A couple of years ago, members of the alternative hip-hop rock band Flobots began to think about their next album. The band — emcees Brer Rabbit (Stephen Brackett) and Jonny 5 (Jamie Laurie) and drummer Kenny Ortiz — decided it wanted to do something different, so it worked with producer and musician Gabriel Otto, who recruited a string section, horn players and a gospel quintet. Mackenzie Gault (viola) and longtime musical collaborator Serafin Sanchez (saxophone, keys) also co-wrote a number of songs.
“The title came in 2014 as we were pivoting and trying to figure out our next moves,” says Laurie via phone from his Denver home. The group performs at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 16, at the Beachland Ballroom
. “We knew we wanted to approach it differently. We embarked on a project we called ‘Noenemies’ and spent several years with that. The project was about reestablishing collective song as a tool for social movements.”
The program, as Laurie refers to it, was inspired by mentor Vincent Harding.
“He was part of the Civil Rights movement and an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King’s who wrote what is commonly known as the ‘Beyond Vietnam’ speech,” explains Laurie. “He was in Denver and active and mentoring and encouraging young activists. We were some of his mentorees. He thought we needed songs to draw upon when courage is needed. When he passed away, we felt called to write those songs.”
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that exceeded its goal by a whopping $31,000, Noenemies serves as yet another extension of the band’s ability to write music with a message. When the group first came together in 2004, it sought to be a motivation for political and social change.
“During the election of 2004, we started the band with two goals,” says Laurie. “One was to explore things musically. The other was to get people more engaged in the 2004 election. It began with a group of friends who had different musical training experience, everything from hip-hop to classical and funk and heavier rock and metal. We got in a room together to see what common ground we could find musically.”
The hip-hop inflected “Handlebars,” a 2008 song about “leading a nation with a microphone” that features rapid-fire hits, woozy horns and electric guitars, put the group on the map.
“‘Handlebars’ was the fastest charting debut single by a new band in 10 years; it was objectively a freak of the industry,” says Laurie. “We had a sense that the song was a hit when we saw the response locally, and we noticed there was something about it and how it spoke to 2007 when all this energy was congealing against the Bush administration’s Iraq invasion. We saw it going into the Obama campaign and our song, which seemed like it was talking about something, but it wasn’t clear, and it gave people something to chew on and got stuck in people’s heads. That was a wild ride and really exciting. After it, we came with a new sense of mission.”
With Noenemies, Flobots continue to mix genres and push boundaries. “Carousel,” for example, begins with cooing vocals before percolating synths and distorted guitars kick in.
“We experimented with different directions,” says Laurie. “We knew we wanted the human voice to play a key role but not in a predictable way. We worked with a gospel choir that’s on a number of songs and worked with a children’s choir and the Sacred Heart singing group in Denver. We wanted strings to be a part of the sound and to bring horns back in. We wanted it to be sparser and more deliberate than some of our past albums. It was challenging.”
One of the album’s most soulful tunes, “Blood in the River” features howling vocals and a soulful refrain.
“Mckenzie [Gault], our viola player, wrote the bare bones of that song and that chorus,” says Laurie. “She wrote it in response to the different killings by police. We just looked at this state that we’re in where we’re suspicious and the way we look at each other and ask how people could be on the other side. I was thinking of a cousin who has a Confederate belt buckle. I thought about what I would say to him if I opened up. I asked him about it, but it’s about me reaching to him or reaching out to [white supremacist mass murderer] Dylann Roof before what he did or to reach out to any extremist before they do what they do. It’s the moment when you try to shake the person out of it.”
Laurie says the group wrote the hard-rocking “Quarantine” with the hopes that it would become an anthem.
“It’s about that moment when you feel that triumph is imminent,” he says. “It’s the fist-in-the-air and holding-up-a-sign-as-tear-gas-is-coming-down protest song. It felt the most like a Flobots’ song from the past. The rest of the album fills in the spectrum of emotions and experiences around that.”
Given that the songs all speak to the need to take up activism, the music comes across as particularly timely. That’s not lost on Laurie.
“Noenemies came long before we thought the [presidential] election would be like,” he says. “It’s a really divided time when so many people feel the hostility and volatility. It resonates in a whole different way. It’s a zeitgeist thing. What we felt in a microcosm in our activist circles in 2014 now feels relevant to the whole country.”
Still, he emphasizes that fans don’t need to agree with his point of view to enjoy the music.
“People might think we’re a certain type of music or politics, but we want the live show to be a transformative experience,” he says. “We grew up in churches and this is our ministry. We try to make it a spiritual experience as well as something that will move your heart and mind.”