In 2019, mainstream music seems like a solo artist’s game. The “Rock is dead” discourse gradually spread to bands in general, and many popular acts today (i.e. Bon Iver or Tame Impala) are essentially one-person endeavors buoyed by a few regular live musicians. Fortunately, the members of Free Nationals committed to the idea of a shared musical vision long before these conversations become de rigueur.
“The idea of being in a band — all of us had the same dreams as a kid,” says guitarist Jose Reyes.
Comprised of Reyes, Ron Avent, Kelsey Gonzalez, and Callum Connor, the band began in Los Angeles, beginning with Reyes, Avant, and drummer/vocalist Anderson .Paak. When the latter released his sprawling soul opus Malibu, Free Nationals was thrust into the spotlight, providing oomph for .Paak’s energetic live shows and helping write many of the album’s stirring songs.
The release of the band’s self-titled album is both a coming out party for the Free Nationals and a distillation of their sound. Across 13 kaleidoscopic tracks, most of which Rios says were conceived and written during a marathon two weeks of sessions, the members show off not only commendable technical chops, but also the kind of songwriting skill that can hook both heady, theory-forward listeners and newbies alike.
“You’ve got to keep the ear interested,” says Rios. “There’s [a lot of] stuff going on, and much of that has to do with Ron’s background in jazz. He has a very interesting approach with chords. He’ll challenge us a little bit, whereas my chord progressions are very strongly rooted in R&B and soul music.”
The album features an impressive cadre of guests, from obvious inclusions like .Paak and Kali Uchis to Conway and Westside Gunn of Griselda, whose presence on “The Rivington” is less intuitive, but no less enjoyable. The connection with Gunn came during a session working on .Paak’s 2019 album Ventura, and was one of several instances where the versatile vocalist helped facilitate a feature on Free Nationals. After years struggling to gain a foothold in the L.A. music scene, which Rios says involved everything from “$100 shows in someone’s backyard” to passing out flyers on Hollywood Boulevard to teaching lessons, the bond between them is unshakeable. Rios also credits .Paak for helping push the group into the foreground and not allowing them to be relegated to a backing band footnote.
“Anderson .Paak is a Free National and will always be. ‘Free [Nationals] ‘til they pass out obituaries,’ was the quote [on ‘The Waters’],” says Rios. “He’s always supported it, he puts us on flyers for everything. He demanded it...Even when festivals pushed back, he said, ‘No, these guys have to be on there.’”
Many albums with features as wide-ranging as theirs struggle to put forth a consistent sonic thesis, but the Free Nationals bring these different artists into their world of rich funk and soul, with guitars so thick and sweet they’re practically be gelatinous and cracking drums that add structure. There are varied flourishes — horns swell on “Apartment,” while glitzy vocoder shimmers on “Rene” — but the root of the record is each of the four core members pouring their all into every groove, chord and crisp fill. Rios describes it as “homies having a jam session,” and while a comment like that could easily come off trite, it rings true here.
One of the record’s most striking moments comes on the opening track “Obituaries.” Vocals on the track are handled by Shafiq Husayn of Sa-Ra, who Avant once called the band’s “mentor/brother.” The song’s title is a reference to the aforementioned .Paak bar from “The Waters,” while the lyrics themselves are a stirring excerpt of the Koran, stressing care, conscientiousness, and our fundamental similarities as human beings.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘This is going to move people.’ What he’s saying is so positive and so about love and unity between people,” says Rios. “If you don’t feel something when you hear that, I feel like you might be lost.”
The warm, loving texture of Free Nationals also makes it a fitting landing spot for the first official Mac Miller feature since his tragic death in September 2018. Like much of Miller’s music now, the bars can be read as fraught (“Look at me watering seeds, it's time to grow / I get out of control when I'm alone,” he raps), but there’s no denying this is a record Miller would have been part of were he alive.
When asked about the band’s relationship with Miller, Rios launches into stories of backstage hangs and a particularly memorable extravagant dinner in Paris. The group was served pigeon, and while most of them went to great lengths to avoid the gamey bird or discreetly spit it into their napkins, Miller devoured it, always eager to try something new.
The sentiment behind that story, the joy of sharing an experience with close friends, is what animates Free Nationals and, more broadly, what makes bands still a vital part of the music world. Camaraderie is what allowed the group to persevere through thankless gigs and hard times as aspirant musicians, and, according to Rios, it’s what has made this whole endeavor worthwhile.
“I was going to stay alive and stay about music,” he says. “I knew that when I said, ‘I’m a guitarist,’ I was going to mean it. For all of us, we were like, ‘We’re going to be this, and we’re going to mean it, together.’”
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.