Istanbul welcomed Snarky Puppy almost a week ago at Salon IKSV. Before an energetic, powerful, and groovy gig that was full of screams and applauses, we had the chance to interview the band leader Michael League thanks to dearest Mike Bindraban from Good Music Company. Michael was so sincere while answering my questions. Due to the limited time, I couldn’t ask a few more questions in my mind but he was so kind to say that we could continue through e-mail so I am leaving you with the first part of the interview. Sit on a comfortable sofa, sip your coffee and join us.
I’d like to start with the band’s name. In one of your interviews, you said that it was so lame and you didn’t talk about it. Why? Maybe it’s interesting for us.
Michael League : Actually, it’s not an interesting story. When you hear that, you’re gonna be like “Oh, I see. I don’t want to print it.” My brother was deciding between two band names one of his band when I was a kid. Snarky Puppy was one of the options and he chose the other option. I just thought it was a great name and I love dogs. It’s also easy to come up with a logo when you have a puppy in your name and everybody likes puppies. It worked out well.
You make collective music. There are some constant members as well as rotating musicians. How do you keep the co-ordination?
ML : Basically, there are seven musicians that I call to play every gig. This year, we play like over a hundred gigs. It’s just too much for anyone so I make sure that those seven guys don’t play in every gig. I call them and if they say yes to all gigs, I say “Hey, maybe you should take a month off”. They generally volunteer that because they don’t want to be on tour for a lot of months, so those guys get the first call, and then, depending on the budget of the tour or other people’s availability, we form the band line-up. There’s like 35 musicians that we can call on.
How do you work on the songs with these constant and changing members? You like improvising as a band, so there may be a risk of everything turning into a chaos.
ML : Everyone knows the songs really well. Every single person in the band knows basically everyone’s part, so if one night we have three guitar players and the next time we have one, that one guitar player always plays the most important parts. It’s not a thing that we rehearse or talk about it.
I have read that your music is not written at all. In another article, I have read that there are some themes in your compositions and improvisations take place around these themes. Depending on what you are saying now, I see that I have misinterpreted the articles.
ML : The songs are definitely written but we don’t write them out. We don’t have like sheet music for them. We do that after we record to sell it to students and colleges. The music we play is highly composed. We improvise within the music constantly. It’s never like whole improvisation. There is a structure varying on a structure. Everyone has an exact part, but they have the option to change or not to play it. They may change it and this changes the way the others play as well. We could play the songs fully, part by part, but we never do. Someone always changes something and we respond to that, so it never gets boring. And it’s not risky because if you improvise altogether, creative juices flow.
You are a band that is influenced by many different types of music and reflects these influences in your own music. However, you have a unique sound. Is there a secret to that?
ML : It’s easy to come up with a concept that combines various styles. Actually, having your unique sound, I think, is very difficult. And I feel like we didn’t have it until we had toured like 4 or 5 years. I think having a band sound that’s really recognizable and strong comes from playing together over and over. When the band started, the concept was different and changed in time. It started as world music. In the first gigs, we even played some Turkish tunes. We were doing lots of music from different places like Cuba, Balkans and then it changed to jazz, then came the soul and funk thing, and even electronic. Lots of directions, you see. There is always the fact that makes Snarky Puppy stand out is playing together for so long.
Another point that has drawn my attention is that you have many DVDs. Is there a specific reason?
ML : “Kytopia” is our 4th DVD recording. We were making albums but “Tell Your Friends” was the DVD that drew the attention to us in overseas. It’s usually the DVDs that people start sharing on social media.
What would you like to say about your latest DVD “Kytopia”?
ML : We are shooting for January. It’s a live album with DVD and there are 9 new songs. I am so excited about that. Everyone – the audio crew, the band crew – did a beautiful job.
Let’s talk about your latest album “Family Dinner”. In this album, you have worked with various singers. How was the process? Was it different than the instrumental albums?
ML : You know, it’s our first Snarky Puppy album with singers involved, but it’s not a new concept to us. We’re playing as a band behind singers for years. I started “Family Dinner” seriously in New York like 3 or 4 years ago. As individual musicians, we have been playing with singers and strong bands for so long, so we’re naturally used to singers. We bring our own sound to their stuff.
How did you decide on which singers to work with?
ML : I chose them based on their location first. Most of them, Shaynah, Lucy, for example, live in New York. Several of us played with N’Dambi in his band. Two guys in the band have played with Lalah Hathaway. We’re big fans of Tony Scherr’s Monday sessions in New York. He has a band that we usually go and watch, so I called him and he said “Yes”. With most of them, we have close relationships. It wasn’t like dealing with a bunch of celebrity artists. It was super laid-back, no diva stuff. It was great.
Why haven’t you done this before? If you waited for the right time, what is the definition of that right time for you?
ML : I think it is important as a band to establish your identity before you do fringe things. “GroundUP” is our 5th record as the same kind of band – instrumental with no guests. Then we made a record with an African refugee from Burundi. That’s a departure from what we normally did. Then we recorded “Family Dinner” and then we did the “Kytopia” thing. We could do two projects in way too different directions and come back what we normally do again. In the bottom line, our name has always been all over the map.
As far as I feel from your albums, videos and what you have said so far, you are as sincere as your music.
ML : This is who we are. Making an album with singers wasn’t like a gimmick to get on Youtube. We have been doing this for years. We are not a band that gets mainstream media attention. We’re an underground thing. 80% of the people here have heard about us from a friend, watched on a Youtube share on Facebook, not from the newspapers. And I’m not worried about that. All the decisions that I’ve made as a band leader have been musical, not like a slick business decision.
I think the most important thing is to make the music you want. It is freedom. Thank you so much Michael. I think we will continue this talk through mail. :D
ML : You’re welcome. I’ll be waiting for the questions. :)
Photo credits: Ali Güler