Flobots celebrate new independence

Split with major label gives band creative freedom on new CD

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Vocalist Stephen Brackett (who goes by the name Brer Rabbit) in the Flobots, isn't being dismissive of the group's second nationally released CD, "Survival Story," but in a sense, he looks at the group's new CD, "The Circle In The Square," as the true follow-up to its first album, "Fight with Tools."

"For us it feels like a continuation of 'Fight with Tools,'" Brackett said of "The Circle In The Square" in a mid-August phone interview. "'Survival Story' was kind of a departure."

The contrasts have a lot to do with the situation the Denver-based group found itself in when it made "Survival Story," as opposed to the new CD (which was released Aug. 28).

The band, whose current members came together around 2005, had grown to be one of the most popular music acts in the Denver/Colorado Springs area by the time it recorded the 2007 CD "Fight with Tools."

After self-releasing the CD, the band was signed by major label Universal Republic Records, which re-released the album and took "Handlebars" to radio as a single. It became a major hit, reaching No. 3 on Billboard magazine's Modern Rock singles chart.

That popularity made the "Survival Story" album a very different kind of proposition for the band. And while Brackett said Universal did not interfere with the band's creative process, now there were certain procedures to follow with Universal Republic, not to mention the expectations that come with following up a successful album.

"It changes the picture when you have somebody else (Universal) investing and paying for the (studio) time," Brackett said. "It changes it when you know you're kind of turning in your stuff for somebody else to evaluate. It changes it like when you have a producer (Mario Caldato Jr.) in there, and they're kind of setting the tone for how things are or are not.

"It's just really different when you have to turn stuff in (for label approval)," he said. "We didn't have the experience to let that not pull us one way or the other."

In the end, "Survival Story" failed to connect with radio and fans the way "Fight with Tools" did, and the band parted ways with Universal Republic.

Being an independent band again, though, allowed the Flobots — which also includes vocalist Jamie Laurie (known as Jonny 5 to fans), viola player/singer Mackenzie Gault, bassist Jesse Walker and drummer Kenny Ortiz — to rediscover the creative freedom the band felt when it made "Fight with Tools."

The result is a CD in "The Circle In The Square" that connects more with "Fight with Tools" on a stylistic level than "Survival Story." And being independent allowed the band to feel the creative freedom that was lost to the pressures of following up a popular album during the making of "Survival Story."

"The Circle In The Square" once again finds the Flobots creating a lively and inventive musical hybrid. On the title song, for instance, a hip-hop-styled vocal meets head on with a slamming beat and an edgy rock melody largely created by Gault's viola. On "Run (Run Run Run)," the beat goes more toward reggae, while the spoken vocals are surrounded by a melody with a distinct Middle Eastern feel. "One Last Show" also has a bit of the Middle Eastern motif, but adds some sharp funk to the equation.

And yes, the lyrics on "The Circle In The Square" are highly topical — no surprise considering issue-oriented songs have been a trademark of every Flobots album. This time, though, the ideas and observations are filtered more through personal experiences, such as a trip Brackett and Laurie took to Jordan, Israel and the West Bank that happened to coincide with the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt and a trip by Brackett to the Southwest to learn more about the immigration issue.

"I would say one of the criticisms that we received with 'Fight With Tools' is that it seemed like it was activism and call to action as if it was read from the headlines," Brackett said. "This one it's not the case. We can tell you where we were. We can tell you what we saw and why we wrote this and how we felt like it was very important to write about things we had experienced."

The band is now on tour in support of "The Circle In The Square," and Brackett is excited with how the new songs give the Flobots new flexibility for its song sets.

"It's so exciting just mathematically. We've drastically increased the number of combinations and possibilities," he said. "A set list feels like you're setting up a meal of different courses, and how do you organize the courses for like the maximum impact of each of the items. And it has been so much fun, looking at it like, 'Oh, maybe we'll do a medley here of some of these songs from this era.' And then we'll intersperse, like we'll cut in one of our older songs, we'll put a new part into one of our older songs just to spice it up and give it new life and vitality. So people who have been to the shows get a new taste and a new flavor."