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After a decade of relentless touring and recording in all but complete obscurity, the Texas- bred/New York-based quasi-collective suddenly found itself held up by the press and public as one of the major figures in the jazz world. But as the category names for all four of the band’s Grammy® awards would indicate (Best R&B Performance in 2014, Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016, 2017, and 2021), Snarky Puppy isn’t exactly a jazz band. It’s not a fusion band, and it’s definitely not a jam band. It’s probably best to take Nate Chinen of the New York Times’ advice, as stated in an online discussion about the group, to “take them for what they are, rather than judge them for what they’re not.”
Snarky Puppy is a collective of sorts with as many as 25 members in regular rotation. They each maintain busy schedules as sidemen (with such artists as Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo), producers (for Kirk Franklin, David Crosby, and Salif Keïta), and solo artists (many of whom are on the band’s indy label, GroundUP Music). At its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership. But more than the cultural diversity of the individual players, the defining characteristic of Snarky Puppy’s music is the joy of performing together in the perpetual push to grow creatively.
We caught up with Snarky Puppy’s keyboardist Bill Laurance (composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist) about the internationally acclaimed band Snarky Puppy, their new single ‘Bet,’ and much more.
Hi Bill, such a pleasure speaking with you! Like many professional musicians, we’re huge fans of Snarky Puppy’s music. It would be lovely to hear of how you first got involved with this incredible band and sound?
I met Michael League 19 years ago on a gig in Bridlington, U.K. playing Chet Baker songs before Snarky Puppy existed. It was one of those right time, right place things. We hit it off and he invited me to Dallas to record the first Snarky Puppy album. I guess the takeaway is you never know who you’re going to meet on any gig, so take every gig you can. Then I was going back and forth for years, playing small venues and house parties, sleeping on sofas. I’d come back several hundred pounds in the red but having had the time of my life. Those early years when we were roughing it were the formative ones. The ones that built the trust.
The Snarky Puppy is undoubtedly one-of-a-kind; there is no fixed roster of performers, and skilled musical personalities rotate on a regular basis. The uniqueness of the lineup is entertaining for the audience, but what are the challenges for each of you as a band member, if any?
The rotating roster is a useful way of keeping the material evolving. While we may play similar repertoire the different personnel bring a new interpretation giving it new life. I would say one of the challenges has been finding room in the music when there’s so many musicians on stage. But this means you have to be extra sensitive to what’s happening which relies on leaving your ego at the door.
Sometimes it’s referenced that Snarky Puppy is not a jazz band, not a fusion band, and definitely not a jam band. If you were to invent a brand new category for Snarky Puppy what would it be?
Brain and booty music.
Congratulations on the new single ‘Bet’ from the highly anticipated forthcoming album ‘Empire Central’ – we’re excited to hear it! How do you feel about the impact of streaming on different formats from albums to singles?
It’s an ever-evolving industry that we have to embrace and utilise. I run my own record label Flint Music because having done deals with major labels I wanted to be fully in control of every aspect of the releasing process. The shift to digital, while reducing physical sales is an opportunity for more ownership of the music you release. Now anyone can put music out online for anyone in the world to hear it which is a powerful thing. That said, streaming albums tends to diminish the experience for me. It’s all about the ceremony of listening to vinyl that makes the experience that much richer.
‘Empire Central’ was recorded ‘live, in-concert’ using the famed format of recording in front of a live audience. What special challenges does it bring when using this unique approach of performing?
We recorded 14 shows over 7 nights and picked the best takes of each tune. There’s a lot of moving parts with a production like this so maintaining the intensity that consistently is a challenge. The focus with Snarky Puppy has always been about being open to anything, encouraging the music to find its own way almost of its own accord. Allowing that to happen collectively is also challenging but in doing so, we give the music new life, lifting the songs to be realised beyond what even the composer may have had in mind.
The whole band is formed of incredibly skilled and outstanding musicians – what’s it like to work with such bright minds in one room?
It’s the place we all need to be. Working with great players. I’ve learnt so much on the road with these guys and the beautiful thing is we have such different backgrounds and experiences so there’s no end of new music, styles, techniques to learn from. We’ve also been doing it for so long now that we’ve developed a way of working together that knows how to get the result we’re looking for fast. Either parts are written with specific players in mind, or we know collectively what needs to happen and there’s always somehow a consensus on how to realise it.
The variation and diversity of the band and its music is always artistically expansive, drawing from and connecting with many countries and nationalities, expanding beyond America to Japan, Argentina, Canada, UK, and Puerto Rico etc. Why do you think diversity in the music industry is now more important than ever?
I was lucky to meet the guitarist John McLaughlin a couple of years ago and he told me that his favourite thing about being a musician was that it meant he was part of universal family all over the world and able to communicate with them, irrespective of language, culture, or background. This reminds me that being a musician comes with it an inherent opportunity and responsibility to celebrate it as a universal language and as a means of bringing different cultures together.
The band brings together both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership. How fundamental do you feel is cultural diversity in expanding and growing creatively? And how do you feel our music industry can improve and redress imbalances in equality and diverse representation throughout its structures?
I would argue it’s a fundamental requirement. For me the joy in music is all about the cultural exchange and is what makes us creatively richer as artists. In Snarky Puppy, the crossover between learned and unlearned musicians is the sweet spot and is what creates a sound that is infinitely mailable, capable of referencing an endless range of styles and techniques, maintaining the bands evolution.
In relation to redressing imbalances in equality and a more diverse representation, I work with an incredible collective called the Untold Orchestra based in Manchester who’s mission is to directly address these issues. It all begins with education and access in terms of having any hope of addressing long term sustainable change. First the link between social deprivation and a lack of inclusion needs to be identified and addressed – marginalised communities tend to be in more socially deprived areas and therefore will inherently have less access, so there has to be a fundamental shift in terms of access first and foremost, lead by the government / educational institutions. It’s equally the responsibility of arthouses and funded music venues to champion diverse representation.
Sam Davies the CEO of the Untold Orchestra also talks about “individual accountability for change” in the extent to which the individual is making a conscious effort to be more inclusive. With an industry that is already built up of people of a similar background or diversity, it relies on the individuals already in the industry to cultivate change. There is a desperate need for greater racial mix particularly in the classical world, or more female musicians in Pop / Jazz etc.
Lastly, we need inspirational role models who set the tone and push these issues to the top of the agenda. In relation to current funding of the arts, there is the sense that if anything, access is diminishing rather than the other way around so more than ever, it starts with the individual to instigate any kind of meaningful change.
The Snarky Puppy music arrangements are hugely intricate and the band performances are beyond incredibly tight – it would be great to know what a rehearsal session for Snarky Puppy looks like…
Everyone learns all the parts so that when we come to rehearse the arrangements are extremely flexible, ie, melodys / basslines / chords can be passed around different members of the band until the right balance is established. Then once we’ve played the song as it was intended by the composer, we begin to add our own personalities in, which is when the band really starts to sound like Snarky Puppy. Then it’s really on the road that the songs begin to take on a new life. Only performing a song in front of an audience, can it really find it’s sound. So it’s really touring the songs that allows the music to glue together.
Miles Davis is famed to have said “Do not fear mistakes” As we know mistakes can be an open door to creative expansion, but there must have been times when the show did not go as planned – how does the band handle these spontaneous moments?
We simply embrace them and try to make something of them. It’s just about being open to whatever happens and trying to make music out of it.
Snarky Puppy has received 4 Grammy Awards, which is such an incredible achievement! What do these awards mean to you as a performer?
It definitely represented a significant change in both the bands and the individual member’s career. That said, in many ways we were just doing what we’ve always have done and so it’s interesting to witness the difference that awards like that can make to level exposure and profile etc. It’s definitely rewarding to receive such recognition, but it can also help in focussing on the music over trying to win awards.
Alongside being the band keyboardist, you’re also a passionate educator; you continue to give clinics at music institutions all across the world. What inspires you to invest your time and contribute to expanding work in this area?
It’s all about the next generation and most of us in the band have been fortunate enough at some point to have had inspirational tuition. It all begins with inspiration so it almost feels like a responsibility to give it back. I’ve also been inspired by meeting many of my idols, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder to discover that they all have this in spades. The humility and desire to pass it on.
As a regular guest speaker and clinics leader, is there any ‘stand out’ thing you would love new aspiring artists to know?
I once asked Stevie Wonder for a pearl of wisdom and he said… “We (musicians) are the glue of society and it’s our role to bring love and unity to the planet.” I find this to be useful reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Finally, possibly an ‘impossible’ question 🙂 If you could only take one musical guest with you on a trip to the moon, who would it be?
Herbie Hancock. I love both his music and his perspective on the living world. He’s the don and I don’t think I’d ever run out of questions.