Photography by Simon C.F. Yu
The following is a direct transcript between two friends. One of many in a previously-lost extensive interviews exploring the influences and culture surrounding the early days of Snarky Puppy.
Interview conducted by Crisman Richards.
Justin Stanton reached his Denton Escape Velocity in December 2009. The week before my talented friend wisely left Texas to live eternally on the road with Snarky Puppy, he and I sat down on my flowery orange living room couch to discuss his journey as a musician — from Tennessee through the halls of the University of North Texas Jazz program and back on down through the darkness of New Orleans. Here we marvel at the irresistible call of the road.
When did you meet Michael League?
I heard about the band since I got to school about four years ago, everyone was always like “you gotta hear the band, man.”
What was your first Snarky Puppy show like?
It was at Dan’s Silverleaf, I think. It was either Fall ’05 or Spring ’06. I remember I was with Graham Richards. I was always super into it from the first time I heard it – and I’m still a fan of the music. I just happened to have the good grace to be asked to play with them. I learn the tunes now instead of just listening to them. I still enjoy them.
How much time passed between that first show and when Michael asked you to play?
They did their first tour that summer and after that Jay (Jennings) was asked to play with the Polyphonic Spree, so Mike asked me to play trumpet with the band. Then Kait (Dunton) moved on to some other stuff so he asked me to play keyboards. At the time (when I came to UNT) I played piano a little, but I was here to play trumpet. When he initially asked me to play keys, I thought he was joking. There is no way I can play this stuff — I was kind of competent. He was like, you’ll be fine, the piano parts are really easy. Don’t worry about it. So I jumped into it and started doing it. Looking back now I put so much into it. It changed so much about my personality as a musician. Now some people don’t even know I play trumpet because I play keyboards all the time, which is cool. I think Snarky Puppy had a lot to do with that – with my identity changing as a musician.
Is that when your hair grew out?
I’ve gone through multiple stages.
Did it change the way you approach the trumpet after playing the keys so much?
Yeah, definitely. On trumpet you have three valves. It’s more feel, because you can play multiple notes with the same valve combination. Whereas with the piano it’s all in front of you, you can see it. Having that visual representation of the notes transfers to any instrument. That’s why a lot of teachers encourage their students to take piano, regardless of what their primary instrument is. So you have that representation, especially as an improvisor. You can picture it on the keyboard and play shapes and see chord changes in the way you play things. You can see it in your head, and you just play it on the horn. It changed the concept. There are “trumpet things” that you can do, but playing other instruments forces you to think in different ways. Think outside the box of what’s easy on an instrument, or what’s typical.
Where were you in school when you joined the band?
I started trumpet in 6th grade, and started taking piano lessons a year after that. I was in Grad School when I joined the band. I came to UNT to do my Master’s and learn to play jazz. I did my undergrad at East Tennessee State University.
How was their music program different from UNT? Was there a vast difference?
Way different. ETSU was really small, and most of the music majors there were education majors. They weren’t into being in a band, they wanted jobs. When I started there, I kind of thought that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know anything. I like playing horn, I’m into it, pretty good at it, so I’m just going to do it and see what happens. That’s what I thought because that’s what everybody did. About three-quarters of the way through it I started taking music education classes. At the time I was like 20 years old and I thought, there is no way I am going to get out of here and be a band director. I can’t do it, there is no way. I had a professor who had a relative that taught at UNT, and he would tell me all about it. At that point I was really into jazz. So I did it and moved here.
So it must have been quite different being around musicians in Denton than the musicians at ETSU?
Totally. They both have good players, but the goals are different. As far as performing groups go, there was a lot of bluegrass and mountain music in Tennessee, and trumpet doesn’t typically fit into that realm. Or at least, at the time I was too closed-minded to think it did. There were maybe a handful of musicians there to play with. Being here in Denton was just nuts. Every time I heard somebody, I was just floored. Oh my god, they’re so good – everyone! Every drummer was so good. Settling down was weird, because there were so many musicians. Eventually you develop taste just being here, but when you’re thrown into an environment like that, it’s so overwhelming – and in a good way. It’s totally amazing to hear so many people that are into music, that have an idea of what they want to do and are very goal-oriented.
Which musicians were you hanging out with when you first got here that really had a big impact on your approach to music?
I used to go over to Jay (Jennings) and Clay (Pritchard)’’s house a lot, we would just hang out and play music. I remember when Jay asked me if I wanted to come over and play some tunes. I’d never really done that before – just playing to play. Playing a standard and making it sound like a song without relying on chordal instruments to outline the chord changes of the song. That shit was really instrumental in my learning here. That was a huge learning experience. The school had a lot to do with it. Jay Saunders is a great teacher and an amazing player. It’s hard to pin down a few musicians, because everybody I played with was amazing in different ways. Whenever I got gigs I would ask Mike League, Ross Pederson, Graham (Richards), (Chris) Bullock, and Brad Danho. There was always something about going to The Greenhouse and listening. I remember there was a group: it was Jay and Brad Danho, and Daniel Sledge, and Shawn Pickler. They would just play standards. No piano, no guitar. Just bass, drums, and two horns. That shit was awesome. It was really amazing.
Of course, once I started going to Dallas, that was like the second phase. Totally different learning.
Were you already playing with Snarky when you started hanging out in Dallas?
Yeah, I think so. As far as that whole clique of Sput (Searight) and Bernard (Wright) and all those heavy, heavy, heavy guys.
What was it like the first time you went down to jam with them? Did you go to Prophet?
No, we would go to Gezellig and the Walrus.
Where was the Walrus?
It’s in the West End, by the aquarium. That was before the Prophet Bar, that’s what turned into the Prophet Bar. Just going out to hear (RC Williams and the Gritz) was another level. It was different in so many ways. Those guys were doing what everybody was trying to do at North Texas. It’s like you are destined to do that in a school environment – just be locked in. You’re so concentrated, always learning. You get through a class and start another class. You’re always in a learning process. You never have time to just chill out and internalize all this information or naturally use these concepts, play these concepts. It’s hard to do that while you’re in school. Although there’s a million good players in school. You can definitely hear the difference. That was a wake up call.
I think that’s how it was for everybody. The Pups started off as a jazz ensemble. They needed to be dirtied up a bit. By the time you came around, they already had The World is Getting Smaller under their belt. Did you tour with them before recording?
I did a small tour and then we recorded Bring us the Bright. It was a Spring tour, because I was still in school. It was just like three shows or something. It’s weird looking back, but at the time it was great. It was a really good tour. It was even before Sput was in the band. I was playing keys, of course there was Nate (Werth), League, (Steve) Pruitt was playing drums, I wanna say (Chris) McQueen was playing guitar, Maz (Mike Maher) was playing trumpet, Steve Smith was playing trombone, and (Brian) Donohoe was playing saxophone. There were three horns. It was fun, we got back and recorded Bring us the Bright, and by that time I was out of school, so I started touring because I couldn’t really do it before.
Was there a big difference in the way you approached music once you got out of school? You were freed from these confines of actually learning things, you have down time to process, when did it start to sink in? How long did it take before you were able to relax and enjoy music again?
Pretty much right when I got out of school. I remember there was one semester where I was playing in so many groups: directing a Lab Band, playing in a Lab Band, and playing in three small groups. It was cool, but everything together can get overwhelming. You can’t really focus your energy. You’re playing in someone’s group, but more often than not someone’s trying to do original music. It’s really hard to develop tunes when you’re trying to develop a lot of people’s tunes. I remember that one semester wanting to narrow it down a little bit and focus more. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it’s easy to get burnt out in school. It’s just so different. You’re always being evaluated when you play music, but that’s somehow okay when it’s not in school. Or maybe it’s not. I don’t know. To be honest, there has never been a public review of us (that I’ve seen) that has been negative. I’m not saying we don’t deserve it, there have been plenty of shows where we can all agree that it wasn’t a great show, and if someone heard us and was reviewing us, it wouldn’t be good. But we’ve never had that. We haven’t had that yet, where someone has slammed us hard, publicly. Maybe that’s why I can say that. In school, you’ve got teachers and that’s their job. If they’re good teachers, they’ll be very critical.
Yes well, you are critically-embraced. Those that love you, love you mad. The music is infectious. But even if you don’t know what good music sounds like, as a critic you can appreciate this is good music.
It’s very accessible and it’s very good live, because all the musicians are very open, very communicative.
Who were your greatest musical influences as you were developing as a musician?
First, my high school band director gave me a Maynard Ferguson recording, and a Wynton (Marsalis) recording, and I was too stupid and stubborn to listen to them. I started getting into Blue Note recordings, like late 50s-early 60s. Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock – all those albums from when they were young and developing their careers. That was my bread and butter for a while. Just getting into trumpet players. Miles, of course, but that actually took a little bit longer. Now I love Miles. Woody Shaw, Chick Corea. More recently it’s been pretty heavy with Weather Report, Return to Forever, Don Blackman, Bernard Wright, and Parliament Funkadelic.
How many of these have you found as a result of being in Snarky Puppy?
Definitely Bernard and Don Blackman, you know, indirectly. I think a lot of us have the same influences, if that’s the question that you’re getting at.
There are certain influences that everybody came in with before coming together. I’m very interested, for example, to know who brought Weather Report to the table. Obviously Miles is a staple, but then Michael dragged everyone down to the Dallas crowd and to Bernard Wright. Then there are artists that influence one of you more than the others (like McQueen and Boston), and not everyone shares that. I think it’s interesting to see where the melting pot starts and how it makes this new sound. Everyone has a different background, and you have spent the better side of the past four or five years together – you’re family now.
Yeah, now it’s like everybody’s got something to share. We’re on long rides on the bus, let’s put on some music. Everybody’s on the same page so much musically now within the band, chances are if someone’s into it, everyone else will be, too.
There is a lot of trust there.
It’s funny to see the bands that people don’t like – the band that is a standard that everyone likes except for one guy. It’s kind of a joke because everybody else is on the same page. I think everybody’s got a band they’re not super into. They give me a hard time about not liking the Beach Boys. I don’t like the Beach Boys. Never have, never will — well, maybe I shouldn’t say never will.
Really? Not even Pet Sounds?
I’ve listened to the Beach Boys. I’ve heard it.
But you have to listen to Pet Sounds. It’s completely different from the Woodies and surfboards.
See, you make the same argument that everybody makes. It’s like Pet Sounds is there alibi for all the other ridiculousness.
Whatever. Pet Sounds is brilliant.
“Well, they did Pet Sounds so they’re okay.”
Yeah, they are okay. Pet Sounds was groundbreaking.
You’ve proven my point right now. Everybody’s got their band that against all odds they don’t like. No matter what.
Beach Boys is yours. It’s not as bad as not liking Zeppelin, though.
No where close to Led Zeppelin.
You won’t be crucified like McQueen. How long do you have to be out on the road before it counts as being “on the road?”
It’s weird doing two week things now. Because at two weeks you’re just settling in. When you get going there’s all this energy because you’ve left something. You’ve left Denton or you’ve left Brooklyn or wherever you’re coming from – to live on a bus. But then after a while the bus becomes your home. Getting used to that takes a certain period of time. We’ve talked about it, it seems like a month is the benchmark for when you’re in it. You get used to it.
TJ Scott Photography
Do you see yourself on the road for a long time? 10-15 years down the line, still touring?
I don’t know. I would love to. It would be great to be able to tour and make a living of it. That would be fantastic. That’s the ultimate, I think. I mean, I’m pretty open. I have a lot of interests, but touring is a huge part of my life – the biggest part of my life in the last year. It’s just so intense, being out. And it works because all the guys get along super well. It’s just a matter of, as people get older, you don’t grow apart, but you become more set in your ways. Even as much as you try to fight it. But you still have to fight it. You gotta fight it. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to ride around with a bunch of dudes for two months. Then you get to the end and everybody still likes each other! Everybody’s still friends and still likes playing music together. That’s totally amazing. It’s definitely worth fighting for. It’s just a matter of being able to survive and do it at this point. We’re all kind of in that place still. I would like to say that in 10-15 years, if that bus pulls up in front of my house and we’re gonna be going on tour, I’m gonna be down. I want to do that. It’s what I’m passionate about. I’m passionate about playing music. I think it’s important to stay passionate about something.
That makes me want to get on the bus right now. My experiences on the road have almost always involved you, I think there was only one time I went out when you weren’t there, and I can’t remember where that would have been.
I feel so sorry for you.
Poor me! I remember about a week before we left that first time — when we were going out with Backside Pick — you asked me if I was going to be in New Orleans with yall, and I said I was, and you said you felt like you needed to start drinking right then and there to get ready. So we did. You taught me how to hang on the road, I appreciate that.
I have a sneaking suspicion you knew how to hang before that.
Some people are just cut out to be up all night in strange cities, running around with musicians. What was your first time in New Orleans like?
I don’t remember. I honestly don’t remember.
I believe you.
Where did we play? We played at Blue Nile, and Howlin’ Wolf, and Maple Leaf. So it would’ve been in the fall… probably Blue Nile. I feel like we’ve been there so many times since then. But to recall my first experiences in New Orleans is an exercise in futility.
Indeed it is.
Was that your first time in New Orleans?
Yes it was.
I do remember your first time in New Orleans!
It was a pretty wild night. I remember, we left Denton the night Michael Jackson died. We only had 24 hours in New Orleans; I hopped on the bus from there and we went to Jackson. I was all in. I think I was there for an hour before I called Michael to see when the Pups were coming back through New Orleans and asked if I could come along. I had already decided I needed to be back immediately and often. There was just something in the air I was really, really into. I haven’t been able to forget that since.
I thought about moving there, definitely. It would be so fun to just fucking move there and play all the time. That’s how I picture it in my head anyway, I have no idea what it would actually be like.
There’s something very haunting and very beautiful about it. The permeating darkness and resilience, always. It’s so heavy, you can hear it. And that’s the best part. It’s gross and scary and at the same time, absolutely sacred. I’ve never been in any place that has impacted me like that. Where all I can think about is being there. I don’t even know what I’m getting out of it, I just want to be there and listen. Now you’re about to leave Denton and go back to Tennessee to sit in your room with your trumpet for awhile. Where do you think you’re going to go after that?
I don’t know. New York is definitely calling.
It’s a loud call, too.
It would be really fun and awesome. It’s just so open right now, it’s hard to say. I feel focused in that I want to get better. I’m at the point where I’m really focused on my instrument, but in terms of location, it could be anywhere. I wanna do something cool. It’s not gonna be something shitty. It’s gonna be six to eight months in Tennessee and then take off.
Go build yourself a catapult.
That’s what I’m gonna be doing in my room.
Maybe we’ll both land in New York at the same time.
That’s why I’m not sad that you’re leaving. I’ll see you on the road, all the time. So I’m not sad. Not even a little. You’ve reached your Denton Escape Velocity and you have to take advantage of that. I reach mine every three weeks, and it’s exhausting.
I’m just trying not to be stubborn. Well I’m leaving and I can’t come back. I try not to limit myself with a certain mentality, but I have a picture of what I want, and maybe it will work out. Hopefully that will mean getting really good and trumpet, and not drinking or smoking as much. Just becoming a Buddhist.
You can always come back. Here’s a question from a fan: Were there any songs on the new album that really inspired you, or any that you contributed to that you feel especially proud of?
The songs change constantly. I’ve never written any songs for the band*, but I definitely feel like a contributor of ideas. The general mentality is that no matter how specific of an idea someone has about a song or a sketch, sometimes it will be pretty fleshed out by what people want to hear, as far as parts and what they want people to play. Ultimately I think everybody realizes that whoever is on the instrument is going to have a more developed concept of what they want to hear. I think everyone trusts each other to make good musical decisions. As far as this is kind of what I want with this part, I try and stick with whatever somebody’s got and if I have an idea, I’ll play. If I get a weird look, I won’t play it anymore. If I get a cool look, then I’ll play it some more. There was something on Flood I played, that I kind of added. Mike never said “this is cool,” and then we got to the recording, and right before I asked him if he wanted me to play it and he was like, “yeah, play it.” So it worked out. Everybody contributes stuff, and if it’s good – the thing is there’s no ego. I mean, there’s always ego, but everybody’s real cool with each other. It’s never really weird if somebody starts playing something or somebody suggests something that may make it better, or it may not. The concern is if someone has an idea of what they want and they’re able to explain why they like that idea or why they want it to sound a certain way, then it’s cool. But if someone plays something, usually if it hasn’t dawned on the person who wrote it, then it’s cool. You know, to substitute and flesh it out. Because everybody trusts each other. It’s a matter of trust ultimately.
When you listen to music, what do you hear first: horns or keys?
Definitely not lyrics. I’m trying to get better at it, but I just don’t hear lyrics. Other than that, everything. As a trumpet player I’m going to notice high pitch noises. I’m trying to work on noticing bass stuff more. Drums, of course.
Drums are hard not to notice, but you have to listen for bass.
That’s the thing playing pop music. There’s a stigma of jazz players playing pop music, which has a lot to do with the sound of the band changing. I think Mike’s always had the same concept, just going through different musicians you have to compromise a little bit. But in terms of the pop mentality – of being able to play the same thing over and over again – it’s like a part you play. Rather, in jazz you’ll have chord changes and it’s a little bit more loose. You don’t have a drum part usually, you might have a groove. It’s always changing. But in pop music, you have to have the groove there because it’s a part of the hook, it’s something people can latch on to. It’s not improvisational. Playing in the band has helped me develop that. Thinking about that more when I listen to recordings so that I notice what the beat is like or the bass groove. If I’m listening I’ll notice if they’re playing the same thing, even if it’s a long, long sequence. I never used to notice that stuff as much before, but now I notice it more.
Justin Stanton is based in New York City.
Check snarkypuppy.com for perpetual international tour dates.
*Listen to Snarky Puppy’s Mr. Montauk, written and arranged by Justin Stanton (Ground Up, 2012)