DENTON, TX – You guys have no idea how stoked I am to bring you all this conversation!!!! For all of you don’t know, my favorite band is Snarky Puppy. They put a fresh approach to live recorded music and for that I’m forever grateful. Throughout my time here at AMN, I’ve had the honor of interviewing people within the collective (check out my interviews with Bill Laurance and Chantae Cann), and it’s my distinct honor and privilege to present my conversation with the man behind all of the visuals of Snarky Puppy (and countless other bands) ANDY LAVIOLETTE!
AMN: What do you really want to talk about and what do you think anyone can get from you?
AL: For me, the thing I’m so excited about is what Snarky Puppy has done and what they’ve allowed me to be a part of. The Snarky Puppy model that was created by Mike and I when we were designing Tell Your Friends, really seems like it made an impact on music. I feel like it’s putting an emphasis on live music and I’m absolutely thrilled by that.
I’m a huge Snarky fan. I really started working with them because I was like the schoolgirl in love and I wanted to do everything I could to help them and watch them grow. I think that’s the thing that I feel the most excited to share with people. How much it means to see my friends redefine the way to consume music.
AMN: What is the Snarky Puppy model?
AL: The model involves having the best quality of music possible, every step of the way, and that being the first priority. The distribution model is finding fun ways to view these things in a high quality way, get people to come to the shows, and then buy the album. Putting the stuff on YouTube creates enough buzz to keep them growing as a band. It’s always a way to reach new people.
Many people thought we were crazy and backwards for, essentially, giving away our music for free online. However, the way that they use the free stuff online to create momentum; people still buy the albums, and they use it to have successful tours, and tours are a big way that helps them survive. This band’s biggest way of survival is based on touring.
AMN: Were you a musician first that went into videography or are you a videographer with an ear for music?
AL: I’m the former. I studied music since I was fourteen, and have a degree in jazz guitar performance from the University of North Texas; which is where I met Mike. We were both studying jazz at the same time. I’ve always been a tech/gear kind of dork, so while putting myself through college, I had a video camera I bought to record my own projects. However, I discovered that my musician friends would throw me 50 or 100 bucks here or there to record their live shows. My wife is really great at audio recording, so I would sync audio and video together. All of this was happening around the time YouTube was coming out; so I would research settings and how best to get video on the Internet.
As much as it was an incredibly meaningful chapter in my life to study jazz and music as a whole for many years, I slowly started seeing it was really difficult playing the music that I wanted to play. The more people that I met as a video person, I could see how it was more lucrative. It was something that I enjoyed because I didn’t really like having a boss or somewhere I had to be with a suit and tie.
AMN: When Snarky Puppy came out with “Tell Your Friends,” I’m guessing via interviews that I’ve read, that’s a reinvention of Snarky Puppy correct?
AL: In a way that’s their first video album. They did one right before that called “Snarky Puppy Reel-To-Reel,” and I worked on that album. I was originally going to direct it but ended up being a cameraperson. It was a live DVD that they did with Country Fried Soul and it was around the time they the guitarist met Mark Lettieri. TYF is a re-imagination of the band in a sense of when we got the concept of having the audience right next to the band. They’re gonna make a record how they always make them but they’re gonna have the audience hang out with them, and we’re going to film it.
AMN: What happened after the recording of TYF leading up to the beginning of Ground Up?
We released two songs online. We released “White Cap” and “Slow Demon” and we had those out for a while. Really quickly it started to get like a few thousand hits. Then the record label, Ropeadope, started pushing some and it was great. Then time went on and they were touring very unsuccessfully. Their tours back then were more often played in clubs where there were more people on stage than in the audience. Mike and the band dumped their entire lives and all of their resources into the band and lived off breadcrumbs and terrible situations sometimes to make it work. Then Mike wanted to do “Ground Up” in New York, which was exciting because I’ve never done any creative work in New York. We did it on a shoestring budget, and it was a great experience.
When we were editing the album together with Mike, and they still weren’t popular yet, I looked at Mike and said this is a whole new level. I remember taking him to the airport and he was exhausted. He was a workaholic. He just would work constantly, he dedicated all of himself to make that album and all albums a success. Then I started seeing from afar it starting to catch on. Herbie Hancock made a mention of it in a magazine somewhere, and a little later I heard people talking about it. We released the videos and that’s when it went crazy with the hits, and THAT’S when they went on tour and people would show up. It was really confusing and amazing to see from afar, because it was actually happening.
AMN: How did you feel when you all won the Grammy for “Family Dinner Volume 1”?
AL: It was surreal. Being nominated was surreal. We were working on We Like It Here in my office, and he all of a sudden stood up and gave me a high ten, and he said “Dude we just got nominated for a Grammy.” I was watching them on Internet TV watching the Grammys live and when they announced them I was overcome with happiness for them. There are moments where I love seeing someone’s life dreams come true. When I heard them call their name and watched them walk down the aisle, I knew it was a sort of send off. There’s no stopping them now, this changes everything. They worked so tirelessly for so many years and it’s beautiful, I couldn’t be more proud of them.
AMN: I saw the DVD for Flint. How do you function in “oh crap” situations?
AL: You always internally freak out. With every recording, there’s always been an element of seemingly imminent doom. It’s a really important thing and you really don’t want things to go wrong and there’s a lot at stake, but I think at the heart of it, it’s not the end of the world, we’ll find a solution. I always felt that the best way to deal with problems is to stay calm, stay positive, and focus on “what do we have to do to solve this current problem.” We bend and flex to make sure we work as hard as we can to get things done.
I used to manage a restaurant and there are a lot of emergencies at restaurants. I got really used to people running up to me and thinking that everything was going to be completely, unmanageably horrible. Freaking out isn’t going to solve it so I’ll just calmly find a solution. Related to the band, Mike has always had that quality. He encourages and passes on a sense of grace, forgiveness, flexibility, creative problem solving and improvisation. He’s that kind of person to be around. He’s always the answer guy. When he sets that as a standard, everyone else around him takes that on.
AMN: What was it like recording WE LIKE IT HERE and SYLVA both in another country?
AL: It was life changingly wonderful and a logistical nightmare. I learned a lot how to organize a project of that scale when we did WLIH. It’s really difficult organizing something on that scale when you just have the automatic parameter of “oh by the way, they’re 6-8 hours ahead of your schedule.” So business days become totally flopped. If I need an immediate answer to something, then I need to send an email the night before; but if I have a follow up question I may need wait for 24 hours unless I’m lucky enough to catch them via email. It’s difficult in that sense because I had to find rental houses, a crew, props, gear, etc. The thing I take away from it, besides being logistically challenging, is that it was incredibly rewarding. It was an extreme honor to be taken with them over there, when they could have easily hired someone else that was already over there to do what I did for them. To go and see the world like that and live over there for two or three weeks and experience the culture and work with talented people, it was fun, it was special, it was tiring, and it was incredibly rewarding.
AMN: I’ve never seen anyone film live performances like you do. I love how you make the viewer feel like they were there. What’s in your head while you film and filter?
AL: When I’m filming, I don’t think it’s too much like rocket science. I don’t have special secrets, I have a few principles I believe in and carry them out. I’m so predictable that my friends make fun of me, because I do it every time.
Because this is musical content and narrative, I kind of want to make things dramatic with the lighting. I think it’s more important to have strong to have backlight, like on FLINT, if you notice every light pointing on someone is generally coming from the opposite direction of where the camera is. The camera is pointing to the light in general. I add a little fill in light on the camera side; the idea is I’m always trying to sculpt a shadow on someone’s face. When I’m filming, I think about the moon. Am I lighting for a quarter moon, crescent moon, and I want to stay away from a full moon, because a full moon would essentially be equivalent to having a light on the camera shining it in their faces, and filming from the same direction. I always make a really strong effort of having the camera and the light, the main light from the subject, be off axis of each other, at least greater than a 90 degree if possible. It’s like a puzzle, I’m helping them design the room, I place where the instruments go, once we’ve placed the instruments and determined that the musicians will have the sight line that they need to communicate creatively, then I think about where the cameras need to go in order to capture everyone, then I light based on the locations of where the cameras are. The trick is to make it so where none of the cameras point in a way to where none see a “full moon.” It has to be 90 degrees or more whenever possible the camera as compared to the light.
The studio where we filmed SWIFT was originally where we were supposed to film FLINT. I didn’t really like how the studio looked for FLINT so we made it dark and moody to make it look more dramatic than what it is. When I went into the process of color grading, we wanted to make it more dream like. We really wanted to make it as imaginative as what Bill’s music is. I lifted the gamma a little bit so that there’s lower contrast, playing with the coloring of the different mids and highlights to give it a look. I tried to not default to the cross processed look, which is the Instagram-y look (which is really great and really beautiful). I wanted to try to do the opposite with Bill’s.
With SYLVA I’ve been hanging out with Magda Giannikou while we were working on some stuff and we were watching old French musicals together. They have that beautiful film look from the 1950s, and if you notice that look has a really low and lifted contrast. With SYLVA, I did the opposite of FLINT to where I lifted the black colors more than anything else, and focused more on getting that 50s look with the way the colors were reacting.
We always try to give it something that isn’t too real. I think it’s fun to create little dream worlds for these kinds of projects.
AMN: I loved SYLVA and I love how everyone was wearing white…
AL: It was difficult. From one professional to another, I regretted, there were certain moments where the whites were overexposed. I’ve learned my lesson and I’ll never do it again.
AMN: Welp, I didn’t notice. I was just stoked to have it before everyone else in the states. What are you reading or looking at now that inspires you?
AL: To be honest, I don’t read enough. I study things. I might read like a really long article or review where people are talking about an artistic thing, gear, current events; but I don’t read for fun like I should. In college, I had a great time reading about environmental philosophy, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Infinite Nature and Silent Spring. That was the last time I read a book from cover to cover.
If you’re thinking just for inspiration for what I look at or study, I really draw inspirations from films. I watch movies, independent films, and commercials. I’m constantly watching, studying, and analyzing, camera moves. I find myself really attached to seeing what other filmmakers are doing because I’m incredibly fascinated by it.
AMN: What would you say to someone that wants to do what you’re doing?
AL: I think of a great quote that I heard Winton Marsalis say and it really spoke to me. He was talking to his dad and his dad said, “If you’re going to study jazz, have something to fall back on.” And basically Marsalis’ message was “If you’re going to study jazz, DON’T have something to fall back on, because you’re going to fall back.”
Thanks to the amazing support of my wife, we have a daughter; we have so much to lose. She’s always pushed me to stay creative and to only do things in life that truly made me happy. I’ve quit several jobs, because that’s not what I wanted to do. I put myself through jazz school, I took out loans for thousands of dollars, but for me to be able to make it, I would do stuff that I didn’t want to do like play Top 40 and rock and roll. My advice is to really dedicate oneself and design a life that is simple to wear when you don’t make a lot of money you’ll be okay because you don’t have a lot of expenses.
Learn how to live a simple life and to always dedicate yourself and constantly work on updating your portfolio. Do things for really cheap and make them look really good, and then when people say, “wow, I want to do that,” you can then say it’ll be this much. That’s how you can make more money to support yourself so you can stay working on your art. If people can become obsessed with working on your art, then they’ll do really well.
AMN: What’s next for Mr. Magic Carpet Ride?
AL: We’re excited to be working on a short film right now. You’ll be seeing more narrative stuff from us. We plan on being able to more and more creative stuff. The stuff we do just for us, in addition to that the clients that we’re getting for the music side of things is expanding.