Q&A with Jesse Walker of The Flobots:
Denver Band Is Making It Big On The National Scene
2008 has already been a big year for the Flobots -- late night TV shows, enormous festivals, a bona fide radio hit -- and things don't look like they'll slow down for the Denver-based band anytime soon. With their "Handlebars" single burning up the modern rock charts, an acclaimed appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and sold out shows all over the country, the Flobots have gone from an underground local band to a full-fledged pop phenomenon in a little less than a year. They self-released an album Fight With Tools in late 2007, only to have major label Universal re-release it this year unchanged from its original form -- a fairly unusual turn of events for any new band. Boasting an eclectic, hip hop-influenced sound and politically aware lyrics, the Flobots are on a much-deserved victory lap this summer, culminating with an appearance at Denver's first annual Mile High Music Festival in July and planned appearances during the Democratic National Convention in August. VISIT DENVER caught up with bassist Jesse Walker between shows.
VISIT DENVER: This has obviously been kind of a crazy year for you guys -- is there any one moment that really stands out for you so far?
Jesse Walker: That's an interesting question. All this crazy stuff, all this success, it really has happened so fast that it's taken a while to sink in. I think the moment that was most striking for me was our first sold out show on this tour we've been on. It was in Springfield, Missouri -- and that's a place I never imagined going to, much less imagined playing a sold out show in. But the people there knew every word of every song -- not just "Handlebars" -- so you knew that they had bought the record and really listened to it. That was the first time that it really sunk in. It's funny, because until then we'd been in this weird world of numbers -- radio plays, records sold, all of that doesn't really mean anything in a tangible way. But seeing it at that show and other shows we've done recently, we've just begun to wrap our heads around it all.
VISIT DENVER: So what was it like playing the Tonight Show?
JW: It was intense -- it was an absolute blast. Playing the Tonight Show is kind of exactly how you'd imagine it to be. There are armies of people running around making sure everything is going smoothly. We've probably never been treated so well in our lives. But we thought it went well, everything sounded good. It was super exciting.
VISIT DENVER: Was the kind of mass acceptance you guys are getting a goal for the band?
JW: We certainly didn't see it coming. The Flobots have not been a band that's ever been about fitting into any kind of mold. We're constantly trying to push boundaries, trying to explore. And because of that, I don't think any of us saw the band as having any mainstream appeal. We never really saw ourselves on a major label, because we assumed that any major label that was interested would ask us to re-record our record, and that was something we absolutely were not interested in doing. But Universal came to us and made the offer to re-release our record without a single note changed. That was surprising, but it was really the only way we were going to do it.
VISIT DENVER: The Flobots have a sound that's particularly difficult to pinpoint. How do you describe it to people?
JW: When someone asks, I always describe it as "hip hop with a trumpet and a viola" [laughs]. Just saying that makes people think a little outside the box in terms of what they're expecting.
VISIT DENVER: You guys started out playing clubs in Denver -- what are some of your favorite places to see live music in the city?
JW: I think the Gothic is a spectacular venue. You know, I keep telling people who live here that Denver is really unique in the amount of great venues to see bands in. We've been traveling to all of these cities all over the country, and the biggest and best clubs in most cities wouldn't be in the top ten here in Denver.
VISIT DENVER: Who are some of your favorite local bands?
JW: Oh, the list just goes on and on. The local music scene in Denver is thriving. There are so many incredible bands playing right now. I think that the city enables musicians to experiment freely, to really come up with something fresh. Like I said, there are so many great bands, but they're all completely different. The last time we played the Gothic, we played with Paper Bird and Hot IQs -- two bands that don't sound anything like us. But in Denver, it makes sense. We also love Born In The Flood, they're fantastic musicians. When we were recording our album, we listened to their album If This Thing Should Spill a lot, so they were a big influence.
VISIT DENVER: The Flobots are known not only for your music, but also for your political activism. How did that develop?
JW: There are a lot of people in the band who don't care about being rock stars. We all had backgrounds in activism; we were all interested in social change. It didn't happen right away, but we saw quickly that the music could be used as a tool for change. I think music is more powerful than even most musicians give it credit for. So pretty early on we started channeling some of our activist energy into the music. We feel that the most important thing is activation and engagement. The demographic that follows us is typically the most apathetic and disengaged group politically speaking. We're just doing our part to change that a little.
VISIT DENVER: Speaking of all things political, is the band planning anything around the Democratic National Convention in August?
JW: We're on tour right up until the week of the Convention, but we've got that week blocked out for some shows in the city. Nothing's set in stone just yet, but we're hoping to have a strong presence during the Convention. It'll be an interesting time for Denver, that's for sure.
VISIT DENVER: You're playing a number of the big summer music festivals in the next few months, including the Mile High Music Festival here in Denver. Have you gotten used to playing such enormous shows?
JW: Yeah, we have. The thing is, when you're playing in front of 1,000 people, you can't even comprehend all of those faces. So when it jumps up to 5,000 or 10,000 or more, it just kind of becomes this big mass of humanity. The Mile High fest is going to be special, though, since it'll be our first show in Denver since all of this craziness has happened. It'll be nice to be back home in front of a Colorado crowd.