Snarky Puppy: Setting the Dinner Table
American fusion group Snarky Puppy’s founding member Michael League on life after their Grammy win and playing in India
When you’re Snarky Puppy, there is no shortage of two things ”” gigs and albums. The American fusion band, which usually tours with at least nine inÂstrumentalists, have released eight alÂbums in 10 years and when we asked bassÂist Michael League about how long he’s been on the road at a stretch, he says with a laugh, “It’s been about three years now.” The bassist, who began rounding up performÂers for Snarky Puppy from his campus at the
University of North Texas in 2004, hasn’t seen too many breaks from gigging right through the early days. On the phone from Warsaw in Poland, League says the band will be easing into 2015 ”” with a few US shows and a new album in the works. Their only show this month will be in Mumbai, at the second edition of the music festival Johnnie Walker: The Journey. Says League about the India show, “We’ve been trying to make it happen for years and this is our first opportunity. We’re really excited to expeÂrience the culture, maybe hear some local music and eat some really fantastic food and generally enjoy being in a new country.”
In a chat with Rolling Stone India, League opened up about Snarky Puppy’s beginnings, collaborators and their recent Grammy win for Best R&B Performance in 2014 for their song “Something,” featuring soul/R&B singer Lalah Hathaway.
How has your tour been so far?
It’s been great, man. Almost every show has been sold out. The crowds have been great, so you can’t ask for more than that.
You said, jokingly, that the band was completely underground for the last nine-and-a-half years. You said you built a reputation by word of mouth ”” how much did the internet help?
I think it did pretty much everything for us. We didn’t start getting widespread reputaÂtion until we had built this gigantic grassÂroots following online. It’s almost as if the fans pressured the music industry into knowing about us [laughs].
How are you guys handling all the hysteÂria around the Grammy win?
[laughs] The coolest thing about this band, because of the style of music we play, there’s never really the fame fame, you know? You don’t get out of a car and people are grabÂbing at you. It’s just respect ”” because we play creative, instrumental music. It’s a very different kind of fame that rockstars experiÂence. It’s more like respect. The guys [in the band] really appreciate it ”” they don’t take it for granted. We go out after every show and talk to the fans and hang for like an hour, because there were just so many years that we played when no one cared.
You’re in Poland right now ”“ how many of you guys are on tour?
Nine on stage, two sound engineers and a tour manager.
Does it mean you never technically get tired of each other, because there are so many of you?
That’s exactly what it’s like. We never get sick of each other. We’ve been on the road so many times and we always find someÂone hang out with who you haven’t spent time with before and it just becomes one big party everywhere we go.
How do you decide who to take on tour?
Well, the way it generally works, there’s a core group of guys I ask [to tour]. And they generally do about 60 to 70 gigs. But we balÂance it out. Right now, for example, Chris McQueen is playing guitars with us, and he’s never toured Europe with us. So we were like, ”˜Do you want to come to Europe and then to Asia’? The guys are all very open-minded and they never get upset or possesÂsive or territorial. It’s never like that at all.
Do promoters ask if you can bring down fewer members and make it compact?
Laughs. That’s a really funny question. From time to time, we get that whole ”˜We want you to bring Cory [Henry, keyboardist] or Mark [Lettieri, guitarist]’. In fact, when we first got an offer to play in India, the promoter ”” the gig never happened ”” they said Mark had to be at the gig. We tell promoters all the time, ”˜Look, Snarky Puppy is a band.’ We have a lot of members and each member is amazÂing. They have their own style and personalÂity. If your offers are interested in certain inÂdividuals, then we’re not interested in playing because it’s not what the band is about ”” it’s about the music.
The India show looks like the only show in December ”” is it all quiet after that month as a Christmas break?
Yeah, we’ve been on tour forever. Christmas break is basically a time for me to be a normal human being for a couple of weeks, y’know? Read books and stuff.
What kind of setlist do you prepare when you’re playing in a new country?
It’s always new stuff. About half of it is new music and the other half is a combination of stuff from our old records.
Who’s coming down to India from the band?
Larnell Lewis is playing drums, keyboards are Bill Laurance, Cory Henry, Justin StanÂton. And then, Chris McQueen on guitars, and Mike Maher on horns, and Justin as well ”” he plays both keyboards and trumpet. Bob Lanzetti on guitars and Nate Werth on perÂcussion.
What was it like making that transition from playing smaller shows in the States to playing in bigger venues internationÂally?
It was a very natural transition. It wasn’t an overnight change. A lot changed since the Grammy win, but a lot of it changed slowly. We had already booked all our shows before we won a Grammy for about eight months. We were playing these small rooms, six to eight months after the Grammys and things were still cozy. I think one thing that has changed is that the band is now able to play both rooms, put on two different kinds of shows and make it work.
A lot of your best-known songs feature collaborations. Do you usually have a wishlist before you make an album?
There’s no real wishlist, but we make differÂent lists for the Family Dinner records. For this latest Family Dinner album , we had a list of people we wanted to invite and almost all of them were available. It’s a speÂcial project, so we make a list of people for that project. It’s not like there’s a giant masÂter list of people we want to record with. It’s more about when there’s a certain opportuÂnity comes around.
How do you come across these collaborators?
Normally, it’s word of mouth. If an artist is really something, you hear about it from other musicians and reach out to them.
Videos for songs off Family Dinner ”“ Volume One and We Like It Here have got a lot of hits ”” does that impact what the band plays at all? Is there something you wish could go viral but didn’t?
No, each song is cool in its own way. It’s very interesting to see what songs people relate to on a large scale. I find that the songs which have fewer views, the people who like them are more emotional and passionate about them, you know? The one with the most hits, maybe everyone likes it but they may not feel as strongly about it as the ones with lesser views. There’s just a lot of different flavors to choose from. I don’t worry about that sort of thing, though. Whatever people want to listen to, that’s fine by me.
Snarky Puppy performs at Johnnie Walker: The Journey at Mehboob Studios in Mumbai on December 13th, 2014. Tickets available at www.bookmyshow.com