The name Snarky Puppy may not exactly be household, but the Brooklyn-based instrumental act has amassed an extremely loyal and worldwide following over past 13 years. With two Grammys under their belt and sold out theatres littering their itinerary, bandleader and bassist Michael League does not take this position for granted.
“We’re in Athens, Georgia, tonight playing at The Georgia Theatre for over a 1000 people,” he says down the phone, “and eight years ago we played a free, unofficial afterparty for a Galactic concert across the street, and four people came. We couldn’t even get half the number of people in the audience as there were onstage! So in the same town, on the same block, suddenly there’s about a 1000 people who are respectful and open minded to our art. To me that’s basically just because we begun in a natural organic way, fan by fan.”
This unaffected approach is at the essence of Snarky Puppy’s ethos, and comes across in League’s demeanor as well – relaxed, yet obviously committed and hard working. Since meeting at the University of North Texas in 2004, the band have built themselves a career, clocking in over 1200 shows in that time.
“It’s going to be 13 years of playing together next month actually,” realises League, “over all those years we have developed our vocabulary and found together a concept. I think that our goal at any point in time is to continue evolving and to challenge ourselves to push that concept in new ways.”
The band’s music, groove based instrumentals that touch upon jazz/funk/fusion, indeed seems to draw a very conscientious type of listener, part of an ongoing conversation that happens between the stage and floor.
“They’re generally very quiet during the performances but also very responsive in the moment that’s called for. They want us to challenge ourselves and challenge them and that kind of creates a dialogue that’s surprising and spontaneous,” he reflects of their audience.
“What I really love the most about them is that they try to hold us accountable as a band. If things aren’t going great onstage we don’t have the kind of thoughtless compliance from the audience,” he says, “you really feel like they’re listening. They know when you’re not at your best and that makes you have to play better. The accountability thing is huge.”
“If we were in a band that made our first record on a huge label and got loads of marketing and publicity and roped people into a kind of frenzy thing, I don’t know that the fanbase would be like that.”
With League at its center, the band’s lineup consists of a core of eight players, with an extended ‘family’, as they are known, of up to 40. “The rotation thing happened out of necessity because I was saying yes to every gig and some guys couldn’t make it, so we’d have to get another guy to play trumpet or play keyboards or whatever,” says League, “and then we noticed that it kind of injected new life into the music and it just became like a collective.”
While League is the band’s chief composer, over the course of their 11 albums he has found the benefits of arranging the songs cooperatively. “Along the way we discovered that when people chip in ideas they play better in the part,” he says, “but it’s not like a jazz thing, its much more like a pop thing. Everybody in the group is song obsessed.”
Although keeping a pop song mentality to their music, improvisation is encouraged, both in the studio and onstage. “One of the coolest things about the band is not just that it’s separate soloists but that we’re constantly rearranging,” says League, “someone might play one little thing that changes the way that we play the whole song for the rest of the time. We try to create a very unique experience each evening.”
The band feed off their audience so much that almost all of their albums have been made in front of a crowd. Family Dinner 2, released in February, went to the extreme of having listeners scattered around the players in the recording studio, with headphones on and eyes wide open.
“Having people around you makes it feel like a show, which makes you play with a different kind of empathy and spontaneity,” explains League, “it makes you communicate the music in a different way, because you have that immediate dialogue that puts things into a better perspective I think.”
For their latest album, and the second for this year, the band decided to take this learned wisdom and head in the opposite direction. Cultcha Vulcha, released last month, is an expansive studio album full of overdubs that allowed the band to approach the new songs in a new way.
“We had been hungry to do an old school studio record for a while, so it allowed us to be more articulate with our sonic power and also to be able to fine tune things, not just to be like ‘alright that was sick, thanks for your help,’” he says.
With their current set list comprising of around 70% new songs, Australian fans can look forward to hearing this latest material when Snarky Puppy bring their tour to the Melbourne International Jazz Festival next week.
Snarky Puppy play two shows at The Forum Theatre on Thursday June 9 as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Cultcha Vultcha is out now via the band’s label, GroundUP.
Published in Beat Magazine #1527