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Interviews

Bela Fleck (BEY-Lah Fleck): See Curious, Creative Mind

By Published: January 17, 2012
AAJ: The development of the band, a long time ago, was that something you had in mind? That kind of direction? How did it happen?

BF: Yeah. Through the '80s I was playing with a band called New Grass Revival and I was a big fan of David Grisman and people like Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
and Chick Corea
Chick Corea
Chick Corea
b.1941
piano
. I was thinking that someday, my dream would be to play some kind of music like that on the banjo with a great band. I made a few attempts at it. I made solo records on Rounder through the '80s, where I was playing with bluegrass guys, the best that I knew, and trying to get them to play my music. But it was kind of hard on them. Really complicated for them. And it wasn't ending up to be the right guys to do that with.

I made a couple attempts at putting together a band. At a certain point I gave up because I couldn't find the right people. That's when Victor Wooten just turned up. At the point when I had given up hope of creating a band like that and resigned myself to a life in bluegrass. Victor called me up out of the blue. He had seen me play on TV with New Grass Revival. He was interested in what I was doing on the banjo and how it might relate to his bass playing.

He came over and we sat around and played. It was great. Wow. The guy's amazing. Then I ran into Howard Levy at a folk festival up in Winnipeg, Canada. We had met before and even played a little bit. But we really connected there. That's when I thought, "Wow. This guy and I should do something together some day."

Then I got a call to put together a television show for a public TV station in Louisville. KET. Kentucky Educational Television. They had a show called the . They asked me if I was interested in putting together my own one-hour television show of avant-garde banjo playing, or whatever we called it. I said great. I put together this group for the last part of the show. I also did a piece with a banjo and string quartet with Edgar Meyer. I did some solo pieces and I did some stuff with a computer, a sequencer, where I sampled the banjo and played along with it.

Then I had this band for five tunes. When this band walked out on stage and started playing, it pretty much blew the roof off the place. I wasn't expecting that. I thought we'd play good and they'd like it. All of a sudden: Whoa. People were in shock. And we were in shock at the reaction. It was like, "Wow, we've got to figure out how to do this again." That led to me investing money into making a record with these guys, and it got picked up by Warner Bros. I left New Grass Revival and starting doing [The Flecktones] full time in 1990.

Then it went far better than I ever could have dreamed. Honestly. I thought it was going to be a tough go. I also didn't figure on being able to keep the guys. I figured great band last for a little while. If I'm going to do this, and quit New Grass Revival, which was one of the top bands on the scene, I was going to have to commit to being a bandleader. And as these people came and went, I would replace them and keep finding great people to play with. That's what I was shooting for. Howard proved the point and left after three years, which was a long time for him to be with us, with as many pots as he had fingers. But I'm thrilled I've been able to keep Victor and Futureman, and that we've had a team. We're very happy playing together. And we're happy doing things away from each other. When we come back together it's always a very happy, family feeling.

Bringing Howard back completed the story in some way. It brought back the original impetus for the whole thing. This is what this band was supposed to be, we these four people. It's great to have it back.

AAJ: It became your dream band.

BF: It became more than my dream band. It exceeded what I could possibly have dreamed. Because the band became incredibly successful. Sold 1.5 million records. Toured all over the place and played all kinds of shows with all kinds of people. It's still going very strong. It's an unusual success story. Taking all the weirdos, putting them in one band, and winning.

AAJ: Would you say The Flecktones has staked out its musical ground over the last couple decades or so?

BF: Yeah, I think so. We found our niche. I think our niche is whatever we want it to be. All it has to be is us doing it, and all we have to do is play music that we can get behind. And the audience seems to go with us. We don't have to lay our hits. Because we don't have one. If we did, it would be "Sinister Minister" or "Sunset Road," or something like that. We don't have to play those every night. We play them when we want to, and because we want to. Because we like them. People come to see us and they're going to see what we're doing now.

That's a bit of a ballsy move. It's a necessary move for us to stay together. Some people may go, "I wanted to see those guys and hear them play their best-known music." But if we did that, after coming through different towns five or six times, there'd be no reason for people to come back and see us anymore. If we come back, we might lose a few who'll say, "They never played 'Sinister Minister.'" But I think in the long term we'll have a larger audience, an intrigued audience willing to come back again and again. They know every time they come back there's going to be different material and different ideas that we'll be dealing with. And it will keep u from getting stale.


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