Advocate Interview: Victor Wooten of the Flecktones
Victor Wooten. (Artist Photo)
Bassist Victor Wooten reinvented his instrument while doing back flips and tossing it around his neck. His brother, drummer Roy “Future Man” Wooten tapped his fingers on a handheld, multi-colored percussion triggering device known as a “drumitar,” summoning little-known polyrhythms and timbres. Howard Levy played piano and harmonica, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Levy rewrote the harmonica rulebook, squeezing chromatic notes out of a diatonic harmonica using overdraws and overblows.
And Béla? Well, he played the banjo, but he did it like nobody’s been able to do before or since, while penning most of the quartet’s mind-blowing parts. Untethered by patch chords, each of the four musicians would take off to separate regions of a concert hall at the climax of a show, reconvening onstage for a last hurrah before ending a show. Jaws gaped.
The Flecktones perform at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs on March 24. Victor Wooten was scrambling to finish his own album last month before hitting the road, but he managed to catch up with the Advocate by phone as he was packing up his car.
[Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.]
Advocate: You’ve been playing together for so long and have such a deep repertoire. What sort of preparation does a band like the Flecktones need to do before hitting the road?
Victor Wooten: “We won’t do anything before this tour because we’ve been playing a lot already. But when we first got together last year, we rehearsed a bunch of old material that we kind of remembered, some of our easier songs. Then we had to relearn the new music from our new record... The way it used to be is that we would play our new music on the road for months, sometimes a full year before we recorded. Now you can’t do that. Once you play it once, it’s all over the Internet. Now you have to keep your new music secret and learn it in the studio.
A: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
VW: There’s positive and negative in everything. You are on edge. That’s positive. You get the spontaneity of the songs being new... There’s something cool about that when you haven’t settled into a particular song. We haven’t figured the songs out yet. We aren’t as comfortable as we could be. It also means a lot more mistakes, which isn’t always bad, and that’s usually not a problem. Mistakes are usually things you didn’t mean to play. It doesn’t mean bad or wrong. Mistakes aren’t always bad.
A: When you go out on tour, is it more of an attitude of “let’s get out there and jam” or is it more structured than that?
VW: It’s both. We have to build in places where we can just be free, and we can stay on this section, this part of the song until we call a cue and we are out of it. But there’s got to be structure. When we come out of the song, everybody knows where we are going. So it’s an equal amount of jamming and structure.
A: You all have the ability to do whatever you want on your respective instruments, you make even the most complicated arrangements look effortless. Is it as easy for you as it looks, or do you ever find yourself struggling to keep up?
VW: Absolutely. There’s always a struggle. We are always pushing to go to new places. It wouldn’t be as much fun if it wasn’t a struggle... Béla writes some weird chords, and so does Howard. I have to look at it theoretically and I have to work at it. As for different styles of music, once I hear them I can play them. We get inspiration from new things we’ve heard, ideas we’ve thought out, things we’ve never tried. On our Christmas album, we did “12 Days of Christmas” in 12 different keys and 12 different time signatures. It was like, “I wonder if we can figure this out? It sounds like a cool idea, but will it really sound cool if we do it?” Sometimes one member of the band will come up with an idea and it’s something they’ve been working on for awhile. Future Man always has these crazy rhythmic ideas where everyone is playing in a different time signature.
A: How would you describe the chemistry of the Flecktones? In other words, what makes this quartet so special that you all want to play together after 20+ years?
VW: It’s like coming home again, no matter how long you’ve been away. This is the original family. It was the original spark to light the fire and keep it going. Even when we are apart from each other, there’s s a longing to get back together.
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, March 24, 8 p.m., $7-$30, Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Road, Unit 3104, Storrs, 860-486-4226, jorgensen.uconn.edu.
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