Snarky Puppy's Michael League.
The Grammy-Award winning collective Snarky Puppy has taken the global music scene by storm with their refreshing compositions and arrangements, melting jazz, funk, soul and world music into a pot that is their sound. Their down-to-earth, organic stage presence makes their live shows a joy to watch. "Immigrance" is their 12th album, out now.
Our editor Josh Oudendijk talked to founder and band-leader Michael League three days ahead of their Rockhal show about Snarky Puppy's sound, the band's vibe, and the importance of getting to know music outside of music school classrooms.
How are you doing? How are things on the road?
We’re good! The end is very, very near which is cool because we have been out since April, more or less. The band’s having a lot of fun on stage and everyone is in good spirits. We don’t really get out much on tour, though, as we leave straight after the show each night and we basically play every day, so not much time to hang out.
There is this familiar, family-like warmth in Snarky Puppy that welcomes the listener and really draws an audience into your music. There’s something so personal and approachable to you as a group that is very refreshing, but I'm not sure how to describe it.
Yeah, for us when we play a concert it’s not really a show, we don’t think of it as “we’re going to go on stage and do the show”, it’s a very informal and natural relationship that we have with it, making music together. And then it just happens to have a PA system and lights and people in front of you. But by being a band for so long and playing in front of so many people in very small places, I think that we have maintained that relationship with music with each other, keeping things explorative and trying to create a new experience every night rather than going on stage and trying to put on a spectacle.
You radiate a strong, positive energy when you’re performing.
Yeah, that makes sense, especially because the attitude of the members of the band is very social, open and welcoming. It would make sense that the music would come across that way.
So how do you keep those creative juices flowing as a group? You’re involved in so many different projects. Do you struggle in certain moments?
Yeah, 100%, there’s a lot of moments of struggle. But you know at this point I think one of the nice things of having so many different people in the band is that you get so many different kinds of energy and renewals of energy, and freshness when one person leaves and another person comes in.
But with so many people around you don’t get to spend it all together. You spend it with each person in small chunks, which to me is the best way to experience anyone. You don’t want to spend 24 hours a day with anyone, no matter how much you love them or care about them. It’s nice to have lunch with one of them, dinner with another, and a beer with a member of the crew. It’s cool. It’s a good incubator for creativity and new ideas, I love it.
Is it maybe also the fact that you have so many different projects going on at the same time that that boosts your creativity?
I think on an individual level people are constantly learning. With everyone pursuing their own things and projects they come back to the band after a tour or studies of their own. They then have something new that they are bringing that we all benefit from.
Do you see Snarky Puppy as a generational collective that at some point becomes your legacy? Could you imagine having band members’ children coming up next?
(laughs) I definitely have thought about how the band could continue, but never about those two things specifically. I started it and, well, kind of run and direct the musical and business element of the band alongside the manager. But yeah, it definitely could be. It would be hard to imagine the band without the people who are in it know, but you never know. But I guess we’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, which hopefully won’t be for a long time!
You said you write a lot of music for the group, have you given more and more space to others in leading the music over time?
Each person in the band writes. As the years have gone on I have definitely given more room to them. On the first record it was all my songs, on the second record it was 80% my songs, and now it’s 50%. I let people write what they want to write, we bring them in, and we’ll rehearse them. Of course I’ll then engage with the song as the producer, but not as a composer or co-composer.
I read in an interview that you also see yourself more as a producer on stage?
Yeah, but I think everyone is doing that on stage, kind of thinking and acting like a producer, so that they don’t need to be told about what they need to do.
You are very involved with teaching and music education. Many music institutions these days seem to function as “factories” in producing “artists” rather than a place for you to explore your creativity. Would you see that this is affecting musicians’ individuality? What’s your view on music education in general?
I think that no institution is perfect, just like the government, for example. I think that the aim of the institution is generally the most dominant factor in how positive or negative it is. For music schools, the aim is to educate people to be better musicians, so I think it’s an overwhelmingly positive thing. I do think that there are a lot of negatives to music schools, the most obvious being the attempt to teach music that is from the street in a setting that is the opposite of the street, and often by people that don’t have that lineage.
If you want to study carnatic Indian music, then you’re going to study with a person in Southern India that comes from a tradition of teachers that are closely connected with the cultures and forms in which that music lives. But carnatic Indian music is a very specific music that is conducive to being taught in an academic environment, so it kind of makes sense. But blues or jazz, if you’re studying that in school and you’re studying from a teacher that has a degree in pedagogy or music education and who’s music teachers were music education teachers, and you’re someone that is growing up in the suburbs taking music lessons at your local school, then you are not connected in any kind of way to the culture or lineage of it. I wouldn’t say culture, cause it’s not about blood, but the culture that birthed that music so you can learn all the scales, all the modes and transcribe all the solos. But there is a good chance that something is going to be missing. So I think that as long as you look at school as one of many sources of information that you can access, and not as the definitive source of information, then it’s fine.
Supplement your music education with a mentor who really knows how the music works and comes from the actual tradition or culture of that music, or you have the opportunity like we had as a band to play on the gospel music scene for years and getting inside the culture of jazz, with its black American origin. For me this is not an American elitist point of view, because I grew up and consider myself to be as much as a foreigner to jazz culture as a person from Luxembourg. The fact that that culture was right next to me didn’t have much of an impact on me until I really engaged with it, it’s just more accessible for me than someone from Luxembourg.
I remember my first time playing in a black church as a teenager, and having this feeling of: “wow, this feeling is different to the music I am used to playing, but it feels familiar”. Then I went to jazz school, and after jazz school basically only played in black churches and clubs for three years in Dallas. I remember after going through jazz university the first time I played jazz in a black church again, I felt like: “this is jazz!”. And this is more jazz than anything I have ever learned in university. This is the spirit, the culture, the mentality and the life and energy of all the jazz music I love, and nothing I did at college had that.
Even though the vocabulary is different in a church, that is the origin of music in that culture. And that culture is still very highly preserved in the United States. That’s not saying that if you’re from Luxembourg and you want to learn jazz you should move to the United States and play on the black American music scene, but it is their music.
I think there is a bit of a “pass” with jazz and rock ‘n’ roll that’s like: “it’s the world’s music”. I think we feel that way because it’s been marketed to the world very well, but it specifically comes from one community within one country. I believe that that deserves the same amount of respect as Carnatic music from India. You can definitely go to a school and study carnatic music, and it will give you what I like to call the nuts and bolts of the fundamentals of the music, but to get the spirit and the energy and the passion and spirituality of it, you’re going to need to have experiences that are outside of classrooms.
Snarky Puppy's latest studio album Immigrance.
Tracing back to the source?
As close as you can get. I mean, sure, there are people that watch videos, listen to records and deeply understand the music, but music is not separable from culture, and if you’re not experiencing the culture you’re not seeing 100% of the picture. I really put myself in this "student mode" in this way in that I am studying Moroccan and Turkish music at the moment, but I go there and study with teachers that are from there. Of course I am also listening to the records every day, but I make the effort to do everything I can to get as close to the source as I possibly can. I would find it hard to believe that you could ever meet a person that has studied one of these types of music, and has gone there to learn it, and came back and said, “I didn’t learn anything!”. It’s inherent and explicit that you’re going to learn, but differently than in the classroom.
Think about it as a language because music is a language. If you’re going to learn a language, you can download Duolingo, get a vocabulary book on verbs and conjugations, you watch films in Spanish, you do your own translations, you find people that speak Spanish and talk to them. But then you hopefully take the time to visit a Spanish speaking country to experience the culture within it lives. And the belief that you’re going to have a masterful command over a language without having that last thing, or at least three of those things listed above, is kind of naïve, I think.
I see you’re also learning new instruments from the region.
Yeah, I am studying Oud, Dhol, Daf, Gimbri and some other things.
Are you using them in your live set-up? Or something for the future?
I play Oud with this other band, called Bokanté, but most of them I just play when I am recording.
Snarky Puppy will be live at Rockhal on November 25.