INTERVIEW: Snarky Puppy | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

Narc. Magazine Online

Reliably informed

Having just picked up a third Grammy, and also their second Best Pop Instrument Album in consecutive years, it’s ahrd to dispute that Snarky Puppy are one of the biggest jazz bands of our time.  With hazy memories of a boozy night in The Head of Steam after their previous date at The Sage, I caught up with the bassist and beating heart of Snarky Puppy, Michael League. 

As a jazz fan, I know the band, but for the uninitiated, I wanted to know how he classified their music. “It’s just instrumental music: I would say instrumental pop, but then it makes it sound like its Kenny G, which it’s not.  A mixture of things from around the world through the filter of a bunch of Americans”.  (To this, I will add that only severe whiplash will prevent a listener from jutting their jaw out in a rhythmic, poultry-esque fashion.)

Michael had a word too for fellow Grammarian Lalah Hathaway (who won Best R&B Album this year, and sang on their first success, Something, winner of Best R&B Performance in 2014): “the first one we won was also the first she won, so it opened doors for both of us.  It’s a perfect example of the idea that there’s no competition, just teamwork and community.”  Wise and humble words from Mr. League.

With this in mind, and a selfish desire to see a collaboration between two of my most idolised musical genii, I suggested a bit of teamwork and community between the Pups and newly crowned jazz legend Gregory Porter –  I mean, they’ve both worked with the Metropole Orkest, so why not?  Here’s what League had to say: “I think my manager pitched me producing an album for Porter, which I would love to do, but that would be a cool combo. Maybe we’ll make one of those happen.”  So that’s sorted then.  Definite.  You can thank me later, world. 

Snarky Puppy operate differently to any other band I have known in that they have an ingenious ‘squad system’ which consists of a bank of musicians, each as talented as the last, who are used interchangeably to form unique, bespoke versions of Snarky Puppy.  I suggested to League that this is a huge bonus. “I think we turned it into an advantage, I don’t think inherently having a gigantic group of musicians that don’t all play regularly is the secret to success, I think that can be an inhibiter in many ways.  But I think that the way in which we use it is an advantage just because of the nature of the people.  Every person in the band is a generous musician, there aren’t really any egos, everyone has their own musical aspirations outside of Snarky Puppy, so the system that we have is conducive to people going off and doing their own things and then coming back and playing.”

Snarky Puppy founding member and pianist Bill Laurance’s recent work with the Bill Laurance Group highlights this.  But the constant rotation must surely cause discontent at times?  Don’t band members see exclusion as a slight?  League disagrees, saying, “It’s like a fresh injection of energy every time people come in, and not just energy but musical personality: it changes the make-up of the band, just one person coming in.  At this point, it’s only advantageous. We have 2017 completely scheduled, so everyone has a year to plan their activities.”  It sounds idyllic, and with such variety it’s not like any two gigs are ever the same, in fact, there could be three Snarky Puppies touring simultaneously and we’d never know – sneaky…

Speaking to league, his unrelenting enthusiasm for the music is more than enough to reignite the flame for even the most jaded musician or listener.  He takes time to form each utterance to deliver full effect, much like his composition.  When I asked about their recent Grammy award winning album Culcha Vulcha and the fact it was recorded in the dusty Texan desert, the state where most original members hail from, his answer left me with a warm grin.  Read this quickly and excitedly for full effect: “It made sense to do it there because the album itself was a return in a certain kind of way.  It was nice to go into the middle of nowhere in a state where it all started and bury ourselves, it was kinda like a retreat in a way.  We were eating Mexican food three times a day, it was very Texas, it was a ranch!” 

“I am a very firm believer that sound recordings carry artefacts beyond the sound.  I walked into my studio at two am after seeing a really cool fado concert, and my double bass was in the tracking room, ‘cos I’m recording a record with a jazz singer at the moment. I just started playing and I was like ‘wow man, there’s just something better about a double bass when it’s played at night’, especially playing by yourself, it just feels…right.  And I feel like it’s not just an emotional trick; if we recorded me playing in the middle of the night it would carry a different character than at nine in the morning in that you would feel it.  I very much feel that about Culcha Vulcha, about being in the desert at this old Pecan farm and everyone being together and eating meals together. I hear that shit on the record: maybe it’s just my synaesthesia, the sound going back to the smell, and the touch of everything.  I think there’s a reason why great studios are just funky, like Abbey Road or Electric Ladyland, there’s just something funky about those places.  It sticks on the sound recording.”  It certainly does, and it reverberates around the live venue too.

Another, perhaps crucial, factor in Snarky Puppy’s success as a live as well as a recording band is their refreshing and mind-blowingly simple approach to giving a little respect to the people who make or break the sound of the band, the sound engineers. “It seems strange to me that a band would rehearse and polish their sound and take all the care in writing lyrics, and make sure everything is exactly as it should be, and then put it on stage and the guy whose job it is to communicate that to the audience knows nothing about their music.  To me, that’s crazy!  Normally it’s a financial thing, but we added a sound engineer before we added a tour manager.  I was still tour managing when we started bringing sound engineers on tour.  To me the sound engineer is the ambassador of your sound.  They are the person who brings the sound from the band to the audience, so it’s hugely important that we have one of our two guys there, because those guys know the tunes, they also know the personalities of the musicians, the guys who are going to turn way up when they have solos so they can compensate for it.  They are part of the band, they really are.”

This was a music interview, about music, but damn it he’s an American, and every American deserves their say on the most controversial topic of the day – their new President.  Rather than dissect Mike’s response, I’ll let him do the talking.  Once again, he has a way of soliloquising that demands full attention.

“I would say sorry to the world.  Trump is everything that my parents told me not to be.  It’s startling and discouraging to see how many people do not hold him accountable for things, they make excuses for him.  ‘Well yeah, he said you could grab women by the pussy, but…’ This is the first time in my life that a political figure has not been held to task for all the things they do: George Bush got crucified when he checked his watch in a political debate!  Really!  That was the scandal of the election year when George Bush was running.  It’s the ever present threat of populism, but populism can’t exist in a well-educated society because it appeals to our most basic kind of human fears about being left behind and being taken over.  I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for my country and I’m personally embarrassed that such a really great country is in this situation. I would argue that our greatest export is art, between the music and the film and the literature that the United States had contributed to the world, and the theatre, and visual art.  I’m not saying that we’ve done all those things better than anyone else, I’m just saying that when you put it together it’s a great contribution to the world, and the reality we are in is very sad.  And you see it taking France, and the Netherlands and the UK of course with Brexit, and it’s like, do people not read history books?  Do we not remember the last time this happened, and what happened right after this happened?  How short are our historical memories?” 

As we finished our call, I remembered that blurry night in the Head of Steam where League had told me that he had abandoned the idea of renting or buying an apartment because he was on the road more than off it, and that instead he was renting a storage unit to store his gear, plus a bed (and his Grammy.) Well, fortunately, he’s now safely rehomed. “I was in a storage unit for three years, but I’m in an apartment now.  I’ve got a bed and a turntable, I’m all set.”  Nice to know that these tales have happy endings, no?


Snarky Puppy play The Sage Gateshead on Wednesday 3rd May.

Like this story? Share it!

Subscribe to our mailout