Comprising an eclectic mix of musicians from Dallas and NYC and playing a tasty fusion of jazz, funk, rock and more, Snarky Puppy is the next big thing to look out for. Their live performance in DC was one of the best shows I’ve ever attended, striking a perfect balance between pure musical virtuosity and raw melodic simplicity that hit home. Recently I also had the opportunity to talk with Michael League, the main man behind the group. We canvassed topics such as what goes on behind the scenes, people’s reception to their music, and generally what Snarky Puppy is all about – being a band with a purpose.
It’s been about 8 years since you guys formed the group. How did the band come about? How was this idea born?
Michael: Well, I was going to a school called the University of North Texas for Jazz Studies; it’s a really great jazz school. I grew up listening to pop music and although I was really enjoying studying jazz and I was really happy to be there doing that, I think my goal as a musician has always been to combine all the things I like about music into one thing. Since I grew up listening to so much pop and soul and R&B and stuff, jazz school really gave me the fundamental knowledge of music theory and allowed me to write music with a pop sensibility that had depth to it. I was never planning on becoming the next big jazz musician; I was always planning on being a composer and writing unique music that was a combination of all the things I loved.
Did a lot of the musicians (in Snarky Puppy) come from there as well?
Michael: Everybody who’s onstage tonight I met at North Texas except for one guy named Cory Henry (keyboardist) who’s coming down from Brooklyn, he grew up there, and another guy, Sput (Robert “Sput” Searight, drummer) who went to North Texas but I met him in Dallas.
That’s really interesting! So you are the composer and arranger? What is the writing process like for such a large group?
Michael: Yeah, I’m the primary one; there are others. I would say that four other guys in the band have one or two songs that we play. I’ve just probably written about 60 or 70% of it. In general, actually period, there’s only one writer on each tune. The writer composes the stuff on their own, brings it in and as a band, we start to play through it and individually, slowly over the rehearsal, everybody makes suggestions or makes changes on their own and we try different things until it feels right. So even though there’s only one person writing it, the whole band produces it, so to speak, just so that each person contributes their own unique thing to each song. And it becomes a part of the song. Even when we get other players to play, they play like that one player did. So that way it’s not just like everybody’s replaceable. People are very irreplaceable.
Yeah, and they have such different musical backgrounds and influences so it comes together in a really great way.
Michael: Oh yeah, definitely.
What has this album meant to you? From the album name GroundUp, it seems to pay homage to the fact that this band literally started from the ground up, from a very grassroots level.
Michael: Yes, that’s the idea. Our last album was live, in-studio, with a DVD as well but it was pretty much just the music. I wanted to show what goes into that music on this one. So we had a cameraman go around with us for two years and we got all this crazy footage of us sleeping on floors, sleeping in the van, just the random stuff that happens in between performances, just giving a look into how crazy our lives are and how real and down-to-earth it is. At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of people who really care about music playing what they wanna play.
Have people’s reception towards the band changed a lot comparing now to when the band started? Especially those hearing you for the first time.
Michael: Oh my gosh, yes. Yeah, I can categorize it into several different eras. There was the first era where people though it was stimulating intellectually – only musicians liked it. And it kinda grew slowly over 4 or 5 years, and two years ago we released Tell Your Friends (the debut album) and there was a definite change – non-musicians started coming out, our crowd started getting bigger and more enthusiastic, they knew the songs and started singing along with them – a noticeable change for us, so that was crazy. With this record coming out, crowds are now way larger. Our international fan base is pretty large; we just went to Europe and it was almost sold out if not sold out for every show.
Four years ago, when we played a show, every single person in the crowd was either a friend or a friend of one of our friends. And now, like in DC, I even grew up here but there’ll be maybe 15 people I know and 250 people I’ve never met. So just sticking with it and being persistent, and the music becoming more easily… digestible, being more melodic and catchy without being a sellout has made a big difference. Now we’re in a time where when people come to see us, they know our songs and they’re there to see us. It’s cool.
Check out the song: “Thing of Gold”
I think it’s great when you mentioned “digestible” because when musicians are so technically talented, it comes to a point where lay people can’t appreciate it – it’s over the top, it just goes over their heads.
Michael: Yeah, we try to avoid that.
What I like about the band is you can still show so much talent and still keep it modest or digestible like you said. Do you take musicians in as sessionists and rotate regularly? How does that work?
Michael: No, basically the band is like a big family of like 20 or 30 guys. We have three or four people on every instrument that know all the music. For example, tomorrow Justin (Stanton, keyboardist) is going back to NYC for a few days, so Cory Henry is coming in tonight to play and when Justin leaves, Cory is gonna stay and play like, four gigs. Then when Justin comes back, Cory goes out. We’ve got three guitar players, five different keyboard players that know all the music, three or four drummers, five or six horn players… So basically it’s like there’s the core group of players who you’re going to see tonight, they’re all here actually, and then there’re all these other guys that also know all the music, and if anyone can’t make it or they just happen to be in town, then they just come and join us.
Nice! Tell me more about the band’s involvement with community outreach. What do you do with The Music Lab at Jefferson Center, for instance?
Michael: Like I said, I’ve already went to music college so we’re all very into music education and we’re all products of that system, so I think we feel a very real responsibility and just in general, a desire to give back to the things that helped us. So any chance we get, we work with schools or after-school programs, or whatever encourages music education. The Jefferson Center is one of them; we have a very close relationship with that organization, we go there every chance we get. I go there separately as an artist and I also teach at a college in London called the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, a pop music college – we just did three days of clinics there.
So, y’know, any chance we get – we’re working with an elementary school on Friday in Maryland, playing with kids and showing them instruments – anything, it’s really important to us because the US government and in general, American society has a lack of appreciation and support for the arts, it’s like, somebody has to do it. And I’m not gonna sit on my ass and complain about it and not do anything about it. I’m gonna try to get all these guys who are willing to do it to get in and put music in front of kids, show them it’s not just something you do as a hobby.
Check out the song: “Young Stuff”
What are Snarky Puppy’s future plans? A new album? Collaborations?
Michael: Yeah! We’re going to make a record next March – we have a thing that we do in New York called Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner which is like a concert series every Friday of the month and we invite three different artists to perform, and we’re their house band and we play their music. It’s really cool; we don’t play any of our stuff. So we decided to make an album out of it but we’re gonna use some larger artists like Musiq Soulchild, Dionne Farris from Arrested Development, N’Dambi, Lucy Woodward, as well as some of the artists from the New York series. We’re gonna do a record in Roanoke at the Jefferson Center where we’re the house band backing up all these amazing singers, playing their music. So that’s gonna be really exciting, it’s in less than a year.
I wanna make a new record now but I gotta wait for this one to finish selling and make some money to make a new one. We’re just gonna keep doing our thing – I love making DVDs. I wanna do something more ambitious for the next one. I wanna do something crazy – I would love to do it in Parque Güell in Barcelona overlooking the whole city outside, there’s this beautiful terrace – I wanna do some crazy shit, something that’s just so visually stunning that we have to make the music as amazing as the setting, y’know? Something interesting, something that’s not just different to be different, but different with a purpose.
Excellent! Any messages for your fans?
Michael: The only way that real music is able to get created nowadays is from the grassroots level, and the audiences have more power now in the music industry than ever. We’re playing the show tonight – there should be 300 people here. Because of that, we’re able to make enough money to go to the next city and do the same thing, and make a new record. If five people showed up tonight, I would have to quit this band and play at your wedding… which I do anyway! We all do that; we play in wedding bands or whatever to make money but I would have to do that only. So without the support of listeners, original, creative music has no legs. And I would just encourage anyone who really loves music to just find the real shit!
Forget Clear Channel. Forget the stuff that’s playlisted on every radio station identically in America. Find real stuff and support it – pay money for the albums, go to see them play live, most importantly. Support them. Hold them accountable for their talent. If you don’t think somebody’s good, you don’t like ‘em, don’t pay! Let the cream rise to the top. I think it’s really important for everyone to support stuff they believe in, on any level, not just music – restaurants, food, theatre, film, anything. The power is in the hands of the consumer right now because the industry is on its knees. I think it’s great.