By Claire Antagonym
Image © Lachlan Douglas photography somefx
I have another in the series of photos of me standing with musical wizards looking perceptibly awkward. I was pretty overwhelmed to be next to Michael League at Bluesfest, the ginormous brain behind Snarky Puppy, my favourite 40-piece psychedelic neo jazz ‘quasi-collective.’ We talked about improvisation, resistance music, and the perpetual struggle to fit everyone onstage.
I want to talk to you about blues music. Because I think there is significance in blues in the sense that a lot of music derives from it; rock, and metal, things like that. I’m interested in your relationship with blues music and how you’ve been impacted by the genre.
‘In a very, very heavy way. I think the majority of music from the United States is blues based, like you said, jazz, funk, rock n’ roll, heavy metal, gospel music, that kind of stuff. And many that I didn’t name are blues based. I think that at our core, Snarky Puppy is a blues band in a certain kind of way. And I just started a new band called Bokanté that is very much a blues band. It’s a combination of West African music and blues. Because it got shipped around with the slave trade, the blues is kind of this strangely universal thing.’
I had a conversation with someone about the relationship between blues and rock, and blues and metal. We spoke of how blues is about despair. It has a legacy of despair because of all those associations with slavery. And that rock n roll is about resistance. It’s interesting to hear you’re doing a new project which echoes that.
‘For the new project the music is highly socio-political. It’s all in Creole, so it’s not the easiest to understand. But it is a kind of resistance music. I don’t know that it’s so easy to quantify rock ‘n roll as such, and blues as such. Because I feel like there’s elements of resistance in blues. There’s also elements of joy in blues. And there’s despair in rock n roll, sometimes.’
You mentioned the resistance element to your new project. Music can be a powerful vehicle for resistance and political change. Are there causes that you have an affinity with or want to advocate for through your music?
‘The refugee crisis is a thing right now that’s really heavy…’
It’s fucked. It’s so bad here.
‘I’ve read a lot about Australia’s policy. It’s insane. But the US is… terrifying.’
It’s not a high benchmark, yeah.
‘So that’s definitely on my brain, especially with our current administration in the United States. There are a lot of things that have been perceived as safe and secure that are becoming threatened in terms of just existence. Like the National Endowment for the Arts, programs for the homeless, programs for refugees, education in a huge way, the environment…’
The idea of welfare, of social welfare in general, of looking after people, seems to be retreating rapidly.
‘It just depends on who is sitting in that building. It flips back and forth.’
Back to the music. Making instrumental music like you do with Snarky Puppy, do you feel as jazz musicians that there is a tension between making instrumental music and music with vocals.
Do you prefer one to the other massively or not really?
‘Nah, I just hear it all as music. I think in general I listen more to vocal music than I do to instrumental music.
But I listen to instrumental music too. I think it’s not really about the aesthetics so much as it is about the execution. If the music is compelling without a singer, that’s going to make it more attractive than music that is not compelling with a singer. It’s just about what you’re offering.’
You are known for your live sets in which there’s a fair bit of improvisation. And I’m wondering about your experience of this during live performances, and how much of an average set would be improvised.
‘We build improvisation into the songs. In addition to solo sections that are obviously improvised we’re constantly improvising as a group with the compositional material itself. So maybe the melody might stay the same, but somebody might play a different chord, and kind of adjust to that and expound upon that…most nights I might tell someone to start a song they’ve never started before. I think it’s very open, because everybody knows the compositional material and we have that to rely on.’
And again, do you have a preference? Do you have a better time on stage improvising than you do playing the pre-composed stuff?
‘Nah, I think if the music feels good I have a great time.’
Do you ever have trouble fitting you all on the stage?
‘Sure. Many times. More in the past than now, but we’ve had many uncomfortable stage moments. Guys playing from the audience…’
‘Cause you have around forty players…well not forty all at the same time … so are you rotating musicians?
‘We never tour with more than eleven or twelve. Like tonight it’s nine, that’s about normal. Nine or ten.’
What’s the highest number of people you’ve had playing on stage at one time?
Shit. How did that go?
‘It was hilarious.’