Snarky Puppy’s Holy Trinity
Robert “Sput” Searight, Jason “JT” Thomas, Larnell Lewis
Story by Willie Rose
Photos by Stella K.
For Culcha Vulcha, Snarky Puppy’s eleventh album and first studio effort in close to a decade, bandleader, bassist, and primary composer Michael League recruited the three drummers—plus a trio of percussionists—who’ve been collectively backing the genre-defying jazz-fusion group over the past ten years.
Culcha Vulcha listeners could be justified in expecting the drumming world’s newest testament of chops, considering each player’s reputation and credentials. Robert “Sput” Searight shattered 7/8 time with a blazing solo in “Flood,” from Snarky Puppy’s 2010 release, Tell Your Friends, and he’s held down the throne for such artists as Snoop Dogg, Timbaland, and Kendrick Lamar. Larnell Lewis, whose explosive performance on 2014’s We Like It Here arguably helped propel the Pups to fame, played double-bass-rate 16ths on a single bass drum pedal—while nonchalantly toweling off—during his 2015 PASIC clinic. And when he’s not out with 2012 American Idol winner and songwriter Phillip Phillips, Jason “JT” Thomas handily blasts through both drummers’ recorded parts live with the group.
All things considered, Culcha Vulcha’s drumming, provided by different pairings of Searight, Lewis, and Thomas, swerves from the anticipated. Massive yet unobtrusive grooves seethe underneath a world-influenced funk gumbo, without a drum solo in sight. Powerful in their modesty, mature in their restraint, and crushing in their tones, these three gospel-raised drummers (and friends) stretch way beyond chops on Snarky Puppy’s newest collaborative statement.
MD: Every track on the new record features two drummers. How were the parts conceived?
Larnell: Mike would decide which two drummers would play each song, and it was absolutely heavy on the composition side. For songs that weren’t necessarily straightforward, we homed in on what was necessary. Sput or JT would play a section, I would play a section, and we’d be searching for a part or groove that fit best. Depending on whoever got that, we figured out what the other drummer’s part would be to color the main groove, or we’d double up and play the same thing. In some cases, somebody might handle brushes while the other uses sticks. Having two people brainstorming really helped to get to the point faster.
For me, compositionally it’s always been about trying to understand what makes and creates Snarky’s sound within the drum and percussion section. It’s this ability to create and compose parts where everybody knows where they need to be and all of these gaps are filled without walking over each other. A lot of that has matured from live shows. And it’s awesome taking it into the studio, because on some songs you wouldn’t know there’s two drummers, or you’d think there was an overdub. But everything played on the drums was completely live.
JT: On some songs we’re both drilling the same groove. On “Tarova” I’m playing the deep snare part and hi-hat and Sput’s playing a tight snare and bigger bass drum. I’m playing a 20″ kick and he’s playing a 24″ or 26″. In the first half of that song I’m playing the deep snare, and any tight snare stuff that you hear is Sput. Later it gets into the groove, and we’re both playing cranked main snares. His snare was a 13″ and I was using a tight 14″. So even though they’re both cranked, you can still hear the different pitches if you listen to it with headphones.
Sput: It’s funny—it was JT, Larnell, and me in a room. But most of the drum parts were being thrown at us by people who didn’t play drums. And there was a point where we just laughed. I thought, I’m sitting in between two of the baddest drummers in the world, and a sax player is telling us what to play. [laughs] Everybody was throwing something into the pot. After going through that whole motion, we’d say, “Okay, let us come up with something.” Out of respect to the guys writing the songs, you definitely want to make them happy. But in the end we went forward with our stuff.
And the music was different this time. It’s centered around grooving underneath the melodies. The band has evolved and become lovers of Afrobeat, and we’ve always been lovers of funk. We’re trying to combine different elements together—Brazilian rhythms and melodies, Cuban melodies, or a Latin approach, all applied to funk. It’s like a gumbo of genres. That’s why this record is groove based.
I think Larnell and I just worked together. And it took a while, because I think we have two different styles of playing. Larnell has his sound. And we were able to implement both of our sounds in a lot of the songs and grooves. He would be playing these hi-hat sweeps on top of my groove, and he has this thing that he does with the ride bell. Every time he did that on top of my groove, the band would go nuts. We also took the James Brown drummer approach. He would play the bridge, I would play the verses, and then we might both play the choruses. It was like literally playing drum parts.
JT came there three or four days after we started recording, and in my opinion the session started when he got there. He brought the vibe, and everybody knew it and felt it. But on all of the songs that I played with JT, I basically copied what he was playing. We’re both from Dallas, so we kind of have the same approach. We played the same stuff—the same fills. It was really scary to play with him like that, because we really hadn’t gotten a chance to play together a lot. We’d play the same fill, look at each other, and bust out laughing. It was weird but really fun at the same time.
Larnell and JT’s playing was the same way, but in their songs the writing was a little more complicated than 2-and-4, like the stuff that I played with JT. They got into some serious rhythms and patterns, so that was pretty unique to watch unfold. Larnell is the youngest of us, and he’s a sponge. He still considers himself a student. But it was also a learning experience for me. He’s such a fast learner with material, rhythms…everything. It’s really cool to watch. I don’t learn in that manner. I have to sit down and repeat certain things a couple of times before it really registers. And it’s just a different process. But he’s a quick study.
MD: How do you think the parts might change from the record to a live show?
JT: That’s the same question we were asking ourselves. We have to figure out how to play this stuff live with only eight members, when fifteen or more people recorded. It was fun, but we definitely set ourselves up. I’m thinking, Why did we do this to each other? You realize that we have to figure this stuff out live. When you have access to that many tracks and you’re in the studio, it’s like, Do we want to do another part? Sure. [laughs]
We got kind of extreme, especially Sput. The studio, Sonic Ranch in Texas, had a lot of gear, and a lot of old vintage gear, specifically drums. They had some old Slingerland and Rogers stuff and 24″, 26″, and 28″ bass drums. And Sput used every one of them. [laughs] There are some sounds that we wouldn’t be able to re-create without electronics—which Snarky absolutely will not do for drums.
MD: What’s your approach to coloring another drum part?
Larnell: I’ve definitely been a lover and fan of sounds and textures from the drumset and what they do to music. Playing in orchestras, or even just the symphonic bands in high school, I learned that a lot of those sounds can really make or break a piece. And I guess going about that really has to do with understanding where we’re trying to go in the music. And I think another part of it comes from playing in church—you’re playing a song for a long period of time, it seems to plateau, and you have to figure out how to take it higher. So you look at where you were and where you want to go, and then make adjustments for where you need to go.
Without being too abstract, I would say to experiment. If Sput’s playing a heavy kick, snare, and hi-hat groove with a deep snare, that leaves me options on my main snare, which is a lot higher than his deep snare. I probably might not play a kick drum, because he’s using a 20″, or sometimes a 28″, and I’m using a 22″. I brought a few hi-hats and a bunch of cymbals with me so that I could add whatever kind of contrasting color made sense. I would switch between a bunch of sticks and decide on what worked. And then if I was stuck, we’d figure out what to come up with on top of what was happening, based on whatever advice I had from Sput or the other band members.
Gospel’s Drum Evolution
MD: In the drum world, there seems to be an association between gospel drumming and chops. What are your thoughts? Was there a point in time where you saw a change?
Sput: I’m always pinned as the bad guy, because I don’t think the chop aspect of drumming came from gospel music at all. I think it came from three people—Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Dave Weckl. They were playing that stuff in the early ’80s. Gospel chops didn’t kick off until maybe the early 2000s. We were late bloomers. It’s different in church, because the church musicians were raw. They didn’t have technical training and didn’t read. They played by ear. But they could pull off and repeat certain things just by hearing them. We used our ears to regurgitate whatever we heard. So there’s no technical drive behind it—it was something that you could do naturally because of the culture. We’d have to learn songs by ear without sheet music.
I was doing gospel records during that period, from ’97 to now. Maybe I used some of the influences of Dennis Chambers and all that in stuff I was playing as well. But by that time I was studying music in school, and I’d graduated high school and had gone to college for a few years and had music education inside of me for at least eight years by then. So my approach was obviously different from somebody who hadn’t had the fundamentals of studies.
During that time period it surfaced and blew up, and someone called it “gospel chops.” But I think it was coined because musicians in the church community gravitated toward that style of playing, and it actually wasn’t the standard way to play gospel music. It’s the opposite way you’re supposed to play gospel music. A lot of times, the only setting where you play that way would be in a shed, or in a practice setting, when you’re playing with your other friends on two different drumkits. If you played like that in church you’d be kicked off the drums. You’d get kicked out. But now it’s evolved and is becoming “the way.”
The authentic gospel way of playing drums goes back to Joel Smith and Bill Maxwell. There are a few other names you could throw into the hat, but one guy in particular that innovated the way gospel music is played today is Calvin Rodgers. He’s actually younger than me, and we’ve talked about this a lot. I’ve seen him grow up. I met him when he was twelve years old, and he’s innovated and transcended the art of playing gospel music since that age. He was always evolving the style. So kudos to him for that, because it’s the standard way gospel music is supposed to be played now. And his biggest influence is also Joel Smith. We’ve talked about it, and we both saw Joel play for the first time together, years ago now, and we both cried like babies when we saw this guy we grew up with playing. [laughs]
So that’s my take on the gospel chops. I mean, I love it, but it’s not really an approach I like to take in sharing music or playing music from my perspective. But a lot of it is obviously in me. I’m a big fan of Vinnie, I’m a big fan of Dave, and I’m definitely a big fan of Dennis. But I try to use it in a way where I can incorporate the rest of my influences, especially a lot of the jazz cats, like Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Philly Joe, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Roy McCurdy, and of course all of the guys from back in the day—Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, and all those guys that I learned from through my studies.
Larnell: For me in Toronto, specifically in terms of the Pentecostal and the Church of God, it was all heavily steeped in Caribbean music. My parents are from the Caribbean. They’re from St. Kitts and Nevis. So we played a lot of soca, calypso, reggae, and zouk, as well as a bit of funk. We used fills obviously to ramp up the energy. But I think the biggest thing about gospel music, and drumming in particular, was to pay attention to the flow and energy of the service and be respectful of the moods. If there was a moment where it was getting really exciting, it was about knowing how to use the drums to continually take it higher, because you’re playing the same song sometimes for maybe half an hour or forty minutes. So it was more about taking the energy up.
MD: Was there a point when you saw a change in Toronto?
Larnell: I can say that the crossover point probably came around or before the mid-’90s in Toronto. I’d say guys who were into Dave Weckl started trying to pull Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Steve Gadd licks off in church. [laughs] Basically if they got their hands on [Weckl’s instructional book and video] Back to Basics, that’s when things changed.
I think drummers started exposing themselves to the modern drumming world and took whatever made sense to use in a service. There was space to be aggressive. And at the same time there were some churches that didn’t want that from the drums or didn’t have drums at all.
But I don’t think it’s a negative thing, in terms of what people can do. It’s always about what you do with what you have. At the end of the day, in any situation, it’s about being musical. So if they’re using it in a way where they’re trying to take it away from what’s happening in the moment, then that’s that. I do see how that stuff gets glorified and how people can be drawn to joining the ranks of drummers by being really “choppy.” But that can become a really selfish move and sacrifices the purpose of the musical moment that we have in church.
JT: A record that sticks out for me was Not Guilty…the Experience by a gospel artist named John P. Kee [with the New Life Community Choir]. Calvin Rodgers was on drums. There was a song called “Rain on Us,” which became famous among drummers because it had a section at the end where the band and choir had a riff and there were drum breaks in between. That sticks out to me as a time when you can see the shift in playing. Guys were getting a lot more aggressive and more technical with things.
The stuff that I grew up on—the ’80s gospel stuff—was still bare-bones church recordings. Back then it was about the choir and the song. Musician-wise, nobody really stuck out like that. The music didn’t even lend itself to that.
A big influence on all of us was Joel Smith from the Hawkins Family with Walter Hawkins and Edwin Hawkins. Even when Joel did do drum licks, it was all within the song. What he played didn’t stick out to make himself be seen or heard. Even with his licks, his chops were completely different from what anyone else was doing at that time. He was always so musical with everything that he did—it never distracted from the song.
Now it’s definitely a departure. You have the singers, the band, and then the drummer. And it can get overwhelming sometimes how aggressive the playing gets, to where, to my ears, some of the stuff that they’re playing is amazing—you can’t take that away at all—but it just distracts from everything else that’s going on and really doesn’t make any musical sense, to a point where you’re literally blowing over this song for no reason.
So I’d definitely say that it’s changed majorly from the stuff I grew up on. If we had tried to play like that, like how guys play now, my father would have yanked me off the drums and I wouldn’t have played anymore.
But to be fair, musically, the stuff back then was based around groove. Now with the music—even with the keyboard players, the bass players—everybody is in that same world musically in their head. So a lot of what the drummer is doing is in reaction to what he’s hearing, because musically the stuff has changed too.
Someone told me, “Gospel is now almost like jazz-fusion.” And technically, it gets that deep with some of the music that’s out there. You have to really know what you’re doing to even play this stuff, because it goes so deep licks-wise and chops-wise on every instrument, not just drums. So the whole music in itself has definitely pushed now to be way more aggressive musically—some of it’s good, and some is definitely almost abusive. Sometimes I can’t even concentrate on what’s being sung or what’s being done because there’s so much going on musically that it’s distracting.
Bass Drum Technique
MD: Larnell, can you give some insight on your bass drum technique?
Larnell: In church, double kick was a no-no. People couldn’t afford it, and it was considered cheating. So a lot of guys stayed away from it. But I remember seeing a clip on CNN, I believe, that I did a middle school class project on. They broadcast a Dennis Chambers performance with John Scofield on a song called “Trim.” And they had a shot of Dennis where he’s using his double pedal and crossing his hands while hitting the cymbals. Watching it, I had no idea that he had a double pedal. This was around 1998, so I didn’t have Google. And I taped it and just sat there, and I wore that part of the video out trying to figure out what he was doing. I might’ve shown a friend or explained it to someone, and they were like, “Yeah, that’s Dennis Chambers, and he has a double pedal.” I was like, What? So from that point I decided that I had to work it out with a single pedal.
I just took whatever I already had in terms of playing double strokes. If you’re used to doing quadruplets, or two on the kick and two with your hands, you’re on your way. I usually tell people to try doing a double-handed shuffle but put the kick in there as well. Basically if you have the ability to play swung 8ths, straighten those 8ths out and you’re on your way to doing consistent 8ths or 16ths on the kick.
MD: Is it a heel-toe thing?
Larnell: I actually play heel-up for a lot of this. I’m touching on two points on the footboard. I’m using heel-up doubles and basically straightening them out at faster and slower tempos. I worked on gradually speeding up and slowing down, playing at one tempo louder and softer, and changing the swing and the volume at the same time. I was just trying to manipulate it whenever I wanted to—basically whatever I could do for control.
MD: How long did that take to develop?
Larnell: I learned to do doubles when I was eleven or twelve, and I started working on consistent singles when I was thirteen or fourteen. I started getting a handle on it after about maybe three years, but it wasn’t at top speed until a bit later.
MD: Sput, at certain points in your playing, it sounds like you’re using the same technique.
Sput: I can tell you right now, what Larnell is doing and what I’m doing are completely different things. I’m definitely cheating. There’s a way to pull out that sound that’s easy for me to do because of the pitch of my drums. My floor tom is usually a 16″, and it’s super-deep. So when I hit it in the middle of doubled fills between the kick drum and floor tom, it sounds like it could all come from my foot. And I also incorporate the deep snare. But I’m doing more of a John Bonham thing.
I can do certain things just from playing for so long. But the majority of the time I’m incorporating patterns between the floor tom and kick drum and speeding it up to try to make it sound really unique and play off it.
MD: Sput, you’re the senior drummer in Snarky Puppy. Do you have any career advice for younger drummers?
Sput: I know it’s typical, but I would say that it starts with practice. The way of the environment now, the culture, is the quick fix or quick advance. You can post a video and get a thousand likes, which could turn into a hundred thousand, and you instantly become an internet success. But when that success is happening early on, you’re not able to really develop the fundamentals of your craft. If you start getting called at a young age, you stunt your development, because you’re a professional now. And yeah, you can learn on the job sometimes, but sometimes you can’t—sometimes the gig doesn’t require you to learn on the job. So I always say when you’re rent free or phone-bill free, that’s when you have to put the most time into practicing.
It’s having the knowledge and the notion that distractions are always going to be there, no matter what your age. But what you can’t get back is that precious time that you can put into your craft. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes permanent, and I think if you practice in a certain manner, it stays with you for the rest of your life.
Other than that, stay humble and be a good study of business. That’s what’s left out. We have a passion to play, and that’s natural, and really people don’t pay us to play. They can’t afford that. That’s priceless. They pay for your time. And you have to be a good steward over the business of your time. And that can get lost and people can get taken advantage of. But it all boils down to negotiation.
You’re not negotiating your worth. I know that for me, in order to be the musician that I am now—I have a family, I have kids, I have grandkids—I have to be a good steward over my business so that I can take care of the people that I’m responsible for. I think that’s left out a lot in the encouragement and the advice that you give this generation of guys coming up. I think they get the advice about the gigs, and how to keep a gig. Of course you have to be disciplined and be able to answer an alarm clock. You have to balance all of the free alcohol you get and all of the free perks of the gig. But in the midst of having fun, you have to be business-minded about it.
You also have to think about the next gig while you’re on your current gig. Once this gig is over, the artist goes home. They have the luxury to go on hiatus. I got a Justin Timberlake gig, and he decided he wanted to be an actor as soon as I got it. [laughs] I was playing with Timbaland, and I got the gig by default when [Timberlake] decided to be an actor. So he did the Facebook movie and did a couple other successful movies, and he said, “Okay, I’m an actor now.” It was like a three-year period where I thought, I’m not waiting for Justin Timberlake.
Successful artists are successful because they worked hard to get where they are and can make decisions based on their convenience. God rest his soul, but I’ve heard stories about Prince. He never really had a schedule. You’d have to be on call or look out for that email that says to get on a plane tomorrow. That would frustrate me. But then he’d pay you $10,000 a gig, so you learn how to deal with that frustration really quickly.
Coloring Culcha Vulcha
Snarky Puppy’s three percussionists—Nate Werth, Marcelo Woloski, and Keita Ogawa—on the newest album.
MD: Can you describe your compositional process?
Nate: The three of us worked as a team and utilized all of our strengths. We put the music first, and I feel that the result is truly a work of art. We work really well together, and humility is a very large reason for that.
MD: How do you stay out of the way or complement two drummers playing at the
Nate: The most important tool that I use to avoid an overbearing sound is to listen. I don’t want to play long or open sounds when the drummer is playing cymbals with long decays—it muddies up everything. We often think in combinations of two to four short sounds and then go from there. Sometimes on the bridge or chorus of a song I’ll go to the longer sounds, and the drummer will stay on the hi-hat to keep the groove driving and crispy. We think of us as one drummer with one sound.
Marcelo: The key is to find parts that complement each other, lay out in some spots, double different timbres, and try not to overplay. We doubled up percussion parts, like the caixas [Brazilian snares], on “Semente” or the fills on “Big Ugly” [2:23]. And we double the drummers, like on “Tarova,” where the repinique and caxixis accentuate the snares. Also, sometimes there might only be one or two of us playing on part of a track. It’s a concept that Nate and Sput have been developing.
Keita: It’s great working with multiple percussionists at the same time. Before we got to the studio we all had demos of the songs, although I had no idea what sounds we’d use until we played. When we started rehearsing the songs, we’d discuss what instrument or sound we needed, create some phrases, and try them a couple of times. On some songs we used ideas from Brazil, Africa, and other areas, and then developed them our own way. Nate, Marcelo, and I are really close, so there’s no problem making music together.
MD: Does playing with a different drummer live change anything within your parts?
Nate: Absolutely. It’s such an honor to get to play with all of the Snarky Puppy drummers. I think each of them is among the greatest drummers living today. It’s like a free lesson every night. We rarely play parts. We are constantly listening to each other and letting the rhythm and groove flow like water down a stream. Sometimes you don’t know what’s coming, but you know where you’re going.
The Pups’ Gear
Jason “JT” Thomas
Drums: Yamaha Live Custom
• 7×14 and 5.5×14 snares
• 7.5×10 tom
• 8×12 tom
• 15×16 floor tom
• 16×20 kick drum
• 16″ Byzance Traditional Medium Thin hi-hats
• 16″ Byzance Extra Dry Medium Thin hi-hats
• 19″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash
• 12″ Classics Custom Trash splash/12″ Generation X Jingle Filter China stack
• 22″ Byzance Vintage Sand ride
• 12″ Classic Custom Trash splash/20″ Byzance Vintage Trash crash stack
• 18″ Byzance Jazz Thin crash
Heads: Remo, including Coated Ambassador X on main snare and Powerstroke 77 on deep snare with Hazy Ambassador resonants; Coated Emperor tom batters with Clear Ambassador resonants; and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter with Ebony Powerstroke 3 resonant
Sticks: Vic Firth, including AJ1, 5A, and 55A models
Accessories: Big Fat Snare Drum head and Meinl Ching Ring
Drums: Yamaha PHX in textured natural ash finish
• 6×14 Hybrid Maple Absolute main snare
• 6.5×14 John “JR” Robinson Signature Nail Custom snare
• 7×10 tom
• 8×12 tom
• 15×16 floor tom
• 18×22 bass drum
• 14″ K Custom Session hi-hats
• 14″ A Custom EFX
• 8″ A Zildjian Fast splash/8″ ZXT Zildjian Trashformer stack
• 18″ or 20″ A Custom EFX/11″ Oriental Trash splash stack
• 22″ K Custom Dark Complex ride
• 18″ A Custom EFX
• 16″ K Zildjian EFX/14” Oriental China Trash/12″ Gen16 splash stack
• 12″ Z3 splash (used on snare with hi-hat clutch)
Hardware: Yamaha, including FP9500C bass drum pedal
Electronics: Yamaha, including DTX-MULTI 12 sampling pad and XP80 trigger pad
Heads: Evans, including G1 Coated batter on main snare and Hydraulic Blue Coated on deep snare with Hazy 300 resonants; G1 Coated tom batters and G2 Coated floor tom batter with Genera Clear resonants; and EMAD Clear bass drum batter with EQ3 Resort Smooth White resonant
Sticks: Promark, including Select Balance RBH550TW sticks, TB5 brushes, MT3 mallets, PMBRM1 Broomsticks, and Hot Rods
Robert “Sput” Searight
Drums: Tama Star Walnut
• 5×14 main snare
• 9×14 deep snare
• 5×10 Metalworks snare
• 7×12 tom
• 15×16 floor tom
• 15×20 bass drum
• 12″ and 14″ Generation X X-Treme stack hi-hat
• 12″ Soundcaster Custom splash/20″ Byzance Trash crash stack
• 8″/10″ Generation X Electro stack
• 10″ Byzance Extra Dry splash
• 18″ Generation X Safari ride
• 16″ Byzance Extra Dry Medium Thin hi-hats
• 20″ Byzance Vintage crash
• 10″ Byzance Extra Dry splash
• 21″ Byzance Transition ride
• 18″ Byzance Vintage Pure crash
• 20″ Byzance Extra Dry Thin crash
• 10″ Byzance Extra Dry splash/18″ Generation X Kinetik crash stack
• 22″ Byzance crash/ride
Hardware: Tama Star stands, Iron Cobra Rolling Glide bass drum pedal, and Iron Cobra hi-hat.
Heads: Evans, including Power Center Reverse Dot batter on main snare, Hybrid Coated on deep snare, and G1 Clear on piccolo snare; G2 Coated tom batters; and EMAD bass drum batter
Sticks: Vic Firth, including AJ1 and AJ2 models