Taking a break from the Dallas groove scene while on a 23-date tour, Centreville-born musician Michael League brings his band, Snarky Puppy, home to play a concert, teach a high-school workshop and a visit his favorite local eatery. Gearing up for his homecoming performance, Saturday, Sept. 8 at Jammin’ Java, 227 W. Maple Ave., Vienna, League took some time to explain what he’s been up to since leaving the area.
<b>What’s your background in music? </b> While growing up in Clifton were you in any bands or school oriented music groups? My grandfather, mother, and brother were all professional musicians, so there were always different sounds filling my ears as kid. I decided to casually play the guitar in middle school and gradually became more and more enamored with the idea of playing music full-time. As a high-schooler in Clifton, I played with lots of my peers...mostly just improvising with them over material we had been learning in our private lessons or whatever was popular at the time. I ended up forming a band with my bass-playing friend Tony Moreno (whose band is headlining the Jammin' Java show, oddly enough) during my freshman year and we played as a group for almost 3 years, I think. We had a lot of fun and exposed each other to a lot of different music. I think that kind of close-knit garage band experience really shaped me as musician. I've sought that in every group I've played in since.
<b>What was the first piece of Jazz music you heard that really sold you on the genre? How did it shape the way you hear/write music?</b> My brother was a jazz drummer when he was in high school (I was in elementary school), so I heard jazz constantly. The genre really didn't have much of an effect on me, though the individual musicianship and skill element did. I had to enter the world of jazz through a couple of "gateway drugs"- like Steely Dan and Phish- that combined complex harmony and extended improvisation with a pop sensibility. After my ears became used to music like that, I heard a live record by the amazing pianist Oscar Peterson. It completely destroyed me. I got more and more interested in the genre and by my senior year of high school I was only listening to straight-ahead jazz. I think that experience of growing up with lots of soul/pop/rock and then binging on jazz for a year created this strange hybrid music in my head. That's what Snarky Puppy is to me- a combination of all the music I have become obsessed with over the last 10 years.
<b>How was the transition from Centreville to Denton, Texas? </b> The transition from Centreville to the University of North Texas in Denton was amazing and totally humbling. It knocked me on my butt. I went into the school thinking I was going to be instantly successful, and realized within the first 2 minutes of my placement audition that I had absolutely no perspective on where I was as a player. I think it was because I didn't get out enough to hear great live music in DC. It's so important as a developing musician to constantly watch professionals play. Years of lessons can't replace the experience of seeing an amazing, inspiring performance live. Observation, in this case, explains things that you could never learn from a private teacher or a music book. I would seriously encourage parents of young musicians to take them out as often as possible to hear music that inspires them. It's as valuable as paying for books and lessons.
As for UNT, I was (unexpectedly for me) near the bottom of my class on bass when I entered. I had only been playing the instrument for a year and didn't fully understand its role despite the fact that I had more advanced harmonic knowledge than most of my bass playing peers (from studying guitar). I was completely fundamentally decrepit on the instrument and had no idea until I saw 40 other kids my age really play well. It made me work as hard as I have ever worked for anything in my life. In fact, it may have been the first time I ever really practiced. The level of playing at UNT was so high that I really felt pressure to catch up and keep up.
<b>How did Snarky Puppy form? </b> And what was the inspiration for the name? Although I was a student of UNT's jazz studies program, my plan was always to start a project devoted to playing original music that wasn't necessarily jazz. I was able to hear all of the musicians at school play and then form a group with the folks that I knew would be perfect for what I was trying to do. We started really casually at first, just reading music I had written. We played two shows and the crowd response was so warm that we never really stopped.
UNT has a kind of funny sense of humor about the music that comes out of it... it's jokingly referred to as "angry white jazz" because of the racial demographic and slightly angsty sound of the big bands there. I used the name Snarky Puppy (which my brother came up with for a potential band of his) because it pokes a bit of fun at that "angry" musical stereotype, and because the majority of the band is from UNT. It just made sense to me.
<b>How would you best classify the Snarky Puppy sound? </b> The sound of the band is constantly changing, because it is a product of the music that we listen to. When we started, most of the guys listened largely to jazz and it was obvious from our approach to writing and playing. Now we're more involved in the Dallas groove scene (Erykah Badu, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond) and that has changed the way we play. I also really dug into Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music over the last 2 years, and that's affected my writing. We call the music jazz/soul/world fusion. I don't know if that helps at all in describing the music, but it makes sense to me in my own head. The dilemma in identifying the music is that it is constantly evolving, and the genre changes completely from song to song. The challenge is to stay consistent in our overall approach to the music as a band in order to create a sense of unity through all of our stylistic excursions. Bands like the Beatles and Radiohead really are models for us in that they are instantly recognizable despite the fact the music is vastly different from record to record.
<b>Is the music a product of jamming or do you compose each song? </b> The music is specifically engineered to be half composition, half improvisation. I try to construct the tunes to be vehicles for improvisation while still being structured and organized enough in themselves to convey a message. I was always frustrated listening to bands improvise freely with no really structure or direction- unless the musicians were completely amazing, it became really boring for me. I wanted to take the freedom I felt from listening to Miles and combine it with the guaranteed emotional payoff of a Beatles song. We have a general map in the compositions, but I leave it up to the players to draw in their own back roads.
<b>What are some of the major developments of Snarky Puppy over the past year? </b> 2007 has been a wonderful year for us. Aside from this 23-show tour that we are on right now, we have had the opportunity to play with some amazing artists. In the spring, we opened up for the amazing bass virtuoso Victor Wooten (of Bela Fleck) in front of over 1,500 people. We also had a CD release party with Roy Hargrove's RH Factor (minus Roy), which has been a huge influence on us as a band. We were recently asked to record one of my songs on keyboard prodigy Bobby Sparks' (Marcus Miller, Lalah Hathaway) debut record with special guest drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Sting, Frank Zappa). That is going to be amazing, largely because Bobby's record is featuring some of the most respected musicians on the planet- Marcus Miller, Pino Palladino, Roy Hargrove, Questlove, etc. And finally, we have 3 shows in October with one of the best new bands around today, he 4-piece NYC outfit Rudder. They're incredible.
<b>Where do you see the band in the next 5 years?</b> Over the next five years, I see the band in a constant state of traveling and recording. The goal of the music has always been to reach a non-exclusive audience, and I can see that really starting to happen. It isn't just musicians in the crowd any more. I have always encouraged the members of the band to have their own projects and I hope that Snarky Puppy can help them launch their groups in a more direct and noticeable way. I want to continue playing clubs and doing more music festivals, from Bonneroo to North Sea Jazz. The music is birthed out of lots of contrasting individual styles, so I feel that each person's growth deepens the band's overall sound. I hope that all of the members have their own records out by then.
<b>Tell us a little about the clinic and concert happening at Centreville High School? </b> As I said earlier, the most important thing that I think young musicians can do is see music live. I am always trying to accommodate that, so I set up a concert at my old high school (Centreville High School) to try and inspire some young musicians in their own backyard. We also are giving a free clinic the day before on playing in an ensemble, composition, and just generally existing as creative musicians in a competitive economy. Most importantly, I want to hear what the students have to say. We'll be working with them in small, instrument-specific groups. I'm really excited about it. I hope it can inspire the kids in the same way I was inspired when my class had guest artists come into CVHS.
<b>What are you most looking forward to during your stop in Northern Virginia? </b> The thing I am looking forward to the most about coming back to NOVA is playing at Jammin' Java [Sept. 8]. I'm so excited about playing music for the people I grew up with... it's like a weird kind of catharsis for me. I think they'll understand the music even more than the folks here in Denton do- they really know where it's coming from.
And a close second- taking the band out to eat at Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant in Vienna. I have been craving that stuff for years.