Anderson .Paak has just wrapped up the 12th show on his 15 date European tour with The Free Nationals and jumps straight off stage to head up the stairs of the XoYo to man the merch booth and as expected is accosted by a queue of fans taking shots and signatures.
By all external appearances it may just look like Anderson .Paak is on some other kind of fast-track trajectory to the upper echelon of music greats since officially signing to Aftermath and joining a roster of Dr Dre, Kendrick Lamar and Eminem – but be clear this has been a 10 year long grind. You wouldn’t know it if you don’t really know .Paak and the Nationals but this is one real family of musicians, the kind that know where they’ve been and where they’re coming from.
Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals will be appearing in London at Wireless Festival on Sunday 10th July – here’s a taste of their london ARRIVAL;
Ahead of the show, as I walk into the soundcheck session at the XoYo in London, I’m approached immediately by Jose who introduces himself before I’ve even met the crew onsite to talk about tonights ARRIVAL show. Before I know it, I’m shaking hands with the rest of The Free Nationals – Kelsey and Callum and I haven’t even dropped my bag on the floor before we’re talking about getting some one-on-one time. Within minutes, I’m in the dressing room, mic in hand and we’re getting into this – who, how and when The Free Nationals joined forces and headed out into the world.
Anderson .Paak has been on some prolific shit to be real, with the volume, versatility and vocals of the man himself, it’s hard to fully comprehend the dimensions and levels of the L.A beat scene until you’re sitting in front of a few of it’s exports face to face. So we know about the ones who’ve made it and the ones who are about to make it but there’s that moment when you see a band for the first time they’ve toured together internationally in Europe, and you see that pure moment of revelation – cos you know it’s all about to change from this point forward – it’s this very moment in time, that I’m completely aware we’re on some ‘real’ time.
The Free Nationals are a 4 man band – Jose Rios started hanging out with Anderson almost 9 years back, with bassist Kelsey Gonzalez coming round to jam 3 years later, and Callum Connor aka Lo_Def getting into the mix producing on ‘Venice’ about “2/3 years ago” – together they liberated their sound and became Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals.
With the European tour almost closing out and a few more dates to go, Anderson is taking some hours at the hotel to rest his vocals before heading to the venue. In between set up and soundcheck, in that quiet moment I get into the origins with Jose Rios, the guitarist & producer from Los Angeles who could be considered Anderson’s longest running wingman. Jose and Anderson go back to when .Paak was Breezy and before they were free. “We’ve been rocking together, me and Anderson, for like almost 8 or 9 years. We started off doing covers, playing like Earth, Wind and Fire, Hendrix, whatever, anything people wanted to hear and that kinda just lead into us starting to do original music and we’d incorporate that into our set. So that just kinda grew from there but we’d play anywhere, anywhere where people would let us play, bars, restaurants, barmitzvah’s, backyard parties – didn’t matter we’d go.”
It was at one of these bars, watching them play live, that Kelsey decided he had to do something with the duo, “I’ve known them 6 years, I was touring with other people when I first met them. When I met them it was just Jose and Breezy and they were just playing little shows in L.A, they were playing with Shafiq Husayn and I was a big fan of his and I saw them play and my friend took me and he was like “These guys they don’t have a bass player”. I already knew Jose and I know the other guy Ron the keyboard player so I was like “guys let me be your new bass player”. They already knew me and stuff, so I started coming round and just playing with them. I would be on tour and I’d come back and that would be the first thing I’d do is go hang out with them and play.”
With Anderson and Jose touring, new directions began once the duo got working on original material and collabs, “We met up with this cat Dumbfoundead, he’s a Korean MC from Korea town and he put us on our first national tour with George Watsky and yeah it was an opportunity for us to play our original stuff in front of 600/700 capacity all over the United States – that was the beginning of it and people started to pay attention.”
As I start to piece together the timeline, the moments collide organically “Ah shit, that was like 5 years ago maybe, 4/5 something like that.” Placing the points on record, it’s starts to become clear The Free Nationals go back to a point in time after Breezy had birthed his solo projects, just when they decided to fuse their sound together on OBE, as Jose explains – “There’s BreezyLoveJoy that existed before Anderson .Paak and there’s those records. But OBE I would consider to be the first record, like that was the first record I produced – me, Breezy and Duke Westlake – we produced that record, and that was like our first printed up copies, we toured on it. “
Kelsey came on record officially around that time, working on OBE 1, “We all did it at Shafiq’s house, that was like when I started coming round and those songs really started like happening.
Making the transition from BreezyLoveJoy to Anderson .Paak, also marked the addition of another Free National, as Jose tells me about how Callum came into the mix – “Venice that’s when we brought in Lo_Def, Lo_Def came through and he brought a whole other flavour to the group. I didn’t do any production on that, I was just the guitarist on that, but that was special, there’s live guitars, there’s live bass, Kelsey’s our bass player in Free Nationals. That was a good record for us cos ‘DRUGS’ was on it and that was a track that really stood out, people wanted to hear that Trap shit, everyones into that right now. It was cool, it was the right song, right time. ‘MISS RIGHT’s another big one on that record, thats a Free National song right there, very live.”
Callum Connor aka Lo_Def, has been the DJ in the band “since the Jhene Aiko tour, like 2/3 years, that was the first major thing we did.” Callum hasn’t been new to the production thing, but been doing it for a fair minute – “Yeah for a while probably like 7/8 years, I did mostly ‘Venice’ and stuff, so worked with Anderson pretty closely with that but yeah I’ve been producing seriously for like 5 or 6 years. I got a couple of my own joints on SoundCloud but I’ve been meaning to do an EP”
So since ‘Compton’ happened, its hard to imagine everything that’s happened since hasn’t changed things for the Free Nationals too. They’re all becoming known entities now but looking closely at each of their dog tags, its hard to imagine it won’t be long before the world will know them individually.
Jose who’s been there from the get go is more aware than most what that means for him and .Paak, “Man I mean its like a chain reaction, Anderson getting all that attention and like its been ridiculous, all the press, the people like went from no one really cared to now everybody gives a, everyone cares now. Dre’s a West Coast legend, there’s no denying that so for him to like sign off on Breezy its like, its ridiculous I can’t even put it in words sometimes, its hard to explain. We’re riding the wave you know, the ‘Malibu’ wave, the ‘Venice’ wave – it’s all one big thing, we’re doing it, we’re living it.”
As for solo material, Jose’s got some serious groove on a project that draws a collective of L.A musicians, on a timeless soundscape – “Yeah I have the Jose Rios ‘To Live and Grow In L.A’ albums, those are projects I just did on my own in my room and I had some additional production help from the homies, but yeah all in all I just had to do my own thing, you know. I was watching all this stuff going on, I was like I have to do something for myself.”
Riding that wave to Malibu has had everyone pitching in with production, instrumentation and vocals – Jose played his part “Yeah I did, I did ‘Parking Lot’, and I did guitar on a few other tracks.” Callum’s “got a few joints on ‘Malibu’, I did the first single ‘Season Carry Me’ me and 9th Wonder did, and then I did the last track called ‘The Dreamer’ thats it on that, we had a couple of other ones but they didn’t make it on this one.”
But it’s Kelsey’s involvement in ‘Venice’ and ‘Malibu’ that totally takes me by surprise, in fact I find myself required to go back to the records to listen even closer as he throws me a revelation “Yeah I produced and I’m singing the falsetto, Breezy lost his falsetto, he had vocal nodes or something, and I remember that was when he told me to start singing in the band “dog, just sing backups” and I’m like alright. Next thing I know I’m in the studio and he’s like “do this high one” and I’m like alright, so next thing I know there’s probably like 5 songs on ‘Venice’ where I’m singing backgrounds and like 2 on ‘Malibu’.” Which ones on Malibu I ask specifically, cos I need to go listen really carefully now, “Lite Weight’ singing ‘United fellowship…whatever’ and there’s another one can’t remember.” I ask if he’ll grace us with his singing tonight “Yeah just backing stuff.” What about falsetto no? “Nah, I’m a bass player.”
I’ve heard all kinds of descriptions of their sound, people talk about it like it’s rock meets punk meets soul meets jazz meets funk – and although I’ll balk at crazy press releases that bunch 10 genres together, when you put everything together with the Free Nationals – thats pretty much where the roots of the sound come from. I’ve always felt like vocally it veers into soul territory, so I need to ask the guys for their own take about how they describe their sound. Jose puts it like this – “Live instrumentation, live bass, live guitar, keyboards, drums, all of us playing, recording together, and creating the song together – soul music with some funk.”
It’s not about following a sound its about letting their own thing lead their sound as Kelsey tells me – “I mean its real soulful, but it’s real gritty and alot of attitude. I mean to be honest what we’re doing right now has been the same energy, the same quality since 6 years ago when I met them. I don’t know if it’s something that we fall into this whole thing, cos we’ve always kinda done our own thing, but to be honest, it just seems like there was a new wave that came up all at the same time, kinda just like looking at each other while we’re doing it. Like alot of people that are making it are still our friends that a year ago were unknowns. Everyone’s friends or worked with each other.”
When Callum gives his take on their sound, I see exactly where the connections to blended genres have arisen from – “It’s like ‘surf R&B punk’, I would say like ‘Skate Rock R&B’ if thats even a thing.” So how does that sound come together? “I mean shit, we all got kinda like different backgrounds, we all like alot of soul, but also like some rock stuff and then just the stuff that Anderson does too is pretty diverse, he’s got alot of influences, he likes alot of Indie and Soul so it meshes pretty well.”
Since Callum is on that rock/punk angle, I press him further on his background, to find out exactly how he got involved with these guys. “I was doing alot of rock, alot of punk and stuff like that, I played in like a lot of punk rock bands, metal bands and I’ve always liked Hip-Hop too, so yeah spun alot of stuff like that, and dJ’d and produced kind of like a mesh of stuff like that. This is definitely one of the bigger things, I used to play in a metal band called Incite we did some tours with Simpletura and Soulfly and bands like that, hardcore bands you know. But that was back in like ’07 but this is the first R&B kind of group.”
And that pretty much describes probably why all the way here across the country in the U.K, word has reached about the L.A Beat scene and how their blend of influences and inspirations has had us all into the mix, as Jose says with a smile “L.A’s blowing up I mean there’s TDE, there’s OBE, those are two of the ones that I specifically know of but yeah music coming out of there is ridiculous you know. L.As coming back.”
Jose continues “I would say inspiration would definitely be Thundercat, those guys we watched them coming up, who else was it we paid attention to? We liked Bilal alot, he’s a really good soul singer, who else do we listen to – Raven Simone absolutely, Robert Glasper cats like that, anything with soul we love that, live instrumentation is always something that caught our attention.”
I wonder with all these years of playing music, whether this is actually even the first time the band have headed out on planes, trains and automobiles touring internationally in Europe but surprisingly Jose confirms -“So this is our first tour as the Free Nationals.” So I need some clarification, since the tour is billed ‘Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals’ – is Anderson .Paak actually a member of the band since he plays drums too, Callum explains “I guess its Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals, he’s always an honorary member obviously, but we’re kinda the band that is supporting him, backing him up, helping him do his thing, obviously he’s the singer. “
With the London show having sold out weeks ahead of their ARRIVAL, there’s no question the band need to be heading back to the UK to play festivals soon, and Jose slips me a pre-announcement hint – “I don’t know exactly which ones, I heard Wireless was thrown in my ear, a few different things.”
They’ve since been confirmed on the line-up at Wireless Festival, “Yeah we’re doing a ton of festivals, we got a ton of stuff coming out, so we’ll be here in the summertime.”
Recapping on the European tour, traveling cities over Europe, Jose talks about the vibes all over – “Yeah, everywhere, we’ve been all over and the shows have been sold out, the crowds are reciting words back, they’re familiar with melodies, they know songs, its special.” Kelsey specifically namechecks cities that did it for him – “Warsaw was like Awesome, Copenhagen was sweet, Stockholm, Munich was cool, they were all awesome.”
As for a Free Nationals project or solo projects for that matter, the guys are realistic and ready to focus this year, other projects will come soon, but for this year as Jose says “That’s going to be tough, we’ve got festivals and all kinds of different things going on you know.”
The Free Nationals just seem to have all the elements that make for the right combination for a major collab project and I press Callum more about the possibilities – “We’re gonna have our own project going on. I think we’re gonna do a project when we get a little break, we’re gonna do a record and have a lot of stuff, and I’m sure Anderson will be involved in it too and we’ll put him on some joints.”
As my mind starts to put it together, I have to know what other artists other than Anderson could work on a project by The Free Nationals, Callum throws me a picture – “I don’t know that would be crazy, I guess the people we already like working with, like BJ, SZA, Jhene, Kendrick, even like rock people too like Tame Impala. I like to work with alot of people.”
That picture has the makings of one crazy project! After their London show, I go tracing back through their music and find myself deeper and deeper in their zone and higher and higher on their wave.