Life On The Road / 24 November 2020

Free Nationals’ Jose Rios talks Fortnite, Anderson .Paak and the future of funk

Jose Rios Free Nationals with his MONO Stealth Guitar Case

Hailing from sunny San Diego, Jose Rios has been involved in the Cali music scene for a better part of 15 years now.

In fact, the Grammy-winning producer and guitarist has been part of the Free Nationals since its inception back in the late 2000s and was even present when Anderson .Paak was still going by the moniker Breezy Lovejoy.

We catch up with Jose after his band had the honor of performing on a very unusual stage through Epic Games. Read on to hear his thoughts on livestreams, starting out with Anderson .Paak and the future of funk.

How has the pandemic affected you as a musician?

It’s been trying times for sure. I’ve had to reconfigure the way I approach my place in the industry. Basically, live shows are non-existent so I’m a studio musician right now. That’s basically my life now.

Is that just for your current projects (Anderson .Paak, Free Nationals) or for others as well?

Now that I’m home, I’m able to work on other people’s stuff. I’ve been linking with producers, writers, artists and just vibing out and creating so yeah, it’s been cool – it’s different.

And of course, working on our stuff too. 

Would you say that before the pandemic, you didn’t have this kind of time to link up with producers for other projects?

Yeah for sure, I didn’t have time for anybody but my group and that was it. That’s all I cared about man.

How has the response been from other producers and new collaborators?

I think they’re just surprised that we’re still available. It’s because we’re here and there’s nothing else to do. But they’re down – everyone’s down. I’ve been hitting up everyone and everyone’s like yeah, let’s get in, let’s get in. 

Anderson .Paak & Free Nationals performed Saturday’s Spotlight for Fortnite recently. What was the experience like? Are you much of a gamer?

I’m not much of a gamer. I like some sports games and stuff, but I’m not a heavy gamer or anything like that. 

[The Fortnite show] was cool. I guess to me it looked like the future of streaming – being in video games and stuff. I could see the future being something like that and becoming a new norm.

Live on stage with a full Orange Amps stack.

Was performing on the Fortnite live stream a very different experience for you?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, we finish songs and there’s no applause or anything – there’s no people.

It was definitely different, but the energy that we played with was definitely our full-blown “us just going in” which was cool. It was cool to feel that [again], but I still miss the human aspect of playing to a crowd.

Are you the kind of player that feeds off the audience’s energy?

Without a doubt. It makes you play better. You try your best to play as best as you can every time, but when there’s people there, it’s like the pressure’s on so you gotta give it a little more, you know? You’ve got to dig a little deeper.

What was your setup like for the Fortnite show? 

I had an Orange Rockerverb MKIII, a 4×12 cabinet and a Fender American Professional Stratocaster.

I also had a PRS Custom 24 as a backup in Drop D and some pedals. I play stuff from Jam Pedals, to EarthQuaker Devices, MXR and BOSS.

Jose still tours with his own pedalboard setup.

Do you think these streaming gigs are going to become a norm?

Twitch seems to be taking over the world – it’s gonna be big. [Streaming’s] definitely going to be a thing for sure.

I think it’ll still stick around even when shows come back. People will still do them – probably in between [shows]. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be less touring now because of this. It’s definitely going to be a big part of the future of music. 

Jose Rios also played a stripped down Free Nationals performance with bandmate Ron “T.Nava” Avant recently for Guitar.com Live

What is one thing non-musicians and fans may not realize about being a musician that can’t tour?

I think some people don’t understand that touring and playing shows for a lot of musicians are the “work” parts of music. 

If you wanted to call this a job at all, I think touring would be considered the “job” part of it because there’s a lot of work involved in preparing for each show. Some people don’t understand that we’ve lost our work too just like everybody else. The live touring is that [work] for us and we need it.

We need it not only for work, but also for the energy that it gives us and how it inspires us to keep performing and writing.

On the way to the Java Jazz Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia earlier this year.

What is your approach to guitar and songwriting?

Any time I pick up the guitar, it’s coming from a place of love first and foremost.

I definitely want to be myself, but at the same time, I try to draw from past influences too. It’s a mix of trying to be myself in the moment and also incorporating the greats that I listen to and that I appreciate because I know that what they played sounds right to the ear and that’s a good starting point.

I’ll use some digital plugins, but sometimes I gotta just plug the amp in with the pedal and just do it.

Jose Rios on analog vs. digital gear

What are some important skills to have as a musician, especially in the type of music you play?

In a band setting, the most important thing would be a balance of chords and scales because you want to be able to play chords when you have to and then solo when you have to and be able to transition between the two.

Another important thing is knowing your place in the sound because everyone’s got their  frequency and their space in the group so you got to be able to put your sound somewhere in that mix properly.

I think it’s just knowing where to play where not to play, when to go clean, when to go dirty. Being aware of the other musicians around you is one of the things you’ve got to be 100% clear about.

Jose Rios with the Stealth Electric Guitar Case

You’ve mentioned your preference for analog and old school gear. Has there been any changes to this approach for music making and recording since?

I use some plugins and stuff here and there, you know. I’m balancing both because I know there’s some really good [digital] stuff coming out and they sound almost identical to the original analog pieces themselves.

So right now, I’ll use some digital plugins, but sometimes I gotta just plug the amp in with the pedal and just do it.

“Yo, this is what we got to do to make it man. Let’s get it.”

And then we all just fell in line. 

Jose Rios on Anderson .Paak leading the Free Nationals

The members of the Free Nationals used to play covers and perform in venues like churches. How has your mindset changed as a musician since and what would you attribute your success to?

It was just us getting older. We were young in the early 2000s and we matured. We realized that we had to make a living doing this. Yes, it was fun and of course, like I said, we do it for the love, but there came a point where it’s like, oh shit, we got kids, we got bills, we got rent. We got to put up or shut up, basically. It was getting down to business and turning it up. 

I mean, the talent, the drive and the energy was there, but it was about getting it harnessed properly and moving accordingly. And Anderson – he would be what I call the coach. He was leading the team to victory. We all played our parts and we’re still going, but it took that maturity – just growing up and realizing that you can’t be a kid your whole life. 

How did Anderson coach the band?

He had a moment in his life where he decided that he wasn’t going to party, he wasn’t gonna engage in any of the stuff that we were engaging in. He buckled down and went hard for a couple years and that took him over the top.

We were still working and doing stuff, but the rest of us were still kind of wilin’ out. It took leadership and discipline for Anderson to say “Hey, I’m gonna go hard for this. I’m always gonna be in the studio, you’re not gonna see me anywhere else but here.” This was early on back in our early 20s and it inspired us all to get it together.

That’s why I consider him the coach because he got it together and started coaching us like “Yo, this is what we got to do to make it man – let’s get it.” and then we all just fell in line. 

The Free Nationals have played a big part in bringing funk back to the masses. Where do you see the genre going?

It’s headed in a good direction for sure. I’m hearing a lot of great artists coming out – young people that appreciate the greats like George Clinton and they understand the importance of that. I see it evolving too – I hear sounds coming back and people trying to imitate older sounds, but they take it and make it their own. I always appreciate that.

You’re gonna hear some sounds you might have heard before, but with a new spin, in a new way. The production is going to be clearer and it’s just going to be different because of all the technology we have now – but the ideas and the concepts are still going to be there.

Does that excite you?

Yeah man, because I’m hoping I’ll still be a part of it. I know we are now with what we do, but like you said, the future is coming and it’s gonna come fast. So yeah, I’m excited for it – it’s gonna be cool. 

Watch the Fortnite | Anderson Paak & The Free Nationals Concert (Spotlight Series) here:

Check out all our other artist features here.


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