You will never learn enough: Michael League

You will never learn enough: Michael League

Micheal League is one of the people that you are having trouble deciding where to start talking about him. He is a musician, an owner of a record company and a music festival and also a producer who works with pioneers of jazz, rock and funk industry. We will be seeing him this year, in the 26th Istanbul Jazz Festival, with his three Grammy Award-winning band Snark Puppy. We met with this musician who is just in his 30s, in a small restaurant of Şişhane. Even at the beginning of our meeting, we could see the hardworking man behind this never-ending creativity of him. He came to Istanbul to get tambourine lessons from Tarık Aslan despite his hectic touring, recording and production schedule. His interest in this which has no concept of distance is one of the reasons that he is not only skilled in bass but also in many other instruments. His relationship with Istanbul is not just related to his music lessons. He performed with many various artists, ranging from Kardeş Türküler to Kenan Doğulu, in this city which he calls it as “one of my favorite places”. He is an energetic, positive person and he is very caring towards the world around him. In fact, he will be performing at a refugee center for Syrian children in Balat after our interview. We traveled from topic to topic, city to city during our conversations with him. We are especially interested in his concert on July 9th very much. 

How do you describe your latest album Immigrance and how do you compare it to your previous records?

Michael League: I feel like it is a little bit rawer than Culcha Vulcha. We recorded both Culcha Vulcha and Immigrance in the same studio which was on the border of Texas and Mexico. It was a big studio that we can all sleep in it. It was far away from everyone’s home, which I really liked. We could have done it in New York but there would have been so many distractions. Even though they were recorded with the same people, they’re very different from each other. We made some decisions to make the whole thing a bit darker on Immigrance. 

How did the setting you recorded influence you? 

Michael League: Being away from the rest of the world and not being in front of a live audience allow you to explore new things without feeling the pressure of getting validation from the audience. Because if the audience is bored, it’s very easy to just play some things to get them excited but when it’s just you, you can really continue down on your own path and see where it leads. I think we did that. Influence from Turkey is hugely traceable on your new record. The last song on the record, “Even Us” is probably the most obvious one. I’m playing an oud on it. There’s a song called “Bigly Strictness” and at the end of that song, I actually used a rhythm of Mısırlı Ahmet. 

What comes to your mind when you think about these instruments and rhythms?

Michael League: There are a lot different kinds of Turkish music. But one of the most noticeable elements of Turkish music for a Westerner is that it’s super emotional, serious and dark. I’m sure there’s a word in Turkish for it. I think you can’t really separate the instruments or the rhythms from that feeling. That feeling comes with the rhythms and the sounds of the instruments. 

An image of Zeycan Alkış is on the cover of your latest album. How did you end up discovering her?

Michael League: I was living in Istanbul for six weeks. During that time, I played a gig with Defjen and Kardeş Türküler in Volkwagen Arena. Zeycan had done the graphics for one of the songs on their record, Yol. They had projections of these graphics during this one Greek song. By the way, my family is Greek. I researched the artist and saw all of her work. I’ve been a fan of hers for years. When I came up with the album title, it immediately made sense to use this image of this fish of hers. I actually just emigrated from America to Spain. Tomorrow, Tarık Aslan and I are going to go play for these Syrian refugee kids in Balat. And this is a very different kind of immigration. These kids are not immigrants of luxury. I moved to Spain because I want to live in Spain. It’s something different. But whether you’re immigrating like me or you’re immigrating like them, you leave your old skin behind. But you bring your bones. You bring the essence of who you are to the new place. So for me, the fish image was perfect. 

You roots are going all the way back to Greece. You lived in United States and now you moved to Spain. How do you see all those immigrant issues from your perspective?

Michael League: It’s hard to imagine what I would think, if I didn’t have that story of my family being in Greece and moving to America. But I don’t think you need to be an immigrant to understand that. No human being is really from anywhere. Maybe this guy’s family has been here for 2000 years. But before that, they weren’t here. It seems ridiculous for us to say; “OK, starting from now no one should move!” My president (Donald Trump) says this but his grandfather was an immigrant. Wasn’t he? His wife is an immigrant. 

How do you feel about people whom don’t get the logic and reasons behind immigration? Especially in United States?

Michael League: Americans are the last people in the world that should have an anti-immigration stance because our entire country is not only built by but based upon it. To me it’s really silly. When you travel these ideas become clearer. The guy working at the restaurant here, maybe he’s never traveled. Maybe he thinks in a different kind of way. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy or understanding for people who feel differently. But if you just use a little bit of logic and a little bit of knowledge of history, then you’re going to understand that immigration is an essential part of the human story. 

How about your life in a village near Barcelona? Why did move and how does it shape your music?

Michael League: I had lived for 10 years in New York. It’s a long time. I’m very comfortable there. But New York is a very fast moving city. You get on the train, you fall asleep, and when wake up it’s like six years have gone by. Moving to this village is an attempt to slow my life. And not going like “Oh, I can’t write. Because in an hour I need to go see this fucking amazing band.” In this village there isn’t even a restaurant. I’m in the point of my life where I just want to spend a little more time alone. For 15 straight years, I’ve been surrounded by people every day. 

Now art is a passion and obsession. It’s like a place where everyone can feel love and beauty.

What was the best part of being surrounded by so many diverse musicians?

Michael League: It’s great to be reminded every day that you will never learn enough. I mean, look at Tarık. There are things that I know that he doesn’t know. But there’s so much he knows, that I could spend my life trying to learn and I would never learn it right. Because he grew up playing music in a certain kind of way, in a certain place. Actually for me that’s like a relief. Because it tells you; “Don’t try to be another Kurdish tambourine player.” Learn the instrument, learn the tradition, learn the rhythms, learn how to get a good sound and then do something unique with it. I want to take these instruments and my knowledge of them to create music that’s mine. 

How did your music evolve over the years? 

Michael League: It’s kind of funkier for sure. In the beginning we were more of a jazz band. When we started adding musicians from R&B, hip-hop scene, and the music got a lot funkier. It’s taken a lot more elements from music from around the world. As we’ve had more success the band get more interested in trying new things. We don’t feel the pressure to please people. 

Considering the variety and richness of your music, how do you put those into your live performances?

Michael League: We approach playing live completely different from the studio. Compared to the studio, we have half the members on stage when we’re touring. You have to change things. When we play live we just take the essential elements of the songs. We make sure that everyone plays. Then we start to variate and change stuff. So over the course of a tour the songs change a lot. It’s a completely different experience. 

You have a label and you are also organizing a festival. What are your goals with these two?

Michael League:We’ve changed a lot of things in the record label. The music industry has changed quite a bit. So we’re trying to figure out how to exist with the new system. And actually it’s going really well. We also launched this festival (GroundUP Music Festival) in Miami. Every festival in the world tries to book successful and famous artists. But my goal is to not do that. How many festivals can have Herbie Hancock or Sting? The world doesn’t need another festival that books these artists. I want to have a festival which books artists that no one heard of and yet still successful. 

Now that we talked about fame and success, how do you feel about the Grammy’s that you’ve won?

Michael League: I appreciate the three Grammy’s we have won. They have helped us so much to get more respect. They opened doors for creative possibilities. It was a token of appreciation for the guys in the band. We can make enough money to survive. Grammys played a very big part in this. That said, I think it is important to remember that art is art. It’s completely subjective. Winning an award on Sunday doesn’t make you any better of a musician that you were on Saturday. Art and awards are separate things. You have to work every day to make your art better. That’s an individual journey that has nothing to with awards. 

Why do you make art in the first place? 

Michael League: There are million ways to answer this question. At this point, I’m kind of addicted to it. When I was a kid, I really had a strong emotional relationship to music. I kind of knew that it was going to be a part of me. With time, it’s grown. Now it’s a passion and obsession. It’s like a place where everyone can feel love and beauty. Because the world is full of suffering. To have a thing like food, art, dance, which makes people see the world as a beautiful place, regardless of the other shit going on, is important. That’s why I think art is very important. 

Author: Alper Bahçekapılı