There's a pivotal experience that all music students can identify with: finding time between classes or other responsibilities to flock to the band room and make impromptu music. Sometimes these spontaneous bursts of creativity with friends remain just that, jam sessions that are tucked away as soon as the lunch bell rings. Sometimes they become the determinant of your career. And maybe if you pocket those moments of authentic, fluid content, you might land yourself a few studio albums (and Grammy Awards) along the way.
Michael League had no idea what would happen when he set off to study music after high school.
He tells me over video chat from Spain, where he currently resides and makes music, about how his future played out. His plans for freshman year were drastically altered before he even set foot on a college campus. Having accepted admission elsewhere to study guitar, changes in government funding following the 9/11 terrorist attacks caused his, and many other schools, to cut their music study programs. League scrambled to gain admission late in the year, and found it in the University of North Texas to study bass—despite having only played for a year. “It’s pretty safe to say I was the worst bass player there,” he says chuckling, “but I just wanted an excuse to play in a band.”
This excuse presented itself as Snarky Puppy, the band League formed after his freshman year with several musicians studying alongside him. Meeting once a week at his place, the band began they formative years playing church gigs and trying all attempts to broadcast they name before the publicized use of streaming and virtual fame. He describes that time as an organic, steady incline as they continued to produce content. Music journalists and fans alike find it difficult to place their sound in one specific genre, when even the band’s website shuts down the terms jazz and fusion.
Despite embodying the energetic spirit of teenagers messing around in the band room, League is passionate about dedicating time toward talent and production. He specifically articulates the value of the album as a creator. “I like to get into the flow of a unified piece of work, I like to be told a story through that. I think a lot of people in younger generations are not so much into that, because they grew up in an age of streaming and singles.”
The band has put out several studio albums recorded in front of a live audience, as League quickly realized the organic setting drew people into the instrumental aspect. A Youtube video of the group performing “Lingus,” one of their most recognizable pieces, has amassed over 20 million views. It is nearly 11 minutes long and exhibits the very nature of the band—with head bobs and energetic facial expressions alike. Like much of their music, the band's chart takes the listener through several jazz and funk infused melodies, adorned with guitar licks and drum patterns unrecognizable in the fusion canon.
As the band shuffled through various sounds and grooves for over a decade, recent years have brought them full–fledged exposure outside of their niche. In 2014, their project with Lalah Hathaway on “Family Dinner–Volume One” won the Grammy Award for “Best R&B Performance." They would later receive two more for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.” One of the prominent factors of Snarky Puppy’s innovation, according to League, is their democratic writing sessions. Each member of the band brings in a song they’ve written for others to offer advice on, and the ability to constructively build on an idea as a whole is the key to their ever–changing sound.
“Mentally, how we look at ourselves as a group, I feel like it still has a very, very young energy,” League explains. The band room trope, the culture of simply jamming out with your best friends after hours, is what keeps fans across generations flocking toward Snarky Puppy’s sound. In the age of the DIY career, where one can place a camera in their childhood bedroom and attain a living off of it, instrumental music is not at the forefront. But genuine artistry still rings true, and audience members recognize the authentic energy Snarky Puppy exudes in their live performances and Youtube videos alike.
League, as a bandleader and musician, recognized the difficulty in getting ideas heard, and started a record label dedicated to giving unknown artists an opportunity to build an audience. Known as GroundUp Music, he has worked toward bridging the gap between the label and the musician. He does not, however, believe in the antiquated idea that a label is necessary for success. “I don’t think you need one," he tells me. "I mean, I think you just need to figure out a way for people to listen to your music and consume it and labels used to be that; they still are in some ways. But you don’t need one if you can put a video online and have a bunch of people buy your product.”
League closes out our interview with advice for the 18–year–old aspiring musician: “Think about what you want to gain, and do your best to do that, while also staying open for a bunch of other things that might not have been a part of your plan. Take advantage of your environment. You gotta make the time. You just gotta make the time for it, put it in, there’s no replacement for time.” In a culture saturated with creatives pumping out projects, those who put the time in are the ones worth listening to. And Snarky Puppy, throughout all of their years, has proven to be worth the listen.
You can catch Snarky Puppy on tour at The Fillmore on Sept. 4, and may even find League at the merchandise table before the night ends.