The Fogged Clarity Interview
The best banjoist in the world sits down with Ben to discuss his life, his band, and his latest album, Rocket Science.
*Purchase Bela Fleck and the Flecktones latest album, Rocket Science here.
**To see the Flecktones summer tour schedule click here.
Ben Evans: Talk to me about how important freedom is to you as a musician. Over your career you’ve seemed never to constrain yourself with style or genre.
Bela Fleck: That might be an illusion, but it’s an idealistic illusion and its one that I fight for. Every band that you put together you have to figure out how long your going to play and you have to make a lot of decisions for a long period of time and then commit to it, so if your in the middle of a tour and you suddenly want the freedom to go and do something else, you don’t have it. You know what I mean? So even in the case of this Flecktone’s tour, which we are super thrilled to be doing, we’re committing to a year of playing together, so that means we’ll be free within the constraints of the band, but then we’ll be free after the band is done to do whatever other projects we want to do. So it’s freedom, but with sort of a clock ticking and figuring out when you can do the different things you want to do.
BE: Well, you and Victor Wooten and Future Man have been playing together for over twenty years, so I have to imagine you get along fairly well…
BF: Yeah, we really do, we really do, and in fact, the last three years where we haven’t been playing together that much except at Christmas time has really just been because we all respect each other and want the opportunity to see ourselves and each other do different things with other people too, you know. But whenever we see each other and whenever we get to play, there are sparks. It’s fun. We’re happy, we’re happy to be together, and bringing Howard back into it is really, really interesting.
BE: How did your approach differ on this album, Rocket Science, as opposed to past Flecktone’s releases?
BF: It’s a lot more like being in the band when it started in the first three or four years, when Howard was in the band. In fact, I feel like Rocket Science picks up where UFO Tofu left off — that’s the album we made in 1992 — rather than where The Hidden Land left off, which is the album we put out in 2006, or for instance, the holiday record, which I guess is an abnormality that sits out in the middle of the ether, not really connected to the other albums, but it’s a Tones’ sort of gesture or whatever; although I really like that album. It’s not like a continuation of the band’s work in the same way. But this is like going back in time, but a different time where we’re all more mature and more able.
BE: You seem to like to sample from a variety of musical traditions in your work, I was wondering where the desire to explore emanated from, this going back to my first question about your seeming unconstraint as a musician. Does the constant quest for newness that one hears throughout your catalog extend to other elements of your life? I guess, are you a seeker?
BF: I think not as much in the rest of my life, because so much of it is happening in the music and it takes a lot of effort and time to make it all happen, whether it’s practicing, or doing the logistical stuff that has to happen to get a bunch of people together, so that when I actually get away from music a lot of times I’m a pretty conventional person, although I don’t live on the clock. I was just reading this book about Keith Richards and I recognized a lot of things about my life that are similar, you know, I don’t eat meals at mealtimes, I eat when I get hungry; my hours can.. I could be up in the middle of the night, or I could be up in the middle of the day, its very different based on what just happened, what tour I just finished and where I’m going, what country I might have just been to, our what schedule you were on, you know, that sort of thing.
BE: It seems that when one’s identity is so wedded to something, as yours is to music, it might be difficult for the person to be regarded or understood through any other lens. Do you ever feel slightly confined by preconceptions in your day to day, non-musical interactions?
BF: I don’t know, that’s a good question, I have to think about it. But I don’t think so, because mostly when I’m not in a group or on tour in a band I’m just a regular person who’s going to the gym and trying to eat healthy and have quality time with important people in my life, so, those people understand me. Although there is a tendency to want to isolate a little bit, from people that might look at me from a fan position, because it’s hard to be a real person around them, and I really want that when I’m not out on tour and in that sort of public eye.
BE: Absolutely, some sort of normalcy. That’s what I was referring to, it must be difficult to distance the banjo player Bela Fleck from the person Bela Fleck, unless you go out with a hat and sunglasses (laughs).
BF: Well I mean, I don’t get recognized walking up and down the street, but in Nashville, people don’t really bug you if they do recognize you, I might not even know they did. But on an airplane, if I’m flying a lot and I’ve got my banjo with me I do get recognized a lot. Especially since that movie, Throw Down Your Heart that I filmed in Africa has been up on Netflix, and a lot of people have been seeing it and now my face is more familiar to some people. But I figure complaining about that is like… I remember somebody once said, “Wasn’t that the point of this whole exercise?” So, stars that complain about their stardom I don’t have a lot of patience for, although it actually can be very frustrating and taxing at times. But not for someone in my position, I’m not that kind of a…I mean a very small bunch of people think I’m a star, but that’s about it, and I can go to the grocery star and go to a movie and have dinner and not be bugged.
BE: I would buy your produce for you if I saw you at the grocery store (laughs).
BF: (Laughs) Every once in a while I think I’m having a quiet dinner with friends or something, somebody buys it without telling us and that sort of thing. It’s sweet though, I know that it means that they were moved by the music and that means that what I’m doing is working, so I love it. I mean, I do it for me and I do it for other people, but I think that I have to live an ideal for it to be right for all of us.
BE: That’s well put. Yeah, I associate your music with, almost bliss, I’ve seen you out in the sunshine at Fredrik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids several times, and other places and the weather always seems to be nice and you just bring such a calm and professional and happy demeanor with you wherever you go it seems.
BF: Well, I feel very fortunate. I’m always aware of how lucky I am to be able to do what I do and have the most important thing in my life be music and the banjo. Like, I know the banjo and how you play the banjo is not the most important thing in the world, but I get to make believe it is in my life and that allows me to get really focused on it and really search out the nooks and crannies of what can be special about it, you know. So I feel just very privileged that I get to do that. So I take it seriously and that makes me want to work very hard and deserve it, you know, that position that I’m in.
BE: Is there a plateau for growth when it comes to music?
BF: Oh yeah, all the time (laughs). Yeah, it’s very frustrating. I mean like we just started up a new band, with the Flecktones again, and there are times when I’m just like “God, I just suck.” You know, in fact, between phone calls today I’m practicing. I’ve got the metronome on, I’m trying to learn how to get through these songs. It’s one thing to go in the studio and get a great track down and hone your parts, or really work on the solos or whatever, but out on stage you can’t hide it if you don’t really have it down, and we’re early enough in the tour that I don’t have the music totally down, and so I was a little surprised last night when the audience went berserk for the show because I was like “Cant you tell I don’t know this stuff yet?”
BE: I don’t know if everyone’s ear is as well-honed, nearly as well-honed as yours.
BF: No, mine’s painfully well-honed and I hear things that nobody else hears, and I’m also critical, self-critical, which is a funny part because when you’re trying to be free and open being critical actually isn’t that helpful, so I do battle with that side of my personality, but I have to kind of drop it when I’m on stage, or I should, but I have to remember to let go and everything that happens has to be okay because it happened, and then follow it with something meaningful. Sometimes you can fix something that went wrong with what you do next and make it better than it would have been if it hadn’t gone wrong, as an improviser, and I do know how to do that.
BE: That’s wisdom.
BF: It’s harder to do on a record, but in a live situation you can reach down deep and find a solution to the problem you’ve created for yourself with what you started with.
BE: Yeah, I’ve found that in my own life: when I’m flowing and I’m not thinking and I’m not self-critical, you know, that’s when I’m at my best.
BF: Yeah, but the critical part helps me do the work that’s necessary to get to the next level. It can’t all happen by osmosis or just sheer innate whatever, a lot of it has to happen because you were willing to do the work it took, and however much work it takes, is how much it takes. If it’s not happening and you’re out on stage and you don’t feel like your getting it, having everybody tell you it’s great doesn’t really help you because you know you haven’t got it yet. For me, I usually…if it is flowing and it’s happening naturally and I’m not straining the whole time, I usually feel like I’m getting it, but if I’m straining and fighting for it… it can be a lot of fun to listen to for the audience, but I don’t necessarily feel good about it. I want to be inside it, and have it so down that it’s not going anywhere.
BE: Yeah, and that’s when you can truly be free.
BF: Exactly, its funny how all of that hard work results in freedom.
BE: Your persona has always struck me as being incredibly tranquil, I kind of view you like the cool uncle who disappears for six months every year to be a dive instructor in the Caribbean…
BF: Well, I might put that out because I have to stay very cool, like, as an improviser you cant get all; I can’t get all heated up and out of breath and concerned, so when I go into show mode there is a calming thing that comes into it, and it works, I mean it keeps me relaxed. Not only do I have to play at my best, I also have to speak to the audience, and tell the guys what were playing next, and if were running out of time or something, you know there are a lot of things you have to do as a leader that aren’t music. So I just have to be cool, but afterwards I might come off stage and go, “Boy, I wish I could have played that better,” or things like that. Once I’m in it, a week or two into any project, I’m usually pretty happy about everything that’s going on.
BE: Are you able to maintain your relatively calm nature throughout the rigors of a tour and your demanding schedule?
BF: Yeah, I think it’s important not to get too caffeinated. So I really like to drink coffee and get charged up and practice in the afternoon, but sometimes it leaves me let down at the show, so I actually have to watch out for those kinds of things, because I do want to be very relaxed at the shows and I want the music to flow through. Caffeine can be an impediment, it can get in the way of the music flowing through, but other times when you’re really tired sometimes it can give you the edge you need. So you try to figure out what you need each day, each night and throughout it all, that’s part of the trick too: how to manage your body.
BE: You know, one of my favorite pieces of work that you’ve done is the three album set, Little Worlds, will you talk about that project a little bit? It seemed to be so expansive and so dynamic, it really changed the way I listened to music for a couple years.
BF: Well, I remember we started recording on that one, I think it was our second Flecktone’s record on Sony, and we had a budget and everything to go and really… there was no excuse not to make a great record, so we just started recording everything that we had around that we liked, and pretty soon we realized we had over-recorded dramatically, drastically. And so finally the record company said, “Hey when do we get to hear something?” I said, “You can hear anything anytime you want to come down to my studio in Nashville and I’ll play you what we’ve got.” Because I don’t like sending out tapes before things are done, but I’ll play anybody anything in the studio because its really helpful to have people hear it while your working on it. So I played them everything and they kept saying, “What else you got, more, more…” and so I played them the whole thing and I said what to you think. (The record company said) “We love it, but it’s too much stuff. So what do you think about a double album, lets put it all out?” They said it. And I said ok, and then we started talking about it and it became “what about a triple album?” because it was actually more than we could get on two CD’s. And at first everybody said, oh that will be too much in this climate, and then we said, “Well maybe it will be different, because it’s bigger.”
BE: And it was, it was a bounty, it was a feast of music.
BF: Well thanks. And then we started getting people in on it that we hadn’t played with before and that really helped to flesh each song out and make each song a little bit different.
BE: Well, you spoke to this: you’re a showman and you perform to large crowds all over the world. What’s your ideal venue, is it sitting down with a couple of fellow pickers and passing a bottle around and just playing, is it sitting down in your apartment by yourself and just playing? When are you at your most content playing the banjo?
BF: I like kind of relaxed situations with a lot of interaction, and it’s usually not the biggest gigs that are the best music, although they can be very exciting, like we’re playing Bonnaroo next week and that will be a big gig, and we played summer camp for ten or fifteen thousand people a couple of days ago, and it was exciting, but it wasn’t the place for the intimacy and the conversational things that I love about music, where you’re really in…you know everyone’s in their center and there is plenty of room for everything to happen. So I do like sort of more, not super small, but I mean I am happy… I mean last night we played in a twelve hundred seat theater and it felt very intimate and connected. I guess I would have to say I like them all for different reasons, and I do like that push when you have to play a big show, but I also like those really, really quiet gigs where you can really bring it down.
BE: Yeah, I think it’s probably a question of an atmosphere in which the music is going to resonate most with the audience, and that intimacy you spoke of, that’s what I seek in a concert as a listener.
BF: Yeah, if you can get to that place where everybody is just breathing together it’s really cool.
BE: And that refers to what you were talking about earlier, when everyone’s putting aside their thoughts and kind of just breathing as one, it’s a pretty neat dynamic.
BF: The entertainer side of our job is to be interesting enough to make the audience forget about whatever else was on their mind when they walked through the door, and hopefully present them with something idealistic and warm that will give them a good feeling to take away with them.
BE: You’ve managed that at every show I’ve seen.
Well, what’s your take on the business aspect of music and how it has changed over the past fifteen years? Do you feel as if the increased digitization of the medium in both its recording and distribution has sort of compromised the integrity of the craft at all?
BF: There are certain things that I’ve had to get used to. For instance, we used to do new songs on stage before they were ready just to force ourselves to sort of get it together in front of people, but pretty soon we realized that they were going up on the web and people were making their judgments on those songs based on our first performance. Now I feel like it’s really a lot better if the band, whatever group I’m in, has really rehearsed a lot more so that we’re going to present something we’re really proud of since it is going to be recorded– someone’s going hold up the telephone and record it or someone’s going tape it and we’re not going know; and we’ve always let people tape, but the way it’s digitized and the way it’s around the world in a second is a little daunting sometimes. If you played good you’re happy, you’re really glad it’s out there, but if you felt like it was not as good or the sound was tough or something was going on that was distracting you go, “Man I wish that wasn’t what was getting around the world in a second.”
Aside from that… There used to be more money to be made as a musician, as someone recording, but that’s just… we’ll look back at that as a golden period for musicians, when they were getting paid that way– You’d get all these publishing checks if you sold 50,000 records or 100,000 records, you could buy a house in those days if you had written everything, but those days are gone, the records aren’t selling like they used.
BE: But you’re established to the point where you don’t have to worry about getting signed or having gigs or being able to put another record out, and that must be nice.
BF: It is nice, but I have friends who are not in that position and they might be having what would have been a solid career twenty years ago, with the amount of people they’re playing for and the kind of reaction they’re getting, but now they’re barely making a living, they can barely survive, and they don’t know if they’ll be able to be musicians.
So maybe what this is going to do is…There’s been such a glut of people getting involved in the music business over the last twenty years to where so many things are coming out all the time and everybody’s fighting for the same audiences, it’s almost like there’s too much for everybody out there, in a way. Maybe it’s going to force some people to get out of the game eventually, if they can’t make a living and then it’ll be one of those evolutionary things where the strong survive. But I don’t really know, we’ll have to see.
BE: I’m torn, because part of me feels that it’s diluting the quality of music in that it’s driven for economic purposes now, the other part of me feels that, now, more people than ever have access to recording equipment and built-in listenerships on the internet so that they can have the opportunity to be heard…
BF: Well that’s good, there’s no doubt that that’s a good thing. That’s positive for humanity and art and expression, so I celebrate that aspect of it too. It’s just a change from what we’re used to, you know, or we’re used to– the older guys like us who have been around doing it for thirty years. It was a different game when we started, so you have to get used to it and you have to evolve, because if you don’t, you should get out of it. You know what I mean, it’s just the way life goes, you can’t expect things to stay the same.
BE: You know, I loved your Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From The Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2 .
BF: Thank you.
BE: There is something to be said for stripped down acoustic music, it’s more palpable I guess, its more vulnerable.
After years of albums and recordings, do you still get the same thrill upon releasing a new project?
BF: It’s different, it’s definitely different to put out your twentieth record than your first or your fifth. Sometimes with a brand new project, like something you’ve never done before, there’s a special buzz that comes with it, you can’t wait for people to hear this thing, you know. I definitely felt that way about Bluegrass Sessions, we had shot the moon and everybody had played their best and it was something everybody was going to be proud of a long time, and I feel that way about the Rocket Science album for sure. When we made the first Flecktones’ album it was like, “Man, if anybody hears this, we’ll just be so thrilled.” We were just so excited about it ourselves. So we kind of got back into that zone on the new album, like “Hey, this is really different from what we’ve done and it’s different than anything else out there; so looking forward to finally getting it out there.” And now were getting a great response.
BE: Within the first twenty seconds you know it’s a Flecktone’s album, you’ve got that swooning banjo coming in. I love it, it reminds me of summer.
BF: Well, having Howard Levy back in the band playing the harmonica and the piano is sort of a key to what made it new again. All of his creative and intellectual powers really add something different to the band. He’s a very esoteric, wild, crazy player, but because it’s a harmonica and piano it ends up making the band seem very warm and close, so having him back is proving to be a wonderful experience.
BE: Did you listen to yourself on Piano Jazz when it re-aired two weeks ago?
BF: No, I didn’t that was done at least eight, ten years ago, maybe longer…
BE: I wanted to hear how you felt hearing yourself ten years ago, I thought it would be interesting.
BF: Yeah, how did it come off?
BE: Really well, you’re humble brilliance shone through.
What do you listen to? What are you listening to right now that might be outside of what people expect in terms of contemporary music?
BF: Lately, I’m listening to a lot of classical music, and it’s because I’ve been working on a banjo concerto that I was commissioned to write for the Nashville Symphony, and its about a 32 minute piece with banjo and orchestra and I wrote every single note and I’ve never done that before by myself, I’ve always written with great classical writers like Edgar Meyer, who is a great classical composer. Whenever I’ve gotten to write for orchestra it’s been with him, and he knows what he’s doing, so I kind of had to prove to myself that I could do it without him.
So I’ve listened to a lot of classical stuff, things that I had never really gotten to know before, especially Bartok, who’s my namesake, but I’d never really spent the time getting to know his music, so this was a great time for that. So, I’ve been soaking up a lot of great classical music.
BE: Do you speak with Edgar Meyer and Jean-Luc Ponty anymore… Stanley Clarke, that’s who I was thinking of actually, the stand up bassist you’ve played with.
BF: Yeah, I’ve seen Stanley a lot more than Jean-Luc since we finished that project together. Stanley’s great, he’s a great guy; and I really, really enjoyed Jean-Luc as well, he’s a quintessential Frenchmen and violinist, he was a real treat to be around that year.
BE: How many days are you playing out of the year, do you think; concerts?
BF: You know I haven’t counted it in a while, but this year the Flecktones are playing from now until next April, but there will be months off. Like the whole month of September is off, but that’s when I’m doing my concerto, so I’ll be home, but practicing like a demon to try and survive that piece.
BE: Are you going to be performing it in D.C.?
BF: No, in Nashville, at the Nashville Symphony. Hopefully I’ll be going out and performing that piece a good bit after the Flecktones get done with this year together. But when we tour, for instance, we’re out for eight days, we’ll be home for five days, and well be out for another ten days, home for a week, then well be out for another ten days, home for a week and a half; ya know, its like that. So in a month that we’re on, we’re still not on non-stop, because we just don’t think it would be great for everybody to be sitting on a bus for six months, we can’t do that anymore. But we can go out for two weeks, three in a rare instance, and then you need to go get away from it and clear your brain and go be a human being, outside of musical touring for a while.
BE: Yeah, do you have little ones?
BF: I don’t, but almost everybody is married.
BE: That’s good that you have some, freedom…seems to be the buzz word here.
BF: Yeah, my wife is a musician too, so she understands what I’m going through, which doesn’t make it not hard, the fact that we both travel, because sometimes when I come home she’s not there, and sometimes when she comes home I’m not there, but we do understand and support each other, so that’s been working out good. Howard’s lady is also a musician, she’s a violinist in the Chicago Symphony, so they have a really good understanding. And Victor’s wife was actually was involved with shows, a singer and performer in shows. I don’t think she ever performed on Broadway, but she did a lot of performing, and so she understands.
BE: It would be great if you could bring the concerto to the Chicago Symphony.
BF: Yeah, it would be very exciting. I’m crossing my fingers, well just have to see.
BE: I’m sure it will be fantastic, if it’s good enough for you, it’s more than good enough for anybody else I’m sure.
BF: Thanks, I’m pretty excited about it actually.
BE: Well, you’ve played everywhere and done almost everything, if you had to pick one pinnacle moment, one performance in which you simultaneously achieved elation and perfection, what would it be?
BF: Wow, I don’t know.
BE: There has to be one moment where it just swept over you and you just said: “I made it.”
BF: Oh, there have been some wonderful, wonderful nights, and I have to say its happened in every group I’ve been in, there have been those nights. I do things enough that it gets to that point. But yeah, I don’t know if I can pick one, but Flecktones have had hundreds of them, probably over the last twenty years…
BE: Is that your baby, the Flecktones’ project? Is that what’s closest to you?
BF: It’s a big, big thing for me, but I’ve also learned how to set it free and let it go away when its not right for everybody and let it come back when its time. Because I never would have put the band on hiatus if it wasn’t necessary for the whole group to survive. So, I’ve learned to let go of it, but I’m very proud of it now that we’re back together, I’m proud that we can come back together and feel this way again.
BE: It’s good you have that sensitivity.
BF: Well, you have to, if you want it to work you can’t say: “This is what we’re doing,” you have to say: “What do you want to do?” You can’t say: “It’s time for us to play,” you have to say, “Is it time for us to play?” and then see what everybody thinks, see if people can feel like it is the right time. Because everybody is, you know, some of us are…You know three of us are in our fifties and one’s almost there, and so it’s a little different than when you’re in your twenties, you’ve got a lot of other things going on in your life. But I’m really glad that we could bring it back together now, and I can’t imagine that we won’t do it again some day, but we don’t have any plans, we take it one thing at a time.