Natural Born Leaders earned national attention in 2018, thanks in large part to an innovative Tiny Desk submission. The band, however, is more than that five-minute segment on NPR. In many ways, the group symbolizes both the future of music and the culmination of the watershed changes in the streaming era.
by Donovan Wheeler
When I called Natural Born Leaders’ front-man Mike Martinez on a Monday, he was busy—tied down in the middle of his day job. By those daylight hours, Martinez is a mover in Asheville, N. C., working out of his truck. On the face of it, he may not seem like the emerging face of American music. Music, however, has gotten considerably more multi-dimensional since the collapse of the big studios and the rise of streaming powers. We would talk about that when we spoke the next day, but on this Monday, Mike had work to do. He apologized and turned his attention to the job at hand.
photos courtesy of Natural Born Leaders
What you don’t realize when you’re talking to Martinez is that this guy—the one busting his ass hauling furniture and appliances up narrow stairways—he and his band symbolize both the future of music and the culmination of the watershed changes in music in the streaming era.
Let’s start with that culmination. Some folks, such as Gen-Xer’s like myself, wasted hours combing the early iterations of Pandora and Spotify looking for the same, magnetized tracks once housed in those white plastic cassette tapes we carelessly left in the sun on top of our dashboards. Hopelessly programmed by the aisle labels at Disc Jockey, and later by the channel names on Sirius, when we signed up for the streamers, we assumed we could keep playing the genre game. We figured that the Hall and Oates channel would keep us stitched to the Little River Band on a normal day—maybe Carly Simon or John Mellencamp on a weird day.
Then we found all those bands we’d never heard of. Somewhere along that trip The Allman Brothers morphed into the Avett Brothers, who begat The Freddy Jones Band who then birthed The Alternate Routes. And one way or another Carbon Leaf leads to Bronze Radio Return, and that shoots us to Natural Born Leaders.
Who are these guys? How did we get here? What are we listening to? We knew some time ago that the “genres” and the “categories” stopped mattering, but we held onto them, anyway. That’s what creatures of habit do. But where other bands erode that habit over years using album after album to do it, Natural Born Leaders shattered everything with one song.
I missed the national hoopla when NBL’s breakout track “Abominable Creatures” aired on NPR’s Weekend Edition in the summer of 2018. Huge swaths of America heard it, however. Overnight, the band’s marquee power exploded, from sporadic gigs in the Carolina’s and parts of Tennessee to a series of nationwide tours.
That song, submitted as a video shot in a convenience store for the NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, lost to Naia Izumi’s “Soft Spoken.” Nonetheless, something about it caught Weekend host Scott Simon’s attention. Hit “play” and you’ll understand.
Standing by the coffee, Martinez grips his Danelectro, owning the frame while Kevin Murtha’s drum riff and James Eddington’s bass lines lay down and mellow funk vibe. A few bars in Rex Shaffer’s guitar layers a pop-rhythm-and-blues melody. When Martinez falls into his rap seconds later, the lyrics mesh fluently with the sound. But when Ben Survant’s saxophone fills the gap between the verse and the chorus, “Abominable Creatures” officially becomes something we’ve never heard before.
“That was the intention when we first started the band,” Martinez tells me. “We all listened to a very expansive variety of music growing up, and the idea was to use that as tastefully as possible. We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves by making our sound similar to anything that we had heard.”
“When we formed the band, we knew that we needed to figure out what our sound was,” Martinez continues. “That took some time, and we’re still going through trial and error. It’s a constant process, and there’s always room for improvement.”
“The musical creation process just happens,” Martinez adds. “It’s really important to us that it doesn’t start as a rap song, and then we add jazz, and then we add funk, or what have you. It all happens together which is helpful, because if one of us is listening to Modest Mouse and another person is listening to Matisyahu, then you want to make sure you can use that.”
As Martinez describes it the process happens musically at first. Natural Born Leaders is—as he firmly believes—a jam band, and as they work off each other the songs evolve from amoebic bits of lines and snippets of melody into fully formed tracks.
“It’s kind of interesting when I’m not there and the band is laying down some music,” Martinez says. “I’ll put on my headphones and listen to what they’ve got and I’ll think, ‘What does this make me feel?’”
While every member of the group plays a critical role in producing the sound, it’s Martinez who writes the lyrics which accompany them.
“My mind could be on politics, or it could be on how much I love my dog,” he says. “There are times where a song will come together in five minutes. The important thing is that I try to use my personal story and experiences as a way to tell a larger story…to show the big picture.”
Martinez grew up in New Jersey, a world of difference from a place like Asheville. He doesn’t hesitate to say that moving to the Carolina’s was “one of the best decisions” he’s ever made, nor does he deny that everything fell into place once he settled into life in the mountains. When he does happen to make his way back north…that’s when the full depth of the transformation hits him.
“It makes me anxious. [New Jersey] is a lot of hustle and bustle, and I’m not used to it anymore,” he says. “There’s a lot going on, and you don’t want to overstimulate yourself…and New Jersey has the potential to do that. For the first couple days I’m like, ‘Oh, man…why is everybody so mean?’ I eventually snap back into it. I pick up that [northern] persona, because it’s ingrained in me. But it is weird.”
Like thousands of bands across the country, Natural Born Leaders planned to grow their influence. And also like those thousands, NBL’s fan base started close to home. Despite the national exposure, it’s the folks in Asheville who provide the group with what Martinez calls their “biggest following.”
“We’ve been really blessed to belong to a wide network of musicians,” he says. “The music scene here still has that sort of small-town heart to it. Most people know you, here, and we always try to go out and support other bands. We’ve been very lucky, because—honestly—the people who would allow us to do this professionally, are the people who are in Asheville.”
The band had always planned on extending their touring schedule farther away from home, but as Martinez explains it, the NPR exposure accelerated the plan, and in the roughly 15 months since that fateful Saturday morning on the radio the band has toured to one coast and then the other, hitting over 20 states in the process.
When that national attention reached my ears, when I finally heard NBL for the first time, I realized that I was listening to exactly the kind of track a guy like me needed to hear. “Abominable Creatures” tore down the remaining shreds of an antiquated idea and put out the last flames of that stubborn genre-fire in my head. Natural Born Leaders doesn’t make funk music or rap music or jazz music or blues music. They make good music. They make everything, all at once.
It sounds perfect, as if it were meant to be woven together, and maybe that’s the most important lesson we can take from what this band is doing. Division, identification, and distinction are things of the past–musically, politically, and everywhere in between. We’re watching their death throes right now, and it’s an ugly sight to see. But what follows is going to be beautiful. Music is music, and people are people. No matter how different any of that may appear on the outside, this universal truth remains. It’s a truth boldly told just past the chips and candy bars, next to the coffee maker, in the back corner of a convenience store.