Michael League is the bassist, composer and producer of the three-time Grammy-winning Snarky Puppy.
Currently gearing up for the next leg of a massive world tour, the band will be here in Toronto for two shows Sept. 7 at the Phoenix Concert Theatre.
League joined us on the phone from New York to chat about what it’s like to be on the road so much and how the band makes it all work with a revolving door of members. Plus, he peels back the curtain on the group’s creative process to explain their commitment to always pushing themselves forward.
Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.
You were on the road for about three or four months, and you’re gearing up for another three out there on the road. You’ve been doing this for a long time. Does it get easier or harder the more you do it?
I think it gets easier, actually. Maybe I’m only saying that because I’m not on tour right now; maybe if you ask me in a week I’ll say differently. But after 15 years of doing this, it’s like we’ve settled into a groove. When we’re on tour, it doesn’t feel like it’s a departure from daily life. It feels like another side of our daily lives. It’s cool, sustainable.
You almost just feel like the wear and tear physically would become a burden in some ways, but maybe you guys have the magic juice to make it work.
Well, no. There are definitely some miles on the car. Our bodies take a toll. I had to do three gigs in a chair on the last tour because of some stuff with my back. That never stops being a concern, but I would say that compared to when we first played in Toronto 10 years ago or something, it was such a mess, and now that we’ve had more success we’re able to travel more comfortably. It’s a more sustainable way of touring, so it’s much better than it was when we first appeared in Toronto.
When you take those little breaks between legs, is there ever any need to rehearse, or is everyone ready to go? Could you pick things up and go anytime you wanted?
We don’t rehearse. Basically, guys just come in, soundcheck on the first day of the tour, we run the things that we have the most fear about playing, and then we determine whether we can play them or not. It’s very spontaneous at this point.
Do you make any changes to what you did in that first leg of the tour to what you’ll do this time?
Yeah, that happens naturally just because we have so many new members coming to the band on each tour. I think this month we have 11 different lineups in four weeks. That might just be one guitar player and another guitar player coming in, but our band has this steady rotation. It’s almost like a hockey team where we do line changes, but we change one guy at a time. It’s interesting. It always brings new life into the music.
When you get on stage on any given night, do you know exactly who’s going to be on stage with you, or do you have to wait till everyone shows up?
I don’t know until they’re there. Our manager knows, but I don’t. So for me, it’s always a nice surprise. “Oh, Mark! Hey, what’s up?”
It must be an administrative nightmare keeping that revolving door going, with the travel and all the things that go into putting it together. Even if you were a static group of people it would be tricky.
It is, in a way. But I think the pros far outweigh the cons in terms of the fact that having this line-change rotation allows each musician to individually pursue their own careers as solo artists or as sidemen with other artists. And also just logistically, they don’t have to play seven months of shows this year. They can come in fresh and leave before they burn out. I guess I’m the only one besides the crew that has to grind it out each gig.
You’re like if The Cure played and Robert Smith wasn’t there. That would be a problem.
You know, I don’t actually think there would be. I think the band would sound great without me. It just hasn’t happened yet, but it could totally happen, no problem.
I want to talk about Immigrance. Congratulations on the record, it’s so fantastic. You talked about the approach being like Culcha Vulcha, stripping things down rhythmically, and when I read that, I didn’t quite know what it meant. Could you expand on how you conceptually approached the last couple albums differently from the previous ones?
It’s natural as a band gets older and evolves, and as people get older, they hone in on what they’re interested in doing, and a lot of the things they did in the past they’re less excited about doing in the future. With Culcha Vulcha and Immigrance, what we’ve done as a band is realize what it is that we’re trying to do right now and what it is that appeals to us. On previous albums, maybe they were more bombastic, virtuosic or athletic. These last two records, we’ve really focused on playing solid, mature grooves and nice melodies, and we’ve gotten away from the “wow” factor of some of the other stuff. I’m sure that some of our fans might miss that, but I think it’s important as a band that when you all agree on something, you have to pursue it, regardless of what your audience might like or dislike.
You also talk about a conscious effort not to repeat yourself or lean on things that you think are signatures of the band. Do you think you’d avoid it almost to a fault, where there could be times where that might fit again, but you just won’t put it in there because it’s ground that you’ve been on before?
I think that’s definitely possible, going too far in the other direction. I think in general, we just try to do what’s natural. Right now, it feels natural to do the thing that we’re doing. If one of those things that’s been a fan favourite naturally occurs during the writing process, no one’s going to shut it off. We’re always going to go wherever the inspiration is taking us. But are we thinking about that as a compositional device when we’re writing music? No. We’re constantly trying to process new inspiration and new influences, and form that into new music just so we can keep moving forward.
How much is verbal? Is this about you being in a room with people, talking about the music and where you want it to go, or is it much more expressed through playing and through the creative process, that isn’t so verbal or intellectual?
I would say half and half. We definitely have a lot of conversations over dinner, over drinks, on the plane, on the bus, in small groups or on an individual level about stuff like that. But the only time when the band is all together experiencing the possibilities and the directions in which the music can move, that’s either in the recording studio or on the stage. There’s that quote, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I think that’s very true. You can talk about music all you want, but you’re not going to feel the truth of what music is without hearing it and playing it.