Michael League formed Snarky Puppy in Texas back in 2004. Over the last 19 years, the band has played sold-out shows all over the world, released more than 13 albums, and picked up five Grammy Awards.
Their latest album, last year’s Empire Central, was recorded in a converted venue space at Deep Ellum Art Company in Dallas, where they played two shows per night for eight nights to small, intimate audiences. Empire Central was named one of JAZZ.FM91’s top albums of 2022 and won the Grammy Award for best contemporary instrumental album. The band had previously won the same award for 2020’s Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2016’s Culcha Vulcha, and 2015’s Sylva, along with their first Grammy for best R&B performance in 2013.
League joined us to talk about the groove the band finds itself in these days.
You talk about how tunes evolve and take on new life when you take them to the stage every night. You’ve been on the road for a while now — do you still get surprised by how the tunes morph into different things, or is it just part of the process now?
Both. I mean, being surprised is part of the process. Every night we go on stage with the expectation that things are going to change and things are going to be different, but without the idea that we have to change it — it’s very organic. With 10 people on stage, if one person does something slightly different and everyone listens to them and adjusts, it makes a huge change. So, I’d say the surprise is part of the process, and we’re used to that. If we go on stage and nothing is different from the night before, there’s a problem.
Would it be wrong to think that if some tunes stay in the same place, that’s kind of where they’re meant to be for a couple of nights? Or would that mean they’re not growing?
It depends on the song. There are certain songs we have in our repertoire that are very… almost pop, in terms of the form — there’s a very specific melody that has to get delivered the same way in order for the song to be the song. There are songs like that that change less from night to night, and other songs that change a lot more. I think there are some where, the less they change, the better, in a certain way, but there are a lot of ways to change a song, you know? You don’t have to completely change the groove or the melody. It could be as simple as adding one extra effect on your tone, or playing a little bit lighter. There are so many different things that can happen on stage that are improvisational, but aren’t stereotypically improvisational. A lot of the time when we think about improvisation, we think about someone expressing themselves freely. We’re a song band, so the art of improvisation in this group is about how we manipulate the compositional content to tell a different story every night with the same message.
You’ve talked about improvising as being, for a while, this introspective thing, and then you communicate that idea. You’ve also said that with audiences, you have the perfect idea of an audience that listens very intently for a while and then they give you that energy. It almost seems like the band and the audience are working in perfect harmony of head and heart.
Yeah, completely. I think that whenever you pander too much to either one of those organs, there’s an issue. Jazz has been incredibly guilty over the last two decades of appealing only to this very cerebral, snobby kind of mentality. That’s why it’s faded from popular view. Then you have examples of artists that appeal so much to the heart that it’s very saccharine, and there actually isn’t a lot of substance in the music that’s pushing the genre forward or challenging the listener. I feel like there’s this very delicate balance between challenging the listener’s ear and making them grow as they experience what you’re doing, and at the same time ticking that heart box and enabling them to feel something that goes beyond their knowledge of music. I think all great art is that way. With all great music, there’s always going to be this balance of things being played deeply and at a very high level that makes both the artist and the audience grow, but also that the audience shouldn’t need prerequisite knowledge in order to enjoy it.
When you talk about the idea of not playing too “inside,” is that something that’s been with you since you began studying jazz a long time ago?
I never felt like a jazz purist. I’m a white suburban kid, you know what I mean? When I went to a jazz school, I was coming at jazz from this angle of hooks. I would think about Miles Davis playing “‘Round Midnight” or something and refer to “the hook,” and a jazz student [would say], “What hook? There’s no hooks in jazz.” It’s when I first realized that I really was a pop person. The way that I listened to things was much more in tune with Stevie Wonder than it was with Coltrane or something. But then of course, studying jazz and playing it so much, I became very deeply immersed in jazz and added those tools to my toolbox, so now I feel that I can empathize with both perspectives. But yeah, it’s always been in me to take a more Stevie Wonder approach than, say, Ornette Coleman. And I think you’re right that over time, the audiences tell you what the truth is. It’s easy to live in a jazz bubble and think you know what’s cool, and then when you start playing for large numbers of people, they tell you.
You recorded Empire Central in a similar way to some of your previous albums, in a controlled live environment. I’m guessing that experience is different than doing a live album in a room with a full house. You equated it more with doing a concert in a living room. Can you expand upon what it’s like to be in that environment?
We did Live at the Royal Albert Hall, and we had almost 6,000 people in this room with a full sound system and a real live experience. I think that’s incredible, but at the end of the day, when you make a live record like that, you’re capturing a live experience. You’re doing your best to have an accurate document of what it’s like to be in that room. But the way that we do things with this living-room type of concert where the audience is sitting right inside of the band and people are experiencing the music like the musicians do, the whole format is designed around the recording. It’s optimized for the experience of later watching and listening to it in this intimate way, versus the live gig where we’re trying to capture what happened when 6,000 people were in a room together. I really prefer our style of making these records, because it’s not some kind of slightly compromised way of living an experience — everything is designed for later consumption.
You’ve somehow managed to create this 25-person ecosystem built on friendship, respect and love of music, and you’ve had great success. Was the vision to create this type of musical environment with you for a long time, or was this an evolution as it went along?
It was an evolution, completely. There are very few parts of this band that I imagined in the very beginning when I was forming it. The key to Snarky Puppy’s survival has been the ability to adapt — the ability to recognize what’s working, what’s not working, what the possibilities are even if they’re unconventional, and being agile. This large group of musicians that are in rotation is a result of basically wanting to allow everyone to have their own careers outside of the band so that when they’re with the band, they’re happy to be there. They’re not putting all their eggs in our basket. I think it’s important that every artist has their own little plot of land.
When you get a reputation for being a great live band, does that expectation ever come with an additional burden every night?
Oh, definitely. There’s a period where you feel that burden. In the beginning, you’re the underdog. Nobody’s expecting any band to be big or famous. So, anything you do that’s cool impresses people. Then people start saying this band’s good, and then people start saying things like, “That’s the best live gig I ever saw.” And then there’s this moment where we have to live up to this hype, but we maybe don’t have the miles behind us to feel confident about living up to it. So, there was a one- or two-year period where we went through that — where every night, there were all these musicians that I loved and admired standing on the side of the stage because someone had told them that we were a great live band. So you feel this pressure. Now we’ve played over 2,000 gigs together, so we reached this point where I feel like every night, we’re playing well. Some nights are exceptional and some nights are very good, but we’re never coming off stage anymore saying, “Oh, that was a rough one.” One out of every three or four gigs was like that for about seven years. “Last night was great, tomorrow night will probably be great, but tonight sucked.” Now, that doesn’t happen. I think the band understands how to play together and understands how to get out of sticky situations if we get into them. We have a collective idea of what works and what doesn’t work. We’ve gotten to that stage where you can say you like it or you don’t like it, but you can’t say, “They don’t play well.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.