Ten years ago, five friends were united by the undeniable power of their musical talent. One year ago, the same five were launched into the stratosphere of superstardom by a fire album and a cosign from Compton’s finest. They haven’t touched the ground since.
It would be an understatement to say Anderson .Paak and his backing band The Free Nationals have had a busy year. Aside from touring the world, we’ve seen them everywhere from Coachella to an iconic NPR Tiny Desk Concert to The Ellen Show.
We’ve gotten to know a lot about the front man, but very little about the crazy talented band behind him. No longer—we jumped on the phone with Jose Rios (producer/guitarist), Ron Tnava Avant (keyboardist), Kelsey Gonzales (guitarist) and Callum Connor (DJ/producer/drummer) to chat about their upcoming solo album, Grammy nominations, tour bus essentials (spoiler alert: fleshlights), and the importance of paying homage to those who came before you. Meet The Free Nationals.
How did The Free Nationals come together?
Jose Rios: I met Anderson in the parking lot of an apartment building. We both had girlfriends living there at the time. He just came out of a car and he kind of knew who I was from school. We didn’t connect again until the next day—I got a call from another artist who was putting together a band and it had me, Ron, and [Anderson] and then we played a show with this artist from school. We kind of just stuck together after that. We had fun hanging out, we had fun playing music, and we were just like, “Fuck it, let’s be homies and let’s play together from now on, let’s see what we can do.” And that’s what we did.
Ron Tnava Avant: Me, Jose, and Anderson all met on a gig and [Anderson] was playing drums. One day he was like, “Hey man, check out my music.” Shortly after that we started playing original music and playing around with sound and then Kelsey came into the picture. He came to a show was like, “Dude, yo...” Kelsey, go ahead, speak about it…
Kelsey Gonzales: I met them at Little Temple bar in LA. I had already met Jose through playing in churches. I met Ron through playing through some gigs and I saw them both at Temple that night. My friend Gabby took me to go see this dude that she’d been telling me about, named Breezy. She’d been friends with him for a while and had seen him play many times. When I got there I was like, “Oh, those are the homies.” Then I saw [Anderson] and I was like, “Whoa, this dude’s an incredible drummer and singer,” and right after the show I went up to them, and we’ve just been rocking together ever since.
Why did you choose to call yourselves The Free Nationals?
RA: We got that from our mentor/brother Shafiq Husayn from the group Sa-Ra. Free Nationals means the first people of America, indigenous to the land before Columbus came. We took that for our own interpretation to pay respect to the musicians that were before us. We are indigenous to the music.
Free Nationals means the first people of America, indigenous to the land before Columbus came.
KG: Indigenous to the funk. Ron wrote that down, it’s in his wallet.
Callum Connor: Shoutout to Shafiq Husayn one time. That’s interesting [Ron] said that because today with the new kids it’s like, you don’t have to listen to old stuff every day, but you should always respect who came before you. You don’t have to bump it, or know everything about it, but you should never say, “Fuck that person.” That sounds stupid.
KG: That’s like saying Bach was an idiot or, “Miles Davis, fuck that guy.”
CC: Just say you’re not really familiar with it and you don’t listen to it, that’s all you have to say. We listen to so much old school shit on the road it’s like in our veins.
RA: I love Lil Yachty.
You went from playing weddings to Coachella, opening up for Beyonce, and headlining your own world tour. At what particular moment did you realize you’d made it?
CC: For me, I think it was when we did the Jhené Aiko tour. That was kind of the first major tour we did. At least with me, when I joined. I just knew that shit was going to kind of go up from there, and it did.
RA: When I first met [Anderson] back in the day, I just knew this dude was dope. No one was doing nothing like this. I did a bunch of other gigs, you know, in between time but I’d always want to only play with Anderson. It was just a matter of time. I think the first time I knew it was going to take off was when we did this video with Knocksteady and that was the first time I’d seen him getting thousands and thousands of views [on YouTube]. I knew we were going to take off from there.
KG: I was kind of the same way. The second I’d seen this fool play I was like, “He’s about to be the best ever.”
RA: I remember Kelsey being like, “I’ve got to play with you guys.” He was coming off of playing with Miguel and I had just started my first big gig, playing with Snoop Dogg. But at the end of the day we definitely knew that we really wanted to be playing together.
JR: I thought Coachella was definitely that kind of moment. We packed out the Mojave Tent and we had every person in there jumping. We brought out this high caliber of musicians like Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar. I just thought that was huge. And it was in California of all places, like where we’re from, you know? So to me, that was everything.
You have a new album on the way. What can you tell me about that?
CC: We’ve got some pretty good features on it. There are going to a lot of the people that we fuck with regularly, obviously Anderson, we’ve got a lot of the people he’s close with. We got this song with Kali Uchis that I’m pretty stoked on. There should be a bunch more so... what do you guys think?
KG: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like the sky’s the limit. This dude Anderson can just call anyone right now and have them be on the album, you know? [Laughs] And the music is so good that anyone will do it.
I mean, it’s kind of like the sky’s the limit. This dude Anderson can just call anyone right now and have them be on the album, you know?
CC: They’re fuckin’ with the Free Nats right now. I think it’s a great time for us to be doing this. It’s a super fresh sound and we’re all stoked on it. I think everyone’s going to really dig it. It doesn’t really sound like anything else that’s going on but at the same time it sounds like us, you know?
KG: The music is better than most. [Laughs]
RA: We’re tuned into the funk.
You were touring non-stop last year. What are your travel essentials? What can you not leave home without?
RA: Gotta bring the fleshlight.
CC: Yeah Ron brings a fleshlight.
KG: He brings a couple. [Laughs]
CC: Mine’s definitely my laptop, my headphones, and other than clothes and shit, that’s all we’re going to need.
KG: Less is more.
CC: Less is more for sure. Everybody’s got their instruments and stuff so that goes without saying. The bus always has recording gear, maybe controllers, we’ve got interfaces, we’re always recording on the bus. Slippers too, and lots of socks.
KG: 2K, dominoes, soccer balls, wet suits, and some bud for sure.
JR: I need weed, maybe seven pairs of underwear—I don’t really need much. I’m ready to rock. As long as I got a guitar we’re good.
RA: Some peace of mind. A little bit of marijuana.
CC: We’re nice little church boys, we don’t do that.
You don’t partake in any...substances... before you play?
CC: Hell yeah. [Laughs]
KG: Yeah we can pretty much do anything.
CC: We’ve done shows on acid.
KG: Yeah, all of us. Mushrooms…
RA: Not before every show, but you know, here and there.
CC: Yeah like on Halloween or just, you know, a Thursday, you never know. I think we can handle pretty much anything.
KG: Jose was pretty much a zombie for SXSW. [Laughs]
CC: We only really have a problem if it’s really early and everyone’s hung over. That’s worse than just playing a festival on acid.
KG: We play so many shows that sometimes you just have to, you know, switch it up.
When you’re not touring and you have downtime, what are you doing?
KG: We hit the slopes, hit the waves. We went snowboarding the other day in Aspen, that was really tight.
CC: Yeah, we’re into a lot of board sports. Ron and [Anderson] don’t like it, but me, Kelsey, and Jose we like to get a little extreme.
RA: Too cold for me.
CC: I’m constantly working on music. That’s how I unwind, or playing video games sometimes. Just kicking back and enjoying the time off, making some beats, getting lunch, that’s pretty much it.
RA: I like finding local spots with live music. Like live entertainment. Getting to hear it while you’re traveling in all of these different countries... if I can find a jazz club somewhere, I’ll check out the jazz musicians or just musicians in general out of the country.
JR: I hang out with my daughter. I have a six year old daughter. I go to the beach, and I eat Korean and Mexican food a lot.
This was your first year being Grammy nominated. What did hearing that news mean to you?
CC: I almost cried I think. We went to a basketball game with our booking agent, and she told us that the next day they were going to announce who was nominated. I had no idea. I couldn’t sleep and I woke up at 6 a.m. and checked the site. I saw [Anderson] was nominated and I freaked out. It was a pretty surreal moment. I remember Kelsey woke up a little later and told me that there was another nomination. I was already stoked on one, and it ended up being two.
RA: It was like damn, it’s finally here. You know? I just felt like, we knew it was coming but it was just like, damn, this is it.
KG: It’s one of those things where you can just call your mom and she’s like proud of you forever now.
It’s one of those things where you can just call your mom and she’s like proud of you forever now.
JR: I almost fucking cried like a baby, basically. I was on the brink, especially when I talked to my mom because I could just hear the passion in her voice. When I told her the news it was like a sigh of relief. She basically said, “Thank you God.” She couldn’t believe it. It was really beautiful. It’s the highest form of musical recognition. That was important, to tell my mom that. Parents are so into diplomas and awards, that means something to them. So for me to say, “Hey, your son is Grammy nominated," it was like, "Holy shit."
What does this rapid ascent into stardom feel like?
KG: We’ve been working hard on this. We’re all like 30 or something.
CC: I’m 29, you can print that.
KG: We’ve been doing this, it’s not an accident or a fluke as we see it. We were ready for this.
CC: I think everyone knew this would happen. All we needed was that one little push over the edge or that look or just someone to notice. And once that happened it was pretty much a wrap, we knew that it was just going to go straight up. It wasn’t going to be like we have to beg or convince anyone we needed that look and it was going to be straight. It took a little bit to give but we got it.
RA: It doesn’t get any bigger than Dr. Dre.
CC: That doesn’t hurt either, when Dre fucks with you heavy.
JR: It’s very rare, absolutely. To be in it, it’s unreal. I just feel like I’m dreaming, I really do sometimes. I have to kind of pinch myself a little bit sometimes and be like, “Yo, dude, be in this fucking moment.”
I know Anderson taught himself how to drum. How did the rest of the Free Nats learn to play their instruments?
RA: YouTube [Laughs]. I started playing drums in church. Coming from where I come from—if you wanted to play an instrument you always started in church. That was the way. You played at church every Sunday for God, and I just got better and better. I played keys and went to a performing arts school and learned a lot of jazz music. Then I moved to L.A. right after high school and kept playing.
Coming from where I come from—if you wanted to play an instrument you always started in church.
CC: I never played in church or anything. I grew up playing music with friends and through school and middle school and high school, I’m pretty much self-taught.
KG: My brother taught me how to play guitar and then I would want to play in bands with him because he was older and so I would just try to get really good until I was good enough to play with him and his friends. Eventually in high school I did get to play with him in bands, and I learned all of the rock stuff, reggae, whatever kind of music we wanted to play.
When I started playing at church and I met Ron, Jose and everybody, my musicianship had to go up like extremely fast. I had to get really good very quickly. I was a non-black dude in an all black church. Church is better than any music school you could ever go to.
JR: I learned by ear. I had a friend that taught me, he helped me out, my homie Anthony Sanchez. He used to always just kind of break tones down to me. I spent a lot of time by myself and I had to really just be friends with my instrument. I sat there and I just learned. I was always trying to learn new songs or anything that would improve how my hands moved, everything. It was an obsession. I had some schooling, but mostly [I’m] an ear guy. I kind of wish I was classically trained but everyone lives their life differently.
How do you mentally prepare before all of these major shows and festivals?
KG: We pray a lot. Before shows Anderson’s the pastor and he shares some really cool shit about us and how he loves us and we crowd together and then we all yell something on three. It changes every time. Sometimes it’s making fun of someone, you never know what it’s going to be. We do that before every single show.
CC: Our prayer huddle.
RA: It’s like taking a minute to appreciate where we are, make sure we have a good show, and don’t mess up. [Laughs]
JR: Honestly, as long as it’s us five backstage before a show and we’re having a drink or eating some fucking trail mix or doing push ups, or whatever, it creates good energy for the show. We’re together in the room and there’s no fucking suits, or no groupies or no bullshit going on, it’s just us. We need that moment. We need that moment to just be together before we hit the stage.
What is the greatest thing that you guys have learned from working with one another?
KG: I haven’t learned shit!
CC: Yeah I haven’t learned anything. I got worse. I think I got stupider if anything. We got dumber. Just being around everyone is like huffing glue.
RA: I learned how to break shit on the road. Like throw stuff in dressing rooms.
CC: Nah we don’t do that… too much. But sometimes there’s glass Ron will get to.
KG: Fire extinguishers…you know. Playing with the same four guys for this amount of time…you learn everything about them. I remember someone asked me a while ago if we were like sick of each other and I thought about it and I never really think about that. It’s our job but I don’t ever feel like we have to be here. The point of us getting sick of each other passed a long, long time ago.
CC: Brotherhood is super important. You’ve got your brothers and that’s pretty much all that matters. You got your girl or whatever and you do different things with your girl obviously, hopefully, then your homies [Laughs]. It’s something that you can’t fake, you can’t buy, you can’t hire on the road, it’s just what it is. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of playing in a band with their friends. Brotherhood and family is the most important thing.
A lot of people don’t have the luxury of playing in a band with their friends. Brotherhood and family is the most important thing.
KG: We hang out all the time, even when we’re not on the road and shit. Our group chat is maybe 15% talking about work and the rest is just talking bullshit. I’ll leave my phone for like an hour and I’ll come back and there will be 147 texts that I’ve missed from the group chat.
CC: If you miss messages you got to make sure to laugh. You got to make sure to throw an ‘LOL’ in every now and then so we know you’re alive. Live, love, laugh.
JR: It’s about teamwork, you have to have a solid team. A band is like a marriage. You have to be understanding of everyone's feelings because you’re on the road all the time, you’re on the bus. I’ve learned to be more compassionate, more understanding, and an overall more worldly person. I’m a better musician now. I’m just a better all around guy basically because of them. I feel like James Bond. I just travel the world and drink martinis anywhere.