“You can try it here but you’re crazy and it’s not gonna work.”
That’s the reaction bassist Michael League, leader of the fusion-minded instrumental collective Snarky Puppy, remembers getting when he first proposed recording an album and concert DVD before a live studio audience at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, in 2009. League was told there was “no way the studio could handle” the number of inputs they’d need to record audio and video for nearly 20 musicians while simultaneously plugging 30 audience members into the mix so they could listen, too.
The band went through with it anyway, picking up friends in Lafayette and driving them in the school bus that served as their tour bus to Maurice, where a Cajun chef pal was preparing dinner for the whole group.
The cozy DIY vibe frayed a bit when it came time to record.
“Equipment was smoking in between songs, shit was getting ready to catch on fire,” League recalled with a laugh during a recent phone interview. ”Everything was falling apart. It’s a miracle that it worked.”
Miracle or not, that kind of tenacity and openness to creative risks has informed Snarky Puppy’s approach since League formed the band with fellow music students at the University of North Texas in 2004. Their sound veers between jazz and funk, stripped-down rock, electronics- steeped neo-soul and R&B and West African grooves. It’s all delivered with a technical precision and playful showmanship that belies the difficulty of blending so many styles.
League, a prolific producer who also runs his own label, GroundUP, writes and arranges most of the music—which in this group can mean charts for two dozen instruments.
Then there are the guests: The more challenging and seemingly incongruous, the better—and in some cases, the more celebrated. Their collaboration with soul singer Lalah Hathaway on 2013’s Family Dinner—Volume 1 earned them a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. Their work with the Dutch symphony orchestra Metropole Orkest, on 2015’s Sylva, won them a Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.
When they recorded Family Dinner—Volume 2 at New Orleans’ Esplanade Studios during Mardi Gras last year, their roster included titans like David Crosby and the Afro-pop singer Salif Keita, plus an expanded band featuring Terence Blanchard, Brian Coogan, Mike Dillon and the Soul Rebels’ Ed Lee, among other New Orleans–based artists.
For those special charity-focused projects, League arranged original compositions by each guest that, in his words, “flipped [the song] on its head.”
“The idea is to re-imagine these songs in a way that brings out the essence of the artist but also reflects the sound of Snarky Puppy,” he explained.
To that end, Crosby’s “Somebody Home,” a raw and beautiful “apology from all men to all women,” builds to a slow burn as spare keyboards and hushed percussive motifs play off Crosby’s voice and guitar, adding a quiet strength to match the song’s message.
The guest-packed projects have also helped usher in numerous number one chart placements, sold-out shows and a stream of love- them-or-hate-them critiques in the press (detractors have argued they lack a cohesive voice or don’t live up to the fusion standard set by the Weather Report).
League admits the sudden uptick in exposure feels strange after he and his colleagues spent years quietly doing their thing without making much industry noise. That wariness may have contributed to his decision to do an about-face on their forthcoming album, a funk and Afrobeat–laced exploration of layered grooves with fewer virtuosic solos and more understated warmth than some of their other recent material.
“We hadn’t made a studio record since 2009, so going into a studio with no cameras, no audience, no live pressure or logistical stress, to just go and make a record and make sure everything’s right … we don’t get the luxury of doing that when we record live,” League said, adding that the disc reflects “a return … to who we really are.”
“It was a bonding thing for the guys too, to be together and be creative,” he continued, his voice elevating over a crackled din of flight announcements at a Florida airport.
Like other elements of their pre-hit days, Snarky Puppy’s school bus / tour van has been retired.
Fresh off a trip to Los Angeles to accept their latest Grammy, League had just finished mixing a new album for David Crosby, one of 16 releases his label expects to drop this year. He noted that his bandmates are prolific creators of new music, too. Scanning the laps of the musicians who flanked him as we spoke, he said one was working on a solo album and another was learning new music for another gig.
“This generation of musicians was brought up basically being told that it’s harder now than ever to survive as a creative musician, which I think is true. So we were all kind of indoctrinated with this fatalistic mentality,” League explained.
“But the guys that are in my band were like, ‘Fuck it,’” he said with an audible note of pride. “I mean, if we’re gonna starve to death anyway, we might as well do it doing something we love.”