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Snarky Puppy: The Limits of Control

Behind the climb of fusion's new heavyweights

Snarky Puppy at the 2014 Grammy Awards. Bandleader and bassist Michael League is second from right.
Snarky Puppy, Newport Jazz Festival 2014
Snarky Puppy's Michael League in the studio. Photo courtesy of Michael League
Michael League and early Snarky Puppy at the University of North Texas. Photo courtesy of Michael League

Snarky Puppy began as a bunch of music-obsessed undergrads at the University of North Texas, and now it’s the most popular instrumental band in the country. The explanation, it would seem, has to do with the ability to raise precision and prowess to a grand scale while making it look good for YouTube. Forty-five years after Weather Report’s debut, in the era of the niche, an audience still waits at the waterline between jazz chops and pop aesthetics-though the definition of both has changed.

The band’s lineup ranges from a dozen musicians to nearly three times that, depending on the gig. Its carefully scripted songs tend to last well over six minutes. With a Herculean touring schedule, 200-show years are common.

The group has been at the grindstone for over a decade, but it just released its major-label debut in May, the high-soaring Sylva (Impulse!), recorded last year with the Metropole Orkest. Bandleader, composer and bassist Michael League, 31, wrote each of the seven tunes with a forest in mind, some real and some fictional. He’s long used real-world phenomena as inspiration: Music makes a lot of sense as a set of problems to solve, he says, but getting it to flow out freely from an emotional stimulus is hard.

“It’s very easy when you’re composing to get lost in the music of music,” he says. “I try to keep a tangible thing in the forefront of my mind when I’m composing, like a North Star, so that if I start to get lost in the mechanics of what I’m writing, it’ll bring me back to ‘Am I accomplishing my goal? Am I still communicating?’

“With Sylva these were specific forests,” he adds. “So whenever I got to a point where I was having writer’s block, or I hit an obstacle, I would just try to remember: What specifically am I talking about here? What elements are unique to this forest as opposed to other forests?”

Snarky Puppy’s performances come across as synchronized high-wire acts, but they never let go of evenness or control. The stakes don’t rise any more quickly than the volume, and never become out of hand. “We’ve crafted in lots of [full-band] hits that sound spontaneous, but we’ve been doing it for so long that they’ve become part of the composition,” keyboardist Bill Laurance says.

League’s dense compositions tend to interlock many parts and unfold over a number of sections. At any moment, two things are expected of all the musicians onstage: whip-quick chops, and an ability to make grand statements without distracting from the band’s tight interplay. After beginning as a kind of semi-scripted jam band, Snarky Puppy has settled into its role as the executor of League’s vision. “The ideas have become more and more specific over the years,” explains Laurance, who’s been with the band almost since its founding. “Before, we would let things grow more organically and find their own way, whereas these days the demos are a lot more specific and everything is prescribed a lot more clearly.” Still, he says, onstage, “we’re all constantly pushing each other.”

The band members agree on what constituted Snarky Puppy’s watershed. It came in 2008, when Snarky Puppy’s members were still studying at UNT in Denton, Texas. The group’s sound was a blend of Pat Metheny’s smoother side, New Orleans brass bands and the guitar shredding of Umphrey’s McGee.

One morning League got an invitation to play a church gig in nearby Dallas; when he arrived he discovered that the band contained a handful of musicians from Roy Hargrove’s neo-soul-leaning RH Factor group. It was the kind of serendipity that’s commonplace on Dallas’ R&B and gospel scenes; an hour away, on Denton’s college campus, these things don’t really happen. “All of Fred Hammond’s guys, all of Erykah Badu’s guys, all of Snoop Dogg’s guys, all of Marcus Miller’s guys, the RH Factor guys-they were all just living in Dallas,” League says. “I was like, ‘What the hell, man? I went to school for four years, 40 miles away from these guys, without ever knowing that they were there.'”

Energized, League started bringing the rest of the band out to jam sessions in Dallas, and endeared himself to the area funk legend Bernard Wright. “When they would come they would soak it all in,” remembers drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, then a major figure on the Dallas scene who played in Badu’s backing band and is now Snarky Puppy’s main drummer. “The music that Snarky plays now probably came from that; it was like a melting pot.”

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Originally Published