interview with snarky puppy’s mark lettieri
Interview with Snarky Puppy’s Mark Lettieri
Mark Lettieri, the Lead guitarist of one of the most respected names in instrumental music, Snarky Puppy, shares some of his experience touring around the world, collaborating with major label artists, his struggles as a musician and his influences. The interview airs on Alternate Tone’s YouTube Channel. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
Click to watch the interview video below:
I understand you graduated from Texas Christian University, You were studying advertising and Public Relations, so what made you decide to embark on a music career instead?
Well, I think it was something I’ve always wanted to do. It was my passion and dream, I just didn’t quite realised it until later than some musicians. When I finished school, I made enough connections in the music scenes to secure some gigs, so I thought I might give it a shot and it seemed to work out so I’ve stuck to it every since.
Who are you influenced by?
Some of my earlier influences were guitarist Jimmy Kendricks, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani etc. Then as I got older, I was into Prince, Stevie wonder, and James Brown. I’ve listened to almost everything like gospel music, gospel guitar and all that. It serves 2 purposes. It helps me with my own sound and play other sounds if I need to play for a session.
Share with us what is it like to tour around the world? What’s the best and worse part?
It is def a blessing to make a living doing what you love to do. The best part about playing around the world is to go around the world. I’ve seen places I’ve never thought I would go to, interact with people who I never thought I would ever meet. And it’s fun to share music with people that wanna receive it and make connections beyond your own area code. So that’s the most fun part for me and being on the stage to play really loud.
The downside is being away from home, especially now that we’re about to have a kid. Depending on the tour, it can wear you down due to the travelling, flying and driving, getting up early, not a lot of sleep and eating at strange timing. It’s hard to stay in shape. Sometimes it can be boring as well, as it is the same thing everyday. Most of the stuff I do, thankfully it isn’t boring, though.
How is it working alongside with top artists? Which was your most memorable collaboration?
I toured with Phillips Phillips for a while, and that was a lot of fun. We did a bunch of shows with his band. He has a great band. I love Phillips’s music, he is a great guy to work with. It’s basically like a rock and roll show, with a guitar solo in every song, so it was quite fun!
The stuff with Eminem and Adam Levine was an interesting story because I’ve never met them. I did that session for a producer here in Dallas that was producing the project for 50 Cent. We went to his house and recorded a bunch of guitar tracks on different songs that he was doing and a few weeks later, he called me and was like “ Hey man, you remember that one track that we put together? That’s going on 50 cent record and Eminem and Adam Levine are going to the featured artist on it. So that’s how some of the stuff works out, I meet the producer and not the artists So nowadays, so much stuff are done electronically and over the Internet, there are many other European artists that I’ve never met and played on their records *laughs*.
How is it like being the lead guitarist of the massively talented Snarky Puppy?
Well, it is a lot of fun certainly, but it is actually a lot of work and a serious job. My role in that band is not just to show up and play guitar solos. There are a lot of information in the songs and a lot of parts that are not easy.
It is a privilege to be part of the group because everyone is so talented and what we are doing, we try it to do at a high level, so you can’t really slack off in that band. Everyone will notice if you are not bringing a 100%.
Can you tell us about your latest album “Spark and Echo”? Where did you get your inspiration from?
I’ve been doing instrumental guitar bass music under my name for a couple of years. So every 2 years or so, I’ll try to finalise these songs I’ve been writing and get together with my friends to make a record and see how things progress. There wasn’t any specific inspiration for that album. It was just where I was at the particular time as a writer and I felt confident enough in what I had and what I was as a writer and player to then record and produce it. I felt like it was like my first record because I spent more time and money on it. Timing-wise, there was a little more attention on Snarky Puppy and many other things that band members were doing. So when it was time to make a statement, it has to be the best statement I could do. This record feels a little bit more put together.
What’s your biggest struggle as a musician? Back then and now?
I’m always struggling with the playing part *laughs*. There is always stuff which I wished I was better at, that I could play better, play faster, play precisely, play more interestingly, keeping up with other guitarists on Instagram that are 30 years younger than me and 30 times better. Outside of that, it’s just managing my stress level and commitments. As musicians, we want to do every opportunity that is presented to us. If you overcommit yourself, you will either burn yourself out physically, or won’t be able to dedicate enough time to each thing you are committed to, and the product will suffer. There have been some experiences where I thought “Man I should not have done that” as I did not have time to focus on (those commitments), and it could have been better. The deeper I get into my career, the more I can’t afford to do that because people will hear it. If you overextend yourself and getting it together for an important session or project, it’ll stick with you forever. I’m getting better at time management and my commitments, but it is something I still struggle with.
Were there times when you feel like giving up? Or you feel mundane or tired of playing the guitar?
Thankfully no. I never thought about quitting, at least not seriously. The one thing tough about playing music is that you don’t get paid vacations. So if we want to go do something as a family, I have to make financial sacrifices just to do stuff for the family, which is important to me. So that’s a balance. But it is never necessary made me wanna quit. Occasionally I feel like everything sounds the same, if that’s the case I’ll just take a break, or just consciously stop trying to play. If I’m playing something, I know what I need to not do, so thankfully I was given that filter intrinsically.
What’s your biggest breakthrough so far?
Joining Snarky Puppy was the coolest thing! I’m glad that had happened. That was something I was never expecting. Nobody expects to be in a band that has recognition. I was prepared to be a session guy/freelance and bouncing from gig to gig. But having a core artistic thing that I can go to, that is sustainable, is important and kinda rare in some respects in the music business because it has enabled me to have an outlet that is fun but also allows me to do my own thing. But I would be lying if I said the intention of me as a solo artist has nothing to do with Snarky Puppy. But I’m very thankful for that.
The first tour I did have Erykah Badu was cool. Cos I have never been on a tour like that. That was like a major label tour with hotels and nice things.
Being an accomplished musician, what do you aim to achieve in the future?
Ideally, it would be cool to have the solo material stuff become a little bigger part of what I do. And I’m slowly getting to that point. I’ll continue to make records, probably two or more. And being able to get to the places where people buy the records. I would love to get to Asia because there seems to have a lot of attention over there, and it’s hard to get to. But it’ll happen For me, I’m really happy with what I get to do, so as long as I can keep doing that, with another zero at the end of the cheque, there would be great. That’s what everyone wants. If you are happy doing what you do, then keep doing that. But it’s never about the money, however, in this business, you crave stability so as long as that’s happening, I’m okay.
What is the best way to grow and learn as a musician and guitarist?
Well, for me ..It’s to surround myself and play with musicians who are better than me. And I understand the degree of doing that depends on factors such as where you live, who your peers are etc. When I was younger, I would go into jam sessions all the time and sit in with bands. I would take gigs that I was not good enough to do and do my best. Because of that, I learnt a lot. I learn a lot about groove and the time feel. I learn a lot about composing and everything you need to know about becoming a solid musician. You’ll learn from someone who has done it better and longer. For me, It was trying to find a situation where I was the worst musician in the room. It tells a lot to do that. Nobody likes to feel like they suck, but that’s the way to grow. If you are constantly the one telling everyone what to do, you’re not necessarily going to reach another level. And of course, outside of that, I never stop listening to stuff that was inspiring to me. Even stuff that inspired me when I was thirteen, I would still come back to listen to it. Cos that initial inspiration always stuck with me and that means something.
Do you have a practice routine? And how has it changed over the years?
I never had a practice routine. I definitely practice and always playing something. But rarely is it focused. Maybe when I was a little younger, like in high school days and teen years. I did focus on a few things. I had a teacher back then, that was teaching the notes in the major scale. So I was really inspired by that and practice that stuff. Every now and then I go through phases where I want to focus on something technical but for the most part, it is very scatterbrain “Imma gonna pick up the guitar and see what happens kinda thing. One important thing is playing along with the records. I used to sit and jam along to all kinds of stuff. Constantly trying to figure out parts by ear. Nowadays, most of my practising is work related and I have to learn songs for the gig or doing a session at my house and coming up with stuff I have to play. Or maybe I’m writing tunes. That is also practice for me. That’s trying to be creative as a songwriter.
When improvising, do you play what you hear or do you follow chord changes?
(Refer to the video for demonstration)
Yeah, I do follow the chord changes, but I do let my ear dictate what needs to be said. That’s kind of like, what phasing is, the same musical thoughts that you are portraying, playing but certain kind of songs you can ignore the changes. Sometimes you have like a rock or pop song, you could play A minor over the whole thing because it’s diatonic. But if you want to work the changes, you can throw in some F major or arpeggios, maybe a diminished run going back to A minor. If you focus on the changes, you can make your phrasing more colourful. So don’t be afraid of the changes.
How do you develop the skill of improvisational skills?
The best way to use your ear and listen. I think especially if you’re playing with other people, listen to what they’re doing. And have them perform the way that you’re playing. The drummer is playing a certain pattern, the bassist is doing something, the keyboard player is doing something rhythmic. That influence the way you improvise. It influences your rhythm. The keyboard is adding an extension on this one chord that couldn’t form the melody you choose to play. But I think that another thing is important is not being afraid to take the risk. It’s okay if you make a mistake. You can learn how to make those mistake sound musical. I can always tell an improviser whose playing stuff that they’ve already worked out at home. I know when a guy plays a really cool lick but the next 4 bars he’s trying to find himself before he can set himself up for the next cool lick.
When I see that I’m like “ yeah you practice those 2 licks at home” but you don’t know how to put it together. So that means you’re not improvising. You’re just regurgitating what you’ve practised. Improvising is where you go to play those licks and you don’t quite do it the exact same way u practice at home – you come up with something new and different because of the musical situation that you’re in. You’re letting the music inform the things you practice and not the opposite.
Any words of encouragement to young musicians and artists starting out
Well, always make sure you’re having fun doing what you’re doing because music is fun. And it is enjoyable. It makes ppl happy. Even if you’re playing death metals, you still enjoy it. So don’t ever lose sight of the fact that music is a gift and something can be enjoyed. When you pursue it as a job, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not enjoyable. The thing that kept me going is that I love to play the guitar. I love the way it sounds, I love the way it feels, I love being able to make it do weird things and make music with it. As long as you got it on the forefront of your brain and everything that you go forth to do, it will keep you inspired and keep you from feeling like you’ve to make the wrong choice in life.*laughs* So have a good time, all the time!
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