Work Hard Play Hard: Snarky Puppy's Michael League on Freedom & Dedication

Work Hard Play Hard: Snarky Puppy's Michael League on Freedom & Dedication

I remember reading back in 2011 that Skrillex was on a stadium tour, and somewhere bougie (Milan) had sold out.  Well, low and behold, the one-sided-shaven-savant's laptop got lifted from his hotel room and (likely after some crying) he cancelled the show to disappointed droves of bass-riddled fans who ranted across the internet about the giant letdown that was this no-show.  Now, I'm not totally sure, but as a purveyor of creativity and showmanship in general, I feel like ya just don't CANCEL, dude.  What the heck?  Like, don't you have a backup, other skill?   Couldn't you just play an instrument, or do... anything else under the guise of your own talent?   Basically, also, and by now all IT-friendly-readers are screaming, furthermore: WHERE WAS THE BACKUP, OTHER, HARD DRIVE?  Back up your data, bro.  If your career relies on electronic files, and Forbes has recently labeled you the "$15 Million DJ," you could probably swing an extra MacBook Pro, or three, just so you're prepared on that Boy Scout tip.   But he didn't.  And that was totally lame.

I am also guilty of this, the non-backing-up.  I suck at doing it even though I'm 420% sure you're supposed to do it.  I float on a data cloud most of the time these days, but I recently electronically-misplaced this SUPER-informative and fun-times interview with Snarky Puppy's maestro, Michael League.  But don't worry, guys, I wont Skrillex you.  I recovered the interview, and even though it was in regards to their two-day stay at Reggie's back in May, Mr. League has given the green light on previewing tomorrow's Boulevard Music Festival show (8:00 PM) as a lot of our discourse touched on their driven and hard-working entirety, as well as future endeavors still on the horizon.

So I begin to digress from Skrillex, and present you with some raw and overwhelming talent in this Q & A.  Listen to their most recent album, GroundUP (2012), and grip your spirit by your earholes via mood-lifting embodiment of music-appreciation.   As you move through a cultivation of catalog-diversity that is characterized by its instrumental nature, and League's polarity in alternating simplicity with bountiful layered, composed sound,  please note the various musical genres tickled throughout, and you'll have a list as long as Skrillex's millenial LiveJournal.  Jazz-heavy sounds infused with rock, hip-hop, metal, gospel, boogaloo, funk, soul, you name it... it's there somewhere.  It's not new news that Snarky Puppy's inspirations draw from so many thousands of various outlets, but the tally is still steadily adding up on the thousands and more people they continue to inspire on a daily basis through their creations.  Bringing a mix of old-school horns, keys, and relatable dance rhythms, in harmony with newer-school synth, plugged-in strings, and the overall soul of a Baptist Sunday morning, these guys are doing something no one else in music is doing right now, and I am elated to join them in the streets of my very own neighborhood tomorrow for the closing show of this years's Boulevard Fest in Logan Square.

Without further ado, Michael League.


This interview took place early May 2013, as Michael drove with his band in a van from Kansas City, MO to STL, MO, and with the latent taste of recent BBQ in his mouth.  I really wanted to eat BBQ too.

Q: You're coming back to Chicago!! We are pumped.  Thanks for that.

A: (laughs) Well, thank you.  We are also pumped.

Q: You've played at Reggie's before...what did you think of the venue?

A: We played at Reggie's for one night last time, and it was great!  We love it there. We love playing Chicago. To be honest, it was our first major US city where we really felt like the city supported us. I mean, it was the first US show that we drew over 500 people, actually at that same show at Reggie's last time. I like Reggie's – its a big dirty rock club. We play so many different kinds of rooms, from high end jazz clubs to tiny dives, rock clubs, performing jazz festivals. We play such a variety of places, that for us, what is important is whatever sounds good and feels good. And everyone is warm there and... ya, we just like it a lot.

Q: Will it be the same band playing as last time you were here?  I've read about the way you rotate your bandmembers, and am curious how that works.

A: No, it's always probably a little different each show honestly.

Q:  You have over 25 members in rotation, right?

A: We do.  We actually added two guys on this tour, so it's really 27 now! The most we've ever played with live was, maybe 26, on the GroundUP record. It was almost everybody in the band, plus the string players.

Q: Wow, that's amazing.  How does one get in the rotation? Do you have standards you apply or is it more… you see/hear someone you like and invite them to join in?

A: Like a Snarky Buppy boot camp? Haha no that would be really funny- they'd have to pound a bunch of beers, shoot tequila, then we'd make them play four-hour sets, standing on their head or something?

Q:Haha, I think I'd like to audition if that's the case.

A: (laughing) Well, I mean... the band is just comprised of people we've met along the way on the road, or that live in NY or TX where we're "based."  Basically if anyone couldn't make a gig, I would ask the guys in the band, "Who would be good for this – to play?" And if they came to join us and were responsible, cool, and had the right sense of musicality and taste, they just kinda become part of the family. No one has a sense of possessiveness, which is a great overall attitude.

Q: Cool, well it sounds like a lot of fun, which I think comes through to the audience when you play live together.

A: Well, thanks, we hope so.

Q: If there are so many of you, what is the process for composing the music for all those instruments?

A: Well as far as the writing of the music goes,  85% is me only. But, actually there are six guys in the band who have written at least one song.  Everyone in the band is a composer, but, ya, its mostly me.  And to answer your question on the process, I try to not have too regimented of an approach, because I don't like being too prescribed about stuff.  Sometimes with a song, the initial term is from a melody in my head, or a chord progression, or even a song title.  I'll hear a phrase, and I'll try to match the music to it. Its a different approach very time, but in a basic sense... I guess, I write the chords first then sing a melody over it, and then start to break it up, instrument by instrument.

I know I'm writing for horns, guitars, keys, melody, and just kind of go through each one.  Recently while wwriting the horn part to a song, it sounded so good vocally that we added in an "ahh" syllable.  I'll start with the harmony, or just the vibe of a song, and feel or say, "Hey, I want it to sound, you know... less African, or more dub-step," or whatever. I want to go that direction and not be tied to it no matter what. I don't hold myself to the initial set of rules or anything like that.

This band doesn't have a stylistic royalty. We can kinda do whatever the *** we want and no one can say were sell-outs, etc. because this is  It's cool, I like that...

Generally, the bass-line is the last thing I come up with.  Then I'll demo it all & email it to the band.  Then we'll have rehearsal and they come in knowing all the parts after hearing it on their own... and we play it down, exactly as the demo sounds. Then everyone understands my intent and we feel it all together, and when we get the recording and they will start to make suggestions, putting their own personalities about it.  It really goes from being sterile, to having life.  The final step happens over a long period of time where we play it live and adjust it to audience feedback , and what people like, and don't, and it effects how we play it, time to time. It's like watching a child grow.  Some songs we've been playing for years, and they just grow and grow and it's really fun. The amount of improv we can do in a group of composers like this is endless.

Q:  You make it sound so easy, like anyone could that.  It's incredibly impressive.  As far as improv, do you all use in-ear mics? Or how do you communicate with one another on stage?

A:  Well, we definitely don't use in-ear mics.   The songs are like...well, they are very thoroughly constructed. We have landmarks or anchors in every song, so we know that were heading to the next marker by those cues, and when were in a section, we know what's next.  The journey is the improv,  and that is in an infinite number of directions.   Those anchors really inform our improvisation, they're not arbirtrary. Its not free-form improv at all, but yet we have unlimited freedom in a way, but yet, we know where we're going. That's the cool thing about knowing the song inside and out – you know it so well that everyone can change their part, and their vibe for the song, night afternight. It would be a crapshoot otherwise.

Q:  In the band, who tends to get away from it; the improv?

A: Everyone has varying degrees of that.  I'm more structured and tend to be the moderator. Definitely each guy has his own place on really taking things left. That's the thing that makes the band a living and breathing musical organism,  it cant get stale because it is constantly being shaken up. The ambitious guys are being held accountable in a positive way by the more conservative guys. When we get out of balance, it's my job to get them pushed in the right direction and moderate that, but, it's rare, though, I don't have to  really do that too often.

Q:  Nice, I'd think that makes sense since you put the music together, it's kind of your vision to moderate.  So, in general, what is something you'd want people to know about you?

A: Definitely about our label.  We were always independent for three years then signed to Ropeadope.  We did one record with them, Tell Your Friends (2010), then pitched the idea to Ropeadope to start our own label.  It basically functions as a sub-label of Ropeadope, which is cool, because we can use their infrastructure, but it's our brand.  It's like having our own office in their building, if you will. We can also now invite our friends and musicians to utilize the infrastructure, too, and we can create a community of sound that our fans will want to hear.

It's all about the deconstruction of the music industry.  With all that's been done in the last fifteen years, all you need is a website really.  It's easy to get, it empowers artists on the business end, you know those things are great.  But, there's also a lot of negatives about the state of the industry right now. But the positive is that producing and putting out music is easy now, so the market is over-saturated.   It's a good thing,  not a bad thing, too because the only way you're gonna get out there on a large scale with the money and support of a major label, is like, if you're Katy Perry or Bruno Mars (mainstream pop), or if you're just... really, really good. Either by big money or big talent,  you get big art. No one is gonna share stuff that isn't great on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, you know?

Q: Is that how most people find out about you guys?  Social  media?

A:  Kinda, yeah.  I mean, generally word-of-mouth, I'd say.   Almost every person we meet says, "Oh, my friend told me about you guys," or, "My friend sent me your track online," or whatever.  It's a grassroots approach. Is that flattering? Yes.  Absolutely.  We rely on it. It matches the vibe of the band since we started in an organic way, and a  natural way with small nubers of people, and now were...

Q: Recording with 26 people?

A: (laughing) Yep, exactly.

Q: And what about lyrics? Do you think you'll ever add in lyrics? Or is that just something you're staying away from?

A: It's just not what Snarky Puppy is. We made an album with eight different vocalists, that we recorded in Roanoke, VA.  It was their music, and we rearranged their stuff.  We love playing with singers and we collaborate constantly, but as far as Snarky Puppy,  it's an instrumental band, and I like that it's that way. I like that it's reaching people that normally don't go see instrumental music, because people say all the time, “I've never liked an instrumental band before,” and it makes me feel good to hear that. I think it's important that we get out of our comfort zones in our lives. You can interpret instrumental music in a number of ways, but with lyrical stuff, you're forced to have a guide. Its not being trapped, but just a more specific form of guidance, and not the freedom Snarky Puppy shoots for.

Q: Nice, well that is honestly something a lot of instrumental musicians say, and I feel like it still remains true.  I personally love instrumental music and really do appreciate that you can kinda make it your own and like you've mentioned, make it different every time because you can apply your own lyrics, or just enjoy the music itself without any lyrics at all.  Do you listen to instrumental music? Or what are you listening to right now?

A: Man that is a loaded question!  (asking band members in van for suggestions) Let me think about this for a minute.  You mean in general?

Q: Ya, just so your fans can get an idea who might influence you, or maybe learn about some new music they might enjoy.  You should also know that  Joel Cummins from Umphrey's McGee called Snarky Puppy his current favorite modern band.

A: No way!  That is so cool.  We've played four gigs w them this year, they're really really cool guys.   As far as what Snarky Puppy is listening to... we listen to so much different stuff.  I would say, The Ravel String Quartet, St. Vincent,  Strange Mercy, which has Bobby (from Snarky Puppy) on the record, flautist Carlos Malta from,... this really crazy collaboration between Robby Shankar and Robert Glass. Our listening tastes are really all over the place.  Definitely Zeppelin.   Don Blackman's self titled early 80's album is probably the best funk, and one of our favorites.  Like, track to track, they are all favorites. Herbie Hancock and The Headhunters, man they are so good.  Grand Central Station, and anything that they did with Larry Graham from Sly & The Family Stone.  Probably Chuck Brown, the father of go-go who died a couple years ago

Oh! Also, a new band that's on our label called The Funky Knuckles, they are a really incredible band.  Another band I wanna put on people's radars is Banda Magda.  I helped to produce Banda Magda, which is led by a little Greek accordian player named Magda.  The record's in French, but all the tunes are kind of Brazilian, and it's really interesting.  She is one of the baddest composers, and maybe my favorite of my peers. I would encourage everyone to listen to the artists on our label GroundUP, I am a huge fan of them all.

Q: Well cool.  It seems like you guys are SO busy.  You work hard and it shows.  Is there anything else you want to add or share with people while you've got their attention

A: Well on that note, something you may wanna throw in there is that we're playing over 180 shows this year. We're releasing three albums this year as well  in August-September, and another record before that with a 19-year-old refugee from Burundi where we rearranged and produced his music.  It's not titled yet; he has to come up with that, but it comes out in July I believe.  His name is Jukuru Celestin.  We'll have a DVD come out too.  And the third one will be just Snarky Puppy music and Snarky Puppy members, filmed and recorded the first week of October in Holland. That will be out maybe in December, but probably at the beginning of next year.

Q: And how did you get your name, Snarky Puppy?

A: (laughing) It's a really lame story.  Actually, The BBC is running a contest in England right now, for best story of how Snarky Puppy got our name, and from now on, that will be our official story.  Right now, it's so lame I can't even tell you (laughing).


Snarky Puppy will play one of their 180+ shows in 2013 tomorrow at 8:00 PM at Silver Wrapper's The Boulevard located in the glorious streets of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, close to 3100 W. Logan Blvd. at Albany Ave. on The West Stage.

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