Ever since I was sixteen, the music of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones has consistently served as my summer soundtrack. Now, with an extensive tour in progress and the recent release of their latest album, Rocket Science, Béla and his Flecktones are back to work delighting listeners with the sweet sounds of bluegrass fusion. I caught up with the man widely considered to be the best banjoist in the world last week:
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.
Béla 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 you're 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 you're 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: 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, on 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: 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 "Can't 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: 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 we're playing next, and if we're 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: 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: 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: 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 (1999's)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: Is this your baby, the Flecktones' project? Is this 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.