LONDON, ENGLAND – I had the awesome opportunity to interview one of the founding members and current pianist for band Snarky Puppy. Bill Laurance, an artist in his own rite, took some time and chatted with me while in the studio working on his upcoming sophomore release. (As you can tell, I was geeked when he played small clips to emphasize his points during our interview). He shares about the process of his current release “Flint”, his band leader Mike League, what it meant to find his true sound, how honesty affected/affects his music, and the importance of having a community. Enjoy.
How would you define your sound?
Maz the trumpet player from Snarky Puppy and I were talking about this at a gig one time. He kinda coined it as “classical soul” and I quite liked that. I think that it sums up where I come from. I’m classically trained and I come up with classical music with a soulful perspective (in terms of a more Latin groove perspective, with more head bopping going on). I think classical soul sums it up.
The song “Ready Wednesday” was first heard in Snarky Puppy’s “Tell Your Friends” back in 2010 and has evolved through the years on tours and performances and has resurfaced as a refreshed body of work. What does “Ready Wednesday” mean to you?
The title came quick really. The idea is that if you’re not ready by Wednesday, than you never will be. Whenever I was at work or school, when it got to Wednesday I would say “I’m ready to make stuff happen.”
Why the title “Flint?”
It was a combination of two main ideas. The first was doing the show in Flint, MI and the fans saying “Hey England, come over here!” and just experiencing such an amazing show with amazing people. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the album as well, so I dedicated the album to that city. Also while writing the album I was searching for a word that represented ‘the beginning of things.’ Even though I’ve made previous albums in the past, this is the first one I officially released. One was a straight ahead jazz album, one was a pop record with me singing, and the other was this electro duo. They were all inspirations of the sound I was looking for but Flint for me was an arriving point of what I was looking for. I got a clear sense of what my sound is and what I was searching for. I like how it has a Neanderthal reference: the cave man and the beginning of the fire with a flint.
In the documentary of “Flint” it seemed like everything that could go wrong did, yet you kept your cool. Are you always like that?
I try to make a point of keeping under wraps I suppose. I would say Michael League is incredible in making a bad situation a good one. He was integral in keeping me sane, and without him I would have been lost. He’s just brilliant. Through the years he’s had to deal with so many difficult and last minute situations with the band that he’s grown accustomed to how to respond. All credit to Mike. I guess when you have a team that’s strong around you, and everyone wants to make it work, it’s always gonna be alright.
In the documentary, the main core of the project was Bill Laurance, Michael League, Robert “Sput” Searight, and videographer Andy Laviolette.What have you learned from Mike, Sput, and Andy during the recording of Flint?
I definitely learned the significance of staying calm and ‘what is the most constructive response in a difficult situation.’ Every day we’re faced with problems and with a choice of how we respond to them. I learned that peace is a key part of keeping things in the most constructive place. Just allowing everything to run as smooth as possible, because ultimately stress isn’t good for anyone.
Also compositionally there’s a lot of stuff I left open. I didn’t come in the session with everything completely nailed down for how I wanted it to go. I think I also learned about not being too much of a dictator of ideas and trying to allow that piece of freedom to others. When you’re dealing with musicians, like Mike and Sput, you kinda have to leave it open so the best ideas can come out. Ultimately they’re going to put themselves on the record and it’s going to have a bit more personality.
I feel like Snarky Puppy is not just a band but a community. What has it been like to have a community like that, and is that something that artists should have and cultivate?
It’s definitely vital. It’s where all of the music come in a way. We’re all so close and determined to do the best with each other in that, whenever someone in the band says ‘I’m doing a record’ the whole band gives all of themselves in that opportunity. I feel like you can hear the community in the music. I wrote the majority of the compositions and string lines on the record, but then Mike went in and rearranged them. His dedication to that and how he threw himself into it is a huge part of why it sounds the way it does. I think the whole Family Dinner community idea is integral in how the band sounds and interacts. The band trusts each other to where we can afford to take risks in soloing and vamping. I think it’s all about trust.
What is the biggest advice you would give to artists and musicians who want to do what you’re doing?
For me it was one of those right time, right place moments. I was extremely lucky to have met Mike ten years ago as he was forming Snarky Puppy and that has afforded me to have the platform that I have. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great artists and musicians.
I think the best advice that I can give is to be honest with the music you love. I felt like in the past the reasons why I made music were rather misguided. In the times that I felt like things were happening was when I was completely honest and making the music that I loved. I think it’s important to be consistent and persistent in your search of music that genuinely moves you. Obviously nothing comes easy and for me it’s been a ten year search.
As a pianist, what is your practice routine like and what is your advice for developing one for novice musicians?
There used to be a time where I practiced everyday, but now I don’t have time to really practice. I would say that my routine these days is primarily my compositions. I practice through my compositions. With that being said it all begins with scales and arpeggios, as boring as that is. My first teacher was a ragtime player and he got me through it, and I learned the scales because I really wanted to play ragtime. There has to be a positive reason as to why you’re practicing. You can’t do it like you’re going to the gym, there has to be creative reason why you’re practicing. All technique or composing for that matter all stem from scales and arpeggios.
The routine has to be personal to you. Find artists that you love and sit down and practice their stuff, as well as understand what they’re doing. Also schedule your practices. When I used to do it everyday I would practice from 12 to 2 everyday. For me it was always staying honest and making sure that whatever I was doing was what I really wanted to do.
Prefacing our conversation, he let me know that he was in the studio working on his next album and will be doing some recording in Woodstock, NY. I got to ask him: What can we expect on this one (what are you wanting us to get on this one)?
One of the things that I felt good about ‘Flint’ was its eclecticism and how wide its spectrum was. I guess I want to evolve that idea further. I wanted to break down the barriers between genres even more. I also wanted to try and take a few more risks creatively and compositionally. I’m still trying to forge this ‘classical soul’ idea.
You can go HERE to listen to and buy the digital album and/or the CD/DVD combo. You can also go HERE to check out his main page and get info on his tour dates. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.