“The goal is constant improvement, constant elevation” – bassist-composer Michael League, Snarky Puppy
Now based out of New York city, Snarky Puppy is a collective of musicians blending jazz, funk and world music. With a string of albums under its belt starting off in 2006, the band is spearheaded by Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer and producer Michael League.
They have played at a range of festivals including North Sea Jazz, Monterey Jazz Festival, Paris Jazz Festival, Blue Note Tokyo, EFG London Jazz Festival and Melbourne International Jazz Festival. The group is also committed to music education and community outreach. I caught Michael League’s workshop at the Java Jazz Festival 2015 in Jakarta, and interviewed him later during the Montreal International Jazz Festival 2015.
In this conversation, League shares with us his views on his musical journey, the role of musicians, industry trends, the importance of music education, and his experiences in Asia.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
Staying inspired isn’t difficult because there is so much beautiful music around us. But taking that inspiration and using it to create new compositions that pick up where my last one left off… this is really challenging. The goal is constant improvement, constant elevation. But it’s not always so easy. I write and rewrite over and over before we start rehearsing a song and play it live.
How do you blend different musical influences and genres?
We try to take the things that we like from every different kind of music we’ve ever heard and put them together in a pot. But I think the real “X Factor,” or the element that really makes it sound like Snarky Puppy, is the years of playing together. We’ve formed a sound over the years that allows us to combine musical styles from around the world without the music sounding overly disparate, or disconnected. Nothing can replace the experience of playing music together as band, night after night, for over a decade.
How would you describe your musical journey over the years?
The band started much more acoustic, much jazzier. We were white college students from the suburbs who had grown up in garage rock bands and got swept away by jazz. I think this is evident in our first few albums.
But when we started playing on the predominantly black gospel/R&B scene in Dallas (and when people like Bernard Wright, Robert “Sput” Searight, Shaun Martin, and Bobby Sparks joined the band), the sound of the band changed dramatically. It got funkier. We started focusing more on groove and melody rather than complex harmony. But I think the most important change was that we became more communicative, and consequently, more accessible to audiences.
What kinds of social and political messages have been conveyed in your recent albums?
Instrumental music is interesting in this way… because there are no lyrics, the meaning of tune can be very different to different people. The band definitely has shared views on social and political issues, for sure, but we don’t necessarily advertise them.
It’s quite a dilemma for me, actually. I make music for human beings – not just people who think like me – and I believe that the beauty of music is that it can reach and speak to people of varying cultures, communities, and mindsets. People who would never agree politically can sit down together and enjoy the same song.
But at the same time, I feel that artists have a responsibility to help advance a culture socially. The 1960s are a perfect example of musicians working together to change American society’s view on race and war. I commend these musicians for the impact they made on my country, and in many ways, they saved lives.
Should music and politics be kept separate? It’s a big question. I don’t want to ostracize music lovers who would disagree with me politically, but I also want to stand for what I feel is right.
What new album or video are you working on now?
We’re just finishing the mixing for our next live album/DVD, Family Dinner – Volume 2, which features a cast of really wonderful guest artists – David Crosby, Salif Keita, Laura Mvula, Susana Baca, Knower, Becca Stevens, Jacob Collier, Chris Turner, Jeff Coffin, Carlos Malta, Charlie Hunter, Väsen, Big Ed Lee, Bernardo Aguiar, Michelle Willis, Terence Blanchard, Big Sam Williams, Khris Royal, Donald Ramsey, Terence Higgins, Jamison Ross, Mike Dillon, Jason Marsalis, Ivan Neville, John Gros, Brian Coogan… it was crazy. This will be coming out on our label, GroundUP Music, in January. I’m so excited to share this one with the world.
And in December, we’re recording our first non-live studio album in six years of new original music. Just before that, we’ll be filming video lessons with each individual member of the band which will eventually be available on our web site. We’re really big into music education, and this is a great way to be able to reach anyone on the planet who has an Internet connection. So there’s a whole lot on our plate right now!
What have been your previous highlights in playing across Asia?
The Blue Note in Tokyo was our first Asian gig, and we immediately felt like we were on another planet. Asian cultures are so different from what we grew up with, and although there are strong communities in the United States, it doesn’t compare with experiencing the real thing in the flesh. We absolutely love it. The different cuisines, customs, people – it’s amazing.
Our Indian debut in Mumbai was particularly special, as we had no idea what to expect. I found it hard to believe that anyone in India knew who we were. But as soon as we left the airport, we saw a gigantic billboard on the main highway with our faces all over it. At the show, I met people who drove 12 hours to come see us perform. It blew me away. Music is such a powerful thing!
And the Internet makes it so easy to discover art. Since we played for empty venues for almost a decade, we really don’t ever take our audiences for granted. It means a lot when you fly 20 hours across the planet and you find a roomful of people who appreciate your music.
Do you compose on the road also, while travelling?
Absolutely. It’s really the only place I compose, since I don’t have a real home anymore. I’ve been without an apartment for 12 months now. I’m traveling practically 365 days a year, so the road is my home. I love it.
What are some unusual reactions you got during your live performances?
We definitely have seen and heard some interesting things. People shout really strange things at us, for sure. We played recently at Millennium Park in Chicago for a seated crowd. During the outro of one of our songs, Binky, we saw a guy standing up about 50 rows into the audience, convulsing and head banging like he was possessed by a demon. The contrast of him against 5,000 people calmly listening in their seats was hilarious.
In the early days of touring, we were in Georgia (the state) when a guy jumped on stage during a song and started taking his clothes off – all of them. He was arrested pretty quickly, but it made for an interesting few minutes.
Which are your favourite tracks in your repertoire?
The ones that have the strongest melodies. Shofukan, Thing of Gold, Sleeper, Flood – tunes like that. I feel that a good melody never gets old. Since I’m a bass player, it’s the hardest part of the song for me to write. I spend a lot of time during the composition process trying to craft singable, catchy, nuanced melodies. It’s very difficult for me sometimes.
Do you also teach workshops for students and musicians?
Absolutely. We’ve done over 200 educational events worldwide. We love it. We’re trying to expand our educational reach by making video lessons available online next year. I’m really excited about it.
How do you choose what to play in just a short 45-minute session in the festival, given your repertoire and many albums released?
It depends on who is in the band on that show, the type of room we’re playing in, and the country we’re in. We take these things into consideration in order to put on the best show we can.
How has the music industry changed over the years and how is that affecting you?
Ever since digital piracy began in the late 1990s, the industry has been trying to figure out how to keep revenue up. We were never a part of the ‘good old days’ of the music industry when making a living was easier, so all we’ve ever known is the struggle. But it’s a blessing in disguise, I think.
Ever since we started, we’ve had the mindset of trying to find different ways to make our music make money. We do lots of different things to encourage people to buy our music, like including bonus footage on our DVDs, extra tracks on our albums, artwork by respected graphic designers, etc. I think the environment that we came up in has made us resourceful.
What can we expect to hear at your upcoming performance?
It will be a mixture of songs from Bring Us The Bright, Tell Your Friends, GroundUP, and We Like It Here. We play each tune differently every night, so none of us actually know what’s going to happen until it does!
Do you have any piece of advice you want to give to aspiring musicians?
Take care of the music first – this is the centerpiece around which your whole business structure is based. And beyond that, we all need help to progress in the music world. People are more likely to put effort into helping a band that they are moved by, and will often go to extreme lengths to do so.
Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao
Editor & DJ, World Music and Jazz; Bangalore
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com
Photos from Snarky Puppy’s Performance at the Java Jazz Festival 2014 are taken by Mia Damayanti
Photo from the workshop is taken by Madanmohan Rao