Bela Fleck (BEY-Lah Fleck): See Curious, Creative Mind
AAJ: What was it like to go back into the studio with the original group after all these years?
Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, from left: Victor Wooten, Béla Fleck, Howard Levy, Futureman
BF: It was wonderful. I'm always a little bit of an anxious guy, which I try to use to get good results. But I have to deal with my own anxiousness in the process. I was more nervous than anyone about it. I think Howard was a little bit too. But Victor and Futureman don't seem to get nervous, which is a wonderful thing. Then it was about rediscovering how perfectly we all work together. Although we haven't worked together in 17 years, once we sat down and started working on the arrangements, and working through the tunes, everybody knew what to do. Everybody knew what their role was. Everybody knew how to make things better; where they could use their talents and ideas to make the music better. We all took turns letting each other lead.
AAJ: Was it a long process to get the record down?
BF: Not as long as we expected. We held two different two-week periods so we could rehearse and record two different times. But we ended up doing it in a little under three weeks. We got together the first time for about 10 days and got maybe half the music recorded. These days, with home studios, there's no reason to rush. If you're not ready to record, you shouldn't. So we rehearsed and worked on stuff. That was the plan, to take our time. It just went fast. When everybody left, it was basically done. It was just a matter of getting it mixed.
AAJ: I know Howard had a lot to do with the writing. How did it feel having him back in the fold?
BF: It was great. He had two tunes of his own on the record ["Joyful Spring" and "Sweet Pomegranates"] and then a co-write with me ["Life in Eleven"]. Victor had a co-write with me ["Like Water"]. I wrote pretty much everything else except a solo piece that Futureman wrote ["The Secret Drawer"]. That was more writing involvement than Howard had in the old days and it really felt a lot better to everybody. He is such a great writer, but back then, when we first started the band, we got together to play my music. That was sort of the basis of what we were getting ready to do. He had a lot of ideas and things he didn't get to try back then. This was a great time to do all that and to make up for some of those decisions we made back then. I think it made a big difference to him and I think it was better for the band.
AAJ: How does it feel on the road now, with Howard?
BF: It's been amazing. People are just going berserk for it. It's odd, because the band is certainly more esoteric with Howard in it. And more unusual. As musicians, we're always told to play safer, and don't lose the crowd by being weird. Don't be self-indulgent. But it seems like the people that love The Flecktones want us to go deep and try to find unusual things. They want to be challenged. They want to be surprised. It's really worked out to be wonderful.
Howard steps up the "unusual" factor. Futureman is very unusual. Victor is very unusual. I guess I'm unusual. When Jeff Coffin was in the band [on sax], he was excellent, but he's not quite the oddnick that Howard is. Howard is completely unusual. Nobody can do what he does. He's the only harmonica player who plays the way he does, technically. He plays jazz and chromatic music on a diatonic harp, which is supposed to be impossible. But he's also got this killer intensity that he brings to the band and it raises everybody's intensity.
BF: He's a real team player. It's always great to see him do his crazy stuff and his amazing soloing. But the way he feels to play with is what I love. He and I feel time very similarly. I can lean on him and I think he can lean on me. Also, we use similar techniques. The way he plays the bass with his fingers and the tapping and different things. He's very "banjoistic." So we trade ideas back and forth, consciously and unconsciously, all the time. He hears me do something, I hear him do something. We suddenly alter our playing. I love that relationship. I think our language is more similar than anyone else in the band. If we have an interactive section, it's like we can read each other's minds and really create something interesting.
Whereas with Howard, I really have to stretch to hang in there with him. Because he knows a lot of harmony that I don't know. When he starts getting out there and we're improvising together, I have to dig deep to keep up, and that creates a tension. But with Victor, it's not a tension, it's a flow. I love having both of those in the same band.
AAJ: Playing with Futureman all this time, not with a trap drum set, has to be different. What does he bring?
BF: I really have never played with a regular trap set. I'm just starting to get to do that in more recent years, on occasion. He's the first real drummer I played with, so I got used to his way of playing. He's a very unique drummer. The instrument he plays is completely unique. He's the only person who plays it. He invented it [the Synthaxe Drumitar, a guitar-like drum machine].) But the way he plays, also, is very different. I think the way the rhythm locks up with The Flecktones is part of what's so unusual about the band. Partly, it's because his time is very flexible. He's playing with his fingers. He can play differently than he would with sticks in his hand. He does that as well [using drum sticks] and when he plays that way, it's a different kind of thing. The way he plays the Drumitar is very sensitive and very attractive. I think that makes the rhythmic makeup of the band very different.