The Sweet Sound of Prog Hop: Natural Born Leaders Release New Video (and an Interview!)

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The Sweet Sound of Prog Hop: Natural Born Leaders Release New Video (and an Interview!)

Natural Born Leaders. Credit: Grace Barron-Martinez

Natural Born Leaders. L to R: James Eddington, Kevin Murtha, Mike Martinez, Rex Shaffer, Ben Survant. Photo: Grace Barron-Martinez

Gumbo funk, prog hop, hip hop...whatever you call them, two things are clear: five-member outfit Natural Born Leaders will defy your expectations, and they're here to stay. Since forming a little over a year ago, the group has evolved from two, then three, people, to a full-fledged ensemble that celebrates each member's many, and varied, musical roots. Currently, the group is comprised of Mike Martinez (guitar, vocals), James Eddington (bass, vocals), Ben Survant (saxophone), Kevin Murtha (drums), and Rex Shaffer (guitar).

They're hard at work right now on a new EP, and they just dropped a video for their song, "Time Flies By," which they recorded at Isis Music Hall. We are thrilled to premiere this video on Grit, along with an interview with three of the five members: Mike, Rex, and Kevin. We were joined in the interview by Patrick Doyle, whose private (non-commercial) recording studio is located in the Oakley Roots + Wings School of Art and Design, and Brooklyn musician Ryan-O’Neil, who is visiting the guys for a month. This one gets a little raucous, y'all. I can guarantee that it's good reading.

First, "Time Flies By." The high-energy track, shot and edited by Christopher Frequency (of Professor T Productions) showcases the talent and variety of their music making. The song opens with Mike rapping over the full band, which then shifts into a deeper, soulful crooning that is reminiscent of both Tom Waits and Louis Armstrong before breaking into an instrumental interlude that is equally joyful and takes no prisoners as Rex shreds on an electric guitar solo. As things descend into a gleeful but controlled madness, it's easy to see just how much fun these guys have playing together (it's a lot). 

I talked with NBL (and friends) about the origin of the group, where they find inspiration, tequila as a muse, and "the band bath."

What are you working on right now?

Patrick Doyle: We're doing four songs together this summer for an EP, and we're 60% done. We’ve done drums and bass. 

Tell me a little bit about how you guys got started.

Mike Martinez: I’m from New Jersey. I've been here for nine years. My uncle opened Cornerstone Physical Therapy, a clinic here, and I came down. I was learning to play guitar and thought maybe I should go to school for it. I never did that but I started group with James [Eddington] and Ben [Survant].

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Kevin Murtha: I'm also from New Jersey, but I met Mike here. He's from North Jersey, and I'm from Central Jersey.

Rex Shaffer: Central Jersey! (laughs)

Kevin: It’s only a thing if you’re from there. Anyone from North or South Jersey says, “You must pick a side." But I’m from the middle! I came here about a year and a half ago and saw Mike playing at the BLOCK off Biltmore, and killing it on the acoustic, serenading with his sweet sultry vocals. I was like, “I need to make some music with this man.” 

Mike: I was playing music for a while with James, the bass player. 

Kevin: Mike and James were the founding members, and the project had a different name and style. Mike’s singer-songwriter stuff plus James on bass. Then I joined, we got a few gigs under our belt and added Rex to the project most recently. He's a kickass guitar player and rifferee.

Rex: My origin story started started when I was born at the age of 0.

That’s such a unique origin story.

Rex: I like to think it speaks to my character. I grew up in Charlotte, and moved here about five years ago, right out of high school. I was hanging out, going to school, playing music. I played with a few bands and around the same time when the most recent split up, I saw Mike and James playing and killing it and became a fan. Through some clever manipulation and begging they allowed me to play with them after we became friends.

When did NBL become a distinct project?

Mike: NBL started in March of last year. We were also playing with Austin Haynes then. We played our first show not that long ago from now, a month ago.

Really? A month ago?

Kevin: A month and a year!

Mike: Haha, yeah, a month and a year ago. Yeah, we started a month ago. (laughs) Maybe. My concept of time is fucking awful.

Kevin: My first show with NBL was at the Odditorium sometime in the middle of last summer, so about a year ago for me personally. Then we played Goombay in August, we played LEAF, and then Rex joined...

Mike: Right before our Isis show in December. We’ve been here in this final incarnation for about three months. It’s July, right?

What made you decide to grow the band from the two original members?

Mike: The idea was always to have a band. I was never a huge fan of going solo. I’m a fan of all these guys and I wanted to play with people that James and I were fans of. We are definitely like a family now, it’s pretty cool.

Rex: It adds a different dynamic. It wasn’t like we answered ads or were strangers, we had pre-existing relationships. I was a fan before I was in the band. I went to see them, I listened online.

Mike: And you jammed with us.

Kevin: This is my first hip-hop band, and I've been in metal bands before, loud aggressive stuff. So I have to chill it back, I try to groove a little more. When we jammed with Rex the first time—he’s nice and crunchy and funky—that  allowed me to bring that part of me out, and I wanted to play more music with him.

Mike: Now we’re trying to write au naturale, and just let things come.Photo: Grace Barron-Martinez

So what does that look like? Does one person bring in an idea, or do you collaborate as you write?

Kevin: Kinda both.

Mike: It depends on the song. Sometimes we'll have an acoustic or electric riff, and I’ll start writing to it. But it doesn’t necessarily happen any one way. We’re all pretty open to allowing the creative process to happen as is.

Kevin: We record almost all of the time, on a phone or something, to save the ideas. And the ones that really strike our attention we put some lyrics on.

Mike: And we enjoy tequila too. (laughs)

Does tequila help that process?

Kevin: I think our best song came out of a tequila night.

What song?

Mike: The song you guys are premiering, “Time Flies By.”

What kind of tequila?

Kevin: Probably Espolòn. Brought to you by Espolòn Gold!

Mike: It was my birthday.

Kevin: I was on a weird diet, and not putting anything in my system, including alcohol. I hadn’t been in the band long, and it’s nice to drink with people and get kinda loose and see what happens. It was the first time we did that, and it was super conducive to the writing process.

Mike: And it was my birthday, asshole. It was a celebration. (laughs) The bottle was my birthday gift that we all drank the shit out of.

Rex: The song was in the bottle. We had to get to the bottom of it. Mike got the bottle in his hands and looked at me and said, “There’s a song in here. I just know it, and I’m not going to stop drinking until I get it out.”

I’m just kidding. I wasn’t even there. (laughs)

Why is that song one of your favorites?

Mike: It's the most like us, honestly. It's the first song we all wrote together. Honestly it’s rare that we all write a song together, in the same space.

Kevin: And for that reason, it’s such a complete idea across the board. Everything plays an equally important role. You can run the risk of something becoming a focal point if one person leads the process, but with that song it’s all an important part of the whole.

Mike: And that song, when we played it first, it was like 20 minutes long. And when we listened back we were like, "Man, this is good, but how the fuck are we going to do that again? I don't think we replicated what it sounded like originally.

Kevin: There are some hidden tastinesses in there that have never been brought to the surface. But we did a pretty good job I think.

Patrick: I would add that that song, in a lot of ways  might have been Rosetta Stone for your sound as a band. A lot of bands struggle to find a sound, and the thing that maybe attracted me to you guys was that you had a strong sound for being together a short time. If you listen to that song, it’s like a Venn Diagram of parts you’re all bringing together. That was helpful for me.

Kevin: It’s been great working with Patrick. Patrick Doyle with James Eddington. Source: Facebook

Mike: He’s good at reigning us in. It’s hard to get five people on the same page all the time.

When you come together to collaborate, do you have practices that help you work?

Mike: We’re friends. We can still get pissed off at each other; that’s part of the process. But we’re all really open to each other.

Rex: It's more of a family dynamic than a friend dynamic. There’s a lot of fighting but like siblings fight. Actually, there's not a lot of fighting.

Kevin: Just the occasional wet willy. Some wedgies.

Rex: Any sort of spat is resolved quickly, with no ill feelings.

Mike: Everything gets talked out. Especially with tequila. (laughs)

I want to talk about the idea of the hip-hop band. When people think of hip hop they don't necessarily think of full band. There are several I know of, like the Difference Machine in Atlanta, but what are you bringing to that scene, and to hip hop in Asheville?

Mike: I would say it’s definitely hip hop, but it’s also much more than hip hop, and as far as the scene, I think we all work together. We play tons of shows with all of the hip-hop artists here. Well, not all of them, but with our good friends...

Rex: Every. Single. One of them.

Mike: Yeah not all of them, but it’s more of a sharing dynamic with in the hip-hop scene. We’ll play shows and learn their songs. And it’s rough in Asheville as a hip-hop group, because most people are like, "How are you playing at Isis? Because Isis doesn't really bring in hip-hop acts. People are like, "How’d you get that show there?" And most venues aren’t really open to hip hop, but through this new generation in Asheville, I think more venues are becoming increasingly aware of hip hop and allowing more of it in, where in the past ten years there wasn't much of that. I didn’t know there was hip-hop scene here until about three years ago.

How has the scene changed in past couple of years?

Mike: I think you you can see more bands here now.

Rex: More young people are moving here.

Mike: When I first moved here, I feel like there was bluegrass at every bar and music venue. That's not the case anymore. I think music is changing overall.

Rex: In the past few years, hip hop has become much more respected. And it’s becoming the genre through which a lot of new and interesting things are happening, with artists like Kendrick Lamar.

Why has this shifted?

Mike: It's been around a long time.

Rex: It's the same as with rock and roll. As it became the most popular genre, people used to express more artsy things. And hip hop has become the most dominant genre.

Mike: That and country.

Rex: That’s where the really cool new ideas are popping up.

Kevin: I feel like hip hop is a term we can use to describe ourselves, because it becomes necessary to describe yourself in terms of these terms. But that doens’t limit what we’re doing. The goal is just to make music. We don’t set out to make this really dank hip-hop track. We're just making music. It certainly doesn’t limit us, and I understand why label gets put on us.

Mike: Gumbo funk. That one was coined by Spaceman Jones. I’ll throw that in there. I like "Soul Punk Gumbo Funk."

Kevin: That’s got such a ring to it, but we’re not a punk band. (laughs)

Mike: Prog hop is another one.

Kevin: I like that!Photo: Grace Barron-Martinez

We may have a winner. When you talk about the new generation, who in Asheville is specifically in that generation? Who's breaking those boundaries? 

Mike: Spaceman Jones, SIYAH, all those guys. The Ones, Sebastian [Campaign] and Lady Laine.

Kevin: I like what they’re doing; she sings really well.

Mike: Juan Holladay is a part of that too. There are so many people to name honestly. The list goes on.

Kevin: It's like new versus old hip hop. If you were a hip-hop artist in the past that was all you did. Nowadays you can flavor things. It doesn’t restrict you.

You guys play in the community a lot. You recently played at the Green Opportunities Soul Shakedown. How else are you involved in the community?

Mike: I work with DeWayne Barton, with Hood Huggers. I do a lot of tours. Or with LEAF. They did this thing recently where they brought music to kids on Juneteenth, which commemorates the day that the news that slaves were freed reached the southernmost point in Texas. I like to do community outreach with children or with bringing awareness to the African-American community.​ I like to bring awareness to the kids so they understand this is something to celebrate. This is where we are, and there's still a lot of work to do. I definitely think that's a value we would share as well.

What do you love about being in Asheville?

Kevin: It's a cool community. It's the strongest music scene I’ve ever been a part of.

Mike: There's so much talent everywhere.

Kevin: And the focus seems to be enjoying it, not commercializing it.

How is the EP going now?

Mike: Really well.

Patrick: We've been working on it about six weeks.

Mike: There's no release date yet. We're trying to spend time making the best thing we can possibly make.

Kevin: The recording process has been effortless. We're not hung up on the little details. 

Patrick: They went through all of their material and and found out where they naturally wanted to go. A lot of production is coming up with a gameplan and trying to enact it. That's what we’re trying to do, and I'm at a point where I can tell if something’s not working, and so far it’s all been working. Kevin nailed the drums in a day—

Kevin: In the a.m. hours right before my shift at Del Vecchios

Dude that food is good.

Kevin: That pizza is dank! Shout out Del Vecchios!

Mike: That food is so good.

Kevin: For real though.

Mike: But yeah, the EP sounds different. It sounds cool. I like it. 

Rex: I feel like we’re all on the same page, but performing live and recording in a studio are two entirely different experiences.

Mike: And until this point we’ve been a live band.

Rex: So they're very different than we played them in the past.

Mike: Hopefully in a good way! I think they’re cool. I enjoy making music that I like listening to. I was in a couple of bands that sounded good, but it wasn’t how I felt. And this is how I feel. And the songs are kinda aggressive, and I get to express that. I’m like a teddy bear until I’m pissed, then I’m a real bear (laughs).

Rex: The focus now is just to have the best, most well done collection of songs we could make at this point. Everything else will come. Then we’ll come up with a release date and a name for the EP.

Mike: It’s been cool playing for just a year. We love what we’ve gotten from the community here, from other musicians. We love seeing people we haven’t seen before and hearing people singing our songs.

Rex: A lot of people show up at Mike’s house.

Mike: Haha, yeah, people just show up at my house. We were chilling with a dude this morning, listening to music. He was freestyling.Photo: Grace Barron-Martinez

You guys entered the Tiny Desk Concert and made a video, right? How did that go?

Kevin: We didn’t win, but it’s up there on YouTube. It's one of most watched YouTube videos. People really like it. It was a lot of fun to shoot. It's cool just having a concept. It's about more than us just playing. It's visually appealing, it's out of our element. I had like two drums. We had to fit in a little kitchen.

Mike: We like taking ourselves out of our element. We’re not opposed to anything. We’ll play a house party. Whatever comes our way.

What's your favorite venue in town?

Kevin: I like Isis a lot.

Mike: I really enjoy playing at the Orange Peel. The sound there is just fucking incredible. 

Besides tequila, is there a story behind "Time Flies By?" Any other inspiration?

Mike: We’re talking about time. Time flies by. That's the constant theme of the song, this idea of time. And after the fact I realized that time is huge in music.

Rex: When did time start? Is it real?

Mike: Are we real? Is this an illusion? (laughs) I'm awful with time. Today’s the earliest I’ve ever been to anything. I was ten minutes early.

Rex: We said we were all gonna be thirty minutes early.

Mike: I was late to that, but I was on time for the interview! (laughs) I guess that’s probably the only reason I was on time!

What's inspiring you right now?

Kevin: I’ve been listening to a band, Scale the Summit, the Migration album. I can’t get my brain off it. It's progressive, riff-based. I've been jamming with James and listening to a bunch of Opeth. It has nothing to do with hip hop.

Patrick: I like all of the music for the Fargo tv show. I'm blown away by that. I can’t get enough of it, what that guy’s [Jeff Russo] doing. There are a lot of pieces that are just drums, pounding drums. It's terrific. 

Mike: So many fucking things. I really enjoy watching Donald Trump. It’s like a comedy show. Ii know it’s a very serious thing, but I’m giving less and less shits, which is funny because a lot of our music is very political. But he is just such a jerk.

Plus that new show on HBO, Silicon Valley. And The Defiant Ones. And Jeff Knorr, the past week I've been listening to a lot of Secret B-Sides records and stuff like that. And hip hop and indie rock always.

So Trump doesn’t take you to a dark depressing place?

Mike: What’s the point? I was in a very dark place for a minute and was like, WTF? At this point we got what we deserve. History repeats itself if we want to do it that way. We have no one but ourselves to blame for not trying harder. I don’t necessarily believe in failure...

But before I get into that dark, dark place (laughs), that shit’s a comedy show and I’d rather watch the real one. There's new tv show on Comedy Central that is a parody of President Trump, but why would you watch a parody? The real thing is happening.

Rex: The real thing is way better.

Mike: Usually people are worried about what the rest of the world thinks. I think the rest of the world thinks like we think and doesn’t blame us. I was in Mexico recently, and they were like, "Wow, how about Trump?"

Rex: One thing I try to do is listen to a new artist or album every day. I keep a list on my phone of every recommendation ever given to me. It helps to relieve the stagnation of everyday life, it's something new every day since I can’t travel every day. It’s a way to keep things fresh and give me new musical ideas. I'll buy some metal or jazz albums and not stick to anything in particular.

Do you have other daily practices you use to keep things fresh or stay calm?

Rex: The band bath is important.

What is the band bath!?? Where you guys take a bath together?

Rex: Every three months we get in the tub together and just air our grievances. We wipe each other clean and wipe the slate clean.

Is this for real?

Mike: No! (all laugh}

I didn’t think it was, but he's so serious!

Rex: It’s good to be like, “It upset me when you shot down my song idea” as I’m washing you.

So actually no baths, even as metaphors.

Mike: We do cleanse ourselves.

Rex: We do bathe independently.

Mike: And we do stare into each other’s eyes often.

Rex: My energy is open.Eye-gazing. Photo: Grace Barron-Martinez

What do you want to tell your fans and readers?

Mike: Stay tuned, we’ve got good things coming!

Ryan-O'Neil: And I just want to say that I’ve been to Asheville three times, and each time I've come I've seen a shift. I know James from college. I met Mike three years ago, when you and James were just starting to play together, there wasn't a band yet. And the next summer Kevin wasn’t in band. And this year I came back, and each time I come it’s leaps and bounds every time. Next year I might not even be cool enough to hang out with them (laughs). Every 365 days, there’s a big leap for NBL.