The five-time Grammy award-winning band Snarky Puppy will perform at Roadrunner in Boston to promote their newest album, “Empire Central” (2022), on April 8. Bandleader and bassist Michael League formed the band in 2004 after failing to place into any of the ensembles at the University of North Texas. Rather than give up, League created Snarky Puppy as a way to play music. Since then, Snarky Puppy has been acclaimed by critics with five Grammy wins and loved by a passionate worldwide audience.
Although frequently referred to as a “jazz fusion” band, Snarky Puppy’s style is difficult to simplify into a word. Drawing inspiration from countless musical genres and constantly evolving, the only certainty of listening to Snarky Puppy is that something will sound familiar while also being completely new.
The Daily recently got the chance to sit down with Michael League, chatting all things “Empire Central,” his approach to leading a band and the lifestyle of an artist.
While the band holds international membership and prides itself on musical diversity and freshness, the connecting tissue is their link to Dallas, Texas. Initially influenced by traditional jazz greats Pat Metheney, Bill Evans and Miles Davis, the band found its heart and soul by working in the Dallas R&B and hip-hop scene. Its latest album, “Empire Central,” circles fully back to these Dallas roots.
“As far as the band’s roots go, Texas and Dallas specifically are it,” League said. “This is an attempt to reconnect with what that is, to reflect on the journey that we’ve been on for the last couple of decades, and to reinforce the foundation before we go on to more adventurous things.”
In making a Texas-centric album, League sought not only to highlight the history of the band, but also shed a limelight on the state’s underappreciated music and jazz music scene.
“Texas is underrepresented as a music culture in terms of visibility,” League said. “Cities like New York, or New Orleans, or LA, Chicago, they maybe advertise a little more. [They] advertise their roots and where they’re from. Texans, especially Texan musicians, tend to be very laid back. … Above all, Texas’s jazz heritage … has not been as visible as it should be. If you look at the landscape today of the people who have changed the shape of jazz over the last 25 years, you find a disproportionate number of Texans. … These people have all changed the way that we play and listen to jazz-based music, and I wanted to salute that with this album.”
But saluting does not mean imitating, and maintaining the band’s innovative identity remains important.
“We’re not doing anything traditional on this record,” League remarked. “We’re being ourselves. I wrote a shuffle, but it doesn’t sound like a Texas shuffle. … We take elements of folk music or traditional music and process them through our filter.”
In “Empire Central,” Snarky Puppy tries to bring attention to other Texan musicians, but League himself embodies the laid back and humble Texan musician vibe. As bandleader, League does not put himself above anyone else in either the inner workings of the band or their public persona. The group’s identity is Snarky Puppy, not League’s band.
“There’s a really great Béla Fleck quote about the Flecktones where he said, ‘I consider myself a leader among equals,’ and I think that’s a really nice way to describe my approach as well,” League said. “I feel like you get a better musical result from people when they feel totally free to play and do as they wish, and when they feel invested in the thing. That they feel that it is their band. … They feel very much a part of a thing in which they’re valued and not like a replaceable part.”
League went on to say, “I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want to be visible. I don’t want to be the focus of attention. … You treat people with respect, and you give them a space to express themselves, both musically and otherwise, and people give a lot of their heart.”
Such a communal approach to leadership manifests in “Empire Central,” where 12 of the 16 songs on the album were written by band members other than League. As an individual artist, League advocates for a respect of the self similar to the respect he gives others in group artistry.
“People celebrate the stress of being so busy and having so many things to do, and blah, blah, blah. … It’s okay to not be stressed. It’s okay to not have too much to do. It’s okay to do everything you do very well and not do too much, to have some kind of headroom to enjoy your life and to not just have it be flying by you,” League said. “I think the concept that an artist has to be tortured to do interesting and cool things is a very, very unhealthy and counterproductive stereotype. … I think in general, we just have to get rid of this attitude of struggle, and torture and sacrifice [being] the only way that you can create meaningful things.”
League’s heartfelt and conscientious approach to leadership and art clearly reflects in his music and in the success of Snarky Puppy, a band which even after 19 years continues to redefine itself and prove its relevance within the music world.