The members of Butterfly Snapple gather around a kitchen counter in the South Miami home of Diego Melgar and John Small, the band’s guitarist and electronic-synth player. Melgar pours everyone a glass of Trader Joe’s Merlot. The quartet makes jokes and trades stories while sipping the wine. This little ritual is a crucial part of the band's rehearsal process. "In rehearsal, the vibe is important,” Melgar says. “It’ll usually be everyone coming together, having a glass of wine, relaxing for a little while, and catching up if we haven’t seen each other in a minute.”
After about 20 minutes, drummer Zander Ambrose suggests they get to work. Bassist Camilo Velez wheels his gear into Melgar’s room. They turn off the lights and turn on a star-shaped projector that bathes the room in a soft blue light and rotating green dots. Melgar likes to joke that the projector is the fifth member of the group. Creating an intimate ambiance, the band begins work on a rendition of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” with singer Justine Garcia. Though they occasionally stop to flesh out the more difficult sections of the song, Butterfly Snapple’s rehearsal process is as freewheeling and energetic as one of the band's performances. Their signature blend of jazz, hip-hop, and funk — a combination that’s earned praise from Miami audiences — electrifies the room.
Butterfly Snapple has existed in some form since 2016. The band originally consisted of John Meeske on drums, Chris Thompson-Taylor on tenor saxophone, Melgar on guitar, Sean Doohan on guitar, and “whoever was down to jam on bass,” Melgar says. The three were all students at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, where they majored in jazz performance, though hip-hop was their passion. “We’d always be hanging and would listen to a jazz record, then a hip-hop record, and back and forth,” Melgar says. “When we’d get together and jam, we’d go back and forth between learning a jazz tune, and then we’d try to learn a J Dilla beat.”
To get gigs, though, the group needed a name. “We had the recordings; we had the chops; we just didn’t have a proper name,” Melgar says. “We started to call ourselves 'Naesnahood,' which is 'Sean Doohan' backwards. We just had that name for the sake of having a name.” But "Naesnahood" wasn’t working for Meeske. “There was a two-month period where we tried to come up with a new name and were just sitting on recordings we made,” Melgar recalls. “We spent two months trying to come up with a new name, only for Meeske to be like, ‘Guys, this is frustrating. Can we just use "Naesnahood"?’ Which is right back where we started!”
Around January 2017, when Doohan moved to New York, the group decided on "Butterfly Snapple," a reference to a lyric in Quasimoto’s track “Bad Character.” Melgar, Meeske, and Thompson-Taylor were down a member but still had upcoming gigs. The three knew that John Small, a Frost jazz guitarist, played experimental electronic music. “Meeske and I always talked about collaborating with live electronics and jazz,” Small says, but nothing ever came to fruition until the group asked Small to sit in with the band for a house-party gig. “The first time we actually played together felt really natural because we all know each other,” he says. “We all improvise at a very high level, and everything just clicked.”
Melgar echoes Small’s sentiments. “When we first played live together, it was like, This is the vibe. This is what we need.”
Now, all Butterfly Snapple needed was an official bassist. Enter Camilo Velez, a Frost alumnus. Thompson-Taylor and Melgar met Velez at a recital by another former Frost student. “It was a long show. I was playing guitar on two tunes. Camilo was accompanying someone there,” Melgar remembers. “The first time I met him, he and Chris were smoking cigs at the back of the venue. I was bored inside and wanted to see what was going on out there. We just hit it off.”
“He’s perfect,” Small says of Velez. “He lays it down, and he’s someone we all really like.”
With Small and Velez onboard, Butterfly Snapple felt more official to Melgar. “Once they joined, I realized it wasn’t about us just fucking around in a bedroom anymore,” he says. “This could be a band we actually perform music with, and often. We could build our own sound.”
The new and improved Butterfly Snapple easily secured performances. “The first couple of gigs we played were pretty big, high-profile gigs that seemingly came out of nowhere,” Small says. “Our first gig was a Lululemon party, then we played at a series of restaurants sponsored by Speakfridays and Jack Daniel's, and then an actual Speakfridays event.” The group then found a steady gig playing at the Fort Lauderdale bar the Apothecary every Friday for two months. “That was where we figured out how to create together,” Small says.
“I think the Apothecary was where our sound formed,” Melgar says. “We had four hours to fill. When we played there, we took the approach of taking a hip-hop beat like a jazz tune. You know the form, you know the chords, and you just build on top of that.” The members learned how to stretch themselves musically at the Apothecary; they figured out how to reach the extremities of the music and return to the foundation of the tune. “That’s what we want to be doing as a band.”
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Butterfly Snapple also performed at another high-profile gig that year: the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Gala at Pérez Art Museum Miami. “That was surreal,” Small says. “My dad, who works for MLB, passed off our demo reel to the event company that was doing the party. Flo Rida was playing outside, and we were playing inside. It was pretty astounding.” It’s one of the bandmates' favorite performances, not only because they shared the venue with a pop superstar, but also because they received a $300 tip from some generous guests.
The band slowed down on gigging during the second half of 2017 and experienced a major change when Meeske moved to Maryland. A few months later, in 2018, Thompson-Taylor left to perform on cruise ships in Japan.
With yet another lineup change and a few gigs scheduled for the summer of 2018, the group reformed as a quartet, finding a new drummer in another Frost alumnus, Zander Ambrose. “He was my first call,” Melgar says.
In August 2018, the reconfigured Butterfly Snapple landed the opportunity to play at the III Points Open House at Floyd. “I had no clue we applied,” Small says.
The band composed an original three-part suite, performed over 15 minutes. “The night that we played, it went off without a hitch,” Small says. “When we got offstage, we had the best reaction to a show we’d ever gotten.” After the performance, Melgar was hanging out at the bar when III Points cofounder David Sinopoli introduced himself. “It took me a while to realize who he was. We were getting some compliments after the show, and I thought it was someone else saying, ‘Good job.’ Then he was like, ‘I’m Dave Sinopoli, founder of III Points,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’”
Sinopoli told Melgar he loved Butterfly Snapple’s energy, music, and stage presence. “He told us: ‘Celebrate tonight — you guys are playing III Points.’” The excitement really set in when they received the official email from the festival.
The III Points Open House show raised the group's profile. Since then, the opportunities have seemed endless. They’ve performed multiple times at Churchill’s Pub and played at venues such as Space Mountain, Gramps, and Floyd. They’ve collaborated with Rat Bastard and Will Buck for the upcoming III Points compilation. And now the band is set to perform in December with fellow III Points act Seafoam Walls, along with Foom! and Poparazzi.
Butterfly Snapple’s success hasn’t changed how its members perform together or their musical philosophies. They have a goal with the project, and right now, Miami wants to hear that goal. “This band is truly a celebration of all our best features,” Small says. “It’s truly a brotherhood.”
Butterfly Snapple. At Jazzy Holidaze, with Seafoam Walls, Poparazzi, and Foom! 9 p.m. Friday, December 14, at Gramps, 176 NW 24th St., Miami; 305-699-2669; gramps.com. Admission costs $5.