Michael League – Happiness in the Groove by Steve Gregory… When Michael League sat down for this interview, he had just arrived at the venue for the night, already having had a hectic day. Travel, load in, and sound check was followed by hours spent on the phone with an airline, trying to fix a snafu that would affect his next day’s plans. While the rest of Snarky Puppy, the funk/jazz/fusion/world outfit that League founded and leads, pushed to the stage in a rush to make last minute adjustments and preparations, Michael sat down and dismissed all offers to postpone the interview. In direct opposition to the nature of his day, Michael carried himself with a sense of center and calm, sharing his enthusiasm, humor, and happiness when he spoke about his musical journey.
Soon after our conversation ended, Snarky Puppy took the stage and there was once again the feeling that all activity was centered on Michael. As Snarky Puppy’s members exploded into improvisation-fueled flights, League’s solid grooves created a perfect base for launch and landing. Looking closer at Michael as the satellite solos continued to orbit around him, it was impossible not to notice his leadership on stage. Whether using a quick nod of the head or a signature lick, the group would react to Michael at the center and begin an exploration of a new musical direction.
This restless and organic approach to improvisation has propelled Snarky Puppy to receive great praise from both critics and fans. Over the course of 5 albums and countless live dates, League and Snarky Puppy have created infectious instrumental music that borrows from a wide range of inspirations that includes jazz, funk, gospel, hip-hop, rock, and world music. The following video, from Snarky Puppy’s most recent CD/DVD offering, “groundUP”, demonstrates this musical amalgamation in action:
When not at the helm of Snarky Puppy, Michael also fulfills roles as a producer, songwriter, arranger, and guitarist. His work includes collaborations with Roy Hargrove, Kirk Franklin, Tommy Simms, Patti Austin, and John Popper, among others. Regardless of the situation, Michael League is always exploring new musical territory; however, he never fails to retain his center – his happiness in the groove.
What’s your “growing up bass” story – what led you to where you are today?
My grandfather was a band director in Florida and my brother is kind of a prodigy multi-instrumentalist. So, I took about three drum lessons and then took violin lessons for a year when I was in 4th grade, quit both of those, and I started playing guitar when I was 13, maybe 14. I was self-taught for 4 years. In my second to last year of high school, my brother hooked me up with this really great teacher named Dan Leonard in Northern Virginia. Dan opened me up to the world of jazz vocabulary, music theory, and all of that kind of stuff. Dan had the biggest influence on me as a developing musician.
Then my senior year of high school I was playing in the high school jazz band and they didn’t have a bass player – they had three guitar players, of course. I was the first chair guitar player, so they figured, “We might as well put that guy on bass”, because bass is more integral in a big band, you know. So I was like, “OK, sure!” They had this crappy old Squier Jazz Bass that was sitting in the uniform closet. I took it home and started to learn bass, started to screw around with it.
My senior year I learned it well enough to get by and I was applying for colleges. I got into Indiana University on a full scholarship on jazz guitar. Then the World Trade Center terrorist attacks happened my senior year. I got a letter 6 months later, in April or May, saying that because of budget cuts after September 11th they had dumped their jazz guitar program. I lost my scholarship, but I could still study classical guitar there. It was out of the question, because I couldn’t afford IU. The only reputable jazz school that was still accepting applications at that time was the University of North Texas. I hadn’t touched my guitar in months (as I was only playing bass in my school jazz band), so I felt more comfortable auditioning on bass. I auditioned on bass at UNT and they accepted me. I had basically never really played an upright and that’s what I had to focus on, so from the first day I got to Texas to the day I left 4 years later, I was probably spending 4-7 hours every day, practicing. I started bass late- I was about 17 or 18.
UNT was where the idea for Snarky Puppy began – how did that happen?
I instantly went from being a big fish in a very, very small pond, as far as my peers went, to be dead last out of the incoming bass players at North Texas, which was one other reason I was practicing so much. I actually practiced so much that during my second or third year of college I had to drop out for almost a whole year because of tendonitis- I was practicing too much and not stretching, and not sleeping and eating right, and all of that stuff. But I got hurled into this world of kids listening to all of this stuff I had never heard of, exposing me to all of this incredible Brazilian music, all of this incredible Eastern European music, and of course all of the modern jazz stuff that was going on, and all the old school funk stuff. That whole UNT thing, that’s where basically my brain opened and was this sponge for influence. I would say that was probably the second most formative experience of my life.
I think the most the most formative one was immediately after that, when I left North Texas after 4 years. By this strange, wonderful coincidence I found myself in the middle of the incredibly rich R&B and gospel/soul scene in Dallas. By way of this kind of crazy situation, I started playing in a church in Fort Worth. The band was Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, effectively. It was Bernard Wright on keyboards, Todd Parsnow on guitar, Jason Thomas on drums, and Keith Anderson on saxophone…you know, the RH Factor! And me, playing bass! It was insane! I met Bobby Sparks and Robert “Sput” Searight. I met Shaun Martin. But by far, the biggest influence on me was Bernard.
Well, Bernard was, hands down, the greatest musician I’d ever heard in my life. I just call him “Yoda”… a musical Yoda. He’s the most adaptable musician I’ve ever heard. Hearing him play effortlessly, but perfect stuff on a samba, perfect on a super gritty R&B tune, perfect on a blues… he’s like a musical chameleon. But he’s able to maintain his voice throughout it all. To me, that was the most important thing I learned from Bernard: to really do your homework in different genres to really know the tradition, but to develop such a strong relationship with yourself as a player that you always sound like Bernard Wright (in his case), or you always sound like Michael League (in mine), regardless of what style you’re playing. He was a real mentor to me. We played and hung out together 3-5 times per week for 2 years. The concept of apprenticeship has almost disappeared in the American music world, probably as the result of the institutionalization of music in colleges. But I don’t think anything can replace immersing yourself in the life and musicality of a single great musician.
In Snarky Puppy, you have to do all the things that come with the bass chair, along with band leading duties. How do you feel about having that “multi-hat” role?
I would love to just play bass in this band. Unfortunately, I end up driving the van, booking the shows until just now – we finally got a booking agent, which I’m so grateful for – but still routing the tours, managing the band, doing all the press stuff, all the publicity stuff, playing bass, band leading on stage, writing the majority of the music, and arranging a lot of the stuff. To me, that’s just my life now. It’s something I embraced at the beginning and then began to loathe and now, seeing it pay off it’s kind of like the donkey with the carrot, you know? I get a little bite of the carrot every once in a while, so it makes me feel good about moving forward.
The role that bass plays in Snarky Puppy is the same role that it plays in most bands. It’s not a “bass band”. It’s not like the Stanley Clark Band where the bass is leading it, or Victor Wooten, two incredible bands where the bass is leading things. I play bass; my only job is support the ensemble. As a composer I write on piano and guitar, never on bass. The bass line is the last thing that comes into the tune during the writing process.
Does that give you more freedom when you concentrate on being the bass player?
Yes. Also, I don’t have this need to play really busy, intricate stuff to feel like I’m worth something, because I wrote the tune, or I arranged it, or whatever. When I’m playing on stage, I try to think of the audience first. I try to be a listener first, always. If a listener is going to enjoy something, then I should enjoy it just as much as that person, whether I’m playing something really “interesting”, or not. To me, everything’s about the overall sound – that’s how I try to approach playing the bass. I try to think about the ensemble sound and how I can serve that. Most of the time, if you have a good band, the best way to serve it is to not play. That’s why a lot of the bass lines in this band are very spacious, because we have great drummers, and a great band, so I can take my hands off the instrument and the band sounds great- most of the time, better.
Because this isn’t a bass-led band, the bass is playing a fundamental role – that’s a challenge. My biggest challenge with this group is playing like a bass player standing in the back with no light on him, just being supportive, but leading with my mouth, my hand, and my face like a singer or a front guitar player. The biggest challenge is separating it at my neck. Playing like I’m in the back, but leading like I’m a front man.
You do have a few opportunities to take a bass solo. What are your thoughts when you step into that melodic space?
I was a guitar player first, so my major melodic influences are keyboard players, guitar players, and horn players. Bernard is like my… I can’t stress enough how much of an influence he has exerted on me. He basically completely changed the way that I approach music in every way, especially in terms of phrasing. Everything is about phrasing. Grooves are about phrasing, soloing is about phrasing, rhythmic stuff is about phrasing – everything is about phrasing. So for me, when I’m taking a solo, I try to think about 2 things: sound and phrasing. That’s another thing that Bernard really taught me was connecting those two things. Connecting the sound you’re using with the way that you phrase. If I’m using a fuzz pedal and an octave down effect, then I’m going to have to phrase differently to create a unified solo than if I’m using a 2 octave up sound and a phaser, or just playing a dry thing. There are just certain types of phrasing that work well with certain sounds.
To me, this band doesn’t actually have a lot of tasteful opportunities for bass solos. There are enough great soloists in the band and I don’t hear bass solos a lot of the time, which is why most of the time when I do solo I’m using lots of effects. If I play dry, it just doesn’t sound right, it doesn’t match the vibe of the band. But that said, during a lot of live shows, we never plan out who’s soloing where. Like that solo on “Young Stuff”, Mark [Lettieri] might play that tonight on guitar or Justin [Stanton] might play it on keyboards. It’s not set. During the last album’s recording, Shaun Martin took a solo on that on one of the nights that I loved, but the rest of the take wasn’t great, so we sadly had to lock it up in the vault.
I’ve heard Snarky Puppy’s live approach described differently – is it “on the fly” arranging or “on the fly” solo spots?
We have set sections – we have a composition and there are set solo sections within that composition. But everything is basically open – both the composed sections and the solo sections. Since the band has such an in-depth knowledge of every song, because we play them night after night after night, we can react to something that somebody plays and completely change the composition on stage as a group. It’s crazy! It’s like improvising together as a band – composing as a band, around the composition. That happens a lot with solos. Sometimes Justin will shout out a different chord and we all trust that chord is going to sound right and we’ll play it and it leads us in a new direction.
With so much improvisation, do you feel like you have to keep one foot grounded as a bandleader to keep things under control?
I think over the years we’ve reached enough of a vibe, enough of a cohesive mentality as a band, that we know what works and what doesn’t work. We know when things are getting a little out of control and when things are getting a little too safe. There are enough guys in the band that one person can just throw a curveball and all of a sudden everybody’s on their toes. It’s cool being that way – you can’t phone it in, you can’t put it on autopilot with this band.
What led you to record the latest record, “groundUP”, live at Shapeshifter Lab?
I guess the short of it is that “Tell Your Friends” was a huge success for us compared to the other 3 records. So the live DVD, in-studio thing works for us. I learned a lot from that experience – “Tell Your Friends” – so I wanted one more chance to do it, using what I learned. Also, doing it over three nights, we weren’t pressured to get it right the first night. To have different audiences in, to have the band feel really loose about trying different things, taking more chances. And also getting a very different sound – I felt like “Tell Your Friends” is so clean. Even though it was live, the way it was tracked and people were separated in different rooms – it’s really clean and I wanted a big, roomy, live, messy sound. So I feel like that “groundUP” has a live feel to it. Everybody in one room, in a circle looking at each other- it just had a better feeling to it.
We started this record label, GroundUP music, that we released “groundUP” on and we have, right now, 5 other artists, which are very diverse, from an indie trio folk from Canada (Three Metre Day) to super greasy Dallas funk (The Funky Knuckles) to Joni Mitchell-esque stuff (Alison Wedding) to Norwegian jazz/pop (Hildegunn Gjedrem) to funky/soul/songwriter stuff (Maz). It’s really exciting – it’s part of Ropeadope Records, it’s a sublabel of Ropeadope. I’m really excited about getting these artists into our fan’s ears.
From my personal end, I try to stay as active as a sideman and a producer as I do as a member of Snarky Puppy. I just produced Alison Wedding’s record; I’m producing some other stuff in New York coming up – mostly singers, local bands. Playing some gigs with Kirk Franklin (on guitar), doing some more stuff with Lucy Woodward apart from Snarky Puppy, and just doing random New York gigs. I try to stay active as a diverse sideman. I don’t want to be consumed by any one project. I think that’s the thing that makes Snarky Puppy cool- everyone is constantly bringing in all of their varied experiences into this pot. So it’s my responsibility to do that, too.
We’re doing another US tour for a month and a half, and then I’m doing a tour with the Birdland Big Band, and then in November we’re going to go back to Europe and try to do the mainland as well as the UK. In March, I think we’re going to do a record here in Roanoke at the Jefferson Center – another live DVD, I think, but this time, it’s gonna be a record that features us as the house band behind 12 different singers. Then hopefully by the end of next year, by 2013, we’ll have a new, actual Snarky Puppy record out. I want to make 1-2 a year; it’s just about budget.
Is there anything big that you want to do, that you haven’t been able to, yet?
There’s this record I want to make – I want to do a live concert on this terrace in Park Güell, which is in Barcelona. The architect Gaudí designed this park and there’s this terrace in the park that overlooks the entire city and the sea… it’s incredible. I don’t know if we’ll ever do that, but for me it’s a dream to make that happen. We’ll see what happens!
Michael League proudly endorses D’Addario, Planet Waves, and Markbass.