No longer "wearing all black, standing in the back": Free Nationals step out

No longer "wearing all black, standing in the back": Free Nationals step out

They’ve played festival slots, headline shows and late-night fixtures as Anderson .Paak’s band, but Free Nationals are on a funky mission of their own.

“You know, to me, that was the start.”

On the surface, Little Temple – a small cocktail bar wedged by the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and N Virgil Avenue – doesn’t seem like the start of anything, except perhaps a Philip Marlowe mystery. Red light bounces from lamps, dousing bars and booths alike; the stage is little more than a raised platform in the main room, unceremonious and candid; and that space is flanked by a small lounge, adorned with Moroccan aesthetics. Quaint though it seems, over the course of eight years, Little Temple played host to artists such as Thundercat, Open Mike Eagle, Brother Ali, Madlib, J. Rocc, Peanut Butter Wolf and the Stones Throw crew. Fans and fellow musicians alike packed out the modest hall for a chance to catch an intimate set from a hometown hero, gigs known to occasionally turn up a guest or two. 

That night, however, wasn’t anchored around a single headliner or titanic talent – that night, Kelsey Gonzalez finally took a friends’ advice. “One of my best friends, my sister, Gabriella Canales, she had always told me about him,” he explains. “She would always tell me, ‘Yo, you gotta see this dude, Breezy, he's so good!" Meteoric R&B talent wasn’t something Kelsey was unfamiliar with: as Miguel’s bassist and music director, he’d been travelling the country, initially supporting Usher before playing headliners, tackling spots from House of Blues and Radio City Music Hall, hitting Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno and gracing breakfast TV. Nonetheless, there was something different about Breezy – something singular, something unforgettable. “The first time I ever saw him with my eyes on stage, it was at Temple.”

Temple has since shuttered, the telltale arrow now emblazoned with the generic promise of COCKTAILS, but the memories are as vivid as ever. “Ron, the keyboard player, T’Nava – I'd known him through playing in church, little gospel churches in LA. Jose, the same thing, just gospel – Jose was the only other Mexican in the church scene,” he adds with a little laugh. “Yeah, memories!” That familiarity were chased with a far more foreign feeling: “when I saw Breezy on drums, he was, to me, the best drummer I'd ever seen.”

That ragtag group were playing Temple frequently, securing spots in mentor Shafiq Husayn’s ‘Nu-Thursdays’ and the so-called ‘Nappy Thursday’ nights, three friends cutting their teeth and laying their tracks in mild obscurity. “Gabi was like ‘c'mon, I want to introduce you, you should meet him.’ I met him and I was immediately like, ‘bro, y'all don't have a bass player, man, I swear to God I'll quit all my shit just to come rock with you guys, I don't care about money... I just feel y'all are on some shit, and I already know Ron and José, I know you guys are legit, let's go!’”

That was the start – at least for Kelsey – but even though the others had been jamming together for a few years, that night represented the beginning of something new altogether. “Jose, Ron and Breezy had had a thing for a while: they all went to the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, and they were all good friends, [they] went to music school together,” he eagerly recounts. “It was a beautiful way for everyone to meet, you know? Then Callum came along later… he produced a lot of stuff but eventually, we were like "yo, let's have him join the band as a DJ!”

If the idea of the Nats was incepted in an instant, it took a little longer to realise. Jose and Kelsey cut tracks for Breezy’s O​.​B​.​E. Vol​.​1 –  “that's one of Anderson's greatest pieces,” he offers, “that was, I think, some of our best work!” – bringing Long Beach friend Vicky Nguyen into the mix. “She went to Long Beach for college,” he explains, “so I met Vicki just at a jam session. I remember the second I met her… I think it was maybe 2010. She’s this Vietnamese girl just riffing on the keys, super shy, and I was like, ‘Yo, I need to know you forever and we need to be friends, let's make some music!’” That they did: Vicki’s yet to miss a .Paak record, hitting synths and keys and intermittently producing, manning the decks on Malibu standout, Celebrate. “Ever since then it was like, ‘alright, well Vicki's part of the squad,’” says Kelsey of the Nats’ silent shooter. “We produced Winner's Circle together! Her and Pomo, I think, are the two secret Free Nationals.”

The band was still a little way off: Kelsey hit the road with Jhene Aiko, supporting Nas and Lauryn Hill; Jose put in work with Dumbfoundead and Duke; Callum honed his production prowess; and T’Nava jammed away, jumping on Aiko’s Stay Ready (What A Life). Breezy shed his casanovan moniker for the more subdued Anderson .Paak, a take on his birth name, and in 2013, he dropped Cover Art, funk-ifying tracks from The Beatles, Toto and The White Stripes. Breezy’s rebirth marked Free Nationals’ arrival, and the newly-labelled union, Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, enshrined in their magical rapport in a pithy phrase.

Jose Rios, guitar; T’Nava, keys; Callum Connor; drums; Kelsey Gonzalez, bass. If an organic funk outfit feels strange in 2010, it’s for lack of global exposure: in Los Angeles, a funk-laden scene has been thriving for decades, with Sa-Ra Creative Partners as torchbearers. “Shafiq, Om'Mas and Taz, all Sa-Ra… I heard about Sa-Ra through Miguel,” Kelsey explains, itself a testament to their hefty reputation. “I never heard nothing like that. That's next level future music, you know? Future of funk, future of soul, whatever you want to call it. Those guys were just so… not impressed by whatever cool things most people get impressed by, they just run their own shit. From the gate, Sa-Ra was a big inspiration… when I was able to go and see Shafiq, I was just a fan.”

That opportunity came as the Nats fell together, pieces assembling in Little Temple, where Shafiq regularly played, as well as his house in LA’s Mount Washington. “When we got to go to Shafiq's house... man, Anderson lived there on the bottom floor, he lived right next to the studio. Shafiq gave him a place to stay on the basis that he brings musicians around and helps them with this record. That was the deal.” In a city where you could pay four figures for a mattress in a windowless closet, artistically-funded lodging in an “incredible place overlooking all of East LA” is something else. Move over, Art of the Deal: .Paak’s on the Deal of the Art. “We would just go there, and we were kids, but we would see like Herbie Hancock, Erykah Badu, Lotus, Thundercat, whoever would walk in. As kids, no one knew who we were, but we were just stoked to be there, and Shafiq was the glue, you know?” There’s a split-second pause, as if he’s forgetting something – “--and Om'Mas!” 

The exhilaration in the telling fills the spaces that words couldn’t possibly fill: it’s a part of the Nats’ story, but somehow, it’s still as absurd now as it was then. “Coming up under these creatives that are so outside the box but still, you know, know their shit? That was a great thing.” If Sa-Ra and Shafiq were formative funkateers for Free Nats, then Dr. Dre was yet another influence, both on the Nats’ approach to recording and their musical upbringing. “I mean, fuck, I'm from Long Beach,” says Kelsey, “I know every Dre song! When 2001 came out I was in eighth grade, I knew every word. My teacher was playing in the classroom!”

“From the get, you're so intimidated, but also just so honoured to be in his presence,” he says of meeting the West Coast legend, whose ever-vigilant eye for talent pulled .Paak into the spotlight. “I got to be there for when Anderson was just doing Compton. Anderson's my brother, you know… he invites me [to the studio] all the time and I go almost every time, even though I live the furthest, in Long Beach, I'm the one in the band that will always show to sessions just cause I fucking love this shit, even if it's just to chill!”

“In those Compton days, it was great to be there and watch them write on the whiteboard what the songs were going to be and all that stuff,” an insight which paid off in the making of Oxnard, .Paak’s 2018, Dre-helmed hip-hop record. T’Nava hit a quiet vocoder on Anywhere, sharing the stage with Snoop, as Jose soared on Tints and jammed on Petty. The pair shared pen and production on Headlow, as did Callum on Smile, and Left to Right found Kelsey and Vicky mired amongst Dre’s production. It was new ground for Free Nats who, though individually experienced in hip-hop sounds, were shaped by late-night jams at LA bars. If there’s any producer who bridges the world of funk and hip-hop with ease, it’s Dre, longtime Parliament-Funkadelic disciple and G-Funk innovator.

Oxnard and Ventura were supposed to come out as one album, a double-sided album,” he tells me, talking b-sides and studio sacrifices that we’re yet to hear. Fond though he is, Kelsey’s faith in Dre’s vision undercuts any frustration – if anything, the fact that there were too many record-ready cuts is a testament to their relationship. “Working with Dre was so beautiful because he's such a legend, and he has such a great ear and a great eye for what will work, but then at the same time, he gave us so much. He has so much respect for us, and [he] let us do our thing, so much that when it was a question of style, he would look at us. He'd be like, ‘Well, what do you think?’ We're like, ‘Well, I mean, that's kind of corny, maybe don't do that, and that's actually pretty cool, so maybe do that?’” The awe is palpable, the sessions still unbelievable. “This dude is my idol, and being able to sit there with him and have him like, show Anderson so much respect, show all of us so much respect, was just surreal.”

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Sa-Ra and Dre indelibly imprinted the Nats, but that’s not to discount the most prominent part of their journey. It’s one of the decade’s finest come ups: first Venice, the sun-scorched sleeper, then Malibu, the kaleidoscopic breakout that paired Free Nats jams with Pomo-produced club anthems, then Oxnard and Ventura, the one-two punch that saw .Paak – and, in turn, Free Nats – try a hand at some new approaches. It took them from band rooms to stadiums, hundreds to a hundred-thousand, session musician slogs to self-motivated jams. 

All this under their belt, the “the blueprint from day one” was set into motion: Free Nationals shifted from the support to spotlight, shown nowhere better than Jimmy Fallon, where they recently graduated from “wearing all black, standing in the back” to earning top billing over their charismatic point man. Origin stories are frequented by local legends, forces who can bring shine to emerging artists, but the showing of Los Angeles’ finest is as rare as it is impressive. Those influences have evolved into co-signs, endorsements from heroes-turned-friends and peers-turned-collaborators.

Shafiq, their Sa-Ra mentor, opens with a sage sermon on Obituaries, an introduction steeped in their own funky origins; single Beauty and Essex fuses the R&B slick of Daniel Caesar with the psych-rock of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, that NZ group reminiscent of their Cover Art debut; album-wide appearances from T.I., JID, Conway and Westside Gunn speak to a decade of experience, one which melds around trap innovators, Atlanta upstarts and grizzled Griselda vets all the same. Elsewhere, Internet lynchpin Syd rocks up, as does Stones Throw signee Benny Sings, inspired and self-sufficient artist Kadhja Bonet, and emerging LA soul duo MIKNNA. 

T’Nava cuts loose on Oslo, laying vocoder riffs over a tight kit, sharing vocals with Callum, proof that the drumming-and-singing bug dies hard. The ‘80s excess of the penultimate cut, an instrumental, more than earns the title Lester Diamond. “We all came up so heavily on those movies, and Lester Diamond was, you know, a scumbag!” The scumbag energy comes hard and fast: something about the track, dynamic but distant, screams 'Beverly Hills card shark in a droptop.’ “We also have another song on the album that didn't make it called Billy Batts, from Goodfellas. We're heavily influenced by the Italian mob movies… Lester Diamond was just like, it's a funk song we all made, you know, just call it some gangsta shit!” Eternal Light finds the quartet kicking it with Jamaican singer Chronixx, that variety as much a product of their interplay as a vision of their own interests: “that's my thing,” says Kelsey, “I like doing reggae stuff.”

The beating heart of the record, though, comes in the form of an unintended tribute to a friend gone too soon. “We were writing the first chunk of the album, it was like four days that we were at the studio... it was like Anderson's studio that he kind of makeshift made. It was still in the works, but it got better. It was just the four of us making jams, just jamming out. We'd do like two songs a day and then go home and whatever. Kali was there one of the days when we made Time, and she sat there and wrote down all her lyrics on this big piece of paper with a marker – it was so cool.” 

“That was the first one that we had,” he recalls, the jam-based marathons a rarity that gave way to other cuts such as Gidget and Lester Diamond. “Anderson gave it to Mac, and Mac absolutely murdered it. Yeah, it was so great, the way it came about. I remember getting a phone call from Mac just before he passed, and he was like, he had just broken up with [Ariana]...  man, the way he said it was so gangster, man! He was like, ‘Bro, some things in my life have happened and things changed, so maybe I want to like change a couple of lines in my verse, if that's cool?’” 

“I was like, ‘of course it's cool!’ I was sitting next to Anderson, like we're eating, and he hears what I'm saying, he's like ‘no!’ I was like, ‘nah dude, you're good, just send it, it's pending, whatever, you're good, I don't care, do what you wanna do, you're the artist!’ Maybe the next day he texts me, he's like ‘bro you know, it's all good, I love it the way it is.’” That way – laidback, replete with images of growth, reflection and improvement – captures Mac as he lived, ever-dedicated to becoming a better person and pushing himself to new heights. The lovelorn verse, understated and bitterly optimistic, hits so hard because of just that: every spin further reveals an artist with the world at his feet, the bars so divorced from the irrevocable context. “I think he was scared of sounded like he was simping, you know, like begging for love,” says Kelsey, “and really, the song is a timepiece, so beautiful the way it is. That was his place at that time in his life. It was a cool thing to be a part of.” 

The record isn’t as much a timepiece as a chronicle, forged in the years past and put to wax with the benefit of hindsight. “We've all gone from this stage of where all of us are broke, Anderson especially – I remember he used to sleep on my couch, whoever's couch, he was definitely hungry but broke, [he’d] just had a newborn, and had a wife and was trying to figure out his life situation – but he had the Nats.” They’ve been through thick and thin, riding a wave that grows bigger every day, a far cry from those humble beginnings, but if you ask Kels, there was never any doubt. “We all kind of ended up together, we all had each other's backs, but from that day… it was just kind of like a family thing, putting all your chips on black, you know? We all knew that this was the thing, we all loved it: the band, the brotherhood.” 

“We all get the upper hand in that we toured with Anderson for so long,” says Kelsey. “We had to learn how to love each other as musicians and brothers first. Once you get sick of somebody, immediately you're over it and then it's like, you'll never get sick of them. You get over it!” Making an album can be rough, filled with tension and volatility – ask anybody who’s ever been in a band – but living together on the road is as good a vaccine as any. “The first year or so, it was like the boot camp, now it's just beautiful... now that we have our own hotel rooms we don't have to deal with each other's bullshit, you know?”

In a way, Free Nationals feels like a beginning unto itself. Having spent the better part of the decade rocking crowds from Little Temple to Montreal Jazz Fest, courting big talents and bigger sounds, becoming formidable forces in their own right, Kelsey, Jose, Callum and T’Nava have distilled their experiences into a 13-track whirlwind of funk – not the genre itself, but the ineffable quality that courses through their music. 

Still, it’s so much more than just the sum of experience. The Nats love each other like The Nats love the funk: wholly, truly, and with unfaltering conviction. “The great teams unite and it's their team for a reason,” poses Kelsey, getting philosophical with it. “I could've done my own thing, and so-and-so could've done their own thing, but when you all get together, that's when it's Voltron, Captain Planet, you know? Would Kobe be anything without Shaq? Would Jordan be anything without Pippen?”

“Thank whatever power that we got together because it would have never happened this way if we [didn’t]. There's a lot of pieces that came together, and it would have never been this way without that, and I want to say that we're all strong enough to do it on our own, but it doesn't work like that.” There was life before Free Nats, but the shadow of that night at Little Temple hangs long over the future. It was but a flashpoint in the greater mosaic, and yet, it’s the night that changed it all for Kelsey Gonzalez, shifting the course of his life in ways nobody could’ve imagined. You can’t imagine Malibu without Free Nats, and you can’t imagine Free Nationals without .Paak, but you can’t imagine the 2010s without either. 

Free Nationals aren’t new to this shit. Bonds unbreakable, funk unshakable and grooves unmistakable, they live deep in the pocket – I’m talking real deep – indigenous to the funk, accustomed to the stage, and driven by the love of it all. 

We could all stand to learn a thing or two.

Free National's debut, self-titled album is out Friday, December 13.

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