Michael League: “I think I’m the fourth best bass player on stage most of the time!”

(Image credit: Michael League)

Take a listen to Immigrance, Snarky Puppy’s new album - the Brooklyn collective’s 13th in 14 years - and, as with all its predecessors, you find yourself quickly immersed.

But in what, exactly? The conundrum behind everything that Snarky Puppy does is that it doesn’t sound like anything else. Sure, the basic approach is jazz, but then you come across a song that is nothing like jazz.

Then there’s a dose of electronica and a slab of folk and a chunk of rock, and you eventually come to the conclusion that you can’t file Snarky Puppy away in any convenient category because there isn’t one that fits. They do so much, so well, and with such energy and skill, that you end up simply enjoying their output for what it is - great music.

There’s always new material for you to use as a composer to push yourself forward

While over 40 musicians have passed through the ranks over the years, bassist Michael League is the man in charge. Between stints in the band he works on outside projects with David Crosby and other stellar musicians, as well as running a band called Bokanté, and while bass is definitely a strong suit in the League arsenal, his roles as bandleader, songwriter and general organiser are arguably more crucial to the group’s success.

A fascinating character, then, whose popularity in our world is borne out by his high placing in our recent poll of the planet’s hottest bass players. Let’s meet him...

You’re very prolific. Does it ever feel hard to find new stuff to say?

“There’s always a world of new fodder for inspiration. I try to take as many music lessons as I can, try to learn new instruments, try to dig into styles of folkloric music or whatever that I have never checked out, because there’s a long-embedded history of things that cultures know to be true, like a specific rhythm or a specific melodic phrase that’s been played for 400 years

“As a composer outside of a folkloric tradition, I can pull those elements and base a composition around them. There’s always new material for you to use as a composer to push yourself forward.”

How do you define your music?

“I guess I’m Mr Snarky Puppy to a lot of people, but definitely not to myself. Snarky Puppy is one very niche specific element of my personality. I grew up playing acoustic guitar and singing James Taylor songs, and if you would have asked me at 17 what kind of musician I was, I would say, ‘I’m a guy who plays acoustic guitar and sings James Taylor shit.’”

The ‘Puppy shed

Where does the new Snarky Puppy album fit in the pantheon of your records?

“First off, I don’t think we have a pantheon. I think we have a garden shed or something, like a back house, definitely not classy enough for a pantheon. I had some real panic moments after we got the master, where I sent it to some people in the band and some people outside of the band and I was just like, ‘Please tell me this doesn’t suck.’ I have no idea. 

“For me, it’s a good feeling, because if you’re afraid, then it probably means that there’s some stuff going on with the record that you haven’t done before. But my friends reassured me, and not because they’re my friends. I was like, ‘Really be honest with me’...

“The short answer to your question is that I have no fucking clue. I have no perspective. I don’t know where it sits. I would like to think that it’s more mature. I would like to think that it’s groovier and sounds better and sounds alive, but that’s my goal for every record, so I really don’t know, man.”

What’s the current bass setup?

I’m thinking that I’m the fourth best bass player onstage most of the time

“I play my ’59 Fender, maple neck fingerboard. I have a pedalboard with pretty much all MXR and EarthQuaker pedals. I’ve got a Phase 90, I have the Bass Octave Deluxe, I have the brand new Vintage Bass Octave. It’s a little guy, like the Mini Phase 90. It’s kind of like an OC- 2, but I like it more, and it’s smaller and I dig it.

“I have an MXR Carbon Copy Delay, I have a Moog MF Drive pedal, I have an EarthQuaker Bit Commander, I have an EarthQuaker Dispatch Master, which is like a reverb, a spaced-out reverb and delay pedal, and I have an EarthQuaker Spatial Delivery, which is an envelope filter, a TC Electronic PolyTune, and I have an MXR Mini Volume pedal.

“I love all those pedals dearly and I barely use any of them because it’s just not appropriate most of the time in the band, but for special moments they really are awesome. And I use Jim Dunlop strings and cables.”

You also have a signature Markbass amp.

“The Markbass Casa, yes. I use the 810, but there’s now a 410, also with the gold grill, the Classic Series grill. I am really in love with that amp.”

What’s at the front of your mind when you play bass?

“I’m thinking that I’m the fourth best bass player onstage most of the time. No matter what musical situation I’m in, whether I’m the bandleader or the music director or the underling, sideman, I think like a producer. And I think all of the guys in the band think that way - that when you’re making music onstage, you’re serving music, so you think about being in the audience. You should perpetually be an audience.”

It sounds like a gig for you is a lot of work.

“Yeah, sure. Being a bandleader is a lot of work. With Crosby, too, I’m the music director, so if Croz is talking a lot or something and we have to cut a tune, then I have to think about that. But I don’t mind.

“It used to take me out of the music, and I would have a real hard time playing bass well because I would be caught up in thinking like a leader, and then I would be playing bass as a leader, and that’s the worst way you can play bass. So it took me probably a decade, 12 years, to really start feeling comfortable leading but still sounding like a bass player, sounding like the guy in the back.”

(Image credit: Michael League)

Yes man

Sitting back with the bass, but pushing forward with everything else?

“Yeah, yeah. Not in terms of time feel, but in terms of attitude, like playing relaxed, playing subtly, but then being very assertive verbally or with my gestures to let people know ‘We’re going on to the next section,’ blah, blah, blah. It’s kind of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.”

Do you ever have any downtime?

I like to work. I like to create things. I don’t like saying no. When someone asks me to do something that sounds interesting, I like to say yes

“Not really, no. I like to work. I like to create things. I don’t like saying no. When someone asks me to do something that sounds interesting, I like to say yes. And I’ve taken on a lot of things that are not one-time gigs.

“When you produce a record, you’re done in a month, maybe, or however many months, but when you start a band, it’s like a flower, it’s like a plant. If you want it to flourish you have to water it and give it sunlight and talk to it.

“So now I have two bands. I have Snarky Puppy and Bokanté. And that means that I have to give them love and attention. And we have to go on tour, and we have to make records, so those two things occupy quite a bit of time, and now that my main interest is really producing, it’s actually working, because I can put production gigs in between tours.”

So when do you sit down and write?

“I’ve never made time for myself to write, ever. All the Snarky Puppy shit, I write it the week of the recording sessions, always, like at the last minute or at the studio, which I’ve been doing the last couple of years, just writing the music at night after the sessions.

“It would be nice to make more time. I’m making some changes in my life to try to do that. I just moved, so I think ... we’ll see. I don’t know. Probably I’ll just keep cramming every second of my life with shit, but maybe one day I won’t. That would be nice.”

Is it a stressful existence?

“No. It’s music. I only get stressed out when there’s personal problems. That stresses me out. If two guys in my band are fighting, if someone in our administration fucks something up and somebody gets upset about it, if there’s a misunderstanding - that’s the kind of stuff that stresses me out.

“Deadlines don’t stress me out. Getting work done doesn’t stress me out, being on tour doesn’t stress me out, making records doesn’t stress me out. It’s just only human problems stress me out.”

Also, working with such a large ensemble is not easy.

“No, but you know what? I’ve seen duos or trios that are 10 times more dysfunctional than our organisation. The guys are great in the band, and our administrative team and our record label, everyone that works there, they’re awesome. I’m very lucky.”

(Image credit: Michael League)

Improvement mindset

Do you still need to make any profound changes to get where you want to go?

“I think we have a very cool infrastructure set up. I always think everything needs improvement. I think the band needs to get better. I think the label needs improvement. I think I need improvement as a player, and as a composer. Everybody needs improvement. I think the infrastructure is good. I think it’s solid, and importantly I think the people care. I think they’re trustworthy.”

So you’re in a good place?

I’m now producing records for artists from around the world that I love and respect

“I think I’ve put myself personally on a path that I like, which is that I’m now producing records for artists from around the world that I love and respect, especially from folkloric traditions, which is really what inspires me the most. And one of my bands is sustainable; the other one hopefully will be soon.

“We have a record label and a festival and those are advocating for unknown artists. I think if nothing changed but everything just got a little better every year, I would be able to die with a smile on my face.

“Right now it seems like it’s producing records and running these bands, having the label, having the festival, but God knows what will happen. Maybe I’ll want to become a music journalist or something, I don’t know.”

Here’s a question I ask everyone, because it reveals an awful lot about people. Do you think you’re a good bass player?

“I think if I understand what’s supposed to happen musically in that specific situation, then I think that I’m capable of playing the bass in a way that supports the music.

“I mean, obviously I’m not virtuosic. I don’t have great technique. I think I have a good sound, I have an okay groove, and I think I make good decisions as a bass player about what to play and what not to play.

“So I guess if that’s what a good bass player is, then maybe... sometimes I feel like I’m good and sometimes I feel like I suck.”

Immigrance is out now.

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