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Catching up with Snarky Puppy’s Michael League

Musical socialism for normal people

Michael League of Snarky Puppy
Snarky Puppy 2013

Michael League is a bassist, guitarist, composer, arranger and producer with Snarky Puppy, a project started 10 years ago as a young ensemble experiment that has since expanded into a collective encompassing around 40 musicians.

After a busy year of touring with the band, League spent two weeks in Cataluña, Spain, on vacation while arranging music for Family Dinner Vol. 2, the band’s followup to its 2013 guest-filled live recording (the track “Something,” with Lalah Hathaway, took the Best R&B Performance Grammy for 2013). While in Spain, League visited Valencia, invited by Berklee College of Music to teach a master class to international students. We spoke to him during a break.

You played around 200 concerts last year. What about 2014 results, did the Grammy Award push you even more?

A lot changed after the Grammy. We started getting better offers, selling more tickets, playing in bigger venues, making more money … Things got more comfortable on the road: staying in nice hotels, taking in some tourism on the tour bus, which is amazing … Yes, things changed a lot. It is great; it is much better for us.

Which are your projects for 2015?

We recorded a live album DVD with the Metropole Orkest, which is called Sylba and will be come out in April. I had a lot of fun on this project. I would like to write more music for orchestras. And in February we’ll record Family Dinner Vol. 2. I am arranging the music for the singers. The repertoire is going to be very diverse; it’s gonna have music in at least three languages. We have people like David Crosby, Susana Baca from Peru, Salif Keïta from Mali … And there are other artists. I am trying to pick music that showcases those artists in a different light than they are accustomed to. I like to show a different side of the artist. That is kind of my goal a little bit. Each singer will be placed with a different guest instrumentalist; we are going to put them together in a kind of weird combination. I think it’s gonna be really cool!

You signed with Impulse! last October. Will you launch both albums with this label?
Family Dinner Vol.2 probably will be independent; maybe I’ll do it with my label, Ground UP, and Sylba will come out with Impulse!

What is the difference between the audiences in different countries? You shared on your Facebook page some photos from a night in Dublin (Ireland) and it looked like a Rolling Stones concert!

Yes, that was crazy! Every country is different. For example, in Ireland they go nuts. In Japan they are super quiet and clap very politely at the end of each tune. In Spain it goes both ways, actually. In Scotland they are pretty crazy. In the Netherlands they listen very attentively and they are very responsive. It depends on the venue, on the part of the country… India was really cool! They were very, very, energetic and enthusiastic. That was very cool.

Nowadays you live on the road, traveling and playing around the world. How do you feel when you go back to New York?

It’s always good to be home. I am never there. Playing there is great. There are always a lot of great musicians, friends of ours, and we always take them on to the stage to play with us.

You have opened the doors for a new kind of audience, music fans who are not necessarily jazz aficionados. You appeal to people that are not directly related to jazz music.

We try to reach non-musicians and, at the very least, girlfriends of musicians [laughs]. It is funny: When you go to see jazz concerts a lot of times they are all musicians and I don’t like that. I think that if that’s the case, you are probably doing something wrong. Well, not wrong, but you are just to not reaching the normal human being. And I want to do that. The kind of music that we play is hard, especially without a singer, but we try to strike a balance of playing music that regular human beings will enjoy and musicians will also enjoy on another level. If you can keep the music deep and vital, but also keep it fun enough in a way that people can love it without understanding it, that’s what we want.

How do you get that kind of balance?

For me it’s just about writing music that makes me feel good, that makes me happy, and what I enjoy. When we play something that sounds complicated I make sure that we simplify it. And also, I am a really bad singer and I write all of our melodies by singing. So because I am not a good singer all the melodies tend to be simple and catchy. Little tricks like that and other things, like if you can’t move your body to it, then we don’t play it.

How are the roles of each member managed when you sometimes have 15 people on the stage?

Each song is specifically designed for everyone to have space, so everyone plays his part. And when we are improvising the guys are sensitive enough musicians to be aware. Everyone is thinking like a producer the whole time on the stage so they are listening to each other, and looking for the most appropriate thing to play or not to play. I trust the individual musicians for sure!

And how do you decide who is going to be a member of the band?

Wow! At this point we have 30-40 guys, so it’s kind of like, if you play a gig and then you play another gig you are in the band. There is not an initiation ceremony or something [smiles].

A lot of musicians complain about their music being free on the Internet, but I think that Snarky Puppy has reached this level of fame thanks to it, because your videos went viral, especially the “Something” one with Lalah Hathaway. It is as if you socialized your music.

Yeah, yeah [laughs]. I’ve never thought about it I that way: musical socialism. But yeah, we did it! We tried for years not doing it in that way. For five years maybe nothing was available online without buying it; it was just on iTunes. And then we made a DVD and I thought, let’s put it on YouTube and see if anyone in the world cares about us, because nobody cared about us. And we did, and suddenly people from all over the world contacted us. Then I realized it was working. Then we did another DVD, and then we got more and more fans online. And the ironic thing was that the more stuff that we put online, the more people bought our album-they watched the videos and then they bought the album. And it was a big revelation. And if they don’t buy the album they come to the shows, or sometimes they also buy the album after the show.

You are really active in teaching and spreading the importance of musical education. Even in your Grammy award speech you asked for support.

Yes, of course. I think it is super important. In the United States art school programs are being cut. If you are not feeding the kids with a balanced diet, nourishing every part of them, you are really shorting the potential of an entire generation. All the things that I studied at school shaped me as a person, I studied history and I am not historian but it helped me to understand life. Studying art and music at school helps in the way children interact with the world. I am super committed because it is very important. It is very important you leave the world a little better than your found it.

How do you see your future?

I would like the band to push itself and challenge itself to make music in different contexts that forces us to play differently. I would like to do something with a dance company, multimedia stuff. I’d really like to make a record on the terrace of Parc Güell in Barcelona; that would be very cool! And, of course, continuing working in the education field. I would like to set up a music camp, some kind of summer program to work with young musicians, like a mentorship. We are going to work on our label, GroundUP, to make it more than a label. There will be a lot of stuff going on! As long as I can keep playing with musicians that I love, and playing music that I care about, I am cool!

Originally Published