The Puppy Perspective: Snarky Puppy talks projects, traveling, and staying curious
What started out as a jam session at a Texas university, has morphed into a massive collection of countless members, symphonic collaborations, video series, a brand new festival, and a voice to upcoming, undiscovered musicians. Snarky Puppy continues to defy genres, labels, and modern music norms.
Snarky Puppy Founder Michael League spoke with WLNZ, before their March 16 concert at the University of Michigan, about the band’s projects, travels, and the importance of remaining curious.
“We try to take the things that we like from every different kind of music we’ve ever heard and put them together in a pot,” League said. “But I think the real ‘x factor,’ or the element that really makes it sound like Snarky Puppy, is the years of playing together.”
“We’ve formed a sound over the years that allows us to combine musical styles from around the world without the music sounding overly disparate, or disconnected. Nothing can replace the experience of playing music together as a band, night after night, for over a decade.”
Since its formation in 2003, the band has seen as many as 25 different members acting as musicians within the creative collective. If you’re wondering if Snarky Puppy is a band or a collective, it’s both. Is it jazz? Yes. Is it funk? Yes. Does it have soul? Yep. Does it jam? You bet.
Snarky Puppy is so many things all rolled into one, combining sounds from all cultures, bringing regional music live to different stages across the world. While they’ve landed some of the most talented and unique musicians to play with, it isn’t something Snarky Puppy seeks out, according to League.
“We don’t seek anyone or accept solicitations,” he said. “It’s just a feeling that I have when I meet or play with certain musicians. From what they put out musically and personally, I just kind of know that I want them to be part of our community. It’s a very loose arrangement and things stay very open.”
With that openness to new ideas, can come the frustration of far-fetched projects not coming to fruition. And while Snarky Puppy has had a few ideas that never made it off the ground, more than not, many of them became a reality.
“We dream up ideas that we start planning and realize aren’t the best thing to do at the time,” he said. “But that’s normal. An idea has to make sense in every way to justify the time and energy to actualize it. When we find one of those, we make it happen. We have a crazy one in the works for next year, but it checks all of the boxes.”
Snarky Puppy has a mission to bring people together, bridging the gap between genres, breaking down language barriers, and bettering communities through music. Through providing music education, camps, clinics, and donating concert funds, and creating a locally-sourced music fest, GroundUP Music Festival, the collective has managed to check philanthropists off its list, too. Though, League would modestly disagree.
“I think you have to have money to be a philanthropist, right? If so,we’re out of the equation,” he joked. “But in terms of our experience and time and energy, we give as much as we can to what we believe are genuinely good causes. As much as I would like to influence politics or our social structure, I’m very aware that we have a better chance of changing the world of music than we have of changing the way that people feel about gender, equality, race, immigration, or any of the other issues that society is facing at the moment. For me, the most effective way of doing this is by trying to foster a passion for music in young people.”
The sheer amount of projects Snarky Puppy is involved with is impressive enough, but combined with their sounds, they’re truly a force to be reckoned with. The Grammy’s started taking notice a few years ago, with SP’s first win in 2014 for Best R&B performance and again in 206 for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, with their Culcha Vulcha album.For some artists, it might be weird to win awards for such different categories, but it doesn’t even begin to phase Snarky Puppy. League said the band’s backgrounds are all so different, and that brings a continuous flow of varied influences from every angle.
“And we’re music lovers – whether it’s gnawa or country,” he said. “If it’s good, we like it! I just started a new band called Bokanté which is a weird combination of the blues, West African music, and Led Zeppelin. It doesn’t really make sense when you describe it, but when you hear it, it does. That’s the beauty of this point in music and technology – everything is accessible and cross-cultural influence is unavoidable.”
Not only has League played with Snarky Puppy and shared the stage with a 50-something piece symphony from the Netherlands, but he also composed pieces for the set. Writing one song for a typical four or five member band is hard enough, but for an entire band and symphony can prove to be even more challenging. League described his process as a combination of a few.
“I think I see the overall picture of what I want, but I allow myself to get lost in the tiny micro-worlds of each section of the orchestra and each instrument within that section,” he said.”For me, one of the most important parts of the creative process is letting yourself wander and not having to be stifled by preconceptions. Sometimes you stumble across something cooler than you ever could have planned.”
Wandering and being open to new head spaces and places is what keeps the creativity flowing. Exploring the cities the band tours in is just as important as experimenting musically. They make it a habit to visit the towns they play in on tour, eat local, listen to opening bands, mingle at shows, and learn culture and history of the areas they visit. While others might retreat to a hotel or bus after the show, Snarky Puppy embraces the adventure.
“I think we’re just curious people, and we love to have fun. Maybe that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people have a negative attitude about touring or being a musician in general. Traveling is hard on you,there isn’t any money in music … I get it. But it’s all about your perspective. We’ve made a habit out of seeing opportunities in obstacles. And when you’re traveling, there are worlds of opportunity around you at all times. You just have to know where to look, and more importantly, have the desire to look,” League said.
And if you’re looking for more undiscovered music gems, Snarky Puppy has got your back. Again. Their independent label, GroundUP, features an array of under-the-radar musicians.
“I noticed that Snarky Puppy had developed a fan base of very open-minded and enthusiastic listeners who weren’t caught up in pigeonholing music,” League said. “They were receptive to new and interesting sounds. And when we would bring opening acts with us on tours, the crowds were unbelievably receptive and respectful. I wanted to take this concept and extrapolate it on a larger scale.”
“In 2010 I asked Louis Marks, president of Ropeadope Records, if I could have a sub-label. He agreed, and we immediately went about releasing albums by artists that I loved but didn’t have a lot of exposure at the time: Banda Magda, The Funky Knuckles, and many more. The idea was to steer a large volume of serious listeners to a world of music that they otherwise might not discover.”
The mission remains, but today’s label also has seen releases from David Crosby, Charlie Hunter, Becca Stevens and more. While things are quite different from the early days when League acted as manager, booking agent, promoter, graphic designer, publicist and bus driver, these days Snarky Puppy’s family feel also extends to its massive team of people behind the scenes, making it happen.
“I truly feel that we have one of the best teams in the music business,” he said. “They aren’t just great at what they do. They’re real music lovers. They’re passionate about art and will do anything and everything they can to see it happen.”
Music lovers can see Snarky Puppy make it happen live on stage this Thursday, March 16 at Hill Auditorium, on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Mama Sol, from Flint, will open the show at 7:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit the University Musical Society here.