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Mark Lettieri: Snarky Guitars, Part 1

Mike Jacobs By

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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.

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