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Michael League of Snarky Puppy: ‘Bernard Wright was our North Star’

Jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy, led by League, recently won the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards.
Stella K
Courtesy of the artist
Jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy, led by League, recently won the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 63rd annual Grammy Awards.

In Denton, Texas in 2004, the bassist Michael League got together regularly to jam with a dozen or so of his fellow students from the jazz studies program at North Texas State. Out of that organic beginning, the band Snarky Puppy was formed and would go on to record numerous albums, tour all over the world, form its own record label and music festival. And pick up five Grammy awards along the way, including the most recent award for their album Empire Central in the Best Contemporary Instrumental Album category. As League told me in our conversation, if he had known the group was going to be around for 20 years, he would have chosen a different name for the band. But that idiosyncratic name has become synonymous with a particular groove-oriented sound that mixes funk, R&B, African and rock influences with large ensemble jazz.

Snarky Puppy is in the middle of a U.S. tour and will be appearing at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on April 13. League spoke with me about the group’s evolution as well as the importance of the late Bernard Wright in the band’s development.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: The origin story of Snarky Puppy is well known at this point—that you came together at the jazz program at North Texas State in Denton, Texas.  That’s a program that has a long history of producing great mainstream jazz players, including a lot of big band musicians and leaders.  What about that environment was conducive to forming Snarky Puppy?

Michael League: I think above all the program breeds players who understand how to make music in large formats. There are a lot of different ways to play in the jazz tradition and probably the most common is a small ensemble—a quartet or quintet playing. That requires its own skillset, but it's another thing when you have a horn section with four or five people in it, or the case of a big band with 15 or 16 people in it.

I think that definitely worked to our advantage with Snarky Puppy having a group that has anywhere between 10 and 19 people, playing at the same time. People who understand when to play, when not to play. People that understand that they're playing a small part in a large organism that's very important and actually essential to music making in this group. I think that helped a lot. I think it also helped that there's really nothing to do in Texas where we went. We practiced a lot.

Next year will mark the group’s 20th anniversary of its founding. Looking back to 2004, did you think then that the band would have the longevity it’s had?

God, no. I would've come up with a better band name if I thought we were going to be around for 20 years.

Well, the name did stick, so there’s that. How has the group evolved musically during that time?

It’s changed a lot. In the beginning I was playing probably half the gig on upright bass. I feel like the message was a lot less succinct. It was a lot less streamlined. The music was more disparate. It was still interesting, but it was moving in a lot of different directions. I don’t think there was a clear sound that had been established or formed. That didn’t really happen until we moved to Dallas and until people like Robert Seawright, Bobby Sparks, Sean Martin, Jason “JT” Thomas, and, above all, Bernard Wright became a part of the group. When this version [came together] between all these white jazz school kids and musicians who are on the Black gospel and R&B and hip hop scene, that’s really when the sound of the band formed in a more concrete way…when the music started getting a lot clearer emotionally and became less cerebral, less brainy, and became a lot more like visceral. For me, that’s the big turning point.

At its core, Snarky Puppy is really a big band. You’re known for having a pool of musicians to pull from.  How do you manage that?

I think we have about 20 people in rotation now. We have four drummers, three percussionists, four or five horn players, four or five keyboard players, three guitarists, and one violinist. There are a lot of heads. But the cool thing is that everybody has their own career, their own solo career, as well as working as side people for other artists. Everyone's got their own thing going on. It's not like people are sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. from Snarky Puppy, so we can kind of plan about a year out. What we try to do is schedule everybody so that everyone gets equal playing time, about a year in advance. That’s not easy. It's not simple. It's not a perfect system, but it's the best that we can do. And it’s worked very well.

Snarky Puppy
Francois Bisi
Snarky Puppy

I was talking to Christian McBride because he'd worked with Pat Metheny and Chick Corea, both of whom were known for having three or four different bands that they toured with. I said to Christian, “Well you're doing that too.” And he said, “I know, I have to cut them down because it's too hard to manage.”

It's complicated sometimes, but above all it's made possible because of the understanding of the musicians and the level of professionalism and responsibility that they all have. If we had a lot of very difficult people in the organization, we wouldn't be able to run this kind of system.

The latest album Empire Central is a hybrid of a live and studio recording.  It was recorded over the course of eight nights in front of a live-in-the-studio audience at the Dallas Deep Ellum Art Company.  I assume you wanted to capture the energy of a live performance.

Yes, it's a format that we kind of created or made popular. I don't know if anybody had done it before us. It's possible. You never know. I think we started making records like this in 2009, with the album called Tell Your Friends that we did at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana in which we basically set up like anyone would record a record in the studio. But then you invite an audience in, and you put headphones on them so that they're experiencing the music exactly the same as the band is. You get studio quality sound with live energy. Above all, the band plays differently because they're not playing for the record. They're playing for the audience. Snarky Puppy has always been a live on-stage band and that is the dominant thing in our DNA. I thought that it would be a nice way of making records and it's served us very well. We've done it like six or seven times.

You also captured the making of the album in a podcast, Transmissions from Deep Ellum, that was distributed by WBGO. What was the response to that series?

We've used this format in this way of making records several times and inevitably people have a lot of questions about what exactly goes into that, especially on the technical end. Because you just see the edited, polished, mixed, mastered thing and you don't see all the people scurrying around busting their butts to make it happen.

In this instance it was the first time in which members of the band collaborated during the songwriting process. Normally we collaborate during the arranging process, when the song has already been done and written and everything by one individual. I think it was cool that they captured that we left our voice notes on and our phones when we were talking about the songs together and stuff. It offered a very behind the scenes look at how the record was made. I think it was interesting for a lot of people.

You call the late Bernard Wright the band’s musical godfather. He played on Empire Central but died tragically shortly thereafter [Wright was hit by a car in Dallas]. Most of us think of him in relation to his musical brethren from Jamaica Queens—Marcus Miller, Lenny White, Tom Browne.  But he settled in Dallas, right?  How did you come to know him and work with him?

He married a woman from Dallas, Anita. He had been living in Dallas since the early ‘2000s or maybe the ’90s. I met him in 2006 or 2007.

How did you come to start collaborating with him?

We were playing at the same church, Riverwalk Fellowship. The band was amazing over there, and that's where I met Bernard, who was playing at church three days a week. He took me under his wing. He took me to jam sessions in Dallas, introduced me to all the musicians on the Black American music scene there, many of whom became members of Snarky Puppy, like Robert Seawright, Bobby Sparks, Jason “JT” Thomas and Shaun Martin.

Bernard was not only a connector for us. His musical concept and his approach to making music, with the mixing of Black American music styles, the way that he phrased whether he was playing funk or jazz or whatever, it became a part of who we were. His sense of taste and concept has been the advanced North Star ever since.

Snarky Puppy - Take It! (feat. Bernard Wright) (Empire Central)

What do you think was most unique about Bernard’s music and what do you think his legacy will be?  I’ve seen so many great musicians who passed and then are somehow forgotten despite their greatness.

I think in Bernard's case, the real tragedy is that he wasn't captured a lot on film or on record. If I think about my favorite Bernard Wright moments in musical history, almost all of them were live gigs that weren't recorded that I saw in person. That's why I think this was so important to have him on Empire Central. Of course, we didn't know that he would pass two months later, but I'm so glad that actually we were able to document him, not just aurally, but visually as well.

For every one of those solos that are captured on film, there are a thousand that are as good or better that weren't captured. For his musical legacy to be inherently tied to us…he did so much more before he met us and after he met us. But if that's the way that he needs to be lifted up and made visible, I’m honored that our names are associated with him. He was so much more than a collaborator with Snarky Puppy. He had his own solo pop career. Incredible songs, including that hit “Who Do You Love?” from 1984. His first record that he made when he was 15, ‘Nard, is still unbelievable with Marcus and Lenny and Roy Haynes and Buster Williams.

He could just do everything. He could produce, he could sing, he could write songs, he could play a variety of different instruments. He’s the greatest musician I've ever been in contact with and so we're doing our best to pick him up and make sure that he stays visible in the annals of history. But I do hope that people are aware of the things that he did outside of us.

Over the years, the band’s music and yours have been influenced by African music, mostly West African forms, but not limited to that. I’ve always seen Snarky Puppy as a kindred spirit to Fela’s groups.  How has African music changed the group?

First and foremost, we're an American band playing music that's 90% a combination of Black American music—funk, jazz, soul, rock and roll, hip hop and R&B. That's really just one or two degrees of separation from West African music. I think for anyone who's really into Black American music, you're instantly going to feel like you're in a familiar space when you're listening to music from Senegal or from that part of the world. When you think about all the Afrobeat stuff that came out of Nigeria, and then you also think about the West African stuff, there's always this kind of element of trance that I think is huge. Although Snarky Puppy has music that transitions quickly in that there's a lot of information happening and things changing constantly, I think we try to create that feeling of trance, especially when we play live. It's a band that loves to groove and it's totally happy grooving with no melody and no solo.

Above all that is the thing that happens when you have a large sound from having so many people in the band, which of course Fela did also. There's an inherent kind of power when you have more than 10 people on stage and allowing that to do what it does viscerally to the listener and to the player who's the first listener. That's something that we really subscribe to and really love. There are a lot of people with highly developed brains in the band. It's a band that really loves to play simply. I think that's where we get the most joy when we're playing. It's not from the brainier or more athletic moments. It's from the more visceral, groove-based moments.

Like many bands these days, you have your own label, GroundUp, which releases albums not only from the band and its members, but also from other artists.  The landscape for albums has changed so much during the last ten to twenty years.  How have you managed to navigate a world in which people have stopped buying CDs and streaming services are notoriously parsimonious in sharing revenue?

We've changed the format to where we're like, primarily digital. That was what the big money pit was when I started the label 10 years ago. We were paying for physical copies of the albums. As you said, DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music and all this stuff effectively eviscerated the physical market. Now there's a resurgence with vinyl, which is fantastic. But vinyl's very expensive to produce. I think moving to digital only has definitely allowed the business to be sustainable.

Also, it's our MO that we work with generally not huge name artists. We're working with artists who are amazing and in our opinion aren't getting necessarily the props or the visibility that they deserve. That inherently also makes the situation a little more sustainable because you don't have artists who are asking for $300,000 advances when they do a record with you.

I think above all, the main thing that we have to offer is that we're an artist-run organization that supports the artistic process. We're never going to tell an artist that they should take a track off the record. We're never going to say that the song needs to be shorter. Or that it needs to go to the ninth spot in the sequence instead of the second.

What we do is not a game. We're not that kind of label. We're not some huge corporate label that's thinking about the bottom line all the time. We want to make sure the artists are happy and we want to make sure that what they do is getting represented in the best way possible. I think that's what draws a lot of artists to GroundUp is just the treatment and the feeling of being on the same page. Conceptually and philosophically, the ethos within the label is generally the same as the ethos within the bands that we work with.

What upcoming releases can we expect from the label?

There are a couple of records we’re super excited about. We have a couple coming from members of the band, like Chris Bullock, our wind player. Also, this incredible, unique singer songwriter from Catalonia, Spain named Lau Noah, who's going out and opening for Ben Folds this whole fall. She's really unbelievable. Also, Lee Pardini, the keyboardist from Dawes has a song that we're releasing as a single. There's a record by an incredible Indian artist named Varijashree Venugopal that I produced. She's on tour a lot with Dennis Chambers, Victor Wooten, Hamilton De Holanda, people like that. She's one of the greatest musicians I've ever met, so her record's coming out. We have a lot of albums coming out on GroundUp Music.

If all that wasn’t enough, you produce an eclectic music festival, the GroundUp Music Festival, down in Miami Beach. The most recent edition happened in February and featured a very diverse lineup such as Jeff Tweedy, Madison Cunningham, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Keyon Harrold, Lizz Wright… What are the rewards and challenges of curating and presenting an event like that?

For me it's just an excuse to throw a huge party with all of my favorite musicians in the world. The obvious pro is that you get to say, “I love all these artists. Let's put 'em all together and see what happens.” Also, we ask the artists to do more than just play a gig. We ask them to either do a master class or do a special event or do some collaborative thing with other artists. There's a very personal touch that gets added with the festival. Also, it's very small. We don't allow more than 2,000 people in per day. So it feels like you're in somebody's backyard. You recognize the same faces every day and the artists are basically never backstage. They're always out watching other artists. It has a very cool, very laid back kind of backyard party atmosphere.

The challenges are obviously tied to that we don't want large scale corporate sponsorship. We do take donations from companies that we like, but we don't have the Budweiser stage. We're paying for the festival through municipal grants and through ticket sales. Scrounging up the money every year is obviously a challenge. but we're going to keep doing it that way until it's like kind of like life or death. I really enjoy the freedom of not having a major corporate sponsor. Obviously running a festival with limited means is challenging. It stretches everybody to their limit every year. But that's fun. Until it's not.

Snarky Puppy at GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach
Snarky Puppy at GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach

Don't rain.

Yea, don’t rain.

I'm surprised in a way that there aren't more festivals like that because people listen to all kinds of music.

That’s the objective of the festival. We don't think of it as a place for you to go see your favorite artist that plays every festival everywhere on earth. We look at it as we're trying to create a discovery point for people who are kind of very curious, hungry listeners who want something new in their life. Maybe they recognize two or three names of the 21, but then they come and they’ve become fans of 18 more. We really try to keep the programming super diverse not just in terms of gender and race, but in terms of age and in terms of style. Generally, we have between 15 and 30 countries represented every year in terms of performers. The bottom line is music. Music that sounds good. If you are a curious person, then, in my opinion, you leave that festival with a lot of homework to do—a lot of back listening, based on the artists that you saw.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”