Interview: Mark Lettieri, Snarky Puppy

The funk. You just can’t get away from it these days. If people aren’t uploading their own dance routines to Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk on YouTube, they’re hoping to Get Lucky on the dancefloor thanks to Daft Punk’s groove-laden, hit, inspired by the inclusion of Pharrell Williams and disco legend Chic’s Nile Rodgers.

A little bit under the radar, however, bands like Grammy-winning jazz-funk juggernaut Snarky Puppy are just as important. The American collective might not be racking up the hits, but they’re filling large theatres worldwide, inspiring a whole new generation to get their groove on. Bands like Scotland’s very own fusioneers, Fat Suit, and Capital funkateers Jambouree, for instance (the latter opening for tonight’s show).

Tonight, though, Snarky Puppy guitarist Mark Lettieri brings his trio of funkmeisters to La Belle Angele alongside Dallas Funk behemoth, The Funky Knuckles – a Texan outfit comprising sidemen from mainstream acts such as Beyonce, Erykah Badu and P Diddy.

Indeed, as one of the funkiest guitarists in the world, Californian Lettieri has played on many a mainstream artist’s album, too, including David Crosby, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, to name but a few.

All begs the question, then: why would any musician want to leave the comfy confines of a major, mainstream artist to slug it out on their own in small clubs?

  • What’s the deal, Mark?

“Being a sideman is a musically fulfilling role in many respects, and I’ll always be happy to accept that role, but at some point, you’ve got to take that risk of chasing the ‘sound in your head’. This is my attempt to figure out what I really sound like as a creative individual.”

“At some point, you’ve

got to take that risk of

chasing the sound

in your head”

  • There’s seems to be a renaissance in funk/jazz-fusion of late. Why is that? Is Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk a blessing or a curse for the genre? 

“Truth be told, I haven’t been exposed to much of that record beyond a few tracks, which I thought were great. I think funk and fusion have always been a vibrant genre, but now with social media, etc, it’s much easier to discover and connect to it.”

  • There’s a strong jazz, funk and soul community in Texas (Snarky Puppy formed in the Lone Star State). How did it all come about, and how has it influenced your own bands, other artists, and the wider world? 

“I’m not a native Texan, so as soon I as found that community I knew it was something special. It has its roots in gospel music, but there’s a blend of hip hop, blues, and Texas rock in there as well. It’s very unique. Nobody grooves like Texas.”

  • funkyThe Funky Knuckles, Snarky Puppy, The Mark Lettieri Trio: you all have a clear rapport and respect for one another’s playing in a live setting. Does this mutual appreciation of one another’s musicianship rub off on audiences? Do they warm to you more because they can tell you love what one another is doing? 

“I hope so. This is our passion, and sharing it with others – audience or bandmates – is where we find the most joy. Plus, no one wants to see a show where the band looks miserable.”

  • You’ve all paid your dues. What’s it like having to go out playing small-to-mid-size clubs again, to build up an audience overseas (i.e. Europe)? Is it a slog? Or is it more enjoyable than playing big theatres?

“Small venues have a certain intimacy that I’ll always love. But we’re no strangers to the grind. If you really love what you do, you’ll give it 100% no matter the size of the room, or the audience.”

  • What can we expect from you all when you show up to La Belle Angele tonight, then? And how did your trio and The Funky Knuckles both hook up with one another for this expedition to Europe?

“Well, hopefully we will have showered. This tour took a few years in the making, actually. The idea came about in 2013, after talking with Snarky’s management. They knew me as a solo artist, and knew the Knuckles as well, and were interested in helping us put together a European tour. Schedules finally aligned, and here we are.”

  • You’ve been to Edinburgh before with Snarky Puppy. What are your memories of the city?

“I have been, yes. With Snarky a few times, and as a college student. It’s such a beautiful city, and I love the ancient history of it. I’m sure we’ll stay out way past our bedtimes, too.

  • Is there a goal/ specific ambition for The Funky Knuckles/Mark Lettieri Trio? What’s the future hold for both outfits? Does it interfere with your other projects?

“Really, we’re just trying to make the best music we can; music that honestly represents who we are as artists. I’ve been writing and recording my own music for a while now, but now I’m seeing that if I really want it to be heard, I’m going to have to step in to that ‘leader’ role and kind of take the reigns.”

  • We have a small, burgeoning jazz/funk scene here in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh. Is there more of an appetite for the genres in the States than there is in the UK/ Europe? And how can we get more people into the groove, so to speak?

“That’s funny, because we’ve always thought the opposite. That Europe was the place to go to play jazz-based music. Funk has always been a part of the American pop language – but it’s still not quite mainstream. Certainly not like it was in, say, the 1970s. I think the melding of the two genres, jazz and funk, can be global, however.”

  • Describe the funk in one sentence.

“Everybody’s.”

  • The Mark Lettieri Trio, The Funky Knuckles, Jambouree, La Belle Angele, Hasties Close, tonight (April 18), 7pm, £15.50, 0131 220 1161

Words: Barry Gordon