When Mark Lettieri joined the instrumental jazz band Snarky Puppy over a decade ago, he wasn’t to know that his degree in advertising and public relations would be of little use to him, and that he would instead go on to become a Grammy Award-winning guitar player and composer.
As he prepares to join up with the group on the European leg of their tour in support of their latest long-player, Immigrance, it’s a perfect opportunity for us to sit down and talk with the guitarist. Immigrance marks the follow-up to Snarky Puppy’s Grammy-winning 2016 release Culcha Vulcha, and the pressure of that success might scare us mere mortals, but not the likes of Mark.
“Maybe there’s some pressure, but it’s not obvious on anybody. We never go into the studio thinking we’ve got to impress everybody and get that other Grammy!” he says. “It’s more about making the best record we can with the best songs we have. If we were ever in this to win awards or impress people, it wouldn’t have gotten to where it is. The honesty of it all is what has kept it afloat.”
On their 12th album, Snarky Puppy have chosen to move away from the groove and funk influences that shone through on Culcha Vulcha, aiming to harness a more raw and robust sound, although Mark admits he doesn’t entirely remember having this discussion. “I don’t recall us thinking we need to do something different to Culcha Vulcha. Maybe that conversation happened behind the glass! We didn’t discuss that as far as the guitar players are concerned.”
What he does recall, though, is the essence of movement demonstrated throughout the record, allowing him to approach his guitar playing from a new direction. “It’s a different way of playing and more challenging for me. I feel like my contribution with Culcha Vulcha may have been slightly more of a funk approach in the way the songs were. But with this record, I played some more textural stuff than I normally do.”
This is a testament to Mark’s diversity as a guitar player, which has also seen him lend his hand to more slide-guitar work and even baritone. That may be all well and good, but it doesn’t come without its drawbacks… “I’m going to have to rearrange my touring board to cover more ground now! [laughs] There’s a fair amount of slide guitar on this record, too, so I’m gonna have to bring something other than the Strat on this tour!”
Strength in numbers
What the new record conveys so well is the band’s ability to practice what they preach; that people of all backgrounds and upbringings can harness their strengths and experiences to work together for their mutual benefit.
Diversity seems to be the secret ingredient for Snarky Puppy and Mark believes that always has and will always remain the case. “That’s the reason why whoever’s in the band is in the band. Everyone has a pretty singular sound and that’s why the band sounds the way it does too, because of all those individualities.”
The singular sounds that Mark is talking about don’t detract from the band’s togetherness, however. With 19 members – yes, 19 – involved in the recording of Immigrance, that collective camaraderie is pivotal to the compositional make-up of the songs.
“Compositionally, we usually know where things will fit and where the solos are gonna go, but that can change and the solo section is always totally open,” he enthuses. “We let the song dictate who will take it and how it’s going to sound. We don’t read charts or anything, it’s a pretty organic process. That’s what’s so good about this band, when there’s time for a solo it’s never the same instrument, maybe a horn player will play where a guitar was last time and vice versa.”
Categorising themselves as a “fusion-influenced jam band”, Snarky Puppy’s multicultural sound allows all of Mark’s influences to manifest themselves in some form or another; most notably his worship and gospel background. “There’s absolutely a gospel background for a lot of the guys in the band, there’s a certain groove and harmonic language that they all have, or the way they approach chord voicings, etc.”
With the new approach heard on Immigrance, the San Francisco-native has been able to reveal where his textural guitar playing has stemmed from, with crossovers that are somewhat surprising to the uneducated listener.
“Even contemporary Christian music has a lot of textural-sounding guitar parts, which crosses over into the Puppy stuff, too,” he explains. “Those big delays and trailing tremolos are the same that I would use to create some kind of soundscape with Snarky Puppy as I would on any another record. A lot of that Christian guitar playing comes from The Edge and Radiohead, and Chris [McQueen, also of Snarky Puppy] and Bob [Lanzetti, Snarky Puppy] are huge Radiohead fans, too, so it all kind of blends itself together after a while.”
Also an in-demand session guitarist and sideman, Mark Lettieri has clocked many a musical mile with artists ranging as far and wide as David Crosby, Erykah Badu and even Snoop Dogg and comedian Dave Chappelle.
His most recent solo work comes in the form of 2016’s Spark And Echo, which charted at No. 11 on the Billboard Jazz Album Chart, quickly followed by Deep: The Baritone Sessions, which was released earlier this year. That particular session came through the positive response he received from videos he was posting to his Instagram, and in turn convinced him to put the album out.
“It wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but the response to the videos I was putting out made me think, ‘Okay, maybe I will’. That one happened pretty quickly, I did most of it at home. Then sent other files out to my friends who played on it.”
Mark’s tireless approach is admirable, but it doesn’t stop there. Prior to releasing The Deep he also stepped into the studio with Cory Wong and Nick Dart of the internet’s favourite funk band, Vulfpeck, to form The Fearless Flyers, in which he plays a Bruno Bacci baritone guitar.
“The Flyers – that stuff gets done in like a week!” he exclaims. “One of us will come in with a riff or idea, we’ll roll tape and then it’s done. There’s not much pre-production with that. When they asked me to do it with baritone, I’d built a baritone-funk pedalboard with octaves and all that, and we went direct!”
When asked what the secret is to his almost unmatched prolificacy, he doesn’t entirely know how to respond. “I don’t know! The creativity comes and goes in waves and when it’s there, I have to seize it do something with it. When it’s not, I don’t even think about it.”
As is customary with guitar players of the modern age, Mark’s guitars and amps of choice are ever so slightly off-kilter, yet still pay tasteful homage to instruments that started it all. “The Grosh comes with me almost all the time. It’s my favourite Strat-style guitar and has been for a while. It’s versatile, does what I need it to do and I’m just a Strat guy.”
His love affair with the Grosh S-type is thanks in part to a guitar he’s been messing with since his teenage years, and despite his loyalty to the Grosh, that guitar still made its way onto the latest Snarky Puppy record.
“I was playing the same Strat I’d had since I was 16,” he explains. “I’d customised it and changed the pickups and messed with the wiring. I thought it was almost there, but not quite, so I thought I should pony up and get one that would always be there. After a while, the neck started to fall apart, so Don Grosh built a custom neck for that and now I kind of have two Grosh guitars. Actually, that guitar is the one that I used for the Snarky Puppy record!”
On the topic of equipment that may or may not upset the apple cart, Mark confesses to parting ways with his loyalty to the vacuum tube during recent sessions.
“On Immigrance, some people might be mad at me for saying this, but I used a Kemper for the entire record!” he reveals coyly. “I think I just wanted control over several different amps, so it allowed me to use varied profiles, including several Supro profiles, Suhr, 3rd Power and a Bassman. That was really cool and flexibility was the main reason. There wasn’t a whole lot of time and luxury to swap gear around. It was mainly: ‘Does it sound good? Okay, roll tape.’”
Outside of the Snarky Puppy universe, however, he remains a tube-amp enthusiast, generally favouring Supros and a Naylor. “I’m definitely a firm supporter of real amps, but on this, it just made sense to use a Kemper.”
Whether he’s playing hip-hop, worship or instrumental jazz, Mark’s undeniable flair and expertise manages to elevate the recording, and its this mastery of his instrument that’s allowed him to perform on almost every continent. There is one that still eludes him, however, and he might just use his celebrity to help tick it off his list.
“I’d love to play on Antarctica, just to say that I did! If anyone knows a Russian researcher or a NASA satellite team that can sort it, we can go [laughs]. Metallica played there, though, so maybe I should get Kirk Hammett on the phone!”
Immigrance by Snarky Puppy is out now on GroundUp Music.