Natural Born Leaders play a record release show at The Mothlight

FREAK FLAG FLYERS: From their synthesis of hip-hop, rock, soul and other styles, to their radical political beliefs, Natural Born Leaders are proud to defy expectations. “We’re all a bunch of weird-ass dudes, and our music displays that," says lead singer and songwriter Mike Martinez, second from left. "We wear our weirdness on our sleeves.” Photo by Michael-Jamar Jean Francois

To EP or LP? That is the question facing many young bands as they get their music out into the world during their formative years.

For Asheville-based neo-soul/hip-hop quintet Natural Born Leaders, who formed in 2016, the decision to keep their new collection, Abominable Creatures, to six songs came down to the desire to put out professional-grade material on a budget — hopefully exceeding expectations in the process.

“We want people to be able to put it in the mix with all of the other tunes they’re listening to, from artists who are spending thousands of dollars on their songs, and also be able to stand out,” says lead singer and songwriter Mike Martinez. “We want to put out quality, always.”

Those goals are very much met on Abominable Creatures, which receives a local album release show on Saturday, Nov. 2, at The Mothlight. After months of preparation and practice to, in Martinez’s words, “make sure that we could go in [to Echo Mountain Recording] and just lay everything down as solid as possible,” the band did just that in one day with producer Patrick Doyle. The foundation in place, the collaborators reconvened at Doyle’s Oakley studio for various touchups, but the vast majority of the EP derives from that single session.

“Patrick introduces order to our chaos. He’s been a fantastic mentor to us, too, just in the industry in general, and a great resource,” Martinez says. “He’s told us his goal is to put a glossing over us — to influence us to bring out our better sides.”

Doyle’s approach consisted of identifying aspects about the song at hand that he liked, then letting Natural Born Leaders incorporate those compliments as their members saw fit. While Martinez appreciates that style, he’s also thankful for notes that helped curb the band’s “tendency to go a little long” and “be a little grittier than we need to” when it may not be necessary, such as encouraging him to sing instead of growl.

“If it weren’t for Patrick, we probably would have put out all our songs, but they would not be of the quality at which they are,” Martinez says.

He adds that Natural Born Leaders is definitely working toward an LP — if not the next release, then the following one — and is considering doing a concept album, something they’ve already tinkered with on a broad level. Debut EP About Time centered on the notion of, well, time, while Abominable Creatures is galvanized by “a little darker and a little more realistic portrayal of human emotions,” consistent with the musicians’ collective mindset during the writing period. Despite being “a bunch of weird-ass dudes” whose oddball interests are reflected in their music, Martinez says that he and his bandmates can’t help but draw inspiration from the current “gloom and doom world” and the present political landscape.

“I try to use what I expect the future to look like, what the present looks like and previous experience to talk to the political nature of our society and try to wrap it all in a palatable package — which is not always palatable, and that’s kind of intentional as well,” Martinez says. “There’s some shock value in saying certain things that are realistic. I’m a pretty radical thinker, beyond even left- or right-leaning politics. I wouldn’t say that I subscribe to either side, and I hope that our music conveys that.”

The synthesis of the above components has allowed Natural Born Leaders to thrive as an Asheville-based band, and audiences around the U.S. are starting to take notice, too. The group hit more than 20 states while touring this year and, according to Martinez, made fans in each one. Further stirring interest is the buzz earned in August at the Mile of Music Festival in Appleton, Wis., which featured more than 250 acts and saw Natural Born Leaders play six sets in three days.

“That really was a game-changer for me,” Martinez says. “It opened my eyes to what could be, and by the end of the weekend, we had people there who had come to see us three or four times, which to me is a huge testament that we’re doing something right. People want to see us. Our last show there was the most packed show we played the whole weekend. I view that as what our trajectory could be in the real world.”

WHO: Natural Born Leaders with Musashi Xero and Shutterings
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road,
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 2, 9 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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