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Interview with Snarky Puppy

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Frazier: One of the things that I’ve always said about you guys is that your sound is unclassifiable, so I’m wondering, when people ask you what kind of band you’re in, what do you say?

Michael League: Nate, you wanna take this one?

Nate Werth: I tell people we’re in this new, groundbreaking genre called ‘jafunkadancion,’ which is a combination of jazz, funk, dance, and fusion. And that’s what we came up with one night…

League: Nate’s trying to get it patented.

Werth: After a few beers we came up with that one. (laughs) But it’s true, we’ve never established what we want to sound like. We’ve always just went with what felt natural. All these genres just get mashed together. Like sometimes we’ll do something that’s funk and dance. Sometimes we’ll do something that’s a little more jazz fusion, with a world vibe or something. So… Jafunkadancion.

(laughs)

League: And I just say instrumental. Like Nate said, we just go on how it should feel, we don’t try to play to a genre. There’s nothing really limiting about a genre like ‘instrumental.’

Mark Lettieri: The cool thing about this band is that we take in a lot of genres… Sometimes when bands do that, they end up playing the ‘rock song,’ and then the ‘salsa song,’ and now the ‘funk song.’ Ours is just the Snarky Puppy sound. And you can kinda pick out the genres. But you can’t be like, “This is their ‘reggae song.’” It’s all just our sound. We kind of just disguise genres in our own way.

League: A lot of that has to do with the chemistry of the players I think too. A lot of us have played together for so long that I don’t even think we’d be capable of playing something authentically, we’d naturally be putting our own spin on it.

Robert “Sput” Searight: Our music is written to be that way though.

Frazier: That genre you mentioned had both jazz and fusion in it. And I think many people at first listen might just pigeonhole you guys as jazz. But you guys have what must be the most danceable jazz sound ever… so what makes your jazz danceable where a lot of it isn’t?

League: Jazz music was a very popular genre of music for a long time. But I think at a certain point it started becoming a little more ‘laboratory’ and a little less accessible. You know, back in the day with the Big Band era, it was popular music and it was dance music. People would go out and dance to jazz. It had a practical purpose, you know, it wasn’t chamber music. It wasn’t music that you’d dress up for and go with your date and sit down to watch it. It was party music. And at a certain point it became chamber music. The institutionalization of jazz in colleges has done a lot of amazing things for jazz. But one of the drawbacks has been that it’s made it overly cerebral. It’s become chamber music. And for us, we take the aesthetics of jazz—the harmony, the vocabulary, rhythmic figures, stuff like that—and we naturally meld it with the music that we grew up with that is danceable, like pop music, funk, soul, R&B, rock n roll, gospel… So I think that combination. Our sound definitely has jazz elements in the aesthetics, but ultimately the grooves and the feel are more from danceable traditions.

Sput: That’s just about what I was gonna say. Our music has jazz elements in it but I wouldn’t call it jazz. It comes in certain areas. Like maybe when we start improvising you will hear a lot of the jazz influences. But most of the stuff we do, you can move to it. It’s funky, it’s groovy… you can just get down to the rhythms that we lay down.

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League: And I think a lot of us—especially myself—have a physical relationship with music. I grew up playing sports. I played sports for 14 years before I ever picked up an instrument. So being able to have a physical connection to music is really important. A lot of the guys in the band are or were athletes…

(some lighthearted dissent from other members of the band, laughing)

League: What? I think that makes a big difference. You know, if my body isn’t moving to the music we’re playing, we change it. It’s important to reach people.

Werth: I mean, if the crowd isn’t moving, what are we doin up here?

League: [in that case] You should be in a symphony hall. Which is a totally cool other thing to do, but we’re not trying to do that. We’re playing music for normal people, not just musicians or music nerds. We wanna play for regular people and get them to have as much fun as we’re having.

Frazier: You guys touched on improv a little bit there and that’s one of the things I wanted to get to… On your albums you already have these really expansive compositions, really long songs. And in the live setting the songs are still long, but how much of that is actually improvisation?

Werth: I guess that depends on what you consider improv, because what Sput and I are doing rhythmically really is improv the entire time. We have a skeleton or an idea… but a lot of times, section to section won’t be the same every night. So there’s that element of improv. But then there’s the element of people soloing, or even multiple soloists at the same time.

League: Yeah… I think the way it works is that the compositions are structured pretty concretely, but the musicians on stage are so creative that we kind of make a point to not ever play the same way. So like Nate was saying—we are improvising within the compositions by changing sounds or changing the voicings on chords, changing rhythms. And then we have the sections that are open, undetermined… we know where we come from and we know where we’re going, but during the open section whatever can happen as long as it relates to what came before it.

Bob Lanzetti: And most of the sections are always open also. So if a section feels good on a particular night, somebody might just keep going

League: EVERYTHING is open.

Lanzetti: And back when we used to do covers, we would play them in a completely different style than the original. Looking back, we realized that a good composition can be played really well in any style. And so we’ll experiment with that on some of our songs. Some songs have started out one way, and after a month on the road, it’s a completely different style of music.

Werth: Everybody has a really low threshold for boredom. We get bored fast. So it kinda creates a lot of possibilities.

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Frazier: One of the things you guys do that’s really cool are these in-studio live videos and DVDs. All the pieces of Tell Your Friends have been on YouTube for a while, which is all amazing stuff. And now you have the new one coming out on March 27th… so what is that you guys really like about the in-studio video format? Not many bands are doing that…

Justin Stanton: I think with this one [groundUP] you get to see a side of the band that is really important to the creation of the music, which is us traveling together for long periods of time on the road. That really helps shape the music. We’ve all been in groups where you show up for a studio session and have an idea of what’s it’s supposed to sound like. but the concept isn’t totally solidified. But when you’re on the road, and you really sit with the music, it develops in an organic way. That has a lot to do with the sound of the band. And this new DVD really helps convey that side of the music that people may not get on a CD.

League: So what Justin is talking about is that, with Tell Your Friends, it’s just the music that’s filmed. But on this one it’s more of a documentary. Half the DVD is music, the album with eight tracks, and half of the DVD is footage of us on the road and interviews. So we took the Tell Your Friends thing and went a step further to show more of why we sound the way that we do. But in general I think it’s just hard to understand this band and this music without seeing us play. It makes a lot more sense that way.

Mark Lettieri: It’s cool because the music has so many parts and so many arrangements and what not that people could listen to it on a studio record and say, “Oh, well they punched in and out on 30 tracks, layered this with six guitars, dubbed over the horns, this that and the other.” But for what we do, so much of the excitement is playing live, so the DVD is saying, “This is us.” It’s raw. There are no overdubs. It’s just straight Snarky Puppy music.

League: There’s this guy on a YouTube video that keeps saying that we mimed a track. It’s hilarious. It was on a video at a place called the Jefferson Center, where we did “Ready Wednesday” with Little John Roberts. It’s a seven-minute track and the first 6:15 it’s one shot. It’s like That 70s Show where they go around in a circle. It’s all one shot with one cameraman filming in a circle and we cut, and then do this thing where we did mime and the band members disappear one-by-one. And so this guy says something like, “Is this a new thing? Bands miming to their own music?” And other people defended us and said that it was actually the band playing. But this guy was totally insistent that it was impossible because the horns couldn’t match the drums, or something, and a bunch of other stuff. So I went and wrote on that video and said, “Listen, I directed and produced this thing. It’s one shot until 6:15. But up until then it’s 100% live.” So then the guy flagged my comment for removal! Now my comment’s gone!

(laughs)

Stanton: I think we’d be crappier trying to pretend to play what we play. We’d look like the Monkees or something! (laughs)

Sput: The stuff that we play, it’s not scripted, we do it all on feel. So half the shit I see on YouTube—which I try not to watch so much—the shit that we do on solos, I probably couldn’t repeat it again. I would have to figure it out and study it myself. And that’s the beauty of it. Because I’ll hear stuff and be like, “Oh shit! Let me go back and work on that!” And then the next couple of tours I’ll have that piece incorporated into my playing. The cool thing about this band and doing it the way we do it, you’re not just getting the music, you’re getting the vibe, the energy, and the spirit, all of the stuff that we put into the music is at your reach. You’re accessible to that just by catching it and watching it. I think that’s where the beauty is and why it separates the way we do it from anybody else. A lot of musicians keep them to themselves. But we’re always giving you that vibe and energy visually.

League: And I think a lot of people now are listening to music on their computers. And I don’t listen to music through a radio and I don’t even own an iPod. So for me, if I’m on Facebook and I see a video of a song with an mp3 right below it, I’m ten times more likely to click on the video. And that’s why we chose to make Tell Your Friends that way. And we went from no one knowing about us, to some people actually knowing about us. I think that medium was key.

Frazier: So with how much time you guys spend on your live performance, how much time do you actually get to spend in the studio? What’s your studio schedule like throughout the year?

Lettieri: We show up and make a record!

(laughs)

Lettieri: We meet up for like three days and then head out.

Lanzetti: We do a lot of sessions for other people as backup musicians multiple times a year. As us doing our own music it’s pretty rare. We make records fast and that’s it.

Sput: It almost never happens.

Lettieri: People who write songs will send demos so there’s an idea of what’s going on, but really we’ll hook up for a couple of days and see what happens then hit record.

Lanzetti: On the DVD there’s a little eight-minute segment between the tunes that shows how we made the last record, it’s funny. We showed up to the studio and we were still building it, we didn’t really actually get to rehearse at all. There was no heat, we were all wearing coats, the gear wasn’t working… but that’s kinda normal. (laughs) It’s like until we actually start recording, our shit is never together. But individually we all record on the side with other artists, and we all know each other really well, so it’s not like we don’t play and need to establish a bibe or chemistry. We literally just need sound to work.

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Frazier: So it sounds like you guys just hit and run when you get to the studio, so is there a different sort of pressure when you go into that situation? How does you approach change when you know you’re going to record in album in just a couple days?

Werth: I think that’s kinda why we started doing the video and having the audience in the room with us. With Bring Us The Bright, our 3rd record, we tracked it. We tracked rhythms sections, then we’d layer horns, and I did like 50 overdubs… There was a whole different thing going on. I do a take and think it sucked and just do it again. And two hours later I’d still be trying to make it sound exactly like I wanted it to sound. But now, it’s a live thing. We got the audience there with us. They’re vibin off us, we’re vibin off them, you’re no longer inside your head nitpicking every single little sound that you apply. It’s more about the group. And I think that’s a big part of the sound of Snarky Puppy—the group.

League: And that’s the way every record was made before like the mid 70s. Back then most bands just had mics in a room and be recording. It’s just a natural way. That’s why it’s called a record—you’re just capturing something that’s already existing.

Lettieri: I think with music like ours there’s a point where you could over-rehearse it to where it doesn’t sound like us. The improvisation that we were talking about could be gone. Somebody might like a composed solo so much in the studio that they try to do that every time. I remember when we were doing “Slow Demon” or something. I was actually up in the bedroom trying to compose a guitar solo for the song. I came up with something technical, hitting all the changes… Then when we went to play it I totally forgot everything that I had written and thought about doing and just went for it. And I loved what we did because it just happened right.

League: We are all improvisers, so we can play figures and do things the same way twice. But I think when people listen to music, they feel the intention and the love more than they actually feel the technical elements of the music. There are reasons why some takes sound better than others even though there might be more mistakes in them.

Werth: The energy is way more important than getting it perfect.

League: When you say some shit rocks. It doesn’t rock because nobody messed up. It rocks because of the energy.

Frazier: So do you guys have any desire to do another album where you’re tracking and overdubbing stuff?

Sput: He probably does. (pointing at League)

(laughs)

League: What is that supposed to mean? (laughs)

Sput: I would like to see us do a Snarky Puppy project where we all take time to paint the picture. But if not, I like the way we do it. It took us a while to get used to it. Like Nate said, when we did the Bring Us The Bright album, he did like 70 tracks of percussion. In one night, basically. Well, it wasn’t 70 tracks of all percussion, but there were 70 tracks on the record. And it was fun to listen back and add stuff where you wanted to hear it. But it’s also cool to hear what happens when you put 15 to 20 musicians in one room and give it one shot. And see that it comes out really well and people enjoy, because that’s what it’s about. It’s never pressure because we live to perform and inspire. That’s what we wanna do anyway. When you go into the studio you create a record that people might listen to. But to perform is what we really wanna do.

Werth: It would be hard to go back… Because now we’re the crazy band that goes in front of a bunch of cameras and plays with our pants down.

(laughs)

League: Next record, pants down.

Lanzetti: Both ways have their pros and cons. I feel like the way we’ve been doing it lately ends up being more on the improvisational side. But if you can sit down and do overdubs and compose all of your parts… that could be great in a totally different way too.

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Frazier: So one of the things I’ve always wondered about was your arrangement, and how it seems very fluid. You don’t necessarily have the same people all the time. And then when you go different places in the country you have people sit in with you and jam. So what’s the perfect arrangement? What would Snarky Puppy be at its base if you could have it ideal every night?

Lettieri: Don’t offend anybody! (looking at League, laughing)

Sput: You mean like personnel wise?

Frazier: Yeah, the instrumentation.

(laughs)

League: Ahh, fuck man…

Sput: You better say this right! (looking at League)

(big laughs)

Lettieri: (sarcastic voice) Ohh I’m gonna make some people very mad. Well, we really only need one guitar player. Maybe one horn…

(laughs)

League: I wanna hear what everybody else has to say before I say anything.

Sput: I would say the way we do the DVDs is the way I would love to do it. If we could travel that way, all the time…

League: He’s talking about the full string section, four keyboards, three guitars, three percussionists…

Lettieri: The whole Snark-estra.

Sput: And maybe throw Little John [Roberts] in there somewhere. Then I’d be in heaven.

Lanzetti: So basically what we’re saying—people who book Madison Square Garden—is that we’re gonna need a bigger stage. So if you build it, we will come. With 15 people.

Lettieri: And pyrotechnics.

League: Stanton, what do you think?

Stanton: What everybody else said.

League: You really think that?

Stanton: Yeah.

League: You prefer to have more people on stage?

Stanton: Yeah, as long as we can hear everything.

Lanzetti: For me, I like having three horns, two guitars, two keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion. That feels like the bare minimum to make the music sound the absolute best that it can.

Lettieri: I need a second guitar player. Because I need some help on some of the parts.

Lanzetti: I need two guitars. It’s been great playing with Mark.

League: I mean, for me, the next step would be… I like having three chordal instruments, at least. And a full horn section. Like a powerful horn section. Because right now we have a two to three horn section. Which is cool. The difference between two and three horns is really big. But having like a tower of power horn presence really makes it pop. But it’s just so hard to bring guys.

Sput: Because we’re doing it for the love. We’re not making any money doing it.

League: But it would be dope to have strings live. It would be great to have a big horn section. So yeah, it’d be great to tour with the whole ensemble. Maybe in like ten years if we’re gajillionaires, then yeah, it would be cool to go out with a lot of people. But to me, I don’t even thinking of it like there’s an ideal instrumentation. It’s just different… Having Mark on tour changes the whole thing. We’ve never really gone on tour with Mark, just done Texas gigs or Mardi Gras. But it changes the whole way the band plays. When you add Sean Martin, Bobby Sparks… each of them changes the band in a completely different way. We’ve done a couple of gigs without Justin and it was crazy how much the band changed because he’s normally there every gig. We did a couple without Nate… it’s kind of like there’s no ideal. We just change to fit who’s on stage

Werth: That keeps it exciting too.

League: Yeah, it helps keep us from not getting bored.

Frazier: That just pretty much goes with your whole improvisational philosophy… just go with what you got on that night and feel it.

League: Yeah, we’re improvisers.

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Frazier: So where’s someplace that you went and had no idea you had a following and found a packed house out of nowhere?

Lettieri: Well for me every one of these gigs is one of them because they’re all new venues for me (laughs).

League: Well you’ve never been on tour with us before.

Sput: Well it’s been a gradual process…

League: There are towns… Charlotte. Charlotte is one where we didn’t expect anyone there and we showed up to a lot of people.

Sput: THEY didn’t expect.

Stanton: Sput expects crowds everywhere!

(laughs)

Sput: I knew it was going to be good [in Charlotte] because I was told the church was going to come out. There’s a group of fans that we have called The Church, and basically it’s all the church musicians that come out to the clubs. The time that we went to Charlotte… I got like 50 hits on Facebook of people asking about the show, saying they were coming. And probably all 50 of them ended up coming.

League: There’s another one too, isn’t there?

Werth: Well, we plugged away in Atlanta for a long time. And then we did one show and it was like they flipped a switch. We had a friend who worked for a radio station in Atlanta, a really amazing dude and he talked us up. We plugged away in Atlanta for a long time in front of like 30 people for about two or three years. Then we showed up one time and it was amazing and it’s been strong since.

League: Boston too, on this tour. That was the first time we ever played to a really big crowd in Boston. I’d say that tipping point happens a lot in certain cities, where you play and there’s a good, decent crowd, and you play awesome. Then maybe somebody from the local media really takes a liking to you and the next time you come it’s bananas.

Sput: And then there’s Charlottesville.

League: We’ve never had a good crowd in Charlottesville…

Sput: I know! (laughs)

(laughs)

League: There are times we’ve played for less people than are in the band… Like this one time, at Tasty World, in Athens, Georgia. And there was three people.

(laughs)

Sput: And they were rotating three people.

League: Yeah, they rotated in because they felt bad. And it was across the street from this fuckin frat bar called Bourbon Street. And it was PACKED. Galactic was playing at the Georgia Theater, and our show was billed as a Galactic after-party and no one came! (laughs) But now we’re great in Athens, we’re playing a Friday or Saturday night and they’re expecting it to sell out.

Werth: And we even played a frat party in Athens last year to a couple thousand people, it was packed. I mean, they weren’t there to see us by any means… but we played it. We played for em… and they were wasted.

(laughs)

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Frazier: Alright last one… gimme the most fucked up traveling story you got.

Sput: How much time do you got? (laughs)

League: What do you mean by fucked up?

Frazier: Just like… everything went wrong on this one day…

Sput: Shit! There have been some days!

(laughs)

League: Fire away!

Stanton: Mine has to do with our quartet gig in Philadelphia.

League: That’s a good one…

Sput: Quartet gig in Philadelphia?… OH YEAH! (laughs) I forgot about that one. That one’s probably the best one to tell.

Stanton: We had this bus that we bought from a strip club owner in Boston. It was a school bus… an ’84 Bluebird. So we were in DC… And this thing would break down two or three times in a tour, and we’d be absolutely fucked.

(laughs)

Stanton: And there was nothing we could do about it because it was this old shitty bus.

League: We called it The Hotel because most of the time it wouldn’t even run… but we could sleep in it because we had beds.

Stanton: So at this one point we were in Northern Virginia or DC and we had a gig in Philadelphia the next day. And I think something happened to the bus so we took it to get fixed. We’re finally heading north, on the way to Philly, and everything was cool for like five… seconds when the fucking belts break. Basically what would happen is that one belt would break, which would then throw all the other belts. So it would be completely fucked. We were stranded and we had to be in Philadelphia in like two hours or some ridiculous shit. We had a guy with us who lived in the DC area, he was driving, he came and picked us up in his grandma’s Buick Park Avenue. We had to figure out how we were gonna make this gig. The bus was done and we only had this car. It was me, Mike, Sput, and Chris piled into this car, and our friend was driving… so there’s five of us…

Sput: WITH equipment.

Stanton: Yeah, with all our gear.

(laughs)

Stanton: So we’re packed full of gear, the whole car is packed, the trunk is packed, and we show up and play a four piece Snarky Puppy set.

League: It was a Monday night… at Chris’s Jazz Café. 5 pm to, how many people?

Stanton: Seven or eight people.

League: It was actually a double header that night, We had another gig later, at The Fire. Some other friends were able to drive the rest of the guys in the band up and we played another show to about eight people.

Sput: And to add insult to injury, it was actually a packed house… but everybody was at the bar on the other side of the building!

League: Yeah, the band before us played and as soon as they were done, everybody left. But it was weird, that might be the most fun gig Snarky Puppy has ever played. I don’t remember why…

Sput: We were just going balls out. I was gonna play and have a good time no matter what because we had to make the best out of the situation. That’s what it’s all about; the music got us through that shit.

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Frazier: Great way to end the interview. Is there anything else you’d want to get in the interview, any announcements?

League: In addition to the DVD that’s coming out, I just wanna say that because the music industry is in such a funky place right now… I think there’s more power in the hands of the consumer and the listener than there ever has been. And people don’t really realize how much pull they have in how the music industry develops. The listener is incredibly empowered right now, just by buying a ticket or buying a CD from anyone who is doing shit by themselves. It makes a huge difference. There’s no more middle class in the music industry. There’s like top ten, and then there’s indie. There’s nothing else. So if you love music, just continue to support it. Go and see it, share it with your friends, buy the records, do it all.

Sput: I wanna say thank you to everybody for supporting this music. I always say that we take a chance just going on the road and doing this. We love it but it’s no guarantee that people are going to love this music. It’s so much against the grain and so much different than anything else, especially in pop music. We’re stepping out, doing something that only we believed in at first. And now people are jumping on. It’s a positive thing for us and we really appreciate that. So the message is: thank you to all the people that support us.

League: If people wouldn’t have started liking us and paying attention, this band would have ended. I’m telling you man, I can’t even count the number of gigs we played for less people than what was on stage. I could run off like 30 of them right now. There were times when we’d play seven gigs in a week for less than 20 people. So it’s great to have people into the music that we love.

Sput: That reminds me! I got one story that’s even worse than the other one. We were out on tour and we all got sick.

Werth: We all got the flu!

Sput: The flu! And we couldn’t finish the gig. People were leaving the stage to go barf.

League: During the set! It was in Tulsa, Oklahoma we were on tour with the Ari Hoenig Trio and every single person but his guitar player got the flu. We had a different drummer at the time and he had to get up to throw up in the middle of a solo. That was rough. We even canceled the next night in some other town because we were just too sick.

Frazier: Damn!

League: Yeah… but in the end: thank you, is what we wanna say. Without listeners we don’t have a chance. We don’t have labels that are giving us money, we’re doing this on our own. So, thanks.

Frazier: Awesome. Thanks for sitting down with me. Looking forward to the show tonight!

2 years ago by in Interviews , Music Features | You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
About Frazier

Jeremy Frazier is the editor-in-chief of Soundfuse, an online magazine based in Chicago.