Greg Chambers Superfluous Motor Interview

Interview // Superfluous Motor: “Wherever it leads, the music will always be in motion”

A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor

Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.

‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.

During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.

That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.

“I’m terrible at self-promotion”, Greg told me. But judging from the reactions on his Bandcamp and YouTube channels, Superfluous Motor has the power to affect listeners deeply.

I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.

Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality? 

Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”

On his approach to albums:
“Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”

“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”

Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?

“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”

Kaleidoscope

‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?

“Usually the full concept for the album doesn’t come together until the arrangement for the songs are mostly finished. Sometimes, I’ll start out with a full concept idea like in ‘The Floating Orange Incident’, ‘Shipwrecked’, ‘Kaleidoscope’ or ‘Idiosyncrasies’.”

“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.

Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?

“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”

“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”

Home alone

The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?

“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”

About artistic freedom:
“I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”

“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”

You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?

Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”

“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”

I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?

“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”

“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”

You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?

“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”

“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”

Crazy Rhythms

You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?

“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”

About the unlikely influence of techno:
“I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”

Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?

“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”

Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?

“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”

“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”

Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?

“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”

“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’ [a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”

Niagara Falls and Herbie

You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.

I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park [the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”

Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?

“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”

“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”

About Herbie Hancock:
“Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”

Who do you consider to be your peers?

“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.

Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?

“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”

“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”

Superfluous Motor's Greg Chambers in a Moog mood
Superfluous’ Greg Chambers in a Moog mood

Tech talk. Bill Laurance of Snarky Puppy told me he always admired Herbie’s set-up of keyboards on the back sleeve of the Sunlight album? I suppose you love all that vintage stuff too?

“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”

“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”

Digital Man

You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?

“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”

“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”

On the 70s:
“If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”

How do listen to music yourself nowadays? 

“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”

“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.” 

It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?

“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”

Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades? 

“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.” 

All over the place (like Kandinsky)

You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂

“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”

The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?

“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”

The cover of 'Scatterbrain' by Superfluous Motor. 
Art connoisseurs will recognize Kandinsky's Composition VIII
The cover of ‘Scatterbrain’ by Superfluous Motor.
Art connoisseurs will recognize Kandinsky’s Composition VIII

Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?

“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”

Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor? 

“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”

Find and discover Superfluous Motor on Basecamp, YouTube, Spotify and Patreon.

Bill Laurance

Bill Laurance’s ‘Cables’ – Soothing sounds for the wireless age

Bill Laurance’s new album ‘Cables’ is about the dramatic impact of technology on humanity, further confirming his status as a musician with a message. At his recent solo gig at the ‘s Hertogenbosch Verkadefabriek in Holland, Bill offered the audience a glimpse into his concerns and inner life and enriched his acoustic piano playing with beats and electronic textures. To spine-tingling results.

I’m not going to say much about Bill’s impeccable playing and mastery of dynamics, touch and composition. Give ‘Live At Union Chapel’ a spin. It’ll tell you all you need to know. Except for one big difference: on ‘Cables’ and in ‘s Hertogenbosch, he created a musical universe that is entirely his own. Completely on his own. As a bonus, the concert made me appreciate the intricacies of ‘Cables’ on a deeper level.

‘Cables’ is Laurance’s fifth solo record and it’s completely in sync with the times. With themes that range from coping with loss and grief and the healing power of time (Constance), to climate change (Ebb Tide) and the exponential growth of technology (the melancholic, dystopian title track).

It’s funny then that, as Bill ponders our increasingly wireless age, ‘Cables’ is his hardest album to connect to. Of course, in music, the hardest ones are often the most rewarding ones. The same is true of ‘Cables’.

A man and his machines

On ‘Cables’, Bill made the lines between the analogue and the digital blurrier than ever. More impressionistic and searching than before. You won’t find instantly gratifying grooves like Swift (‘Swift’, 2015) or Madeleine (‘Aftersun’, 2016). There’s a wealth of melody and texture, but it doesn’t smack you in the face. It all unfolds slowly. There is no band. No Michael League or Robert ‘Sput’ Searight to help out on bass or drums. Just one man and his battalion of instruments and machines.

“Technology. Is it something to celebrate or something to be aware of?” was one of the issues Laurance shared with the small seated audience at the Jazz Factory, Verkadefabriek in ‘s Hertogenbosch. In his case, professionally at least, it’s both. Technology and artificial intelligence may become dangerous when we lose control over them. But Bill was is in total control – even though he had to shift through dozens of manuals, which kept him away from his piano. “It was worth it”, he added. The audience agreed.

When Bill gradually introduced his electronics to the set (he tweeted a video of his set-up), it became clear it would be a splendid collaboration. The machines, always triggered manually, beautifully enhanced the sounds of Bill’s Yamaha grand piano. He managed to control them all in octopus-like fashion.

But that’s professional. If not handled well, our relationship with technology and big data can move in the wrong direction. A sentiment Laurance seems to express through the song HAL, which refers to HAL 9000, the infamous computer aboard the Discovery One spacecraft in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. While at first HAL is a benign tool with human-like intelligence, it eventually turns against the astronauts and kills all but one.

On ‘Cables’, space exploration is even more explicit on the dramatic closing track Cassini, which was inspired by the Cassini-Huygens mission of Saturn and its ‘grand finale’, where the Cassini probe flew into the atmosphere of Saturn and the signal was lost forever. By then, the probe had made close to half a million pictures.

Back to planet earth. When Bill introduced Ebb Tide, he said it firm and clear: “Climate change is real.” It’s a song inspired by the flow of the tide and the fragility of our planet. Bill explained how a certain delicate part reflects the shimmering sand ribs of the coast that are exposed once the water has fallen. Making that mental image for myself was more powerful than any projection could be.

The beauty of nature has inspired Bill since the early days of his solo career – it’s only five years since debut album ‘Flint’ was released. Chia and Gold Coast, The Isles and Fjords, The Pines, First Light and Golden Hour, … Other titles, like Never-Ending City, U-Bahn (the Berlin underground), Denmark Hill and wintery December in New York reveal an equal fascination for the brick and concrete marks man made on the planet. Bill was happy to admit: “I love the countryside, but I’m always on my phone.” A discrepancy I think a lot of people can relate to today.

Introducing The Keeper, ‘Cables’’ lead-off track, Bill shared the most heart-warming message of the evening: “This is about the significance of persistence. Carrying on is fundamental. Keep searching and you will find what you’re looking for.” He knows.

Musical call to arms

It’s telling that when, earlier today, Snarky Puppy released the first ‘Immigrance’ bonus track, Embossed, it came with a special statement from its creator … Bill Laurance:

“Embossed is a reaction to the social, political and environmental anxiety of the times. It’s a musical call to arms, asking the listener to engage both as an individual and as a member of larger movements for change.”

With Brexit, struggling human rights, climate change, a polarizing ‘leader of the free world’ and misinformation on a massive scale, these are troubled times. Some people bring both consolation and awareness to the world through beauty and art. These people are rare. Bill Laurance is one of them.

In 2017, I talked to Bill Laurance about the meteoric rise of Snarky Puppy and about his plans as a solo artist. Enjoy the interview!

Want to buy Bill Laurance’s music? Head over to Bandcamp.

Bill Laurance interview

Bill Laurance: “Snarky Puppy is a band of brothers” // Interview

“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’ [2016] 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.]

Family

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.”

Snarky Puppy Bill Laurance interview

Democracy

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.

Snarky Puppy - Streaming isn't paying artists

Snarky Puppy’s Michael League: “Streaming doesn’t pay artists”

As much as I love Spotify for discovering new music, I’m fully aware of the fact that streaming isn’t paying the actual bands and musicians the way it should – luckily I’m also an avid record collector. At last week’s Snarky Puppy show in Brussels, bandleader Michael League had a few interesting to say on the subject. His sincere message left an impression on me. That’s why I’d like to present to you in full.

Right after a blistering version of Lingus and before launching into the encore What About Me, Michael League addressed the sold-out Ancienne Belgique:

“We’re fortunate because we are able to play in a room like this, and sell some tickets and survive playing music. But that’s not the case for many, many, many artists who are more talented than ourselves and I just wanna make you aware, very briefly, that as wonderful of a thing as streaming is – and Spotify and Pandora and YouTube – I wanna let you know that although those companies are doing very well and labels are doing very well, the only people that don’t get paid for streaming are [scream from the audience] … artists. You got it. So while we are fortunate, there are many incredible artists who deserve for their music to be heard and they can’t survive if you don’t support them. So I just wanna put a big shout out. If there any artists, Belgian or American of English or whatever, that you love and you want them to succeed, you want them go on, please buy their records and buy tickets cause streaming is not supporting them. It’s only listening. Ask any musician, they’ll tell you.”

What’s even more laudable is that Michael isn’t just talking about Snarky, or about his own magnificent label GroudUp Music (David Crosby, Becca Stevens, House of Waters, Forq, Bill Laurance, …) – check it out! His message concerns all recording artists and deserves to be shared. Have fun buying cool stuff on vinyl, tape, cd or online!