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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.

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