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‘You don’t quit music’: Free Nationals guitarist talks Noname, debut record and Anderson .Paak

Dan Webb
José Rios is a Mexican-American guitarist, producer and songwriter who, as a founding member of the Free Nationals, is best known for his work alongside Grammy Award-winning drummer and rapper Anderson .Paak. After a long wait, the Free Nationals released their impressive, guest-filled, self-titled debut album on December 13th.

Congrats on the album. It’s long been touted as in the works – since at least 2017, and I understand it’s been finished for at least 10 months, if not longer. Given the number of features on it, clearing artists with labels and publishers appears to have been the biggest hold up. How frustrating has that process been?
Well, yeah. You’re correct in saying that, yeah, the record has been done for a while. It was pretty tough, man, cos we had to tour with Anderson .Paak quite a bit, you know? It’s a lot of the year we’re gone. It was hard to get the logistic parts of it done during that time, cos the music was done like I said for a while, but it was just like basically just clearing everything with the artists like you said. Um, finding time to work on music videos, some of the music videos you’ve seen so far. Pictures, like all the things that should get us like, you know, our press up. So yeah, it was tough, man. There was some, definitely some hurdles. There was some arguments, you know? We had to make our point, that is, you know, this is our time, man. This is our project. We gotta push 100% on it at some point, you know? Like, you know, something’s gotta give.

Review: Free Nationals – Free Nationals

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There’s obviously a lot of featured artists on this album. But I’m wondering, are there any uncredited musicians on it?
Uh, no. They’re credited on it. When the album comes out, you’ll see it. You’ll see their names. There’s Maurice “Mobetta” Brown, who’s a part of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. There’s a guy named Danny McKinnon… um, let me see, who else can I shout out? I think there’s the Supa Lowery Brothers. So, one of the guys from there (Christopher Lowery) is our trumpet. Yeah, I can’t really think of any other musicians that are on it, cos, uh, it’s mostly us. Now, we did basically, we did it, you know? We did the whole project, you know? Anything extra we threw on cos we needed just a little, to make it a little more.

There’s one noticeable absentee in Thundercat.
Oh, yeah, I love Thundercat, man. That’s my brother. We all have a lot of respect and a lot of love for Thundercat. It just didn’t pan out on this one. We had done the bulk of the work, and it just didn’t make sense on this album, cos we had already gone through most of the work. Um, but there’s gonna be collab, man. There has to be. We gotta work with Cat, man. Yeah, absolutely.

A lot of your music seems to draw on life events and experience. How crucial is that particular element to your songwriting, and do you ever worry about running out of things to say?
Yeah. I pride myself in – well, all of us do, I believe, like Anderson .Paak included, the Free Nationals. We pride ourselves in the ability to like put our life, you know, the things that happen in our life into the music… And then with this record, it was really more – since there’s not really like lead singers or anything, you know? A lot of it was like emotional stuff, like how we felt at the time, the sound of the music came out that way. There is some singing from Callum Connor, there’s, uh, Ron (“T.Nava” Avant) doing some vocoder work and some vocal stuff. So there is some vocal elements, but like yeah, the inspiration is really drawn from our life experiences, man. Like, being on the road, living life, having relationships. Like it all makes sense and as far as your question is if I’m afraid it’s ever gonna run out? Um, I just hope I never get too, you know, full of myself, you know? Or full our ourselves, that we can always be humble and come back to Earth, and keep creating from the experiences that we’re going through. So I feel like if we keep our heads on straight, and we stick together as a family and as a team, we’ll always have something to say. We’ll always have some music to put out.

Cool. Well going back just a little bit, in one of my first questions to you, you said that you had to work through a few disagreements surrounding the making of this album. How do you actually deal with disagreements internally within the band?
It depends, man, like sometimes it’s really easy and, you know, it’s like, “Okay, cool, let’s move on.” And sometimes there’s just that moment of like, you know, guys get frustrated, man, and we have to like have a little argument, you know? To make our point across, you know? I think the biggest thing was just basically being able to focus our attention on the record, because there was times, like I said, that we just were touring our assess off. And there was just no time to focus on this project, you know? Like, it just wasn’t there. So, a lot of the arguments had to do with that, or just being, not moving… we were just stagnant for the longest [time], you know? There was moments where I just kind of gave up on it, man, I didn’t care anymore, man. I was like, “I don’t give a shit if this comes out or not, dude.” Like, to be honest with you. But then there was just this boost, this push from Empire, that just came, you know, they just started like, “Alright, what are we gonna do? Here’s the plan.” We got in, uh, Patty Skase from TMWRK, to come in as a manager. And that, in combination with Empire, just gave us this push, you know? And it’s led us to this moment where we have an album that’s mastered and ready to come out.

I understand that you’re a big fan of old school soul and R&B. Do you have any aspirations to contribute to other artist’s records with the Free Nationals, in a similar manner to The Swampers for Muscle Shoals and The Funk Brothers for Motown?
Absolutely. I feel like, yeah, some of our greatest works will be with some of the best artists that are available right now. People that happen to be our friends, you know? It’s pretty crazy, the type of people that we have been able to like interact with, and break bread with, and smoke joints. And you know, whatever is around, whatever we’re doing, we’ve had the opportunity to be around one of the most talented people in the music industry right now.

Anderson .Paak, to me, will go down as one of the greats. There’s not a musician that’s on the Top 40 right now, as far as I’m concerned, that can do what he does.

Artist of the Year 2019: Anderson .Paak

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Well let’s talk Sungenre Artist of the Year Anderson .Paak. By my count, he performed on eight albums in 2019. It’s a huge year by anyone’s measure. What is he like as a band leader and as a friend? And would you like to say anything specifically about his work ethic?
Yeah, uh, well first of all, me and Anderson go way back, man. Me and him are – he’s my best friend, man. I love him to death, and I will always be there for him. Uh, yeah, our relationship is strong. It’s deeper than music, you know? Because obviously the music is there, and we know that when we put our heads together, you know, us, the guys, and everybody, we come up with some crazy shit together as a team. But more than that, it’s a friendship. It’s just human connection, like, more than anything else. I could say that as a band leader, he’s, uh, you know, he’s firm but he’s also fun. You know? He likes to joke around… but he’s also very serious about his shit, you know? Very serious about his show, very serious about how it sounds and what each instrument is doing. But he also allows us to be ourselves out there, you know, so he doesn’t try to tell us exactly what to play… So on top of all that, yeah, his work ethic, man, it’s incredible. The man is a machine. People already know his abilities on the drums, being able to rap and sing… As far as I’m concerned, in my opinion, Anderson .Paak, to me, will go down as one of the greats. There’s not a musician that’s on the Top 40 right now, as far as I’m concerned, that can do what he does. A lot of these guys are one-dimensional, you know? They can only do one thing. But he’s able to do multiple things, and do them at a high level. And it’s rare now, this is a very rare time in music. We were, uh, I was giving up on music, man. I was just like, I don’t feel it anymore, man, I’m not moved, you know? And then, just the resurgence of sound started to come out. You know, The Internet, Thundercat, you know, Vulfpeck, and Kamasi Washington. And Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals, man, it’s like it’s a new movement of musicality and of musicianship that the world needed. And it’s here, and I hope people will recognise that and appreciate it, and continue to support it. Because it’s gonna go into the future. The younger kids now are seeing it, and realising like, hey, you can’t flip dollars just, you know, making a shitty little beat on your computer. It’s about picking up an instrument and learning it. You know, be more familiar with own voice, just singing. You know? Expressing yourself. And I think we’re on the forefront of it with a lot of other guys in that movement.

The younger kids now are seeing it, and realising like, hey, you can’t flip dollars just, you know, making a shitty little beat on your computer. It’s about picking up an instrument and learning it.

A couple of years ago, Anderson said that at one point he was focused on achieving gold status and fame but he had recently started thinking about what’s beyond that. He’s since formed the OBE imprint which you’re signed to, and he’s looking to move into acting. I’m wondering if you’ve thought much about this? What’s your higher goal, are you aiming for anything beyond music?
Like I said, I’m speaking for the Free Nationals right now, I gotta like… um, yeah, I think we all agree that what we see for ourselves is to stay true to what we do, first of all. Stay true to each other, always have each others’ backs. And through that, to continue to create quality music that we can feel proud of. And hopefully, because of our situation, that we can collaborate with as many artists as we can, and basically be the [standard-bearers for] that sound. Because if people want that sound, that Free Nationals sound, they will come to us, and we will create that for them, you know? Um, I can see us going into scoring movies and, uh, creating content. Delving deeper, just like Anderson is. But like, you know, he’s doing this whole thing and he’s also working on some other stuff I can’t really elaborate on, but you know, he’s sticking his foot in other things. And we’re right there with him, you know? And we have the same kind of dream and mission. But yeah, we’re all into everything, we wanna stay in this business long-term. We don’t wanna fade away… you listen to people that stay around and continue to make quality music throughout their careers. So that’s what we’re gonna do. And you know, I’ll be 60 years old making this music, man. Like, touring and shit. Like, I’m with it. This is the life of an artist, man. And we all agree on that.

I’ll be 60 years old making this music, man. Like, touring and shit. Like, I’m with it. This is the life of an artist, man. And we all agree on that.

Noname recently said that she might quit music after her next album drops, saying that “most black artist are just as uncomfortable performing for majority white crowds but would never publicly say that out of fear and allegiance to (money)”. I’m wondering what your take is?
Yeah, yeah. You know, that’s a great question, man, because I’ve been having a really hard time with this. You know, on one hand, I understand what she’s saying, but on the other hand I’m also kind of like conflicted about it. Um, first off, I know the idea of like quitting music, you know, because I’ve heard – is that what she meant? I don’t wanna put words in her mouth. Did she say, “I don’t want to do music anymore. I’m quitting music”?

I believe that’s what she meant.
Okay, yeah. So I’ve been having this conversation with my guys, cos the idea of quitting music, to me, it doesn’t make sense… I just think, I don’t think you ever quit music. Like, music is a life thing. You don’t have to play for people, but you can play for yourself. You can create and play for yourself, like you don’t ever quit music. Now, can you get out of the business? Can you stop touring? You can make rap records for yourself and not a record label anymore. Yeah. I think that’s plausible, but to say like, “I’m gonna quit music.” That phrase makes no sense to me. It holds no weight, man. It’s like, you don’t quit music. This is, like either you’re a musician or you’re not, you know? I mean, if it was just a hobby, and you’re gonna quit, okay that’s fine. But I don’t know, man. Now, and pertaining to the thing she mentioned about race? That’s a very interesting thing, and it’s a very true thing of what she’s saying. As a Mexican-American, I’ve dealt with, you know, certain things, and I can relate on a certain level. But, uh, yeah, it’s true. I mean, even with us. We do play for predominantly white crowds. Now, I’m not complaining, I’m not, you know, whatever, but… there’s a certain thing, there’s something going on. I don’t know if it’s a financial thing, I don’t know if it’s like, maybe, uh, people of colour don’t feel welcome at shows, or – I really don’t know what the situation is, but I would like to see that change… we’ve got to get everybody together. We’ve got to stop, you know, separating people, separating genres, and making people feel left out, man. It’s fucked up and it’s gotta end, man. So, I feel her on that, as a person who has experience in playing so many festivals, so many shows. I see it too, you know? Um, yeah, I hope she doesn’t quit music (laughs). You don’t, you know?

As a Mexican-American, I’ve dealt with, you know, certain things, and I can relate on a certain level. But, uh, yeah, it’s true. I mean, even with us. We do play for predominantly white crowds.

Well, one last quick question, if I may. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Uh, shit. You gotta ask this question. I think Ron said Stevie Wonder, so he’ll probably think I’m going to say Stevie Wonder. Uh, I would say D’Angelo, man. D’Angelo, if you’re out there, holler at your boys in the Free Nationals. I think you already know A.P. probably, or he talked to you, so. Uh, man, can we just get in the studio and kick it with you man?… Let’s just sit there together and have a joint, man, and maybe make something beautiful, you know? That would be my message to him. Wherever he’s at in the world (laughs).

Awesome. Alright, well thanks so much for your time, José. Good luck with the album.
Yeah. Man, shout to the Aussies, man. We got nothing but love for you guys. You guys were the first people that would really like accept us when the States weren’t really like, you know, didn’t really give a fuck… so shout out to all the Aussies out there. We love you!