Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

An Interview with Banjo Banshee Bela Fleck
by John Noyd
February 2012

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on the cover of Feb 2012 Maximum Ink

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on the cover of Feb 2012 Maximum Ink

You have not heard the banjo until you’ve heard BELA FLECK play the banjo. Not just because of his jaw-dropping talent for lightning-fast runs and twisted knuckle-busting riffs but because he places the instrument in unusual settings and manages to make it sound perfectly natural. For decades, the FLECKTONES have found new ways to present musical conundrums that are easy to love. A Madison favorite, the band recently reunited their original line-up to produce last year’s awesome, “Rocket Science.” As the quartet prepares to swing by Madison’s Union Theater March 1st, MAXIMUM INK managed to snare Bela for some questions about the reunion, the new album and this year’s tour.

MAXIMUM INK: It’s great to hear the original line-up back together.  With everyone’s extremely busy schedule was it difficult for everyone to drop their other projects and concentrate on an album and tour?
BELA FLECK: There was a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of going back to the old sound. Victor, Future Man and I were ready to have a musical adventure again. When we contacted Howard Levy about filling the Jeff Coffin slot (which was Howard’s 17 years ago) he could see the potential for an interesting reunion as well. We decided on giving it a full year’s commitment, and doing new music together, and that combination of parameters gave it some heft. Having a planned ending has made every gig special.

MI: What are you most looking forward to being back on the road with people you’ve known and played with for nearly two and a half decades?
BF: As I do more and more different things outside of the band, the band becomes more of a safe harbor. I look forward to the warm and old friendships, the musical provocation, and the deep groove.

MI: When you first got together back in 1988 could you imagine still working together in 2012? What are the big differences between then and now?
BF: I felt pretty sure that we wouldn’t be together in 5 or 6 years. Most bands don’t make it that far. So I had made a commitment to myself to be a band leader from then on, and to replace musicians when they left. Howard left on schedule after 4 or 5 years. I wasn’t happy about it, but I wasn’t really surprised. So we continued on. And one of the greatest things in my life is that Victor and Future Man did not leave, and we forged a long-term bond which gave Howard something solid to come back to 17 years later. I think long musical relationships are very precious. As far as the sound, I think we are all more mature musicians now, and everything we do separately feeds the band when we come back together.

MI: You have covered a large variety of world and roots music translating bluegrass, jazz and African music into your own special mix, I understand the new disc delves into Balkan time signatures. What drew you to this complicated music?
BF: This is the completion of a door that was opened when we first played with Howard. He was always turning us on to amazing and unusual music from around the world, including Bulgaria - where playing in 11 is very common. We had planned on doing an 11 together but didn’t get to it back then. This time we did. Sometimes it takes a while. I know I wasn’t really ready back then.

MI: In a band where so much talent abounds, is it possible to sum up what each member of the band brings to the group that’s unique to them?
BF: Well, I’ll try. Victor has a way of making the most complex things feel natural, and of course a prodigious inventive streak. Future Man is such a team player you have to push him to get a solo! But his poly-rhythmic forward lean and his wide musical interests bring an overall musical picture that is uncommon in percussionists. Howard Levy is another astonishing force. Aside from sharing the ‘inventor’ personality with the rest of us, he has a wide harmonic palette and a spontaneity that tend to light us up and provoke an extra effort. Me? I just do the interviews.

MI: “Rocket Science” has you working a ten string banjo. Is that like a twelve string guitar?
BF: Yes, it is a prototype that I asked Gold Tone to make as an experiment. I had seen a 10 string before, but the owner wasn’t interested in selling. It took a long time till someone would make it for me. I was looking for the right song to try it on, “Joyful Spring,” seemed a pretty good fit.

MI: There always seems to be a cosmic or interstellar outlook to your albums, are the Flecktones really just a bunch of sci-fi geeks?
BF: I think everyone is into embracing the possibilities that the future presents. I was an avid reader of the stuff for a long time.

MI: I understand the Drumitar has been upgraded. Do more choices ever make clear decisions harder to find?
BF:This new drumitar incorporates the technological advances that have been made since the first one was built in the late 80’s. Future Man is in charge of putting together sounds that he likes, and the rest of us just enjoy it. On occasion our soundman might ask him for a deeper kick drum or a brighter snare for a particular song, but it’s really up to Futch.

MI: If you could make anyone a fifth Flecktone who would you choose and what would they add to an already tightly-knit sound?
BF: There have been so many wonderful guests that have added so much - at the top are Jeff Coffin, Chris Thile, Branford Marsalis, Bruce Hornsby, Paul McCandless, Andy Narell, Paul Hansen, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, the list goes on! In terms of a 5th person, we often have Casey Driessen with us sitting in on fiddle. He adds fresh tones and approaches while bringing open-minded bluegrass and roots elements that balance some of the other craziness.

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CD: Rocket Science Record Label: Entertainment One Music
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