Being at the UK premiere of Family Dinner 2 felt a lot like being at the midnight screening of the latest Star Wars, only with fewer toy lightsabers and far more thick-rimmed glasses.
There’s something incredibly exciting about being sat in front of a massive screen with very little idea of what you’re about to experience, which gave the room at the Prince Charles Cinema (my new favourite in London) a real buzz. Around 9pm, Michael League took to the stage and was met with rapturous applause. This man is a rockstar of the mainstream jazz scene right now. Imagine Harrison Ford had given a speech before you saw The Force Awakens.
We were about to witness a showcase of Snarky’s favourite musical friends, backed up by the mighty firepower of their famed ensemble. They had flown in musicians from across the world and spent a “utopian” week recording fresh new arrangements of the musicians’ own songs. We were about to experience something special.
The film intersperses interviews with the guests and beautifully shot recordings of their songs in front of a live audience in an incredibly entertaining format. The interviews are hilarious, touching, and insightful all at once, and by the end of the screening, it really did feel like we had sat down at a dinner table and gotten to know these wonderful human beings.
I'm not going to give a track-by-track review for two reasons:
- I was utterly absorbed by the cinematic experience and didn't take notes throughout the album, which I definitely would have done otherwise.
- I don't want to give much away and ruin the surprise for anyone who plans to sit down and discover the songs for themselves. (Granted, this embargo on spoilers is much less serious than the galaxy far far away equivalent)
I will, however, talk about a few of my highlights.
The second track features a wonderful Afro-Peruvian singer called Susana Baca who brims with energy and life. Watch her face as she sings the closing note of her song, Molino Molero.
Jacob Collier's track is as fantastic as you would expect from the young prodigy, hailed by the Guardian as "the Messiah of Jazz", and Knower's track had me dancing in my seat. I don't dance.
Laura Mvula's song, "Song to the Moon", has a haunting beauty to it, and was one of the songs stuck in my head as I left the theatre. This version is a lot more minimal than the original recording, and Laura’s performance is captivating.
This isn't to say that the album is without faults, though. Michael League managed to amass a small army of obscenely talented musicians for this album, each incredible in their own right. However, there are moments when the texture is simply too dense (having a second drummer alongside Louis Cole in his track of the album felt like overkill) and as my concert-going-partner-in-crime, Jonny, put it: "There were very few moments when the musicians had a chance to really explore the music or develop any ideas"
It's understandable that the band couldn't push boundaries as much as usual given their size and the number of collaborators, but some members did feel slightly under-utilised. (If I remember correctly, Cory Henry didn't have a single solo, which is an absolute crime!)
Overall, the album is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, with only one or two weak tracks out of fifteen. The interviews and spontaneous performances between tracks turned what I thought might just be a series of back-to-back music videos into an entertaining piece of film that never got dull.
My recommendation? Buy the DVD, get some friends round, then sit down, get comfy and enjoy it together. If you're anything like me, you'll finish it with a new appreciation of Snarky and everything they do, a list of new artists to explore, and a fresh dose of musical inspiration. Who could ask for anything more?
I didn't start recording until about ten minutes into the interview, so the first paragraph starts midway through an answer. Enjoy.
"You have to be excited about your music first. You can’t expect people to like your thing if you don’t like your thing. If you like it, then you ask the question. 'Is it derivative, is it fresh?'
Sometimes with Bill, we’ve played something and it’s BAD-ASS and he’s like
“No way man, that sounds like something I’ve heard”,
and me and Sput are like
“No, you’re wrong, and that’s going on your record.”
Maybe to him he’s heard it before because it’s so him, but y’all haven’t heard that and nobody else has, he’s just heard it. Maybe an addendum to that is that it’s good to be around very stubborn friends. Pushy, bossy, stubborn friends."
“Could you talk a little bit about the process you went through when you were arranging the set we’ve just seen?"
“The quick explanation is we invited a bunch of artists, eight of them said yes. I went through their catalogues and tried to find songs that would gel well with both the band and the guest instrumentalists.
I picked the tune, asked the band, and then we did a thing called The Jam Cruise, which is like a music festival on a boat, which is insane. While the rest of the boat was raging, I was in my little cabin trying to do arrangements among the noise. I'd do them in Logic, send them to the artist, and hope the artist would say yes.
The understanding with these albums is that all the songs we do are written by the artists performing them; we didn’t write any of these tunes. But the premise is, if you agree to do a Family Dinner record, you release the song to us, and whatever may happen may happen. If you really hate it then you tell us, as the artist, and that’s how it goes. But they were all cool with it. We rehearsed for a few days before they showed up, and then we rehearsed an hour and a half per day for two days with each artist. Only about three hours of rehearsal, and then we recorded.
I did the arrangements for all the tunes except the third one, 'Liquid Love', the one with Chris Turner, which Sput did because I did a really, really shit arrangement. We were listening to it and everybody was like “yeah, this is cool…"
I was like “Guys, this is not happening. Let’s sleep on it and see what happens”.
Sput comes up to me and he’s like “Hey man, wanna give me a shot?”
The last time he said that to me was Lalah Hathaway’s song ‘Something’ so I’m like “I dunno… Didn’t go too well last time”
So he arranged it with Shaun and Cory and my help. I did the arrangements for the other songs, but it's always the same with Snarky Puppy: once we start playing, shit changes. Always. No human being in our band is capable of playing what they’ve been given, and thank God they’re all sensitive musicians because it always sounds way better than the arrangement.
I’ve started writing arrangements with that in mind. Now I give them the absolute bare bones stuff so there’s a lot of space for them to try different things out. So during the rehearsal process people would be like “Can we do this? Can we do that?” That’s why every song says ‘arranged by SP’ because it’s a collective process."
[Bill] “To add to that, in terms of how we learn the material, we’d get sent two songs. Mike would send the original song and then he would send his own demo arrangement with the vocal line being played by a Rhodes or something so we could contextualise it. We were all expected to learn every part within that arrangement so that when we get to the rehearsal - same as before we record SP songs - it’s a very quick process of swapping round. Say the melody sounds better on a synth than it does on a trumpet. We can just switch 'em straight away. Everybody knowing all the parts is very key to doing that. From there, as Mike says, we’ll work the arrangement as a band in the room and see what feels best."
“What are your plans for this year and next year for SP, but also, when are you next planning on touring the UK?"
“You don’t wanna hear when we’re in Belarus?"
“Our manager’s here. Do you know…? We don’t know."
[quick discussion with the manager]
"We’re on tour May, June, July. This album (Family Dinner Volume 2) comes out February 12th (it’s my duty to say), then we have that studio record we mentioned earlier coming out first week of June, so we’ll be touring those songs.
We’ve been playing Shofukan for three years. It’s fun, it’s so fun, we’re not faking it, but it’s also fun to play things that you haven’t played 3000 times.
There’s a lot happening. All these guys have solo projects. Bill’s releasing three albums this year which is totally crazy: a two-part solo piano record and a live record at Union Chapel. I’m starting a new band, but I’m also producing Crosby and Salif’s next records. We’re touring the middle of the year, and I think I’m buying a recording studio in Brooklyn which I’m really excited about. We have this label GroundUP music with Banda Magda and Funky Knuckles and Michelle Willis, and Crosby’s also doing a record on GroundUP.
We just went fully independent this year and we’ve got a distribution deal with Universal, so the creative side is 100% creative, and the business side is 100% with the people who can do that, not me. Artists don’t have to worry about any kind of interference, and the music gets to you guys a little faster and cleaner hopefully. So that’s a big thing, the label’s a really big thing. That’s why I said at the beginning of this screening “Check these artists out” because they make incredible music, and all that needs to happen for them to be able to do that for the rest of their lives is for you to buy their stuff. That’s it. Really, that’s all that needs to happen. They don’t need record labels, they don’t need managers, they just need you to buy things. It’s a simple one to explain, but making it happen is super hard."
“What’s your favourite chord?"
“My favourite chord!? I’m a bass player, I only play single notes. What’s your favourite chord, Bill?"
“Umm, shit. Yeah, it’s…eh…I’m a big fan of a minor triad with a major seven at the minute. I can’t seem to get away from that right now. That’s the chord right now"
“What are some artists that you would like for SP to collaborate with in the future?"
“Oh, so many man."
“Just one or two"
“Imogen Heap, I love. Oumou Sangaré from Mali. I’m really into Malian music right now, that’s where my heads is. Milton Nascimento, Chris Thile the great jazz mandolin player [audience gasps]. These are all guys we invited for Family Dinner or will invite. There’s loads man. We were talking about doing a record with Bobby McFerrin and an orchestra. We were supposed to do that last year but we didn’t because we did other records. I dunno, we’ll see what happens."
“The credits at the beginning said the records support a musical charity. Could you tell us a little more about that and how this record relates to their work?"
“So Family Dinner records are expensive. Like very very expensive. 10x more expensive than non-FD records. Or fifty times, as my manager just clarified. That’s without paying the artists because of all the flights and hotels and the gear, and we have the whole band and all that stuff. So if we invited David Crosby and Salif and gave them what they were worth, we wouldn’t be able to make the record.
The first record benefitted an education charity for kids in Roanoke, this one’s the same thing but in New Orleans. They put musical instruments in inner-city schools. They form marching bands with kids who are at risk of joining gangs and preserve the musical culture of New Orleans with little kids, it’s a super deep organisation.
We hit up the artist and we're like,
“Look, this money’s going to little kids. If you wanna be part of this and make music and keep kids off the streets in New Orleans, then great. If you wanna charge $20,000 then we can’t afford it, so what you gonna do?”
So we just guilt them into it.
All jokes aside, that’s true, but that’s not why we do it as a charity thing. We do it as a charity thing because it’s part of what we do as a band. We’re always working with schools, we’ve workshopped with five or six schools in London. It changes the vibe in the studio; you know you’re doing it to help. It’s easy - so easy - to get caught up in our little ego bubbles. Play a gig, people come up to you like “Sounds great” even if they don’t mean it. It’s easy to just think you’re a star. Slightly harder for us because we play weird instrumental shit."
“I just wanted to ask you if I could come down and shake your hand? And also I wanna know why you didn’t play Lingus last year in the Roundhouse."
“If we play that every night we get sick of it!"
“It’s not every night I travel 3,000 miles to see you play!"
[On-stage handshake happens, laughter dies down]
“Michael, I was lucky enough to be at New Orleans, was the most incredible experience of my life."
“Thank you, man. Is that Tony?"
“Aha yeah. I was lucky enough to share some time with David Crosby, and he said you guys play like God on a good day."
“Well David Crosby is a professional bullshitter, could you not tell from that film?"
“What was the African experience like? Especially working with Salif, seeing that he’s probably sold more records than Sinatra."
“Ooh. That’s a long story. The short version of it is that it was a whirlwind. I was there for three days. I almost died. Mali is the fifth poorest country in the world, it’s a very difficult place to be, I was jetlagged and we weren’t really eating because there’s no food. I was very sick.
It’s so poor, so poor. That shot of those four kids was literally the only shot I could find where the kids weren’t naked. They’re so happy, though, and there’s music everywhere. Like Crosby was saying, music is the thing we do when we walk down the road, that’s what it is there. Everywhere you go there’s music.
There’s a crazy thing happening in Mali right now. Of course you know about the terrorist attack at the Radisson Blu, but the Islamic Fundamentalists are also banning music nationwide. I don’t know if you know, but Mali is basically the single richest musical country in the world in terms of the number of different styles it has, for a relatively little country. It's a third of the size of Texas. There’s a great film called Timbuktu, about when the van with extremists rolled into Timbuktu and shut down all art and culture.
It’s a strange scene there. Music is a part of life, and people are trying to shut it out and crush the culture with fear and violence. I wasn’t even supposed to be here today, I was supposed to be in Mali right now recording Salif’s next record, but the terrorist attack provoked a bunch of things, so we’re waiting 'til April to see if it’s safe then.
It's a beautiful place, there's normally music everywhere. And things just happens when they happen. You say you’re gonna be there at 1pm, people show up at 9pm… the next night. I'm in the studio at 1pm on Wednesday and the backing singers and Salifi showed up at 9pm on Thursday! They sang, and it was unbelievable.
Unless you’ve lived there, you can’t know what it's like. Especially coming from a music school experience, it’s probably about as opposite as you can get."
“I remember when we found out that Salif couldn’t make the session, there was this huge despondence in the band. We were all really gutted coz we all wanted to work with him and meet him and perform with him, and when we found out he wasn’t coming it was a real disappointment. But actually seeing the song for the first time tonight, I realised the fact that you did have to go there almost emphasises and rearticulates how international this project was. The fact we could still actually do it, and the music was still all there, we were just recording it in different countries. It was still valid, and I found that debatably more powerful that we ended up doing it separately."
“Do you feel it’s as easy to tell a story across an album with a Family Dinner record as it appeared to be with Sylva, for example. I couldn’t listen to a single track on its own in Sylva"
“Yeah, it’s a one-piece, right? With Family Dinner you run the risk of it being a little too disparate because it’s so many different artists from so many different places, but there’s unifying factors. It’s the same players, more or less, in our band, the same sounds, the same kind of instruments, the same mentality. We were all there together in the same week. It’s an energy that kind of consumes the space.
It felt like a weird little Utopia. We were all pinching ourselves every day thinking “this is crazy!”. The artists too, Crosby would do his rehearsal and we’d be like “Alright you can go back to the hotel” and three hours later I’d go to get a glass of water and he’d be in the kitchen jamming with Jacob in the suite. “Crosby, you’re 74, go to bed! What’s wrong with you dude?”
CROZ! @thedavidcrosby pic.twitter.com/H8Rk3JX75P— Jacob Collier (@JCollierMusic) February 23, 2015
It was like that the whole week. Susannah was teaching Moz how to afro dance. It was a cool vibe, and to me, that unifies the music. The spirit, the intangible thing.
Before we split, I just wanna give a huge thanks. England is a big part of what we do, and especially some people that live here. I want to give a shout, of course, to Bill Laurance, but we’ve also got our manager Mike Chadwick here, our assistant producer for the film and our tour manager, Rosanna Freeman. Camilo Salazar, who’s our assistant engineer. [I couldn't hear this name in the recording] who did the artwork, and a load of good friends that have always supported us, taken care of us, housed us, fed us and treated us right. You've made us feel welcome. I wanna say a thanks to all you guys, and to you guys being here tonight. I hope you enjoyed the film, I hope you check out all these artists. Thank you."