You probably already know this, but “Handlebars” — the now-ubiquitous rock-radio tune from Denver, Colorado, collective Flobots — isn’t exactly about the skill required to ride a bicycle without using your hands.
“The song is about the idea that we have so much incredible potential as human beings to be destructive or to be creative. And it’s tragic to me that the appetite for military innovation is endless, but when it comes to taking on a project like ending world hunger, it’s seen as outlandish. It’s not treated with the same seriousness,” Flobots MC Jonny 5 (a.k.a. Jamie Laurie) said.
“The lyrics came to me as I was riding a bike home from work with my hands in the air — I had just learned how to do it — and I felt triumphant, but at the same time, I knew there were people at that moment who were being bombed by our own country. And I thought that was incredibly powerful. We have these little moments of creativity, these bursts of innovation, and every time that happens, that innovation is used to oppress and destroy people. So it struck me as beautiful and tragic at the same time.”
Whoa, dude. And while that sort of talk isn’t exactly common for the bands that usually occupy the rock-radio charts (like, uh, Nickelback), it’s not as if Flobots are your average rock-radio act in the first place. Formed in the Mile High City three years ago by a pair of lyricists (Jonny and Brer Rabbit), their ranks have swollen to include a viola player (Mackenzie Roberts), a trumpeter (Joe Ferrone), a lead-pipe rhythm section (drummer Kenny Ortiz and bassist Jesse Walker) and a guitarist schooled in the way of funk (Andy Rok). The traditional three-piece, this isn’t.
“Denver really is a music mecca. There’s a ton of bands, an incredible array of venues and every genre is alive and well. The hip-hop scene is incredible, the rock scene and the indie scene are incredible, but there’s a whole lot of bands that exist between those genres — hip-hop with Latin indigenous instrumentation or folk-hop — the whole gambit,” Jonny 5 explained. “And our band represents the spirit of the city. … The fact that we got on alternative radio, we’re really at the outer edge of it. I think it stands out. If people hear ‘Handlebars,’ they go, ‘What is this?’ ”
And at the moment, plenty of people are doing just that. The song sits at #3 on Billboard‘s Hot Modern Rock chart (behind only Weezer’s “Pork and Beans” and some Seether song), and its hook — 5′s boast that he “can ride my bike with no handlebars” — is quickly becoming a staple catchphrase in cubicles from coast to coast.
“This is real exciting for us. We’ve been a band for three years, just performing locally, and to just have a song that everyone in the country is hearing, and this chorus that seems to be stuck in everyone’s head, it’s pretty incredible,” 5 said. “We have a friend who works in an office in L.A., and he asked his friend, ‘Hey, do you know how to make this computer print on Windows XP?’ and his friend goes, ‘No, but I can ride my bike with no handlebars.’ And he said, ‘You’ve heard that song?’ and everyone turned around in their chairs and went, ‘Are you kidding?!? Everybody’s heard that song!’ ”
And while the Flobots are enjoying the success that comes with a modicum of success — they’re booked for the rock-radio summer-festival circuit, and on Tuesday, Universal Republic will reissue their sophomore album, Fight With Tools — 5 is also wary of making sure that fans don’t miss his group’s message.
Which is why, in addition to talking all about “Handlebars,” he’s also quick to put in a plug for Flobots.org, the band’s nonprofit organization, which aims to recruit fans for community-service projects and teach music classes at the Denver Children’s Home. Like we said, this isn’t your typical rock-radio act.
“If I were to pick our two biggest underlying principles, one of them is that music is powerful, probably more powerful than most people have acknowledged. And we have set up structures to harness that power — Flobots.org — and the mission is to use music to mobilize and engage people,” 5 said. “And the second principle is engaging and being positive. We engage everything in the world that’s negative and go, ‘All right, how can we take it to someplace positive?’
“I mean, our album is called Fight With Tools for a reason. … It’s also the concept of the record. We’re saying there’s a war going on for your mind, and we have the chance to fight for our minds using the tools that are within us,” 5 added. “And ‘Handlebars’ is part of that. I mean, I’m sure there are people who hate pop radio and they see us as a part of that … but I think if they dig deeper, they’ll see there’s a lot more to us.”