Feb 1, 2015, 00:00 AM
Rhythm Scene Staff
Snarky Puppy is one of the funkiest, grooviest, most talented bands on the scene right now. They are a quasi-collective of musicians based in Brooklyn, New York who play an infectious mixture of jazz, funk, and world music. Led by bassist/guitarist/composer/arranger Michael League, Snarky Puppy won a 2014 Grammy Award for their rendition of Brenda Russell’s song “Something” from their live studio album Family Dinner – Volume 1
The group’s two core percussionists, Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth, are accomplished, versatile musicians with a true passion for what they do. After seeing them live a few months ago, I was impressed not only by their technical prowess, but also by their ability to communicate in such an effective way through rhythm, while still blending with the rest of the band. I was able to catch Sput and Nate while they were in between NAMM and a rehearsal for their newest side project, Ghost-Note, to chat about the genesis of Snarky Puppy, what it was like to win a Grammy, their dedication to the next generation of musicians, the excitement of live studio recordings, and more.
Rhythm! Scene: The story goes that Michael League started Snarky Puppy about ten years ago with several members of the One O’Clock Lab Band at the University of North Texas (UNT). Were both of you in the band from the beginning?
Nate: I’ve been in the band since the beginning. I met Mike when I was a sophomore in college playing in the basketball pep band at UNT. My brother Nick was playing drums, I was playing percussion, Mike was playing bass, and one of the current Snarky Puppy guitarists was playing guitar. Around the same time, Mike wanted to start a band where jazz wasn’t the focal point, but the music was a combination of different styles and fusion of genres. He arranged the tunes, gathered the musicians, and set up some local performances. So Snarky Puppy basically started out as a reading band and has just snowballed over the years.
R!S: What about you, Sput? What is your background and how did you come to be involved with Snarky Puppy?
Sput: I was born and raised in the Dallas area. I grew up in church and have played the drums for as long as I can remember. My parents are musicians, so I was exposed to a lot of drums and percussion just from being around them and listening to a whole bunch of records. I didn’t get serious with the technical side of drumming until high school when I went to a school in Dallas called Arts Magnet. From there I went to junior college in music and then University of North Texas. Since school, I’ve been freelancing in Dallas playing with a lot of people and doing sessions, which is where I met Mike. I met the rest of the guys through my friendship with Mike around ten years ago.
R!S: And where did you get your nickname? Does everyone call you “Sput”?
Sput: [laughs] Yeah. My nickname came from my Auntie. Apparently I was a big fan of the Russian spaceship Sputnik, so they started to call me “Sput” for short.
R!S: Your website says you are a “collective of musicians in Dallas and NYC.” How many people are involved in this collective, and how do you base your band out of two cities?
Sput: There are more than thirty musicians involved in the collective part of the band, but there are thirteen core members that we call the immediate family.
Nate: The thirteen of us get the first call. As long as we’re available, it will be a band picked from those thirteen before Mike starts reaching out into the larger collective. The collective keeps growing and growing because Mike likes to hear the different takes of all these different fabulous musicians who end up playing his music in the band. All thirteen of us have played some of these songs close to 1,000 times. When a new addition comes in, the music takes a turn and everyone gets re-inspired, causing us to create again. This is what keeps the music fresh.
R!S: I know Snarky Puppy has been involved in several collaborative projects. Who has been your most inspirational collaborator so far?
Sput: We have worked with a LOT of people who are really talented and amazing, but I think the Family Dinner – Volume 1 project would probably be one of the most epic moments I can remember collaborating with an artist. Lalah Hathaway was one of the many wonderful artists we worked with on that album, but the actual moment we created the track “Something” with her was a moment I will never forget. Of course, the Grammy nomination and winning the Grammy was also amazing, but I’m speaking of the actual moment when the track was created.
Nate: You know the part of “Something” where the band breaks down and it’s just Corey Henry on organ and Lalah singing? That was not planned! First of all, we didn’t have much time to rehearse with any of the artists for Family Dinner – Volume 1. The way these records always happen is that everything is organized, but then it comes down to the last minute in the actual creation. So if we have eighteen hours to work with and there are eight artists, subtract some time for breaks and there’s maybe an hour or an hour and a half for each artist.
While we were rehearsing with Lalah, someone commented, “This is sounding great, but we’re really not featuring Lalah as much as we should be, especially towards the end of the song.” We did two takes of the song, and in the second take, Mike just felt it and cut the band off on a whim while Corey and Lalah starting going at it. A lot of vocalists are so talented, but Lalah is a true musician. The natural happening of that particular moment is a perfect example of why.
Sput: That’s what she came up with when she was put on the spot! Give it a listen if you haven’t heard it.
Video: Snarky Puppy. Family Dinner, Volume 1. Something, Lalah Hathaway
Nate: Another memorable musician we’ve worked with is keyboardist Bernard Wright. His resume is ridiculous; he has appeared on recordings by Miles Davis, Cameo, Bobby Brown, and many more. One of the major things everyone would recognize him for is the Ghostbusters theme song! Sput had known Bernard since he was a kid and got him to come check out our Snarky Puppy show in Dallas. We were just out of college at this point; a couple of us were still in college. After hearing us, Bernard wanted to play in the band himself. This just blew our mind! He ended up playing with the band on and off for a good year and a half, and he had a huge influence on the sound of the band. Every single member of Snarky Puppy would agree that he kind of changed our viewpoint of what the music could be and the approach we have on stage. He took the inspiration to the next level, and that will always stand out to me. Bernard Wright: one of the most amazing keyboard players and musicians in the world; and we’re so lucky to have had him play with us.
Sput: Yeah, that was great. We haven’t seen him recently, but when we do we invite him back on stage. It really inspires us to play with him.
R!S: Who are some of your biggest musical influences outside of people you’ve worked with—people you either grew up listening to or continue to listen to and take inspiration from?
Sput: For me, it would be people like George Duke, Donny Hathaway, the Beatles, Toto, and the Hawkins Family from the gospel scene. The list goes on; it’s a big list.
Nate: Names that stick out for me are Bill Summers, the percussionist for Herbie Hancock during the Headhunters years, and Alex Acuña for all his work with Weather Report. My father exposed me to Led Zeppelin when I was so young, so John Bonham and those types of drummers really inspired me. Right now it’s some younger guys that just make my jaw drop to the floor after hearing them: Weedie Braimah, an incredible djembe player who plays with this band called The Nth Power, and Mike Mitchell, Sput’s 20-year old godson who has already been playing with Stanley Clarke for several years. I mean, there’s all kinds of great musicians out there.
R!S: Tell us about Snarky Puppy’s commitment to music education and your continued visits to the Music Lab at the Jefferson Center in Roanoke, Virginia. Do you do a lot of outreach events when you’re on tour?
Sput: We have visited the Jefferson Music Lab more times than we can count on our hands. We have made many friends there and consider the Jefferson Center community our family, which was one of the reasons why we decided to record Family Dinner – Volume 1 there. The kids we’ve had the chance to meet and work with there are amazing and we’ve basically watched them grow up. It’s been an enjoyable experience to see their talent progress in such a short time just because of all the things they are exposed to. You really have to remember that it’s not a school; it’s just a program. It keeps the kids out of trouble, and at the same time they are able to learn about music and meet all these very positive musicians, artists, singers, and actors/actresses. It’s a very beautiful thing, and we are glad to be a part of it.
Nate: We first started doing outreach early on because it made sense logistically in our schedule. When on tour, we realized nobody would come out to a show on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, so we started visiting schools on those days instead. Once we started, we just fell in love with the concept because it keeps us tied to the next generation of musicians. When you go to college for music, it’s your passion and sometimes the only thing you could imagine doing with your life. However, students often don’t understand that you have to treat it like a business and learn how to market yourself after you practice really hard and learn your craft. We find in a lot of these clinics that the questions we are answering are things we had to learn by just grinding it out. So it’s really inspiring for us to help that next generation understand what it takes.
Video: The Fortress Sessions: Nate Werth and Robert ‘Sput’ Searight of Snarky Puppy
R!S: If you had to sum up the advice you typically give to the next generation of musicians in your education clinics, what would it be?
Nate: Most importantly to follow your passion. If you’re dreaming of something that hasn’t been done, but it feels right and it feels natural, you have to follow that passion. But at the same time, it’s not a competition. People get caught in the audition part of the industry; but we need to remember that we’re in this together. If someone gets a gig over you, it’s just because that person’s audition was right for that gig. It’s often hard for young musicians to understand that; they feel like they did something wrong. The other important thing to remember is that this is a social industry. If you have good energy and show that you’re having a great time listening to the people you’re playing with on stage, people will want to work with you.
Sput: To add to that, always be willing and eager to learn. Back in the day, we didn’t have all these outlets of social media. We had to really search to find records that weren’t easily accessible via the Internet. Be accountable for everything you are trying to accomplish. Don’t just play drums or don’t just play percussion; learn your craft. Learn everything about your craft. That way, when you do get a gig, you’re prepared enough to handle whatever they throw at you no matter what the genre or style of music. You’re prepared because you studied.
R!S: That is great advice. You also have a duo project now called Ghost-Note.
Nate and Sput: Yeah!
Sput: We’re really excited about that.
R!S: Talk about Ghost-Note and tell us when we can pick up your new CD/DVD project, Fortified.
Sput: Well, we just finished recording the record. Since it’s a DVD in addition to a CD, we definitely have a task ahead to not only mix the record, but also to edit the video. So unfortunately you’re not going to get it until the early summer. For the most part, the record is about Nate and I, but it also features all the guys in the Ghost-Note band. It’s really weird to geek out on your own stuff, but we’re pretty geeked out about it. We’re very happy and can’t wait to share it with all of you.
Nate: We’ve been talking about doing a duo record that focuses on the connection between drums and percussion for a while now. The full Ghost-Note band is made up of five guys: myself, Sput, my brother Nick Werth, and two of Sput’s really close friends, Cleon Edwards and TaRon Lockett. The concept for the band came from the recording sessions. They went so well it blossomed into the idea that we could actually take this on the road and perform live. We’re very excited about the project, and it’s fun to just be a band of drummers!
Video: Ghost-Note Trailer
R!S: And you’re going to go on tour with Ghost-Note this month?
Nate: We are on tour from January 24 through February 4 playing eleven shows in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama.
R!S: Tell us about some of your upcoming projects with Snarky Puppy. It looks like you have two new records coming out soon: Sylva with the Metropole Orchestra and Family Dinner – Volume 2.
Nate: Yes. We recorded Sylva last April, and it will be released this April on Impulse! Records as a CD/DVD double-disc and a vinyl LP. We’ll also tour with the Metropole Orchestra following the release. As for Family Dinner – Volume 2, we start rehearsals February 5, rehearse for about four or five days, and then track for three days.
R!S: My last question is probably the one you have been asked a lot this year: What did it feel like to win a Grammy Award? Snarky Puppy has had an incredible journey over the past ten years; what was that moment like?
Sput: Obviously it was an incredible moment. There’s no way we expected to get that! Definitely did not expect it.
R!S: Had you been nominated before that?
Sput: No. We had never been on the radar for mainstream music at all. The nomination itself was an incredible feat because we’re an independent band on an independent label. There’s nothing mainstream about us. So to be recognized by the Academy was amazing in itself.
Nate: Especially in the category we were nominated for: best R&B performance. If someone got the reaction of the band when we were sitting down in the seats…priceless! Whenever someone won an award there would be a couple of claps. When we won, all thirteen of us actually screamed. I must have scared the pants off the person who was sitting in front of me. It was funny.
Sput: Overall it was just a great moment: from walking down the aisle, to accepting the award and everything that came with it. The funny thing is that we went back on tour and it was business as usual as soon as we left. It’s a direct humbling because you don’t really reap the benefits of winning that award immediately. But it’s been a good boost for the band from every angle you could imagine. We get a lot more recognition individually as well as collectively. We’re able to do what Ghost-Note is doing because of the recognition we get for winning a Grammy as Snarky Puppy.
Nate: To generalize, I think that award basically inspired every member of the band to get involved in more great things and to try to produce even more music that we feel proud to stand by. So to have all these experiences and to win the award—and then it’s like, “Oh my God, I’ve gotta go practice!” So it’s that rush of inspiration all over again.
R!S: Thank you so much for sharing your time and story with Rhythm! Scene and the PAS community.
Sput: Thank you for the opportunity. Everyone should go “like” our Facebook page, “Ghost-Note,” and look out for our new record!
For more information about Snarky Puppy or Ghost-Note, visit them on the web:
Snarky Puppy Website
Snarky Puppy Facebook page
Ghost-Note Facebook page