Snarky Puppy: 'We Absolutely Have The Desire To Do Something New & Fresh'

26 March 2024 | 11:12 am | Steve Bell

Band leader Michael League explains how his instrumental jazz-fusion outfit, Snarky Puppy, will always be its own dog ahead of their appearances at Bluesfest Byron Bay.

Snarky Puppy

Snarky Puppy (Source: Supplied)

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Brooklyn-based jazz-funk collective Snarky Puppy have been thrilling ravenous local audiences for over a decade now and are about to embark on their fifth foray Down Under, including their second time on the Easter bill of Bluesfest Byron Bay.

Formed in Denton, Texas back in 2004 under the guidance of bassist, composer, arranger and producer Michael League, Snarky Puppy today consists of a revolving line-up of almost 20 musicians (although their number of members since the outset these days exceeds 40).

This fluid instrumental jazz-fusion ensemble has released more than a dozen increasingly acclaimed albums over the journey—many of which fuse studio recordings with music captured in the live environment—and have won five Grammy Awards for their efforts.

Even though they’re at the back end of a busy stretch of touring, League admits to being buzzed about returning to Australia, having first made the long trek in 2013 to perform at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

“We’re really looking forward to coming back, especially the coffee lovers in the band; it's like their junkie moment,” he laughs. “We all have a lot of great memories from Australia, especially from our first time coming down and playing in Melbourne. 

“I remember we played at this little club, and it was an absolute blast. We ended up playing several nights in a row; they kept asking us to come back and play a late-night set or whatever; it was great. Those were in the wild old days; it was so fun!”

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Returning to Bluesfest also evokes fond memories for League and the band.

“Oh yeah, we loved our first time at Bluesfest, hence us being happy to come back,” he says. “Above all, it's just incredible to see the other artists that are playing there. You know, the line-up is always so heavy. I got to meet Bonnie Raitt, who's like one of my heroes, and others I’ve long admired, like Mavis Staples. It's incredible, it's great.

“I think everybody's very curious, and we're very inspired by different genres and different perspectives on how to create the same form of art, so it’s a wonderful place as both an artist and a music fan.”

Even though their studio work is so lauded, it’s in the live realm where Snarky Puppy are really in their element, their mixture of traditional music tropes with sonic and conceptual innovation appealing to chin-strokers and party heads in equal measure.

“When we play live, we play differently every night,” League reflects. “So, you'll hear a song that you know but played in a way that will only exist for that moment, and that's really fun.

“Anything goes, everything’s allowed. But I think the band is mature enough to improvise, like each individual improvises in a way that still serves the song and the message of the song, and it's not random, arbitrary improvisation, you know, it's very informed. 

“As long as the improvisation is informed, there's really no limit to it. So, the tempo can be different, the musical style can be different, like, anything can be different. We try to keep it open so that we can be surprised every night.”

Watching Snarky Puppy rip it up onstage, it seems that League is still calling the shots to a degree, but he explains that it’s not so cut and dry.

“Oh no, no, no, everybody has equal power on the stage to improvise and to push the music wherever they want to push it,” he tells. “I mean, I think what I do is generally just kind of like I'm a traffic cop, you know? It's like wherever it feels like the traffic wants to flow, I just confirm it and direct it. But, yeah, it's always based on what people are doing and feeling onstage.”

While huge swathes of the jazz oeuvre are non-vocal, it still seems remarkable how much emotion Snarky Puppy manage to convey using solely instrumental music.

“At the beginning, it was a challenge,” League admits. “When you don't have lyrics, you have to work maybe a little harder to communicate ideas in a way that they'll be understood by an audience. But that's become who we are, so now it's not so much of a challenge anymore. I feel like it's just part of who we are and what we do.”

League is quick to quell any assumptions that, despite their live penchant for improvisation, there’s any scope for such hi-jinks in the studio. 

“No, there's no jamming,” he states emphatically. “Every Snarky Puppy song is a song that was composed generally by a single person who wrote all the parts and everything and sent an audio demo, and then everybody learns the audio demo and then we come in and rehearse it.

“I mean, people obviously give their input at certain junctures - maybe when we're rehearsing, you’d say, ‘Maybe it would be cool if we tried this blah blah blah’ - but they're not co-composing they're just like co-arranging, maybe.”

Not many bands can lay claim to having a unique sound, but Snarky Puppy definitely fall into that category, a result League reckons came about partly by design and partly by happenstance.

“It's both, it's definitely both,” he grins. “I mean, I think we have, we absolutely have, the desire to do something new and fresh. But also, the best way, in my opinion, to do something new and fresh is by looking at what you have in front of you in terms of the musical personalities, which are unique anyway, just like every human is unique. 

“So, it's more about bringing that out rather than trying to, like, conform these unique personalities to be something that already exists, if that makes any sense.

“I think everybody has the opportunity to express themselves in a certain way at every moment, you know, but most of the time that's still serving the song. There’s definitely a lot of intuition involved.”

Snarky Puppy will perform at Bluesfest Byron Bay on 29 and 30 March. You can find tickets to the festival here.