Robert “Sput” Searight

Snarky Puppy’s soul sender has seen tears of joy in the eyes of fans who’ve been starving for the band’s adventurous spirit, meticulous arrangements, and generous vibe.

Story by Ken Micallef
Photos by Marco Hammer

When Robert “Sput” Searight signed up for his entrance audition at the University of North Texas in the late 1990s, he saw that none other than big band and jazz drummer extraordinaire Ed Soph was the person assigned to determine his fate. Instilling both fear and respect in his students, Soph didn’t suffer drumming fools gladly.

“Ed Soph taught me two lessons about the value of dynamics,” Searight recalls. “His auditions were very old school. You got the idea that he’d seen a hundred drummers before you. And he’s sick of it! So he tells me to play for thirty-two bars and, ‘Play as much as you can, improvise.’ So I start swinging and soloing, and when I look up he has his fingers plugging his ears! He was in total agony. He asks, ‘Can you play all of that three volume levels lower?’ So I try again. Here I am, this nineteen-year-old kid struggling to play everything at a lower volume level. I finally look up and he’s not paying any attention—again! He’s literally reading the newspaper.

“I left that room feeling like, Ed Soph is an asshole. But I’ve got to tell you, if I saw him today I would hug him and kiss him on the cheek and tell him how much he helped me. Because now I’m him! I’m the guy that if it’s too loud I plug my ears.”

A joyous large ensemble that draws on jazz, fusion, funk, and rock, Snarky Puppy has achieved a level of success once thought impossible for a group of jazz-trained musicians from the University of North Texas. Typically recording live in front of an audience, the group brings crowds of all ages to their feet with incredible solos and ecstatic grooves. This year’s Sylva finds Snarky Puppy collaborating with the Dutch big band and symphonic outfit the Metropole Orkest. It’s still funky as Sly Stone, but with symphonic strings and big band brass to heighten the atmosphere.

The forty-year-old Searight appears on six albums by Snarky Puppy, which now also includes drummer Larnell Lewis, who tracked 2014’s We Like It Here and subs in the band when Sput’s calendar gets jammed. Searight has also performed road duties for Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, and Erykah Badu. And he’s worked extensively on Dallas’s gospel scene, tracking drums for the Clark Sisters, Tamela Mann, Twila Paris, and Kirk Franklin, with whom he won a Grammy for the 1997 hit single “Stomp.”

Snarky Puppy is Searight’s current home, his soulful, ecstatic, blitzkrieg drumming combining with the twenty-five-member-strong Puppy machine to produce progressive yet moving music that recalls such ’70s flashbacks as the Headhunters, Frank Zappa, and Weather Report, with a heaping helping of Parliament Funkadelic.

MD: Snarky Puppy explores so many different styles, and the players get to freely improvise. How do you hold it all together?

Sput: We’ve been playing together for nine years. That cultivates a lot of chemistry. From there, [bandleader and bassist] Michael League’s compositions are so complete and through-composed, we essentially just learn the compositions. I learn the keyboard melodies and the harmonies as well as the rhythms. Everyone in the band aspires to learn all the parts even if we can’t play them. We want to be able to think them. After I learn the composition and figure out the arrangement and play through it, I’m just being creative.

MD: You learn all the keyboard parts?

Sput: Yes, I learn the melody and the harmony of the songs from Michael’s demos. So by the time I get to the drums I know everything. That makes it easier to come up with parts. And when you play the part, everybody knows if it works or not. You don’t even have to have a conversation about it.

MD: Do Michael’s demos include drum parts?

Sput: Very seldom. Michael leaves that up to us. Though I didn’t play drums on We Like It Here, I did write most of the drum parts, including “Shofukan,” “Lingus,” and “What About Me?” So I’m on the record in spirit.

MD: If you wrote the parts, why aren’t you on the record?

Sput: At the time We Like It Here was recorded I was on the road with Marcus Miller. I couldn’t do both. It was kind of a drag! But it’s great to have a guy like Larnell sub for me.

MD: How do you and Larnell divide duties?

Sput: We recorded the upcoming Family Dinner 2 together, and [we’ll both do] the next Snarky Puppy record [Empire Central], which we’ll record in New York. It will be a studio record instead of live. For We Like It Here, Larnell learned seven songs in three days. If I need to take a date off, he jumps right in, and I also sub for him. We’re just one big family. Three guitar players, four keyboard players, multiple horn players, four or five percussionists, two drummers, and one bass player.

MD: What is your process for creating a drum part?

Sput: We play through the song until we find the right parts. Usually we get a good stretch of rehearsing and playing live to test the songs at shows. We feed off the crowd reaction. If the audience reacts to a certain part, we’ll embellish that part. Or they might not react and we’ll adjust the part. The energy and interaction with the audience is always the most important thing.

MD: Do you write out drum charts?

Sput: We don’t use charts at all. We’ve grown accustomed to the format of listening and learning and internalizing the music. We don’t play anything arbitrarily. It’s definitely structured. Things open up in the solo sections. As the drummer I can dictate or control
the vibe in those sections.

MD: What drummers are your reference points for playing this through-composed, Weather Report–meets-Zappa style?

Sput: Chester Thompson, Lenny White, Mike Clark, David Garibaldi. Those drummers really infused funk and fusion in jazz. I grew up listening to the James Brown guys, John “Jabo” Starks and Clyde Stubblefield. Ramon “Tiki” Fulwood, the drummer who played with Parliament Funkadelic for years, he played a lot of interesting fills, like crashing off the 1. After him, Dennis Chambers with Parliament. Dennis was one of the first drummers who could play everything you can play inside of the bar. And I love to hear Prince play the drums. On his record For You he plays drums on every song. The way he accented the songs, his feel was perfect. He’s so talented, he can play what he hears in his head instead of explaining it to someone else.

MD: After Family Dinner, We Like It Here was more of a player’s album. Sylva is like symphonic Snarky Puppy. How did you approach this record?

Sput: I remember flying to Holland for the concert and not having a clue of what we were getting into. Michael had sent us two songs, and they were definitely different from what we’re used to. He programmed drum patterns this time. Because there was an orchestra, the demos had to be through-composed and specific. That was challenging. Michael wrote things that sounded great, but I had to figure out how to play them!

MD: Which song is an example of that?

Sput: “Atchafalaya,” where Michael programmed a New Orleans pattern. But the way he wrote the ride cymbal part, there was no way I could play a snare and bass drum pattern and play that ride cymbal idea too. I had to dissect it to make it fit with what I could actually play. Other songs didn’t have programmed parts, so I created a part.

MD: It sounds like you’re replicating electronic drums with acoustic drums on “The Curtain.”

Sput: In the groove part of that song, where the bass solo happens, I’m playing a huge World War I–era 16″ field snare drum. It has this gothic sound. I doubled that sound with a splash on the snare drum to create the nastiest backbeat ever.

MD: The snare drum on “Gretel” sounds sampled. Or is that a cymbal on the drumhead?

Sput: I used a 12″ splash on the main snare. My idea is to create a handclap sound without using electronics. You can get so many sounds from hitting the splash on the snare drum. You have to hit the cymbal, then stick it. Don’t let the cymbal vibrate on the drum after you hit it. You hit it and hold it so it doesn’t bounce up. That gives you that electronic sound. I’ve been doing that for years, so I’ve figured out how to get different sounds from it as well.

MD: Where do you play the right-side 14″ “baritone” snare drum?

Sput: That’s really a 14″ floor tom with snares on it. I turn the snares on when I want that deep snare drum sound. So it’s dual purpose. It’s tuned in tandem with the mounted toms to be the floor tom. That’s what you’re hearing in “Gretel.”

MD: Also in “Gretel,” the drums sound electronic while the cymbals sound acoustic.

Sput: It’s all manipulation. Ideally, everything electronic is something acoustic we’ve sampled. [Percussionist] Nate [Werth] and I are always looking for sounds to create the samples. And we never trigger from the drums, not one time.

MD: Given that Snarky Puppy’s records are usually recorded live, are you playing to a click?

Sput: It depends. Recording Sylva with the Metropole Orkest, we did use a click. Everybody had in-ears. The orchestra needed it, but when we [usually] record live we don’t use the click. But sometimes we could use it! As humans your adrenaline gets pumping and shit speeds up.

MD: Do you have a favorite recording that you’d recommend people check out to hear your drumming?

Sput: If I had to pick one, it would be the one that we did in the studio and that I coproduced, Bring Us the Bright. It was when the band’s music started changing. The record after that, Tell Your Friends, was very different. I also played keyboards on Bring Us the Bright.

MD: What do you practice?

Sput: Listening. New music, new genres. I’m into Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, and Afrobeat drumming now. I read about different cultures and do extended research. When you internalize it, everything comes out. I practice on the road by listening. But when I come home I get on the drums, and I also teach, which teaches me as well. It’s school all over again for me. That’s the humbling thing about being a musician: You might forget the fundamentals when you’re playing a lot. But you still have to practice.

MD: Thanks to Ed Soph, you’re a master at playing dynamics.

Sput: I love that by using dynamics I can control people’s emotions with the stroke of a drum. It’s a lost art, and I try to teach that to my students. What makes someone a real musician is not always the talent, it’s the ability to have discipline within that talent or gift. I’ve seen guys who play all around the drumkit but don’t understand the concept of playing with dynamics, or how to play to the sound of the room, where you might use a different texture of cymbals or muffle the drums. You learn from experience. And you need the wherewithal to apply it.

MD: Snarky Puppy is wildly popular. Is it the tunes, the combination of players, the energy and camaraderie…?

Sput: It’s a combination of all that. We really enjoy playing this music. But it’s also the energy of the music, and the melodies are emotion provoking. We have more women coming to our shows than ever; I’ve seen ladies crying at our shows. And I’ve seen guys get emotional. The music is positive, and that’s inspiring for people who want to be positive. There hasn’t been any music in the last twenty years that’s like the music we play. Music today in every genre has been programmed to sound a certain way. So whenever you find music that doesn’t fit any of those boxes, you’re getting back to the art of creativity and the true artistry of expression. We’ve brought some fresh air to the music community. I see how little kids react to our music at shows, and that makes me really happy.

Tools of the Trade

Searight plays a Tama Star Walnut kit, including a 5.5×14 snare, an 8×12 rack tom, a 9×14 “baritone” snare, a 15×16 floor tom, and a 15×22 bass drum. His auxiliary snare is a Tama 5.5×10 Metalworks steel model. His Meinl Byzance cymbal lineup consists of a 20″ Extra Thin Hammered crash/12″ Classics Custom stack, a 22″ Vintage Sand crash/ride, 16″ Extra Dry Medium hi-hats, a 10″ Extra Dry splash, an 18″ Safari ride, a 21″ Mike Johnston Signature Transition ride, an 18″ Vintage crash/12″ Generation X Filter China stack, and a 20″ Extra Dry crash. Sput’s bongos, cowbells, shakers, claves, and tambourine are made by Meinl Percussion. His Evans heads include a Power Center Coated Reverse Dot batter on the Star snare, a G1 Clear on the Metalworks snare, a Hybrid Coated on the baritone snare, G2 Coated tom batters, and an EMAD 2 Coated bass drum batter.

Larnell Lewis

This rhythmic ringer, who hails from a long lineage of music makers, feels right at home with Snarky Puppy’s family vibe.

MD: What is your background?

Larnell: My family is of Caribbean descent, and that’s had a big influence on my drumming. My great-grandfather was a guitarist—he came from Santo Domingo. My grandfather and all my uncles played a variety of instruments. My dad is a multi-instrumentalist, and my brother plays drums for the Weeknd. My Caribbean family background influences how I interpret the beat. Coming from that background, you draw on a lot of knowledge to play the music. It’s not a simple one-drop reggae or soca calypso pattern. Through jazz I was able to combine all of that within my own interpretation. I also played in the Pentecostal church tradition in my native Toronto, which is steeped in Caribbean culture.

MD: What is your Snarky Puppy setup?

Larnell: In Snarky Puppy I’m playing Yamaha drums, Zildjian cymbals, Evans heads, and Promark sticks.

MD: How did you learn the material so quickly?

Larnell: They asked me to join them on stage at the Rex in Toronto the first day they saw me play. They taught me the song “Intelligent Design” on the break. It was fun, but a challenge. They told me where to be dynamic, the shape of the drum solo, and the last few ending cues. Other than that I would do my homework, then, when they came through town, I hoped they’d call the songs I learned. When I didn’t know the song, I would watch Michael for cues. A year later, they asked me to sub for Sput in Toronto. Then Michael sent the demos for We Like It Here. The hang behind the scenes is what makes Snarky Puppy so great. It’s as you see it—it’s exciting, it’s fun.