It’s possible that Michael League will stop taking interviews with this writer, for fear of associated bad luck.
When Michael League and I sat down for our interview in 2012, his day had been plagued by horrible, bizarre travel problems that jeopardized his next day’s plans. While taking this interview, Michael’s home was pelted by a surprise hailstorm, which turned relaxing on a summer day into suddenly having to make sure patio roofing had stayed intact during the frozen downpour. Just as was the case in 2012, Michael refused an offer to postpone the interview; instead, he happily and enthusiastically shared his thoughts about the new Snarky Puppy album, Empire Central.
Recorded live over 8 days in front of an in-studio audience, the 16-track album is a masterpiece of Dallas funk, R&B, soul, and fusion, mixed with the Pup’s ever-growing catalog of diverse influences. The ode to the town where Snarky Puppy truly came into their own showcases a landscape that includes greasy funk (“Keep It On Your Mind“), frenetic swing (“Pineapple”), bouncing fusion (“Cliroy”), and slinky blues (“RL’s”). The propulsion of every composition, regardless of style, comes from League’s magnificent bass playing. Highlights are too numerous to catalog in a single list, but the pulsing ostinatos of “Coney Bear”, rapid walks of “Pineapple”, beautiful lyricism of “Trinity”, and infectious bounce of “Take It!” are not to be missed.
The track “Take It” is of special importance, as it features the “Godfather” of Snarky Puppy, keyboardist Bernard “Nard” Wright. The funk/fusion pioneer Wright passed away tragically in a car accident shortly after making this recording with Snarky Puppy. A natural starting point for this conversation was to celebrate the relationship between Michael and Nard, whom League calls his “musical Yoda”.
We spoke about the mentor-apprentice relationship you had with Nard in our interview from 2012. Perhaps you could describe that mentorship again since that type of relationship doesn’t seem to happen anymore?
Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know how much it’s ever been a thing in the jazz community. There are definitely stories of a great jazz musician studying with another. I think that since the institutionalization of jazz in academic environments, the whole jazz school/jazz college thing, it has definitely reduced the mentorship situation, because people who previously might have sought out a specific musician for guidance now just go through the system, so to speak. I think that of all the musicians that I know that play jazz, I would say that one out of several dozen has had a real mentorship situation that lasted more than a few months.
With Nard, it was three years that I was with him almost every day…5 days a week, and mostly one on one. The funny thing is, when you said, “describe the mentorship”, it wasn’t a formal mentorship like I would go to his house like a musical guru or something. It wasn’t like that – he didn’t have a car and he had a lot of gigs, so I would just drive him to his gigs. We’d talk about music on the way, we’d talk about music on the way back. I’d help set up his gear, I’d sit there and watch the whole show, and occasionally we’d do a formal lesson. We were playing together at least 3 days a week because we played at the same church on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays. On Wednesdays, RC Williams and the Gritz had and still have a jam session on Wednesdays and that’s where Nard and I would go together. He had a regular Monday night gig with John Carruth and Wes Stevenson that was unbelievable. It was mentorship in a really interesting way, it wasn’t curriculum in private lessons and classes. I was just around him; I was seeing him rehearse, I was seeing him perform, I was seeing him at church, I was seeing him in clubs, and I was talking with him on 40-minute drives.
I’m certain it’s hard to reduce all of Nard’s wisdom to a few thoughts, but are there any lessons or ideas that he shared that come immediately to mind?
In three years of having conversations about music with somebody, it’s hard to isolate and compartmentalize things you’ve learned. But he gave me some really great advice, maybe I can share that. He said there are three reasons to take a gig:
1. To grow musically,
2. To help a friend, and
3. To make money.
If someone offers you a gig and it doesn’t have any of those things, don’t take it. If someone offers you a gig and it has one of those things, consider it but be skeptical. If someone offers you a gig and it has two of those things, it’s a really nice gig. If it has all three, never let it go! I thought that was really wonderful advice!
Let’s talk about the new album, Empire Central. It’s been described as a love letter to Dallas; after the inception of Snarky Puppy in Denton (University of North Texas), what was the influence of Dallas on the band’s sound?
College is where we were trying out things compositionally and getting our feet wet. When I moved to Dallas and Justin (Stanton) also moved to Dallas, and some of the other members of the band started coming down several times a week to check out what was going on, I would say that’s like the sound that we still have today. That’s Snarky Puppy’s sound, this combination of curious college student thing, especially being curious about different kinds of music from around the world, and integrating jazz into that, and mixing in the Dallas soul. The kind of feet-planted-on-the-ground kind of thing. I would say that Dallas, more than Denton, formed the sound of the band because it had a scene that was already influential on our music before we started hanging down there. We were already influenced by the RH Factor, we were already influenced by Kirk Franklin, and Bobby (Sparks), and all this work that Shaun (Martin) and Sput (Searight) and RC (Williams) had done with (Eryka) Badu. It was already kind of in the DNA of the band, but there was a degree of separation, then once people like Bobby and Sput and Shaun and Bernard started playing in the band that degree disappeared and that formed the sound that we’ve been developing ever since.
How about personally? What did you glean from your time in Dallas?
Music generally is learned in a way that is – you used the word organic before – it just enters you based on your environment. I don’t really know a better way of explaining it – you play those gigs, and you hang with those people, wherever you are, whether you’re in Japan or Brazil or Turkey or Ghana or Dallas. When you’re in the community and you’re immersed in a culture and a scene and a group of people then everything kind of goes into you through osmosis.
I was watching a clip of you presenting a clinic with Marcus Miller, and he was talking about filling on beat 4 of a groove. You came in and filled on 1, and I had to wonder if things like that were gospel inspiration from Dallas?
I never thought of it as a gospel thing, but it’s something that I do a lot – I always try to fill in places that people normally don’t fill. Because obviously if I fill where the drummer fills, no one hears my fill and no one hears the drummer’s fill. It becomes a joint mess. I like that idea of getting in the cracks, which is something that I like to do compositionally as well. The fact that I don’t recognize that as a gospel thing doesn’t mean it’s not true – it probably is, and it got into me by playing a lot of gospel music.
There are 12 songwriters on the new album – what was you message to them as far as a theme or direction to take?
This record is for and about Dallas – it’s about celebrating Texas music culture and I wanted them to think about that as they were composing. I asked them to think about the things that Dallas has given them and just have them in mind while they’re writing. I didn’t give anything more specific; I just left it open like that.
I heard that, even though you put out the call to the band to start writing songs over a year from the recording date, many people were still writing the week of the date?
Yeah – as always with Snarky Puppy, people are finishing the songs during the rehearsal. It’s just the way that it always is. I gave people a year and a half notice and I myself didn’t write songs until a week or two before! It’s just the way that it is with this band sometimes. Everyone has a lot of things going on and generally people do things at the last minute because they know that we can get away with it.
And you did two weeks of rehearsal to get it all together?
In what form do the songs come into rehearsal – full compositions, partial songs, fragments?
We don’t rehearse songs until they’re done, but what I’m saying is that people were rehearsing two songs a day written by other people in the band, and then at 3 in the morning they were working on their own songs so we could play them the next day or the day after. That’s the nice thing though – when you have 19 people playing and everyone writes a song, that’s a lot of songs. It’s not a lot of individual work to write the songs, it’s a lot more individual work to learn everyone else’s songs.
Let’s get your take on a few tunes from the new album.
“Keep It On Your Mind”
I was definitely channeling the Dallas thing, or trying to at least, when I was writing. Specifically, this groove that happens in the solo section is based off of a legendary funk groove by a band called Yarbrough and Peoples, a song called “Don’t Stop the Music” was the direct inspiration. I was just trying to write something that would be a great show opener and that also was slow and greasy, with the bass line being featured as much as the melody. I feel like in the verse, that actual melody is really simple, so you can get into what the bass line is doing.
Maz is always into the new jack thing, like that song, “Skate U”, there was also some new jack kind of stuff in that. It’s kind of his zone, he loves it. That one was mostly Maz; I wrote one of the sections, but largely what I did on that was form stuff. He had a bunch of ideas and I turned some of the into sections and did formwork on it. But the majority of the composition is his. That was really fun because I love songs like that, when you play them live and you’re on stage and you want to play a song that’s not epic, it’s not a journey, it’s just fun from beginning to end. It smacks you in the face and you move on! I love that because in Snarky Puppy composition is such a priority for us – the most important thing is respecting and honoring the compositions and serving them. Sometimes people go so hard thinking about the journey of the song but then you end up with a concert where every song is too long and does too many different things and so it’s nice to have hard-hitting, straight-up groovy, catchy things and I feel like Maz did a beautiful job of doing that with, “Pineapple”.
It’s a really fun one. That’s a really good example of mixing a lot of very distinct Texas influences and Mark Lettieri is as Texas of a guitar player as you can find. Even though he’s not from there, he’s lived there for so long and has incorporated that sound so much into his own playing. I love that song, just because it’s very joyful and it’s fun and quirky and it’s funny to me. It has a sense of humor, which I think is also essential if you’re trying to represent Texas.
That’s interesting – I have a good friend who texted me as soon as they heard “Trinity” and they were moved by how deep and soulful the song was. I suppose that’s the freedom in enjoying instrumental music?
Mark would love to hear that feedback! That’s the nice thing about instrumental music – people really can interpret it however they way and no one can tell you you’re wrong. I think it’s great!
What was the most challenging song to get through for the recording sessions?
I think on this one, there was only one song that we tried that we didn’t record – it was the fifth one of mine. We started rehearsing it on the third day of the album recording, we were already in there tracking and I thought if things go quickly and well, we’ll put it on there…and my songs never go quickly and well! It’s always a long process before things start sounding right, just because of the way I write, it’s not as clear as other guys in the band who just write things and they sound great the first time that we play them. But you know, that’s just how life works!
Now that the album is out, it’s back to touring, which is a core component for Snarky. Did the last few years of not being able to tour change any of your thoughts or perspectives of being on the road?
I think everyone re-evaluated their lives and the way they spend them during the pandemic. I think a lot of us thought about how we tour and how we travel and how to make it more sustainable and more liveable. Both for the environment and for us physically and mentally. We all definitely missed touring but 2019, the year before COVID, was just a 9-month touring slog year. Everyone also enjoyed a little bit of the break and we all felt lucky that we were able to earn some money before two years of not working, basically. Everyone in this band is a student of music and tries to grow every day. During the pandemic, different members of the band were working on different things and growing on an individual level. After two years of that, everyone comes back and the band sounds different because everybody grew. We did our best to make the best of a really terrible situation. We did what we could.
You always have a bunch of irons in the fire – what else is next for you, personally?
Right now, more than anything else, production is my focus. I’m starting a new record for the bass player Kinga Glyk. We going to start doing the writing and the preproduction for her record. She’s going to track with Robert “Sput” Searight and Casey Benjamin and Nick Semrad from Corey Henry’s band. That will be a really fun band. I’m doing a record for Harold Lopez-Nussa, who’s a Cuban piano player. Then a couple of more things later in the year. So, for me, production is the main thing. Bokante made a new record – my other band! I’m really excited about that one and that will come out next year. I made a duo record with Bill Laurence from Snarky Puppy, where I play Turkish oud mostly and some fretless acoustic guitar-bass. That record will come out next year. Music is life, so I just stay inspired and that’s easy when you work with inspiring people and I have the very, very good fortune of basically doing exclusively that. I count myself as very fortunate.
Last question: in our interview from 2012 I asked if you had anything big that you wanted to do but hadn’t been able to yet. You described wanting to do a live concert in Park Güell, in Barcelona. Over a decade later, how are those plans coming along?
That strangely has still not left my mind! Normally crazy, stupid ideas…I forget about them after about a year. That one, every time I go to Park Güell I think about that – man, this would be such a great place to make a live concert DVD. Maybe one day that will happen, who knows?
Photo: Photo credit: Brian Friedman
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