Fresh off becoming Qwest TV's guest of the month, Snarky Puppy has released their new album, Immigrance. Michael League talks to us about this new adventure, his love of percussion, and the need to think beyond borders in a group that has always cultivated openness in their music.
It takes only a few minutes of a Snarky Puppy gig to realize something fresh is about to happen. The three-time Grammy-award winners have an appetite for improvisation and are always eager to explore uncharted territories. Throughout their studio recordings and live performances, garnering millions of views online, these music geeks have demonstrated they can play anything from rock to neo-soul, from world music to funk.
That the University of North Texas, where the band was created, was the first to offer a Jazz programme in the United States should not be misleading: Snarky Puppy is something else. It comes as no surprise that the mastermind behind that collective embraces cultural diversity. In a business environment, Michael would have been that cool start-up CEO with a strong sense of purpose and casual clothes. Staying true to form, our conversation was similarly casual in tone.
Snarky Puppy is more of a collective than a band per se. How do you see yourself within that collective?
Well, I formed the band about sixteen years ago, and my role in the group has changed over the years. I spent a very long time as not just the band leader but also the composer, the manager, the promoter, the bus driver, the graphic designer, the producer … so I was just doing everything, in addition to playing. But then we progressively hired professional staff and I didn’t have to do any of that anymore. Now, a lot of guys are also writing music for the band too. If we play a gig, maybe 60-70% of the songs are mine, but the rest is from other guys, and that’s really nice. As time goes on, I am increasingly steering rather than driving things. Everyone knows what the band is now: what works, what makes us feel good on stage, how everybody is comfortable or challenged. I don’t have to implant ideas into people’s heads anymore. We are kind of just one brain, everyone together.
I have come to understand that the rehearsing process is non-existent.
Can you describe how it works? It seems so complicated and simple at the same time. The person who composes a song drafts everything on Logic, sends all the parts to all the band members without telling them what to play, and then you would meet and arrange the song during the live performance. Is that correct?
Well it depends. Most of the time, we only rehearse a song just before we record it. And then everyone can learn their part from the recording. I prefer to do my demos the way that you explained, but it is not like we arrange it on the fly. Everyone comes in learning all parts, and then I make recommendations for what everyone should play. But if we have another idea, we change, and people make a lot of changes during that process too. It is very much a group effort at this point.
Do you think having to chart everything would limit your creative process?
Oh yeah, in so many ways! Not just who plays what, but what the rhythm is or feels like, or what the chord voicing is. We do the sheet music afterwards, after the album comes out. In this case [editor’s note: for the Immigrance album], we rehearsed in the morning and recorded in the afternoon, so it was really four hours a song.
That would be your preferred way of doing things. What about the others? Do they share your feelings?
We are the same. The thing that is different is that some guys are more specific on who needs to play what.
I am assuming this way of sequencing a song helps you improvise throughout the live performance.
Yeah, I mean I make sure that we are all in the moment. If somebody knows that a certain section always works a certain way, it is easier for them to tune out. But if everything is able to be changed, then it requires that everyone be focused and aware of what the other people are playing.
Concerning the writing process, I remember focusing on the concept of forests for Sylva [editor’s note: Snarky Puppy’s 2015 live recorded album with the Metropole Orkest] helped you during the writing process as you were touring. How did it come about for the forthcoming album? Did you come up with the Immigrance concept first and then attempt to infuse it in the songs, or did you identify the concept afterwards when all the songs had been written?
It was the latter, so actually it was the opposite of Sylva. The concept for the title and the artwork came after everything had been mixed. And then when I listened to it, I felt that there was some kind of message in the music. I thought this artist Zeycan Alkiş from Turkey would be the perfect fit. Her artwork is such a distinct style, it’s very provocative.
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Can you elaborate on the concept? What does it mean from a social and a political point of view?
It all comes down to this idea that identity is a very fluid concept. It is not fixed and yet many people feel like “I’m American, I’m White, blues is my music.” But we are all just consequences of lots of things that happened before us, in many different places. Although blues is an American music, if you check out Malian music you understand that there is a definite relationship between those things. And if a Malian says that they invented blues, then you just go to the Middle East and you check out where the Malian thing came from through the slave trade. Everything is just fluid, nothing exists in a bubble. And we as musicians are all constantly immigrating in a way. Every time we learn a new style, a new song, we are leaving behind the musician that we were and taking on new elements that become who we will be. Therefore we are always in motion, we are always peeling off our former skin and putting on a new one, in a way that an immigrant does when they need to adapt to a new place. I think there is a real lack of empathy for people who have that struggle, especially in my country recently but in many countries around the world too. I am a recent immigrant in Spain, but I am a luxury immigrant: I moved to Spain because I chose to. Many people do not have that choice or those circumstances.
So what is appealing to you about Spain, culturally speaking?
Well there is no Donald Trump to start with! I love the quality of life. I am a workaholic, so to be in a country where people are generally not workaholics is a good thing for me. To live in a place where there is a slower pace of life, where people eat for a long time, where things happen in a more relaxed way: it’s good for me because I can be very much the other way.
Do you mind a provocative question, now that you are based in Spain …
What do you think of Rosalía? Obviously she blends many different styles in her music while being faithful to the Spanish tradition of flamenco, but at the same time she has been critically acclaimed and ventured into the mainstream. I know you have been vocal against mainstream music, trying to promote so-called “good music.”
I was a fan of Rosalía years before “Malamente.” I think she has an unbelievable voice, she is an incredible musician, and as a human being I really love her. Whenever a person like her does something like she did, which is to take a very sacred form of music and mix it with other things, people get upset. And I think it is healthy that people get upset because it makes people think. If Camarón [editor’s note: Camarón de la Isla] is the principal figure in flamenco, what was it like when he made his first record? Was everyone like “Oh yes this is what flamenco is?” Or were people like “What the hell is this?” It is interesting to think about how people feel about music, artists, evolution, sacrilege, heresy, and purity. All these concepts are all very subjective. And we are still like that! There are a lot of jazz musicians that think that what we are doing is disrespectful.
But there is also a tendency to blend genres, with a lot of bands coming up in the jazz scene incorporating elements of hip hop, for instance.
Yes, but here is the thing with Rosalía: a lot of the people who are going to complain about her are going to get a lot more gigs because of her! She is putting flamenco music back in people’s minds. And I am sure that there are people who think that Snarky Puppy is not jazz. And I don’t think it is jazz to be perfectly honest. Those people might think that it is sacrilegious or impure. But there are many people who have started to listen to Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock, that had never heard of those people before, because they listen to the Robert Glasper Experiment, or Esperanza Spalding, or Snarky Puppy, or Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor. We need to understand that something we don’t like might actually help musicians and music.
Speaking of culture, I am intrigued by your obsession with rhythm. It’s not that surprising because you’re a bass player so the rhythm section matters to you. Still, the detail-oriented attention you have and the fact that you have been learning Turkish percussion … where does it come from?
I think a lot of musicians are frustrated drummers! I had a moment in Turkey when we played there for the first time and this Däf [editor’s note: a Turkish drum] ensemble called Defjen played Shofukan [editor’s note: from the 2014 We Like It Here album]. And after the gig that night, we went to the rehearsal studio and they gave us all Däf lessons. I had this deep cathartic moment when I realized that this was part of my musical mind that I had never developed. So I started studying Däf, and then I started studying Dohola [editor’s note: a Turkish darbuka], and then I went to Andalusia last week and took a couple of lessons and now I am practicing cajon. I don’t play any of this stuff really well, but it really strengthens me as a musician, making my sense of time better and my sense of rhythm stronger, as well as my understanding of what is going on behind the drums. Because, understanding what other people are doing on other instruments is important. Other than that it has been very spiritual, and it’s very healing in a physical way as well to play percussion. Once you start playing instruments that are so resonant and tactile, your body needs to move a certain way to create a good sound and you start to develop a very unique relationship with them and with yourself. It’s something that I had never experienced before.
Another interesting aspect of percussion is that you have a wide diversity of instruments coming from different cultures. Whereas most instruments in jazz come …
… from the US.
Exactly, so there is an element of open-mindedness when you decide to play percussion instruments. And here comes another provocative question!
How did you become so open-minded growing up as a White guy in the US?
(Laughs) You fucking racist! I’ve thought about that a lot. In the US people have an interest for things that are foreign at first, but at the end of the day they are proud of being Americans and that’s what matters most. Me personally, I am not that way and I think it is because my family moved every four years. So, I was born in Long Beach, California, then I moved to Alabama, then to Virginia, and then to Texas and to New York. Over the last ten years, I’ve spent 6 to 7 years outside of the US, too. For me it would be a little weird to be closed because my natural state has been to always be moving. When I moved to Virginia from Alabama everyone made fun of my accent from the South. I don’t think I ever felt like I belonged anywhere.
That is surely reflected in your music, which is a good thing. Taking into consideration those differences and that kind of cultural acceptance, how do you avoid cultural appropriation? Let’s take the example of Essaouira to be more specific since it had a strong impact on Immigrance.
The first thing to understanding what sounds good. You have to understand what you are capable of and what you aren’t capable of. If you practice one instrument regularly, you will learn the technique and how to have a good sound. The thing that is not easy to learn is how to make it feel Moroccan. And if you listen to a very modern Gnawa group like Innov Gnawa who is based in New York, and then you listen to Hamid el Kasri, you hear two completely different kinds of swing, but it is the same rhythm and the same meter on the same instrument. I am never going to be able to sound like those guys, so I need to develop my own way of playing, the same rhythm with my own feel, in a way that is not trying to be that thing. So the short answer to your question is about understanding what sounds good. It is also very important to develop a relationship that is only your own with the instrument, or with the thing that you have taken from that culture. I just use foreign elements as a starting place, and then I allow myself to get distracted by my own ideas, and I go further down that path. For instance there is a call in “Xavi” [editor’s note: the first song released from Immigrance] towards the end of the song that comes from something we did with Hamid el Kasri in Essaouira, but it is a common rhythm.
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It’s like calls that are often used in West African drumming.
Right, it’s the same. So basically you need to be respectful of the tradition, and you need to take the time to study the tradition as well. I have gone to Morocco four times now, taking guembri [editor’s note: a gnawa string instrument] lessons, hanging out every night with gnawi and trying to get the thing in me. I think you need to give it respect. And that applies for every culture. Sometimes we hear Europeans or Asians playing stuff that is from the United States, but it doesn’t feel like they are doing something of their own with it. It feels like they heard Chris Dave play one time, and they just try to emulate it without trying to be themselves. And I don’t want Moroccans to feel that when we play. It is not about the thing you are doing, it is about how you do it. Going back to the Rosalía conversation, when people try to have debates about it, they all just talk about what it is, rather than how it is done. Because the truth is if something feels awesome, it doesn’t really matter what it is.
Apart from Moroccan music, what other influences did you want to showcase on Immigrance?
“Even Us” is obvious I guess – that is Turkish for sure, although the melody to me sounds like Piazzolla. But the harmony is so weird, it’s very much my thing. “Chonks” is a straight-up funk tune. It is interesting since a lot of the guys in the band didn’t start playing funk until they were teenagers, they grew up listening to Nirvana, especially white guys.
And you can still hear it, can’t you? Obviously there is a huge element of funk in many tracks, but in my opinion there are also hints of progressive rock.
I am not a progressive rock fan! And I am not actually a fusion fan. But I also understand why people think of Snarky Puppy as a fusion band, because fusion as a genre was just fusing different genres, and that is what we are all doing. But for me a lot of fusion feels very athletic and virtuosic, and Snarky Puppy takes neither of those approaches. Most of the guys in the band are virtuosic, but that is not what matters. What we are trying to do is groove and play nice melodies, creating a rhythmic dialogue between each other. And to me that’s more of a jazz/funk thing. I just feel like the progressive rock thing also comes from the instrumentation that we have. For instance the guitar line at the end of “Chonks,” to me that’s Jimi Hendrix. But when you have three guitar players playing it and synths, it sounds like progressive rock. I would say that this record is heavier, that there is more rock, like groove-rock or industrial rock, but not progressive rock.
Can you explain the cover art of the album? I understand the concept of fluidity and how things get displaced, but why the fish?
So Zeycan Alkiş is a Turkish artist, whom I am a big fan of, and she is very provocative – she makes protest art. There is a lot to protest right now in Turkey, and she is always using it as inspiration for what she does. That fish to me, it is abstract, but it symbolizes what an immigrant does when arriving in a new country. Because you have the fishbone, which is the actual person, and then you have the skin. And the eye and the bones stay while the old skin leaves … then the fish goes on to take a new skin. But it will probably take a long time before it gets a new skin, it’s just bones for a while because it is a difficult thing to leave where you are from and to just start over in a new place. For me that image summarizes what it means to leave your former self, being vulnerable and naked.
Those human and social considerations you just expressed are also found within your work for the GroundUp label and festival. You often describe yourself as a curator trying to help other musicians and promote new talents. How does this work?
I feel like there are enough festivals that hire bands that are popular. So I feel the mission of our festival is to hire bands that no one knows really, and to rely on the trust that people will have in our decision when we select bands. During the festival we alternate between the two stages, so that you can see every second. Actually, people don’t have another option! And, what I noticed is that actually the bands who get the strongest responses are not the ones who are the most popular; they are the ones who put on the best show. I remember Paris_Monster last year, or La Perla this year, or C4 Trio: no one had heard of them, and people were going insane! For me this was a really good sign, because it showed that the audience weren’t just coming to see their band play their favourite songs. They were really coming open-minded. So I wanna go further in this direction. Eventually, I don’t even want to announce any artists. And also we want to keep the festival small, at 2000 people a day, so it puts less pressure on us. We don’t have to hire George Benson and spend our entire festival budget on one artist. We can have 10 artists that you have never heard of that are equally amazing.
Celebrity comes at a price indeed. And coming back to the membership of the collective, do you still get in touch with the people who have left, for instance Cory Henry?
Of course! Actually the whole band went to his gig last week in Los Angeles. The same goes with Sput [editors note: Robert Searight, former drummer of the band]. We’ve probably had thirty to forty members, you know! I love the band, but it is an unfair expectation that every single person stays forever. I never felt like playing in an other person’s band, I need my own thing. Everyone in our band has their own band, and that’s beautiful. This is why Snarky Puppy is the way that it is: it allows people to go. If Cory calls and says “Hey I wanna come back and play,” of course we’ll welcome him.
If I wanted to apply to join Snarky Puppy, what would the job description look like?
Well, there are no auditions! We know if a person would be right for the group, based on how they are as a person and as a musician. But if you want a criteria for that, I would say: selfless, generous, aware, a great listener, versatile, expressive, humble, someone who loves to just groove and doesn’t need to always be doing something super interesting, obviously someone who can play their instrument well. But really the most important traits are about personality and the capacity for conceptual ideas. Everyone in the band thinks like a producer, meaning “If I am producing this track right now, what would I have me do?”, even if the answer is “nothing, don’t play.”
Snarky Puppy, Immigrance (GroundUP Music)