Raging against the machine 

Flobots ride a familiar hit to fame with no handlebars

Flo motion: Barren landscapes make excellent venues.
  • Flo motion: Barren landscapes make excellent venues.

When it comes to audience sing-alongs, the song "Handlebars" is tough to beat: "I can end the planet in a holocaust / In a holocaust / In a holocaust / In a holocaust / In a holocaust / In a holocaust."

"It's bizarre when you have little kids singing along to that," agrees Flobots singer-songwriter Jonny 5 in regard to the Denver-based band's breakthrough rock/pop/hip-hop track. "When I look at people at our show screaming along to those lines, I think maybe this is a way to get out that power-hungry aspect that maybe we all have in us. It's like, 'You know what? I'm capable of the worst things that humanity is capable of, and let me just release that fantasy or fear now, so I don't have to ever enact it.'"

The most creatively cathartic hit in recent memory, "Handlebars" helped the group's most recent album, Fight with Tools, to sell more than a quarter-million copies. The song opens with childhood bragging about riding a bike with no handlebars, then moves on through a litany of increasingly violent boasts.

"The song was obviously not meant to trigger uncomfortable memories for victims of something horrendous," its writer explains. "It's instead meant to point out that we're still capable of horrendous things, and that there are things happening right now that involve a lot of death and destruction."

Flobots started out with their core trio Jonny 5 (aka James Laurie), fellow MC Brer Rabbit (aka Stephen Brackett) and violist Mackenzie Roberts (aka Mackenzie Roberts) performing with DJ accompaniment.

"In the first conversations between myself and Stephen, we thought, 'Yes, this is a good idea it will be something people talk about and it will sound good, so what more could you want?'" he says.

These days, Jonny 5 figures, hip-hop artists are increasingly opting for live bands and, yes, even strings.

"There's Miri Ben-Ari, you know, the hip-hop violin player who works with Kanye West. And there's Maestro Hughes in Denver. I think it's one of those combinations that, because it's kind of classical meets hip-hop, it catches people's imagination."

Despite Flobots' newfound fame, community involvement remains an integral part of the group's identity, with individual members coming from backgrounds in activism, education and work with the developmentally disabled.

"I don't see it as hard to do," says Jonny 5 of the band's marrying music and politics. "I mean, personally, it would be hard not to do. But we never set out to combine politics and hip-hop or combine rock and rap. It's really been about, 'Who's in the room and what do we want to do?'"

And while it may not be as empowering as their show with Rage Against the Machine during Denver's Democratic National Convention "After the show, the audience marched out into the street and toward the Pepsi Center; you can't have a much more direct example of music as a force for social change than that" the group is still eager to play National Public Radio's etown gig here in the Springs.

"We live in Colorado," says Jonny 5, "so it's a little weird to have been all over the country and not been all over the state."



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