An Interview with Michael League

An Interview with Michael League

Following Snarky Puppy’s Jan. 26 Grammy victory for Best R&B Performance, the band’s founder, Centreville High grad Michael League, responded to the following questions.

Q: How did it feel to win the Grammy? Did you think you had a chance?

A: “It felt unbelievably fulfilling. I use that word because this band has spent almost 10 years working harder than any other band I've ever seen in some of the least glamorous conditions you can imagine for a touring group.

To be honest, I thought our odds were very, very slim. Besides Macklemore [and Ryan Lewis], we were the only group in the top 60 categories on an independent record label. That makes a difference.

And as the award ceremony went on, we saw that every single act that performed live ended up winning in their category. Hiatus Kaiyote, a great band from Australia, was in our category and performed right before the announcement. I was sure they'd win.”

Q: What do you think set your song apart from the others in your category?

A: “Well, the category is called Best R&B Performance, and our song was the only one recorded live, with no overdubs. I think that made a huge difference. Also, Lalah is one of the greatest singers in the world. The fact that she sang three notes simultaneously didn’t hurt, either.”

Q: Where's your next tour, and when?

A: “We head out for about 6 months [Jan. 29], starting in Virginia. It will take us through the U.S, Canada, Eastern and Western Europe, Russia, China, Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand — lots of places.”

Q: How did your experience at Centreville High help lay a foundation for your later success?

A: “I can't overemphasize the effect that studying music at Centreville had on me. When I joined the CVHS Jazz Band, director Dave Detwiler went above and beyond to give myself and Andrew Pangilinan (who is now in a military band in Sicily) extra-curricular learning experiences.

He would invite us to rehearse and perform weekly with the Georgetown University Jazz Band, and even got us on a gig performing with the legendary Dave Brubeck Quartet at Constitution Hall. This night changed my life.

In my senior year, I decided to switch from guitar to bass and played in one of the orchestras under Cheryl Cooley. I had never played acoustic bass in my life and couldn't read music. She had me come over to her house before the school year began and gave me private lessons. She also gave me a bunch of books that help you learn to sight-read. It was incredible.

I could share similar experiences I had with [Choral Director] Lynne Babcock, [guitar teacher] Bill Burke, [former Band Director] Beth Boivin and Theatre Directors Mike Hudson and Marc Rogers. All of these teachers went beyond the curriculum to help expand my love of and passion for art.

I also need to show my gratitude for non-art-department teachers John O'Rourke and Judy Condon, who supported my career throughout my CHVS career. They had a huge impact on me as a person and musician.

I loved music before, but high school is when I actually became obsessed with it. This is why it breaks my heart when I see music programs being cut across the country. Art inspires people — not just artists, but all people — to become better human beings. It lifts us up. It's not a thing to be discarded, but rather cherished and protected like the invaluable asset to our society that it is.”

Q: Any advice to other young, aspiring musicians?

A: “Yes, loads! In fact, Snarky Puppy is writing a book called ‘Van Days’ that looks back on this first decade of the band's existence. A lot of the book focuses on the things we've learned from falling on our faces, time after time.

The first thing I would say — and this isn't just for musicians — is that hard work pays off. Consistency and perseverance will set you apart from the majority of people in the world. Don't quit! Terrible bands have become famous simply because they kept at it. Imagine what happens if your band is great and it doesn't quit.

Another important thing is to learn the mechanics of music. Your ability to express yourself deepens when you have fundamental musical knowledge. It's just a tool, not the end result, but it's vital.

And lastly, surround yourself with musicians who inspire and challenge you. Growth is the thing that keeps music fresh. And making sure that they're good people is huge. After all, in a normal day on tour, you spend only about 90 minutes performing, vs. 14 hours just being around each other.”


Centreville High 2002 grad Michael League (in green shirt, in center) with some of his Snarky Puppy band mates.