‘Home’. Michael League uses the word often. Not because he longs for home, because where is it anyway? Rather, because the bassist and frontman of Snarky Puppy can easily and in many ways feel ‘at home’. He has to, because he rarely stays in one place for long.
At the time of the telephone interview, he is sitting in the car on a highway near Barcelona. “I’m driving home now,” he says. That home is in Els Prats de Rei, a village in the Catalan countryside where he has lived for several years. But home can also be Dallas, Texas. The place where Snarky Puppy originated as a student band, while they would only really break through from ‘home base’ Brooklyn a few years later. Dallas is also here the new album Empire Central was recorded, a love letter to the ‘home town’.
Born into a military family, League spent his early childhood in several US states: California, Alabama, Virginia. A life without deep roots, which he has continued ever since. He traded the moving van for tour buses, airplanes and the dressing rooms of hundreds of stages that Snarky Puppy now stood on. ‘The Fam’, the collective of around twenty members, expandable by countless friends, often tours the world for months at a time. Along the way, band members bounce off and on for other musical commitments, constantly changing the line-up.
In order not to be completely uprooted, home ports are also needed on such a trip. One of these is the Netherlands. Combining jazz with funk, rock and influences from around the world, the band has made many musical friends and a loyal audience since its first show ten years ago.
In 2013, the band recorded the acclaimed album in Kytopia in Utrecht, We like it here followed by a Grammy-winning collaboration with the Metropole Orchestra conducted by Jules Buckley. In 2018, League was artist in residence at the North Sea Jazz festival.
LAUGH OUT LOUD
So the band dares to fill Afas Live, a large hall and therefore different from the intimate shows that the band, which almost always plays without vocalists, is known for. “As a band, we’ve spent more time in the Netherlands than in any other foreign country. It’s a great place to try out our new music. I’m not worried about that room. Sometimes band members don’t even know beforehand how big the room is, we play in is. The only thing that matters is that we have fun on stage and that everyone feels welcome with us – feels at home.”
The new album ‘Empire Central’ is a tribute to Dallas, where you started. What does it mean?
“When I think of Texas, I think of funk, soul, gospel and rock. There’s a certain sound there that we’re trying to capture. I think it’s quite difficult to explain, but it has shaped us enormously. When we started we were more jazzybut in Dallas we stayed groove. I think hard funk dominates the album, but there are also rock moments in between.”
The band always toured a lot. Didn’t your base as a group fall away during the corona period?
“Obviously the band missed touring, but to be honest we really needed a break. 2019 was our hardest touring year in the last ten years, we were away from home for nine months. It is very difficult, but it saved us financially afterwards. Of course, the break did not have to last two years, but the band members succeeded. Most have started to learn a new instrument, or have become good at it songwriting. It was an investment in the band, our brains have been updated. It was sometimes difficult for the crew, for them we did a number of beneficial things.”
You have a special way of composing that focuses on an ever-changing band. You play all the parts on the electric piano, send it to the band members, but don’t say which piece is for whom. Why?
“I’ve been doing it for years to make sure all the band members know all the parties. We change the line-up so often along the way, sometimes we have three keyboard players and the next day one, then someone else has to take over. It’s never wasted energy, because whether you’re doing Otis Redding’s ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ or our own song ‘Lingus,’ you won’t feel the song if you only know your own part. Besides, I don’t want musicians to lead after a certain sound as it was played, they should be able to give it their own spin without prejudice.
“For the first time we now use a different way of composing, more in duos. And now I no longer have to cheat them and they voluntarily study the other pieces. Although we were a little more efficient now because we have sixteen new pieces on album, it’s a lot to learn.”
Your label has bands from all over the world and you also use a lot of non-western influence in Snarky Puppy. Are these ideas you pick up on trips abroad?
“It has to do with the musical appetite of our band members. We want to know how others make music, not to copy but to put our own spin on it. For example, ‘Honiara’ on the new album is based on a folk song from the Solomon Islands, and I wrote ‘Belmont’ myself with an adapted flamenco rhythm that I hear a lot here in Spain.”
How did the special bond with the Netherlands come about?
“Outside of the USA, the Netherlands is the country that feels most like home to us. People seem to find a good balance between partying and taking in art and deep experiences. I never had the idea that we were playing background music at a party, the audience is internationally oriented and receptive to new ideas.”
That sounds good, but maybe that says more about the specific Snarky Puppy audience? Musicians regularly complain about the Dutch disease, that everyone talks throughout the concert.
“Haha. I haven’t heard of that before. Maybe we were lucky. I trust that our audience will have the patience to hear mainly new songs. We will use cameras and other technology to ensure that they can keep an awake eye on us, and that it feels as intimate in the great hall as it does for a hundred people.”
Snarky puppy plays October 11 at Afas Live in Amsterdam. The album Empire Central will be released on September 30.