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The GroundUP Sound Comes Back Around

John Henry Dale

Having attended and covered the inaugural festival for The Miami Rail last year, I can verify that the multicultural and multi-genre line-up at GroundUP Festival, at the North Miami Beach Bandshell from February 9th-11th, makes a weekend pass worth serious consideration. With an intimate capacity of approximately 2000, no overlapping sets, and excellent acoustics, GroundUP boasts a progressive global fusion of jazz, funk, folk and electronic sounds. There are the jam fans one would expect to find at an eclectically-curated beachfront music festival like this, but a generalized demographic description of GroundUP’s core audience remains elusive. With 62% of the approximately 3500 attendees last year coming from 37 states and 34 countries around the world, one can see why this might be the case.

Snarky Puppy is anchoring the festival again this year, with what is likely to be a cameo-heavy performance each day — but other personal must-sees include Eliades Ochoa (with Sammy Figueroa), Knower, Jojo Mayer / Nerve, Weedie Braimah, Banda Magda, Mark Giuliana’s Beat Music, Breastfist, Shaun Martin’s Go-go Party and Underground System.  

With GroundUP just around the corner, Snarky Puppy’s Michael League was kind enough to take some time out of his crazy schedule to answer a few of my questions.

Miami Rail: Snarky Puppy is seemingly at the top if its game with a number of Grammys and some well-documented studio collaborations with deep talent from around the globe; where do you see your music evolving from here from a composer’s,  sound designer’s, and band director’s perspective?

Michael League: I think that everyone in the band is active in so many different projects outside of Snarky Puppy that we’re constantly learning new things in different corners of the music world. As a result, I think everyone is bringing that growth and those new things into Snarky Puppy. I think the composition growth is a natural one without trying to force anything or come up with some ingenious new concept, and that the music is naturally going to progress in a positive way.

As a sound designer, your taste changes constantly. Every time you produce a record you learn more with what’s working and what’s not working and you narrow in on what it is you like. Between We Like It Here and Culcha Vulcha, there were a lot of changes in the sound design and I think that there will be a lot between Culcha Vulcha and this new record based on what has worked previously. I think my gig as a director as time goes on is to kind of just gently guide everyone’s ideas in a way that is unified. At this point, everyone’s ideas are so rich that they don’t really need me dictating anything to them. Sometimes I’ll just give things a nudge or a polish.”

TMR:  Your schedule at GroundUP, and in general, seems incredibly busy. How do you stay sane and on-point for co-managing GroundUP while also playing a lot of your own music at an event like this? Green tea? Breathing exercises? Meditation? 20-minute power naps?

ML: I don’t think I’ve been sane for quite a while now, haha. For me, schedules like the one at GroundUP are not so big of a deal as long as I’m prepared for each thing, you know? It’s just showing up and doing a good job, and whether you have one thing or a thousand things to do in a day, the attitude is the same and the focus is the same. No secrets, really I think just caring a lot about what you’re doing and trying to do it as well as you can.

TMR: There have never been more types of musical instruments available to players both amateur and professional, from $50 pocket synths to $150,000.00 Martin special-edition D-200s. How do you choose what to incorporate into a given tune or collaboration and what to leave out?

ML: Textures are very important to me and inspiring. I think that when I’m producing a record or crafting a tune, the textures are as clear to me as the melody. My mind works as specifically with textures as it does with melodies, chords, or grooves. I think there are just some things that work really well together, and different combinations of instruments give very different feelings. So I think if you’re in touch with the feeling that you want for the song, then the answer to what should be playing comes naturally.

TMR:  We’re living dangerously these days and the world seems to get hotter every year. After years on the road you’ve certainly seen your share of touring logistics; has this experience given you any ideas for improving the logistical efficiency and fossil-fuel use of band tours and music festivals?

ML: With our music festival in Miami we’re doing all the obvious things to try and reduce the environmental impact of having a festival. We’re keeping it very small, only 1500 people a day, all the cups we use for beer can be reused throughout the day, and they’re recyclable of course. All the food, like plastic wear and all that kind of stuff is either biodegradable or recyclable. All the things that would normally be printed out on paper are being sent electronically. I mean those are really obvious ideas, and as the years go on we’re going to try to take bigger steps to reduce the environmental impact of having a festival in Miami. As far as touring, we’re starting a program that tracks our carbon footprint as we travel by bus or by plane. We’re starting an initiative to try and offset those emissions through planting trees, I believe. I have to go through that with the person I’m talking to about it, but that’s the plan.

Festivals like GroundUP are quite uncommon in the US, and you never know how many good years they will have. Ever since the first Lollapazooza Festival in 1991, “alternative” music festivals have become increasingly corporatized and compromised by bad marketing deals made in the rush for capital they needed to pay back the heavy debt their outsized stage productions incurred. In short, people sold out — as people do. Coachella is owned by a right-wing activist. So is the Red Bull Music Academy, the holy grail of left-field electronic and urban music production bootcamps.  The music festival landscape is so slathered with corporate signage, you can hardly look around anywhere at any time without being ad-slapped in the face by Big Sugar or Big Booze. Many music events that rely on music lovers’ inherent belief in the power of music to create a positive – or even transcendental –  state of mind are not, in the overused parlance, “all about the music.” GroundUP is.

The people running this festival care deeply about what they are doing. And this is exactly how the festival has found its niche in a city where hype is generally not considered a perjorative term: by bringing real music to real people with good vibes and no bullshit. Here’s hoping this idea grows in the music festival industry from the ground up.

John Henry Dale is the music editor at The Miami Rail.