Michael League Channels His Travels & Growth Into Snarky Puppy’s Vibrant Latest, Immigrance
To the benefit of our ears, Michael League has not been content to remain inside the cozy kennel of Snarky Puppy, the Grammy-winning, groove-rooted, 12-piece instrumental band he founded and leads — widely recognized as the best of its breed. Instead, League has been a most willing collaborator, producing, composing, and playing bass, guitar, and percussion with the likes of David Crosby, Becca Stevens, and Lucy Woodward; creating another kick-ass band, the Delta-Creole-African mashup Bokanté; and starting his own internationally focused record label, GroundUP Music — with its own annual festival, no less. And that’s all in between forays to foreign lands to learn exotic instruments and traditional music and culture.
A bonus to League unleashing his multi-talents and intrinsic curiosity is, of course, that he brings his gained wisdom back to the Snarky Puppy doghouse. That’s especially apparent on the band’s latest, Immigrance. The eight-track disc (with three bonus tracks and three extended tracks to come throughout 2019) has a hefty world music infusion, a lean and hard-driving sound, and Puppy’s trademark ability to absorb the influence of classic sounds and players, run it through their filter, and respectfully create something original.
A military brat born at Long Beach Naval Hospital in California on April 24, 1984, League moved with his family to Montgomery, Alabama at age seven. Three years later, they settled in northern Virginia, where Michael — who had tried drums and violin — settled on guitar, at 13. Turned on to jazz by his older brother, a drummer, League started his own jazz–funk group in high school. At 17, he was asked to fill a void and play bass in the school’s senior jazz band. He remembers, “I was reluctant. They had a Fender Squier with old strings, so I took it home, and that first night I fell totally in love with it.” He also began puttering around on the school’s upright, while gathering the influences of James Jamerson, Jaco, John Paul Jones, Bootsy Collins, Ray Brown, and Dave Holland.
League’s next stop was bass major at the esteemed University of North Texas music department. In his freshman year, he formed Snarky Puppy, calling upon nine of his classmates and grabbing a discarded name from his brother’s Irish band. “I was writing instrumental music that was an amalgamation of my listening list at the time: Pat Metheny, Avashai Cohen, Astor Piazzolla, Modereko, Brazilian music, Afro-beat, classic R&B and funk, Bjork, and Radiohead.” League booked a gig in the basement of a pizza place in Denton, Texas, drawing 30 people. Eleven albums and countless miles later, Michael made his Texas return to cut Immigrance.
What was the spark that led to this record?
It was simply that we wanted to play new songs; it had been three years since [the album] Culcha Vulcha. We’ve had interesting experiences since then, with the band playing in some new places. Also, with everyone in the band leading and composing for their own groups now, we felt it was a good time to put all of that knowledge in one place. We have eight different composers on the album; of the eight songs on the [initial] album release, I wrote four, and there’s one each from four other writers. We’re moving in the direction of having multiple composers contribute pieces, because everyone knows what the band is now. To record, we returned to Sonic Ranch in Tornillo, Texas, where we cut Culcha Vulcha, having had such a great time there. They have a huge tracking room, lots of analog gear, incredible cooks — I still dream of their huevos rancheros — and we knew what the space was capable of. We cut live as a band and added some overdubs.
How did the title reference to immigration come about?
It actually came as an observation about the music after I mixed it all. It became clear that the songs were coming from a lot of different places and styles around the world, as we have done since our first record. But even with an Amercian funk-ish tune like “Bad Kids in the Back” — which is an homage to [Jamaica, Queens keyboardist] Bernard Wright, who was our mentor and teacher when we started out — we didn’t discover Bernard until we were in our 20s. So learning about him was like learning about Moroccan music, in a way. All music is foreign to us at one point. No one is born playing music, you have to learn, one artist at a time.
In the broader sense, the album title is maybe a jab at the rampant racism, nationalism, and xenophobia that has become recently empowered in politics. To me, it’s all about our perspective on identity. There are those who feel strongly that they are the owners of a certain place, or the essence of a certain place. But we all come from somewhere else, if we just look behind us a little. We’re all the product of immigration, and learning about music is a beautiful way of tracking and charting that journey.
There’s a more raw, kinetic sound to the record.
I think after making Culcha Vulcha, which is very much a studio record, we were itching to write the kind of music that would be fun to play live. Personally, I was trying to write with a more aggressive edge, and I think a lot of the guys brought in music like that — darker and heavier. As time has gone on, it seems like the band enjoys grooving more, and we’re writing pieces that are centered around how it feels to play, versus how excited people get to hear something virtuosic. I think our desire to have less bombast and more subtlety and depth in the writing comes through here.
The opener, “Chonks,” establishes that concept.
Exactly — a funky, dirty, feels-good, fun-to-play song. I wrote it at a soundcheck in Germany while messing around on Clavinet. [Drummer] Larnell [Lewis] joined in, and I recorded it on my phone. A week before the album session, I turned it into a tune, adding the melodies and harmonies, the chorus, and the outro section. There are little elements that make it a Puppy tune for me: the rhythmic identity of the chorus, the rhythmically intricate melodies with the horns, and the weird, moving contrapuntal accompaniment when the melodies enter on the verses. Then we have the Hendrix/Band Of Gypsys type of riff in the outro. I used my workhorse ’59 Fender P-Bass, which is on almost every track.
“Bigly Strictness” mixes techno and indie rock, with a cool outro groove.
It’s kind of rock in the verses and hip-hop/swung funk in the choruses. It’s the piece I had the most doubts about, and then we played it and it felt great. I used a pick and two different octave pedals at different moments, which is a fun approach for me, and Shaun [Martin] doubles me on Moog bass. The groove at the end is something I learned when I went to Turkey for six weeks in 2017 to study percussion. The rhythm is called a “Funky Arap,” from the virtuoso Turkish doholla [an Arabic bass drum] player Misirli Ahmet. He invented a whole library of grooves, and this one is a variation on arap, one of the most common grooves in the Middle East. We’re playing it pretty much note for note, but in half time. I thought it would be good for grounding the solo section at the end. Our three percussionists are playing daf [a large Kurdish frame drum], bendir [a North Africa frame drum], and darkbuka [a goblet-shaped drum] here.
“Xavi” has a Middle Eastern flavor and a groove in three that feels like four.
The song is inspired by Gnawa, Berber, and popular music from Morocco, and it’s specifically based on a common groove/style in Morocco called chaabi, which indeed is in 3/4 but is generally felt in a fast 12/8. I tried to write a tune that playfully mixes the way you can feel the pulse, so some sections feel more like three and others feel like four. Moroccan music doesn’t have a lot of chords, so when you put in modern harmony, that instantly takes it to a different space. But I tried to respect the traditions, using the Gnawa mserah rhythm in the krakeb [a large, iron, castinet-like instrument], and a variation on a typical Gnawa percussion call and ending, as well as some typical Berber vocal phrases migrated to the flutes near the end. The most important aspect for me was that the song be funky and driving. The chaabi groove at that tempo feels like the music is gliding along. I used my ’59 P-Bass, which is doubled by a Moog Model B synth in the choruses.
The band sounds super tight playing the syncopated lines on the Bernard Wright tribute “Bad Kids to the Back.”
Those lines work because as a band, we all know and agree on how we want the subdivisions to feel. It was written by Justin Stanton, who plays trumpet and keyboards for us. Justin is a terrific, conceptual composer. Here, it’s, “What can you do with this specific kind of the funk?” Harmonically the piece moves around a lot, and the melody starts in the horns and moves over to the guitar and bass. We also have all three drummers trading solos; it’s the only time we’ve ever done that. I played my ’59 P-Bass, and Justin takes over in the choruses on a Moog Model B.
“Even Us” poignantly captures the plight of many modern-day immigrants.
I started writing that in Turkey, in 2017, after I’d been playing oud for just a week or two. [Ed. note: The oud is an 11-string guitar-like instrument, ranging from the bottom B string of a baritone guitar to the D below a guitar’s open E string on top.] When you first play an instrument you don’t fully understand yet, you end up stumbling upon ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise have. That’s how I came up with the opening progression and the B-section accompaniment, which then sat on my phone for two years. On a 45-minute flight from Dallas to El Paso to come to the studio, I busted out the phone memo and wrote the melody and solo section, and we recorded it. The song has a lot of what I learned from studying with my musician friends in Turkey, but it also has influence from Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, heard through Zach Brock’s violin. For the bass, I thought about playing upright or an acoustic bass guitar, but there’s something about the B string on a 5-string bass. Like, when the very first bass note enters, the low D, that’s the most important note in the song to me. I needed the sound of a 5-string with J/J pickups, so I played my Aleva-Coppollo 5. Sometimes what I need in the low end is that specific.
Why does Snarky Puppy prefer to be an instrumental band?
It’s very egalitarian; you can play in Japan, Poland, or Saudi Arabia, and people will understand the music equally. I mean, they’ll understand according to their musical familiarity and biases, but without lyrics, no one has an advantage in understanding the music’s message. I think instrumental music is beautiful in that way. Plus, there are so many possibilities: Who’s playing the melody? Who’s playing the groove? There isn’t a constant emphasis on a singer. It’s funny — as a listener, I’m not an instrumental-music guy; 95 percent of what I listen to is vocal music. But maybe that’s why I have so much fun with the challenge of an instrumental band.
Why have you never done a bass feature on any of the band’s recordings?
I just don’t hear music that way. The bass is almost always the groove and the foundation in my head. I don’t think about myself when I’m writing a piece and I get to the bass line. My thinking is, “What’s going to be the best thing to play for the song?” And the answer to that question has never been, “A bass feature!” [Laughs.] But I love hearing features by players like Marcus [Miller] or Victor [Wooten], or Richard Bona, because that’s a part of their personality. I also love the groove side of their playing, which is often less noticed but equally inspiring. They have the ability to create these great features, and I just don’t have it. It has never occurred to me to write something like that. Maybe I will at some point, if I hear it. Once I hear it, I’ll write it.
A lot of artists cite the “Snarky Puppy model” for getting their music out there. Have you heard that?
I hear that a lot, but I couldn’t tell you what it is, because I’ve been at the center of doing it and it’s the only way I’ve ever known. I’d have an idea and we’d try it; if it didn’t work, we didn’t do it again. I suppose the elements could include going on tour for a long time, making videos in the studio, using social media versus trying to get a record label to do it all for you, trying to create your own path instead of conforming yourself to a specific, pre-established scene, and giving away some music for free in order to make people willing to buy it. For the latter, we thought, if the music we’re creating is good, let’s make it accessible to as many people as possible, and we’ll draw them into our world. Once they’re in, we can make money other ways, through concert tickets and merchandising. I suppose that particular scenario has been happening in some form for a century. I feel like everyone is doing all of the above now, and probably were before us, as well. But if we inspired anyone or were among the first to use some of those methods, I’m glad we provided a pathway for others.
Let’s talk about new artists that you like. I imagine your radar isn’t up for young, instrumental, jazz-influenced groove bands.
I hear enough of us! Although, there are good ones out there. It may seem obvious, but I’m a huge fan of everyone on our GroundUp label roster. I encourage everyone to check them out. More and more, I’m drawn to bands that are using folkloric music as a foundation upon which to be innovative, like La Perla, from Colombia, who played our festival. It’s four women from Bogota who sing and play gaita [a long, vertical flute-like instrument] and percussion; they sound folkloric, but most of their music is original. Or, C4 Trio from Venezuela — three cuatro players who are masters of their traditional music, but they’re writing unbelievable tunes, and they put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. I like working with artists from other parts of the world who have a solid knowledge of where they came from but are not content to stay there. David Crosby is like that, as well. He comes from the singer–songwriter tradition, but he’s down to get weird and push boundaries, as we did on his latest record [Here If You Listen, 2018, BMG].
With many young artists from the States, there doesn’t seem to be as strong a connection to the music that preceded them.
That’s a concern right now, for sure. Increasingly, young musicians here are trying to do something new and innovative, which is both healthy and essential to the evolution of music — and an integral part of the American music tradition — but many don’t have a truly solid foundation upon which to build. Let’s say you’re trying to innovate in funk-based music. If you were put onstage with P-Funk, would you hold your own and sound good? These days, you have social-media stars who have never played a gig or done a tour. There’s so much pressure to brand yourself and market yourself as unique that many people are more focused on that than taking care of business in a musical way: learning exactly what the greats played, or seeking them out and playing with them, in that master/apprentice way. Of course, my perspective is based on the way that I came up: music all day, every day; practicing; lessons; in the van listening; setting up the gear of players better than us; playing in an endless array of bars and clubs; and having veteran musicians or bandleaders kick my ass — figuratively, in most cases. You should always be searching for your voice and trying to draw out what’s unique about yourself. But an absolutely essential part of that process is, ironically, getting inside of the heads and hands of the masters, and genuinely embracing being taught. It opens you up to new ideas and perspectives that unlock your own hidden potential. When this is used as the foundation for creating your own music, actual innovation is possible.
Your schedule is always jam-packed. Dare I ask?
Snarky Puppy is going to tour for this record through December. Next year will be a big one for my other band, Bokanté. We’ll have new music coming out; I’m producing solo albums by [Bokanté vocalist] Malika Tirolien and Peruvian legend Susana Baca, as well as upcoming albums with Malian ngoni [a West African string instrument] master Bassekou Kouyate, Portugese fado singer Gisela João, Indian singer and flutist Varijashree Venugopal, and my good friends Becca Stevens & Secret Trio. I’m also starting to write for a solo record; I don’t know when it will be ready or what the direction it will go in, but I’ve begun the process, which is exciting for me. It will be nice to sing again, which I really only get the chance to do with David Crosby. What’s most inspiring for me right now is practicing and learning new instruments, like the gimbri [a three-stringed Moroccan lute], doholla, krakeb, davul [a double-headed Turkish drum played with a stick and a mallet], daf, and cajon. I’m in danger of slipping further down my little wannabe-multi-instrumentalist hole!
Check out the “Bad Kids to the Back” official video, and watch “Xavi” performed live.
Basses 1959 Fender Precision (all original, maple fingerboard); Alleva-Coppolo LG5 Classic, Moog Model B synth
Rig Michael League Signature Markbass Casa head and Classic Casa 108 cabinet
Effects MXR Vintage Bass Octave, MXR Carbon Copy Delay, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe, MXR Phase 90, MXR Volume X Mini Pedal; 3Leaf Audio Octabvre MK II, Earthquaker Dispatch Master, Earthquaker Spatial Delivery
Strings Dunlop Flatwounds (.045–.105)
Snarky Puppy, Immigrance [2019, GroundUP], Culcha Vulcha [2016, GroundUP]; David Crosby, Here If You Listen [2018, BMG]; Bokanté & the Metropole Orkest, What Heat [2018, Real World]; Bokanté, Strange Circles [2017, GroundUP]; Derek Smalls, Smalls Change [2017, BMG]