BY Kevin Wang

In anticipation of the band's self-titled debut LP on December 13th, Kevin Wang got a chance to talk to with Funk-R&B supergroup Free Nationals' very own José Rios. They go deep into the bands' origins, collaborations with Anderson .Paak, creative process, and the group's exciting future.

Free Nationals, previously known best as Anderson .Paak's live band, release their much awaited self-titled debut LP this Friday 13th December 2019. The group features bassist Kelsey Gonzalez (bass), Ron “Tnava” Avant (keyboard/vocoder), Callum Connor (drums), and José Rios (guitar). The upcoming album has a diverse range of talented features including Mac Miller, Syd, Anderson .Paak, Kali Uchis, T.I., JID, Westside Gunn, Conway, Chronixx, Daniel Caesar, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kadhja Bonet, MIKNNA, Benny Sings, Callum Connor, T. Nava. The group's music and performance has been acclaimed all over the globe.

See the full interview below: 

Yo whatsup, I’m Kevin, man, nice to meet you

Pleasure man, pleasure

Where are you guys at the moment?

I’m driving in Los Angeles, man, down the 101 in traffic, that’s what we do out here

LA traffic is like crazy right, backed up all the time right?

Yeah exactly

I’m in Sydney, we’ve been having those bushfires recently.

Oh yeah, yo, I saw that video of the koala getting burnt, bro, that was the saddest shit, oh man, shit
broke my heart, cos I’ve been out there man, I’ve seen ya’ll guys’ wildlife and just the way it is, that
shit’s depressing bro, I hope things are getting better man

Also funnily enough, we actually met earlier this year at the Sydney show you played in January. I
don’t know if you remember – back behind the theatre – I was the dude with the camcorder and
you were like oh shit, this dude got a camcorder and you gave me your guitar pick

Oh yeah, that’s cool man, ahahaha, I’m sorry bro, to think about the beginning of this year to me
is like, I can’t even believe we went to Australia this year, I completely forgot, I thought it was last
year, that’s insane. Yeah, yeah, now it’s coming back to me – Sydney and all that, that was special,
that was a good run man.

You guys enjoyed that thing? Cos that show was crazy bruh.

I love playing in Australia. I love it so much there.

How are you feeling right now coming up on the release date – how’s everything been for the past
few weeks and how are things gonna ramp up in the upcoming ones?

Energy is high, the guys are all excited man, we just did Jimmy Fallon and did ‘Gidget’, it was just the
best, man, we nailed the song and we felt good and we looked good, everyone was lookin fucking sexy
up there – it was a special moment for the team and we’re all in good spirits man, we’re ready.

I saw the Gidget clip then I heard the album and was like – yo you guys are putting out fire, I’m
feeling the funk.

Yeah man

How are you feeling about this record? What did you want to do with this album and put out there
for your audiences to hear and vibe with?

Oh man, This record right here man, it’s really special. It’s the four of us – The Free Nationals – just
going into a studio and cutting some music, putting some friends on top of it and putting that shit out,
the formula was pretty simple: make good music and see which one of the homies wanted to get on
the track and bless it with their lyrics and their melodies, that was the formula for this one and as it
progressed it all just seemed to make sense.

Yeah, cos it seemed like it was super piecemeal, like you guys had a song here and there, you guys
had Shibuya from a while back with Syd the Kid and you guys had a bunch of other features
coming on together – it was just like you guys were having a massive jam session with all your best
friends, like – yo jump on this track.

Yeah, good way to put it, absolutely.

I heard about how you guys came up with the name “Free Nationals” and I know the big homie
Shafiq Husayn put you onto the name so it was nice to have his warm voice grace the start of the album saying the prayer.
Why’d you guys decide to self-title?

It’s our first record, and we’ve had a lot of exposure because of AP and how he always uses our name.
Just as much as the dot is there on .Paak, he wants Free Nationals to be up there on the billboards just
as much as that. So we’ve had the exposure and the ability to be all over the biggest festivals in the
world and that name was up there, you know?

We self-titled because I feel like even though we’ve had all that exposure, people
don’t know who the fuck we are, you know? So it’s like Free Nationals – here we are – verse one,
there’s no other name or nothing to confuse it like “is that the name of the band”, no, no, this the
band, this is the name, this is the debut – introducing ourselves to the world – like
This is us. This is the first time there’s been no “and AP” on the name, so it’s not connected like it’s been for the longest.

Like you guys are really coming into your own, type deal. I love how you guys make that
connection of ‘free nationals’ meaning Indigenous peoples of a land and interpolate it to make you
guys Indigenous to the funk, to the music.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we had to figure a way to translate it over because the meaning was so prolific and
meaningful, it came with a lot of responsibility, so it was serious but it was also very much, like, we
make it lighthearted as well because the music is so healing, it’s not abrasive.

Good energy.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, so we have to bring that, man, especially with the name, it means a lot – and you
guys got that – people in Australia can relate to that, with the Aborigines and whatnot, it’s the same
story in every country and continent. And it’s so cool that you can tap into something so primal and universal, this shit – anyone can listen to and vibe out with. Yep, this music is for everybody – no one is excluded.

More questions, tell me about the role that features played because there’s SO many of them on
this album – are artists just blowing up your inbox trying to get on a funky Free Nationals Track?

See at first, when we did this no one really knew what the fuck we were doing, it was a concept I don’t
think anyone kind of understood really, but we started reaching out to friends and they got on it and
then we had something. But yeah, now that we’ve been releasing these records and people have been
seeing official releases and official videos – there’s artists that are starting to come around, like, oh
they’re not just Anderson .Paak’s band, they’re a production team, they're a band – in general – and
you know, they’re reaching out, people definitely want to get in the studio now. And when the record
drops it will be that much more.

Definitely man. I’ve seen on Twitter all these new guys that you’ve been meeting. Donald Glover –
that was wild, you, Thundercat and Donald Glover. What’s he like?

Yeah dude, love him man. Donald Glover – oh man – the vibe I got from him, he’s just a very intelligent
person, he takes his time when he speaks, the things he says are just very well thought out – he’s like
a little professor. He’s a great dude and he was very nice to us – he came to our Madison Square
Garden show and came to show some love – it was really cool, man.

Yeah he’s got the little grey beard going on.

Like I said, he’s a professor, he’s got his professor beard, he’s that guy, man.

Like your wise homie.

Yeah exactly, conscious, wise homie. But he can be fun too – he can like wild out on like TV and movies
and do his thing. 

And that’s why I really look up to that guy, that guy’s cool he does everything man.

Yeah man, just an all-round entertainer, he’s got it all under his belt.

Crazy, Anyway, back to you guys, I went down a YouTube wormhole and I found this video from
2009 of you and Anderson .Paak – or I should say Breezy Lovejoy and Zeta Jones.

Yeah, haha.

Touring from Memphis to Arizona and AP’s got them short dreadlocks looking nothing like those
rockstars we see today on like Fallon, playing Coachella, could you remember what 2009 Jose and
Paak were like – could you picture back then being where you guys are now?

It’s funny because the video you’re speaking of, I edited that video on my laptop, on my Mac, and I
thought I was the shit because I put that little tour video together.

You got them iMovie edits and whatnot in there, that was tight.

That was the first tour we ever went on, man, but it was like…man…like I think Breezy gave me like
$20 a day or something, he’s like, he went on this tour with this girl – I forget her name – and he was
like, dude I get like 10 minutes before she starts – just fly out to Atlanta, and I’ll give you like $20 a day
– I was like bro fuck it dude, I’m in Hollywood, I ain’t got shit to do, I’m coming. So I flew to Atlanta
and sure enough we get 10 minutes every night at like little clubs. And me and him had like an iPod
and I think a little drum beat, he’d play drums on some and he had a beat on the other and we would
do our thing man, for like 10 minutes. We were young, man, like, we were young, hungry, dumb,
couldn’t dress very well because we were wearing whatever shit we could get, and uhh, but we were
having fun and it was a time in our life where we didn’t know what was going to happen, bro, we just
didn’t know and we didn’t really worry too much about it because we always had eachother, man, to
talk to. Breezy was always there man, that was my guy, and I’m still with that motherfucker, man, like
we still together.

So you guys go waaaaay back. That’s crazy. So you guys didn’t really dream that far ahead, you
guys weren’t like “oh shit, I gotta make it real big”

Bro, I couldn’t see this man. I always knew like, dude we’re gonna always make music man, and we
watched other big artists doing their thing but what’s going on right now like, I didn’t see that exactly,
like, holy shit, it fucking went beyond what I thought it was gonna be, y’know, and it’s still going. I’m
counting my blessings, and trying to stay humble man and keep riding the wave.

That’s really cool to hear, that you guys just played music and then along the way through the
struggles had eachother and now you guys are at the top, playing Fallon, and it’s still like the same
5 guys – like you linked up with TNava, Kelsey and Callum over the years – I respect so much the
fact that you guys not only came up together but you guys as musicians are like proper
performers, like you guys went through that gig life and that’s how you made it to radio play and
Spotify and Fallon and Coachella, like you guys went through all of that.

Yeah man, the show would get better and better and better as we just went and went and went and
we just kept touring and, then we thought “oh we better dress better, we’re on stage, let’s sort of
look a little better, let’s move in unison a little more” – because AP was always dancing, he’d always
dance, but the other band members, like in the beginning, we were always kind of stiff, you know?
Cos we were just shy, man, we were fucking young and performing and we had to come into our own.
And then we got thrown on a Bruno Mars tour for 3 fucking months, man, and Bruno was just dancing
and explosions and lasers, we had to go out there every night and open for this motherfucker and we
were – oh man – our show at that time reminded me of, it was like rock’n’roll, like we came in and we
fuckin rocked the house, dude, and Bruno saw it man, he paid his respects like you guys are tights, like
we were warming up the crowd like every night in Europe, and we learned a lot from that tour.

Like you guys had to step up your game for a big name you were opening for, right – like ahhh shit,
we really gotta get our shit together cos it’s BRUNO MARS

Bro, that guy’s a performer like no other.

Yeah it’s just insane to think about. What’s next for the Free Nationals? Are we gonna get like
strictly Free Nationals shows on top of performing with AP, like how does this dynamic between
AP and you guys change up now that you guys aren’t just his band in the back, like you guys are
your own artists.

The formula that we’ve been doing, which from the beginning has always been about friendship first.
It’s always been about are we good as friends first. And then we make some music because we’re in a
good place, you know? And yeah, we’re gonna continue to use that formula of the guys that we have,
and obviously we’ve made some new friends come in and help with certain things that we need but I
think if we do that – and it’s been working for us so far, I don’t know why we would change, man, I
don’t know why we would do anything different. People recognise it, people know the sound, they
know what it is when you go to a Free Nationals x Anderson .Paak show. We’re stronger together than
we are apart, so, we gotta just keep up what we’ve been doing man, that’s what I see and I see that
to mean longevity in this game.

Yeah, cos it seems like you guys have just been doing the same thing you’ve always been doing, right?
Yeah, we’ve pretty much just stuck to the same formula, same kind of sessions. Just get in the studio
with the homies and a bag of weed, and there’s drinks n shit, you know, you just vibe on it, try to
create something beautiful, you know? Something meaningful.

Something from the heart.

It has to be.

Now that you’ve found all this success, how are ya’ll staying humble and grounded and what do
you think about “making it” is just smoke and mirrors and what have you found to be the things
that are truly, truly important?

Shit man, I think the most important thing is that most of us are family guys. I have a daughter,
Anderson has two sons, but yeah, having them around keeps us grounded, keeps us focused. But the
other guys, they don’t have kids but they do come from good families, you know, and I’ve met most
of their parents and I think those people keep them grounded. Yeah man, like I like to tell people that
we’re more than musicians. Yeah we do play instruments, they’re very important to us, but if you ever
hang out with us, it’s just like you’re hanging out with your homeboys, it ain’t no thing, man, like we
don’t take ourselves too fucking seriously – playing music is just a tool that we have to communicate
with people, but yeah – just knowing that this shit is bigger than us, and that’s what keeps people
wanting to be around us and wanting to work with us.

Damn, that’s a good answer

Yeah, it’s the truth man, honest answer, man.

I think time’s almost up but if we could squeeze in one more bonus question:
As a student in uni/college – probably what you guys call it in the States.

I know uni, haha

Yeah, where we’re all trying to find our path in the world, for those of us with anything from an
inkling to like infatuation with anything artistic, what words of wisdom can you extend to us?

This is going out to all the cats at the unis.
The one thing I would say – and this is my own personal experience with music in my life – if you love
it and you respect it and it’s something that you want to pursue, I would say that you’ve got to do your
homework man. You’ve got to listen to the old shit first, you’ve got to start there and move your way
up. Obviously you’re gonna listen to what you want to listen to and stay up to date, but you gotta go
back man, you’ve gotta learn your history. It’s like in regular general education, they don’t just teach
you math and all this stuff, they give you histories. Same thing with music, man. If you don’t go back
and listen to what’s already happened, you’re gonna be lost, man and when it comes time to work
with musicians, when you’re in a room with real musicians you’re gonna be in trouble. You have to do
your homework. You have to study the greats and do your best to always work on your craft –
whatever instrument or whatever it is that you do. Singing, drums, anything, production – you never
stop learning, that’s it. It’s a growing process, you’ll never stop evolving. So be open to evolving, be
open to allowing new sounds, progressions, music to come into your ears. And eventually you’ll catch
it, it’ll become a part of you, it’ll become a part of your life. One of my teachers told me that if you
learn something now, it’s probably not going to be in your playing for like a year. Like it won’t be like
natural to you until the next year. So don’t be discouraged if you’re not getting a concept right now
because it will come back, it will be there like a year down the line it will be a part of you instead of
something you just learned right on the spot. 

Damn man, this is actual gold right now.

Yeah haha, I hope that helped somebody man because I needed shit like that to be said to me when I
was younger, so.

Well the crazy thing is like you’ve made it (in society’s terms), you’ve gotten to the other side so
you saying something like this, it’s got to count for something, right – you know what you’re
talking about.

I hope so. Yeah, I really do hope people can learn from this, man, and hopefully the next person that
comes up can be inspired.

Damn man. This was a good chat.

Yeah, let the promoters know down under man, we’re ready to come back.

Anyway, it’s been a blessing man and having it all come full circle. Starting the
year, ending the year with Jose Rios and the Free Nationals. Can’t wait til this album comes out.

13th of December, it’s gonna be tight.

Make sure to check out Free Nationals debut album when it drops this Friday, the 13th of December! Preorder/presave the album here.

Juice WRLD @ Hordern

Festival X Sydney 2019

Jon Bellion @ Enmore