Arab Spring Protests Inspire Latest Flobots Album

Members of the alternative rock and rap band Flobots say their new album was inspired by the Arab Spring protests and the U.S. Occupy movement. Circles of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square gave them the idea for the title song, "The Circle in the Square." Three group members talk to host Michel Martin about the intersection of art and politics.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We often ask artists where or from what they draw their inspiration, and often the answer is a new love or a bad breakup. Well, for the Denver-based musical group, Flobots, images of protest from Egypt's Tahrir Square and the Occupy Movement demonstrations here in the U.S. became the backdrop for "The Circle in the Square."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE")

FLOBOTS: (Singing) We're the circle in the square. Hands in the air, presidents, prime ministers, they said we that we didn't care. We're the circle in the square. Hands in the air, presidents, prime ministers, they said we that we didn't care. We're the circle in the square. Hands in the air, presidents, prime ministers...

MARTIN: That's the title cut from the album, "The Circle in the Square." Recently, we caught up with three members of the group, founding member of Flobots, MC Johnny 5, fellow MC Brer Rabbit and violinist Mackenzie Gault.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

MC JOHNNY 5: Thanks for having us.

MACKENZIE GAULT: Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: So, Johnny 5, why don't I start with you? Talk about "The Circle in the Square." Could you tell us how you came up with the idea, the title?

5: Yeah, sure. So, you know, I think the beginning of last year, Brer Rabbit and I had, for a long time, wanted to go to the Middle East, and finally had the opportunity to do so. And we ended up being there right when, you know, the Arab Spring was really happening in Tahrir Square, and had already happened in Tunisia.

And, you know, on the plane ride on the way back, I was scribbling down some lyrics and this image came of we're the circle in the square. And, you know, right away, I knew that that kind of applied in two directions. It applied to what the conventional wisdom had been about, you know, there's no such thing as democracy in the Arab world. You can't have it. They don't want it.

And, at the same time, what was the image that these same commentators were now broadcasting all over the world? It was literally a circle of people in Tahrir Square. It was a circle in a square. So that's where that image was kind of born. And then, as we played with it and explored it more, and as 2011 unfolded, suddenly, we saw circles of communities of people in public squares all over the world, including the United States.

MARTIN: Brer Rabbit, you want to pick up the thread there and relate it to Occupy, as well? Is that part of the story, too?

MC BRER RABBIT: Yes. Actually, when we were going in to record, that's right when Occupy kicked off in New York. And it was pretty amazing just to see this wave of participation happening all over the world, and especially the United States. And it was really great to talk to young people who, for the first time in their lives, got to see people participating. And that kind of energy definitely fed the creative process and gave us even more of a reason as to why we were trying to get this album out.

MARTIN: Do you want to play a little bit more of "Circle in the Square" just to give people - because the words are - the lyrics are very important to the message. Do you want to play a little bit more?

GAULT: Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE")

FLOBOTS: (Singing) The time is now. Our time has come. We show them how, what can't be done, no matter what they say or they don't say. We make a way out of no way against the gun, beneath the veil. Yes, we can, too big to fail. We are the ones we're waiting for. We save ourselves. Praise the Lord. We are Sly and the Family Stone in calamity, triumph when thrown into the domes of these goliaths.

MARTIN: I'm always interested in how people match the lyric with the sound or the beat or - you know what I mean? Does anybody want to address that for me, tell me about that?

GAULT: Our songs always kind of start in different ways. Sometimes, they start with the lyrics first, and then we kind of design the music around that. Sometimes, they start with the music first, and then the lyrics are kind of done afterwards to complement the music. In this case, I think it was kind of a situation of both simultaneously happening at the same time. Jamie and Stephen had these - or Johnny 5 and Brer Rabbit - they had these lyrics and this idea for the song, and our bassist, Jesse Walker, had this kind of rumbling, kind of quasi-aggressive baseline that he had been working on. And I think they kind of discovered that those two things just fit together really well.

MARTIN: I think it's OK to peep that Jamie Laurie is Johnny 5. I think it's OK that Stephen Brackett is Brer Rabbit. I think it's OK that your nom de guerre...

5: Oh, no. Oh, no.

MARTIN: ...to let people know, peek behind the curtain. All right.

GAULT: They're more than just rappers. They're human beings, just like the rest of us.

MARTIN: Exactly.

5: That's why we've never been in two places at once.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I have a clip of Johnny 5, Jamie. I have a clip of you on YouTube addressing the protestors at Occupy Denver last year. I just want to play a short clip of that. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

5: I guess I just want to offer...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I guess I just want to offer...

5: Let's not argue over arrests.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Let's not argue over arrests.

5: Let's do make sure people are safe, whether being arrested or not.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Let's do make sure people are safe, whether being arrested or not.

5: I also want to put it out there...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I also want to put it out there...

5: ...that arrests can add to the momentum.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...that arrests can add to the momentum.

MARTIN: Tell me what's going on there. Was that, like, a call and - it is a call-and-response. But what was happening?

5: That particular night, there was folks in Occupy Denver who were anticipating that the police were going to evict them from their, you know, the tents that they had set up, and I think there was this big argument happening within folks there about whether or not they should get arrested or not get arrested. And you know, in my experience that's a personal decision. And I mean first of all, if you're getting arrested, it should be - you're taking a stand and saying I believe in this strongly enough that I'm willing to risk arrest in a nonviolent way. So we're talking about nonviolent civil disobedience. But I was trying to point out that both people who want to and are not willing to be arrested have a role to play, and I like to think that that little piece of conversation for those folks there helped to kind of unify people rather than to continue with the divisions that were happening.

MARTIN: Talk to me about why you wanted to be there at that place at that time and what role you saw yourself playing.

5: You know, as Brer Rabbit said, we started recording the album on the day that Occupy began and I think it felt alluring to want to want to be there with folks. Like that would be the natural place, I think, for me to want to be, is with the folks who are changing the landscape of the national conversation through direct action. But we were in the studio, and so it was just a few occasions where, you know, it really seemed important to be there. I saw Flobots' fans who were at Occupy, you know, wearing kind of our little signature flag bandannas. And so I thought like this is me five years ago, 10 years ago. I need to make sure to be there when I can to kind of, I don't know, help to be some kind of a positive force in the conversation.

MARTIN: Hmm.

RABBIT: This is Brer Rabbit. And I think that it still is romance. It still is love. It still is extraordinarily personal. We try to write our music for the people, not the issues themselves. And if we're talking about a democracy, that is a relationship among each other. And falling in and out of love with the process and then trying to do something with it, it's deeply, deeply personal, and I think a lot of people have been bruised in the process of trying to be involved to even like love this process and it needs a lot of work. So I think there's - a lot of that heartbreak is still the impetus behind the music that we write.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit from "Sides," which is, I think, I think something that picks up on the point that you were making in that YouTube clip that I just played about who are you in this kind of thing. I'll just play a little bit of it and then we can talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDES")

FLOBOTS: (Rapping) A voice from the wilderness Detroit and Port-au-Prince, building a lunar from the basic ingredients. Immediate response in reaction to the chemicals. (Unintelligible) traction of he tennis shoes. With academics trapped in academies who don't produce movement, or produce strategies. Move into the datastream (unintelligible). Build a resistance to opiates and imbeciles.

(Rapping) I hate to take a side, I gotta take a side. Well it's time to take a side, stand up for what is right. Or should I say left, 'cause that's usually where I find myself, aligned for the future that we're trying for. Spoken on my signboard, look across the line. You're tired, you're scared, you're working overtime. More fatigue, Christ, Lord, another giant's born. Midwifed by the phantoms we're crying for. Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.

5: This song is about lines and looking across - looking across one line to another line one of people. I mean so often in these kinds of standoffs and protest you find yourself on one side and there's another side over there. And so it really is that like, that human tendency to yearn for a relationship, a dialogue and community with the other side, and to recognize that like ultimately the movement that is going to really transform things is one that is so inviting that there aren't sides, that it's a circle that invites everybody in, it's inclusive. And that's what movements are at their very best, is just kind - is a change, a transformation of the entire population of people at once.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDES")

FLOBOTS: (Rapping) One for my dreams. Two for my doubts. Three for the people that had been left out. Four for the love that can save us. Five for the names on the graves, Troy Davis. Six for the pain. Seven for the patients. Eight for the strains of the tough conversations. Nine for the kids in the front lawn racing to 10, the joy that can never be taken.

(Rapping) (Unintelligible) the times I'm mistaken, the side that I've taken and the life that I'm making. The mystic frustrations (unintelligible)...

5: I love this song and I love the way it came together, especially Mackenzie's (unintelligible) on this song, just - she went into the studio, she did that pretty much right off the cuff, right? I mean it just...

GAULT: In about an hour. Yeah. I think, you know, rarely we have a situation where we go into the studio not knowing what we're going to record. This was one of those songs where we kind of put it all together in the studio, which was an interesting experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIDES")

FLOBOTS: (Singing) Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. You are never on your own. Singing. Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh. You'll live on when we are gone.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with three members of Flobots. We're talking about their latest album "The Circle in the Square." With me are members Jonny 5, MC Brer Rabbit and Mackenzie Gault.

Speaking on this whole question of inclusiveness and decision-making, I'm very interested in how you make decisions within the group about how the song comes together, because I noticed it in the liner notes, that there was a lot of discussion around that particular song, that - and one of the criticisms of Occupy was that it was so busy being inclusive that nobody was in charge, no decisions ever got made, and as a consequence it was impossible to actually make any gains. In contrast to the Tea Party, which very quickly sorted itself out and became very motivated to win local elections and win congressional elections and as a consequence, within a very short period of time, had a major impact on American politics. And I realize that's a big question, but I am interested among yourselves, you have that every day because you are obviously very interested in each other's perspective on how the music comes together. You could see a situation where you'd never get out of the studio.

RABBIT: This Brer Rabbit. I think we'll just, we'll throw a few different responses at you. I think one of them, especially in comparing Occupy and the Tea Party movement, I think they're two very different goals. I think one is about narrowing the focus, slitting your eyes and only seeing one or two things, and the other one was kind of about opening up the conversation. I think if you are trying to organize people around inquiry and criticism, it doesn't rally as many people to the cause. Not so many people come together when you're talking about critical thinking. But if you are talking about and us and them or you're doing scapegoating, it's very, very easy, and it's one of the oldest methods to organize people, by creating and demonizing the other.

I think that the Occupy movement in saying like we are the 99 percent, I think that's one of the challenges of it, but I also think it's actually one of the things that makes it successful, is that people came together at all under that banner.

MARTIN: Interesting. Mackenzie, can I get you to take the question? Particularly interesting in how, how do you all come to agreement in the studio among yourselves? Does everybody get an equal vote?

GAULT: Yeah. You know, that's tough. I don't know that I would say everybody always gets an equal vote, but it is very much a democracy in a lot of ways. I think, you know, with any situation, any political party, any leader that you have, there may be one or two leaders - main guys, you know, front guys - that are kind of the voice of the group, and then there's, you know, tons of people behind them helping to help them come to that decision and get to that point where they can stand up and be the voice. And I guess a band sort of works in a similar way - this band in particular. You know, people, a lot of people may look at this band and see Stephen and Jamie as the front people, the voice or the ones saying the words or the ones, you know, standing at the front, but that doesn't make, you know, me or Jesse or Kenny any less capable of making a decision behind the scenes and then saying, OK, now you go put that out there. And I think that's kind of how we work. You know, I've written a lot of songs on the album, you know, other people have written songs on the album, and I think we're able to in that recording process say, have one person say, OK, now this is finished.

MARTIN: Do you ever get on each other's nerves?

RABBIT: Of course.

GAULT: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

5: What? I...

GAULT: That process is never easy, but you know, we do what we can.

RABBIT: It's a five-way marriage, a band is. And you know, like I think sometimes the bumps and bruises actually make it even better, all the stuff that we've gone through, the different ways that we can support each other when we're feeling weak, it's been amazing and I think it makes us better musicians in the end. But yeah, we get on each other's nerves and like we also get to cry and laugh together in ways that you don't get to do unless you've like really been through the stuff with people.

MARTIN: Musicians are supposed to be temperamental and selfish and all about their vision. I mean come on.

(LAUGHTER)

5: Luckily, none of us are.

GAULT: If you're looking for some drama, you're not likely to find any with us. We're a relatively drama-free band.

MARTIN: Stephen, I wanted to ask you, though, do you ever feel kind of alone in it, as artists who are very deeply concerned about the issues of the day? In that there was a time when, you know, rap was very political but that moment is not now. There was a moment, as we remember, when people would say, you know, rap is the CNN of the streets, right? Or...

RABBIT: Chuck D. said it.

MARTIN: But I don't think people are saying that very much now. A lot of rap is about, you know, you know, other things.

RABBIT: We know.

MARTIN: You know, yeah, Magnums...

GAULT: Dancing in the club.

MARTIN: You know, dancing in the club and so forth. Do you ever feel kind of alone in it?

RABBIT: Not one bit. I think what's really important is like what people are saying is that rap is not about that. I think that there are a lot of more top 40 and high-selling artists who are very much rapping about capitalism. But there always has been and there always will be emcees who are rapping about their actual experiences. I don't think that hip-hop will ever be divorced from its origins in that regard. And in the same way, I think it's really important if we allowed ourselves to feel alone, then we could allow ourselves to be alone. At any point in time if you're feeling that way, like all we have to do is look up, like call other musicians, all these amazing people that we've met who are doing it on the streets and then doing it on the microphones, just amazing activism and music at the same time, and their numbers are a legion. So it's, it's one of those things that we can't allow ourselves to feel because it's not the truth that we choose. Because if we can talk about like Invincible in Detroit or just all these amazing folks, Tim McIlrath and the rest of Rise Against, there's a list of people that we talk to regularly who are amazing musicians. And in particularly in hip-hop, there's tons. So no, we don't feel alone.

MARTIN: So what should we go out on? What cut should we go out on? Do your democratic thing. Everybody agree.

Do you want to do "Occupyearth"?

GAULT: "Occupy"?

5: We could do "Occupyearth."

MARTIN: "Occupyearth." OK. "Occupyearth" is a cut...

GAULT: See how easy that was?

MARTIN: Oh, I know. No, no, you rehearsed.

"Occupy the Earth" is from the album "The Circle in the Square." It's the latest from the Flobots. We were visiting with three members of the group, Jonny 5, Brer Rabbit and Mackenzie Gault. They were kind enough to join us from NPR West in Culver, California.

Thank you all so much for joining us, Flobots. We enjoyed it.

5: Thanks so much for having us.

GAULT: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OCCUPYEARTH)

FLOBOTS: (Singing) Been a long time. You were born one day, you are going to die. Oh. When you clocked in can't remember what you've forgotten. So, let me tell you how it is here to exist here living on this fear. Hey. There is something called emotion and sensation and they feel this way. You can build...

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