photo credit: Francois Bisi
Nearly 20 years since its formation, acclaimed, four-time Grammy-winning music collective, Snarky Puppy returned to its Dallas roots for its 15th release, Empire Central.
Recorded during a week of performance sessions at the Deep Ellum Art Company, the 16 tracks serve as a tribute to the city that nurtured the group after it formed among college friends at the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. The new album also features the final contributions by funk legend, and Snarky Puppy’s musical godfather, Bernard Wright before his tragic death shortly after the material was put to tape.
With a lineup consisting of three guitarists, four keyboardists, two brass, two reeds, a violinist, multiple percussionists and drummers plus bandleader and primary composer Michael League on bass, “Empire Central” expands upon the influences that coalesce into the group’s riveting hybrid sound – jazz, fusion, funk, soul, blues, prog rock and modern gospel.
“Snarky Puppy has always been a band that prioritizes the sound of the music,” said League. “On this record there was some collaboration in the writing process but when a song goes to the band and the players start making suggestions or changing things our collective feeling really comes through. The songs ended up being a lot more direct and funkier than those on our previous records. I think it reflects the many moods of the city’s scene.”
Featuring as many as 25 members who live across the globe, Snarky Puppy was formed by League in 2004. A regular rotation of musicians participates in the outfit while also maintaining busy schedules as sidemen for such artists as Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo, producers (David Crosby, Kirk Franklin and Salif Keïta) and solo artists.
The group represents the convergence of black and white American music culture with an openness to embrace elements from around the world. An example on its latest effort can be heard on “Belmont,” which is based on the flamenco rhythm yet also refers to the street where League lived in Dallas. It was here that after-parties occurred after Bernard Wright’s Trio finished its Monday night residency.
Most of all, and best of all, what comes through Empire Central is a gathering of musicians whose joy for performing together and desire to constantly grow creatively comes through every minute of listening.
JPG: We’re going to talk about Empire Central, which I guess you’ll be hearing at listening parties over the next two days.
ML: I actually won’t be there. I live in Spain. So, it’s a little bit far of a commute for me to do that, but I’ll be there in spirit.
JPG: How did you end up in Spain?
ML: I used to come here to visit friends a lot, and I always felt at home. Then, after 11 years in New York, I just started feeling like…it had been amazing but I was looking for a different pace. So, I moved into a tiny village of about 450 people. That’s where I live now.
JPG: Being in a small town how were you affected by life being on pause due to COVID? Did it afford you more time to create and in a way be a benefit for you?
ML: Definitely the latter. It was the first time in my life that I actually was able to establish a routine for myself. I could practice. I practiced a North African instrument called the guembri. It’s like a bass. [Used by the Gnawa people, it’s a three-stringed, skin-covered bass plucked lute approximately the size of a guitar with a body carved from a log and covered on the playing side with camel skin.] I was able to practice that a couple hours every day. I was able to practice Catalan, the local language I’m learning here. I was able to write a solo album that I had wanted to write for almost a decade and had never made the time to do. That came out during the pandemic. So, I was able to put the car in park for the first time, my mental car. That was, maybe, the greatest benefit, just realizing that getting a good night’s sleep every night and having a routine and resting and not always being on the move is a good thing.
JPG: A lot of musicians I’ve talked to felt that loss and freaked out because they were home and weren’t playing live or they weren’t in the studio with others and having that interaction. It sounds as if you were okay with that being out of your life temporarily.
ML: I didn’t have that experience at all. We’ve been on tour 6 to 10 months a year for 15 years. For me it was the rest that I never would have been able to take without the whole world stopping. Even though it was a terrible time in a lot of ways and I lost people I was close to, that element of things that we were just talking about, was overwhelmingly positive for me.
JPG: I understand. The pandemic gave you the rest that you needed even though you didn’t want the pandemic to hit. You mentioned constantly working for 15 years. Has the philosophy, the concept, the idea behind the band changed from the beginning to where it is now? And if so, how?
ML: Actually, the concept and the philosophy in a macro-sense has not changed. It’s always been about combining traditions and running them through the filter of the band. That was the original philosophy, and that’s still the case. The difference is that the micro-philosophies of the band have developed and grown dramatically, just from trial and error from being onstage and playing things that sound terrible and saying, “Okay, we’ll never do that again,” and being onstage and playing things that sound good and saying, “Let’s remember that this feels good, and now we’re putting that in our little toolbox.” And that’s how you form your sound, in my opinion, from hours and hours and hours of playing together. That’s what we did. That’s what we still do.
JPG: You studied at the University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program. I’ve known local jazz musicians from college and beyond, and I remember that there was this criticism…I think it was some drunk punk rocker guy at the end of the night at the bar hassling them and saying that they have the skills but no soul. That sort of thing. At the same time, I read this article and you said, “It wasn’t until we became part of the gospel and R&B scene in Dallas that we actually started to form a distinct sound.”
ML: That’s true.
JPG: So, do you think that drunk punk rocker guy criticism is total bullshit or do you think that there’s a degree of truth in there and that the ongoing education of life and playing outside of school brings an addition to the skills you acquired in the classroom?
ML: I would be more in agreement with the punk rocker than the contrary. At the same time, I don’t think that it’s accurate to make a gross generalization about anyone that goes into school has technique and no soul. What’s really beautiful Snarky Puppy is you have this group of people that definitely have the theoretical knowledge and are very well-studied, and then you have these guys who are very natural, that grew up in the church, grew up in clubs doing that thing and maybe didn’t study as much, and then you have people who did both. Then, you have people who did mostly one for a long time and then did the other suddenly…
So, it’s an interesting combination of all these different kinds of people. And that’s what creates balance in the group. But, I wouldn’t say that there’s anyone in the band that is pure organicity without any kind of musical knowledge nor would I say that there’s anyone in the band that’s like 100% intellectual and has never really lived music. Everyone has certain percentages of both.
All of the band was definitely less provocative musically and less communicative musically before the school members of the band became immersed in the Dallas music scene. I could definitely speak for myself and say that I didn’t feel like I even had a sound as a musician until I started playing in the church.
JPG: This goes with the idea of developing over the years. At one time I managed a local band with three members, and it was occasionally a nightmare dealing with three people — creativity versus ego and personalities, etc. You’re a band bandleader with up to 25 members. What are the skills that you possess or how are you able to deal with so many people?
ML: I think above all it comes down to who are the people? I’ve also played in trios that were more problematic than my band and my band has 19 band members. One person with a bad attitude can cause more stress and problems than 50 people with great attitudes. So, the fact that everyone in the group knows to leave their ego at the door, if they have one, when they walk into any situation that is Snarky Puppy because there’s just no room for it. There’s no space. That makes it very easy on me. I probably have it much easier than people who even have certain duos or trios because, really, everybody is so cool. It’s not to say we don’t have problems from time to time but, overall, the general vibe is so good and so supportive and so familial that my job is a lot easier than you would assume it is because of the quality of the people I’m working with.
JPG: You’re considered the bandleader and at one point the main songwriter. With others contributing songs on the new album as well as you giving them the freedom to work out their parts, it helps them feel a part of the whole.
ML: Yes, a hundred percent. As time goes on, the band is collectivizing a little bit. I’m letting go of the reins more and more every year. I only wrote four of the 16 songs on this record, co-wrote two more, but as primary writer I’m only on one quarter of the record in that capacity. Whereas, on our first record, I wrote 100 percent of the songs. On our second record I wrote 90 percent of the song…and I like that. Now that the band knows what it is I’m very happy with everyone contributing more and feeling more like it’s theirs. And we’re doing other things behind the scenes, financially, to reflect that, and I’m proud of those things.
JPG: I’m curious if living in Spain was an influence on you as far as the new album referencing your time in Dallas? If not, then why make this album a tribute to the years playing in Dallas and how it affected you?
ML: That is a fantastic question. I hadn’t thought about it until you asked. I absolutely think that you get much more perspective on where you’re from when you leave. I’ve spent a few years now living here and really realizing how special Texas is musically. If you ask a Texan, they wouldn’t tell you that because generally people are very laid back and low-key there, and they’re not overly proud of themselves. Well, at least in the music community, I wouldn’t say that about all Texans. (laughs)
In the music community people don’t wear it on their sleeves like they do in other cities, like they’re the pride of the musical prowess of their city. In general Texas contributes a disproportionately large number of incredible musicians to the music world and no one really toots that horn because Texans are so chill. So, I wanted to toot that horn because I’m not from Texas, and I feel like I can. I feel like it’s cool for me to say, “Texas is really special. I know that because I went there and I’m not from there and I left, and I can tell you that it’s unique.”
JPG: What is the legacy of Roy Hargrove and Bernard Wright and the idea of responsibility to your own creative self be true as well as to your band and the fans and the next generation of musicians?
ML: I don’t see an inherent conflict in any of those things. If you’re really doing it right, you’re going to serve all parties equally at all times. So, if I’m doing my job as a composer and as a bandleader and if the band is doing their job as musicians then we will be honoring the legacy of Bernard and the legacy of Roy. We will be doing something that inspires and challenges us as a band creatively and we will each be pushing and challenging our fans. To me that is serving your fan. I don’t see any benefits of giving the fans something that they already know that they want.
I don’t see that as the role of the artist. I see that as the role as the role of McDonald’s. That’s not what we do. Our job is to push people’s minds to understand new things and that’s what I want when I’m listening to an artist. I want to be challenged. I want my ears and my brain and my body to be challenged when I listen to music and that’s what we try to do as a band. I’m not saying we do a great job at it but that’s what our intention is.