Michael League: That’s One Snarky Puppy

“What happens in college stays in college” might be the best policy for most undergrad-formed bands, but Snarky Puppy is an exception to that rule (and a number of others). Bassist/composer Michael League found fertile musical ground in the jazz studies program at the University of North Texas when he formed Snarky Puppy in 2003. The band thought big from its inception as a 10-piece group and has continued to morph and shapeshift to the present, living out of vans, paying dues, relentlessly gigging, and garnering three Grammys along the way. In 2017, the group was tagged jazz group of the year by the Downbeat readers’ poll.

It has been quite a musical journey—from Denton, Texas, to playing London’s Royal Albert Hall in a 14-piece incarnation this past November. A recording of that concert (Snarky Puppy Live at the Royal Albert Hall, GroundUP Music LHN 070 LP 2020) was recently released on the GroundUP label, an umbrella for management and recording the band has built over time. Currently, the group is based in the New York City area, with a studio there as well.

Like the big bands of yesteryear, the band’s lineup is bound to change. Michael League highlighted for me several players who have been with Snarky Puppy for a long time: keyboardist Justin Stanton, trumpeter Mike Maher, guitarist Bob Lanzetti, guitarist Chris McQueen, and drummer Nate Werth. That consistency surely contributes to the power and tightness one hears in their live performances and recordings.


Performing sometimes-lengthy instrumental compositions that meld complex ensemble work and melodic material with improvisation, Snarky Puppy has achieved a special kind of recognition: the kind that comes from stumping the critics. Is it jazz? Is it fusion? Is it R&B, or contemporary classical—what the heck is it? The music resists pigeon-holers and intrigues audiences. Though the majority of the Snarky Puppy discography is instrumental, vocalists are occasionally featured in interesting contexts, notably including, in recent years, close encounters of the David Crosby kind. Adding fuel to the fire, Michael League leads a parallel group, Bokanté, which emphasizes world music and includes musicians from four continents.

Taking the F-train to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, I caught up with Michael League sitting outside on the stoop in the sun on an early-spring New York day. Then we went in and down, into his almost-dark basement lair, and I got to hear directly from someone who is helping to shape new music for his generation going forward.

Sasha Matson: Are you into listening to music? Not all musicians are.

Michael League: I’m way into it. [Points to his stereo system.] This is not representative of my preferences. This is my basement rig. I bought all this stuff on Craigslist. My new house in Spain is going to be done with renovations in a couple months. I can’t wait, because I will get to put my system in: a beautiful Marantz amp, two sets of speakers from Polk, and a nice Denon turntable.

Matson: Do you listen to a lot of vinyl?

League: I don’t listen to anything else unless I’m mobile. If I’m in a house, it’s always vinyl.

Matson: Here’s a real softball. Snarky Puppy is a great band name. Who came up with that?

League: My brother was going to use it for an Irish traditional band he had in high school, and they went with the other name. So I always kind of saved it away. When Snarky Puppy was playing its first gig, I didn’t have a name for it. I thought I would just use it for that one time. Had I known we’d still be around 15 years later, I would have come up with a better name!

Matson: It’s a winner. Maybe it’s responsible for your success?

League: Could be! [laughs]

Matson: What are you listening to that’s new and great?


League: Ninety percent of the music I listen to was recorded more than 20 years ago. There’s a record by a guy named Moses Sumney that I really like; it’s his debut record (Aromanticism, Jagjaguwar JAG 308, CD/LP 2017). All the stuff on GroundUP. We’ve done over 30 releases from around 15 artists, maybe more, since we started seven years ago. I really like to go out and hear artists live, because I think now that is where the truth is, whereas in the ’60s it was the album thing. Money for recording is such a scarce resource for independent artists.

Matson: From your expanding discography, give me a pick in terms of the sound, that you would like Stereophile homies to hear.

League: I would say the second Bokanté album (White Heat, Real World Records Ltd. CDRW221 CD/LP 2018), because the whole band is playing acoustic instruments, and we have the 52-piece Metropole Orkest behind us. For engineer Nic Hard and I, that was the biggest mountain we’ve ever had to climb. The band was recorded in New York, and the orchestra in Holland. Normally, mixing is one song a day, whereas this was a month if not more.

Matson: Writers seem to love wrestling with genre labels for Snarky Puppy. For me, Michael, featuring keyboards a lot does push it legitimately towards jazz and jazz-fusion, as opposed to jam-band music. I’m hearing a lot of fine-sounding analog synths and keyboards on your recordings.

League: Definitely. Bobby Sparks is always playing a Hohner D6 Clavinet, Hammond B3 organ, Minimoog Model D. Justin has a Prophet. Bill is playing a Fender Rhodes. Sean is playing a Talk Box and a Moog. The guys are really into that era of keyboards.

Matson: Recordings now, given the situation with streaming, seem almost a form of PR; it’s hard to make them pay.

League: The strange thing now, with album releases, the money that previously would have been earned from recordings has disappeared. However, the importance of releasing recordings is the same. So it’s a weird shift: You must continue to release albums in order to get promoters to book your gigs, and for publications to write about you. You need new records coming out, and yet you don’t make money off of them. So they are like publicity solicitations now, like business cards. So musicians are seeking out ways to make cheaper recordings. Musicians have to be ingenious these days to figure out how to sustain their art.

Matson: It is more democratic; you can have a studio under your bed now.

League: It’s a big advantage in many ways, but I don’t think anyone will contest that you are not going to get the same result from your bedroom studio as you are from the A-room at Avatar or EastWest studios.

Matson: You have been putting in touring time. That seems still to be the bedrock for groups?

League: Ten years ago, I would have agreed with that. But now, with Instagram and YouTube and all that kind of stuff, there are artists that have achieved significant levels of visibility without touring. Snarky Puppy did not have that experience: We spent 10 years of really nasty touring before we had any degree of success.

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