Michael League: Top Dog with Snarky Puppy

August 12, 2014
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WHETHER YOUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH SNARKY Puppy is via the web, disc, or live, it’s difficult not to be impressed: a dozen musicians delivering mind-opening, groove-rooted instrumental music, tastefully arranged and played, and enthusiastically communicated. Even more impressive is the ensemble’s growth over nine albums. First establishing a fresh take on fuzey jazz, the unit has sharpened its sonic and song sensibilities along the way, flooring everyone with their roles as seasoned accompanists behind a cross-section of vocalists and styles on Family Dinner, Vol. 1 (winning a 2013 Grammy as Best R&B Performance for their rendition of Brenda Russell’s “Something,” sung by Lalah Hathaway). The tail that wags this big dog is founder, bassist, guitarist, composer, arranger, producer, label-owner, and bandleader Michael League. And while his sage phrasing and tonal palette on his ’76 P-Bass have opened the eyes of bassists young and old, it’s his mastery of all the other skills necessary to thrive as a contemporary musician that makes him a true bass hero for the New Millennium.

A military brat, League was born at Long Beach, California’s Naval Hospital on April 24, 1984, to a classical flautist mom and a classic rock- and soul-loving dad. Seven years later the family moved to Montgomery, Alabama for three years, and then to northern Virginia for eight. Along the way, Michael took brief drum lessons and played violin in school before settling on guitar, at age 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 step into a void and play bass in the school’s senior jazz band. He recalls, “I really didn’t want to do it; they had a Fender Squier with old strings. I took it home, and the first night I fell totally in love with it.” He also began messing around on the school’s upright, while soaking up the influences of James Jamerson, Jaco, John Paul Jones, Bootsy Collins, Ray Brown, and Dave Holland. With post-9/11 budget cuts costing him a guitar scholarship, he applied to the University of North Texas on bass and was accepted, leading to vigorous wood-shedding to catch up on the upright side.

A composer at heart, League formed Snarky Puppy in his freshman year, calling upon nine of his schoolmates. The name—thought up by Bruce Hornsby saxophonist Bobby Read for League’s brother’s Irish band—became available when that unit decided to go with another moniker. Explains Michael, “I was writing instrumental music that was an amalgamation of what I was listening to at the time: Pat Metheny, Avishai Cohen, Modereko, Astor Piazzolla, Brazilian music, Afro-beat, classic R&B and funk, Bjork, and Radiohead. I booked a gig in the basement of a pizza place in Denton, Texas, 30 people showed up, and it started to snowball from there.” We talked with League while he was on tour in the U.K.—a true road dog, he spent a total of three weeks at his Brooklyn digs in 2013—and began by tracing how this Puppy got unleashed.

How did Snarky Puppy grow from its Texas origins to the collective know as “the Fam” and a New York home base?

The critical moment for the band came during our third year, when I reluctantly took a gig in Fort Worth subbing for a bassist at a jazz jam session. There, I met trumpeter Philip Lassiter, who currently leads Prince’s 11-piece horn section. He called me to play at the church where he was the musical director, and I quickly realized the band was Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, minus Roy! I freaked out because I’d been listening to their CD [Hard Groove, Verve, 2003] all through college, and had no idea the band lived 30 miles from me. Through this network of musicians I met drummer “Sput” Searight, and keyboardists Bobby Sparks, Shaun Martin, and Bernard Wright, as well as Erykah Badu and Kirk Franklin’s crew of musicians. Bernard in particular took me under his wing, became my mentor for two years, and pretty much formed the concept of music I have today. These Dallas heavyweights began playing with Puppy, and because they were so busy, they’d recommend other players to sub; that’s how the collective formed and grew.

New York came about two years later, when I was 25, out of frustration with our slow growth in Texas. We had toured, made a CD and DVD, and were accumulating YouTube hits, but I felt like we were just treading water. A few of the guys moved to New York for their solo careers, so I followed—and as soon as I did, good things started happening. The key was having a band and a buzz when I arrived. So when I first played with people like Wayne Krantz, Chris Potter, or Ari Hoenig, and was introduced as the founder of Snarky Puppy, they were fans, which gave me a little cred and helped me navigate the competitive New York market.

The word often used to describe the band is “musical,” with little sense of overplaying or throwaway notes.

That can be attributed to a few factors. First, composing has always been more in my nature than being an instrumentalist. I’m not a great technician on bass, so I try to focus on tone and feel to communicate the message of the music. When you have that mindset, you tend not to play anything extraneous. That’s why I wince at the word fusion, at times, because I associate it with athletic music where chops are more important than melody, vibe, and emotion. I was always more fascinated with James Brown’s grooves; nobody is playing anything difficult or complicated individually, but the parts together sound so full and rich, and they fit like a puzzle. I try to take that approach by writing parts that complement each other and serve the song, but are also interesting in and of themselves, so the musicians enjoy playing them. That’s the other key: Everyone in the band has that same spirit. They all think like producers and play musically together, with the overall sound in mind—as opposed to, Here’s my chance to show my shit.

Let’s talk about your composing process.

Most of the time, I start with either a chord progression on keyboard or a figure on guitar. Then I’ll sing a melody—I don’t write melodies on instruments anymore; they tend to be simpler, more melodic, and catchier if I sing them. From there, I think of a groove, and then generally I come up with the bass line last because that comes to me the easiest. The essential element for me is that I never sit down to write without first thinking of a concept—either a visual image, a mood or atmosphere, or a feel. I like to have something firm in my head that serves as a “north star” while I’m writing, because I tend to have an overly tangential thought process. I try to make sure there’s an overarching concept or theme that I can weave through the entire piece. That way it’s not just random, interesting sections put together, but one full story that develops throughout.

The band has developed a signature sound. Is that what has enabled other bandmembers to contribute compositions?

Absolutely! Early on, guys would bring in material that I didn’t feel fit our direction, but as our sound has developed, they’re really nailing the style. Generally, someone will bring in a complete composition, and in the rehearsal process we shape it even more. That’s why I love the Family Dinner album, which grew out of a series we did at Rockwood Music Hall, where we would learn singers’ songs and back them up. Through all of the different genres we play with the guest artists on the album, we still sound like Snarky Puppy. I would say there are two factors to our sound: The way we groove is very specific from having done it together for so long—it’s strong enough that even sub drummers can fit right in, at this point. The other is how texturally rich the band is; each player has a vast spectrum of sounds they’re capable of creating that go beyond the normal confines of their respective instruments.

Snarky Puppy
How would you describe the role of the bass in Snarky Puppy?

My role is to play bass. It’s not the kind of band where bass is featured; it’s a compositional ensemble with melodic instruments taking the lead voice. Every few shows I’ll take a solo, and over nine albums I’ve recorded maybe three solos. The majority of the time I just try to keep it low and fundamental. But within that, there’s so much room to create interest through different tones, use of pedals, doubling the left hand of the piano, engaging in call and response with the melody, swinging while the drums are playing straight, leaving space; I try to explore as much as possible, and if it feels good I go for it. And then there’s comping behind the soloists, which is one of my favorite things to do. I try to think like the soloist and I are composing together, so my accompaniment is also an extension of the song in reaction to the soloist.

When you do solo, you often use an octave pedal to play an octave higher.

For a few reasons: There are a handful of people onstage capable of filling the bass role on keyboard or guitar, all with their own voices and sensibilities, so I like to have one of them assume that role while I play on top of it. Also, it’s a range issue; if I want to imply the #11 of a Cmaj7 chord by playing an F# up high, it works—but if I play it on the 2nd fret of the E string, it’s going to sound like a mistake or bold chord substitution. Plus, because I played guitar before bass, I tend to hear in that range.

Have you developed any interesting techniques through your various shadings and approaches?

Nothing radical. I pluck with alternating fingers; for muting I use the thumb-and-palm method, or I’ll put foam under the strings, by the bridge; I tend to play more fingerstyle if I’m grabbing chords. One cool discovery I made by accident on a gig in Dallas some years back is getting an octaver sound without an effect pedal. I was plucking up over the fingerboard and I realized that if you turn your tone all the way off and you pluck the note you’re fingering at exactly an octave up, you get this subtle, sub frequency an octave below the fingered pitch; I use that a lot. Ultimately, I think what most gives me my sound—or anyone their sound—is phrasing.

What led you to add keyboard bass to your rig, and how do you decide when to play it?

The idea came from being heavily influenced by Stevie Wonder, and also from hearing Bernard, Bobby, or Shaun on gigs back in Texas and realizing I was the third-best bassist onstage! I like having it as a different creative outlet; I can’t play all the stuff I play on bass on it, but that’s good, as it limits me to play more simply and focus on the sound. I use it when I want a certain color or texture, for an entire song, or even halfway through a piece. I still use pedals to get that sound with my bass, but there’s an attack and sustain I can’t get, which will lead me to keyboard bass—for example, a C on my Moog will ring forever, but on my P-Bass it only lasts a few measures.

What can you offer about your most recent album, We Like It Here, and your upcoming disc with the Metropole Orchestra?

A lot of people first discovered us through Family Dinner; We Like It Here is about returning to our core and reminding everyone who we really are, an instrumental band. We’d been playing three of the songs live before recording, but I wrote three others in the studio at the last minute, and the other guys finished their three tunes during rehearsal. Still, I think this is our strongest CD, compositionally and improvisationally. As we play, we discover more and more what works onstage, and we try to include that in our new material.

The Metropole project was cray, the coolest thing we’ve ever done. We filmed a live DVD/album with their 52-piece orchestra, decorated the room like a forest, and generally got lost in the sound of the ensemble. After I wrote and arranged all the music, I had three days to orchestrate it, with conductor Jules Buckley. I customized the orchestra, cutting what I didn’t need and adding almost twice as many strings and low brass and reeds. The instrumentation was very inspiring, which led me to write very differently, and the band played in a way I’ve never heard before—more sensitively and dynamically. It proved to me I need to put them in as many different situations as possible, to see what we’re capable of.

What are the challenges of being a bassist/bandleader?

The biggest challenge onstage is being the frontman, but playing like a bassist. I have to be aware of everything everyone is playing, give cues and move the music forward as a sort of conductor, and be the “fun police” to rein in the band when we’re taking it too far outside of the composition—all while playing like I’m the guy in the back, cementing the groove. I’ll hear show recordings and want to jump off a ledge because I’m playing too much or pushing the feel too far forward or laying too far back. Offstage, the responsibilities are endless, and with a slim budget, to boot. The challenge is to not let all of it affect the music negatively. Now we have a manager, booking agents, and a tour manger, so the perseverance has paid off and the infrastructure is increasing. But it’s still at the expense of a personal life—I can’t even remember ever having one!

Who are some of your current favorite bassists?

My three main influences right now are Pino Palladino, who’s just one of the greatest ever; Joel Smith, my guy for gospel—I don’t need to hear anyone else on bass or drums; and especially Tim Lefebvre, who in addition to his amazing sounds, ridiculous groove, and trademark stream-of-consciousness bass lines, has been like a big brother to me, encouraging me to move to New York and hooking me up with gigs. And of course, there’s my all-time favorite, James Jamerson.

What do you do with your time away from Puppy?

I’m afflicted with workaholism; any free time I have I fill with music. My main joy outside of Puppy is producing. Working to help an artist realize his or her sound and vision, from demo to mastering, is a very fulfilling process. I just produced [Puppy keyboardist] Bill Laurance’s solo debut, on which I play upright, electric, and keyboard bass. I try to play with other musicians; I’m in a new group called Forq, with keyboardist Henry Hey, guitarist Adam Rogers, and drummer JT Thomas, from RH Factor. The music has a unique sonic element, but with Motown-style grooves—the album comes out in August. My dream gig, which shocks most people when I tell them, is to be in Tom Petty’s band. Tom is one of my favorite composers; he’s a master at writing songs with a massive amount of content in a minimal amount of words—using words that everyone understands. It’s a concept every musician can apply to their art.

What’s on the horizon?

I want to do another Family Dinner album in early 2015, then an album with Puppy returning to Dallas for a week-long session with our hometown audience—I’m also going to do a documentary on Texas musicians as part of that DVD. And I’m writing a book about Puppy’s early years, called “Van Days,” which will be a collection of colorful stories from the band, as well as tips for upcoming artists and a summary of lessons learned. We’re also talking about touring with the Metropole Orchestra, which I’m very excited about. It’s taken us almost a decade to get the machine in full gear, and there’s no sign of letting up anytime soon!

INFO

LISTEN

With Snarky Puppy: We Like It Here [Ropeadope, 2014]
Family Dinner, Vol. 1 [Ropeadope, 2013]
Amkeni (with Bukuru Celestin) [Ropeadope, 2013]
GroundUP [Ropeadope, 2012]
Tell Your Friends [Ropeadope, 2010]
Bring Us the Bright [Sitmom, 2008]
The World Is Getting Smaller [Sitmom, 2007]
The Only Constant [Sitmom, 2006]
Live at Uncommon Ground [Sitmom, 2005]

EQUIP

Basses ’76 Fender Precision; ’65 Fender Precision; Alleva-Coppolo 5-string; ’52 Fender Precision; German w-size upright; Moog Sub Phatty; Moog Little Phatty
Strings D’Addario ECB81M Chromes (.045–.100); EXL 165-5 Nickel Wound (.045–.135)
Rig Markbass TTE-500 head, Standard 104HF cabinet, New York 804 cabinet, Minimark 802 combo
Effects MXR Carbon Copy Delay, Bass Octave Deluxe, Phase 90, Bass Envelope; Pigtronix Bass Fat Drive, Bass Philosopher Compressor, Bass Envelope Filter; Markbass MB Octaver
Recording “An A-Designs REDDI or Avalon DI and a miked Ampeg B-15 or Markbass Minimark 802”
Other Planet Wave accessories

BIG LEAGUE BASS

MICHAEL LEAGUE BRINGS A COMPOSER’S mentality, deft phrasing, deep pockets, tonal colors, and an adventurous spirit to his Snarky Puppy bass lines—call it paws for the cause. Example 1a contains the guitar-doubled B-section melody of “What About Me,” from Puppy’s latest, We Like It Here. Think power trio and dig in. In Ex. 1b, League lends arpeggio support in the sax-led breakdown at 1:37. Example 2 is from We Like It Here’s “Lingus,” which boasts three cool bass grooves in 5/4. For the pre-solo melody and the solos (2:47), Michael spins the offbeat part shown. Sing the missing downbeat in your head to make the line smoother.

Example 3 shows the opening groove of “Free Your Dreams,” from Family Dinner, Vol. 1. Lean back and groove. Example 4 has the two-bar phrase behind the piano solo (at 2:27) of “Deep,” from the same album. Dig Michael’s use of color tones (the flat and sharp 9 of the D chord and the 6th of the Gm chord) in his part, which he mutes thumb-and-palm-style while being doubled by bass clarinet. Finally, Ex. 5 contains the opening groove of “Quarter Master,” from 2012’s GroundUP. Sit in the pocket and swing those 16ths.

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