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From the Ground Up: An Interview with Michael League

Michael League

When Snarky Puppy snagged the Grammy for Best R&B Performance, it was a victory for independent artists everywhere. Many called the group an underdog but their track “Something,” featuring Lalah Hathaway, is an undeniably phenomenal song. The song’s music video went viral on YouTube with over two million views and has catapulted the band into the limelight. And while a greater audience is just now finding out about the group, Seth Godin’s words ring true: “it takes years of hard work to be an overnight success”. No one can attest to that more than bassist and band leader Michael League.

League formed Snarky Puppy with friends at the University of North Texas in Denton almost ten years ago, and it’s been nearly a decade of hard touring. He’s a primary composer and arranger for the group, which draws on jazz, rock, R&B, hip-hop and more to create a unique musical fusion. Besides their fierce individuality, League and company have employed new and experimental tactics to spread their music, resulting in a grassroots, word-of-mouth following that brought them to where they are today.

Snarky Puppy’s upcoming release, We Like It Here, is a good example of the fruits of their labor. The eight-song collection is ultimately the result of a few emails being sent between music lovers in Europe, a region the band had never gotten traction in. “All of these previously impenetrable markets were opened up to us by a single person, starting with a single email,” League writes in the album’s liner notes. “A little spark to ignite a small flame, to grow into a full-blown fire with the help of some careful fanning and kindling. To me, it’s a sign that there is an underground scene larger than the mainstream. And not just larger- but more powerful, faster-moving, and with the ability for a normal person, an average music listener who manages a small hotel or plays weddings on the weekend, to make an unknown band into a household name in their country, simply on account of the music being interesting. No photo shoots, publicists, A&R people, or record labels necessary. Just music, listeners, and an internet connection. As a music lover, you should feel empowered.”

We caught up with League to get his insight on the Grammys, his writing style, We Like It Here, and more.

First of all, congratulations on your Grammy. That must have been surreal. What were you thinking when they called you guys up?

Surreal is the right word for it. The thing is, I was very certain that we were not going to win because every single band that performed at that ceremony won in their category. There was a band in our category, Hiatus Kaiyote, that actually performed. I was certain they were going to win and their track had Q-Tip on it and it was definitely an amazing track in the category. They’re awesome.

I was kind of throwing a speech together just in case, but then after they performed I thought, “Man, I’m not even going to bother.” So when they announced us the only thing that was going through my head was “what the hell am I going to say?” and that was about it.

Snarky Puppy Grammy

“Something” definitely deserved to win. How did you get hooked up with Lalah Hathaway?

There are two guys in the band that played in her band before – Sput, who is our drummer, and Bobby Sparks. I had known about Lalah for years, so I went to see her play one time when we were in the same town and she blew me away. Then when the “Family Dinner” idea came up, Sput recommended that I ask her. And it was obviously a great decision.

You bring together so many different genres in your playing. How did you get your start in music and who are some of your influences?

First, I think each individual musician in the band brings influences to the music. Everyone individually listens to a wide range of music, so you can only imagine how large the breadth is between all the guys.

I started playing acoustic guitar in high school like every other kid that loved Tom Petty and stuff like that. My brother started playing jazz when I was in middle school, so I was exposed to it a bit. Then in high school I started playing in this band with [bassist] Tony Moreno and some local guys in Northern Virginia. We went really far down the Led Zeppelin, Cream rabbit hole into the world of blues-rock with kind of a jazz influence thing. I just kind of slowly drifted into the jazz world.
I ended up going to college majoring in jazz studies at the University of North Texas. I would say that’s where my first real music education started. I got to this college where everyone was totally playing circles around me. There were hundreds of people there to do exactly what I wanted to do and it was really, really cool.

After college, through a really fortunate set of coincidences, I got set down right in the middle of the Gospel and R&B scene in Dallas, which is arguably the richest scene in the world for that kind of music. I basically ended up on Saturday nights playing a steakhouse with a college jazz quartet and then Sunday, literally overnight, I was playing at a 7,000 member black Baptist church with Erykah Badu’s band. It was a really crazy thing. It was just through this one guy I met at a jam session who called me to play this church, and the church band was basically Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor and a lot of those guys playing with Badu. From there it’s just how the music community works. You play one gig like that and if you don’t sound too bad, you get called for another gig like that. Before you know it those are all the gigs you’re doing.

I would say that college is where I got the nuts and bolts of music together, but it was after college playing in that scene that I feel like I actually became a musician… A person who has a concept and is able to express themselves through their instrument. That’s where I would say my personality developed the most.

So are you an advocate for higher education for musicians?

I don’t want to limit it to higher education. I’m an advocate for music education, and that doesn’t necessarily come in the form of a school with a degree. I’m very, very adamant about supporting the idea of people teaching each other music. [That includes something like] an apprenticeship, which is another opportunity I had with this incredible musician named Bernard Wright. He was my mentor for about two years. I would drive him around to all his gigs for two years and I’d play with him five to seven times a week. I hung with him all day. It was just like he was my mentor and he’s one of the guys I have to thank the most for anything I do well musically. To me, that’s a music education. Or a school for little kids that does Suzuki method. That’s an education. I don’t feel like you have to go to college, but it helps. The cool thing about going to music college is that for four years of your life, your only job is to study music. That’s a beautiful thing because we all know when real life happens you don’t have time to practice as much as you do when you’re in college.

So I definitely support it, but do I think that everyone who wants to be a musician should go to college? No. I feel like you just have to get your education somewhere. There’s a guy in my band named Cory Henry who never spent a day in music class but he knows everything he needs to know about music theory because he learned it in church and he was surrounded by the right people.
Not everyone is in a position where their community fosters musical growth. As much as I love Northern Virginia, my community doesn’t support it very much. I couldn’t have gotten the education I got at the University of North Texas in my area. It just would not have happened because it’s not as culturally or musically rich as Dallas is.

Tell us about Snarky Puppy’s upcoming release, We Like It Here.

Snarky Puppy: We Like It HereIt’s a live CD/DVD of some concerts that we gave in a recording studio in the Netherlands in a town called Utrecht. It was at a really cool studio called Kytetopia owned by a famous Dutch trumpeter named Kyteman. We brought the band over, snagged a Dutch string quartet and recorded for four nights. We recorded eight new songs and filmed it the way that we’ve done our last three records.

I really think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done. I think most bands always feel like that – more excited about their new project than their old ones – but this is a really special moment in time for the band because it was very, very explorative. We’ve been playing together so long. We turn ten years old in a couple months. We’re at a point where we’ve played so much together that the guys instantly start taking risks and challenging each other musically whenever we play. We’ve hit a groove as a band where we can play the compositions and be true to them but really stretch things outside of them. Also, [the recording session] happened right before this Grammy thing so no one was feeling this pressure. Right now I think we all have the sense like, “Oh shit, people are actually paying attention to us now.” And that’s not to say it will change the music at all. It’s not going to change the music at all because we’ve been doing what we’re doing for so long that it would be unnatural to change for that. I feel like in November when we made this there was no Grammy nomination, so it was Snarky Puppy as usual. There’s that little bit of a recklessness to the recording that I really enjoy.

What’s your writing process like?

I start with a concept. I rarely just sit down at an instrument and start to play and have that be a song. I’ll either have something in my head originally or there will be a concept in my head. Like, I’ll want to write something really dark or something that’s bright and funky. I need something to give me a guideline because my mind wanders.

I’ll generally start on keyboard or guitar and come up with a progression and a groove. From there, I try to sing a melody over the top of it. I find that singing melodies ends up creating much better melodies than when I write them on an instrument. I find that if I can write it by singing it, then it will be easy for people to sing. It will make it simpler and more direct and hopefully catch your ear.

From there I just imagine the orchestration, as in who’s going to do what. Whether the horns are going to do the melody and in what octave, stuff like that. The bass line actually comes last for me. I’m a bass player – I play bass lines all the time. That’s the easy part of writing music for me. But the hardest parts for me because I’m a bass player are melodies and harmony to some extent. I feel comfortable with all three things, but since bass lines are what I do all the time I’ll just do those last. Same with drum grooves. I have no problem hearing those in my head. So I save the easy stuff for last and do the hard stuff up front.

One fan specifically wanted to ask about the origin of the riff from “Bent Nails” from groundUP.

I didn’t write that. Sput, our drummer, wrote that song. But I do remember that when he wrote that song he sent it to us with no metronome and no drums, so nobody had any idea where beat one was or what the time signature was. It was really funny text stream of us giving him a bunch of crap because he was like, “What’s wrong, you all can’t feel it?” And all of us thought he was crazy. It was funny.

Can you give us a rundown of your gear?

I play a 1976 Fender Precision bass with a maple neck that I acquired in a drum shop in Greenville, South Carolina for $700. I talked him down from $900 because they obviously had no idea what they had. It was in bad shape so I did had to fix it up a bit. I guess it was owned by some guy who played at his church in the mountains every Sunday. But he just played acoustic bass, so the electric just sat in his closet for twenty years or something. So that’s kind of like my baby. I use D’Addario Chrome Flatwounds on that.

For more vintage gear, I have a 1967 Hofner 500/1 Beatle Violin Bass strung with D’Addario Tapewounds. I love that bass. I have a ’78 Fender Mustang with a maple neck. Then I have a 5-string Alleva-Coppollo, which I love. I’m not really a 5-string guy, but I put it on every once in a while and I love it. It’s got kind of a mint green finish with a black pickguard and rosewood fingerboard.

I have some really cool guitars, too, like a ’65 Fender Mustang and a Fender Strat. Then I have a 12-string Martin that I string up in Nashville tuning, which is where you get rid of all the low strings, but you still use twelve strings. It’s like a mandolin almost with two strings in unison per course, which is really cool for recording sessions. I also have an Eastwood baritone guitar. I’m really into weird sounds so with the Nashville 12-string thing and the baritone and the Hofner… I like all those kind of things.

I play Markbass amplifiers and cabinets. My normal stage rig is a Randy Jackson 500 all-tube head on top of a 4×10 and a 4×8 cabinet, which is a really unconventional thing but I love it. For a vintage bass you can get all the booty and bump of the bass from the four 10’s but you get that real midrange clarity with the four 8’s, which I love.

I also play a Moog Sub Phatty for keyboard bass stuff. Pedal-wise, I endorse and I have a Pigtronix Envelope Phaser, a Philosopher Bass Compressor, a Quantum Time Modulator and their Fat Drive. I love MXR’s Carbon Copy Delay, plus their Phase 90, Bass Octave Deluxe, Bass Envelope, and one of my favorite delays that Way Huge makes called the Aqua Puss. For solos, I often use the Electro-Harmonix POG, either the Micro POG or the POG2. That’s kind of my pedal arsenal. Finally I use Planet Waves cables.

Snarky Puppy
Photo by Christi Laviolette

You’re kicking off an extensive tour this week, and it’s pretty well known that taking a group on the road is tough to do anymore. How do you manage it with such a sizable band?

The most important thing is that the guys were a part of the band before it did anything significant. There’s definitely this feeling of wonderment and gratefulness at anything good that happens because toured so ruggedly for so many years. It’s one of those things now where we’re getting paid more now than we ever have been because we used to get paid almost nothing. So there’s not like this huge expectation for getting your own hotel room and five-star food and getting paid a grand a gig. Every tour everyone is happier and happier because we’re getting taking care slightly better each trip. Just like anything else, if you do it a lot you figure out how to do it best and we’ve really settled into a groove in terms of touring.

Snarky Puppy Tour Dates:

DateVenueLocation
February 13, 2014Neighborhood TheatreCharlotte, NC
February 14, 2014Boone SaloonBoone, NC
February 15, 2014Asheville Music HallAsheville, NC
February 16, 2014Mercy LoungeNashville, TN
February 17, 2014Hi-Tone CafeMemphis, TN
February 18, 2014Prophet BarDallas, TX
February 19, 2014Hailey’sDenton, TX
February 20, 2014Holy MountainAustin, TX
February 21, 2014The Howlin’ WolfNew Orleans, LA
February 22, 2014Thirsty HippoHattiesburg, MS
February 23, 20141904Jacksonville, FL
February 24, 2014Crow BarYbor City, FL
February 28, 2014JIExpo KemayoranTanjung Priok, Indonesia
March 03, 2014Terminal WestAtlanta, GA
March 04, 2014Georgia TheatreAthens, GA
March 05, 2014Southland BallroomRaleigh, NC
March 06, 2014Weinberg CenterFrederick, MD
March 07, 2014THE ARCWashington, DC
March 08, 2014Creative AllianceBaltimore, MD
March 13, 2014Anderson Center For The Performing ArtsBinghamton, NY
March 14, 2014Berklee Performance CenterBoston, MA
March 15, 2014Vermont Jazz CenterBrattleboro, VT
March 16, 2014Arts RiotBurlington, VT
March 17, 2014La Sala RossaMontreal, Canada
March 18, 2014La Sala RossaMontreal, Canada
March 19, 2014Adelaide HallToronto, Canada
March 20, 2014The Crooked IErie, PA
March 21, 2014Rex TheaterPittsburgh, PA
March 22, 2014Irving PlazaNew York, NY
March 28, 2014Cape Town International Jazz Festival 2014Cape Town, South Africa
May 01, 2014O2 ABC GlasgowGlasgow, United Kingdom
May 02, 2014The WardrobeLeeds, United Kingdom
May 03, 2014Cheltenham Jazz FestivalCheltenham, United Kingdom
May 04, 2014The Glee ClubBirmingham, United Kingdom
May 05, 2014CoalitionBrighton, United Kingdom
May 06, 2014ScalaLondon, United Kingdom
May 07, 2014ScalaLondon, United Kingdom
May 09, 2014Norfolk & Norwich FestivalNorwich, United Kingdom
May 10, 2014Southport WeekenderMinehead, United Kingdom
May 11, 2014The SageGateshead, United Kingdom
May 12, 2014KazimierLiverpool, United Kingdom
May 13, 2014Band On The WallManchester, United Kingdom
May 16, 2014ParadisoAmsterdam, Netherlands
May 18, 2014De OosterpoortGroningen, Netherlands
May 23, 2014Ancienne BelgiqueBrussels, Belgium
July 16, 2014Open-Air-Bühne am Mercedes-Benz MuseumStuttgart, Germany