Snarky Puppy bandmates Michael League and Bill Laurance have enjoyed making music together for nearly 20 years. When the opportunity to record as a duo arose, they leapt at the chance.
Michael League is a hard man to pin down. When we connect via Zoom a week before Christmas, the bassist and composer had just stepped outside of a pub in Budapest, where he’d been enjoying a bowl of goulash while watching the World Cup finals with members of Söndörgő, a local band he’d flown in the day before to see perform. The next day he’d fly back home to Catalonia, Spain, before spending the bulk of January in Cuba. That’s just the short stretch of time heading into a year when League will cover much of the globe with his band Snarky Puppy.
Bill Laurance is a bit easier to find, though just barely. While the pianist and keyboardist will be a part of those tireless Snarky Puppy tours, as he has been since the recording of the band’s first album in 2005, he’d managed to carve out a bit of downtime for himself around the holiday season, spending some much-needed weeks at home in South London. That came at the tail end of a year in which he’d released his eighth solo album, Affinity
, as well as a live recording with the Manchester-based Untold Orchestra — not to mention the 14th Snarky Puppy album, Empire Central
So when considering the title of Where You Wish You Were
(ACT), the new duo album by Laurance and League, it’s difficult to imagine a place where the pair hasn’t been, or in fact won’t circle back to again soon. In listening to the surprisingly serene and spacious album, however, it soon becomes clear that the place they’re referring to isn’t somewhere you could locate on a map. It’s an imaginary realm, represented in part by the otherworldly red sand dunes on the album’s cover, made up of bits of tradition, influence and experience traversed by the two musicians over the course of a nearly 20-year friendship.
“Music is an incredible pathway that can take you to places where you can’t physically go,” League explains. “This record, for me, is about escape. It captures the idea of being in two places at once and aspiring for something different. It’s very much a winter record, and it takes you to a dreamy place.”
Penned largely in December 2020, recorded the following May and released in January 2023, Where You Wish You Were
was both conceived and delivered in the winter months. It is also, of course, a pandemic record — though at this point in our tentative recovery from years of lockdown and loss, what isn’t? There’s a wistfulness and a faint, unplaceable exoticism to the music that does suggest gazing out a window at the wide world beyond, imagining oneself anywhere but the proverbial here.
“We recorded the album in the throes of the second round of lockdown,” Laurance says. “There was a lot of uncertainty in the world — and there still is. I think instinctively we were trying to create a place where you might escape to. The title alludes to a world that you can recognize but that’s obviously somewhere you haven’t been before, a little bit foreign and unknown.”
At its most massive, Snarky Puppy has traveled with a crew of 25, more recently boasting an ensemble of 19 to generate the blissed-out grooves of Empire Central
. So when the opportunity arose for Laurance and League to tour as a duo for the first time in their longstanding collaboration, the idea came not only as an intriguing artistic challenge but as a logistical relief.
“We’ve been so used to epic arrangements, we really enjoyed the freedom of a duo,” Laurance says. “Whether it’s with Snarky or working with the Metropole Orkest or the WDR Big Band, we’ve worked a lot on quite a grand scale. This was an opportunity to go to the other end of the spectrum. Obviously we get to improvise a lot in the context of Snarky and in my band, but here was an opportunity to open that up even further.”
“It’s a joy to have so much freedom and flexibility,” echoes League. “We don’t have to plan anything. We don’t have to really do anything other than just sit down and listen to each other. The music can go as far in any direction as we want because we don’t have to herd 10 cats.”
The project was born of necessity, as COVID limited the options for European festivals in the summer of 2020. With Laurance in the UK and League based in Spain, a Snarky Puppy reduction proved an enticing prospect, while paring down to a duo minimized health risks. So League and Laurance spent a few weeks that summer touring festivals in Italy, playing a mix of Snarky songs, tunes the two had recorded together on Laurance’s solo albums, and covers.
“We hired a car and took a road trip through Italy,” Laurance recalls. “There was no tour manager, no sound man. We’d be driving and see a hilltop village, turn to each other and be like, ‘Are you hungry? Let’s go.’ In terms of touring life, it’s the perfect set-up. It’s very malleable.”
For Laurance in particular, the experience harkened back to the pair’s early days playing together, before their hectic schedules fell victim to their success. The two had met while the pianist was a student at the University of Leeds and League, then enrolled at the University of North Texas, was visiting a mutual friend. The two ended up sharing the stage for the first time at a show in Bridlington, a coastal town in Yorkshire, after which League extended an invitation for Laurance to visit Dallas and record with the new band he had recently assembled.
"It was just one of those right time, right place things,” Laurance shrugs. “I was going back and forth for years — sleeping on sofas, playing house parties and coming back 400 quid in the red but having had the time of my life. Those were some of the best days of the Snarky years, where no one was really making any money but we were crafting and having such a good time. It’s funny, it’s only now that everyone’s in nice hotels that people start complaining.”
Since those early days, Laurance has been a constant throughout Snarky Puppy’s discography, while League has appeared on and produced many of the keyboardist’s solo albums, beginning with his 2014 debut Flint
. The two have also recorded together on three albums by legendary vocalist David Crosby and with Banda Magda, led by Greek-born singer-composer Magda Giannikou.
“When we met, there were fireworks, like love at first sight,” Laurance says with a chuckle. “I felt like I’d found somebody that I would want to know for a long time. He was so inspiring, and I think he was kind of fascinated by me because I was British. We’re both similarly ambitious in that we’re determined to keep looking for new sounds and new combinations of sounds. We’re also both peacemakers and we look for solutions, so if there’s a problem we just try to figure out how to make it easier for everyone. I think that has informed every project we’ve ever worked on.”
“Bill and I always connected, since the first day I met him,” League says. “We have a lot in common musically, but we also approach things stylistically and creatively in different ways. We became very, very good friends, but our personalities are very different. So I think there’s just enough stuff in the center of the Venn diagram for it to connect and just enough stuff on the outside for it not to feel like a monolith.”
Throughout Where You Wish You Were
, Laurance plays acoustic piano, while League juggles oud
, fretless acoustic bass guitar, fretless baritone electric guitar and the eight-string traditional African ngoni
. Though a far cry from the buoyant funk and fusion-driven sounds of Snarky Puppy, the duo’s music shares the band’s knack for vibrant, memorable melodies and succinct song forms. There’s an unexpected starkness and an airy sense of space to the album’s 11 compositions rarely heard in the pair’s other collaborations or solo work. But the eclectic spirit and singability of the tunes feel of a piece with the instincts that have garnered Snarky Puppy its four Grammy Awards.
“Bill and I both grew up loving and listening to pop music,” League says. “I think we share this mentality and tend to think about music in a very organized way, making sure that it feels and does what it’s supposed to do. We’re both engineered to want to create and deliver succinct, expressive, emotive messages in the simplest and most direct way possible. We want to communicate clearly and not really provide room for fluff. That’s what we both like to hear as listeners, and so naturally it’s what we want to create.”
League’s use of oud
on the album inevitably connects the music with the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and West African traditions from which those instruments developed. He and Laurance are both quick to dismiss any suggestion that they’re attempting a sort of world music fusion, perhaps in part preemptively cautious about accusations of cultural appropriation, but also because League is not in fact utilizing these instruments in a folkloric fashion.
“I would never pretend to be a traditional musician in any context,” he insists. “I think instruments with sounds that are so strong, like ngoni
, immediately put you in a certain space, and it’s very easy to succumb to the temptation to bask in the aesthetics of their traditions without really having command over them. I feel no shame in admitting that I do not have command over the traditions of either of those instruments, even if I’m a fan of those genres of music. When I’m practicing, I try to learn the real shit, but when I’m performing, I’m focused on playing them in the way that I feel is genuine, authentic and true to who I am as a musician, rather than trying to make some weird C-grade imitation of a longstanding musical legacy.”
“I know Mike did not set out to represent a traditional kind of oud
technique,” adds Laurance. “As much as he wanted to pay respect to the very deep history of that instrument, he was keen to just play it the way he plays it. In doing so, it places that [familiar] sound in a more contemporary context, which is quite a refreshing combination.”
In a sense, the music conjured by League and Laurance is of an ilk better suited to the always uncomfortable term “world music” than the more traditionally rooted sounds typically tagged with the label. There’s a note of condescension and Western-centrism inherent in lumping together any folk music outside of the European classical tradition as “world music,” but Where You Wish You Were
is a fusion of global sounds that more accurately fits that vaguely defined term. It shares that quality with League’s ensemble Bokanté, which brought together influences from across the blues diaspora, in particular West African music and Delta blues, to create its own style-hopping hybrid.
League meanwhile dampens his piano strings with extra felt, resulting in a warm and cushioned sound that bolsters the atmospheric ambience of the music. Recorded at League’s home studio in Els Prats de Rei, Catalonia, Where You Wish You Were
resonates with a sense of open space, embracing the intimacy of the duo and situating their respective voices within a distinctive environment.
“We really wanted to drill down on the subtlety and purity of a composition,” Laurance says. “We tried to take away all the bells and whistles and just find the most distilled core of the composition in its purest form.”
There’s a hint of desert haze in the traded melody of “La Marinada,” which opens the album, followed by the entrancing arabesques of League’s “Meeting of the Mind.” A dance between piano and bass, “Round House” is the liveliest example of the duo’s bristling chemistry, while Laurance’s simply titled “Duo” dwells in a more hushed and tender realm, like secrets whispered between trusted friends. “Tricks” ventures closest to Snarky territory, its elastic groove and staccato piano hits evoking an acoustic reimagining of electronic music.
Eclecticism has come to be a defining factor of Snarky Puppy’s identity, and also the only unifying thread tying together League’s varied efforts as a producer, which have included projects by Crosby, jazz-pop singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, Afro-Peruvian vocalist Susana Baca, Portuguese fado
singer Gisela João, and most recently a meeting of Cuban rumba ensemble Los Muñequitos de Matanzas and Havana-based jazz group Afrocuba. Laurance shares a similar range, with solo albums veering from solo piano to orchestral collaborations and ambient electronica. Where You Wish You Were
can be traced to the same restless curiosity, but it’s a much more tightly focused affair that finds these two artists responding simply to one another in real-time. “We made a point of focusing in on the fragility and intimacy of just two instruments, two musicians,” Laurance concludes. “Our tendency has always been overdub, overdub, overdub, but here we found ourselves peeling back rather than adding. With the recording, we were keen on trying to capture the essence of two people playing together in a room. It has a kind of naked feeling about it.”
“We were definitely trying to create a unique world emotionally,” adds League, “where intimacy and leanness were the priorities. The objective was to create music that sounds good with just two humans playing live, which we very rarely do, and to not rely on production to give the music its mojo.” - Shaun Brady
Photos by Txus Garcia.