Editor’s note: Snarky Puppy headlined the Reno Jazz Festival and released its 11th album on April 29, “Culcha Vulcha.” Here’s a Q&A with Tahoe Onstage reporter Garrett Bethmann and Snarky Puppy’s bassist/guitarist/composer and arranger Michael League, who founded the group.
Tahoe Onstage: You recorded the album in El Paso. What did you see in El Paso that made you decide it would be a good fit for recording this album?
Michael League: Seclusion, a place to focus, and a beautiful space with great equipment and staff. You can’t really ask for much more.
Q: It seems all of your albums are very aware and influenced by the setting of its recording? How important is set setting to you as a musician?
A: Environment is huge to me. When you really embrace what is around you, self-expression becomes much more fluid. We really like to dive into things, whether it’s a three-day trip to Tokyo or a recording session on the Mexican border. Immersing yourself in your surroundings as a group creates a really beautiful collective mentality which becomes a part of the music.
Q: A lot of your albums, especially recently, have been collaborative with a lot of moving parts and ambitious production. What did you find musically when you entered the studio again as just Snarky Puppy? What was having just that core dynamic back like?
A: We try to make a “regular” Snarky Puppy album after each special project (“Family Dinner,” “Sylva,” etc.). It’s our way of taking the things we’ve learned from our lives, our travels, and our musical experiences and putting it all back into who we really are as a band. It feels good every time we do it because the guys are always growing. The session was very inspired. People were constantly throwing in new ideas that came from experiences that they had recently. We learn so much from each other.
Q: Were there any musical ideas you wanted to express or explore on “Culcha Vulcha” that you think was new or progressive for Snarky Puppy?
A: I think we’re always taking music aesthetics or concepts from different cultures around the world and manipulating them in our way. We try to be respectful of the initial idea without trying to recreate or imitate it. This record is no different. I think the main element of “Culcha Vulcha” that makes it so unique is the sonic palette. We had the time and resources to really explore different sounds on this one. It definitely has a character that I find to be moodier, darker, and more restrained than anything we’ve done before.
Q: What composition that you worked on for this album are you most proud of? Why?
A: There’s a tune on the record called “Big Ugly” that I’m really happy with. It’s a very simple song, but there’s a lot of subtlety in the counterpoint between different melodic and rhythm instruments throughout the piece. I think we’re constantly striving to create the balance of music richness without it being overly saccharine. It’s almost like the game is to keep it simple while still creating something with depth.
Q: What type of settings do you think make for the best Snarky Puppy show for you as a performer? Is there a recent show that sticks out in your head as being memorable?
A: A good sounding room with an attentive and energetic audience. This always makes for a memorable performance. Our crowds used to be really noisy, which prevented us from playing dynamically. That stopped a few years ago, and now we can’t believe how lucky we are to have audiences who both listen intently and respond enthusiastically. It’s like we won the lottery.
Q: Over the course of a big tour, which you are about to embark on, do you experience a complacency or boredom with the music because of how much time you’ve spent with the material from conception to concert? If so, what do you do about it?
A: I almost never get bored, largely because of the explorative nature of the band’s individual members. If anything, my challenge is to keep things from going too far away from the composition. We play every song differently every night, so there’s constant stimulation. But in those rare occasions when things start to feel stale, going out to see a great local band or listening to a record together as a group on the bus can inspire us and break us out of a comfort zone.
Q: A lot of people are mesmerized by what Snarky Puppy does and go, “Whoa, this is some next level shit.” What band or artist does that for you right now?
A: I’m immersed in music from West Africa, especially Mali. Basket Kouyate, Neba Solo, Oumou Sangare, Toumani Diabate… this music is in my ears every day. I’m producing the great Salif Keïta’s next album in June, so I’m doing my homework at the moment to learn as much as I can about the many musical styles in that incredibly rich musical environment. In the occidental world, I’m a big fan of Hiatus Kaiyote, Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, and all of the other artists who are pushing real music into the mainstream. We each have to do our part to keep things moving forward.
Related story: Tahoe Onstage review of Snarky Puppy’s “Culcha Vulcha” LINK