Correspondence Of Course
Michael League and Snarky Puppy are a creative movement
Brooklyn-based Snarky Puppy is a more of a movement than a traditional band. Blending elements of jazz, funk, rock and world music, the large ensemble is led by bassist/composer/producer Michael League. Primarily an instrumental combo, the Grammy Award-winning group has included vocalists and has backed singers, including at a recent Carnegie Hall performance. In addition to touring and recording, the band also presides over the ambitious GroundUP festival and record label. I'm not a big fan of email interviews, but when Snarky Puppy's rep said League was suffering from a polyp on his vocal chords, an email conversation was the only way to proceed.
What's the prognosis on the polyp? I don't see any shows listed until the GroundUP fest this month, but I know you had to endure the Carnegie Hall show last night.
It's still there but behaving better now. I took six and a half weeks out of touring last fall and went to Istanbul to rest my voice. I only spoke for a few minutes each day, which was amazing (for everyone, I'm sure). I used the opportunity to write music and study daf and oud.
The Carnegie show sounds like it was a tremendous event. Obviously your friend and collaborator David Crosby was a highlight, but how did it all come together? Do you enjoy playing the larger halls or do you prefer the intimacy of smaller clubs?
We were actually approached by a promoter named Danny Kapilian, who pitched us the idea of doing a concert at Carnegie celebrating protest music. I chose the guests and together we made the setlist. It was an incredible night of music with Crosby, Laura Mvula, Chris Thile, and Fatoumata Diawara. In general I prefer playing small rooms but I'm never going to say no to Carnegie Hall.
A number of familiar protest songs were performed, but the last time I spoke with Crosby, he said the ultimate contemporary protest song hasn't happened yet. An anthem for the modern era. Do you think the world is too segmented now to agree on the universal appeal of a protest song? Having said that, I know you enjoy challenges, are you working on one for the next gathering?
Writing a song like "Ohio" is not easy. It has to be simple, and it has to hit upon a specific sentiment that already exists in a great number of people's hearts. I heard a really fantastic one by a guy named James Shipp, but it makes fun of the size of certain body parts more than uniting the world in protest. That said, it's really brilliant. In addition, the kinds of artists who make protest music are not in the mainstream now as they were in the '60s. That makes it more difficult. I'm definitely writing some songs about the current climate but none of them have the task of becoming "the ultimate protest song."
Since we've mentioned Crosby, it was actually your work with him on the Lighthouse album and tour that really solidified my appreciation of you as an artist. I was familiar with you before that, but that particular album and the first show of the tour in Atlanta were just beautiful works of art. How did you first start working with him? And what is the songwriting process like with him? (He told me that you are one of his favorite people to collaborate with. That's high praise.)
Crosby just started tweeting at us one day. Like, REALLY tweeting at us. And he didn't stop. So after about a week and somewhere around 2 or 3 dozen tweets, I sent him a direct message with my phone number. He called me, we talked, I invited him to be a guest on our Family Dinner - Volume 2 album, and we hit it off. Then he asked me to produce Lighthouse, which was amazing. We hung out at his place in California writing and getting material together then tracked in Santa Monica with my good friend Fab Dupont. It was a real pleasure from start to finish (but don't tell Croz I said that).
What were the highlights of the Lighthouse project and then the tour kick-off show in Atlanta? Crosby said he was a little nervous before that show because of the level of musicianship in that band.
To me, the highlight was really just making music with those three beautiful people every night. I have such respect for Michelle Willis and Becca Stevens and to sing and play together each night with Croz was really special. We became like a family, and it opened up creative doors for the new album that the four of us will be recording in April in New York.
Since the GroundUP festival is approaching, tell us a little about it. It's not a typical festival, it seems much more interactive.
We've designed it to be a very unique experience, and more importantly, a discovery point for audience members. All of the artists are accomplished but I don't headhunt for big names when putting the roster together. I try to create a balanced lineup of artists from different musical traditions, all of whom are engaging and artful performers. It's a very intimate festival- only 1,500 guests per day- and it makes you feel like you're in your buddy's back yard (if your buddy owned a palm tree grove on Miami Beach). We have two stages that alternate so the listener is able to watch every second of performance from every single artist if they choose. It's catered by award-winning local chefs. We represent local Florida brews. We have late night shows until 4 a.m. There are masterclasses and loads of extracurricular activities that help to dissolve the barrier between artist and audience.
The GroundUP label is as ambitious as the festival of the same name. It's a good time for independent music and you seem to be making the most of the freedom from standard major label demands. How did it start and how will it expand over the next few years?
The label started out of the idea that Snarky Puppy's growing audience could be redirected in a way, to appreciate other unknown artists. This has proven to be the case and the label has taken on a life of its own. We've released some very special records over the last seven years, and it looks like we'll be slowing down for a while until the industry catches its breath. The streaming revolution has done a lot of good things for making music more accessible worldwide. But it has definitely failed to consider (or has intentionally ignored) the effect that it can have on labels and independent artists who previously relied on modest album sales to keep their careers afloat. The festival is one of the ways in which we're trying to use an obstacle to create an opportunity.
The band is a large ensemble. I know how difficult it is to navigate the dynamics of a four or five piece, but this is a large group of artistic people to corral. How do you steer clear of creative traffic-jams? Are the songs collaborative efforts or do you bring in most of the primary song structures? How many members are there at this point and how many will be on stage at the Atlanta show?
Our band has between 8 and 10 people on tour at any given time. There are always about 8 to 10 more waiting in the wings, and this system of rotation gives everyone the freedom to have other musical outlets. When we write songs, we don't actually write them together. They're written individually and then rehearsed and arranged as a group, which is the moment in which the song begins to sound like Snarky Puppy. The sound has definitely evolved over the years from a kind of world-jazz thing into something else - which I like a lot. At this point, I think we're just doing what is natural.
The Variety engagement features two of your frequent guests as openers, FORQ and Alina Engibaryan. Both are directly connected to you of course, but tell us a bit about both acts. I know FORQ is your small combo and I know you produced Alina's album. Please fill us in the specifics.
Alina Engibaryan is one of the newest additions to the GroundUP roster, along with Sirintip and pedal steel master Roosevelt Collier. She's half Russian and half Armenian and was the winner of the Montreaux Vocal Jazz Competition a few years ago. I produced her new album We Are, which features SP drummer Larnell Lewis as well as jazz heavyweights Chris Potter (sax) and Taylor Eigsti (keyboards). FORQ is a group that I was a part of when it formed many years ago, but now Atlanta native Kevin Scott is holding down the bass chair. He's a friend of mine from more than a decade ago (and got Snarky Puppy its first ATL gig at the Five Spot!). It features Henry Hey on keyboards as well as SP members Jason "JT" Thomas on drums and Chris McQueen on guitar.
Snarky Puppy plays February 14 and 15 at the Variety Playhouse. For more information on the GroundUP festival and label, visit groundupmusic.net.