On March 16th, three-time Grammy Award-winning band Snarky Puppy will perform at Ann Arbor’s Hill Auditorium as a part of the University Musical Society’s (UMS) 23rd Jazz Series. As one of the oldest performing arts presenters in the United States, UMS has been bringing artists to the University of Michigan—and surrounding—community for well over 100 years. But their programming has become anything but stagnant.
In fact, Mark Jacobson, Senior Programming Manager at UMS, sees something completely different. “In the last 30 years, we’ve greatly expanded the cultural breadth and diversity of our programming.”
A quick glance at the 2017 spring season, which is well underway, supports this. For example, in the coming months, UMS will present Pianist Mitsuko Uchida, Pakistani folk-singer Sanam Marvi and of course, Snarky Puppy, who, by name alone, one may realize is up to something unusual. “I really thought [Snarky Puppy] would be a great fit as a bookend to the Kamasi Washington show that we did in September,” Jacobson said, referencing one of the 2016-17 opening performances.
The Snarky Puppy ensembles includes more than 20 regular members, each coming from different musical backgrounds. The band is a testament to the power of rhythmic diversity, collaboration and a convergence of musical styles. If there was a recipe for the Snarky Puppy sound, it would call for a heavy amount of funk, jazz and soul with a touch of Latin grooves and African rhythms.
While the group was founded in 2003 by bassist Michael League in Texas, and their first album, The Only Constant, was released in 2006, they are only beginning to earn name recognition. They’ve toured the world, released multiple albums, created an independent record label and garnered significant critical acclaim without much mainstream attention.
This is changing as viral videos of their in-studio performances and multiple Grammy wins—including at this February's ceremony for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album—show that people are ready for the limitless funk of Snarky Puppy. In advance of their Ann Arbor performance, CultureSource had the chance to speak with Michael League about their latest release, Culcha Vulcha, their recording and video process, and how the band has stayed together for more than a decade.
CultureSource: In making Culcha Vulcha, how did being in the studio with the ability to record, re-record and overdub change Snarky Puppy’s sound?
Michael League: Normally, our recording process is similar to our live show, because we’ve been doing these DVDs for years of us performing live at the studio with an audience. But Culcha Vulcha was different—we did it more like a traditional, studio record. There were overdubs, no audience, and we took our time over the course of a week. At the same time, since we’re so accustomed to recording and playing live, I feel like we brought out that energy the whole time. We had the whole band there so there was a lot of creative input, conversation and stimulation. I think the record sounds really cool and unique and very different from the other albums we’ve made. It has a different energy that I love.
CS: Was it just time to get back to the basics and focus on the recording process?
ML: It felt fantastic to revisit the old-school method of album recording. We’ve been doing the live, in studio with an audience thing for eight straight years now, and I felt that it was important to mix things up. This band needs variety to stay inspired. Myself and the rest of the guys feel great about the end result. It’s much darker, moodier, patient, and restrained than our live stuff. Sonically, it’s more explorative. Normally, I can’t stand hearing a minute of our albums once they’ve been mastered, but I’m still not sick of this one yet. I’m sure it’ll happen soon! But until then, I’m taking it as a good sign.
CS: What is one of your favorite video performances that Snarky Puppy has been involved with?
ML: It's actually one that doesn't get a whole lot of attention, which is Tony Scherr's "Black Sheep" from Family Dinner - Volume One. The lyrics are vulnerable and cutting, his singing is full of soul, and his guitar playing becomes transcendental at a certain point in the solo.
CS: How has Snarky Puppy been able to stay together and consistently put out quality records for over a decade?
ML: I really believe that it's each individual's unconditional love for music that holds us all together. In the life of a band, there will always be hard times, interpersonal issues, tough travel schedules, unmet expectations... and if you aren't doing it for the love of the ideal, you'll fall apart. It's kind of like a religion—even if the church fails you, your belief in the bigger picture sustains you. That's what music is to me and every other member of the group.
CS: What has been the most rewarding part of writing for and regularly playing with so many talented musicians?
ML: Learning. But learning in a deep, sedimentary way. You get to slowly absorb worlds of information and experience from each individual member of the group in a way that is natural and patient. These guys are my brothers and we've shared so much together. And when they go out on tours with their solo projects or have a huge individual learning experience, they bring it back to the band and we all gain from it. It's beautiful.
Photos courtesy of UMS
For more information or to get tickets to Snarky Puppy, Thursday, March 16th, 7:30pm at Hill Auditorium, click here.