With Béla Fleck and the Flecktones recently announcing an indefinite hiatus, Victor Wooten, the band’s inventive bassist and five-time Grammy winner, took the time to talk with Jambands.com about his upcoming albums, Sword and Stone and Words and Tones out this fall on his own label, VIX Records, his music and nature camp outside of Nashville, Tenn., his musical family and, of course, the future of the Flecktones. For complete summer tour dates and for more information, visit www.victorwooten.com.
I’d like to start by talking a bit about your musical upbringing. What types of music most inspired you growing up?
I’m the youngest of five brothers who all play music. I have four older brothers and very musical parents – even though they didn’t play any instruments. I grew up in a time of the late 60s and 70s, when music was very, very rich. I don’t know when you were born but the music of the 60s and 70s was rich and it was at a time when radio played all of it. If it was good, the radio played it. On every station. Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, it was all there. Because of my brothers who were a bit older than me and because of my parents, we were introduced to all of this stuff. And we weren’t only just hearing it but we were playing it. By the time I was born, my brothers were playing and they already knew, “If we have a bass player in the band, we’ll have a complete band.” So before I was born, they already had my role picked out for me. So I started right away. When I was five years old, we were already doing gigs and actually touring. We toured with a great soul singer by the name of Curtis Mayfield who had a bunch of big hits. I was definitely born to the right people at the right time to be doing what I’m doing.
You’re going to be releasing two albums in September, and they’re essentially two different takes on one album. How did you arrive at the idea for this and what was the recording process like?
It’s an interesting concept. There are two albums: one album features female vocals. What happened was that I knew that I knew that it was going to be female vocals so I’m recording all these songs in my studio, getting them ready to send to the vocalists so they can hear. In most cases, I’m using the base and other instruments to play the melodies so they can hear what the melodies are. It’s rare that I ever finish a song, because I want the vocalists to help write the lyrics so that they’re singing something they want to sing about. In a lot of cases, I just put a melody on that I want and I send them the song. But as I’m putting melody on, I’m saying “Man, these songs sound great instrumentally.” And then the idea hit me to do a whole record as an instrumental version. And so there are a few songs from the vocal record that won’t be on the instrumental record – maybe two or three – and there’s also three songs on the instrumental record that won’t be on the vocal record. So if you want to hear all the songs, you’ll have to get both records… Hint, hint. But it’s fun, and I’ve never seen the idea done before. I’m not doing it to be original but it is an original idea. It sounds really, really good. The name of the instrumental record is called Sword and Stone, like the Merlin and King Arthur story, but if you take “Sword and Stone” and take the ‘s’ of the front of each word and move it to the end, you’ll get the name of the vocal record, which is Words and Tones. There are actually songs about the different words and things like that. That’s the theme to tie into the record.
So is the instrumental album more bass-centered?
Well when I first started recording I hadn’t planned on an instrumental version. It just so happened that as I was adding melodies, I was adding them on the bass because that is what I’m most proficient on. But different kind of basses. I’ve got some really high basses that sound like guitars, some that sound like mandolins, but as I started completing the instrumental record, I started bringing in other instruments – flutes, saxophones, trumpets, cellos, keyboards, guitar – so there are all sorts of instruments on there now, not just bass.
In most music now, the bass isn’t the central instrument. How does working solo allow you to showcase the bass as a lead instrument rather than a supporting instrument? Do you feel like you have more freedom, in a way, playing solo rather than with the Flecktones or any of your other projects?
The way the bass is designed to be is support and underlying. But depending on the musician, the instrument is broad enough to do anything. It does both. I definitely get the chance to showcase it as a lead instrument, and that’s what a lot of people focus on. But even still, if you’re looking to hear the role of the bass, you’ll definitely get it from my show. From me, but also I bring another bassist when I do my solo thing. So the role of the bass is ever present in my shows.