An Interview With Asheville’s Funk Fusion Rockers, Natural Born Leaders

Editor’s Note: Originally published in February 2019

The Natural Born Leaders are a band on the rise with an array of captivatingly unique blends of sound, and they’re ready to show the world they’ve got something new to bring to the musicians’ table.

Based out of Asheville, North Carolina, the Natural Born Leaders are an indie-rock, funk, and hip-hop band with a wide array of stylistic elements ranging from jazz, metal and everything in between. Their lyrics poetically address issues of politics, love, equality, and time.

They released their first EP “About Time” in 2018 and are currently recording their second EP, which is set to release in spring of 2019. They’ve recently gained exposure to a larger audience due to their standout Tiny Desk Contest Entry last year in which they nonchalantly set up shop in the corner of a convenience store and let ‘er rip. Much like their music, this was a unique take on the contest entry which caught the attention of those at NPR. While they did not win the contest, they did find themselves featured on the outlet’s weekend edition with Scott Simon.

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Here at Music Mecca, we had the pleasure to ask the guys some questions about what makes them tick, and what the future of Natural Born Leaders has in store.

Music Mecca: For those who don’t know, Natural Born Leaders has a very unique sound with blends of funk, reggae, hip-hop, and rock. Who would you say are three primary influences to your sound, and how would you say they’ve affected your musical path?

Natural Born Leaders: A lot of our uniqueness comes from each of us individually having at least three artists that affect the ways in which we approach our music. But as our bassist James, our sax player Ben, and our lead guitarist Rex pointed out, nobody is going to care about the 15 different artists that we individually hold dear to our hearts. So to settle on just a few, I’d have to say our rhythm section is heavily influenced by Black Sabbath’s heavy and melodic riff based music. We are also greatly influenced by the songwriting prowess of the Beatles, and the ways in which their songs seamlessly transition in and out of each other at times. I’d like to believe my lyrics are influenced by artists like Kurt Cobain, Lauryn Hill, and Biggie Smalls especially. Mostly in the way they all found ways to talk about real life shit while also finding new ways to change the game of lyrical poetry for the artists of their time, and for generations to come.

MM: Asheville is a beautiful and progressive city, and a haven for art and music. But is there a particular reason you’ve stayed there during this time as a band on the rise as opposed to moving somewhere more musically mainstream like Nashville, LA, or New York?

NBL: While Asheville isn’t on the map as one of America’s great music cities yet, it’s well on its way! Great acts are coming out of the woodwork daily here. We are choosing to stay here now because as a nationally touring act, we find it apparent these days that we are in a relatively central location with easy access to many of the roadways that lead to all of the major music cities across the country. Also, I (Mike Martinez) tried to convince everyone to move to LA two years ago when we started this band to no avail. Some of us were in school, and a couple of us own houses so it would have proven to be difficult financially, and would still be difficult today. Ultimately the process would take away from the time we have to create and make moves as a band. It’s rough out here for a bunch of starving artists.

MM: So who had the idea for the NPR Tiny Desk Contest video to be in a convenience store? How did that transpire?

NBL: The convenience store where we shot our Tiny Desk Contest video is frequented by Rex and I. We’re in there at least five times a week picking up essentials. I happened to be in there one day while we were in talks about where to shoot our video. The owner (Nick), store manager (Zach), and I got caught up in a long conversation about our music when I got the idea to shoot our video there. I really love the vibe and the people there as much as a second family. Thankfully Zach is a fan and he graciously convinced Nick to let us shoot our video there. It was all happenstance. We’re very happy with the way it all worked out in the end though!

MM: In 2018 you released the politically motivated single “Return of Jafar” from your first EP “About Time.” What was the inspiration behind the lyrics and music video?

NBL: At the time that the guys were coming up with the instrumental portion of the song, it was the day the water protectors at Standing Rock were getting hosed and shot at with rubber bullets by military and law enforcement, bringing me mental images from the videos you see during the Sixties of black activists and protesters being sprayed with hoses in Alabama, being beaten, and shot at. I went home that night and the guys sent me the instrumentals, and I blasted it in my writing room alone while watching many of the brutal scenes you see included in the music video from the racist cartoons, to the activists being beaten bloody, to the full on military presence in the streets of riot towns across Black America. Needless to say, it put me in a deep dark place in which the lyrics to “Jafar” were spawned. The video, which was produced by our sax player and myself, also came from that place. Ben and I spent a couple weeks gathering and editing clips (Professor T audio helped with editing) meant to display the many systems of “isms” in which we have been exposed to since the dawn of media that keep old time systems of oppression alive and strong in our popular culture in ways we still have yet to completely address. History repeats itself.

MM: You guys are in the process of recording your second EP, which is set to release this spring. How is the process and sound different from previous NBL music?
NBL: Our sound has been ever evolving with no two songs sounding the same, all while trying to keep our mark of authenticity. This next record will show a little more of our softer side, addressing new topics such as love and the ugly self-defeating depression that I’ve felt for most of my life, while also still maintaining and addressing my disdain for the systems of oppression that have always had a grasp on every single one of our lives. We took a step forward in tracking a good majority of our record at the same time in different rooms as to capture the essence of our live performance in this record. Our first record, we all tracked our parts at different times in a much smaller studio. Not to mention, this time we recorded in the esteemed Echo Mountain Recording Studios, where many great acts have also walked the halls and sat in the booths, working on their albums.

 Are there any extracurricular activities that the band takes part in that aide in the songwriting process? (meditating, traveling, snorkeling, etc.)

NBL: We all have our different ways of “freeing our minds.” James practices some form of martial arts, while Ben spends his free time walking through the woods with his dogs. Kevin spends his time doing yoga. Rex spends his time with an unplugged electric guitar strapped to his body all day, and Mike spends his time indulging in film, reading, or going out to see other artists excel in their craft.

MM: Does the band have a tour planned after the spring release? If so, do you have any places you’re looking forward to playing most?

NBL: The idea is to do our first coast to coast tour this summer after our second EP is released. We are most excited to hit some new cities during this time period. Cities like Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, Nashville, and Boulder are at the top of that list, but in the grand scheme, we’re just excited to get out and do what we love anywhere that isn’t our practice space.

MM: Who are your top three new artists going into 2019?

NBL: We’re going in to 2019 really digging in on new artists such as Rainbow Kitten Surprise (also NC natives), Ryan Montbleau, and Abhi the Nomad.

Be sure to keep a lookout for Natural Born Leaders’ new EP set for release this spring, and learn more about them on their website HERE.

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