Michael Franti has achieved a secret bonus level of hippie most of us don't even know about.
For two decades, through a series of bands, his music has been charged equally by the generally troublesome state of the world and the belief that hope springs eternal. He's organized a massive annual festival of music and yoga, shot an anti-war documentary in the Middle East, is from the Bay Area, is really nice when you have to cancel your original interview because you forgot your notebook (ahem), and produces -- both alone and with his band Spearhead -- soaringly crunchy love-is-all reggae-funk-rock. His shows are carbonated free-for-alls; to this day he prefers to wear shoes only when instructed by airport security.
But his route here hasn't been a linear one. With Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in the early 1990s, he tore into social injustice over a Public Enemy-inspired storm of noise, proclaiming himself a "socio-genetic experiment" and covering (sort of) the Dead Kennedys.
With the organic, San Francisco-grown Spearhead, his topics stayed potent as his music grew groovier and more wood-fired.
The 2000s found him on his own, recording his own "What's Going On" (on 2003's "Everyone Deserves Music"), a fired-up rebuke to the policies of George W. Bush (2006's "Yell Fire!" which accompanied a documentary he shot in Baghdad and the West Bank), a Kingston-born parade of hooks and singalongs that used a sunny vibe to soothe its tales of hardship (2008's "All Rebel Rockers"), and an equally Jamaican follow-up that basically jettisoned the hardship ("The Sound of Sunshine").
But even those sun-kissed records sound like Morrissey compared to this summer's "All People," the most aggressively pop record he's produced to date. The first single, "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)," is a handful of chords and sunshine, and everything from "11:59" to the title track, which bounds along on a happy whistle, is designed to promote the full carpe-ing of diems.
Franti talked about what brought on the change in advance of his Saturday show at the Music Farm in Charleston, the origins of his diverse musical background -- and why he likes boiled peanuts, possibly.
Q. You're into boiled peanuts? I'm not sure I'm with you on that.
A: I'm not sure if I love them or hate them. (laughs). But I eat them when I'm there; it's just having that local experience, you know? In San Francisco, it's clam chowder out of a sourdough bread bowl. I love that Charleston's very historic, but there's a lot of new things that are happening there.
Q. When did you realize that "All People" was developing this pop flavor?
A. It just evolved. We love to make people dance, to hold onto the traditions of dance music and go where it's going contemporary-wise. And what I mean by traditions is that I love dance music that can be played on a porch, acoustic music, Gypsy music, Celtic music, bluegrass music. Our first single ("I'm Alive") is really just acoustic guitar strumming with a straightforward dance beat underneath it.
Q. But you've worked in a lot of electronics as well.
A. There was a college radio station next to this bowling alley where we'd go to play pinball, when we were like 10 or 11. It was the only place air conditioned in the summer. And the DJs had a bin of old 45s sitting in the lobby. None of it was music we were hearing on the radio; for us it was like listening to the Internet. It's the first place we ever heard "Walk on the Wild Side," rap music besides "Rapper's Delight." We heard Malcolm McLaren's record, the Clash, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley -- it was this whole other world. So one of the first records I ever owned as a kid was Kraftwerk "Trans-Europe Express." Ever since then I've loved the hypnotic nature of the electronic music; for this record I wanted to incorporate some electronic elements.
Q. You had a college radio station giving out 45s, but kids now have the Internet, which is basically everything in one huge bin.
A: My son, who's 14 and super-adventurous musically, came to me the other day and was like, "Dad, have you ever heard this song before? And it was "Blue Monday" by New Order. I was like yeah, (laughing), I've heard it, what else have you got? And he had some song by this 17-year-old rapper from Brooklyn right next to New Order from Manchester in 1983. That's great. It's not like "I like country, so I can't listen to Snoop Dogg." They call live within one iPod, side by side.
Q. Your own musical childhood sounds pretty diverse in its own right.
My adoptive parents had three kids of their own, and they adopted myself and another African-American son. So we had these kids who were as white as can be, and my younger brother was really dark black, and one sister's a lesbian, and we just had this really diverse house. And there was always different music coming in -- my mother played organ in the church, my older brother was into jazz and funk, my sisters played violin in the orchestra, and my dad was into Jim Croce and Cat Stevens. And somehow along the way the Clash made their way in, the Police, reggae, hip-hop in its early years. That's what was on our old giant big console stereo. That's what we grew up listening to.
Video: "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like) by Michael Franti & Spearhead