Until quite recently, they were best known as Anderson .Paak’s live band, but their formation precedes .Paak’s rise to fame.
“It started in Los Angeles, California. It was a trio – Anderson .Paak, Ron Avant and me, Jose Rios – and we were basically a cover band in the beginning,” says Rios, the band’s guitarist. “We didn’t call ourselves the Free Nationals at the time, but that’s what I would consider to be the beginning of the Free Nationals.”
Avant soon tired of playing bass parts on the keyboard, which brought bass player Kelsey Gonzales into the picture. Around this time they stopped being a covers band and started performing .Paak’s originals.
“That went on for a few years and then Ron stepped out because he started picking up gigs – he started playing with Snoop and some other artists,” Rios says.
“We went on with that for a little bit and then in comes Callum [Connor, drums]. He brought production; he was DJing at the time. That went on for a while and then Ron came back at Coachella and we had one of the most fucking incredible Coachellas. It was everyone on stage together for the first time.”
.Paak and the Free Nationals’ Coachella performance followed .Paak’s 2016 record, Malibu. The tour brought a lot of attention to the band, most notably via their NPR Tiny Desk Concert, which currently has 41 million YouTube views. The idea of making their own record arose around this time.
“Anderson encouraged us to really step up and put a record out,” says Rios. “He felt that it would be something for us to be proud of and put our names on it. He felt like it would be a good idea, we all agreed, and we went for it. And that’s the product that we have now.”
The band first hyped the record back in February 2018 while on the Laneway festival tour with .Paak. They told Triple J’s Ben and Liam they expected to release something around mid-2018.
However, the Free Nationals’ first single, ‘Beauty & Essex’ (feat. Daniel Caesar and Unknown Mortal Orchestra), didn’t arrive until October 2018 and we had to wait until December 2019 for the full length, self-titled release.
“If you would’ve asked me six months ago, I’d have probably been upset and I’d be talking a lot of shit, but I feel good now,” Rios says. “We just had some hiccups. A lot of it had to do with our touring schedule with Anderson. It was extensive, it slowed things down, Anderson was putting out two albums at the same time. That was really what held us back.
“We had our arguments and we had our setbacks, but at the end of the day I’m a person who believes things are going to happen the way they’re supposed to happen regardless.”
Rarely have you seen a more stacked guest list. After ‘Beauty & Essex’ came ‘Time’ with Mac Miller and Kali Uchis, ‘Eternal Light’ with Chronixx, ‘Shibuya’ with Syd and ‘Gidget’ with .Paak. The record also includes T.I, J.I.D., Westside Gunn and Conway and some names that aren’t as widely recognised like Shafiq Husayn, MIKNNA and Benny Sings.
“We didn’t go into this like, ‘This is what it’s going to sound like, this is what we’re going to do,’” Rios says. “They basically said, ‘make an album.’ We said, ‘ok.’ We did what we know how to do and what we do naturally – we just went in the studio and we made music.
“That was the quick part and then it was like, ‘ok, well, we’ve got music, but where the fuck are the words?’ We’re like, ‘alright, you’ve got Syd’s number right?’ And then eventually she gets on it. ‘Kelsey, you’ve got Chronixx’s number right? You’ve got Benny Sings right? Let’s hit ‘em up.’
“They get on it and now we’re getting closer to something, because we’ve got words now, we’ve got songs. Then Daniel Caesar throws his thing in, Anderson sets that up, and before you know it we had like ten songs with artists on it. Everything happened very organically and natural. Farm-raised, free range music.”