Unusual place, right time, perfect vibe, outer Denver's Five Iron Frenzy tapped into a generation begging for some fun with their disenfranchisement, and rode the momentary mainstream rise of Ska to uncanny success. 350,000 album sales, numerous general market, festival, and Christian market tours, and the decline in popular demand for pseudo-punk-bands-with-a-horn-section later, the eight-piece, self proclaimed Skacore band still retains a huge, loyal following, and is preparing for what could be their last stand as Five Iron Frenzy. That's right—never say never—but the band is seriously considering retirement. (They want to stress that no timeline has been decided in this regard, and the finish line is still quite a ways in the distance. They ask for everyone's continued support and love.)
If they do decide to call it quits next year, they will most likely go out in grand and meaningful fashion. For while they have always been a socially informed group (and have proved their genuine sociological mettle many times over by participating in the Ska Against Racism Tour, successful charity drive tours, and with songs of biting commentary on oppression, police militancy, and tainted history), the band has taken an even bolder, sardonic yet proactive, step with their latest album, All the Hype that Money can Buy. The title alone promises a heightened verbal attack on status quo capitalism, greed, scenester manipulation, and soundscan-driven industry; and, believe it or not, the title track actually turns out to be of the lighter fare on the poignant album. Sure, they are still maintaining the balance of innocent—sometimes smart, sometimes completely silly—joviality and dead serious satire that earned them an intergenerational fan base and universal respect, but just wait until you read the activism-soaked, ignorance-rebuking, highly informed lyrics on "Solidarity," "Fahrenheit," "Four-Fifty-One," and especially "Giants." (Which actually references Adam Smith, Father of Laissez-Faire Capitalism.)
"I think the main reason we tackle such big subjects on this album is that we're not quite sure if this is our last album or what," states Leanor Ortega (AKA 'Jeff the Girl'), saxophonist. "So, if it is our last, we wanted to go out saying what we want to say, and not be afraid of not being put in a certain Calvary bookstore, or whatever. We finally feel that we have the freedom to say whatever we want to say, and if we want to talk about corporate America, or legalism in the Church, or whatever is really, really on our hearts, this is the album to do it. Because we finally have a big enough audience, and we also have a big enough audience that it wouldn't even matter to us. We don't care how many albums we sell."
While a noble sentiment, if the 91,000 plus units of their EP sold, and the 50,000 units of their recent live album sold—projects that don't normally sell as well as LPs—are any indication, the band indeed has little to worry about in the way of selling albums. Add their sales potential to the fact that their label, Five Minute Walk Records, is backing them more than ever, and you come up with a formula for commercial success that some predict will even outdo their past LPs. That could be a bit too hopeful, but if such a prophecy actually does come true it will be yet another huge boost for a label that is somehow finding balance between profit, good timing, and artistic legitimacy (The W's, FIF, Soul Junk, and the now independent Sherri Youngward, etc.).
"Our label is amazing," exclaims Leanor when asked about the relationship they have with 5MW. "They are so behind us in everything we do. I can't say anything but good things about Five Minute Walk. But maybe I'm jaded because I've only worked with one label, and it's been a totally great experience. Fortunately we have never had to work with a label that didn't do what we saw fit to do as a band. I don't know what it's like to feel screwed over by a label."
Let's not rob the band of their nobility by focusing on sales predictions and business, though. In fact, that would be a downright and ironic injustice. Leanor's sentiment of wanting to tackle tough issues and being socially relevant, concerned, and active is time-tested genuine, and is a concern shared by the entire group.
"I know that [social issue is] something that's on more than one person [in the group's] heart," explains Keith Hoerig, FIF bass player who actually lives in California and works at 5MW. "For instance, 'Giant' was actually written by Dennis, our trombone player, Reese (Roper—vocalist), and Jeff. That was one of the most socioeconomic songs."
"The song 'Giant' deals almost with communism," says Leanor. "It doesn't blatantly say that, but it does talk about Social Darwinism, which is a phrase that is used...and we're talking basically about big corporations, such as Nike, or Starbucks, different corporations, predatory corporations, big corporations that take over mom-and-pop stores. And it doesn't blatantly say that we're socialists, or communists, and I know that definitely nobody in our band holds to one political agenda...but, I mean, who cares if people say, 'Five Iron is socialist, or communist—don't listen to them.' We've gotten those stereotypes from previous songs, such as 'Anthem,' as being anti-American, but it just bounces off of us, because then again, we're silly, and nobody takes us seriously enough to really care. We're not a threat to anybody."
"Yeah, the thing about 'Giant,'" adds Keith, "is that it's just about the idea that human dignity is sacrificed, or human life is put aside in favor of making more profit. And that's something that we think is wrong."
"The music for the song 'Giant' was written before the lyrics," continues Leanor, "and the little cassette player was given to me, and they said, 'put words to this.' I sat in the back of the van, driving through various cities, seeing the same restaurants over and over, and the same buildings, the same Wal-Marts, and I was thinking that there's no creativity anymore in how buildings are made. If we all shop at Wal-Mart, we're all going to look the same, we're all going to dress the same, we're all gonna have the same stuff. And the music was getting to me, and I don't know what, maybe I was tired, but I was getting really angry. Well, I was trying to explain it to Dennis, and he said that to him, it's a metaphor. The corporations are like giants. And in Revelations, giants are spoken of…we're not sure, this is just a speculation, but, I mean, possibly the giants taking over the world could be corporations. If you think about it like that, I don't know. But they certainly are a threat to creativity and integrity."
When asked whether they think that their typical audience—which is predominately Christian kids with ages ranging from 10-21—is informed enough on such issues, or willing enough to relate to their trademark satire to 'get' the poignant songs, Keith says, "I think a lot of people are, and a lot aren't. There's definitely a lot of people that didn't understand, even on our first record, the satire and sarcasm that we used. But hopefully in time they will."
"We have a song called 'Fahrenheit,'" brings up Leanor, referencing another song on the new album that has potential for misunderstanding, "which is about Freddie Mercury, the [lead singer] from Queen. It's about Reese, our lead singer, who really used to look up to Freddie Mercury, until he found out that he was a homosexual, and how he died of AIDS, and made Reese realize that homophobia is not Biblical, and it's not an answer. It won't solve anything."
"Not only that it's about homosexuality," adds Keith, reacting to the question of potential uproar among Christian fans, "but people might be upset that we're talking about Queen. People get all ruffled about the whole non-Christian music thing. If someone is an artist that I respect, if he does something—I say he, because it's someone I'm actually thinking about, who I won't mention—that disappoints me or whatever, it's still important to look at an artist's whole body of work, and figure out what they're about. Because people mess up, and to deduce from one song…I think a tactic that works well, is if people are talking smack about us on a board, I get on there and say, 'Hey, this is Keith from the band. Stop talking smack about us. Talk to my face, here's my home phone number.' I just post it on there, and nobody ever calls me. They never call."
Another touchy subject that the band has breached is the concept of militant police and power abuse. On their EP, Quantity is Job 1, the song "Get Your Riot Gear" lam-blasts Denver officials for use of excessive police force during the ruckus celebrations that followed a Broncos Super Bowl victory. Seeing a certain correlation to recent events in Seattle during the WTO demonstrations, the topic of rebuking authority and engaging in civil disobedience for the sake of raising social injustice awareness—when and how is it appropriate—is brought up.
"I don't think anyone in our band has problems with authority," warns Keith. "As Christians we are required, we're told in the Bible to submit to authority. What happened in Denver with the Super Bowl riot, there was a large group of people, and maybe a fraction of them were doing illegal things, but everybody in the group of people was punished for the actions of them. The majority of the people were just celebrating that Denver won the Super Bowl, which is something we never thought would happen. There were ten or fifteen people that were smashing windows, and the police didn't try to find those individuals. They just tear-gassed everybody…There was a cop that pulled us over and told us to leave because 'downtown was closed.' How do you close downtown? They did it, and put up roadblocks, and just pushed everybody out.
"What happened at the WTO protests…I honestly don't even know that much about it. I just know that we're in America. We should be able to peaceably assemble and talk about things we want changed. If we're not willing to let people do that peaceably, then there's a problem there, because the Constitution is not being held up. But as soon as it turns to something violent or there's destruction of property, that's a whole different story. It is all about perception, and what the media perceives. When I watched the news about the Denver riots, of course they focused on the people breaking windows and stuff like that. That is what the majority of people want to see. And what I saw about the WTO was, of course, mostly about the people doing illegal things, which is what makes the news the most exciting to watch. Realistically, I don't know what happened, but I am definitely a supporter of the idea that…Those people came and peacefully assembled, and that was real, and I totally support that. That was legal. But there came a point where people did something illegal, and that caused the police to punish everybody, which was unjust.
"When it comes down to civil disobedience, I think being disobedient to try to change the system…I don't know if there ever comes a time when it's ever okay to cross that line, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been times that I haven't done it myself. Everybody is messed up...The flip side of that is when Jesus talked to his disciples, and when Paul wrote to the Romans—the government at that time was maybe one of the most corrupt governments ever, they were killing Christians left and right—and they didn't say, 'Hey, go out and try to reform this government.' They said we should submit to it. I think that people need to do what they think is right."
Taking the concept of protesting social injustice a little further, the question is raised about whether Christians should be more involved in social movement in the realm of equality and justice.
"This is where my own personal views come out, not the band's," states Leanor. "If you read Acts 2 and Acts 4, where the new Church had just begun, and the people there sold all of their land to give to the apostles. That is in a way like communism or socialism. I think that would be a great way to live, communally. But we have to admit that, as Christians, there's not going to be a social utopia here on earth. We live knowing that, like Chez Guevara believed that you could achieve a utopia here on earth, but there was not a blueprint, because the blueprint was written out of struggle. But as Christians we know the struggle is not going to end in this lifetime. We can't shoot for that, but we can't quite hold on to this capitalist stuff, either, because we know that that hurts people. To make a profit you have to be efficient, and to be efficient you have to have low-cost labor, which usually exploits indigenous people. I've noticed that Catholics, I'm not Catholic, but I've noticed that the Catholic Church used to support the United Farm Workers, and those struggles were also under the red flag, or whatever. But the Catholic Church supported that. And so I don't know what the Christian Church today will lean more towards, once we get older and smarter. Most of us don't know what we're talking about yet. But once we get older, I'm only 23, but when we get more educated, we should tend to lean more toward social causes.
"I think we should follow Martin Luther King Jr. as a fine, fine example of that. Even Caesar Chavez, when he went to picket lines or revolted he always had a priest by his side. What he was saying was, 'They're calling us communists, they're calling us bad guys. We're gonna bring the Virgin Mary, and the priests, we're gonna show you that if we have God on our side, who are you?' That's not to say that if you bring pictures you're bringing God…But, if you bring God into a struggle today, people will not respect you for it. It will be the opposite. But I think that's all the more reason, if we're doing it peacefully, for us to do it. I think we should be involved, but not under the pretense of Christianity. I think we should do it under the auspice of justice, and then if they want to know if we're Christians we should tell them. We should hook on and join with their struggles. We should be daily striving to show people love. Small steps.
"We're always fighting, fighting to make people be Christians. That's great and that's good. But have you heard of Maslowe's Hierarchy of Needs? Well, it's this human psychology thing. It's a triangle of needs. At the bottom is the basics, like shelter and food, then higher is the right to feel loved, and if you go a little higher, it's self-love, and to the highest level, it's self-actualization. It's not a Christian idea, but the way I look at it, the way Christians can look at it, you cannot be self-actualized, meaning you cannot find God unless your basic human needs are met. In the Christian realm, we want to show people God, but we don't want to fill their hands with food, or give them shelter. What we should be doing is focusing on the struggles of the people, and join ourselves to the struggles of the people. Even non-Christian people have the right to struggle for basic human justice. And then we can show them God's love."
God's love is definitely a primary theme in the music and mission of Five Iron Frenzy, and they try to explore it in a variety of ways. On top of delving into serving their neighbors, in word and deed, rebuking human injustice, corruption, and ignorance, and providing outlets for joyous, humorous frivolity, they also take the time to write flat out inspirational worship songs. This balance of focus is refreshing to many, and it is probably safe to say that the band is one of the most well rounded examples of musical expression.
Five Iron Frenzy's extremely popular live show, which usually features wild outfits and comical antics, will be back in your neck of the woods very soon. They will be touring this summer with a new 5MW band, Philmore, hitting festivals, and then a club tour in the fall. Chances are that this year will be your last chance to experience the intellectual, biting, witty comedy of Five Iron Frenzy, so be sure to get out to a show, and definitely bring something to donate to whatever charitable program they are running this time around.
Photos by Melinda DiMauro
Mullet Ref Art by Aaron James
Used by permission of 5MW Records
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