Mike Martinez doesn’t like talking about growing up in Union, N.J., but he will say moving to Hendersonville as an 18-year-old saved his life.
“I was getting in trouble in ways I don’t necessarily want to talk about, but I was not headed on a good path,” he said. “I’m not even sure I’d be alive if I lived in New Jersey.”
Alive and thriving at age 28, Martinez fronts Natural Born Leaders, a band he formed in Asheville a few years ago with bassist James Eddington. Their blend of hip-hop, ska and rock is certainly different for this region, and thanks to some recent exposure through NPR’s Tiny Desk contest, people around the world are dialing in.
Natural Born Leaders performs July 7 at Salvage Station in Asheville as part of what’s being called a Benefit to Fight Unnatural Disasters.
“I’ve started multiple bands that didn’t do anything and I didn’t really like the music to, and I’ve been in a lot of bands that didn’t make sense to me,” he said. “When I first met James, I was like, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been looking for all this time.’”
Martinez’s father is a police officer, his mother a free spirit, as Martinez describes her, and he doesn’t recall living with both under the same roof. While music was always a presence, Martinez said he doesn’t lean to any particular styles -- with his tastes or the music he makes--and his early lyrics reflected his bleak outlook.
“I used to be really depressed and wrote relatively depressing things, outside Natural Born Leaders,” he said.
Martinez credits his band and his wife for brightening his lyrics, but they then turned outward as Natural Born Leaders came to ascendance around the time of Donald Trump’s election.
“Most of our songs are relatively political, given that’s more or less the climate we started our band in,” he said. “But these days, we’re working on new material and the subject matter is leaning more toward love.”
A four-song debut album called “About Time” premiered in May, and a significant upturn for the band happened in early June, when NPR Music and All Songs Considered highlighted Natural Born Leaders’ video entry in the latest Tiny Desk competition.
It was Martinez’s idea, much to the judges’ eventual delight, to perform the song “Abominable Creatures” at the Haywood Quick Stop mini-mart in West Asheville. Out of nowhere, awareness of the band grew around the world, and clubs that hadn’t shown interest in the band began reaching out.
“Hip-hop has a stigma to it and people are like ‘I don’t want that in my club.’ We got a lot of those messages when we were looking for places to play,” Martinez said. “(Now) we have like an ‘NPR vouched for us’ card, so like we’re good for our music.”
Between shows, the band is in the studio working on its next album, and for the first time in a long time, Martinez isn't looking for another place to call home.
“I was just reading this thing I wrote to myself when I was 17, and it was like a five, 15 and 20-year plan, and I’m at my 15-year plan now, 10 years later,” Martinez said. “Regardless of Trump, I’m in the happiest place I’ve ever been in my entire life.”