The alt-rock/hip-hop band Flobots is perhaps best known for their breakout hit “Handlebars” from their 2007 album Fight With Tools—but the group does a lot more than demonstrate bike skills. While promoting their upcoming album, The Circle in the Square (Aug. 28), they’re also in the process of developing a youth media center at a housing project in their home city of Denver and preparing for a national tour that begins this month. Two members of the group, front man Jamie Laurie—a founding member of the group, better known by his stage name Jonny 5—and violist Mackenzie Gault, spoke to TIME about their music, their activism and their new song “Sides,” which makes its exclusive premiere right here.
The upcoming album is musically closer to Fight With Tools than to their 2010 effort Survival Story, says Gault, with a return to a hip-hop emphasis. But, content-wise, the music has evolved. “We always try to be moving forward and talking about the issues that are affecting people’s lives now,” she says, adding that the album includes songs about both the Arab Spring revolutions and daily, personal life.
That duality is also the case with “Sides,” which Laurie says refers to taking sides on a global level as well as personal one. “You think of the Occupy movement, there were these lines of people, these two sides, that were kind of facing off. I think within that there’s an opportunity to look across to the other side and see some humanity in the person across from you,” he explains. “We were also thinking about ourselves as a band and our audience as this other side. We face them at a show and they face us.”
Listen to the premiere of “Sides” here:
Activism in support of what Laurie called the “global democracy movement”—which comprises any number of grassroots social consciousness causes—was part of the impetus to found the group. “I was just watching how big an effect music had on the young people around me and I thought, well, this is really the way to make change,” Laurie says. “That’s a way you can get ideas out there.”
At first, the band would ask their local fans to do voter registration at shows, and continued to do so as they became nationally known. Eventually, says Laurie, fans began to organize on their own. The success of “Handlebars” did not diminish the importance of that side of the band’s life, says Laurie. “I think we’re dealing with the same contradictions that everyone is. If you want to see a world that’s not dependent on oil but the car you have uses gasoline, you try to ride your bike a lot but you still drive your car. That type of little lifestyle choices that everyone faces, we also face as a band,” he says. “It’s hard for us but no harder than it is for any person.”
Gault adds that the chance to tour internationally did help the band add perspective to their activism and music alike. “That’s given us a little bit of a broader worldview and in some ways a better understanding of what people in different places are going through, which has helped us be able to write songs that are accessible to those different groups,” she says.
But doesn’t their activism make Flobots unusual in today’s music scene? No, say Laurie and Gault, even though the lack of Occupy Wall Street protest music has been bemoaned by outlets like the New York Times. It’s just that today’s protest music might not look like Woody Guthrie’s. “There are bands where the content of their music, like ours, addresses different issues—but there are also bands where maybe their content is more obscure, maybe there aren’t even lyrics, but where they play, how they play, the causes they support, that’s how they do their activism,” says Laurie.
He says that lots of bands that don’t look like political bands actually are, underneath the party tunes and thumping bass—and that that’s a cause Flobots can get behind. “What we’re trying to do with this album is to break free of the mold that there’s political bands and all the rest,” he says. “We’re trying to unite the ideas of caring about the world on one hand and having fun, enjoying life, on the other hand.”