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Michael League: Snarky Puppy's Jazz-Schooled, Grassroots Visionary

Mike Jacobs By

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There's a mojo, there's a juju, there's a mystical thing that's unable to be identified when art lifts. Connecting with that is like going to church... but I think probably healthier. —Michael League
Bassist, composer, bandleader, sideman, producer, record label owner, festival head...

These are some of the many hats Michael League has acquired since embarking on his musical odyssey at the University of North Texas with a "little" band named Snarky Puppy in 2003. With its Jazz-but-not-Jazz / Music for Brain and Booty ethos, multiple poll wins, Grammy awards, and a worldwide fan base that's still growing, Snarky Puppy is looked upon by many as more of a phenomenon than just a band. All About Jazz recently spoke with the architect of that phenomenon during a break on the road.

All About Jazz: So Michael, you're just coming off a tour with David Crosby?

Michael League: Well, we're actually in the second week and we have four more weeks left and it's great. It's Becca Stevens, Michelle Willis, David and I—just the four of us playing guitars and singing harmony. A very different scene from the Snarky Puppy thing. The record that we did (Here If You Listen, BMG, 2018) just came out. I produced it, with Becca, Michelle, David, and Fab Dupont as co-producers.

AAJ: I guess the next big thing on your plate is the GroundUp Music Festival?

ML: Yeah, we just made the announcement today.

AAJ: The festival seems to be going pretty strong with some fairly exciting and eclectic names outside of your GroundUp label roster taking part last year— Lionel Loueke, Bela Fleck, Jojo Mayer... Have you encountered any unexpected rigors running GUM Fest?

ML: Well fortunately, I don't run it. (laughs) I just pick the artists and basically act as the architect of the musical experience. Paul Lehr is the festival director, I'm the artistic director, so he's dealing with the ugly details. I'm dealing with the beautiful, idealistic ones. (laughs) Yeah, I'm excited. My vision for the festival is for people to come to it and maybe not recognize anyone who's on the bill, but end up with a list of new artists they've discovered. That's the dream for me—and maybe eventually not even announce the artists, period. Just to have people come and experience everything blind—in a very pure and open-minded way.

There are some artists this year, that I know people have never heard of, that they are just going to be floored by—because we first encountered them in the same way. We were in Bogota, Colombia, one night and my friend said, "You have to check out this band that's playing downtown called La Perla (the pearl)." It was these four girls singing, playing percussion and gaita, switching from instrument to instrument and singing folkloric as well as original music. It was like a spiritual experience for us. They don't have a huge internet presence, and we only stumbled upon them because of a friend's recommendation. So for us to bring them to Miami and watch 2000 people freak out hearing them for the first time is what the festival is about. THAT'S the experience that I want to present—every concert. We're working in that direction. If the audience can just trust us to put great artists in front of them, we can make programming decisions from a strictly creative mindset instead of a practical one.

AAJ: From the beginning your musical mission has always seemed to be to bring the average music listener into the fold. What's your take on instrumental music getting traction with the layperson these days?

ML: The fact that it IS getting traction and that non-musicians are going to see shows that previously would have only been attended by musicians is a good sign, and it's not a one way street. When you are a musician and you are playing for people who are not musicians, you play differently. In many ways, those people are much more in tune with what is really happening musically onstage than the musicians. You know what I mean?

AAJ: Yeah, as in they're not keying in on what the bassist is doing or the guitar solo. They're listening to the whole picture, the emotion...

ML: Exactly... and the show and all these kinds of things that are important, things very easy to forget as a musician when you're only looking at things in a microscopic kind of way. You see the cells but you miss the animal, you know? I think this is a very good thing that's happening. It's beautiful seeing people like Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper and Thundercat and Hiatus Kaiyote—all these musicians that people CAN nerd-out on—reaching non-nerds. It's becoming a little movement. Man, I mean when we started, audiences AND club owners were allergic to us. They were like, "What? Is this a joke? Ten people playing instrumental stuff that's too loud for a jazz club and not rock and roll enough for a rock club? No way..." (laughs)

AAJ: I imagine many balked at just the size of the band.

ML: To be fair, there are a lot of things to balk at. (laughs) Let's just say I'm not unaware of the unattractive elements of my organization. (laughs)

AAJ: I feel a twinge of pride that I can say I first saw Snarky Puppy—about '08 or '09—in a small brew pub in Delaware. There were eight guys crammed onto a postage stamp-sized stage playing to an audience of about four people. It was nuts, great, and kind of amazing to me that the band existed at all. You somehow slogged a large band through those kind of clubs when most were only paying enough for solo, duo or trio acts to have a decent take. How did you did you do it? WHY did you do it?

ML: It's just the music I was writing. I've never been able to write well for small ensembles. Even writing this stuff for Crosby... The four of us—Me, Michelle, Becca and David—were writing for the record for two weeks and as we're writing, I'm thinking, it would be great to have Moog bass here and Rhodes here... I mean, it's my instinct to pollute the sonic landscape with as many things as I possibly can. (laughs) As time goes on I feel like I'm getting a little better at minimizing, being more succinct, but it's just part of my process. When I write music, I'm already thinking about the production stage. I'm not just, "Here's chords and here's a melody." As I'm writing it, it's like, "This chord would sound great on this instrument with this sound, this melody could be nice harmonized like this..." So Snarky Puppy was just the sound that I heard in my head—a combination of Headhunters, Roy Hargrove's RH Factor, Avishai Cohen's International Vamp Band, Modereko, Dave Holland's Quintet—all these large ensembles' sounds were in my head. That's just how I hear music most of the time.

AAJ: So in doing this new record with Crosby, did he keep you tamped down to the four voices and instruments?

ML: No, in this acoustic project [The Lighthouse Band], he really surrenders those decisions to me. He has another band, fully electric, more rock, which plays more of the tunes he's been famous for over the years as well as new ones. Ours is like the weird acoustic stepchild. It was my idea to have the four of us on a track on a record of his I produced, called Lighthouse (GroundUp, 2016). David loved that combination of people so much that when I recommended it to him for the tour of that record, he was way into it. He dug the tour so much that when I said, "Hey, we should make a record with these four people" he was way into it. It's one of my first attempts to form a small ensemble. It's not mine—it's David's—but I mean, to create for one. That said, Michelle's playing Fender Rhodes and Moog bass and singing. Becca's playing charango, ukulele, electric guitar, acoustic guitar and singing. I'm playing acoustic guitar, electric guitar and bass... so the whole stage is still filled with instruments because I just don't... I can't.... I have a problem. (laughs)

AAJ: You recently released a new album with your group Bokanté. Tell a little about that project.

ML: I started Bokanté about two years ago so it's still in its infancy I guess... (pause) Snarky Puppy is an apolitical band technically—there are no lyrics and no political mission statement—but you also can't just separate politics from music, especially when things get as extreme as they are in this moment. I mean, no person is really apolitical, we're human beings and we do not exist in an apolitical vacuum. We have three guys in the group whom I sponsor for their immigration status and half the band's members are minorities. These are people who are experiencing discrimination and xenophobia on a daily basis in my country. Generally though, politics is not something that gets explored, at least musically, with Snarky Puppy. Bokanté, however, is specifically designed to address social and political issues. [Singer] Malika [Tirolien]'s lyrics are very direct.

AAJ: She sings in Creole but I haven't read the translations...

ML: They [the lyrics] are strong. They're not preachy, but she tells really beautiful stories and has a really no-holds-barred approach to tackling certain situations. She's a very powerful, very observant human being, a black woman living in North America. She's from the Caribbean but she lives in Montreal. She's tri-lingual, she's led a very interesting life and has a lot to say. You feel it. And the guys in the band... we have people from four continents—Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, plus the Caribbean—so just being together in a room, you have a political situation. (laughs) This band was designed to address problems that we face in the current state of the world. Musically, for me, it's a blues band. West African music, Arabic music, Caribbean music, North American music, all following the diaspora of slave music. The West African part [of the blues] is something that I think is very well known. You listen to Ali Farka Toure or Bassekou Kouyate or Tinariwen and you have that whole desert blues sound. But the Arabic ancestry of the blues is something I really wasn't aware of until the last couple of years. It was surprising to me that on our most recent record that we did with the Metropole Orkest and Jules Buckley [What Heat?—Real World Records, 2018] those sounds just fit right in. I play oud on most of the record and there's so much daf and riq and other Arabic instruments on there. So when I say "blues," it seems like it's really pigeon-holed, but actually it's incredibly open depending on your definition of what that is. It's a great forum for discussing things that are socio-political, within the context of the blues as an emotive, cathartic, grooving, soulful thing. I think it's a nice combination.

AAJ: In addition to Bokanté's What Heat?, you and Snarky Puppy worked with Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orkest on Sylva (Impulse, 2015). It seemed then as if you had been itching to write for an orchestra for a long time.

ML: Yes, I love it.

AAJ: You've mentioned in the past that you favor teaching the parts of your compositions to band members aurally rather than with sheet music. I imagine that had to change working with the Orkest...

ML: For the Metropole, all the stuff that I did for the orchestra I did in Logic, which Jules then got his hands on before plugging it into the Sibelius score. For the band, we did it the way we always do it—audio demos. Everybody memorized it and knocked it out like that. Sylva was the first thing I've ever written for an orchestra so I feel like that was me getting out all of my ideas that had been building up. On What Heat? with Bokanté, I felt more patient and able to be a little more restrained with the choices. I didn't have this exuberance of having to get all my ideas out. This one was more like, "Serve the tune, I've done this before," so it felt more controlled to me—and more mature, hopefully.

AAJ: After Sylva, there was a change in the style of the band's recording method. Back on Tell Your Friends, (GroundUp, 2010) you hit on what seemed to be a winning formula of recording live in the studio in front of a live audience. That continued through all of your releases until Culcha Vulcha (GroundUp, 2016), where you returned to a more traditional in-studio, with-overdubs approach. Why the shift?

ML: (pause) I feel like whenever the audience is expecting you to do something, and you do it... you've fucked up. (laughs) I mean, I feel like movement is life and you have to stay moving. We started doing those in-studio/live things because we were a "live" band. We were less comfortable in the studio at the time than we were live. At the point when we made Culcha Vulcha, we had all been spending so much time in the studio with other artists and in our freelance careers that we decided to take advantage of the luxuries that overdubbing affords you. And we also did the studio thing on our new [Snarky Puppy] record, which is coming out in March. I'm so happy about how the session unfolded. I never know if a record we make is good or if it sucks artistically, but I do know how we felt when we were making it. We tried some really interesting things. Things like having all three drummers playing on each song, but never together. So one guy would play the verse, one guy would play the chorus, one guy would play the solo section and they handed off really seamlessly. It's really cool because you get different personalities in different parts of the same song. Tracking like that in a studio is a blast.

AAJ: Do you have a title yet?

ML: Yeah, it's called Immigrance [spells out I-m-m-i-g-r-a-n-c-e]. We're really excited to debut the music for the first time ever, live at our GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach in February. It takes on a whole new life and meaning when you play it live for an audience.

AAJ: Listening back to your catalog, you have evolved a long way since the beginning...

ML: Oh God, I hope so... We sounded so bad then...(laughs)

AAJ: Well you say so, but....

ML: Really bad... (laughs)

AAJ: I would characterize it as sounding like a very different band back then....

ML: That's very diplomatic...

AAJ: (laughs) Well, are there any high points that you see in your catalog?

ML: The cringe moments are definitely much easier to count. In general, I have trouble listening to our stuff because you don't have the objectivity that's there when it's not yours. When I listen to a Led Zeppelin record, I'm not thinking "Yeah, you know Bonham—I just remember on that one tour, he was just really playing this tune so much better and I wish we would have gotten a better performance out of him in the studio..."—you know, you don't think like that. You hear it in a pure, innocent, non-judgmental kind of way. If you're listening to your own music, you really recognize how much the band has grown because you get to hear it every night on tour. For me, I always feel like the record that I'm least unhappy with is the most recent one. And then a new record comes out and THAT becomes the one that I'm least unhappy with. Have I made a record ever sat back and listened to it and said "Hell, yes!"? No, definitely not... never.

AAJ: Really?

ML: For sure. When we're done mixing it, I feel like, "Ok, cool. Yeah, I like this." Then, normally I take a week off and then I listen to it and I have this crisis. "This record sucks. We shouldn't release it..." And then I just have to send it to a few people and say "Please tell me this doesn't suck." (laughs) I think that's normal. I think all my musician friends are like that. We're terrified of our own art.

AAJ: Let's talk about the band. It's large collective and keeps growing. Over the years you've also amassed quite a number of "ringers" in Snarky Puppy. Knowing that band dynamics can be akin to that of a large marriage, does this ever cause problems or does it step up everyone's game?

ML: First off, I would say that every guy's a ringer. It's not like we... (pause) It was a band of ten solid members but people would have to sub out gigs. I mean, we'd be playing for 14 dollars at some shitty rock club and someone would get an offer for a 200 dollar wedding and they'd be like "Sorry, dude. I have to take it." So we'd get a substitute and if the substitute played well, then it felt like—"Well, they learned the music and played great, what a waste for them to learn all that that for one gig."—so we would kind of just keep them in the Rolodex, so to speak, and rotate them in and out. Then it became a thing where we started touring so much that guys couldn't do all the dates, or didn't want to, or whatever. So people would take time off, but the other guys and girls on stage would get to experience the same music with those new people, the new elements. That would change the way that THEY played the music. And then even when that new person left, that memory of that new relationship with the music would remain. So really we just kept building on the personalities of the new people that would come in, brick by brick.

At this point it's very fluid. I mean, every once in a while someone will bring something up... wishing they were playing more or that they were playing in a certain tour leg or something, but it's very rare. I mean in general, the guys understand what the band is—a rotating cast—and they also see it as a launching pad for their own careers. Not just in terms of notoriety but in terms of the experiences that they've had within the band and the way that the band works socially, organizationally and creatively. I think we've all learned a lot over the last 15 years and take what we've learned and put it into our own projects. You know, Bokanté is very different from Snarky Puppy based on what I've learned from the SP experience. But I don't really think of Snarky Puppy as a collective. It's just a large band and sometimes people aren't there. It doesn't feel like a revolving door, it doesn't feel anonymous at all. The guys who have played gigs with us the least have still played several hundred gigs. That's more than most people play with their own bands. So it's very much a tight, familial unit. Everyone feels very, very close and very essential, also.

AAJ: An extreme example of substitution is when you were getting ready to record We Like It Here in Holland, your drummer couldn't make the sessions and had you to call in a substitute drummer at the last minute...

ML: Larnell Lewis... He still plays with us.

AAJ: But he hadn't at that time. I could have been a real train wreck but that turned into what some would argue was a real breakout album for you. You have a history replete with these seat-of-your-pants type situations, yet the band always seems to land on its feet. Ever crashed and burned?

ML: Oh totally, all the time... (pause) The thing is, whenever you do something, you have a plan. With this skype call, there's a plan. If I write a song there's a plan. If I record a song, there's a plan. And when everything goes 100% according to that plan, you've basically just insured that whatever you've done has been confined to the limits of your ability, awareness and knowledge. But, every time something unplanned happens, an independent variable comes into the equation—no matter if it's a technical issue, a travel problem, a death, a robbery, a disease, whatever—and it shatters the illusion of your plan. By nature it opens you up to new limits and new possibilities. I think the challenge is in seeing the situation as an opportunity rather than a disaster.

AAJ: To expand the metaphor, is that is reflected in the way you compose as well?

ML: Totally. A this point, I compose with a plan but I build into that composition the inevitability that it's going to change and it's not going to turn out the way I expected. So there is a plan, but the plan is for the plan to change. You never know what's going to happen anyway so you might as well prepare yourself for it.

AAJ: Going back to side projects, are you still a member of Forq?

ML: I'm not. I was in the first incarnation. Henry Hey and I started FORQ together with [drummer] Jason “JT” Thomas—who's still playing in the band, and [guitarist] Adam Rogers—who's not. I guess it was about a year and a half, two years ago Henry called me and was like. "Man, I really want this band to tour more, a lot more. I want to really get after it and make this a thing." At that point, I had just started Bokanté, Snarky Puppy was working a lot, I had really dived into being a producer for other artists and it didn't make sense to hold them back based on my schedule—and they sound awesome, I think much better now. Kevin [Scott]'s a great bassist and they're playing a lot. That's the only way to grow-shows.

AAJ: FORQ seemed like almost a logical extension of Henry Hey's former band, Rudder...

ML: Yeah, his personality is all over it. And now he and [Snarky Puppy guitarist] Chris McQueen* write most of the music. He and McQueen have different styles but when they combine it fits beautifully.

*(Note: McQueen replaced Adam Rogers on guitar after the first FORQ album)

AAJ: I have to say that of Snarky Puppy's three guitarists, Chris McQueen always seemed to be the most...

ML: Understated?

AAJ: Yes, but in FORQ, he seems to have just exploded...

ML: I think because it's musically appropriate for him to do so. In Snarky Puppy, most of the time the coolest, most musical stuff you can play is stuff that no one will notice. And he's so good at getting in that cut and really just accompanying, you know—and stepping out when he needs to, of course. I'm very lucky to have three guitarists like that in the band.

AAJ: Snarky Puppy has now toured all over the world as a band. What is your takeaway from that experience—not just in terms of musical audience but in terms of people in general?

ML: Maybe that they are the same everywhere. I guess everybody that travels says that—that people are the same no matter where you go. You're always going to meet kind people, rude people, conservative people, liberal people... hateful people, loving people... but each place has its own space that it occupies within that spectrum of humanity -and its own accent, its own culture. Its own approach to living, to eating, and to social interactions. For me, it's particularly fascinating because I grew up moving around as a military kid and never really felt like I had a home-identity. I mean, still when people ask where I'm from, I'm like "What do I answer?" L.A.? Alabama? Virginia? Texas? New York? I don't know.

Another thing that I've definitely learned is that people REALLY need music. Human beings absolutely need it -almost in the same way that they need food. They really need to connect—with each other and themselves... and the parts of themselves that may not get so much exercise on a daily basis. Also the magical and mystical parts of life that we don't engage with now in this age of reason. When you hear something that's moving, there's something about it that's ever able to be explained. That Martin Mull quote that says "talking about music is like dancing about architecture..." There's no reason... I mean, with harmony, you can look at it theoretically and say "OK, that's consonant and that's why it works," but.... There's a mojo, there's a juju, there's a mystical thing that's unable to be identified when art lifts. Connecting with that is like going to church... but I think probably healthier. (laughs)

AAJ: It's interesting you say that because it seems in today's society, one of the areas where religion seems to fill a void is in providing place for community, for unity of a sort. There aren't many other places to find that, except perhaps at a concert—where everyone is focused on the music, the groove, the one. It is almost like communal meditation or prayer...

ML: Completely. I mean, I go to see concerts as much as I play them and I always feel that way. It's essential for my own sense of balance to spend time on both sides of the proscenium.

AAJ: In light of how vital you feel music is to us as human beings, how do you address how hard it has become to be and survive as a musician in today's world?

ML: I think that the war on fair financial representation for musicians in the age of streaming and piracy is over and we lost. And just like you can't fight a war that's over, you just have to take advantage of the landscape that we're living in today. This was very hard for me to get over because I've felt very strongly about streaming from the second that it occurred. To be clear, I believe that the idea of streaming music and having the whole world of recorded music available at the touch of a button is a beautiful thing. I don't think it's cool the way the infrastructure was set up. I think it was deliberately deceptive to take advantage of content creators—with full knowledge that if the record labels support it (and are shareholders) and the public supports it, the artists have no power. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that this is the new reality. It's not just, but it is what it is. It's our responsibility to use the tools that are now available to us in this new paradigm to try to reach as many people as we can. Or the right kind of people—those who are seeking what we're offering. The analytics offered by these services are great. The fact that you can meet anyone in a bar and they can say, "What's your band's name?" and 4 seconds later they can be checking it out without spending a dollar—it's pretty cool. And really, as musicians, we have to get ourselves out of the head space of "recorded music makes me money" and change it to "recorded music allows me to reach people who can then give me money in other ways"—your merch store, pledge music, Patreon, whatever. You have to embrace the new paradigm. Sitting around and bitching about the new system doesn't push you along in any kind of way.

That was a very hard pill for me personally to swallow, especially as a record label owner of independent artists. We were making records that we believed in, that audiences loved and listened to, that generated no money for the artists. We might as well have been a charity.

AAJ: So what are you doing to try and make the new paradigm work for you, as a record label owner?

ML: We started a music festival, and that's become one of our main ways to hip audiences to underexposed artists—in a much more visceral, cathartic way. A three-day experience in the flesh is very different from just handing someone a record—even though I believe a record is a sacred thing and I hope it never goes away. In addition to that we're using social media to promote our artists and others whom we love. We're on a little bit of a break in terms of releasing stuff as GroundUP. The last record was in March of 2018 and I think our new label manager, Eric Lense, is intent on getting back into release shape within the next year. I love releasing records and I look forward to doing it again soon. At a certain point it became clear that people were listening, but no one was buying the things.

AAJ: Elsewhere, you've alluded to working on your own approach to streaming content. Is that still happening?

ML: For a long time we've been trying to get around the logistics of creating an app or a service that was designed to offer exclusive content for a subscription fee—a way of paying artists better for content other than their records-but it's still very much in the development stages. It's daunting.

AAJ: On a technical level?

ML: On every kind of level. It would be a full time job for a lot of people, and the festival is doing so much good right now. It's something that logistically we have under control so our eggs have kind of gone into that basket for the moment. Once that becomes a very sustainable thing then we'll... I mean, we're never gonna stop coming up with stupid ideas...

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