Snarky Puppy: Hang Time with the Pack

'Snarky Puppy's keyboardists discuss playing, listening, and leaving each other creative space
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Okay, forget about the fact that these guys have one of the coolest band names (and logos) of all time. If the idea of a fluid and evolving collective of ridiculously skilled musicians, who are fluent in multiple genres (including, but in no way limited to blues, funk, soul, jazz, rock, hip-hop, world and, yes, even classical music) and way into state-of-the-art gear intrigues you, and you are not yet aware of the existence of Snarky Puppy, your musical world is about to be lit up. Big time.

Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and founded more than a decade-and-a-half ago out of the prestigious University of North Texas’ Jazz Studies program, Snarky Puppy’s current live configuration typically consists of two to three keyboard players (one of whom is also a killer trumpet player), three horn players, three (!) guitarists, at least one drummer and percussionist, and the man holding the leash, bassist and musical director Michael League.

I caught up with keyboardists Bill Laurance, Shaun Martin and Justin Stanton in February at the North American premiere of Sylva (Grammy Award winner in 2015 for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album), which they performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra.

EM: There can be up to four of you guys playing keys at once if Michael’s playing bass synth. How do you go about working out who’s going to do what?

Stanton: We were all sort of figuring out our roles in the band through years and years of playing together. We all have our own strengths. Through playing together, now it’s an autopilot thing and we know, ok, he’s going to cover this, he’s going to cover that, and we just fulfill these different roles based on our experience from touring and recording with each other.

Martin: Yeah working together, traveling together, eating together, sleeping on the same floors together, drinking together. Print that. [Laughs.] With music, you’ve got to be able to.

EM: When you’re playing multiple mono Moogs and working the filters at the same time in “The Curtain” [from Sylva], it’s almost like hearing a group of singers who are really locked in to each other.

Stanton: Sure. There’s one part of it where we’ve learned to work together and coexist. But also, there are definite ideas that the composers have in the band; of course, Michael in Sylva because he composed it. But there’s definitely certain ideas that people have at certain points where they want this sound. Like, for the three-Moog thing, that was preconceived. It’s like, let’s have this sound here in this section. Then there are other times where, especially with Mike, he’s an experienced enough composer that he’s learned to sort of just trust the band to do what it does best and serve its own strengths.

Bill Laurance and the rig he used on Snarky Puppy's Sylva tour.

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EM: It feels a little bit more orchestrated, for example, when the three of you are doing the multiple-monosynth thing at the beginning of “Flight” [also from Sylva]. Then the winds join in, and the horns on top of that. That’s clearly precisely orchestrated. The synth ensemble in “The Curtain” feels more free flowing.

Laurance: I think it’s like Justin said at the beginning. Over all the years of having played and toured together, we’ve developed that kind of camaraderie, and that trust and that relationship, so that I guess the emphasis is always serving the composition. There will be certain examples where Michael will have very specific parts; certainly, in the case of most of Sylva. That was a case where we had parts we had to learn and then we all bring them to the rehearsal. But often for other Snarky songs and stuff, he’ll just say, “This is the chord progression. You guys go work it out.”

And so, having toured together for so long, we all have a sort of sensitivity towards what one another will bring. One of the questions I get asked a lot is, “How do you not stand on each other’s toes? There are so many of you.” And it’s true—it takes a minute. But we’re all so used to playing together. The most important thing is that we’re all trying to serve the composition. That’s the first thing. So, it’s all about the greater good, rather than what we’re going to bring to it. And we’re all thinking, “What will best serve the composition?” And that might just be, literally, a single line or a single note when somebody else is holding a sustain or something, or vice versa.

EM: Do tunes ever spring from you guys checking out and/or showing off new gear you’ve acquired? For example, on the beginning of “Sleeper” [from the live DVD We Like It Here], Shaun starts the tune playing the lead line on a Moog synth running through a talk box. Did you acquire the talk box and that’s where “Sleeper” started, or did you already have it and you decided that the talk box would fit well there?

Stanton: There was a big question mark about who was going to play the melody on that song. Was it going to be electric guitar? Or maybe a horn? And then it ended up being Shaun on talk box.

Martin: Yeah, on a makeshift talk box from one of our friends in the Netherlands with a hose from the local hardware store. [Laughs.] It was literally a pieced together talk box, a literal makeshift talk box with this water hose that we cut. It was like the roughest thing I had to use in my entire life, and it really, really worked. But that was one of the things that was up in the air. Who’s going to play this melody? At first I was on the Moog, doing a lead line type thing. I told them, “Hey man, let’s try it on a talk box.”

For the live performance of Sylva, a Hammond and Moog stack was all Shaun Martin needed.

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EM: So, it is more like one of those situations where you just show up with this piece of gear and go, “Look what I got,” and then it’s up to you to find places to work it in?

Martin: What makes this band so dope is everybody’s knowledge of instruments. Not just their own, but a wide range of instruments. So even though you might not know how to work this Sequential Circuits keyboard, you have enough knowledge of how these things work and you’re able to go through and say, “Okay, this is this filter… try this… ”

It’s countless times, and I actually learned from these guys, you get to a venue and the backline there might be something that you’re not really familiar with. The minute they walk into the venue, they’re walking in with headphones, they’re plugging in, and I’m like, “Alright…” Whereas I’d normally be somewhere drinking whiskey rather than learning what was going on, they’re going through everything and trying to figure things out and I’m like, I should probably start doing that because I learned not all [Moog] Little Phattys are the same. And I’m a Model D guy. So, I got to go through and learn the digital process of this analog keyboard that is a little different—different oscillators, filters. Some people do gel with different things.

Stanton: We’ve played many gigs on Yamahas and [Roland] Fantoms. That’s another thing about playing years and years of gigs. You don’t always get the backline you want so you learn to work on everything from workstations to the analog stuff with no presets. We all have our preferences and I’ve got to reciprocate the compliment back to Shaun. There’s such a deep, deep keyboard scene in Dallas that Shaun is one of these prime examples of; Bobby Sparks, Bernard Wright, Daniel Jones, RC Williams for Erykah Badu—all these guys. I’ve learned so much. And a lot of these guys have had stints in this band.

So, a lot of my learning experience with keyboards has been looking over the shoulders of these guys, just learning. And then using that as a jumping off point, figuring out what my sound is and what I’d like to get into. But that was like the base, and then you transfer a lot of information, like he was saying, from one ’board to the next.

EM: You all are typically so tightly locked that it’s hard sometimes to tell when you’re “talking” and when you’re reading off the sheet. Just when I think one of you is improvising, four or five of the bandmembers will pick up a tasty little flair in complete synchronization. That’s just the years of playing together thing again, yes?

Laurance: Yeah. There’s little hits that we kind of jump on in a solo. Sometimes they will be prescribed from having played it, like, three nights ago and it just felt really good. And so, when we get to the same moment, we just all lock in and go, “Let’s just do that again.”

But actually, the more we tour together, the more you find that that actually happens of its own accord. Every night we find that things just kind of line up because we know each other so well and we’re so experienced from all playing together. It’s almost like we can predict where we’re going to go within a certain improvised thing.

In addition to sharing keyboard duties, Justin Stanton doubles on trumpet.

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EM: Amazing. You’d think it would be so easy for you guys to step on each other, and you don’t at all.

Martin: That’s another really cool thing about this band. Just as much as everybody has the ability to play, I think everybody’s greatest asset is their ability to listen. I might have this idea and go, “Oh this might be cool right here.” But if I’m listening, I already know that Bill’s in the zone. So, when Bill’s in the zone, let Bill do his thing.

My idea still might be great: Alright, I’ll wait eight more bars. But Justin might be in the zone. And then by the 24th bar, if it’s cool, roll with it. If it’s not, I’ll wait till tomorrow night or the night after that. That really boils down to a musician’s humility. It’s like, I’m good because Bill is great. I’m good because Justin’s great. And I know that I can respect the fact that when these guys are doing their thing, encourage them. That’s something that’s really, really needed in music. They’re doing their thing, and trust me, they want to encourage me, too. Brotherhood.

EM: The first time I saw We Like It Here, I remember thinking how obvious it was that you guys were so knocked out by what you all are doing, and how supportive the environment looked. It’s like, you’re looking at each other going, “Damn!”

Martin: Everybody always tells me, “Your face on ‘Lingus’ when Cory [Henry] was taking a solo.” I say, “Yeah because he was killing it.”

Laurance: He was the physical representation of everyone’s feeling when he was playing that stuff.

EM: It pulls the whole crowd along with you, too. I saw you guys at the Warfield in San Francisco a year or so ago. The way they were following you and locked into what you guys were doing, it must be really gratifying to have such a musically hip crowd. Given the state of live music these days, it was really nice watching that—like, a renewed faith.

Laurance: I have to say that the Ground Up Festival in Florida that just finished last weekend was really a remarkable event as far as the energy from the crowd. I’ve never experienced anything like that.

Stanton: It gives you, like you said, a renewed faith. It was so remarkable.

Laurance: And the crowd, not only were they listening when we were on stage, but there were clinics that we did as well; educational things. Every one of them was absolutely packed. The questions were great and everybody was there to learn and to soak as much as they could.

And that energy, at a festival like that, in a kind of closed space like that, was so, so amazing, man. It was a clear sign that this fire has started and it’s super strong. The fans who were there, they are so hungry and it’s only going to snowball from there.

EM: I have no doubt.