“That’s where Snarky Puppy lives,” Michael League says. “In the cracks.” The 38-year-old bassist and ringleader of the ever-morphing instrumental ensemble is reflecting on “Bet,” a deeply funky powerhouse from their latest album, Empire Central. The song’s grinding main theme, he recalls, started life in the vein of sample-based hip-hop: “I was thinking of Madvillain or MF Doom.” But after jamming it with his band, which often swells to 19 members, “Bet” twisted into an unexpected shape.
“When we got to the verse, we tried a bunch of grooves, and the one that started to feel the best was this ‘70s Brazilian funk thing,” he says. “It ended up sitting in this weird in between zone. But I don’t get mad or frustrated about that. We never really play a hip-hop song or a funk song. Brazilians wouldn’t play it like we’re playing it. And a hip-hop band wouldn’t play it like we’re playing it. I kind of lap it up in those situations.”
That quest for musical challenge has catalyzed the band’s every move—ever since League co-founded Snarky Puppy back in 2004, linking up with a group of likeminded jazz students at the University of North Texas. Almost two decades later, their massive lineups often resemble an electric orchestra more than a jazz-rock or funk combo. But the density of their attack is always purposeful—and never more so than on Empire Central, one of the most carefully sculpted records in their catalog. (It’s likely to find four keyboardists in the mix, along with a handful of percussionists and drummers.)
The project is, as the title suggests, a tribute to Dallas, the city where Snarky Puppy found a deeper sense of community and purpose. Part of League’s maturation in that city was playing in Black churches—learning to listen and “react in the moment” and, despite not believing in a conscious higher power, figuring out how “to play for a higher cause.”
“I’m white,” he says. “I grew up in the suburbs. [In church, I was] playing that music with other people not from that community, kind of in a touristic sense, having been exposed to it intensely for three years in Dallas—and then, of course, throughout my life since then because those three years put me in that community. I, by no means, consider that to be my native tongue or a tongue that I’m fluent in. But the fact that we were able to experience that in a way that’s participatory—being in that scene and in that community and playing with those artists like Kirk Franklin and Erykah Badu and Fred Hammond—gives you a little more insight into Black American music from a perspective that’s not strictly notes and rhythms. Because those notes and rhythms flow out of something that’s human and communal.”
Empire Central isn’t exactly a concept album—could an instrumental band even write one? But it’s a conscious effort to celebrate Snarky Puppy’s roots, taming some of their more experimental flourishes and letting the grooves ride.
“I leaned into it for sure,” League says. “I told the guys: ‘Write songs about Dallas. Write songs that are informed by the time we’ve spent there, the influence the city’s had on us and Texas in general. Just think about the community so that we have a theme.’ With instrumental music, it’s easy to go all over the shop. When I write, I try to have a specific theme in mind for each individual song. And when you talk about 12 people contributing material, it runs an even greater risk of being too disparate. I asked people to really think about the personality of the musicians there, putting melodies out front and being less esoteric. It was a clearly stated mission statement.”
“Dallas is such a rich, fertile music scene,” adds keyboardist Justin Stanton. “Some people know that, but not everyone. Since most of the band has spent a significant part of their musical education there, it’s going to shine through in a certain way. Maybe the album can be a piece of ambassadorship for a city that contributed so much to the identity and success of this band.
“There’s a lot of composers on the record,” he adds. “I do think there was more of a push—in Snarky Puppy, there’s this challenge of writing for everybody and making sure everybody feels stimulated when they’re playing. There is a challenge in creating enough interest in the compositions, where everybody has something to do and you’re not leaving anybody out. But I think there’s a pendulum swing between that and just sitting down at an instrument and writing a song with a great melody and chords that can function in a broken-down setting.”
Stanton, as usual, is a crucial contributor on Empire Central—writing two cuts, co-arranging a handful of others and flexing on an arsenal of keyboards (Wurlitzer, Rhodes, Minimoog). He also plays trumpet on multiple tracks, including his own “Broken Arrow,” which he describes as “a weird mix of Brazilian harmony and this late-‘60s free-love folkrock thing.” (“I had in mind this vibe of Neil Young’s Harvest and CSNY,” he adds. “I grew up listening to all that stuff. With the guitars, it felt Texas-y.”)
That song, which slides between spacey twang and luxurious jazz-rock, illustrates one extreme of the Snarky Puppy process. While some tracks are formed through extensive workshopping—the respective composer toying with how to best utilize his bandmates—others emerge with surprising swiftness.
“Justin brought in ‘Broken Arrow’ and, within 30 minutes, it was playable,” League recalls. “We could have played it at a gig. It got better every day we rehearsed it—we added things, changed things. Not every song is that way. My songs always take a much longer time. I’m just not capable of quickly writing a song that sounds good. [I’ll say], ‘No, actually this melody has to be played in this specific way, or it doesn’t make sense.’ I’m trying to get better at that and write for people more so it comes naturally, but I still haven’t figured it out.”
Some songs earned more sweat than others, but Empire Central consistently presents the most soul and swagger of anything they’ve ever recorded—from the percussive, horn-swaddled cosmic funk of woodwind player Chris Bullock’s “East Bay” to the soothing late-night jazz of League’s “Belmont,” named after the Dallas street where he once resided.
After two weeks of rehearsals, Snarky Puppy recorded these 16 tracks by revisiting an approach they hadn’t used in seven years—tracking eight shows in front of a headphone-wearing in-studio audience at Dallas’ Deep Ellum Art Company.
“We had fun making [2019’s] Immigrance, doing that studio thing,” League says. “We had a blast doing [2020’s] Live at the Royal Albert Hall. But I’m a big believer in: ‘You change the process, you change the product.’ I love that Snarky Puppy is willing and able and excited by doing new things and not just saying, ‘This works.’ Even though we’re returning to an old format, one that we helped make popular, it feels real because the band has grown so much—both collectively and individually—over the last seven years.”
Amassing eight nights of recordings eventually made for a challenging curation—as Stanton notes, the band grew more comfortable with the material each night, but they also tended to indulge a bit more with each gig.
“There is this undeniable element of the band of wanting to stretch—this exploratory, jazzy, jammy element,” he says. “How do you find the balance of finding a good performance of the song and not stretching too far so it’s a really concise statement?”
While Stanton doesn’t have any insight on the group’s future release plans, the keyboardist agrees that they could easily assemble an alternate version of the album using completely different takes: “It’s like you go to the grocery store,” he says, “and don’t want to waste all the ingredients in your fridge.”
One song on Empire Central needed less debate—the smooth, brassy “Take It!,” which features ‘80s funk icon Bernard Wright on both Wurlitzer and a nimble, tasteful Prophet 10 solo. His performance would have been special on any night, but its significance has only swelled in hindsight—sadly, Wright died at age 58, less than three months after his cameo, following a road traffic accident.
“The crazy thing about Bernard is that he would kill you with music,” League reflects. “He wouldn’t kill you with hype or flash or fireworks or acrobatics or stage presence, even though I think his stage presence was amazing. He was always operating on the deepest possible level. It’s one of those things where you could appreciate the solo on a number of levels, depending on how hard you listen—and how deep of a musician you are. There are solos of his that I’ve heard my whole life, and, as I grew as a musician, I realized how deep they were. ‘Take It!’ is like a masterclass of improvisation and development of a solo.”
League—who currently resides in Catalonia, Spain—was deeply affected by that Wright performance, even using it as an example during his semester teaching at Barcelona’s Conservatori Liceu.
“Some former students came as volunteers, and we were talking about that solo,” he says. “I told them: ‘This is what I tried to teach you in one semester—he did it in three minutes and a thousand times better than me. This is about how to use space. Even the space in the solo is funky! Bernard was a god of phrasing. Solos like that, for me, are worth a million flashy, firework-y solos. In the age of social media, patience is not a virtue people are indulging in much. A new breed of musician is coming up that knows how to get your attention in 4-7 seconds. The algorithm tells you that you have to. But the question is: ‘Can those musicians tell you a story for three minutes? Can they play in a way that isn’t just impressive but also profound and generous?’”
Snarky Puppy embody that same generosity of spirit—after all, you can’t be in a band this enormous without buying in on the “team player” thing. As a result, they’ve grown versatile enough to collaborate with just about anyone. Just look at 2016’s Family Dinner—Volume 2, which features guest spots from jazz prodigy Jacob Collier, electronic duo Knower and rock legend David Crosby.
League has played a notable role in the latter musician’s late-career renaissance, co-producing both 2016’s Lighthouse and 2018’s Here If You Listen. And the bassist’s career outside of Snarky Puppy has exponentially bloomed during the pandemic—in 2021 alone, he helmed around a dozen projects at his Estudi Vint studio; he also found time to record his debut solo LP, So Many Me, for which he played all the instruments.
“I learned a lot about myself as a musician—especially what I’m capable of and not capable of, including some weak spots that normally don’t get seen because there are other people fulfilling those roles in the band,” he says of that album. “That was really illuminating. What I brought back to the band was maybe a greater sense of empathy and understanding for what’s happening around me.”
That pace hasn’t slowed. His current in-progress productions include records for Polish bassist Kinga Glyk, Indian singer Varijashree Venugopal and Cuban pianist Harold Lopez Nussa. And this diversity seems intentional— part of a mission to maximize his own musical learning, which truly began back in Dallas.
“The things that you need most are proximity, perspective and experience,” he says, passing along some of the advice he gives to younger musicians. “Yes, watching YouTube will help. Yes, listening to records and transcribing them will help. But until you feel that air, eat that food, play in that church and become a part of the community that birthed the music you’re playing, you’re inherently going to play it in a less informed way.” “My goal is to sound like me,” he adds.
“My goal is to learn as much as I can from as many musical cultures that interest me as I can, and then run what I’ve learned through my filter and do my thing with it. That’s the most authentic thing I can do.”
Which brings things back to Snarky Puppy. Some people might question the notion, both economically and structurally, of having such a huge band. But for League, too much inspiration is always a good problem to have.
“There’s never been a song written for Snarky Puppy that sounded how the composer intended by the time it was done,” League says. “There are too many opinions and producers and good ideas. It would almost be a pity if we played a song exactly like someone wrote it. It’s a waste. That’s what makes the band special—the moment when everybody throws their own sauce into the stew.”