INTERVIEW WITH BELA FLECK

On Tuesday, February 26, Columbia Records will be releasing a DVD entitled Live At The Quick dedicated to world renowned banjo player Bela Fleck and his band, the Flecktones. Live At The Quick is comprised of short interviews and segments from a live performance filmed in December 4, 2001 at The Quick, a venue at Fairfield University in Connecticut. The core of the Flecktones, Bela himself (Banjo, Electric Synch Banjo, Guitar), Victor Lemonte Wooten (Electric Bass, Floor Synth), Future Man (Synth Ax Drumitar, Acoustic Drums, assorted percussion), and Jeff Coffin (Tenor, Alto, and Soprano Saxes, Clarinet, and Flute) were joined by featured guests Sandip Burman (Tabla), Andy Narrell (Steel Pans, Keyboards), Paul Hanson (Bassoon), Paul McCandless (Oboe, English Horn, Soprano Sax, and Sopranino) and Ondar (Tuvan throat singing). After watching a copy of the forthcoming DVD, I had the pleasure of talking with Bela Fleck from his tour bus, to discuss the DVD and the music that has taken the banjo into a whole new direction.

Vince: So when will the new DVD be released?

Bela: It supposed be released sometime this month.

Vince: Did you find the filming process natural, or did you find it unnatural?

Bela: Well it was very slow and there was a lot of stuff I couldn’t do, you know, where you had to let the guys who were doing the camera work and editing do their thing, and then critique it afterwards, which is a little tough on them because they work very hard, and you go back and say, well wait, the wrong person is soloing. That’s sort of tough because it puts you in the role as the “heavy” and I didn’t enjoy that part of it. But the truth is, they were very flexible and they kept working with us and in the end, we had something that we were all very proud of.

Was the actual camera shoot obtrusive?

It was a very high-pressure day because we knew this was the day, it had to happen, all the music had to be right. We had two shots at it. We did two shows that day and we were able to use the best parts of both shows.

This wasn’t your first live recording though.

Audio where we’d do a live album on that day, and do it in one shot. But we like to be covered and have many options to choose from, and not have that kind of pressure. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, and I think sometimes it really makes for a great performance. I think that’s what happened that day. We got a great performance, and everyone sort of stepped up and kicked ass.

Did the rest of the band feel pretty comfortable with it?

Yea.

Everyone seemed to be in their zone.

I think if you look at it, I look kind of nervous in the first song and then everything sort of settled down. Nobody else was really uptight. But they weren’t in on the whole process, they weren’t having the constant meetings with the director about what was happening, making sure everything was right, you know, making sure everyone knew what was going on. So I had a little more pressure on me. But once we started playing, it was really fun.

It seemed fun. And the crowd seemed to get into it.

It was a good crowd, and a nice place. We chose that room [The Quick] because we had played there several times before and it was always a fun place to play. That’s why we did two shows to two different audiences. Because really, we would have been playing in a different room at this point in our career, but we just like that room and thought it would be good for this situation.

I noticed in this case and have noticed at your shows in the past that your audience is made of a wide variety of people. Do you feel lucky to have such a dichotomy of listeners?

I love it and in general, they all get along really well.

It seems like it. You have the people who like to just sit and listen, and you have the kids who like to get up and dance around. And it seemed like everyone was just having a good time with it.

Yea that was the optimum situation where they have a place where they can dance that’s not obtrusive for the people that want to watch. You know, we want everyone to be happy. You can see people of all different ages, different types of people enjoying the show, and that’s fun.

Do you have a favorite part of the DVD? A favorite song or segment that you enjoyed more than others?

I was really proud of the part in the middle of Hoe Down where there’s a breakdown where Sandip Burmam and I play together and there are some Indian music ideas that he had taught me he that he I had been working on for quite a while. We were able to insert that into "Hoe Down." I was happy to get that in there. And on a personal level, it was great to get my teacher Tony Trishka involved, and Bill Keith. From a banjo player level that was nice. But really I was just as excited to hear everyone’s performance. Paul McCandless, Andy Narrell, Sandip, and Paul Hanson... I like the way they work as a group. And the overall thing of introducing people to our audience who they might not know who are wonderful, wonderful musicians.

Like Ondar?

The moment when Ondar walks out in the middle of a show, no one is expecting it, and he’s in full tribal gear, and he starts singing 3 notes at once, its hard to beat. But then it was like, how do we get Ondar to fit into one of our songs? That was actually quite a challenge, but we figured it out!

How did you come upon Ondar? How was that relationship spawn?

It was very unusual actually because he actually ended up in Nashville. Because we’re sort of the local weirdos, everybody said lets get Bela, Victor and Future Man together with Ondar. Somehow he got signed to Warner Bros country label as an oddity. The head of Warner Bros. Country label who signed us is actually a fan of all sorts of music, and when he heard Ondar, he said this is too great to not get involved somehow, so he signed him and they put out an album that came from the Nashville Progressive Label, and we were on the same label. They asked us to come in and play with him.

It was a little forced, because we didn’t know him, and the record company was there, and it wasn’t one of those natural meetings. In fact, I don’t even think they used anything that we played on. But then they asked us if he could come out and sit in at a show, and we thought, our audience would love that and we invited him out. He did like 10 or 12 shows, and he’d do the surprise “here’s Ondar” thing. We actually worked out several pieces and brought him out to Telluride, Colorado. It really works because not only is he a fabulous musician, but he’s a very sweet guy, and he fit in really well even though he couldn’t speak English.

Where is Ondar actually from?

He’s from Tuva. It is almost in Eastern Russia, over China.

This is an interesting time for music, with CD burners, Napster, MP3s and such. Do you see a DVD like this as sort of the next level of service that the music business has to bring to the people?

It is seeming like people are really starting to buy DVD's now. People are starting to get really nice sound systems for their house, and all of a sudden a release like this makes more sense. In the past, in general, if you made a live video and it sold maybe 10,000 copies, you were actually doing pretty good, they just didn’t sell really well. I think it is sort of cool that it is turning around, and people want to go out and get DVDs. So hopefully people will want to go and get it. We’ll just have to wait and see! (laughs)

You mentioned in the video that you started playing banjo at the age of 15. Did you ever think you’d be doing this for a living?

No. Funny thing is even at the end of high school I never thought I’d ever be good enough, it was more of a compulsion. I was so fascinated, I loved it so much, I didn’t apply to colleges. I got lucky because my Mom had a child when I was a senior in high school and she wasn’t concentrating on me that much. I actually managed to slither through senior year without applying to any colleges, which would have been unheard of if she didn’t have a newborn child. So at the point I got out of high school, I was a free man. It would have been a year I could get into a school anyway, so I just went and joined a band. And she kept saying “Oh I wish you would consider college,” but as I said, she was a little distracted at that point so I made my escape and never had to go to college!

How old is he now?

He’s in his mid twenties.

Does he play the banjo?

No he doesn’t play the banjo! He’s a film director. In fact, he’s actually on tour with us now. He’s filming me and Edgar Meyer, our duo tour. I think he’s going to do really well, he’s very smart, he makes great stuff.

I know you’ve been working on this classical effort with Edgar Meyer. Has this changed the way you approach composition and performance?

Well it has, in particular when I’m playing with Edgar, because everything we do is very collaborative, we try to co-write everything or a lot of it. But he is such a composer in that he sits down and writes all the parts for everyone to play a lot of the time. But generally when I work with the Flecktones, I write a basic structure and then I hand it off and say you figure out what you’re going to play. Everybody brings their own ideas to it, and pretty soon we’ve kind of co-composed the structures, even though the idea could have come from me, or whoever it came from, everyone has a lot of autonomy. So after working on this classical record where everything is written out, and working with Edgar who likes to monkey with structures until every single note of it is perfect, I came into the next Flecktones record, which we just recorded. With some ideas along these lines and I spent a lot of time locked up in the studio working on things I wanted everyone to play, and they were gracious enough to try it, because that is never been the way we worked before. I think they were happy with the way it turned out, but I would never do that do them all the time! Just a song or two or a section of a song where I kind of arranged the whole section in almost a classical manner and it was fun. It added a new sound. I’m looking forward to people hearing it.

You mentioned something in the DVD about your set lists for your shows, that you don’t use them to keep yourselves spontaneous?

Well we do a set list because everybody has instrument changes and you have to know what’s coming next. If you were pretty much playing the same instruments, you wouldn’t have that problem, you could do a whole show where I would only play electric banjo, or Jeff just played the Soprano all night, we could go without a plan. But we make our plan just before we go on stage. We didn’t do this as much on the DVD, we really had to figure out how to showcase every person equally. Play all the right songs we decided were the ones we’d film, running orders for the video guys so they would know what was going to happen next, so it was a little less spontaneous in that way. We actually had to make a plan and stick to it. We stick to our plans generally, but we like to make them at the last minute!

What are the different types of banjos you use in the video?

For the DVD it was real simple, I used my electric crossfire, which is something that they made for me custom quite a while ago - the purple banjo that looks like a Strat with a banjo sunk into it. And I used my 1937 Gibson Flat Head Master Tone banjo, my main acoustic banjo. And I have a Nexville, I think its called Meteor, which is the one I used on "Big Country." And I used a Swiss guitar, I think it is called a Paradise guitar, it is all electric.

Your influences, you mentioned your teacher Tony Trishka, Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, the members of New Grass Revival. You also mentioned your influence by the folks you play with, Victor, Jeff and everyone. Anyone else that sticks out in your mind?

A guy that maybe not everyone knows about, a jazz guitar player that I used to listen to in High School and afterwards named Pat Martino. Sometimes I forget what a big of an influence he’s been, because he’s such a rhythmic force, his lines go on and on and on, they’re very hip. I think he’s played a big role too.

You said that you’re talking to me from the tour bus right now. I noticed in the DVD you showed the camera man a drawer dedicated to bananas. That wasn’t a Spinal Tap-esque reference, was it?

No, we get a lot of fruit in our rider and I remember that drawer had got stuffed with bananas, someone must have been cleaning up on the bus. It was a funny thing. The nice thing about that moment is we’re all just having a good time after a gig, everyone is in a great mood. There’s a camera guy there, it was fun.

There is a scene in the DVD where you’re playing in front of a store-front. Where was that?

That was in Boston, it is where I used to always play when I played on the street. When I left home, I went up to Boston and played in a band up there, and after that band broke up, there was a summer where I made a living playing on the street in Harvard Square, and it was in front of an Ann Taylor shop. Originally our thought was that we could go down there and have me talk about this being the place where I used to play on the streets. The video guys thought it would be a great angle, Bela used to play on the streets. We just decided to just play there, me and Tony Trishka, and see what happens. And there was a guy who walks up to us on the street and tells us we have to stop. He’s actually a friend of ours. Some people might recognize him from the Ken Burns documentary on Jazz. His name is Mat Glazier, he is the head of the street department at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, and he came up and told us that we had to stop playing. He’s a very funny guy.

Are you currently traveling with the four piece line up, or with the extended group.

We’re traveling with the four piece now. I don’t know whether at some point this year when the DVD is out we might bring back some people to make appearances, especially if people are excited about the performance, so we’ll see.

Some CDs I’d find in your CD player?

Radiohead Amnesiac, some other Radiohead. I’ve been listening to them a good bit, and it is sort of making me interested in different sound opportunities that can happen today. I’ve been listening to Edgar’s bass concertos that aren’t out yet he gave me to listen to that are fun to listen to. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of satellite radio, I have one in my car, I’ll put on the BBC, or the bluegrass channel. I haven’t been able to listen to Bluegrass in years, you can’t get it. So it is actually filling in some gaps in my understanding. They’re playing some old Osborne brothers things, new people I haven’t heard that I’m not up on. It's nice to hear the level that people are playing on, and there are some good things I wouldn’t have found out about without it. I haven’t quite made it to the jazz channel yet, because I haven’t figured out how to get over there.

I know that as soon as we get done talking, I’m going to remember something I wish I would have mentioned! The truth is, I’m so busy working on the album with the group that when I’m in my car driving, I need a break from it. When you’re spending 8 or 10 hours in front of the computer working on the mixes or the editing, you want to hear something completely different, you want to hear people talking, or something new.

You’re referring to a new studio release coming out sometime soon?

It looks like it is going to be a double album, a studio effort we’ve been doing the last 5 months we’ve been off the road. We spent quite a bit of time on it, and I have to say, I’m thrilled with how it is going.

Where is the studio?

In my house in Nashville.

OK, last question, are you a Star Wars fan?

Yea, Future Man is much more than I. I love those movies; I enjoyed seeing the new one. I’ll tell you a little story. I was asked to play with the Dave Matthews Band on their 2nd Stadium tour, and we did two nights in Philadelphia I think it was, we played Foxboro Stadium, and Giants Stadium in New York, and after the show in Philadelphia (this is like 2 in the morning) they had a whole theatre opened up for the crew of the Dave Matthews Band and me 'cause I was there with them, and we went and saw the new Star Wars right when it came out - a private showing. And it was great, it was so much fun, but I have to say by the end, I was so tired. So I need to see it again!

Maybe you can get it on DVD!

Yea, maybe I can trade him for one of mine!

Well, it was a pleasure to talk with you. Good luck on the road, and I’ll be seeing you soon!

I’ll see you down the line.

Interview by Vince Iwinski

[Published on: 2/24/02]

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