After two decades of playing as sideman, Bobby Sparks has recorded all over and at all moments. Here, he brings together a part of his work never before released in a first album featuring Roy Hargrove, Marcus Miller, Lucky Peterson, Michael League and other members who play as part of Snarky Puppy.
Could you breakdown what the album title, Schizophrenia, is all about?
It is about a record that goes a lot of places. I have funk, I have world music, I have hip hop, I have all of these directions. I was listening to the record and the whole thing sounds Schizophrenic.
Did you want to put everything you love in this album?
Yes, because that’s who I am. I love every style of music. I love Miles Davis the same way I love Jimi Hendrix; I love Sly Stone as much as I love Bach or Mozart … I am a student.
You listen to every style of music. But can you imagine your own music without groove?
It would be hard … ! Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the soul/funk. That’s what makes people dance, that what makes people shake their hair!
It seems that there is a great deal of production on your album. Did you have a big part to play in that process?
I ran the whole process. This whole record was thought-out, planned … for every song I had a production idea. When I was writing I knew who I wanted on drums. I knew who I was going to get to play bass or guitar or, if it needed, orchestration, who was the best person to do it. Production is basically a person that can put the right people in the room for a song.
It’s become kind of a touchy subject now because people think that just because you work Logic you are a producer. Yet, back in the days of Quincy Jones, when Quincy was producing a song, he would hire someone to arrange the song, then someone to put the rhythm section together. More like a band director.
Now, that was in the good old days, when you had a lot of money, a lot of budget to hire people. Nowadays it’s done differently. I can send out a file to the guys and we don’t even have to play together to make up a song. I’ll send a file to Marcus Miller and ask him to play on it.
It costs money to go in the studio, hire guys, fly them somewhere, put them up in a hotel. Now, with the technology, you can do your basic track with Logic, Protools. You just have to know the right people. I’d love to gather twenty people in a studio and have a studio party! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do it!
I might track the drums in Dallas or Houston. Mark Simmons, great drummer, from Houston, Texas, played with Al Jarreau for the past seventeen years. We spent a whole day recording with track and drums. And then the next day I might go to Dallas, track with Jason Thomas who plays with Snarky Puppy and Forq. Then I might go to Houston, play with Brannen Temple, a great drummer who play with Lizz Wright, Witney Houston, Janet Jackson … And so many other people. To everybody else I would send out files.
The mix of musicians extends to general personnel, too. How come?
Because engineers, just like musicians, might have different flavors. This guy’s thing might be this …
You have to understand what you’re trying to get from each song to call the right people. That’s what Quincy Jones, Steely Dan and all the great producers did! Steely Dan would even call five or six drummers for one song.
Mark vs Simmons. The title seems to be a reflection of the album’s title.
This is the whole story of a young man called Mark Simmons who is one of my best friends! Chris Dave and Mark Simmons grew up together. From little kids, they grew up as best friends. They shared things, took baths together, played together, went to school together … They only went to separate schools in high school.
They are two of the most versatile drummers in the world. They can play every style of music without any accent. That means that when jazz, gospel or funky music comes up, it’s always authentic.
It’s Mark’s story, though Chris was always the guy. He made a name for himself. But Mark was kind of like myself, just a sideman. He played with Al Jarreau for seventeen years, he played with George Duke, Diane Reeves … But sometimes people forget how bad sidemen are. Because you’re only the keyboard, the bass … nobody gets to see you play. So the asshole in me wanted to show the world how bad this guy is; I wanted to show the jazz side and the funk side of Mark Simmons. We were in the studio and he just got himself a bop kit! So I said “hey man, what if we did a song in which you battle yourself? I want you to battle yourself!” He thought I was crazy.
The idea was for him to play eight bars on the bop kit as if he were Max Roach or Elvin Jones; and on the other side he would play like he was Dennis Chambers or Billy Cobbham, one of the moderns, that type of style. The concept was to show Mark Simmons’ completeness as a drummer and I got all my friends to tell stories. The ones who grew up with him. And I got his teacher, Mr Green, who taught him and Chris Dave. Robert Sput Searight, who plays with Snarky Puppy and Ghost Note tell his story because he grew up watching him!
In the album sleeve you wrote “my brothers who have been travelling on the Battlespark Galactica” and there is also the title “Birth of the Sparkschild.” Is Bobby Sparks’ identity divided into two beings? The everyday guy and the musician?
The intro is a concept where these aliens come down to save the world from terrible music. The music there, and the radio, are terrible. We have nothing to listen to. This child is here to save the world from terrible music. And the gods are helping him to save the world: James Brown, Sly stone, George Clinton. George Duke, Johnny guitar Watson. That’s what makes up Starchild.
Now Battlespark Galactica is the band. Brannen Temple, from Austin Texas, on drums; Justin Mckenny on bass – he is the funkiest cat in the world. He is one of the badest dudes that i’ve known. Allan Cattle on guitar, he played with Meshell Ndegeocello. Tod Parson on guitar, who was my body form Kurt Franklin, and we played with the RH Factor together. Keith Anderson who is my brother and Prince’s last saxophonist who also played with Roy Hargrove. They grew up together. He introduced me to Les McCann, so I played with him. Then you got James Robinson who is the singer. He’s probably my favorite singer. He’s a mix between Bilal, D’Angelo, all of the great soul singers. But he definitely has his own thing.
From all the incredible musicians you worked with, who did you learn the most with? Why?
I was really flattered when I got to play with Marcus Miller, because I really looked up Marcus as a musician. To be in his band meant a lot to me. It was kind of like being part of Miles Davis’ family then, because Marcus Miller played with him!
Marcus Miller is so musical on his bass that he ended up influencing me as a keyboard player, even though he is a bass player. How he uses harmonies, how he wrote songs, how he plays the bass.
But my favorite gig to play is probably the RH Factor or maybe Tower of Power. Tower of Power because the gig was kind of tailormade for me! It featured me and the saxophonist. I had to sing some background vocals which I didn’t care about. But for the most part the gig featured me.
But in terms of learning?
As a musician probably with Marcus Miller. Being around him is like being around a big brother. He has always had these stories. Fucked up stories about Miles Davis … He is probably the most intelligent musician I’ve ever met. Outside music, he taught me stuff about the stock market, just everyday life, being a man.
The RH Factor was more jam, but was sophisticated. With Marcus Miller I was more of a machine, because I played bass, I played Rhodes, I ran samples. It was me and the drummer that held the band down while everybody played. And maybe I got to solo one time, maybe two.
You brought Roy Hargrove onto this album …
Over the last twenty years, we recorded a lot together. On the upcoming record you’re going to hear Roy Hargrove. When we were on the road together, I had him come to my room and made him play things. That’s how I did it with Marcus Miller, too. That’s how I cut this record. A lot of this stuff was done in hotel rooms. Whenever I saw somebody that might fit a song, I invited them in my hotel room.
On tour, I always bring my computer, my m-box, a microphone … Just in case I run into somebody!
How many years did it take to record the tracks on this album?
I started writing in 1998-1999. “Take it,” was recorded in 2000. I was inspired after I heard Chicken Grease, by D’Angelo. I put Roy on to it in 2005. It was always authentic. I never tried to chase the time. I tried to use creative musicians that had their own sound.
Why did you decide to release your first album now?
I’ve been a sideman for thirty years. It’s time for me to do my own thing. I’m not saying that I won’t be a sideman anymore. But I’m getting older. I want people to hear what’s in my head. Just like everybody else. A lot of this stuff was on Myspace for a while. Some people told me that it inspired them back then.
If this recording spanned twenty years. I guess you have some more!
Hundreds more. These are just the twenty that were picked. I’ll release the others. And I am still writing!
Bobby Sparks, Schizophrenia : the Yang Project