Sometimes putting the band back together isn’t the best idea (see Guns & Roses’ Chinese Democracy). Sometimes industry pressures force musicians to take one last stab at fame, and admirers are disappointed to find the band’s flame flickered out like the last drops of fuel in a Bic lighter. Sometimes Stella can’t get her groove back. But sometimes, the Mousai throw the mortals a bone, and a band’s later efforts are a vehicle for years of musical growth and maturity (see Béla Fleck and the Flecktones’ Rocket Science).
For 2011’s Rocket Science, Fleck joined forces with the original Flecktones lineup of keyboard/harmonica player Howard Levy, percussionist Roy “FutureMan” Wooten, and bassist Victor Wooten. At Yonder Mountain String Band’s 2011 Harvest Festival, Béla and the Flecktones sat down with the Lions Chronicle to discuss the new release, the current tour, and future plans for the band.
LH: It’s been close to 20 years since the four of you have recorded together…
Béla Fleck: I think like 17 maybe.
Howard Levy: But who’s counting?
FutureMan: It seems like so many years later we’ve ripened into what it is we’re trying to do. It’s cool seeing what Vic’s done with the bass, what Howard’s done with the harmonica, what Béla’s doing with the banjo and what I’m doing with the drums.
LH: What are some differences being in the studio now in contrast to being in the studio 20 years ago?
Victor Wooten: Because of the Internet and Youtube, we had to learn our music in the studio, where we used to learn our music in front of an audience on the road. We would play our music sometimes up to a year before we would record it. But now if we were to do that – the first night we play a new song it’s around the world. So we would end up recording a record that everybody would’ve already heard.
Béla Fleck: It was much more of a studio creation than anything we’ve ever done. But it was amazing how it didn’t feel like that, and we knew what needed to happen to make the music right, and we just brought our four energies together. We didn’t stop until we thought we had a really good arrangement, and we didn’t stop until we had really good takes.
LH: What goals do you have for Rocket Science?
FutureMan: I just wanted to be able to play the music the best that I could play it. I wanted to be able to play music that represented this 17-year snapshot. I just wanted to feel like what the tune needed, I was able to give it. I was happy to sit back and hear the tunes breathing the right way.
Béla Fleck: There were a lot of expectations, even unconsciously for all of us. We all knew that we wanted it to be really, really good. We have very high goals for it. And we have the fact that we were bringing Howard back to the band and the old sound of the band – I think we all wanted to respect the old sound of the band and push that sound to a new place.
Howard Levy: Every time you play with different people, they bring out different things in your writing. There’s one tune of mine called “Sweet Pomegranates” that we’re doing, and it had always been just a piano piece, but there is one figure in it that always sounded like a banjo to me, and so I thought Béla would like it. But I never could’ve imagined that it would turn out how it turned out because of the unique contributions of Roy and Vic and Béla. Their musical sensibility made it into a better piece of music.
LH: Roy, you recently redesigned the drumitar [an original FutureMan creation]. What changes did you make to the instrument?
FutureMan: This instrument was actually designed by a guy in Asheville, North Carolina, who built a body based from how I hold my hands, so I just started with that. We either had to do a major fix on it or just move on, and I needed to move on. It was maybe 40 to 50 hours working with Richard at night and stuff just getting it together, but I had that same pressure as the first record: “Is this gonna really work”? It had to work.
Béla Fleck: I used to get really nervous when Roy would come on tour with a brand-new piece of gear. I’d just get so worried, but after all these years, every single time, it’s always worked out, and so even though, maybe 15 years ago if he’d said, “Hey, I have a brand-new instrument, and I’m just gonna start it for the recording,” I’d probably be palpitating the whole time, but I never worried this time, and it just worked out great.
LH: Béla, you mentioned that you began playing folk guitar, and that you started playing Beatles' songs. The Beatles crossed musical genres with George Harrison bringing in the sitar and things of that nature. What do you all think of your reputation as a genre-breaking band?
Victor Wooten: It’s cool. But to me, those kinds of comments come from other people. I think the main thing we’re doing is just what we do. I know personally, I’m not thinking genres at all. Just playing what seems to fit the music and trying to get what everybody wants out of the music. We’re just doing what we do, and whatever record bin people want to put that in, it’s cool with me.
Béla Fleck: Especially since there aren’t any record bins anymore.
Victor Wooten: [laughs] Exactly.
LH: Collectively, the four of you have been nominated for an incredible amount of GRAMMY awards. How does that recognition affect you when you’re composing? Does it put pressure on you to produce a certain kind of album?
Victor Wooten: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it. Not in writing or composing a record.
Béla Fleck: We’ve never thought, if we make this song like this, it might get nominated for this kind of GRAMMY. We’ve never done that.
Howard Levy: What’s really cool about this record…Bela and I collaborated on a bunch of stuff, more than we used to in the old days. The tune “Life in 11,” that we wrote together is the one that the label wants to nominate for a Grammy. But believe me, it was the furthest thing from my mind writing it.
Béla Fleck: And you never really know when you’re making the music what song is going to end up being everybody’s favorite tune. You figure it’s going to be some simple, pretty diddy or something, but a lot of times it’s something very unusual that jumps out at people.
LH: Are there any plans for the Flecktones following this tour?
Béla Fleck: We’ll play together through April. Everyone was able to put away this year and make it a Flecktone year. And then after this year is over, we’ll go our separate ways and then see what everybody wants to do. We’ve been telling people, there are no plans after April. It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to play together. It seems to make it very precious to have an end to it, and makes the shows very special. You just never know in life, you never know what’s going to happen next.