, so we knew we were going to approach this album a little bit differently. It felt like we were ready to focus more on the emotional arc of the story being told.”
Digital Trends got in touch with Jonny 5 (real name: Jamie Laurie) at his homebase in Denver to discuss the balance of the Noenemies music-with-message palette, how to capture the spirit of the zeitgeist before it even happens, and how to centralize a common message through shared sounds.
Digital Trends: One song that encapsulates the album’s underlying core ideals for me is near the front of the record — Blood in the River. It also covers all the bases sonically, with the acoustic guitar and the choral stuff in the front half, and then that aggressive guitar jam towards the end.
Jonny 5: That song was born out of the songwriting genius of Mackenzie Gault, who was one of our original members and is still a part of this album and its songs in various ways … on the one hand, we’re yelling at each other and saying, “How can you be on the other side of this issue? How can you be behaving as an enemy?” The stakes feel so much higher than ever when you’re talking about life and death issues, whether it’s police violence, war, or even just healthcare. You just want to scream at people on the other side: “How dare you be on the other side?!?”
There are so many rich elements to these songs, whether it’s the percussion or the intent and flow of the vocals. How do you make sure all of those things come across when you’re dealing with such layered mixes?
We had to be very deliberate with how far to go with it. There are some obvious places for having big custom group vocals, or just building a chant and response into every song. If it was just me, I might have always gone there. (chuckles) But luckily my bandmate Brer Rabbit, Steve [Brackett, Flobots’ other emcee], has a real genius for big-picture vision, as does Gabe [Gabriel Otto], our producer. The two of them are very careful to not go to the obvious places.
The album ended up being a lot of subtraction. We recorded horn and string parts, and gospel choir parts for probably 75 percent of the songs. Then it was just a matter of saying, “OK, what stays, and what goes?” There’s a lot on the cutting room floor because we wanted it to be only what was needed in each place.
I can see some tracks being too dense for their own good.
Even with Blood in the River, towards the end we had to pull out some of its layers. There were a lot of beautiful ideas, but you couldn’t have them all at once. Even as it is, it’s a pretty heavy song. We wanted it to be heavy, but we didn’t want it to be overwhelming.
Did you look to other protest music or artists of the past or present as to whom you wanted to align with either philosophically or sonically?
It was different for each song. Actually, one of the records our producer looked to was Porgy and Bess [George Gershwin’s 1935 opera] — just the way the story could be told through the music and the motifs between the songs.
Interesting. And then we get to Carousel, where I feel like you’re in that intense, Bob Mould vocal zone. That one pulls me into an ’80s, Reagan-era protest vibe.
You bring up the Reagan era, and that song was very much inspired by [Nena’s 1983 hit] 99 Luftballoons, a song that just feels like a pop song. But when you listen closely, you realize it’s deeper than that.
“If music is our tool, then we need to be celebrating the human voice.”
There wasn’t only one place that we looked to, because the protest aspect isn’t really something that’s new for us. The traditions that were always on our mind for this was the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Freedom Movement — different movements that have had songs front and center as part of the culture they were building as tools for the movement … And if music is indeed our tool, then we also need to be celebrating the human voice. Not just conceptually, but literally, we have to invite people to sing along.
So it took us about two years to do that, and it overlapped with the album process. For a while, it was all we were focusing on. And then we wanted to make sure the human voice was present in a variety of ways on the album, in ways that would feel new and fresh.
You don’t necessarily have to listen to Noenemies in its exact running order, but are there any albums you consider to be perfectly sequenced?
Hmm. What’s interesting is, when an album is really well-sequenced, you almost don’t notice it. I’m thinking of OutKast, ATLiens (1996). I would always listen to that album straight through. I had it on cassette, and it never even occurred to me that you would skip around. There was no need.
As for our own sequencing, the decision to put Failure Games first was a bold one on our part, because we had to think, “Really? Is that how we want to start this thing out?” It felt like it actually drew the listener in because it was disconcerting, provoked some questions, and was out boldest and strangest song sonically.
But by putting it first, it enhanced the symmetry of the album. It used to be in the middle of the album in some of our sequences, but we felt this was the bizarre sculpture you present to people in the beginning so you go, “Well, what do you think this is?”
The other thing is, we completed the album before the election. We knew the songs reflected the emotions of a movement, and one of those emotions is failure. But we didn’t know the emotion of failure would feel so desperate by the time the album came out … that’s the interesting thing about creating any piece of art that it takes time to release — you don’t know what the zeitgeist will be when you release something, but you can prepare for it. Some things will be different, but a lot of things will be the same, and some things will line up in ways you didn’t expect.
A call-to-action song like Rattle the Cage maybe has even more resonance because of the election result.
That song in some ways builds off of Carousel, in the weird digital landscape we live in. We compartmentalize things in a hall of mirrors where we see distortions of one another through social media filters that demonize one another and make each other into enemies.
Carousel has that late at night, looking on your cell phone feel to it. There’s an illusion that your cell phone contains a window into not feeling lonely, which everyone can relate to. Rattle the Cage is the more grotesque side of that reality, where you’re so angry with one another because you’re convinced the other person is the enemy — and that’s just seriously bizarre. That song is really about fear, and being afraid of admitting we’re afraid. And that can come back and haunt us in one way or another.
Did we all somehow get too complacent in terms of how we deal with each other from a physical distance in the modern digital age?
“You don’t know what the zeitgeist will be when you release something, but some things will line up in ways you didn’t expect.”
There’s a laziness in digital culture, and a lack of community. We don’t have it, so we’re finding it in superficial places. And the most superficial is being on the internet, where you can feel quite righteous if you cast blame at people who have violated the bubble of your particular norms. And there are people who are marketing that feeling of righteousness to us.
What’s actually harder is to be in a community in a sustained way with a variety of people with a variety of views, and wrestle with them together in a way that makes everyone stronger.
Music used to be the main thing that brought people together on the national level to have a collective conversation, but we don’t all access the same jukebox anymore.
It’s the downside of compartmentalization, right? When we only had a few television channels, we had just a few conversations available every night, and you kind of knew where everybody was. The fact that media now has all these ways to cater to us individually has all these upsides. It’s exciting that you can find your niche and really delve in and be a part of a community of people who share your values, but if we never have one common conversation, then we’ve really lost something.
We’re all seeing the same world, but we’re given such drastically different, highly specialized framings of that world. It makes it easier to be on the opposite side of a conversation with somebody you just met instead of having that common ground.
Sad but true. Can albums like Noenemies help centralize that conversation? Was that your goal?
I hope so, yeah. We want everyone to recognize themselves on the album. There are songs about that feeling of loneliness we talked about earlier, songs about desperation, songs about a police officer who just experience a traumatic shooting. When you leave the head and go into the heart to share something with emotional resonance and emotional honesty, that is, hopefully, something everyone can relate to.