Lucinda Breeding: Snarky Puppy won fans by making connections

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Christi LaViolette/Courtesy photo
Snarky Puppy has about 30 rotating band members, but some of the core musicians are, from left, Chris Bullock, Mike Maher, Shaun Martin, Michael League, Robert “Sput” Searight, Bob Lanzetti, Nate Werth and Mark Lettieri.
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Mike League supposes that winning a Grammy Award will yield bigger paychecks to the musicians of Snarky Puppy roughly 10 months from now. The Denton-born band just picked up the golden gramophone for Best R&B Performance with soulful songtress Lalah Hathaway.

“We book our gigs anywhere from eight to 10 months out,” League said at a recent panel discussion at Dan’s Silverleaf. “We’re already seeing that the Grammy is making a difference. We’re selling out venues that we booked almost a year ago — which means that the venues are making five times as much as the band.”

League said that everything you’ve heard about major awards has borne out for the 30-member band, an adventurous outfit that melds jazz and R&B.

“Absolutely,” League said before joining his bandmates at the long table set up at the downtown bar and music joint. “All of the obvious stuff has been happening. We’re getting better offers, crowds are better.”

Tenor saxophone player Chris Bullock said the bump in recognition started before the musicians left the Grammy ceremony.

“You see so many people at the Grammys, like people you totally idolize — people that you’ve dreamed of playing with,” Bullock said. “We were still at the ceremony and I saw this saxophone player I’ve idolized forever. So surreal, man. And I’m watching him and he’s walking past and goes, ‘Hey, Chris, congratulations.’ I’m just like, ‘This guy knows who I am?’ Yeah, it’s like, what?”

League is the founder of Snarky Puppy, and is unwaveringly seen as the band’s business manager. League organizes the band’s tours, books gigs and negotiates the group’s guarantee.

A guarantee is a pretty simple thing. It’s basically the number a venue owner or booking manager promises to a band no matter what, “even if no one shows up that night, you’re going to get paid that amount,” League said.

He said almost immediately after he gave the band’s acceptance speech at the Grammys, venues were agreeing on a higher guarantee.

The story of the financing of Snarky Puppy is almost as fascinating as the story of the band’s incredible hustle. League put together the bones of Snarky while still at UNT.

“This is such a college thing, but I remember the first gig I played with the band was the week freshmen are in town to do auditions for ensembles,” said Mike Maher, one of the band’s trumpet player, who was about to graduate. “We were playing in the basement at J&J’s [Pizza]. All these kids were coming up to us like, ‘You guys are awesome!’ And I’m like, ‘Ooookay. Dude, we started this band a week ago.’”

League kept at it. He knew Snarky Puppy was onto something, and decided debt was better than disbanding.

“What I did was take out two credit cards, and I paid for our first tour and everything with them, which is something I would not recommend to anyone,” he said. “I just knew that I wanted to do this and I wanted to be able to pay these guys.”

League said out of the 30 members of the band, a corps of 13 musicians — a revolving roster of the members and the occasional sub — generally performs. Almost all 30 performed on the album that would yield the Grammy win, Family Dinner: Vol. 1.

“We just went on like that, touring with me paying for everything with those credit cards until I maxed them out and couldn’t get any more money. Again, I would never, ever recommend anyone do what I did financially. It’s 10 years later and I’m just now getting to pay on those,” League said.

When the dollars ran out, League got real — the plan of attack that’s responsible in part for the respect he has from the other band members.

“I decided it was time for an honest conversation,” he said. “I told them I couldn’t pay them anymore. The money ran out. And I told them we had a choice. We could pack it in and call it, or we could go on and see if we could survive on what we brought in doing gigs. The guys said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The band gigged, toured and played — sometimes to a handful of people. They rumbled along in the van that elicits laughter from the musicians for a number of charms (the smell, the age, the tenacity of the vehicle to stay road-ready). They slept on floors. They learned how to find Laundromats in any town.

The band also learned to let League, who jokes that he still likes “to play in seventh” as the guitarist, follow his tenacious drive to book the band in towns with venue owners and booking mangers who were bent on keeping their doors closed to an untried group from Texas.

“We worked a region at a time,” he said. “It was a lot of calls and hundreds of e-mails that went unanswered. Then you get creative.”

League worked his own network. He saw a region he wanted to tour, and would call childhood friends or tastemakers in the towns he wanted to break into. He played in people’s basements at house shows.

“We started with doing two-week tours, then four-week tours, then six-week tours, then 12-week tours,” League said. “When we finally got booked into a venue, you show up, work your ass off during the first set for 18 people. And what happens is those people get on their phones and call their friends. And by the second set, you’re playing for 40 people.”

Ultimately, the band members said they promoted themselves into venues through building a fan base. The band would play, yes. But after they finished loading out their gear, they’d buy a beer and work the crowd. League said those nights created friendships — friendships created word of mouth. Finally, region by region, Snarky Puppy was able to make a little money by being able to book more than one show in a town.

“The bigger your fan base, the more nights you can play in that town. Now you’re making money,” he said. League said a certain momentum starts to build when the band collected 500 to 700 fans in a city. Those numbers nearly always meant a bump in music and merchandise sales.

“And that starts to add up,” he said.

Chris McQueen — who gained fans first in the Denton band Oso Closo, moved on to co-found Foe Destroyer and pick up a job as a guitarist in Snarky Puppy — said the band “obviously isn’t in it for money.”

“We do this because all of us have a need to create music, I think,” McQueen said.

Bullock said the money is hardly unwelcome. Since 2009, Bullock has devoted himself to Snarky Puppy as a full-time job and a way to make a living. League blanched at the old axiom that artists starve.

“We want to play music that is good, loved and uncompromised,” League said. “If you go ahead with the idea that you can’t make money being creative, then you’ll never make money.”

He did seem a little surprised, however, when told other musicians are citing Snarky Puppy as a major influence, such as Denton band the BoomBachs.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s weird,” he said. “No one who starts a band thinks they’re going to be an influence. I try not to think about that.”

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.

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