Written by: Melody Charles
If you’ve been a part of the re-emerging 30+ live music scene in Dallas, TX over the last few years, chances are you’ve heard—or seen—the long, lean guitar-wielding machine known as Mark Letteri. Ahem…make that the Grammy Award-winning guitarist, composer and producer Mark Letteri.
For years the Ft. Worth, TX-based performer did the moonlight hustle as a marketing professional by day who jammed different joints and genres by night. After that grind worn him down, Letteri “ditched the desk” and went full-on pro on the ax, establishing his rep as a go-to stage and session musician long before joining forces with another Texas-grown Grammy-Award-winning jazz, funk and soul music collective, SNARKY PUPPY.
In a chat taking place merely weeks after their big win, the affable and informative Letteri broke it down about that viral video, when fans can expect to feast on that next helping of “Family Dinner” and how all of those band members share the golden prize.
Knowshi: Thanks for squeezing us in for this interview and for always being as cool as you are talented Mark, congratulations on the big win!
Mark Letteri: “Appreciate that, thank you for writing our story and getting us more out there.”
Knowshi: It must have been a thrilling experience to win the Grammy like that with Lalah Hathaway last month (“Best R&B Performance” for their rendering of a Brenda Russell track, “Something,” featured on 2013’s Family Dinner Volume I), what was that like?
Mark: “We didn’t expect to win, that’s for sure. But when it did happen, I told my wife that it was the second happiest day of my life (laughs). Since it was totally unexpected, we reacted the way anyone in that situation, screaming and yelling, but it didn’t really set in until almost a week later. It felt like we were on another planet in another time zone.”
Knowshi: How do you, the band and Lalah all share that award? Does everybody take turns?
Mark: “Lalah has her own, but all of us guys have to share ours—we pass it around lie the hockey players do with the Stanley Cup.”
Knowshi: All of you sound amazing together on that track, how did the collaboration happen and how did it go so viral so fast?
Mark: “I think ‘Sput’ (Snarky Puppy drummer Robert Seawright) played on one of her records, and Mike (bassist Mike League) may have reached out to her that way, something like that. As far as the video goes, while we were touring last fall, driving through the West Coast, one of us had logged on and noticed that our video was suddenly at a million views. We found out that the link had been picked up by Reddit and fell under the title of something like, ‘Woman Sing 3 Notes At The Same Time.’ A lot of the people who clicked on it likely had no idea who Lalah Hathaway was, much less Snarky Puppy, but the headline made them feel as if they were going to find something outrageous, so they watched it anyway and it took off from there.
Even though the internet had made it something into something kind of gimmicky, like she was some random woman on a subway or something, it was really about full band arranging a song with a great artist, so what I think what was cool is that the link actually turned people on to some great music.”
Knowshi: Can you share who will be on the next installment? Any favorites you all would like to record with?
Mark: “The plan is definitely to do another Family Dinner record, it was called volume one for a reason and we’ll do the follow-up by the end of this year. As far as who’s going to be involved on it this time around, who knows? We’re always joking about what the dream partnerships would be, like Sting, Bjork, D’Angelo, people like that. Maybe they’ll read this and call us! (cracks up)”
Knowshi: How do you choose who to collaborate with performance-wise versus who not to?
Mark: “We try to get people who are well-known within their genres without being ‘superstars,’ so to speak, established ones like Lalah and N’Dambi who are ‘under the radar,’ so to speak, but still have big fan bases. It wouldn’t work for us to make a record with someone like Taylor Swift, for example, since the ‘machine’ that those types of artists have in place [behind their sound] can be restrictive and we like to work with people who are open to doing something new, not just recreating what they’ve already done.”
Knowshi: Since I’m so used to seeing and hearing you play everywhere, I thought you were out there doing it solo. How did the Snarky Puppy connection happen?
Mark: “I joined the band in 2009. Mike League established SP around 2004 with guys he had already gone to school with in Denton at UNT. I met them through Phil Lassiter, Prince’s trumpet player and horn arranger. He was once part of band known as Country Fried Soul, they kinda had a Minneapolis funk sound with a Dallas vibe. I was playing with Phil and he had booked a show with SP, that was the first time I’d heard of them. Later, Mike and I started running into each other at gospel gigs we were doing, and now, together, it’s basically a bunch of white kids who aren’t from Dallas, but come to Dallas to play Dallas music. That’s how everybody gelled together, from the UNT jazz scenes and Dallas’ groove and gospel scenes.”
Knowshi: I’ve seen you playing with countless musicians, old school, new school and everything in-between, and you straight slay em’. How do you do it?
Mark: “It would be hard to [transition from one to another] if I didn’t want to do it, if I was somehow forced into playing different types of music. Some musicians want to play Rock-N-Roll, that’s it, so anything else would make them unhappy because it becomes a challenge. I was raised to have an open mind, so I get excited by the way guitar in particular is applied to different styles. I love the way rock guitar sounds as much as I love how Curtis Mayfield’s R&B guitar sounds. I get the same rush from hearing Eddie Van Halen as I do from hearing Prince, even though those are totally different styles of playing. So for me, bring on the genres, I love the challenge and I because I always wanted to be a session musician, staying versatile is how I kept working and how I was able to join up with a band like SP that can perform with a multitude of different genres. Nothing wrong with having a favorite type you prefer to play, everyone does, but if you want to make a living in music (laughs), it never hurts to be versatile, I’ll say that.”
Knowshi: So, to wrap it up, as a certified professional and award-winning artist and musician, what advice do you have for those who want to be where you are?
Mark: “If you want to make it as a musician or a singer, the qualities that you need are actually non-musical in comparison. We spend a lot of time speaking to music majors in colleges at clinics all over the country and get questions asking how to get gigs. I always tell them the same thing: if you’re on time, have a good attitude and do what you’re asked to do, then you’ll have a career. It’s very simple, but a majority of the musicians and artists that don’t make it end up missing out by not doing the work that’s asked of them, not showing up or don’t follow up with people, or they have a wrong attitude. You can’t show up late, not learn the music or think that you’re the star of the show and expect to get called back.”
Knowshi: See? That’s what’s up, why don’t more artists realize that?
Mark: “The relationships you form will make you and break you—talent alone will not be enough, you never know who you’re gonna meet or who can do something for you. These are the types of skills that you need in the business world, so why would you not need them in the music world? Some think, ‘I don’t have to have the qualities of a normal human’ because they’re so creative. Um….yes you do, because you’re gonna deal with non-creative people all the time. You can’t expect to exist in your artist fantasy world all the time and have jobs fall into your lap, it just doesn’t work that way.”