“Chaos Inside of Order”

Snarky Puppy’s Michael League on genre, jam sessions, Grammy wins, and the group’s Around-The-Globe tour.


Natalie Manley

Snarky Puppy performs at Riviera Theatre in Chicago.

By Natalie Manley, Head Arts Editor

Michael League, composer and band leader of the self-proclaimed genre-defying instrumental “quasi-collective” Snarky Puppy, sat down with The Maroon to chat about the group’s fifth Grammy win, current tour, and most recent live studio album Empire Central.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chicago Maroon (CM): I’m gonna start off [by asking], you know, with four Grammy wins in your pocket with Snarky Puppy and having played all over the world, you guys have already accomplished so much. I’m curious, what’s next for the group? What are you working on? What’s exciting?

Michael League (ML): Right now we’re on—I don’t want to sound like a jerk—but I think we just won our fifth, just so that when you write… But our website probably hasn’t even updated yet. That might be fine. I’ll communicate that to our manager. But, you know, it’s been amazing. This is our first tour, really, since…this is our first American tour since the album’s been out. And this year we’re going to South America, we’re going to Asia and Australia and New Zealand. So it’s a big year for us, mostly playing this new music that came out in September. That’s the goal. Because that music is so fresh, we’re not writing new music yet. But that’s where we’re at right now.

CM: Right. Awesome. And what are you looking forward to most on tour, like where are you most excited to play, for example?

ML: I can’t say there’s a favorite place, because every place is different, every place is cool. We haven’t been to South America in a long time, so I’m excited about going there. I love it down there. Every night for us is a different musical experience. We try to change everything every night. Sometimes the best shows are in cities that maybe are not thought of as the most amazing places on earth. But it just depends on how the band’s feeling and what happens on a musical level, you know?

CM: Awesome. Yeah. And I guess on that note, what’s your favorite song or thing to play live, or your favorite thing about playing live?

Snarky Puppy guitarist Bob Lanzetti (Left) and Bandleader Michael League (Right) performing at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago. (Natalie Manley)

ML: For me, it’s just seeing how the music changes, seeing what happens. That’s my favorite part of playing. There’s no favorite song or anything, because any song has the potential to go in different directions every night.

CM: So Empire Central was recorded in a live studio format, right? How do you feel about that format and sort of capturing something that’s happening live that is just in that moment, as opposed to with a studio recording or something like that?

ML: We’ve found that to be the most representative way of capturing Snarky Puppy on record: combining that very high-quality studio sound—because you have so much control—with the live energy that comes with playing in front of people, versus just playing in a kind of cold, isolated studio setting where you can get overly focused on perfection instead of on communication, you know?

CM: Right. You mentioned communication and I think in other interviews, you talked a lot about collaboration—what does that word mean to you and a group like Snarky Puppy?

ML: Collaboration or communication?

CM: Both? Yeah, collaboration is sort of what I was going off of, but communication also works.

ML: In terms of collaboration, I think we’re always collaborating. People are always collaborating: whenever there are two people, or more, anywhere, they’re collaborating, you know? I think the word has become very buzzy over the last five years, “collabs” and blah, blah. But it’s like, I’m collaborating with the members of my band. Right? And if we have a guest singer sing with us, they’re collaborating with the band, but they’re also collaborating with every individual member. I don’t see it as so different when someone from outside of the band comes and plays with us; I don’t see that as a different thing. I think that Snarky Puppy’s strength is working together, whether that’s working together with the other members of the band or working together with people who aren’t members, you know?

CM: Right. Do you know off the top of your head how many musicians are featured on Empire Central? I know it’s a lot. You guys are a big group…

ML: Nineteen.

CM: Yeah, 19. And for that many people, as the bandleader and composer in some ways, what is it like composing for a group that large, but then also balancing individuals’ creativity and ideas and things like that?

ML: Yeah, that’s the delicate balance in Snarky Puppy. There will always be this idea of “How do we give people enough room and freedom to be themselves and to express themselves while still creating music that is easily accessible and understandable and digestible and kind of like, concise and to the point?” Like, lean in a certain sense. You know? Because it’s very easy when you give a lot of human beings, individual freedom that things get kind of convoluted and messy and chaotic. This is our daily challenge. How do we make a 20-piece band—or if we’re onstage, a 10- or 11-piece band—sound as tight and unified as a trio, but with so many more colors available in our palette? Because we have so many different instruments and so many different people. That’s the daily challenge. It’s a blast.

CM: That’s awesome. And you mentioned accessibility… Do you think a band like Snarky Puppy is accessible to people? Have you found that people kind of come to your music from all different places? Or is it more of a certain kind of fanbase or fan group?

ML: No, no, it’s very, very diverse. In terms of age, race, gender, we go to different parts of the world. In some cities, our crowd is 70 percent female. In some cities, our crowd is 80 percent Black and in other places it’s 80 percent white. And I mean, we go to whatever, Colombia or something. And the crowd is very different from when we go to Japan. Obviously. But, yeah, it’s funny. Sometimes in the front row you see people wearing a Meshuggah shirt or a Suicidal Tendencies shirt, and they’re standing next to someone who’s wearing a David Crosby shirt standing next to someone who’s wearing a Tupac shirt. You know? Because we’re pulling from so many different genres in what we do, I think that people who are attracted to those genres are attracted to certain elements of what we do. I think it does reach people.

CM: Right. And you mentioned genre. And I think your website sort of talks about how you as a band—Snarky Puppy as a band—kind of tries to resist genre classification. So I have a fun challenge: If you were to describe either Snarky Puppy or Empire Central as an album without referring to genre or any musical tradition, how would you go about that?

ML: I just wouldn’t. I think there’s a lot of music that’s being made today that is not easily put in a genre. Just anything that I would say would be a lie in a certain moment. If I said it’s funk, it’s like, yeah, but 60 percent of the songs on that record are not actually funk or funky. And if I said it’s rock, 90 percent of those songs are not rock. So it just wouldn’t be accurate. It’s not that I don’t want to be in a genre. It’s not like I think I’m “too cool” for genres. It just wouldn’t be accurate. Because we’re dipping into a lot of different stuff that doesn’t make us any better or any worse than any other band. It’s just what we do. I would just say that it’s instrumental music. Because that’s what it is.

CM: Right. And sometimes it’s not even always that.

ML: Right! Sometimes not even that. Right. You have Family Dinner, [which features] singers too. That’s why I think it’s kind of like an exercise in futility, and it’s just kind of unnecessary! I think the most accurate thing to say would be that we combine various genres of Black American music with influences from different musical traditions from around the world. I think that’s accurate. Sometimes we think [in terms of genre], sometimes we don’t.

CM: Yeah. A question on that note is: What do you think people love about your music? Or what do you love about your music?

ML: I can’t really speak for anybody else. I have no idea. What I like about it is that the songs can be played with zero improvisation and tell a story. But when we improvise, and when we change things on the fly, that story just gets richer, and that allows us to play songs hundreds of times and not get bored of them—which is important when you’re on tour for seven months in a year, to not get sick of what you’re playing. It’s not like we have one set list that we play every night in the same way. We try to never play the same set twice. If we play one song on Tuesday night and then we play that song again on Wednesday, which doesn’t happen super often, then we make sure that the soloists are different. We make sure the song starts differently, so that kind of combination of having chaos inside of order is what I like most.

CM: I love that phrase: “chaos inside of order.” Cool. And then, as a composer or even a musician, what inspires you or who inspires you?

ML: As a composer?

CM: Or when you’re playing. Either works.

ML: Um, I mean, god. So many. I listen to a lot of music, you know? A lot of people inspire me. Modern artists, old-school artists. I probably listen to more old music than I listen to new music, but I do listen to a lot of new music too. I think for everybody in the band, inspiration comes from different places and different people. And we have some collective influences, but we also have some individual ones. But maybe one of the bigger ones for this band would probably be… I don’t even want to name anybody because as soon as I name somebody, then I feel bad for not naming another person. So I would just say we listen to a lot of music.

CM: Yeah, nice. I guess this also involves naming people, so if you don’t want to do it, feel free not to. But if you were to put together, with the band and yourself or whoever, a jam session, who are you inviting? It could be someone dead or alive. You said you listen to a lot of old music, so if you could just get people in a room and play music, who would you want in there?

ML: Well… Oh my god. There’s too many options. Because also I don’t know what kind of session I’d want it to be, you know? Would I invite Mozart and Mingus and other “innovators”? Or would I invite my favorite improvisers? I don’t know! That’s a tough question. Sorry, I’m not giving great answers, but once you open up that door, it gets so hard to be specific, because it inherently becomes exclusive. You know?

CM: I mean, I would love to see Mozart and Mingus in the same room. That’d be crazy. Yeah. And I know we only have 20 minutes, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. But I guess the last question that I have, and this is sort of personal, but in addition to doing all this journalism stuff, I also run a music show with the same co-writer who’s working with me called Stank Face City. And we just play songs that sort of have these “stank face” moments in them and explain what those are, why we felt that way. So I was going to ask, I have my own from Empire Central, but what are some moments off of that album that you would call “stank face moments” or just moments that were super exciting for you?

ML: Stank face moments… maybe the verse groove in “Keep It on Your Mind”? Maybe, “Mean Green” is pretty stank face. Maybe the drum break in “Mean Green”? The Bobby Sparks the solo at the end of “RL’s”? Those are probably the stankiest moments for me.

CM: Yeah, absolutely. I was going to add the bass clarinet solo on “Cliroy.”

ML: On “Cliroy,” right. Yeah.

CM: Awesome. Well, do you have any last things that you want to say to readers at the University of Chicago? Any last thoughts or anything like that? No? Well, I’m excited to see you on Friday at your show in Chicago.

ML: All right, I hope to see you there. Come by the merch table at the end and say hi!

CM: Absolutely! Will do. Thank you so much. Have a great rest of your afternoon.