After a highly successful sell-out run of shows at New York City’s Irving Plaza over New Year’s, I had the special opportunity to catch up with Mike League, the band leader and bassist of Brooklyn’s Snarky Puppy. With Snarky Puppy’s revolving cast of about 40 different musicians, League is the nucleus that keeps the band together and drives the group forward. He’s a graduate of the University of North Texas, where he attended its Jazz Studies program for four years. While in school League met the original members of Snarky Puppy and thereafter formed the band in 2004. Since their inception Snarky Pappy has performed over 1,200 different times on six different continents. In addition to popular appeal, the band has garnered considerable critical acclaim and have even earned a nomination for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in February. If Snarky brings the award back to Brooklyn, this will mark the band’s third Grammy in four years.
I personally admire Snarky Puppy for breathing fresh new life into jazz music. I grew up playing the alto sax and naturally love jazz, so I appreciate everything Mike’s ensemble has done to make the genre hip again. For friends who don’t typically listen to this type of music, Snarky Puppy is the perfect gateway into jazz. In further efforts to support and promote the genre, League launched his imprint GroundUP Music in 2012 under the umbrella of indy label Ropeadope Records. Upon its creation, he signed eight artists including Banda Magda, Bill Laurance, and the Funky Knuckles. After a few years of rapid growth, GroundUP went fully independent in 2016 and forged a unique partnership with Universal Music that grants GroundUP musicians artistic freedom with access to the resources of the Universal distribution giant.
In 2017 Mike will usher his label to a new level of success with the debut of the GroundUP Music Festival. The three-day event will take place from February 10th – 12th at the picturesque North Beach Bandshell in Miami Beach, Florida. The star-studded lineup boasts several musicians and bands from the GroundUP roster like David Crosby, Snarky Puppy (3x), and Banda Magda, as well as unaffiliated virtuosos like the Punch Brother’s Chris Thile, four time Grammy Award-winner Esperanza Spalding, and Jeff Coffin of the Dave Matthews Band.(tickets) We’re currently running a “Golden Ticket” contest for GroundUP with a grand prize of 2x airfare to the festival, 2x hotel accommodations, 2x VIP festival passes, and much more. Enter the contest here (closes this Friday). Finally, Snarky Puppy-mates Cory Henry (tickets) and Bill Laurance (tickets) are scheduled to play two separate shows in February at The Hall at MP in Brooklyn. Find more information below, and enjoy the interview!
CEG: Hey Mike – thanks for taking some time to answer a few questions ahead of your inaugural GroundUP Music Festival in February. To kick things off here, we wanted to congratulate you and the ensemble for its third Grammy nomination for Culcha Vulcha! How did it feel when you first learned of this landmark achievement, and what advice would you impart to aspiring musicians striving to enter the Grammy conversation?
Mike League: Thank you so much! I was actually sitting in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel when I heard the news, so it wasn’t the most romantic of circumstances. Even though this is our third nomination in four years, it never stops being a surprise to me. And this is particularly special because the record is a real Snarky Puppy album, not a special project like Sylva or Family Dinner – Volume One. As far as advice goes, I can only speak to the path which lead us there- not caring about popularity, awards, or accolades. If you’re making music in order to be recognized, I think you’ve already sealed your fate. Awards are supposed to recognize art. Art is not supposed to be made to win trophies or garner good reviews. I think if you do what you love and in the way you love to do it, you’ll end up making better music anyway. So in that way, the irony is that you’re more likely to be recognized if you don’t care about being recognized.
CEG: How would you describe Culcha Vulcha, and how does it compare to previous Snarky Puppy projects?
ML: I think it’s a great snapshot of where the band is in this moment. It really goes all around the world in terms of influence, but it has a character of patience, restraint, sonic exploration, and darkness that our previous albums lack. As we continue on this very strange journey, our collective taste is moving more towards nice sounds, nice grooves, and nice melodies rather than explosive solos, bombastic moments, and intellectualism.
CEG: How does Snarky Puppy approach the process of crafting its live performance and set list?
ML: I normally start with the first few tunes written down, and then just start calling songs on the fly based on the audience that night. I try my best to balance between crowd-pleasers and ear-stretchers. To me, a show should be like an album – a story, a journey. Because so much is left to chance, I don’t always do the best job of making this happen, but it’s gotten better as time goes on.
CEG: You founded your independent record label, GroundUP Music, in 2012. What plans does GroundUP have for 2017?
ML: GroundUP is in the middle of a massive and very exciting transition. Streaming has basically destroyed digital download and physical album sales, so we’ve come up with a very ambitious plan to create an alternative platform that both provides music lovers with engaging content and supports the artists who create it. Our manager describes it as “a Disneyland for music lovers.” We’ll be building the interface throughout the year and launching in 2018. Meanwhile, we’ll be releasing albums from the great Becca Stevens, world music ensemble Banda Magda, instrumental quartet FORQ, Montreaux Jazz Vocal Competition winner Alina Engibaryan, pedal steel icon Roosevelt Collier, Swedish electro-jazz-pop artist Sirintip, and the first band I’ve started since Snarky Puppy, called Bokanté. It’s a mixture of West African music, delta blues, and Led Zeppelin (sort of) featuring Caribbean vocalist Malika Tirolien, Roosevelt Collier on steel guitars, percussionists Jamey Haddad (Paul Simon, Sting), André Ferrari (Väsen), and Keita Ogawa (Yo-Yo Ma, Dominic Farinacci), guitarists Chris McQueen and Bob Lanzetti (Snarky Puppy), a rotating bassist, and myself on baritone electric guitar. The album comes out in May and we’ll be touring throughout the U.S. in June (including a date with Umphrey’s McGee at Red Rocks), Europe in July, Australia in March, and possibly Japan and South America as well.
CEG: With the overall collective, collaborative nature of Snarky Puppy and GroundUP Music, it seems like it was only a matter of time before a festival was organized. How long has this idea for next month’s GroundUP Music Festival been in the works, and how did it come to fruition?
ML: The idea of starting a music festival has been in my mind for many years, but I never really thought of it as realistic until Andy Hurwitz, who’s the president of our record label GroundUP Music, suggested it last year. He seemed confident and comfortable and felt like this was the right moment in the band’s career where we could host something like this. So, I rolled with it. We don’t know exactly how it will be other than there will be a lot of great music, but we will do our best to create the perfect environment for this kind of event.
CEG: For the event’s lineup, you drew from a number of artists in the GroundUP family, which means that guests are in for an eclectic, diverse weekend of music. What acts are you most excited about?
ML: Because we handpicked every single artist on the festival, I would say that I’m equally excited about everyone. I’m not just saying that to be diplomatic. The thing that all of these artists have in common is not only are] they great musicians, but they’re great live performers. I think there are a lot of different ways of making music, you know? You could be great at making records but not great at playing live. All these artists are so great live and there really isn’t anyone that I’d rather see more than anyone else. I think for me, it’s all just great music.
CEG: What can we look forward to at GroundUp Music Festival?
ML: You can look forward to beautiful music from every single act on the bill in a wide variety of genres and styles. Beautiful weather, incredible oceanic backdrop on the beach, tasty food from all local, independent vendors, and I would say seeing great performances from artists you know and from artists you don’t. You’ll discover new music and hear nonstop music from 1pm to 4am with the after parties. There will be special events that allow the audience to engage with the performers rather than just watch them, including panels, Q&A’s, and master classes to even scavenger hunts. I think it will be a kind of really 360 experience for festival guests; we’re trying to create a paradise really.
CEG: After the festival, Snarky Puppy has a massive European Tour in 2017 with over 30 scheduled gigs across the continent. Which city are you most excited to explore and perform in?
ML: It sounds cliché, but we genuinely enjoy each experience. Every city and audience has their personality, and we try to dive in headfirst. With the wrong attitude, touring can feel like the movie Groundhog Day. With the right one, it feels like a paid vacation around the world. We do our best to engage with local musicians, food, and culture in each place we visit. That said, we’ve never been to Hungary, and I’m excited about checking out the scene there for the first time.