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Mark Lettieri: Snarky Guitars, Part 1

Mark Lettieri: Snarky Guitars, Part 1
Mike Jacobs By

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I think there’s a way of stepping outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself, without doing something that’s not natural. What I want to avoid is making a certain kind of record that people think I should make, or to try to impress them. If there’s no feeling of integrity then it’s just not going to work. —Mark Lettieri
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

For the first interview in a series on the Snarky Puppy guitar triumvirate, we spoke to Mark Lettieri. Unlike most of the original core members of the band, Lettieri did not come out of the jazz program at the University of North Texas. Oddly enough, he was a marketing and advertising major at nearby Texas Christian University who got hooked into the burgeoning Dallas/Fort Worth gospel and R&B scene by playing on the side while pursuing his studies. Shortly after joining SP, he was the first of the Pups to launch a solo career and is currently one of the most prolific in that regard with five albums under his name. In addition to side projects and session work, he gives guitar clinics around the world and still pops up in Erykah Badu's band from time to time. All About Jazz spoke to Lettieri shortly after his fifth album, Things Of That Nature (GroundUp, 2019), was released.

All About Jazz: Talk a little about growing up in California and your musical life before you moved to Texas.

Mark Lettieri: I started playing guitar at eleven which, looking back on it, was just what suburban kids did then. Seems like everyone picked up a guitar in middle school but only a few of us stuck with it. For me obviously it became a pretty serious passion. My dad plays a little bit so there was always his acoustic guitar sitting around the house, and he let me bash around on it. I started taking lessons from a friend's mom who taught me Beach Boys songs and things like that. So I got started that way. This was right around the time I started to listen to the radio on my own and not what my parents listened to. My parents are "boomers" and thankfully the music was always great—'60s and '70s rock and soul, singer-songwriter, folk, R+B—everything from Stevie Wonder to the Eagles. You know, all the great stuff. But then when you're twelve, and you're hanging out and skateboarding with your buddies, you listened to the modern rock radio stations—Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, etc.—so I started playing guitar listening to those kinds of grunge bands. Then we discovered Jimi Hendrix at the same time along with the typical rock guitar hero stuff—AC DC, Metallica, Van Halen Santana...

AAJ: So you were in a garage band I presume?

ML: Oh yeah, I did the whole thing. We played at school functions, teen centers, backyard parties and church events. Mom drove us in the mini-van to the dance—very very typical stuff. My parents noticed I was pretty serious about it very quickly and were able to get a teacher, Gordon Kahan, an advanced rock player who taught me theory and proper technique. This was also around the time I got obsessed with guitar gods like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I'm still enamored with them in a way. I mean, I play instrumental guitar music for a living now so... it kind of rubbed off in a sense (laughs). It was great to have Gordon to better explain those sounds for me and keep me disciplined about learning it. He helped me get some goals together.

AAJ: Were you into jazz at all yet?

ML: A little bit, yeah, towards the end of high school. It was interesting because I had this group of friends that all started playing instruments together and our tastes all sort of changed at the same time. Right around the end of high school we were discovering stuff that wasn't like, Ozzy Osborne. We got into it [jazz] from the funk side of things. Herbie Hancock Headhunters and that kind of stuff was really big to us. I think the first jazz guitarist I really got into was John Scofield, followed by Charlie Hunter. It was later, in college, that I started listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the jazz dudes who weren't guitarists.

But now, thinking about it, Steely Dan was always kind of like my gateway into jazz then, as it probably was for a lot of people I guess. I was one of the only guys in my peer group who liked Steely Dan. I had one or two buddies who thought they were cool and the rest were like, "Nah, that shit's lame, man." (laughs) They just didn't get it. I thought that there was something really high-level about what those guys were doing and I wanted to really get hip to it. I think reading all the liner notes on those Steely Dan albums sort of hipped me to the idea of being a session player. I didn't really know what that was when I was a teenager. I was like, "Wait, Steely Dan is only two guys? Who are all these other guys—Larry Carlton, Rick Marotta, etc." Then I realized, "Oh, they're working musicians who just play with whoever." That kind of flexibility was pretty intriguing to me. As I was finishing college, I thought that if I wanted to make [music] a job, maybe I could do this freelance session thing.

AAJ: Now, unlike a lot of the other members of Snarky Puppy, you didn't go to the University of North Texas, right?

ML: No, I went to Texas Christian University.

AAJ: Do they have a music program there?

ML: They do, but it's more geared towards classical music and music education. Or at least that's how I remember it being when I attended. I went to college to study advertising and marketing actually, and that's what I have my degree in. My parents were both public relations people in Silicon Valley and I was just following their footsteps in the family business, so to speak. I had my own original rock band that played local bars and school events, and I took about a year with a jazz instructor as an elective at TCU. They had specialized instructors that taught jazz but I don't recall there being a jazz performance degree. It was different from how UNT structured it.

It was funny, when I started meeting all of these guys from UNT, to me UNT was the school 45 minutes north with the shitty football team (laughs). I didn't even know they had a jazz school and when they met me they were like, (incredulously) "You didn't go to jazz school?"

AAJ: So were you hitting the music scene around Dallas?

ML: Yeah, I got into it early while I was in college and it was amazing. TCU had a gospel choir, which was very cool because a lot of the people who sang in it were associated with Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond and some of the other big name gospel artists of the time. It was really through playing behind that choir I got to meet all these local singers and players and that was a big networking thing for me.

Some of my buddies from the Bay Area who played in bands knew about that gospel scene and said I should check out some of those church musicians so that's what drove me to get involved with it. See, I grew up in church in California but it was what you would call "white church" (laughs)—a whole different thing (laughs)... So by the end of college, I had a whole network of friends from working in gospel and R+B just from gigs with the gospel choir. It's weird, I can kind of trace everything I've ever done back to that experience. That was super valuable.

AAJ: So how did you hook up with Snarky Puppy?

ML: I met Michael League first through Phillip Lassiter, who had a band called Country Fried Soul, in which I played guitar. We opened for Snarky Puppy one night, and afterwards they were like, "Wow, who are these guys?" and we were like, "Wow, who are these guys?" After that, Mike and I hooked up on a lot of gospel session work together for quite a while before I actually started working with Snarky Puppy.

AAJ: When did you start touring with the band?

ML: I started doing shows with them in 2009 and at that point it was mostly regional stuff—Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma—shorter trips. Bob Lanzetti was doing the majority of the longer runs at the time. So I started as sub for Bob and Chris McQueen, while still doing other gospel gigs and pursuing the freelance thing that I always wanted to do. It wasn't really until about 2010 or 2011 that I started doing longer stretches with the band, and it kind of just built up from there.

It's funny, there was a bit of politicking when we first started to get really busy. Like, "Who's gonna get to go to Europe first?" (answering) "Well, Bob should go first because he did all of the shitty tours." (laughs)

AAJ: Did you miss much of the "crammed-in-the-van" days?

ML: No, I definitely did my fair share of that, I just didn't do it for a month at a time. I did it for a week or two here, a few days there. But yeah, I definitely still have a calendar somewhere that has about four consecutive Snarky Puppy dates written on it next to the words "100 bucks." But there were even times when I might finish a gig that paid good money and I would fly myself out to meet them and join in on the gig. They weren't making any money, so I didn't expect any, I just wanted to play because I loved the music and the guys.

AAJ: So as things were developing for Snarky Puppy at that time, there would be a few as one, but as many as three guitarists onstage at a gig, and that changed sometime nightly. How did you work out the division of labor so you are not stepping all over each other's playing?

ML: Well, we always recorded with three guitar players but rarely would perform with the three of us, unless it was a special occasion. I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened. In the early days though, we would often have two guitarists on a gig. Thankfully we all sound different enough that finding a blend has never really been an issue. Even when it comes down to attacking a specific sound—whether it's a funk rhythm or a textural part or a riff— we all have a different approach to it. It could very well be a mess if you have two guys who are cut from the same cloth. It would just not work.

AAJ: You just completed a leg of the 2019 Snarky Puppy tour. How does that feel now compared to those early days?

ML: Just the scope of everything is amazing. Like I said, I remember when it was nine or ten of us in the van, Mike was doing most of the driving and all of the booking and promotion. We were schlepping our own gear, setting up and tearing down, sleeping on floors or in the same beds. Now obviously, it's not like that. We have tour buses and a crew that's fantastic and yeah, the Royal Albert Hall isn't exactly the smallest place... (laughs). The audiences are bigger, but I think they are the same kind of people that have always checked us out, though the age range is expanding. That's really fun to see. I think if we never had that grind, it wouldn't feel as good. We probably wouldn't appreciate where we are now as much. We'd probably be entitled jerks (laughs) but we all know where we came from, and know we could very well end up there again someday.

In fact, I remember a gig, and this wasn't that long ago, 2013 maybe... We were on our way to play the Troubadour in L.A. and we may have already sold the place out but we picked up a gig on the way in Flagstaff— opening up for a karaoke night. There were ten of us—probably more people onstage than there were in the entire club. Most of them didn't know who the band was at all, but came to party, so we played about two Snarky Puppy songs and then played George Clinton covers the rest of the night. Mike was like, "I don't think they know what's going on. Ok, let's play Parliament." Then we all tore down our stuff and sang karaoke the rest of the night. By the way, I have a lot of videos of [SP keyboardist] Justin Stanton singing Paul McCartney songs and me singing Billy Idol (laughs). Then two days later we're playing a sellout crowd at the Troubadour... it's crazy.

AAJ: You were the first of the Pups to do a solo album, right?

ML: I think [SP keyboardist] Bill Lawrence may have done something already, but I don't know if he had released it so I guess, yes, maybe I was. I did Knows (Self Published) back in 2011. Listening to it now, there are things I'd change about the production— and of course my playing has grown since then—but I'm still very proud of the songs. The guys played beautifully too. I kind of did those first two records [Knows and Futurefun (Self Produced, 2013)] just for kicks, really. I had some songs written, and some free time, so I thought I'd call my friends and make some fun little records. Then by the time I did the third one [Spark and Echo (Ropeadope, 2016)], Snarky Puppy had gained quite a bit of notoriety, so there was some "attention" on me, in a sense. So I thought, "well, maybe this is a 'thing' now and I should embrace it (laughs). Truthfully, it is what I've always wanted to do...

AAJ: Well, counting Deep: The Baritone Sessions (Self Produced, 2019) you have five now. Do you count Deep as a regular release? It was collected from a series of videos you posted on social media.

ML: Yes, but it's certainly not like my other releases in many respects. I think about that record a lot because people ask me when I'm going to play it live, tour it. I definitely plan to, maybe after I record Deep: Vol 2., so I can have enough material for a proper live show. As far as creating the content, I'm one of those guys that just likes making the coolest music I can make at a particular time. If it happens to sound like baritone funk, then that's what it's going to sound like. If it happens to sound like my latest record, Things of That Nature, then that's that. That may stem from Prince being one of my biggest influences. All of his records are so different but it all still sounds like him. Hopefully one day, I can look back and have a catalog of all this stuff that is different extensions of what I do, but still at the core it's somehow me.

AAJ: Any moments in your solo catalog that stand out for you?

ML: Well, it's interesting that we talked about Knows because I meet guitar players today that are just now finding the record, and they tell me that they really enjoy the songs, specifically. It feels great to hear that, because they're not necessarily only focused on the guitar playing. I'm comfortable with what I played back then, but my focus was to just make cool music. It's also cool to hear younger players that have thriving careers say to me, "Oh yeah dude, I used to cover your stuff when I was at MI [Musicians Institute]." and I'm like "Huh?" (laughs). It's very flattering of course, but still a bit strange to hear that it's had that effect on people. I've never had an "agenda" with any of my records—they're just little time capsules of where I was as a writer and artist when I recorded them. There's stuff on Spark and Echo that I love, and of course there's stuff on my latest record, Things of That Nature, that I'm really, really happy with. The Deep music, however, is almost like an alter ego at this point.

AAJ: What drew you to the Baritone guitar?

ML: It was kind of by accident. We had started using baritones in Snarky Puppy a little bit but in more of a rock context. I only had experience with it there or in country music. But the idea to groove on one came from working on a demo for a Snarky Puppy song that became "Jefe," the bonus track on Culcha Vulcha (GroundUp, 2016). I wanted to write something funky, and on a whim grabbed a baritone. Then it was like, "wow, this is kind of a different thing." It was a unique way of approaching groove, and tone-wise, it fits right in between the bass and the guitar. Getting the snap of the guitar and the thud of the bass for groove music feels really great. So I wrote that tune, Snarky recorded it, and then I started really exploring it. I began making Youtube videos and Instagram posts of different jams I was coming up with. People didn't even know what the guitar was at first, actually, but the videos got a lot of attention. I never intended on making a record of it—I was just doing it for fun and to build my social media profile, but people kept bombarding me with requests for a record. So I thought, "You know what, yeah, let's make an album."

AAJ: All of your albums have a very trademark sound with the guitar up front. That's kind of a no-brainer since you have such a strong voice on the instrument. You also play in Snarky Puppy, which is a very orchestrated thing with many different instrumental voices taking the lead. Do you ever hear your own music in a non-guitaristic way?

ML: Yes, but I'm always searching for new ways to convey that. I tend to stick with what I know and what I know best is guitar, so that's the most natural voice for me. I don't always write everything on guitar. A lot of times I'll come up with voicings or melodies on the keyboard, even though I'm not a keyboardist. I try to have as many instruments around me as possible in my home studio when I write. If I hear a sound that I don't need phrased on a guitar, I won't try to play it on guitar. At the same time, part of the reason why I play in a trio so often is that it's kind of a test to see if the songs really work. If you can just play a melody with a solid bass line and groove and it creates a nice song, then you have something good.

I've definitely thought about making a record with vocals, or writing music that's more cinematic and open, with less of a pop structure. A lot of my music I consider to be "guitar pop." It certainly has jazz elements in the harmony and melody, but the structure is still very pop, in a sense.

But I have to make the best music that I can make that feels the most comfortable for me. I think there's a way of stepping outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself, without doing something that's not natural. What I want to avoid is making a certain kind of record that people think I should make, or to try to impress them. If there's no feeling of integrity then it's just not going to work.

AAJ: Aside from your solo work, you've done a few interesting side projects. How did the Bob Reynolds Guitar Band with you, Nir Felder, Kaveh Rastegar and Robert Searight come about?

ML: It came from Bob playing in John Mayer's band. That band had two guitars, and Bob was inspired to hear what a saxophone-led, guitar-based group might sound like instead of having keyboards. So he wrote those tunes to reflect that. The thing about that recording, we didn't really rehearse. People had transit issues and parking problems, so when everybody got to The Blue Whale, we only had like thirty minutes before we rolled tape. We've played together a couple of times since and each time was special for different reasons, but that first recorded session had some magic that you can't really describe. It's probably because we were all stressed out and late (laughs). Unfortunately, it's a hard band to get together to perform. Bob and I talk all the time about trying to tour it but it's one of those things where everyone is just so busy.

AAJ: You have another project called The Fearless Flyers with Joe Dart and Cory Wong of Vulfpeck that has Nate Smith on drums. How did that one happen?

ML: That actually happened just through a brief email from Cory, whom I'd never met, actually. He explained that Vulfpeck was about to start releasing music on their Vulf Records label they had created, and the first thing they wanted to do was a project with Cory and Joe, plus myself on baritone and Nate on drums—but the email didn't say anything about the material or direction. I was like, "Ok?" (shrugs). So I called Cory and we talked for a while, he explained the vision, but I still wasn't totally convinced—I could tell their process was something I hadn't been used to, and I wasn't quite sure how it was all supposed to come together. Then I thought maybe I was being a little stand-offish, so I called him back apologetically, and basically said "This will be great. I'm in." We met in L.A. at the studio where they do all the Scary Pockets' videos. The tunes came about from various sources: previous Vulfpeck tracks, ideas Cory had brought in... One of the tunes was built off an improvised riff I had done in a live show and posted on Instagram. Jack Stratton discovered it, and that became "Ace of Aces." Cory and Jack lead the production and much of the writing, but everyone brings in individual ideas and flavor, and we create together in the studio. It's really a lot of fun, and I'm glad I put aside my apprehensions.

It's interesting because there are more parameters [imposed] on it than I'm used to. The solo music I make is way different and has a lot more chords (laughs), but the Flyers thing is a very focused vibe. I enjoy putting myself in a head space where I have to "stay in a lane" in order to make the best stuff—similar to Snarky, in a way. We're doing a third one, Fearless Flyers 3, in January with a horn section. I think this one will have a little more pre-production from Cory and Jack before we get in the studio and my role will probably be a bit more defined before I get there.

AAJ: Well the videos are fun. You mention being a little more constrained. It looks as if you are all playing roles that have you resembling a kind of funk Devo.

ML: Yeah, talk about constrained, our guitars are literally attached to microphone stands. We can't move. (laughs) That's a testament to the Vulfpeck aesthetic. There's a purpose to the image. There's a purpose to the way everything is displayed and it works. "Oh yeah the Fearless Flyers. They're those guys with guitars on mic stands and the flight suits..." Right there we have an image before you even hear the music.

AAJ: And you've had a few nice guest performers with you as well, like Chris Thile...

ML: Yeah, [guitarist} Blake Mills was there, [percussionist] Sandra Crouch... Nobody has said who's coming on board for the third one yet but I'm sure there will be some surprises.

AAJ: Part of being a musician today often involves the internet in some way. You have a pretty active presence on social media. Is that a constant, necessary push and to sustain things?

ML: It absolutely is but I never got onto social media setting out to be a social media or Youtube guitarist. That was never an intent. But now, because I've taken the step, I can't undo it. Now, that's how people all over the world interact with my music, and with me, personally. It would be silly to say that it hasn't extended my reach because it absolutely has. That's just how the modern musician reaches their fans these days, especially if you're going to be an artist. If I was just strictly working in the industry as a sideman, I'm not sure I would need it to the extent that I do. We talked about the Baritone record—that happened because of my involvement with social media. So yeah, it's a part of my day, my routine, it's something I schedule. At this point, I have to be consistent with it because it's just the way things are now.

I talk to these younger players sometimes and...(pause) I think it's tough because it seems there's an odd emphasis on social media being the main thing you have to do to be successful in music. I think for younger players that can be really dangerous because they are not only missing out on experience but it's just not good for their emotional state. You're in a constant state of comparing yourself. That can be really dangerous to people who don't have an outlet other than social media to express themselves.

AAJ: There are players today who have actually put out a few albums from just playing in their bedroom before ever actually having to ever go out and play with a band or perform in front of people. It's a totally different kind of musical greenhouse than the one earlier generations had.

ML: Some players are able to make that transition. I personally feel that you need that club experience, that grind, to truly develop yourself. But I'm old-school, I guess. Myself and some of my peers are in that age range where we remember gigging and working before Instagram and everything else took. We tend to look at our situation like "Yeah, I guess we have to be on social media now," but ten years ago we were all just taking hits in the clubs—just churning it out. There are so many guitar players now that don't even do that. I talk about it with my friends, and we've realized we're in this emotional gray area where we know we have to participate in social media but maybe don't necessarily want to. I don't know...

AAJ: The internet has been a successful tool for you in some respects, though...

ML: That's why I have such conflicting feelings, because it absolutely has been helpful to me. It literally brings my music to people all over the world. And I do really enjoy the process of discovering new players and interacting with people. But, I think I'm just still struggling with the idea of "why we need to do all of this?" I guess we do because there is no record business so, okay, this is the future? I just need to be better about it embracing it, and maybe not worry so much about the negatives.

AAJ: For all of the internet's arguable downsides, having a direct feed, albeit a very crowded one, to your fan base is still some kind of positive, right?

ML: In that respect it is a total blessing. I don't know what it was like to make records in the '70s or '80s. I think of that as the golden age, but I don't know, maybe it was a nightmare. It's just a different world now. Another thing that is amazing to see is how good players are now because they can learn everything at the click of a mouse.

AAJ: You've done a fair amount of teaching lessons and giving clinics. Do you see any other effects this type of "having-it-all-laid-out-on-the-internet learning" may have on younger players?

ML: In a sense yes, I can tell when a player has spent more time watching videos than they have playing with other people. I can usually tell by their time feel and their ability to stay at a consistent tempo. They will play something for me, and I'll ask them if they are in a band. They'll say, "Well, not really, I just kind of sit in my room and play to videos." And I'll say, "Okay, go outside and turn off your phone. Go to the jam session, sign up, sit in and suck. Meet some people. Play with them! They need to do that. Video learning is important but if you're not putting what you've learned into situations where you are making music with other people, the real skills are not going to develop. And this is especially important for players who want to be working musicians. I'm worried that many young players aren't getting proper playing experience because they think they just need to be on the computer all the time. It's one of the things I try to talk about in clinics. People ask me what video I watched to learn how to groove. I didn't watch a video, I played in gospel and R&B groups for years. That's how I learned to groove. Of course there's a lot of great stuff on the internet. Heck, I have my own online lessons, but media like that should be supplemental. Especially if you have the real-life playing opportunities available. But I understand not everyone does, so in that case, just learn however you can!

AAJ: Any things you have your sights set on for the future?

ML: Well, I think what I'm doing now feels good. My main focus, really, is working hard on making the solo thing more sustainable. I bring up guys like Joe Satriani and those heroes of my past—that career is amazing. Who wouldn't want that? He wakes up in the morning and he's Joe Satriani. (laughs). But I feel like I'm in a good place right now. I'm able to do many things that keep me musically fulfilled, whether it's my original music, Snarky Puppy, session work, the Flyers. I've got my hands in all kinds of stuff. If I could keep doing all those things—and just maybe have another zero or something at the end of the paycheck... (laughs), that would be great.

There's still places I want to play. I've been trying to get a Lettieri gig in South America for forever. I've been trying to get one in France and it just hasn't happened yet. There's little goals like that. I'd love to put together a little G3 type tour with three of my peers—I think that would be really fun. But as far as musically, I'm just going to keep doing what I have been doing until it doesn't make sense to do it anymore.

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