Photo: Stella K
Any relationship — whether it's a friendship, a marriage, or a band — can become strained after spending over 15 years together. But for Snarky Puppy, an unclassifiable jazz, rock, funk fusion band, their 19-plus member group is stronger now than it’s ever been.
This may be because of the wide range of Snarky Puppy’s music. They won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance in 2014 and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016 and 2017. Outside of Snarky Puppy, its members have worked with artists including Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo. Because the band has never really fit into a category, they’ve never felt the pressure of having to please a specific audience.
“It’s not like we’re pop stars,” says bassist Michael League. “We’re in such a dark, cold corner of the music industry that we can do whatever, it’s great.”
Snarky Puppy’s latest album, Immigrance
, a follow up to 2016’s Culcha Vulcha
, is just as experimental as previous albums but shows a maturity and mastery of arrangements not seen before. The band is growing up, yet still pushing musical boundaries.
Ahead of Snarky Puppy’s May 15 show at the Roxian Theatre, Pittsburgh City Paper
chatted with League about Immigrance
and creative free-range.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
In one word, how would you describe Immigrance?
One word? Wow, uh … Finally. Just because we went three years without releasing an album, which is the longest that we’ve ever gone.
Why was there such a gap in between?
To be honest, I think it was because we were [performing] so much. We were on tour, constantly, between Culcha Vulcha
, and also everybody in the band has their own project, I have another band. So, I made a record with that in that interim. But it was good, I feel like the band has been kind of rejuvenated with this record. Not that it was in danger in any kind of way. But, I think there’s been a recommitment to what it is that we are and what we love to do, in terms of everybody realizing that they can do their own solo thing, have their own career and that that works perfectly well within the system of the band.
Also just musically, I think things are better now than they’ve ever been socially … we’re in a good zone. It’s really nice.
What is it like balancing a band with so many members?
It’s really fun. It’s interesting. It’s fun and it's interesting because you’re constantly getting new and different options and musical personalities, social personalities. It never gets old. It’s always fresh.
I’m sure it’s hard though to please all the members, how to balance everyone’s creative input?
Well, I don’t think it’s really possible to make everybody happy all the time. I think one of the reasons the band is in such a good zone is we, as the decision-making people, like the manager and myself, we listen very carefully to what everybody has to say. And when we make a decision, it's always because we think it’s the best for everybody and the band understands that now. Like when an individual wants a certain thing and a decision is made that’s the opposite, they know that the decision was made because we felt that it was the best thing for everybody. So there's a real sense of trust, I would hope by now after 15 years.
You said in a recent Rolling Stone article that after winning Grammys that you felt Snarky Puppy could now do whatever you wanted creatively. What was it like going into the studio for Immigrance with that mindset?
I guess that we’ve been doing that since our first award five or six years ago. I think now it's just a part of who we are. It’s not like a thing where we’re consciously like “Ok now finally we can do what we want.” We’ve always done what we wanted, but definitely, over the last five years we’ve really felt like man, “Let’s make a record with a symphony orchestra, let's make a record with all these people around the world, let's go back into the studio even though nobody wants us to.”
I don’t think we ever felt the pressure of what our audience wants, but I think now especially it’s just a part of what the band is to just do what it wants. It’s not like we’re pop stars. We’re in such a dark, cold corner of the music industry that we can do whatever, it’s great.
Yeah, and Snarky Puppy has never fallen into a certain genre, so that definitely helps as well.
Yeah, no one can accuse us of selling out. Because what were we before we sold out? [Laughs]
So what does your creative process look like in the studio? Have you found it to be different or similar throughout the years?
Oh, the process is different every time for sure. Because we learn from our experiences. We made Culcha Vulcha
in the same studio and so when we went back to do Immigrance
we were like “Okay, now we know this room, we know the gear, we know how the band did it last time, let’s improve upon it.” As a result, I think we have a much better sounding record.
But the bands main characteristic is that it's never complacent. It’s always trying to go to a new place, and trying to grow and evolve. It’s the thing that keeps everybody interested I think.
Where do you see Snarky Puppy going from here?
To about 45 more countries [Laughs]
. No, I don’t know how many but we’re on like a seven-month tour right now. We have a week off this week. We just did the first leg, we’re going to a lot of places, and it’s really fun. I’m already starting to think about the next record, which is going to be a beast. It’s going to be a very logistically demanding project. So yeah, I don’t know. The main thing is just that everybody's in a good place. We’re all really happy just playing together on stage, happy with each other as people, it’s become a real family and its never been better than it is now.