Over the past few years, Snarky Puppy has gone from undefinable semi-obscurity to multi-Grammy Award-winning, yet still undefinable, success.
The 19-strong ensemble can be loosely described as jazz-fusion, but that does not do justice to the band’s repertoire. Its Grammy wins are evidence enough of the weakness of this classification: one for best R&B performance for the group’s orchestration and performance of Lalah Hathaway’s “Something” (2013), and two for best contemporary instrumental album for “Sylva” (2015) and “Culcha Vulcha” (2016).
“The awards have obviously changed us as a band,” says Michael League, 34, the band’s leader, bassist, most frequent composer and producer. “But not in the way you might think. Each time we’ve won one, it’s encouraged us to feel more free to do whatever the hell we want. I think a lot of the time that people attract attention by winning an award, they feel the pressure to please and say, ‘OK, we need to create something that’s going to make everyone happy.’ Often that means the music goes to the lowest common denominator and artistically things get sacrificed.
“We’ve taken the exact opposite approach. I think that’s the responsibility of the artist; the more attention you have, the more responsibility you have to do what it is you believe in and love, even if people don’t love it.”
The band’s latest album, “Immigrance,” is evidence of that philosophy, at once diverse and eclectic but darker, slower and more introverted than any the group has released to date. The eight-track record opens with “Chonks,” a jaunty guitar- and clavinet- heavy composition written by League, moving through “Coven,” with its subdued brass and soporific lyricism, to “Xavi,” inspired by chaabi music native to Morocco, before concluding with “Even Us,” moored to the seductive grooves of Turkish percussion and featuring League playing the oud.
“I think we wanted something more analog than ‘Culcha Vulcha,'” says League. “Going into it, I knew I wanted a sound that had a little more air and a little more hair. I feel like ‘Culcha Vulcha’ sounds pretty clean, and for ‘Immigrance’ I wanted it to smell a little funny. Warmer, more drive.”
Musicality aside, it is hard to ignore the undertone of politics in an album released in 2019 named “Immigrance” and, though League says the name isn’t in direct reaction to recent events in his native United States, he’s perfectly aware of the implications of the album’s title.
“In naming the record ‘Immigrance,’ I wasn’t unaware of what’s going on. And it’s a subject that concerns me hugely; I think it’s an appropriate time to have a record with a name like that,” he says. “But I only chose the name after all the tracks had been mixed and I knew what it was going to sound like. Then I observed the record and said, ‘OK, how does it make me feel, what does it seem to be about?'”
“I noticed, ‘Oh wow, this tune is really influenced by our trip to Morocco, or this one is influenced by the time I spent living in Turkey, or these tunes are funky but incorporate elements from subgenres the band didn’t learn till we were older,'” he adds. “And I was struck by this idea that we as human beings are constantly moving, constantly becoming a new version of ourselves, leaving an older version of ourselves behind, and that is very much what an immigrant does.”
As with “Culcha Vulcha” before it, “Immigrance” is a departure from the band’s usual live-recording model. For the majority of the band’s recent records, they’ve been recorded and filmed in front of a live audience, sat interspersed between band members for an immersive experience. By contrast, “Culcha Vulcha” and “Immigrance” have been studio records, still mostly recorded live, but with the opportunity for overdubs and greater creative control beyond the initial performance. The results show in the two records — they both sound tighter, more engineered, but also lack some of the spirit and crowd interaction that made the band’s early albums so listenable.
“I don’t think we’ll do another studio album for a long time,” says League. “It’s kinda cool, when you play a bunch of live shows and do a load of live albums, going back into the studio resets the way you think about things, which can be quite healthy. And it also gives you a very accurate idea of your more complete musicianship versus just your ability to play live, because in the studio you’re able to do overdubs and utilize more of your skills. But I think the live sound is more who we are, it’s more of our essence. The studio thing is a fun treat for us.”
On stage at Kawasaki’s Club Citta this month, Snarky Puppy demonstrated its full chops, not only the members’ precocious musical talent, both as individuals and as an ensemble, but their stage craft too: The group remains one of the few instrumental bands that inspires its audience to dance along like they’re at a Cypress Hill gig, hands in the air, bopping to the beat.
It’s partly due to the charisma of the performers — both League and keyboard player Shaun Martin spur on the crowd throughout, and take great joy in doing so — but also due to the nature of the music, which combines virtuosic solos and musicianship with moments of pure serenity. And then there’s the sheer catchiness of the tunes. It’s instrumental music that you can actually sing along to, and audiences frequently do.
So where does Snarky Puppy go from here? Maintaining a 19-strong band is no mean feat and combined with League’s relentless energy, whatever comes next has to make its mark.
The band’s most ambitious project to date was its 2015 album “Sylva,” for which it turned to the Netherlands’ Metropole Orkest to record an album live with full orchestral accompaniment. However, League has his eyes fixed firmly forward.
“We’ll probably make the next record for the end of 2021, beginning of 2022, and it’ll be more ambitious than ever. It’s going to be a beast if we do it the way I want to do it. We probably won’t, though, and that would be smart — we wouldn’t lose a ton of money — but the vision’s there.”
First, though, League plans to release his debut solo album, on which he’ll sing and play all the instruments.
“The challenge is to write something I think I’d be the best person to play every instrument for. Because there’s so many people who are better than me, who are friends of mine,” he says. “But when you write a song a certain way, there’s a way you play it which is best, better than anyone else could, so I’m trying to write tunes with that in mind.”
Snarky Puppy will return to Japan in September. For more information, visit snarkypuppy.com.