While he’s most recognized with a bass strapped on, Michael League has steadily transformed himself into a Millenial-era Quincy Jones, thanks to his mad skills as a producer, songwriter, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader (most notably with Snarky Puppy), founder/owner of the global-minded, independent label GroundUP Music, and his overarching gift for collaboration. But while Le Q continued his art-of-the-phonebook approach in putting together his solo albums, the multi-Grammy-winning League chose to go it alone on his aptly-titled debut, So Many Me.
Born of observing life during the pandemic lockdown, the evocative eleven-track effort examines relevant themes, including lack of physical contact, social media-enabled double lives, fear and hate-mongering politicians, and mortality. Most effectively, it does so by weaving such disparate ingredients as plush, ’80s pop-minded analog synths, Middle Eastern and North African percussion employed in new, non-traditional ways, sweeping vocal harmonies, and all manner of bass frequencies into a highly original sonic landscape. Best of all, despite the disc’s often distant, narrator’s perspective, there remains an appealing air of vulnerability thanks to League’s lyrics and his first major go at lead vocals. Indeed, Michael putting in more of himself gives us a clearer view of his many mes. We asked him about the record’s unique creative path and rewarding results.
How long had you been planning a solo record and how did it finally come about?
I had a document on my desktop called ML Solo Album 2015. It only had ideas, like a textural concept, some song titles, some snippets of lyrics because I knew it would be a vocal record, but nothing solid. With the lockdown about to hit, in March of 2019, I grabbed my laptop and a MIDI controller and I rushed to my girlfriend’s house in the south of Spain from my place in Catalonia. With everything cancelled and the whole year wide open, I thought if I don’t do it now I never will because there will always be other projects pulling me away. I created a routine schedule for myself for the first time in my life: wake up, practice Duo Lingo for 30 minutes, make breakfast, practice two instruments I was learning at the time, make lunch, and then from lunch to dinner write for the album. So over two months I basically wrote the whole thing on a MIDI controller in my girlfriend’s living room.
Did a concept develop along the way?
Yes, I think the concept ended up being as much observational as it was thought out in advance. I’d start to write, get an idea, and then develop it and observe what was happening in the development of that idea. That in turn would spark another idea or it would relate to another song I had in mind. And the process created a connective thread through the songs. More or less I would say this is an observational album about the different kinds of people who live inside each of us, as alluded to in the title.
The sonic palette was in place?
Yes, that was in my original 2015 document. The textures were very clear to me. I wanted it to be percussion-based instead of using a drum kit, but with the percussion playing the same role as drums in pop music. I wanted a lot of analog synths that aren’t completely in tune, with the ’80s synth pop sound of artists like Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel being a key influence. I wanted thick vocal textures with loads of background vocals—kind of a CSN [Crosby, Stills & Nash] approach to singing the songs and the harmonies. And I wanted a big, fat low end, which came almost exclusively from keyboard bass. I didn’t want the record to sound too player-y, too human. I wanted there to be a bit of a feeling of objectivity in the sound of the record. Because that’s where the lyrics were coming from, and it’s an observational album. It’s not a deeply personal record about a breakup, it’s more looking down from above about humans and the human condition.
So keyboard bass better fit the neutral vibe.
Yes, with an electric bass you always hear the human playing the instrument. With keyboard bass, even though my parts were played and not programmed, you don’t hear the human aspect nearly as much. You get in most instances a flat wave of sheer, impersonal power that I really like; it gives this kind of dead, emotionless force to the music that seemed to work for these songs. There are flashes of electric bass on the record but it almost never seemed to be the right choice.
Let’s talk about the recording process, as you are the sole musician on the album.
At the outset I made a rule that I would do it all myself. There was a huge temptation to call on other players because that’s arguably what I’m best at as a musician: hiring people. But I wanted to challenge myself. I recorded it all in my home studio, called Estudi Vint, which is on the top floor of my house in Catalonia. First, I played all the percussion to my demos. Then I did synths, then guitars, then bass, and last was vocals. That all said, my engineer and co-producer, Nic Hard, who was with me in the studio at times, was invaluable in the creation of the album.
Your singer-songwriter side will be a surprise to some who mainly know you from Snarky Puppy.
In truth, I’ve been writing songs with lyrics from the start, before I began studying jazz in my high school band. I’ve been writing songs with David Crosby for half a decade now, as well as writing with Becca Stevens, Lucy Woodward, Bokanté, and others. It’s not readily on display, but it’s in the liner notes of those albums. Writing songs with lyrics is actually more natural to me than writing instrumental music.
Your vocals on the record have a breathy quality for the most part.
Generally that’s how I sing, which works well for background vocals, but for lead vocals it was a challenge coming up with an approach because I hadn’t done it since high school. On some of the songs I use more of a pure tone but my priority is delivering the lyric, and on most of the songs it felt better delivering them in a softer voice. In retrospect perhaps I could have used a bit more pure tone. I guess I’ll do it on my next solo record.
Can you go through some of the gear you used?
On the synth and keyboard side I used the Moog One the most, which is the baddest synthesizer ever invented. I had to take 24 hours learning it and programming sounds but it was worth it. I also used the new Korg Arp 2600, which has some super sick bass sounds; Dave Smith Instruments Sequential Prophet-6; Fender Rhodes; Fender Rhodes Bass; Moog Matriarch; Minimoog Model D; and acoustic piano. The only electric bass I played is my ’65 Fender Precision, recorded direct and through a miked Ampeg B-15. I played my Gimbri, also known as a Sintir, a fretless three-string instrument most commonly found in North African music, specifically in Gnawa music. It’s widely believed to be the grandfather of the bass guitar. And then I played an assortment of percussion instruments mostly from Turkey and Morocco: Bombo legüero, which is from Columbia and is played with sticks, for a kick drum and cross stick sound; Turkish Davul, which is like a marching bass drum with a strap that also has a snare side so you can play kick and snare; Egyptian ceramic Darbukas—the big one is a Bass Dohola, the mid-size is a Sumbati, and the high one is a Solo Clay Darbuka; Turkish Bendir, which is a goatskin-covered frame drum frame; Daf, which is a Kurdish frame drum with rings inside; Moroccan Darbuka and Bendir; Moroccan metal castanets called Krakebs, for a hi-hat sound; and an Arabic Riq, which is like a tambourine with a plastic head and wooden frame.
Did you utilize any traditional rhythms associated with these percussion instruments?
No, there’s not a single folkloric rhythm on the record. Most of the rhythms and exercises I’ve learned come out of a new school created by a Turkish musician named Misirli Ahmet, who came up with whole new way of playing ceramic darbuka. But because I was born and raised in the U.S., when I hear high and low percussive sounds I instantly think of the kick and snare relationship in Black American music. So I’m always going to play and sound like a product of where I’m from.
Let’s talk tracks, what is the opener, “Sentinel Species” about?
It’s something I was reading about it, how all different kinds of animals are used for a first line of defense or awareness against unseen dangers, like gas leaks or earthquakes. It made me think about how sometimes you can feel that way if you’re in a toxic relationship, pun intended. Whether it’s romantic, familial, business, or friendship, where you get a sense that people are using you to protect them, and the feeling of being lost that goes along with being used.
The song establishes that harmony is going to be a key component throughout the record.
For this record I was into the idea of changing keys between choruses and verses. Which is something I got really into listening to Hall & Oates. They do it on a lot of their songs, like “I Can’t Go for That,” “Kiss on My List,” “Private Eyes,” and “One on One”—Peter Gabriel and Seal do that a lot, as well. Actually, watching Tommy Simms, who’s one of my favorite bassists and composers was the first time I made that connection. He was producing a session I was on at Avatar in New York about ten years ago and he did an arrangement on the spot using that concept. I especially like the tactic of changing keys between verse and chorus without landing on the tonic of the new key. So you don’t really feel the modulation until you arrive at the tonic three or four bars later. Of course, as with everything in pop music, no one cares how clever you’re being if it doesn’t feel good. That was my objective throughout the record: make it feel good. I have to get goosebumps in the writing process or it’s not going on the record. I don’t want it to be cool only when I explain it.
“Me, Like You” has a sinister underpinning and a cool bridge bass groove.
That started from me watching entirely too much Westworld during the pandemic. I’ve always been fascinated by dystopian, brave new world themes—the idea of singularity and getting to a place where we can’t tell what’s real what’s not, and how it relates to our feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency. For the song I created this story of a person who doesn’t really love himself but has nothing but love and admiration for another person; obsessing to the point where he wants to be that person. So I tried to make the music sneaky, bare, and unsettling. For the bridge bass groove I was thinking about creating something that could be a hiphop sample, and I used a Moog Model D.
“Right Where I Fall” is the first single.
GroundUP, my label, was thinking that this will be the first song people hear from a pop solo record by someone who’s mostly know as a fusion bass player—we need to surprise them. The imagery and vibe of the song, and it not being the most “muso” track on the record accomplished that. The chord progression and the main riff fell out of me in five minutes, while I was producing a record in Lisbon. The studio had a nice upright piano with felt on the hammers. I sat down on a break, the A and B sections came to me, and I saved them on my phone. The song is about the different ways people deal when their world is crashing down around them. Some people like to be consoled and hugged, and be around family and friends, while others like to be alone in their misery, and then they come back. That’s the way I am, even though I’m generally a social person. We made a video for the song, which is very Dali-inspired; we filmed it in his homeland with a Catalan crew. I’m very into surrealism and it fits well with the music I make.
“Right Where I Fall”:
What’s the inspiration for the second verse bass line?
Soundwise it’s inspired by Kraftwerk—that bouncy Moog sound for which I used a Moog Matriarch. Musically the approach is similar to what I did on Becca Stevens’ “I Asked,” from Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner, Vol. 2 [GroundUP, 2016]: Playing nothing on the downbeat, with a bouncy, long-release bass line that feels almost like a fall. It’s an effective way to create momentum in the bass line without occupying too much space.
“Since You’ve Been By” has both an interesting meter and different tempos for different sections.
The song is in 6/4 and it’s about not being able to get over people from your past, especially in a romantic way; how you can have your world shaken up by seeing an old face. Because the song is living in the present and in a memory at the same time I wanted the verse and chorus to have very different feelings. Each time the chorus comes around the tempo gets slower. I was trying to create two different personalities within the song.
“I Wonder Who You Know” best captures the Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal approach you utilize at times on the record.
David Crosby is one of the main reasons I made the record, he said, “You’ve got to do it!” Working with him has been incredibly influential, as was listening to his music growing up. So yeah, there are specific moments in the verse and chorus where I wanted to do a CSN harmony. It’s the concept of every single note being harmonized—the idea that harmony isn’t just for special moments, it can be just as much a part of the melody. I love that. Actually, I was thinking of Michael McDonald too, when I wrote this, especially with regard to the piano part. The song is about double lives. People who when they wake up in the morning are not waking up for the reason they give off. We are all that way, hiding parts of ourselves and indulging in a double life in some way or another. This is probably my favorite song on the record, writing-wise, and it’s also my favorite of the three videos we’ve made. It features friends from my village and the main character is my piano technician! It was fun to live out my ’90s dream of making a music video that feels like a movie. Growing up then, the idea of a song and video were inseparable to me.
“I Wonder Who You Know”:
“Touch Me” relies on an odd-meter percussion groove, dense vocal harmony, and the record’s main electric bass moment for its unique color.
I was trying to write a song based around a percussion groove in 5/4 that I came up with while practicing one day. Harmony-wise, the chorus utilizes non-diatonic modal mixture chords [a chord borrowed from the parallel key or a mode with the same tonic], so it’s one of the more colourful tracks, harmonically-speaking. On the bottom I was going for a Curtis Mayfield/Lucky Thompson vibe in the verses, but played on Fender Rhodes Bass. The bass step-out in the bridge, played on my ’65 Precison, is in contrast to the long tones on the choruses. The song was inspired by reading about a scientist named Dacher Keltner who conducted touch experiments. It’s fascinating how much can be communicated through human touch. He had people touch each other through a hole in a wall and determined they could convey emotions. He also found that touch helps reduce cardiovascular stress and improves function of the immune system.
The lyrics on “Best of All Time” summon current events.
Yeah, this song is where we enter the political corridor of the record. It’s about how the people on top will always tell you how well things are going, that it’s a golden era, and to be grateful for what you have and don’t try to get more. It’s also about how ugly the last four or five years have been. I wanted the track to sound dystopian and angst-filled. I was thinking of the Blade Runnersoundtrack sonically, along with a bumpy, bouncy ’80s groove, using mostly the Korg Arp 2600.
“In Your Mouth” continues that theme of unrest.
The song is about bad leadership; the way people are weighed down daily by the rhetoric of politicians. How we have to deal with every word they say, and effect of those words on our society. The word-play lyrics deal with the desire to give them a taste of their own medicine, to essentially return the ugliness that is dealt freely to us as citizens. The message is we’re a tired, fed up population shoving back hatred and fear.
“In Your Mouth”:
Musically, the track starts with your cool Gimbri improv, which further supports your description of the instrument as the “grandfather of the bass.”
That’s a riff I came up with while practicing and I based the song off of it, so it made sense to start with it. I’ve tried hard to learn the instrument traditionally. I’m taking lessons, I have a mentor who’s the main Gimbri player in Morroco, Hamid El Kasri, who gifted me my instrument. The technique is quite different from electric bass, especially the plucking hand and wrist. You pluck with the nail on your index fnger and the inside of your thumb, while using your three other right hand fingers to play percussively on the body. The strings are lowest, highest, and middle pitch, top to bottom, but the middle string is a drone string that you never fret. So if you’re a bassist, it messes with your brain. Also in Gnawa music the Gimbri is largely a lead melodic instrument, in addition to grooving. But applying a bass mindset can open up a lot of interesting possibilities in a Western music setting.
Chew On This
Ex. 1 shows the first eight measures of Michael League’s Gimbri groove at the verse of “In Your Mouth “ (at 0:53), adapted for 4-string electric bass. Sit squarely in the pocket to capture the raw pulse, but keep in mind the that the part also drives the song as a key melodic countervoice. League recommends using a pick to most accurately replicate the Gimbri vibe and feel.
“Ever the Actor” has a big hook and I love your use of piano bass.
That song sums up the record lyrically in many ways. We all have a lot of different characters inside of us and we kind of choose which one to put onstage. The hook I actually wrote for a pop artist about ten years ago when Snarky Puppy was auditioning to be the house rhythm section for Atlantic Records’ R&B department. A friend had connected me with the head of R&B, pitching us as the next Wrecking Crew. The person in charge wss not super into it, but they gave us a chance, which was cool. Cory [Henry], Sput [Searight], and I went into Atlantic Studios in New York and spent a couple of days writing and demoing a song for the artist, but in the end Atlantic didn’t take the song or the rhythm section for that position. So I revived it, using the chorus that I wrote for Atlantic as the starting place for “Ever the Actor.” As for the piano bass, what happened was originally the chorus was massive sounding and it felt too much like “Me, Like You.” Nick and I dicussed it and thought let’s try an anti-chorus approach, to make it feel naked and exposed, and the piano bass was the perfect vibe for that. It’s similar to way piano bass was used on Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or David Bowie’s “Where Are We Now?”
“Fireside” has a Bruce Hornsby sound and lope to it.
I love Bruce Hornsby but for me it’s coming more from Hall & Oates, especially the verse and then the modulation from the chorus, as we previously noted they often do. The song came from the percussion groove. I had written another song on top of the groove that I just hated, so I scrapped it all and then this song came out. This is the only track with electric bass in the verse. I was worried about it feeling too dead, so playing my ’65 Precision added some humanity. The song talks about my love for making fires and being around fires. There’s something that happens to me—my perspective on life changes and all the B.S. is easier to push aside. Fires are very primal; they give you warmth, cook your food, and they often represent an intimate, social place. The song also represents life circles. Fires end the way we end, they go out. We die and burn to ash and become fertilizer, effectively.
The closing ballad, “The Last Friend” also has a mortality theme.
The song is about looking at death not as this antagonistic character who comes in at the end and cuts everything short, and drags you away against your will. Instead it’s looking at death as a sort of life-long companion who in the last minute escorts you over to the other side, as a comforting figure. It also deals with how when you die people become much more aware of who you are and what you did, and how much they loved and needed you. Death guards your legacy. For me, death has always seemed perfectly normal. I wanted to write a song that un-demonizes it.
Are you planning to play this music live?
Not at present, but I’m open to the idea. I wouldn’t want to tour it, but for a special show it would be cool. I’d get a band together with my favorite musicians and vocalists, and I’d want to bring in all of my teachers to participate. We’ll see.
What else have you been up to?
I commited to producing twelve records this year and I just started number nine. These include Attacca Quartet; Becca Stevens & The Secret Trio; a duet record with Bill Laurence on piano and me on Oud; a track with Gilberto Gil via Berklee Valencia; Elipsis, with me, Antonio Snachez and Pedrito Martinez; Bokanté; a trio record with Jorge Glem from C4 Trio on cuatro and Grégoire Maret on harmonica; and a Kurdish band from Syria and Turkey here recording old folkloric and wedding songs. And of course I look forward playing live shows when and where it’s safe to do so.