Snarky Puppy’s ‘overnight success’ was a decade in the making
Snarky Puppy’s fortunes seemed to be on an upswing. Though it was still struggling to fill stateside venues, the band had just returned from its first European tour, a surprising success. The hope was to sell 50 tickets for the first show, in London; instead the group sold out a 400-capacity room. Back at the airport in Chicago afterward, the musicians buzzed among themselves: Maybe something is happening here.
They got into a van and drove more than 30 hours straight, to Takoma, Wash., for some West Coast shows. Over the first three nights, Snarky Puppy played to a total of about 100 people, says bandleader Michael League.
“The third night was my birthday, and there were three people there,” says League, recalling the story over the phone during a break in studio recording. “It was really a healthy smack in the face. Not that anybody was getting a big head, but the idea that just because something’s happening somewhere, it doesn’t mean you’re big [expletive].”
When Snarky Puppy, whose sound can best be described as a fresh form of jazz fusion, plays House of Blues on Wednesday, it’s guaranteed to have more than three people in the audience.
The instrumental ensemble, which includes a few core members and lots of rotating contributors, has kept a much higher profile since its surprising Grammy win in 2014, recently complemented by a second win in February. But it’s enjoying an “overnight success” that was a decade in the making.
“[The band was] 10 years old when we won our first Grammy. And for about eight of those years, probably nine, no one really cared about us. We couldn’t buy press. Probably 30 percent of our gigs, we were playing for less people in the audience than there were onstage,” League says.
Snarky Puppy was born at the University of North Texas, where League and some of his early collaborators were in the jazz program. League was pulled into the Dallas-area circuit of gospel and R&B players, which he says added personality to the compositions he was writing.
“When Mike started the band, he really just had written some tunes and wanted to have his friends play them,” says guitarist Bob Lanzetti, who was in that first crowd of collaborators and an inaugural member of Snarky Puppy’s shifting ensemble in 2004. He’ll be in the formation of the group that plays Boston, which will also include guest vocalist Lucy Woodward.
League says there are 26 or 27 musicians who have played as members of the band this year and last. On a given night, he says, an ensemble of 10 feels right. The personnel is booked on a tour-by-tour basis. For a longer tour like the present one, which stretches from late April to early September, there’ll be one basic band for the Far East dates, another for Europe, and two for the US portion.
“The great thing about that is it keeps the music really alive when you have these new voices every few months. It’s always made it stay alive and go in new directions and go to new territories in songs. It’s always been great to have that rotating cast of people,” Lanzetti says.
Very much known as a live band, Snarky Puppy has made distribution of concert recordings a priority. Many are available for download, and a CD box set of 16 complete shows from 2015 is for sale. The usual process is to record Snarky Puppy albums live-to-tape in the studio, with audience members along for the ride to increase the performance vibe.
All of which makes “Culcha Vulcha,” the new LP released on April 29, an event. It’s the first traditionally recorded studio album of original material the band has cut since 2008’s “Bring Us the Bright.” League describes it as “darker and more mature” than previous efforts, though fans will likely find the sound familiar.
“I think at its core, the foundation of the band is composition, actually, which is funny to me when we get reviews that call us a jam band,” League says. “Actually, people call us a lot of things. To me, it’s a band that plays songs, first and foremost, and the songs dictate the direction of the band. They determine the direction of improvisation, they determine everything. Everything is built around serving the song.”
Each of Snarky Puppy’s Grammy Awards — for best R&B performance (the song “Something”) and best contemporary instrumental album (“Sylva”) — was for a collaboration, with vocalist Lalah Hathaway on the former and Metropole Orkest on the latter. So “Culcha Vulcha” is a chance to showcase the band in its own clothes, now that so many more people are listening.
“When you’ve been ignored for a decade, it feels weird,” to get heightened attention, League says, “and I think that’s a big part of our identity and our makeup, making music and making records and touring despite the fact that no one’s listening.”
It may be too late for that part, now.
At House of Blues, May 4 at 7 p.m. Tickets: $32. 800-745-3000, www.livenation.com