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For our final installment in the Snarky Guitars series, All About Jazz spoke with Chris McQueen. McQueen's inclinations as a player often push him into more textural, integral and rhythmic roles that sometimes leave him the least conspicuous of the "SP Three," but he has done much to challenge that perception in recent times. In addition to his continuing work with Snarky Puppy
, McQueen released an enthralling acoustic duo album with fellow Austin guitarist Matt Read in 2017 entitled Western Theater
. Perhaps most noticeable though is his growing assertive presence as both a player and composer in the band Forq
, culminating impressively on the group's recent release, Four. McQueen spoke with All About Jazz in late December 2019. All About Jazz:
Well first off, congratulations on Bokante's Grammy nomination for What Heat?
(Real World, 2018). Chris McQueen:
Yeah. It's crazy, we did not see that coming. AAJ:
You should be an old hand at it by now. How many times have you been to the Grammys? CM:
Well, I've been twice. The third time that Snarky Puppy got nominated, the ceremony was during The GroundUp Music Festival, so we didn't go. I think pretty much everyone in Bokante going to go this year so this will be the third time for me. We'll all get an AirBnB or something. It's not a thing I ever expected to do. AAJ:
It's pretty amazing. Seemingly everything Snarky Puppy or Michael League
is involved with, despite usually looking like it should never work on paper, turns out to defy or exceed the conventional wisdom. CM:
Yeah, and that's kind of always been our style, even early on when we were doing our "DIY" gigs around Texas and New Orleans. I mean there was always shit going wrong and vehicles breaking but I think a lot of organizations' attitudes are determined from the top. One of the things Mike did and still does really well is always keeping it about, "What is the solution?" Never getting visibly frustrated or blaming or accusatory. It's almost like a joyful, "Alright, shit broke, life is funny, let's figure out a way to make this work." I think that [attitude] is really important for an operation that has as many barriers to success as an instrumental jazz fusion band does. You have to be willing to put up with a lot of things going wrong, for a long time, before things might go right. Those things still happen on some level, it never goes away. Now we have buffers and people in place to take care of problems as they arise. I think the organization still maintains that attitude because the person on top is still relatively in charge, vibe-wise. You don't really get hired into the organization or you won't last unless you are cool with that attitude.
I've been in other bands where that hasn't been the case. People get at each other's throats or just get frustrated with how hard it all is. If a tour didn't go well, they be like, "This really sucks," or "Maybe this just wasn't meant to be." If that's your attitude, yeah you're going to stop.It's too difficult to keep going unless you're willing to take that stuff as it comes and keep moving forward. AAJ:
What immediately comes to mind is how Snarky Puppy handled Robert Sput Searight
not being able to make the European recording sessions for We Like It Here
(GroundUp, 2014) at the eleventh hour. You were all there ready to make an album and ... no drummer. CM:
That may be the biggest example of that. No one knew that record was going to go as far as it did and I don't even know how much money was riding on that album. It was a lot of money in our terms at least so we couldn't say, "Yeah, we flew over and had all the stuff in place, but we couldn't make the album." That wasn't going to work. Something needed to happen so we could make an album. Magically, Larnell Lewis
I feel like karma is a real thing. Not in some way where you do something and are magically rewarded for it. I think that karma is true in that when you treat people a certain way, you get that in return. To call up Larnell and say, "Hey, I need you to cancel several gigs, fly over here the day after tomorrow, learn twelve really hard songs, for less money..." most people wouldn't have made that happen. But I think because Mike and the whole band have always had the attitude of being cool with people and trying to make friends with everyone throughout our tours over the years, that goodwill kind of accumulates. I think somehow Larnell must have understood, from his few times playing with the band, that it was going to be a worthwhile experience, even though it seemed kind of insane. AAJ:
Tell a little bit about how you first got into Snarky Puppy. CM:
I met Mike at our freshman orientation [at the University of North Texas] the week before school started. We were all in this very excitable group of young jazz kids. Prior to that, I had been one of maybe three kids at my high school that were excited about jazzkids that knew all these records and wanted to jam and play. Now I'm suddenly in this environment where everyone there is truly excited about jazz. The vibe was super cool and everyone was excited about coming to school and playing music together. There were hallway jam sessions with maybe a piano and people playing drumsticks on things... all this young college energy.
That was how we met, in that environment and Mike was pretty quick early on in getting groups together. It seems like it has always been a continuous momentum since then. He was a creative person so he had some arrangements and there were a lot of ensembles built into the program. You would have an ensemble as part of a class and we would do some of his arrangements there. But also there would be jam sessions in Bruce Hall that he would organize or small concerts where we would play standards or cool originals. I say cool but they were probably more like nerdy little, overly thought-out arrangements. (laughs)
That's kind of how the band started, in that environment. I don't know if Mike always had it in his head like, "I'm going to have a band and it's going to look like this" and he just sort of hid that from people so he wouldn't freak them out. AAJ:
What do you mean? Why would it freak people out? CM:
In that environment, everyone is really busy playing in a bunch of different groups and everyone thinks they are going to be the next Pat Metheny
. No one's thinking, "I'm going to be in a band and go on tour." Everyone thinks they are going to be the next big thing and is trying to make a name for themselves. I think if he had said, "I want to start a band, make records and tour..." everyone would have been like, "I don't have time for that, man." I think he kind of figured out that he had to keep it cool and make it like a [school] ensemble. Then little by little he could say, "Let's play around town a little." or maybe "Let's make a record." No big deal. Then one day we had a meeting at his apartment and he said how he really just wanted to make this into a real band, go on tour and go to New Orleans and Hattiesburg where he had a couple of connections. All of us had never even thought about touring. It had never entered my mind. Even though I had grown up playing in a bunch of bands, when I started studying jazz I threw all that away and said, "Bands are dumb, rock is dumb, I'm a jazz guy now." (laughs) Mike had the foresight that touring was possible and once we started touring regionally, it made a band possible.
The next major part for the band was combining ourselves with the r+b / jazz / funk / gospel scene already existing in Dallas. For whatever reason, there just this wall between the two and they hardly ever intermingled. It's crazy because we all loved [Roy Hargrove
's] RH Factor and didn't realize that entire band was living forty minutes south of us in Dallas. Jam sessions, church gigs and meeting the right people started to change that [division]. Robert "Sput" Searight was the first person who let us come into the jam sessions and kept inviting us back. He was very welcoming and of course ended up being our main drummer for a lot of those early years. That combination was the ingredient that kept us from just being a college ensemble. AAJ:
During those early years, you ended up being in other bands while you were in Snarky Puppy, right? CM:
Around the time Snarky Puppy was getting started, I also started a rock band with a vocalist friend of mine, Adrian Hulet. He was coming from the other world where he had not studied music formally but had always played drums and piano and sang in bands. He had a bunch of songs that he wrote and would just come over and hang out. At some point I realized that music is music. There's different styles and you still use the same musical sensibilities. Finally I said, "Why am I pretending like I don't want to be in a rock band?" So we started the band Oso Closo. We were kind of a weird rock band in that we got a bunch of other people from the jazz program to be in the band. I think it was kind of cool in a way though because we didn't play anything remotely jazzy. We had these extremely complicated arrangements with epic guitar solos, lots of vocal harmonies and weird chords. We played all the rock venues in the Dallas / Fort Worth / Denton area. We played gigs with Snarky Puppy too. Sometimes Snarky Puppy would open for us and sometimes we would open for them. For a while there, both bands had an equal regional popularity but Snarky Puppy ended up overtaking Oso Closo pretty quickly. AAJ:
So you were splitting time between the bands in the beginning. Was there ever a period where you the main guitarist in Snarky Puppy? CM:
Mostly it was me and Bob Lanzetti
in the beginning but I think it was more me for a while after Bob moved to New York and Mike was still living in Dallas. Bob was always still involved and then when Mark Lettieri
came in we all kind of traded off. When Mike moved to New York, both Mark and I were still in Texas so Bob was pretty much the main guy. I would do tours with SP but by then Oso Closo had broken up and I had started another band called Foe Destroyer. I always had my own projects that I was trying to focus on in addition to Snarky Puppy. AAJ:
So you stayed in Denton for a while after graduating UNT and then relocated to Austin, correct? CM:
I lived in Denton for eight years and then moved back to Austin, which is where I'm from. AAJ:
You've now lived and worked in two major music scenes in Texas. How would you compare the two? CM:
I grew up in Austin and I always loved the fact that it's a music city. In the years before college, I played in some blues and rock bands there when I was young and I also went to this rock and roll camp called the Natural Ear Music Camp. That was a seminal experience for me. The owner of the camp Mike Murphy also ran what was basically a "kid band" based around this guitarist Will Knaakwho's still in Austin and amazing. Back then though, he was 12 years old and amazing. So like I said, back then I did play a lot of gigs around Austin, but as a 13 year-old kid, it was always chauffeured and I really didn't get a real taste of the scene back then. Then I left Austin right after high school.
After I spent eight years in the Denton / Dallas scene with jazz school and gigging, I moved back to Austin thinking, "Well, if Dallas is like this, then Austin must be even better." But I found that Austin really doesn't have the scene that Dallas does. They do have a great music scene with a lot of musicians but it doesn't have the ridiculous level of musicianship that Dallas has at its base. There are a lot of factors for that. One is that Dallas has Booker T. Washington High School. A lot of the musicians that played in RH Factor and Erykah Badu
's band came out of that school. There are generations of amazing talent, focused on playing jazz from an early age, coming out of there. We don't have something like that in Austin. It's possible that may change. There's supposed to be an arts magnet high school now here.
Another unavoidable fact is that there just aren't as many African Americans in Austin. That's an essential part of a lot of good American music it seems. Jazz, funk, fusion all those styles started in black America. Austin definitely has a blues background but not so much outside the specific genre of Texas blues. Dallas has a very strong, wide history of jazz, funk, soul and gospel.
So I guess to be honest, yeah, I was a little disappointed when I moved back here. I go back to Dallas sometimes and also play with a lot of Dallas people on tour in Snarky Puppy and FORQit's cool to stay connected. All this is not to say that Austin doesn't have really great musicians though, because I play with a lot of them. It's just that with Dallas, If I were to list all of the great keyboard players I know, and drummers, and bass playersthe list would just be huge, massive. All of them players that are going to crush it no matter what. In Austin, it's like, yeah there are a few peoplebut if they can't make it, I don't know...
A giant caveat on that is that when I was in Dallas, I wasn't leaving [the scene] all that much. Now that I'm in Austin, I'm on tour about half the time so there are a lot of circles of musicians that I'm not in touch with. Every once in a while I'll get some random gigs and I'm like, "I didn't realize these people were here." So I think that there are some really great sources of music in Austin, but I'm not as connected to them as I would like to be. AAJ:
Well one Austin musician you did connect with was guitarist Matt Read for your acoustic duo record, Western Theater
(Self Produced, 2017). Can you talk about that a little? CM:
Sure I was just over at his place rehearsing for a house concert tomorrow. We'll be premiering a bunch of new songs. Over the last six months we've been getting together and writing with the goal of recording a new album early in 2020. We've got six new tunes we'll be trotting out and we'll be doing some more shows. It's cool and it's a completely different thing to do. Playing acoustically is a completely different challenge. You can't rely on a lot of the things you're used to relying on. AAJ:
Your work with Matt Read, FORQ and Snarky Puppy is often so eclectic that you're a hard guy to pin down style- wise. Who would you say influenced you? CM:
I have a hard time with that as well because I do like a lot of different things. I guess I gave up on trying to force myself to have one sound or approach. I guess if the music I'm making is something that I feel inside, then that's enough. It doesn't matter if it makes sense next to something I've already made. Hopefully it does in some grand sense but I don't think I can force that to happen. I'm not going to only make electric music or this or that kind of music because that's my "sound." It's weird because the guitar players that I love and have studied all have a very identifiable sound. I obviously was into guys like Metheny, John Scofield
and Jim Hall
. I was also super into Brian May. Each of these people you can pick out their sound instantly. But I'm also into Bill Frisell
. He's a guy who sound has changed a lot over the years and I seem to be into artists who evolve over time too. One of the reasons why I love Radiohead as much as I do is because throughout their entire history, their transformation from one thing to the next always feels genuine. Just like Miles Davis
, every part of his career was totally different but somehow it feels like there's a logic to it all. So yeah, I don't know, sometimes I feel like I just have too many different interests... AAJ:
Well, I don't know about that, but it is interesting to hear you in all these different scenarios. In Snarky Puppy for instance, you and Bob Lanzetti and Mark Lettieri all are very different players that obviously bring different strengths. But hearing you in FORQ is almost like hearing a totally different player. It's a little like the genie that expands to whatever size bottle he is in. CM:
Yeah, that feels very accurate. I've gotten that from some other people that In FORQ they can actually hear what I sound like. There's a lot more space to fill and as you said, I do tend to expand or contract in a way. I'm easier to hear in FORQ because I'm also responsible for more of what happens. That's daunting but also more fun.
In Snarky Puppy, I'm always aware of the potential of the band to overplay. There are just so many musicians and every one of them is capable of filling every minute of every song. I think in that situation, I tend to subconsciously take a backseat. I don't mean to but I want to balance everything out. If I feel like things are getting a little too "notey" for my personal taste, I might match a part with someone or fill in a gap or add a texture. As a guitarist, I also think of myself as being in the percussion section. I think that's a critical part of playing rhythm guitar and if you are doing your job well you're blending in.
I like to make transitions cool too. I really try to focus on making a sonic moment happen during transitions. I especially have the freedom to do that when there when there's more than one guitarist on stage, but it's not the kind of thing that most people will notice. If you come out blazing with a sweet fill, people will notice that. It makes sense that people are sometimes like, "What is that guy doing?" (laughs) Even my wife will sometimes watch me play and I'll be leaning over, making some kind of cool delay effect happen in a transition and she'd be like, "What was happening there? Were your pedals broken?" (laughs) These are cool things but not everybody catches them. I like to think that it's part of the sound and you experience it subconsciously.
In more recent times with Snarky Puppy, I've tried to let myself take up more space. I'll reach for certain moments. Playing in FORQ has helped me understand how much space you should take up in a solo. Previously in Snarky Puppy, I would be inclined to take a solo almost all the way there and not go to full climax because I was conscious of leaving room for other people. I realized that's not a very effective thing for the listener. They want the full emotional journey that you are capable of giving them.
Early on in FORQ, almost every time, I'd be signaling that I was ready to end my solo and [keyboardist] Henry Hey
would be like, "Nope, you're not done" (laughs) so I'd have to kick it up one more notch. Now, I've kind of re-calibrated myself and hopefully I've brought that back into Snarky Puppy in recent times as well. AAJ:
It's kind of funny you mention imagining yourself as a percussionist in that you also play in Bokantea band consisting of a singer, bassist, four guitarists and three percussionists. Tell a little about your fit in that band. CM:
For me, that [Bokante] is like the best of both worlds because I can be a "percussionist" but I can also play notes. It's hard to put into words but sometimes when I'm playing rhythm guitar and I think I'm playing really cool stuff, if I really listen, I'm actually just getting in the way. A lot of times it's about keeping things steady. Like a good drummer doesn't fill every measure, they save fills for the important moments. That makes them mean more. So when I say I think of myself as a percussionist, it's to make sure I'm in the pocket and creating a cool base for everything else. Bokante is much more like Snarky Puppy in that I pick my moments and because there is a singer, it's even more about playing the parts, as written. There are a lot of riffs and it's all about playing those riffs with conviction and building the song the way it needs to be built. When there are those moments to shine, then you take those moments. AAJ:
Do you write for Snarky Puppy much? CM:
There's a song of mine on The World Is Getting Smaller
(Sitmom Records, 2007) called "Fair Play." That's not a song we ever play live so it doesn't get much of a life. But there is a song on our most recent album, Immigrance
(GroundUp, 2019) I wrote called "Coven." That's the first time I've brought a song in since "Fair Play." I tried to write for the previous album but I couldn't come up with anything that I didn't hate. This time, I was determined not to miss another opportunity to have a song on a Snarky Puppy album so I forced myself to write for a whole week. The first half of that week I was like, "I am the worst musician, I have no good ideas. It's done, I'm never going to write another song." (laughs) Eventually I kind of crafted a couple of ideas into something that I liked. One of those turned into "Coven" and the other didn't make it because we had too many songs. Maybe that will make it onto the next one. I think that I've learned how to force myself to write. Sometimes it's not, but usually it is painful and arduous. AAJ:
You don't find that forcing yourself hinders the creative process in any way? CM:
I don't think so. What I've found is that I am not going to be satisfied with a song unless I actually like it. My tendency is to throw away perfectly good ideas because I didn't think they were good in that particular moment. So now I work on them until I can't anymore and then save them. Those Snarky Puppy songs and a few on FORQ Four came from half-assed Garage Band files and voice memos that I had put away for a while. So I force myself to go back to them, pretend they're good enough, and "fake it till you make it" I guess. Then, about one out of four times, I'll come up with something for it that makes me think maybe it doesn't suck. (laughs) Eventually, I end up writing a song that I like, so I've learned not to give up on them. AAJ:
You seem to have found a nice synergy writing with Henry Hey. That really comes through on the latest album, Four
. Has writing with someone else helped your process? CM:
Most of the co-writing I have done is working on an idea that someone else has had, but couldn't take any further. In the case of the song "M-Theory" [on Four
], I had the whole main theme and chord structure completely laid out but immediately had nothing else after that. Henry then sat down with a cool sound on the keyboard and more or less composed what felt like the next proper emotional journey was for these chord changes on the spot. I may have contributed to that in saying what I liked but mostly that was just him. So that tune is cordoned off into my part and his part, but we did finish each other's ideas really well. There were other tunes that Henry and I co-wrote where we were having ideas at the same time too, though. A lot of the writing I do with Matt Read is like that toobouncing ideas off each other directly and then really getting into the nitty gritty of the parts. For me though, it's pretty hard to have inspiration in front of someone else. It's a very personal thing and there's no way to control it, it just happens. The theme for "M-Theory" came to me when FORQ had a random gig at the Blue Note in Beijing. We walked into this hotel room that was just way too nicewith a spa and everything... So if I have those moments of inspiration, I'll make a voice recording so it doesn't just go away. AAJ:
I wanted to ask you about Snarky Puppy's recording process. You went through a string of six albums where you recorded live, in front of an audience. Then for Culcha Vulcha
(GroundUp, 2016) and Immigrance
, you made the switch back to the more traditional in-studio, with overdubs method. Do you have any preference for either method? CM:
I think as a listener, I prefer the studio [method]. I grew up listening to records and one of the first things I did after I started playing was bug my parents to buy me a four-track recorder. I started recording at home, making terrible music but experimenting. So I have this love of that intimate, cool part of really getting inside the music, overdubbing and laying things on, creating textures and making moments happen. The Snarky Puppy studio albums are still pretty live. We record most of the things that you are hearing all together but then there are options to do other stuffto make a song come alive as a recording itself. As a listener, I would probably listen to Culcha Vulcha
much more than the previous albums just because I don't like live albums that much. But I guess that's why the video is such an important part to go with the recordings on those [live] albums. Seeing the musicians smiling and surprising each other, that's what makes it cool but for just the sound, in and of itself, I prefer the studio records. There's good parts to both though.
The scary part about the live albums is that we really don't have the chance to fix mistakes. I mean I'm sure that there's a little bit of massaging going on behind the scenes but there's stuff that ends up on there that I wish I hadn't played. Like, "If they had just used the next take where I played really well..." (laughs). In a perfect world, Mike could send it out to everyone and ask I anyone had any problems with it but then he'd get like a thousand emails saying, "No man, I just can't live with this." So I guess thankfully he just makes the decision and moves on. That said, there is that energy you get from those live records that you don't always get from a studio album.
It's interesting. When we did Culcha Vulcha
, I wasn't on the main recording dates. I couldn't be there because I was doing Lazarus
, the David Bowie musical, in New York and it was opening week. So I had to miss the main tracking with the band and come in later to overdub my parts and I basically got to just hear that whole album finished except for my parts. Because of that, I've always felt like my evaluation of that album was pretty objective and I would rank that one pretty high. We definitely find though that many people are attached to We Like It Here
. It's the one people tend to gravitate toward and buy the most. Maybe it is that live energy thing. AAJ:
Since you've mentioned it, tell a little about your experience working in the pit band for Lazarus
It was amazing. It's one of those things I just never thought I'd get to be a part of. The crazy thing is, it seems like David Bowie was someone who was actually extremely humble and there were so many things that he did that were not as well known as they should have been, at least to me. There so many of his albums that I didn't know aboutLow, Heroes and the ones he did at the end of the '70sthat are now my favorites. I feel like there was so much music directly influenced by that period and it's pretty unknown. I grew up on rock and roll but my knowledge of David Bowie used to be just the hits and that Nirvana covered one of his songs. (laughs) Before doing Lazarus, I did a ton of research, listening to all his albums and watching interviews he did even the movies he was in. He just did so many things and was such a truly versatile and broad artist. He influenced fashion heavily, movements in dance... there were just so many things. Doing that show was just a massive inspiration for the rest of my artistic thinking. Bowie could have done anything he wantedhe could have done nothing at allbut decides to do these amazing albums and this musical. To end of your life with these incredible artistic statements... yeah, that's what it's all about.
I've done a lot of musicals and it's like this special world you get to be a part of. For a few months you have these friends you see every day, you have inside jokes and experiences with them that no one else understands, and then it's over and done forever. It's like this crazy moment in your life that feels like a dream. That show definitely had that feeling. It was cool and very special. AAJ:
You also had another musical on your resume called Bunkerville
. What was your role in that production? CM:
I basically arranged the music and created the sounds for it. The guy that I worked with on that I had also worked with on a musical called "Fly By Night." On that show, I had been a kind of liaison between the "paper" world of reading notes and cues, and the rock band world because they had brought in my band Foe Destroyed to be in the actual show. We were on stage but kind of in a little area. So ever since I studied music, I've been able to kind of bridge those two worlds, speak both languages. So after I did that for him in "Fly By Night," he wanted the same kind of rock vibe for Bunkerville
. I took all his songs and made the charts for keyboard, guitar, bass and drums. I also made all of the keyboard sounds and got very obsessive with trying to recreate organs, horns and strings. I also set up the keyboards for the production with splits with the different sounds in each of the scenes and programmed it to trigger each [scene] patch with your foot. I never got to see the show so I never knew how Bunkerville
went. I hope it went well.The musicians were probably cursing my name for making it so complicated... (laughs). AAJ:
So you've done one duo record with Matt Read and have another in the works. Any plans for a solo project? CM:
I have had plans for a solo record for a long time. I have almost enough songs to justify doing it but I have yet to set aside the time. I've been so busy with these other projects. This would be an album that I would be singing on. Not really in the jazz world but an amalgamation of all the music I like, in kind of a pop context. I've made it my goal to start recording it by the end of 2020. Far enough out to make sure I can make all the preparations to make that happen.
I'm riddled with this feeling of thinking it's not really good enough. I'm constantly saying,"No one needs that. There's enough music out there." The crazy thing is that you think you are going to put this thing out and people will be like, "Oh cool." but people's attention spans are just so short. You can work your ass off and make something you really care about but if you don't spend the next six months promoting it, no one is ever going to see it. So if you want to make a piece of art in this current social media world, you basically have to commit yourself to being a marketing brand specialist for the next year of your life. AAJ:
What about for personal expression? CM:
I could just put it out because I want to and that's all cool but it's kind of hard to avoid that feeling of, "What was the point?" if no one really listens to it. You kind of have to be a real self-promoter, which my inner child is allergic to. (laughs) But gradually I'm learning how to swallow my pride and self-promote. For some reason I find all that easier to do with a band so I can do videos and promote FORQ but I find it hard to fathom promoting "The Chris McQueen Album." It shouldn't be that way, I guess. It should all just be a normal thing. I'm sure the next generation of kids won't even understand what it is I'm talking about with the way people self-promote today.
It's just crazy. When I was a kid, especially growing up with the alternative rock thing, the whole idea was, "Don't be a sellout." Nirvana and all those bands made us think that was the last thing you should ever want to do. The transition from "never be a sellout" to "Please, can I sell out to someone?" was so quick that no one even noticed. When I first started playing in bands, if someone filmed your show, it was like, "How dare they? This is our stuff, they can't film this!" Now it's like, "Please, everyone film us on as many phones as possible. Put our stuff all over the internet!" So now it comes down to the music being a loss leader for selling our merch? We're now a t-shirt company that uses music as a way of enticing people? It's the furthest thing away from the attitude I started with in music.
I hope the pendulum swings back and music becomes a more valuable commodity again. I think right now, we're all just making albums because we love to and because we don't know what else to do. No one's albums are paying for themselves anymore. I think Snarky Puppy's might, but albums never make