19.06.2017

Talking with Michael League

Chris P. Dekker interviews Michael League of Snarky Puppy 

Michael League News

Michael League

“I had the Höfner sound in my head since I was a kid”

Michael League is best known as bass player and band leader of the renowned Texan band Snarky Puppy, which won four Grammy Awards between 2014 and 2017. But this 'bassist's bass player' has his own record label and does a lot more than just Snarky Puppy, in various side projects. For his new project Bokanté he recorded with a baritone guitar and his trusty old '67 Höfner 500/1. 

The Bokanté tour hasn't started yet, so Höfner was invited, by Michael League, to an old venue turned church in the Dutch capitol: Paradiso, Amsterdam. Hours before one of two sold out Snarky Puppy shows, he takes time to talk about Höfner basses and different musical colours or, being American, colors. League must be one of the busiest men in the music business nowadays, but a smiling and relaxed guy takes a seat in front of us in backstage Paradiso and takes all the time to feel and hear a German 500/1 we brought for him to try. 

Michael, let's talk about your Höfner first. You have one, if I'm correct. What's the story behind the bass?
'Yes, I have one, but I'm talking with Höfner USA for a new and special bass. I can't say anything about that yet. We are in Amsterdam now and this story has its origin in The Netherlands. With my Dutch friend Joris van Nispen, I visited the well-known Dutch bass player Manuel Hugas and he busted out his bass collection. I'd never played a Höfner before, this one had flatwounds on it and I plugged it into an Ampeg B-15 Fliptop. I was like: “Man!” I had this sound in my head since I was a kid, but I'd never been able to recreate that sound. The combination of the Höfner and B-15 was amazing and I had to buy one as soon as I had the money. I was searching in pawn shops and I found one in a used instrument store in Pennsylvania. I asked the guy to plug it in and play it to me over the telephone, haha! As soon as he played it was okay. It was the Höfner sound. I bought it, the pick guard fell off later, but I think it looks better without. I like the symmetrical shape. Mine has the “blade” pickups, which sound great in my ears, and I think it's from 1967.' 

Different

If I'm correct you are using a Bass VI on the new Bokanté album?

'In fact it's a baritone, so tuned from B to B. It's more like a guitar. I started as a guitar player, I'm mostly a bass player nowadays, so this baritone is a nice “in between” instrument. I'll play it live, but on the album I recorded the bass too, with the Höfner 500/1. I also used a Kala U-Bass. An ukulele bass. That's amazing too. It's strangely similar to a Höfner, with its poofy attack, not a whole lot of sustain and a nice decay of the notes. To be honest, the U-Bass has no sustain and the Höfner has much more. I got used to the U-Bass, but I don't see it as a bass. It's just a crazy little instrument that has its own sound and its own place in music. I don't use many 5-string basses, but they have their own place too. I even think of that with my different Precision Basses. I have P's from '52, '59, '65, and '76 and I use them for different things. The quite heavy '76 has a huge low end for example, the other ones don't. The '59 is the most even sounding bass and that's my main live bass. I'm trying out a Taylor GS Mini Bass which is different and nice. Awesome but a bit weird. You know, you can use a Precision or Jazz on everything, but if you want something different and special, you chose a Höfner or U-Bass.' 

Do you see your basses as different voices like band members or maybe as colours you can use to make music?

'Sure. That's exactly the same thing.' 

Excitement

If you are composing or recording a song, do you always know which bass fits best?

'I'm over the excitement you have when you play a bass for the first time. If you have a new bass you want to use it on everything, haha! I'm familiar enough now with the sounds, so I can make an un-biased, levelheaded decision what to play. I have to say that excitement isn't necessarily bad. Sometimes you play better when your excited with an instrument. But to answer your question: I know now what's a P song or a Höfner song.' 

Is that decision tempo based or style based?

'It always depends on the other instruments on the track, the role of the bass in a song and the purpose of the song. For long, sustained notes I would prefer a Fender, but for melodic, pushing bass lines the Höfner is perfect. The first step is to know the options and the second is executing.' 

When do you use the Höfner?
'If the songs are period pieces, so they sound a bit '60s or '70s, I always play Höfner, with a pic and Rhythm engaged. If it's a rock song I will get a P or the Höfner, depending on the style of rock. The Höfner can be really driving and punchy. I don't always really know why I chose a bass. I played in a bar last week, with an ukukele-style instrument and an old Mustang guitar, and I just felt like the Höfner was right. We started playing and it was! I don't know why, but it worked. It was just intuitive.' 

What kind of strings do you use?

'I have flatwounds on three out of four Fenders and black nylon tape wounds on the Höfner.' 

Do you ever play finger style on the Höfner?

'yep, sure, but more often with a pick. It depends on the song or the part of the song. You get so much more low end, using your fingers or thumb. I like to play with a pick and palm mute the strings, that increases the low end too.' 

Something special

To come back to the Strange Circles album of Bokanté, which is out on your own GroundUP label, why did the Höfner work on that record?

'There's something beautiful in the relationship between the baritone guitar and the Höfner playing in unison. Different than a P and a baritone. Something really special happened and I don't know what. It's a warm sound.'

It reminds me a bit of the 'tic tac bass' in country and Phil Spector's 'wall of sound', when they combined for example an upright bass with an electric or a muted Danelectro short scale with a P.

'Yes! I use that same philosophy a lot. I'm producing an electronic jazz pop album now and on few of the songs I play bass on two Moog synths, panned left and right, and a Prophet Bass. I play them all completely in unison, but very slightly detuned from each other, so it's fat, wide and warm. In fact, that is a modern version of the tic tac bass, and so is the combination of the baritone and the Höfner. Not all songs on the Bokanté album are that way, but a lot. Like I said, the combination of Höfner and baritone is magic!'

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