On Tues., March 7, WMFO radio show “Yam Session” (with DJs Gabe Haddad and Ben Thorne subbing in for the usual Cody Eaton and Noah Adler) got the chance to interview Maz (aka Mike Maher of Snarky Puppy) about his most recent tour and solo project. The full interview transcript appears here.
Gabe Haddad: Alright, so. We’re back and we have Maz joining us.
Ben Thorne: Hey, Maz. How’s it going?
Maz: Hey, how you guys doing?
GH: Thank you so much for coming on the show, Yam Session, on 91.5 WMFO. We are subbing in for Cody and Noah. We’ve got a great show.
BT: So, Maz, how’s your tour going so far?
Maz: The tour’s good. I’m actually back in New York for a couple days before the official last date which will be on Friday in Boston.
BT: And that’s gonna be at Berklee right? In the Red Room?
Maz: Yeah in the red room.
BT: Awesome. That’s a great little spot.
Maz: Yeah I played it with Snarky [Puppy] years ago. It’ll be cool to come back under different circumstances, you know?
BT: Yeah totally. So speaking of different circumstances. A lot of listeners might be able to tell that your Maz product is a little bit different from the Snarky Puppy project. So what kind of stuff do you have to say about your musical direction with this project?
Maz: I think it’s a little bit weird from my perspective to talk about it because the singer-songwriter and the concept of writing songs and incorporating things like psychedelic rock and influences like Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan and James Taylor and James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone and all that stuff. You know, incorporating that stuff, to me, in my own head, in my own life, is completely natural. And I think anybody who’s known me in any way outside of what I do with Snarky Puppy, it would seem completely natural to them as well. But I think because of the association I have with Snarky Puppy, maybe it’s a little bit of a surprise for people. First of all, to see me singing and not playing trumpet at all. But also to be sort of, y’know, relying on more of a songwriter angle for the group. Y’know and using the song as kind of a jumping off point for the live show.
BT: Yeah, definitely. I’ve spent a lot of time playing in horn sections just like you have and I find that when I’m in a setting that’s a little bit smaller and more open, it can be a lot of fun. You can get a lot of cool creative stuff happening.
Maz: Yeah sure.
BT: So you mentioned a couple of influences for your Maz project. I guess a good question is, who, historically, are your inspirations as a musician?
Maz: Um. I mean Miles Davis for sure on trumpet, Dave Douglas, Dizzy Gillespie. Guys like Shane Anthony, Christian Scott, contemporary dudes who are friends and inspirations at the same time. I’d say my list is probably the same as a lot of people. Yeah and songwriter guys like Donald Fagan or The Beatles or James Taylor or Steve Wonder or Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. Y’know, again, probably a pretty normal list. There’s no diamonds in the rough, y’know, I don’t have any special influences that nobody else has or anything.
BT: That’s cool that you mention guys like Christian Scott. Because I feel like right now, especially in the jazz scene, we’ve got a lot of really really cool contemporary projects happening with guys like Kamasi [Washington] and Terrace Martin, Christian Scott. And it seems like there’s a really really interesting, like world community that’s gonna come together pretty soon.
Maz: Yeah. I think there’s always stuff happening. But maybe you’re right that there’s a little bit of a surge right now.
GH: We were also just wondering, talking a little bit about touring. How’s this current tour going so far?
Maz: It’s good. It’s been really great. It’s my second tour as a leader, doing the Maz stuff. And it’s just a blast. It’s kinda reminding me of some of the early days of riding around in a van with Snarky and kind of, earning it every night. It’s just really, really refreshing, man. It’s so much fun.
GH: That’s great to hear.
Maz: Yeah absolutely. Got Jason Thomas on drums. Bob Lendiddy was on guitar for this week. And this guy David Cutler, great bassist out of New York and then Michelle Willis was both heading her own songs with the same musicians and opening up for me most nights. And some of the nights in Canada she was doing that but also playing keyboard with me, and then I was singing on her stuff. Yeah it was a cool thing. It was sort of like a transformer band. You know, yeah it was cool.
BT: I remember a couple years ago I saw you guys and you played at the BPC. You were running kind of late that day because you were having some van problems in Rhode Island. So I guess a follow-up question to that is, what’s the most ratchet vehicle you’ve ever toured in?
Maz: [laughing] Well the Snarky Puppy organization had a fifty foot, sort of burnt orange school bus for a while that Mike, or one of our friends bought, and then rented it to us. Bought it from some guy who was a University of Texas at Austin fan. And I guess he was a bar-owner in Austin, and he used the bus to shuttle people from the bar to UTA games. Yeah, and so that bus was bought for way too little money, gutted. And man, there were definitely some scary times in that. It broke down about every two to three days. Which is already crazy. But then the craziest thing about it was that it was a bluebird schoolbus from god knows what year. When you break down in a regular car, you go to any number of mechanics. But when you break down in a bus, you have to go to a special mechanic that can work on a Caterpillar engine, y’know. It was just madness. I mean it looked really cool and we had bunks in it at a certain point, it was nice to sleep in. But it didn’t get us anywhere.
BT: Yeah, when you’re playing 150-odd shows a year, I’m sure that gets a little old, when you can’t get to where you’re trying to go.
Maz: Yes, yes definitely.
BT: So, Snarky Puppy has been playing for a super long time. You guys, a lot of you guys, have known each other since your college days at University of North Texas. So I guess a question of mine is, how do you view the way that your sound has evolved over time? I guess this is true both for the Maz project and for the Snarky Puppy project.
Maz: Hmm. How do I, what does it seem like to me, you mean?
BT: Yeah, just from your perspective. Because we can form opinions based on listening but, I don’t know, there’s something really valuable about how that kind of evolution happens in the musician’s mind.
Maz: Yeah. I think there’s the obvious thing. The incorporation of more hip-hop and funk and house music and world music styles over the years. Those are kinda the obvious things that are happening. But the more under-the-surface stuff that’s even hard to talk about for me is the sort of elusive thing that happens between musicians when they play a lot together. That’s the thing that you can neither predict nor really explain. Even for myself, there’s relationships that have to do with–musically and otherwise–that have to do with me understanding these guys deeply in a musical sense. And I really, truly, would love to try to break it down in some sort of academic way. But I know that I can’t do that now. Break down that sort of elusive thing that happens, but it’s there. I have to say, I can’t really answer that question because I really feel the most important thing is that elusive element.
GH: It’s interesting that you mentioned that at the same time that you mentioned the prominent influences that we are seeing in music today. Electronic, hip-hop, I guess current pop music, a lot of that is done on computers. A lot of that music is produced electronically. So I was curious what your take on being a live musician in today’s music landscape, what that’s like. When you see more popular artists being less focused on achieving that elusive bond.
Maz: Sure, yeah. Well I mean I can’t really judge the intentions or the artistic goals of artists that might be more of a pop realm or more electronic realm, or less live performance realm. But for whatever reason, it’s always attracted me to have the ability to communicate through an instrument in the spur of the moment. I think that’s why–even the Maz stuff that I’m doing now, when I get on stage, and I sing in a live context, it can go, It’s jazz in the sense that in can go in a lot of different directions. And I would say in any direction, you know what I mean? So I would never sort of promote my Maz stuff as jazz, but I am a Jazz musician in the fact that I can improvise, I can lead the band in improvisations that would be nothing like the song, y’know? It’s something that I love about music, it keeps it exciting. And when you’re playing the same stuff every night, it gets really hard to bring new energy to it without trying new things. So someone with a jazz background, has an advantage at keeping things fresh for 30 days in a row.
BT: Definitely, and I think that’s something cool, this is true for Snarky Puppy and me personally. You guys are the reason I know what a moog synthesizer is. You guys are taking these technologies that are being developed, taking these really cool musical tools and then applying them to really not traditional settings. So it’s really cool to see them being integrated into a huge band with a lot of people and a lot of stuff happening with these crazy ideas flying around. I think that’s awesome.
So I know that you’ve spent a lot of the past ten-odd years touring around the world and I’d like to know some of the really valuable things you’ve learned from working with world musicians.
Maz: I guess the world musicians I’ve worked with, you can really just kind of apply, I guess that might be a jazz thing as well, being able to adapt and use your ears and your sort of musical radar.
BT: Using it as a language sort of?
Maz: Yeah, but there’s so much depth, I mean going down to Cuba and playing with musicians in that unbelieveable tradition, you’re instantly aware that stepping onto stage with them is… I can’t come up with a good metaphor for it, but you’re not in your element. No matter how good you are, you’re not in your element. Because the tradition of that music is still strong around the world, it’s not dying down at all. And it’s so deep, with the African heritage of it and the intertwining of the culture and religious rhythms. It’s such a deep history, and when you look at someone like Cuadrado Rodriguez for example, who understands and is steeped in that tradition, not only from a standpoint of having studied it but from the standpoint of having grown up in it, y’now, in the culture and in the rhythm. You realize that when you step on stage with somebody like that and you realize that there’s just no way. You have to just play and y’know, everybody meets each other in the middle but feeling this whole other world of musical understanding… We have that here too with the blues and soul music and funk music, there’s these trains and lines of lineage, that have to do with groups of people and generations of people, and the strength of that over time. When you feel that in any genre of music, it can be felt, it’s very apparent.
BT: Yeah, and it’s been very cool to see your travels around the world and looking at the different people you’ve been playing with and how they each kind of bring something new to the table, based on their background. For example you could get musicians out of Nigeria that play with a completely different style from musicians that come out of Japan and I think that that’s really cool to see, especially following you guys on social media and stuff. To see who you’re working with and what kind of sounds you’re able to get out and what kind of stuff you’re able to explore.
Maz: Yeah and I think that’s kind of what it is for us too, it’s selfish y’know, we’re just as interested in the experience of learning as listening about their cultures. When you play with somebody like that you get completely immersed in what they have to say.
GH: Speaking of places you’ve been, are there any places in particular that you’ve had a special experience in whether that be just playing a show or just the culture of the city you played in? Is there anywhere that stuck with you, a favorite place to play?
Maz: Yeah I mean we’ve had a ton of really cool experiences, Brazil and Cuba obviously because of the musical heritage. Cuba was interesting, I just went down there for the first time with Snarky Puppy like a month ago, not only from a standpoint of music but also from a standpoint of communism and to see that… I had been to China and Russia but it felt different and I’m not exactly sure why.
BT: It’s definitely a different situation going on down there, it’s a very different society than the one that we have here in the Northeast at least.
GH: And even compared to other Communist countries it’s frozen in time, unlike other countries that have sort of developed with the ages.
Maz: Right. And it’s a Communist country in the middle of the Caribbean.
GH: Twenty, fifty miles from Florida.
Maz: From the United States, yeah. It’s a very interesting juxtaposition of different, y’know, politically speaking, of different influences.
BT: Alright we just have one more quick question for you before we have to part ways. It has to do with Snarky Puppy’s continued engagement with music education across the country and throughout the world. And I guess a question from me to you is: what kind of stuff do you think is really effective in teaching music, specifically.
Maz: Well I mean I don’t consider myself a master teacher or anything like that. I don’t know what’s really effective. I think when I go in and I teach, y’know, either a private lesson or a clinic, I try to offer as much of my experience to the students as possible. It’s really the experience that I think is what a younger musician needs. So that means, y’know, obviously there are technical things that need to be worked out for younger musicians but also there’s a kind of perspective, y’know. That you get from playing a lot that helps you to understand the role–sort of reconnects you to a certain degree–with the role of a musician in society. And I think that’s the thing. That maybe to a certain degree when people get too locked into the academic side of things they might find it easier to lose sight of that connection. The essence of music.
BT: Definitely. I’m just gonna sneak one more quick one in here. What’s your opinion of Sean Martin’s stank face?
Maz: His stank face? I don’t know man, I don’t even know what that is [laughter].
BT: Just the face he makes when he’s playing a stanky line.
Maz: Oh. Oh I don’t know, man.
BT: That’s always just been a question of mine. He always makes good faces.
Maz: I don’t know. I don’t have any opinion on that.
BT: Well thank you so much for coming on, this was an awesome conversation.
GH: Really a pleasure.
Maz: Sure, yeah absolutely. I’ll see you guys on Friday.