It all started one evening in 2011, on a recommendation from Jonny Mo the stoned bassist in the back of jazz ensemble rehearsal. Snarky Puppy, he said sagely. Check em out. So later that night I googled Snarky Puppy and clicked on the first hit, a song called ‘Flood’. It started simply enough, in a recording studio with a dorkish-looking fellow standing at a keyboard, bopping his head to the beat as he plunked out the melody in some obscure time signature. The drums and bass entered the fray, and then the horns, then the keyboards, then the guitars, then the strings. And then, as someone let off a pressure valve, the groove dissolved and one of the guitarists embarked on a hypnotic new melody in some other obscure time signature. It was an unexpected but appetizing change of pace. The guitarist’s spiderlike fingers, the latent energy of a nine-minute video with seven minutes to go.
It went like this for a while, tension and release. The stakes rose, slowly, until a moment came when the song indisputably arrived. The horns took their line up an octave and the organ screamed and the drummer unleashed his mighty wrath upon his kit. It truly seemed to be the musical manifestation of a flood, as if all this time the water had been brooding behind the dam, and then the dam burst and the water poured forth, emancipated, crashing onto the rocks below.
Impressed as I was, Snarky Puppy fell off my radar and didn’t reappear for a year or so, until they released a new album called groundUp. Each song on groundUp was tight, bound by lean arrangements and the rhythm section’s magnetic groove. Each song had a distinct narrative arc, conducting two or three main ideas across various textures and instrumentations, always culminating with the entire band playing something greater than its component parts. Each song was a thriller in the end by virtue of its humble beginnings.
groundUp runs deep but the highlight is without a doubt ‘Thing of Gold’. There was a time when I watched ‘Thing of Gold’ on a daily basis for six weeks, maybe longer, primarily because of the solo Shaun Martin delivers at the end on Moog synth. The chord progression essentially rises in whole steps, and his solo triggers a series of key changes that also rises in whole steps. So there is an austere, mathematical sort of beauty in place, and it is in this context that Shaun Martin, toothpick akimbo, takes flight in ineffable improvisation.
How to categorize Snarky Puppy? They borrow elements from all types of music, particularly jazz, rock, and funk. They tend to defy genre. I guess you’d call that amorphous style ‘fusion’, but fusion is a vague and boring term. One of the properties shared by most Snarky Puppy songs is the interplay of major and minor — it happens in ‘Flood’ and ‘Thing of Gold’ for example, and they even called a song on groundUp ‘Minjor’. The interplay of major and minor is one of the fundamental tenets of the blues, and I prefer to think of them as a sort of hypermodern blues band. It may be a vague term, but at least it’s more thought-provoking than fusion.
Here’s the weird thing though– as much as I listen to groundUp, I’ve never downloaded it. I don’t have any Snarky Puppy songs on my iTunes. I just go to YouTube and watch their videos. Of the eight songs on groundUp, seven are on YouTube, and unlike with ‘Flood’, their videos are gorgeous, shot in HD with soft turquoise light cast around the perimeter of the room onto brick walls painted white. A small headphone’d audience sits in the middle, surrounded by the band. The band is even bigger this time, 21 people. This is it — this is them recording the album. Several cameras shoot from various angles, which is disorienting, so you never really figure out how the band members are positioned in relation to each other — you just know they are there.
The visual component of Snarky Puppy’s music is crucial to their visibility and popularity. They are not signed to a big label. They are independent, doing it all by themselves. Look at Macklemore, another independent artist. He blew up for one big reason: his videos, which are creative, fun to watch, and beautifully shot and color edited thanks to the genius of Ryan Lewis. In 12 months, the ‘Thrift Shop’ video has garnered 400 million views on YouTube. In 18 months, the ‘Thing of Gold’ video has garnered 600,000 views, a number that pales in comparison to Macklemore but is nevertheless significant.
Live music experiences these days are often compressed into mega-festivals like Coachella and EDM raves like Electric Zoo. Throw in uTorrent, and it seems as though it is harder than ever for mid-level musicians like Snarky Puppy to thrive. But in fact, the opposite is true. Snarky Puppy has a powerful weapon: YouTube. YouTube has become one of the main channels through which people consume music. Search any song, it’s probably there. I would go so far as to say that YouTube has also become the best way to consume music, period, because it inherently provides that visual component that greatly enhances the quality of the music itself.
My favorite college professor Michael J. Lewis always liked to say, “good writing happens when the emotional and the intellectual overlap, causing the words to vibrate.” To drive the point home he would place one hand on top of the other, like the awkward turtle sign, and give the turtle a few vigorous shakes. Professor Lewis’s words of wisdom closely mirror Snarky Puppy’s motto: “music for the booty and brain.” Snarky Puppy’s music is enjoyable from an intellectual perspective, but doesn’t truly vibrate until you watch their videos and see their actual, physical booties in motion. Watching the band play gives you a more intimate relationship with them, but just as importantly it gives you access to the intimacy within the band. You unlock their synergy. When a recording gets mixed, there is a vacuum effect, as if the mix sucks out all the air and leaves the finished product tighter. When Snarky Puppy introduces the visual component, they restore much of the energy lost in the mix via the physical energy of the band, spurred on in part by the presence of the small audience. Their videos are more than recordings — they are performances.
Two of my favorite DVDS are concert films. AC/DC, Live in Donington 1991, and Bruce Springsteen, Live in Barcelona 2002. The music itself is great. What’s even better is the shot of the fanatic horde jumping around and singing along. The shot of 5’2” Angus Young opening the show by playing the ‘Thunderstruck’ riff and duck-walking his way across the stage in his maroon suit and shorts. The shot of Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt, belting ‘Dancing in the Dark’ into the same mic two hours into the show, their shirts drenched in sweat, their old man lips inches apart. It’s a pretty homoerotic image, but then again, it’s not homoerotic at all. It’s just music.
The image that sticks with me most from Snarky Puppy videos is Michael League, the frizzy-haired bassist. Snarky Puppy has world-class soloists — Shaun Martin, Cory Henry on organ, Sput Searight on drums — but League is the heart of the band. He is the mastermind, the producer, the author and arranger. Whenever the camera cuts in his direction, his face is either fixed in a warm, cherubic smile or convulsed in an unmistakable O-face. His ecstasy is even more apparent in the way he assumes awkward, unforeseeable postures with the rest of his gangly body. He looks silly, but that’s how you know he’s feeling it. His id gangsta leans with the best of them. There is no pretense with him, and his passion naturally bubbles to the surface so that he is more nimbus than flesh. Michael League is pure. Michael League is love.
In 4th grade, all I knew was Eiffel 65, Aaron Carter, and Lou Bega. Until I unwrapped Hybrid Theory by Linkin Park, popped it in the CD player, and learned the true meaning of rock. Hybrid Theory sucked me through a vortex. It opened up an entire universe I hadn’t known existed, or could exist. Its appeal was not unlike that of Pokemon Red or Redwall.
Those were the days. Since then it has become much harder for a piece of music, or anything, to come along and alter my perception of the limits of human possibility. That increasingly elusive sensation is only attainable via something radical. I suppose that’s the appeal of dubstep or Hannah Montana all of the sudden porning it up.
Consuming music these days lends itself more to eclecticism than devotion to a single group, and I am almost ashamed to say that I have found a favorite band, but I suppose Snarky Puppy fits the bill. They have taken me on journeys. They have taken me to the Lonely Mountain and back again. They expertly straddle the line between the intellectual and the emotional. The brain-bending and the booty-quaking. The awkward turtle-shaking.
Snarky Puppy recently released an album called Family Dinner, with each song featuring a different guest singer. The majority of the songs have been posted on YouTube as recording sessions filmed in HD, in the groundUp video style. As I watched these videos, I was blown away by the singers but found myself wanting them to go away. League arranged the songs with the intent of showcasing the singers and nothing more. If Family Dinner was an economic market, it would be riddled with inefficiencies. It was conceived in the spirit of collaboration, sure, but the end result, however unflawed, left a lot on the table. That is, Snarky Puppy’s remarkable imagination, the potential for innovation, to go further and change the definition of what music can be.