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Snarky Puppy - grooving together in one big party

“If I was forming Snarky Puppy today, I’d probably settle for it being a trio,” says Michael League, the bass guitarist whose idea of playing some high class groovy music in the corner of a bar near college has grown into a travelling party of up to twelve people and a pool of some thirty-five musicians.

He’s joking about the trio because, with Snark Puppy, party is the operative word. Although the band started out appealing to fellow musicians who appreciated the chops on display, word of the fun to be had dancing to Snarky Puppy’s precision grooves soon spread. Nine years on from their first gig in the Greenhouse in Denton, Texas, the band is touring the world, playing to up to twelve hundred gyrating bodies a night on a schedule that has left League counting the number of nights he’s spent at home this year on six fingers.

“We started out as a ten piece playing music that was fun to play but at the same time wasn’t the simplest, although I think it was definitely danceable,” says League. “I wanted to create stuff that was a challenge for the musicians but while it wouldn’t be like going out to see Parliament or one of the other big funk attractions, audiences would still enjoy it. So we tried it in this small bar where they have live music on a Monday and Thursday and fairly soon it was crowded. So we moved to a bigger venue and that got crowded too.”

League’s explanation for Snarky Puppy’s success is that the band comprises a group of friends – and that goes for whichever one of the many permutations that takes to the stage.

“On this tour there are nine musicians,” he says. “We’ve toured with ten and we’ve also been down to seven but there are thirty-five players who can all come in, they know the music and play it regularly. Basically I have five musicians I can call on for every instrument and it’s always like a big family. There are no egos involved, everyone just likes playing and making it sound good, and it’s been that way since we started. At first we were all jazz majors or percussion majors on the music course at the University of North Texas, so we could all play to a high standard, and we’ve added one or two musicians to the pool who weren’t with us at college but have the same high level of ability.”

There were no ambitions of becoming a touring band when League got the first group of pals together. He was going to be a composer, session player, sideman and record producer and in between the band’s now busy commitments, that’s what he does. All the players he draws from have credits with top-earning singers and musicians, from Snoop Dogg to Justin Timberlake and from Chaka Khan to Beyoncé, and all can play fluently in jazz, funk, rock, Brazilian and African music styles. One recent project found them working with a young singer-songwriter from Burundi, Bukuru Celestin, and another featured eight singers from eight completely different backgrounds.

“Being adaptable like that enables us to play each song differently every night,” says League. “We don’t discuss how we’re going to play, I’ll just give the guys the title and count it in so they know the feel I’m looking for and we all like the freedom that gives us within the band context. Everybody knows the repertoire so well, because we’ve played it so often together, that we flow together like a school of fish.”

The band’s popularity has taken it out of the bars and more intimate clubs that it became established in and into bigger auditoria and having lost sizeable sums of money in getting to its current level, League might be forgiven for being tempted to keep reaching for larger and larger audiences. He has, however, settled on a more modest long-term challenge.

“I’d like the band to keep growing artistically without worrying about finances,” he says. “But there are subtle elements in our music – as there are in other kinds of music, of course – that would just get lost in some of the bigger venues. We’re all about interaction, between the musicians onstage and between the band and the audience, and if we can’t see all the faces in the crowd and the people responding to us physically, we begin to feel disconnected. So, yeah, we’ll always want to see the whites of people’s eyes.”

From The Herald, July 19, 2013.

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