What’s on this monster multi-instrumentalist’s mind when he’s at the drumset with the kaleidoscopic groove machine known as Snarky Puppy? Melody, of course.
Who would take a mini orchestra navigating funk, jazz, fusion, and world music and name it Snarky Puppy? Bassist Michael League, that’s who. League leads the madcap marauders into unique terrain on their latest release, groundUP, on which drummer Robert “Sput” Searight plays with all the funky flow of his heroes Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield and with the metric sophistication of his equally important influences Mike Clark, Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach.
The thirty-seven-year-old drummer is no stranger to good grooves, his impressive biography including seven years as the touring drummer for Snoop Dogg, plus further road work with Justin Timberlake and Erykah Badu. A native of Dallas, Searight has worked extensively on that city’s gospel scene, tracking drums for the Clark Sisters, Tamela Mann, Twila Paris, and Kirk Franklin; with Franklin he won a Grammy for the 1997 hit single “Stomp.”
In Snarky Puppy, Searight originally played piano, an instrument he pursued along with drums in college. Sput’s broad knowledge also serves him well as a producer, on recent work with Quincy Jones (for an upcoming Clark Terry record) and with the R&B artists Diane Cooke and Eugene Young.
But Snarky Puppy is Searight’s current home, his three albums with the twenty five-strong unit the kind of diverse outings that recall everyone from Frank Zappa and English progressive rock to Weather Report, Tower of Power, Headhunters, Funkadelic, and the Brazilian trio Azymuth.
MD: Coming from hip-hop and gospel, how do you bend your style to the quirky arrangements of Snarky Puppy?
Sput: Eight years of studying jazz extensively helped me merge the different styles for Snarky Puppy. I went to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas [playing piano in the number-one jazz combo], where Roy Hargrove and Norah Jones also attended. I went to Rutherford College for my associate’s degree in music education, where I also played jazz piano in the big band. I played drums in a second band. Then I went to North Texas State University, where the Snarky band members came from. All the raw drums that I had under my belt kind of met the technical side.
I took all these styles and merged them into one, really internalizing my influences and trying to play from all those viewpoints with Snarky. There’s a lot of freedom with Snarky. So I’m trying to take some of that freedom and use those influences and groove, because that’s what it’s really about. This is a dream gig for a drummer, because you’re not bound. I am also challenged to create in ways that aren’t always improvisational.
MD: Playing piano must have influenced your drumming.
Sput: Yes, I got a lot of information from the piano’s perspective. I like Herbie Hancock, George Duke, Oscar Peterson. I don’t sound like any of these guys, but they’re my favorites. And Count Basie, because of how he phrased. He played from a melodic standpoint more so than chopping and fast scales. He made the songs sing like a vocalist when he played the piano. I was fascinated with his playing.
MD: How does being a skilled piano player make you a better drummer?
Sput: It’s meant everything for my drumming. When I play music, I’m thinking tones and melodies. I’m playing from a weird perspective for a drummer, actually. I’m looking for melodies and using my ears differently, as opposed to always playing from a rhythmic standpoint. I am thinking melodies first.
MD: What formed your practice routine in college?
Sput: During junior college I practiced eight hours a day. It took a long time to catch up on school! I was practicing coordination, learning different styles. I wanted to practice both piano and drums, so I did four hours apiece. I played to Elvin Jones on records and transcribed his solos. I tried to transcribe Steve Gadd grooves as well as try to mimic the James Brown drummers. I’d see how long I could lock a groove and make it feel good. My career took off after my first year at North Texas. Now, after having a career in professional music for fifteen years, I don’t have a lot of chances to practice like that anymore. I only attended North Texas for a semester and a half as a percussion major, then I began working. Snarky would come to Dallas for jam gigs. We mixed together in the Dallas community of music.
MD: What’s the most important element of your success?
Sput: In a nutshell, being aware of broadening my horizons, so that I didn’t limit myself to playing one genre. I wanted to know every style, be in every situation and succeed. I wanted to be able to comply with every artist and producer. Being a professional, being on time, all these things have contributed to where I am today. I was taught by people who were very professional and encouraging and offered me good advice. I advise drummers to put themselves in the environment they want to be in. Work with musicians who will kick your ass—guy who will not just praise you but will tell you what you’re doing wrong and give you the opportunity to learn. They’ll be a big factor in the kind of musician you will become.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Searight plays German-made DrumCraft drums in black maple finish. His primary snare is a 6×14 birch model, and his second is an 8×14 aluminum placed in the first floor tom position. His mounted toms are 6×10 and 6×12, and a 14×14 floor tom sits to the right of his auxiliary snare. Sput’s Meinl cymbals include 16″ Byzance Traditional Medium hi-hats, a 10″ Byzance Dark splash stacked on a 10″ Byzance Extra Dry splash, a 20″ Byzance Traditional Extra Thin Hammered crash stacked on a 12″ Classics Custom Trash splash, a 22″ Byzance Jazz Big Apple ride, a 20″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash, and an 18″ Byzance Traditional Thin crash stacked on the 14″ bottom cymbal from the Generation X 12″/14″ X-treme stack. Evans heads and Vic Firth AJ1 sticks complete his setup.