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Author of Funny Valentine, an acclaimed new biography of the jazz trumpet player and singer, Chet Baker.
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Saturday, 30 January 2016 00:44

Ten questions for Michael League of Snarky Puppy

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Snarky Puppy is a Brooklyn, New York-based instrumental fusion band led by Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer and producer Michael League. Formed in Denton, Texas in 2004, the band features a collective of nearly forty musicians, referred to as "The Fam" on their recordings and tours. Family Dinner - Volume 2 is the band's tenth album, and will be released on February 12, 2016.

 

1. What can fans expect with your new album, Family Dinner Volume 2?

The first thing fans can expect is diversity! We’ve got guest musicians from Europe, Africa, Scandinavia, the US and Canada on it. In addition to the guest vocalists we invited - which is the same format we had for Family Dinner Volume 1 - we’ve added a new element. We invited guest instrumentalists to join us and then paired them up with the singers in unlikely ways. It’s worked out really well: each track has got something different going on. We’ve got some real legends joining us, you know, players such as Salif Keita and Charlie Hunter, the great seven-string bass and guitar player who’s rooted in American blues. So from track to track it’s really like a different planet each time. Every tune’s going to give you something different.

2. You’ve got David Crosby performing on the new album. What did he bring to the party?

Well, David is obviously a legend! The really cool thing about his performance was that he’s been in the middle of this big writing surge the last six months and he’s cranked out two or three dozen songs. The tune we did with him is actually more of a ballad, you know, and it’s the only tune like that on the record. It was something he’d written that morning which was really special. I emailed him to ask if he had any ideas for the album and he came back straightaway saying:’I’ve written this song!’ It’s a really beautiful track and I think it shows a vulnerability in David’s performance that epitomises where he is right now as a musician. The songs he’s writing now are, I think, some of the best stuff he’s ever written.

3. As with all your albums, on Family Dinner Volume 2 there’s a progression and expansion of Snarky Puppy’s sound. What was the goal for the band with this new album?

I think with every record we do as a band the number one priority is always to challenge ourselves. And have a good time doing that, of course! The challenge on this album was massive: working with musicians from all these different countries means you have to get to know their traditions and comfort zones. So we tried to meet them there, but without simply replicating what they’d normally do. You respect the careers and output of artists like Salif Keita, but you also want to put your own stamp on their performance.

4. The band’s become a phenomenon since it’s Grammy win. Is it a bit of wild ride at the moment?

Yeah, that’s right. We’ve been a band for twelve years, and I guess for ten of those we were largely looked over! We got used to that. We worked hard, we toured ruggedly. So we got used to not really being looked at, especially by press. Musicians, of course, were recognising from the beginning what we were trying to do. Since the Grammy, yeah, things started to change! 

5. So what the secret behind the global success of the Snarky Puppy’s sound?

Well, I think the years of relative obscurity actually helped us to develop our stage performance, you know. It was like a very, very long incubation period for the band and it allowed us to develop our sound without it being immediately branded as one thing or another and marketed in a certain way. We had seven or eight records out already before we’ve had any real kind of media interest, so we were able to build up a strong sound that people have clearly responded to.

Each guy in the band has their own habits and listening patterns, you know. We’re all very open and receptive to new sounds and that’s reflected in the music we choose to play. So when you put a bunch of people together who are all serious music fans, there’s a massive transfusion that happens and we try and incorporate that into our composition and playing. 

6. You’ve got Family Dinner Volume 2 out shortly. What else can Kind of Jazz readers expect from Snarky Puppy in 2016?

Well, the very next thing that’s happening with us is that we’ve just finished mixing the recording for our next album, which is thirteen brand new instrumental tracks - what I call a ‘regular’ Snarky Puppy album: no special guests, just the guys in the band. We have involved many of the players who’ve played with us on tour in recent years, so we’ve got three drummers playing on this new record, which is due out in June. It’s the sound of the big extended family that Snarky Puppy’s become, you know! 

7. What future challenges are you looking for with Snarky Puppy?

After this new album comes out, there are a couple of special projects we’re looking at. For example, after Sylva, I’m really interested in doing another orchestral album with the band, but one that’s more acoustic in nature, compared with the powerful electric orchestral sound we had on Sylva. That album was very much specific to the sound and strengths of the Metropole Orkest. I’d be interested in writing something that we could play with other orchestras around the world. 

8. How important to the band is your commitment to supporting young musicians around the world?

Yeah, that’s something that’s really important to all of the guys in the band. We try to spread out as much as possible and make a difference as musicians. The educational aspect of our band is part of its make-up, really, so that’s never going to end. We do workshops as a band, and of course each of us does a lot of solo workshops and work with other musicians. We’re all super committed to this aspect of the band, absolutely. 

9. Which young artists which you recommend readers of Kind Of Jazz check out in 2016?

Man, that’s a tough question, there are so many fantastic musicians out there! I guess I’m really excited to see where Jacob Collier goes with his music, you know? He features on Family Dinner Volume 2. Here’s a young guy with so much talent available to him, but he’s doing a really mature thing as a musician in taking his time to think about exactly what he wants to achieve with his music. And Laura Mvula, of course, who’s on the new record. She’s making a real impact with a sound that’s kind of pop in a way but it’s also so, so creative. They’re both worth checking out.

10. This new album’s released by Ground Up, your own independent label. What plans have you got for this aspect of your career?

Yeah, we’ve just signed a distribution deal with Universal for the music we’re developing with our artists, which is exciting. It’s quite a new operating model. We’re responsible for all the creative input as an independent label, and Universal won’t even touch any music until it’s mastered and the art work is done. It’s then their job to publicise and distribute it. So it’s like we’re using them for the muscle, if you will, and us for the artistic part, which I think is a really cool format to follow. It allows artists on an independent label like Ground Up to have that access to distribution, but without major label interference. We have around seventeen releases slated for this calendar year, including music from UK artist Banda Magda, along with my band mates Cory Henry and Bill Laurance. And we’re talking to artists like Salif Keita and David Crosby about releasing their music too. Your readers should check out the artists on this label, there’s a lot going on that’s really exciting.

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