Seven Songs: Snarky Puppy

The jazz-fusion outfit's bandleader Michael League guides us through his playlist — from David Crosby and Dire Straits to Moxy Früvous

It has been a huge year for Snarky Puppy, the Texas-formed but now international and rotating jazz-fusion collective. 2021 saw the band win a Grammy (their fourth) for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for their Live at the Royal Albert Hall, a tour with Steely Dan and a mighty performance at Glastonbury to name a few landmarks.

But for bandleader Michael League, the biggest highlights come down to writing music with the people that mean the most to him. “We made this new record Empire Central and went back to Dallas with that,” he tells me from his home just outside Barcelona. “We spent a week rehearsing and a week recording and it was our last time ever playing with Bernard Wright, who passed away tragically right afterwards. So for me that was really the highlight of the year.”

Empire Central, Snarky Puppy’s latest album and homage to Dallas, was released back in September. Ahead of a string of UK shows this week, League shares with us seven of his most formative tracks.

Snarky Puppy - Trinity (Extended Version) (Empire Central)

The song that makes me happy

It’s a little bit of a deep cut, but man there’s just something about the early 90s that was just so unapologetic, you know? So gonzo. Super heavy programmed drums, a synth bass that’s mixed like 8db too loud, that I love. It’s just infectious, it’s one of those songs that you put on and you’re immediately transported to the best of the 90s. Not the worst.

The song that makes me cry

There’s a live performance of ‘Traction in the Rain’ by David Crosby with Graham Nash accompanying him on a TV show in the 70s. David is unbelievably high, and Graham is trying to keep it together, trying to be the consummate pro while Crosby’s in another dimension. And then he starts to play and sing and it’s just one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen. It’s a song about suicide, it’s a very heavy song, but it’s so beautiful and heartfelt. 

David’s exactly as you would think. He’s a rock and roll legend, he’s hilarious and an incredibly dynamic and energised person. He’s 81 years old and I think he’s made six or seven records in the last seven years, he’s just constantly changing inspiration. He’s a huge role model for me in that way; it’s never too late to make art, you know what I mean? And there’s really no excuse to stop, I love that about him. He’s also writing some of the greatest songs of his career, it’s very special. But he’s kind of like a weird grandpa to me. I’m the musical director for his acoustic band, which is called The Lighthouse Band, with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis. I’ve spent a lot of time with him on tour and he’s a real character.

The song that reminds me of my childhood

I used to listen to this before every little league baseball game to pump myself up. When you’re like nine years old and you hear an electric guitar played like that, I think you think you can take on the world, hit a home run over the Empire State Building. Brothers In Arms is a beautiful album, my dad had it on cassette, so I would listen to it in the car. Every time I hear that song I think about being in the parking lot of a baseball field, hyped for the big game.

The song that reminds me of being in love

This is a song by a Canadian band called Moxy Früvous. They were kind of a comedy band, but very heavy musicians, and wrote very clever songs with funny lyrics. They wrote one song that was kind of one of their more serious ones, called ‘Fell In Love’ from this record Bargainville. It was the first time that I was feeling really strongly about a girl, I was in early high school or something, and we listened to that record on the way to a vocal competition. I was playing bass for the choir and she was singing in it, and we sat next to each other on the bus and did the thing where you take one headphone from your Discman and share the other one and listen. I definitely remember that very fondly. 

The song I wish I’d written

There’s a thousand songs that you hear and you’re just angry that it wasn’t you, you know? But I guess I have to say the first one that comes into my mind is ‘Overjoyed’ by Stevie Wonder. I think that that’s one of the greatest songs ever written, it’s absolutely perfect. This is embarrassing but the first time I heard it, it was not Stevie Wonder’s version actually. The first time I heard it I was maybe 12 or 13 and I was listening to Victor Wooten’s album A Show Of Hands, a solo bass record. I haven’t listened to it in 20 years but I remember listening to it over and over when I was a kid. I just remember thinking, Oh my god, Victor Wooten is a genius for writing this? [laughs] But then I looked at the liner notes, because then there were liner notes, and was like, wow, Stevie Wonder.

It’s not even that the recording is my favourite recording. I’m not even so much of a fan of the original version of the song in its production and arrangement, I just think lyrically, melodically and harmonically it’s just one of the deepest things in pop music history. 

The last song I listened to

The artist that was last at my place was a bass player, so we were listening to 70s basscapades. The 70s were the height of bass playing, period. It was just when everyone was in love with bass, everybody wanted bass, the bass players were playing amazing stuff and it was the heartbeat of popular music in that moment. 1968-78 was just insane. So much creativity in popular music and people consuming it on a mass scale, which is not necessarily happening today.

The one song I could listen to forever

That’s a tough one. I guess it’s a song that you never get sick of, right? It has to be either incredibly simple or incredibly intricate, like you have to be able to find loads of new things in it or it just has to be straight down the middle and timeless. God it’s so hard. It’s really, really hard. I think I’ve heard ‘Dancing Days’ more times than I’ve ever heard any song in my life and I’ve never once stopped wanting to hear it. Never. Houses of the Holy is my favourite Zeppelin record, hands down.

Houses of the Holy is my favourite Zeppelin record, hands down. It’s got the badass analogue synths, like the best of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, with the best of blues rock. It has such a fresh sound, always, but it has power. That whole record is just gold.

Snarky Puppy are currently in the UK, playing Glasgow, Bristol, Manchester and London until 7 October. Tickets are available here.