“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.
“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.
Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’  is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.
“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”
Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”
A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?
“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”
And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.
“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”
[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]
For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?
“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”
You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.
“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”
In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?
“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something [with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”
“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”
You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?
“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”
Sound like real democracy.
“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”
Right time, right place
Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?
“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”
[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”
What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?
“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.
A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?
“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”
“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”
One song I find particularly interesting is Jambone, largely because of Mark Lettieri’s majestic guitar solo. Did he invent that one on the spot?
“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”
Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.
“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”
… on page 2 of this article, Bill talks about his solo work. On page 3, you’ll finds his thoughts on jazz today and working with David Crosby.