Snarky Puppy's Michael League on GroundUp in Miami: "I Never Thought of It as a Music City"

GroundUp artistic director and Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League.
GroundUp artistic director and Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League. Photo by Stella K.
"There's enough festivals in the world showcasing bands already well known and successful. We wanted to create a space where people who really love music can come hear new sounds and take those sounds home with them to expand their listening horizons," Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League says of his original intentions for GroundUp Music Festival. "I wanted this to be a festival that only booked artists that aren't just wonderful, but wonderful live."

But although League had a general idea of what he wanted GroundUp Music Festival to be, he didn't know where it should be. It will take place for the third straight year at the North Beach Bandshell, and League says that's solely because of the festival's director, Paul Lehr. "He made me pick Miami. I never thought of it as a music city. Paul was very insistent and optimistic, and it has exceeded my expectations. He had a lot of love for the city, and the city has shown up."

Through the festival's two previous editions, League has grown to love Miami and is looking forward to an extended period here — three days of the festival and three days of rehearsals preceding it. "The food situation is amazing; the weather is beautiful," he says. "The real surprise was the visual art, the musical art — the city is really crawling with it in ways I didn't realize."

GroundUp Music Festival will feature more than 20 acts, including Lalah Hathaway, Andrew Bird, and David Crosby, but the headliner every night will be League's jazz-fusion instrumental band, Snarky Puppy. One of those three nights, Snarky Puppy will present the first live performance of its newest album, Immigrance, due out March 15. "It's about how humans are mobile creatures — musicians also. We find inspiration from traveling, learning new things, and opening ourselves to new things. The album has a lot of influences from a lot of different places, especially the Middle East and North Africa. There's political undertones, considering how demonized immigrants are under the current administration."

League is proud of the new record and, because of the ample rehearsal time, isn't worried about Snarky Puppy flubbing any of the never-before-heard tunes. "We've been together so long I don't worry about anything. We've gone through so much onstage, so even if a song doesn't go well, I'm not scared the night will go horribly. The train never goes off the tracks."

That confidence comes from Snarky Puppy's longevity. The band has been together for more than 15 years, since League's freshman year at the University of North Texas. "I'd switched to bass from guitar between high school and college. I was such a terrible bass player. When I auditioned, I didn't make any of the school ensembles," he says. "After that first year, I put together a group of people I enjoyed playing with to play music I was writing. Our first gig was in the basement at a pizza place."

That Snarky Puppy origin story helps explain why League calls his label and this festival GroundUp. From the basement, there is only one direction to the ground. 

GroundUp Music Festival. 2 p.m. Friday, February 6, through Sunday, February 8, at North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-672-5202; Tickets cost $85 to $825 via
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland