The AU Interview: Snarky Puppy (USA)
Snarky Puppy are finally bringing all their sound encompasses to Australian shores to rock the socks off everyone that’s listening at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. To get to know a bit more about the band and what it is that makes them tick and tock, the AU review’s Charly Lindsay got in to a nice deep email conversation with the band about jazz, love and jafunkadancion.
You’re about to play at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. Are you looking forward to headlining the festival?
We’re really, really excited about it. I’ve been receiving messages and emails from Australian fans for at least 2 years, and I’ve always had to tell them the same thing – that we’d love to come, but we need a festival to make it possible. When I received the letter of interest from the MIJF, I thought – FINALLY. I’ve never been Australia and New Zealand, which are the last real places on my bucket list. The continent has such an interesting story, and such incredible geography. I can’t wait to explore it and to meet the people, whom I’ve heard great things about.
Are there any acts at the festival that you really want to check out?
Chucho Valdes, without a doubt. I’ve been a huge fan since childhood. I’m also excited to check out Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue, who I feel are at the forefront of large ensemble composition and arranging. It’s obviously an interest of mine, considering that our band is generally 20+ people deep on albums. And of course, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who is a buddy of ours. We played a gig together in Atlanta last year and quickly got the impression that we were kindred spirits. He’s a beautiful player and person.
Ha! Our percussionist, Nate Werth, spontaneously made up that word in a college workshop as a joke, and for some reason, it keeps popping up in interviews. Never doubt the power of social networking! He was just trying to say that we combine jazz, funk, dance music, and fusion. If I had to call it anything, I’d just call it instrumental music. We do lots of wandering stylistically, so I’d be afraid of offending purists if I put it in a specific category. The band basically just pulls its favourite stuff from loads of different genres and combines them in a way that is specific to our compositional and improvisational sensibilities.
When reading about the band the two general genres that get used to explain your sound are both dance and jazz, which in itself is unusual. Did you intentionally set out to make jazz you could dance to, or is one of those happy coincidences that comes along with genre mashing?
I have a very physical relationship to music. People have been giving me crap my entire life about my body movements and facial expressions during performances. I think it probably comes from the fact that I spent every day of my childhood playing sports. My parents have videos of me dancing in my diapers to Michael Jackson albums at age two. I guess the bottom line is that I love things that make my body move as well as things that stretch my brain. The music is the result of marrying our love of more “artsy” musical traditions with more dance-based styles. Our elevator pitch is that Snarky Puppy plays “music for the brain and booty.”
You improvise a lot in your live shows. Does that get nerve wracking?
Not at all! We’re natural improvisers. I remember having about 65 different excuses for why I didn’t do my homework as a kid. When we have conversations as people, we assemble common vocabulary in our own unique way to communicate ideas. Improvising on stage is no different – we’re just conversing musically. I do understand where you’re coming from… I get a little bit stressed out in environments where the material lacks structure. I like to have a set of parameters within which to improvise, and Snarky Puppy does a good job of balancing structure and freedom.
You have a very different live DVD available to most bands, in that is of you live in the studio. What was behind the decision to create that DVD and let cameras in to the studio?
After making three studio albums, people kept bugging me about making a live album. I’ve never really been a fan of the way live albums sound, so I made a joke that the only live album I would make would be in a studio. Sput, our drummer, looked at me with a stupid grin on his face and I knew that he was right.. so we tried it out. The video element came into play as the result of two factors – audience feedback about how fun we are to watch, and the new popularity of YouTube (and consequently Facebook) as a means of sharing music. I wasn’t sure if it would work, and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. We went from being completely unknown to well-respected underground… from only having fans in the cities we played in to getting daily emails from foreign countries expressing support for our music. The internet is a crazy thing. Really. I still can’t wrap my head around it.
The band combines a lot of different influences, does that create a lot of disagreements or does it just help to join genres to create your own sound?
We almost never disagree as a band. I think it happened more in the beginning, before we really forged a sound of our own. These days, things click so quickly in rehearsal (when we actually rehearse). A guy in the band will bring in a record they discovered, and we all soak it up and process it in our own way. It’s pretty amazing what happens when you play 600+ shows together.
With the collective containing almost 30 musicians, can it be hard to be heard sometimes?
Even though we rarely play with more than 15 musicians, it’s still a lot of dudes. The most important quality that everyone in the group possesses is a sense of respect for the people around them. You can have 150 people on stage and if everyone respects each other and the music being played, there won’t be any toes stepped on. The other dominant trait in the band is humility. The guys really serve the music, never themselves. We each find a lane and we stay in it. If someone steps out, the rest of us compensate and give them space. I think of it as an ecosystem, and ecosystems require balance.
What’s the actual writing process for such a large group?
I write most of the music, but almost everyone in the group has contributed at least one tune. Each song is written – in its entirety – by the composer. They email a demo (normally via Garage Band) to the rest of the band, each member learns every part on their own, and then we meet to rehearse it. During the rehearsal process, we play it exactly like the demo to make sure that we understand the composer’s intent. Then things open up… people make suggestions, modify the original parts to put more personality into them, etc. That’s when the tunes come to life.
Do you find people relate differently to your music in different countries?
Absolutely. It’s crazy! In Scotland, it feels like a P-Funk show. In England, France, Germany, and Holland, the crowds are silent when we’re playing and go nuts in between songs. In Atlanta, it feels like a church service (in a good way). In New Orleans, it feels like a conversation between us and the crowd. In Belgium, it’s a party the whole time. It fascinates me to see how differently people react to the exact same music! We definitely pay attention to it as a band, and allow the crowd to push us in different musical directions. I think that it’s really important to respect the way the audience feels without becoming a slave to it.
You were featured in the New Faces of Jazz book in 2010. How much did that mean to the band and what kind of impact has it had on the success of the band?
It’s hard to tell how much these things actually impact the success of a band, but if nothing else, it was an honor to be in the same company as people like Sonny Rollins and Marcus Miller. That book is really fascinating, and I hope that my interview touched on a relevant topic – being a college-educated White kid from the suburbs playing a Black American artform, and the necessity of immersing yourself in the culture that created the music.
The internet is something that has had a massive impact on the music industry, and it seems to give to musicians on the one hand with things like Band Camp and Pozible, but then take with the other through illegal downloading. How much of an impact do you think that has had on your band and in bigger terms the music industry?
It’s definitely a give-and-take situation. Snarky Puppy’s saving grace is that we’re a live band… we’re playing over 180 shows this year alone. For us, exposure equals ticket and merchandise sales, and that’s where we make the majority of our money. So, the exposure element of “music-sharing” via YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, etc. has been very, very beneficial to us. As for album sales, I’d be lying if I said that illegal music downloading hasn’t hurt us. If every person who has heard our record had bought it, we’d easily be making 10-20 times more money from album sales. It’s a MAJOR problem. But rather than accept it and be negative, we decided to produce a form of media that’s a bit more difficult to burn – DVDs. Lots of people still steal the audio, but at least we can stay afloat selling some physical product. One of the other big technological impacts on the industry as of late is the accessibility of quality home recording.