Bela Fleck and the Flecktones members have had the world of music critics and fans in the palm of their hands since the group’s inception in 1990. Known for its eclectic fusion of jazz, bluegrass, R&B, folk and world music, The Flecktones has never been nailed down to one genre and has toured extensively over the past 13 years, gaining a wide following via word of mouth and critical acclaim.
To coincide with its new three-disc CD “Little Worlds,” The Flecktones, comprised of Fleck on banjo, bassist Victor Wooten, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, and percussionist “Future Man,” will head to the D.C. area, performing at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium Oct. 10 and 11.
Bela Fleck took some time out to talk to The Eagle about the band’s new album and music in general.
Eagle: The Flecktones have always been regarded by many as innovators. How has this distinction affected your music?
Fleck: There’s sort of the feeling that we’d better live up to it. If people are going to call us innovators we have to work extra hard musically to live up to that reputation and express ourselves musically.
Eagle: How is the D.C. area different from other venues you’ve toured in your hectic schedule?
Fleck: D.C. has been very good to us. We’ve always drawn larger crowds than we’ve expected. The last time the Flecktones played the D.C. area was at the Wolf Trap several years ago. The last time I was in the area I played at a benefit Little Feet put on last year. I used to play at the Birchmere regularly, years ago, so there are a lot of memories there.
Eagle: What should fans of the Flecktones expect out of “Little Worlds”?
Fleck: Just a lot of new music with guests who we’ve never played with before. A lot of the album is us trying to expand as musicians and try some new techniques.
Eagle: How important is continuity in an album as eclectic as “Little Worlds”?
Fleck: Each CD is in its way continuity of its own, but we have the same core group on all of the tracks. We place each track carefully so that it can better contribute to the overall sound to the album so the record has a shape. If you’re looking for a great amount of consistency, like buying a rock album and hearing basically the same kind of music on each track, then you won’t find exactly what you’re looking for here. Basically, our music is for people like us, who like to listen to different sounds and style and who like to wonder a bit when they’re listening to music.
Eagle: In what kind of environment do The Flecktones play best in?
Fleck: Recently we’ve been playing at home a lot. It’s a good change of pace from the hectic schedule that goes with performing in a studio. Sometimes when recording in the studio you’re not sleeping for a week trying to get an album together. Not that our studio performances aren’t good. Personally I prefer a relaxed pace that comes with playing away from that atmosphere.
Eagle: As a band, The Flecktones has always encouraged its fans to tape live performances and tape-trade these concerts. How do you feel about the RIAA’s attitude toward peer-to-peer sharing?
Fleck: Well, we’ve always viewed our live concerts as a gift to the fans. We are generous in letting people find the Flecktones and tape trading is a major part of that. I haven’t been following the issue too closely but I understand how expensive it is for studios to put an album together. “Little Worlds” took a year and a half to complete and was a tremendous effort by everyone involved. Money’s not really the issue to myself as a performer. I’d definitely still be performing even if I wasn’t being paid, but overall it seems like a new problem that no one knows quite how to handle.
Eagle: Who are some of your early influences?
Fleck: The Beatles was definitely one of my first favorite bands; Chick Corea and Charlie Parker were also major influences. After I began learning how to play the banjo I got into a lot of bluegrass and fusion with guys like John McLaughlin and folk music with Joni Mitchell.
Eagle: What should a newcomer expect to hear when they listen to The Flecktones for the first time?
Fleck: Almost everybody who goes to see us at a live show seems to like us, but if you tell people you’re going to see a band with a banjo player and a drum machine they’re going to think, ‘That sounds terrible!’ But we’re just a jazz and bluegrass band who gets into virtuosity, but hopefully not just for its own sake. Our exposure touring with groups like the Dave Matthews Band has helped us attract new listeners who might not have paid attention to the types of music we play.
Eagle: What do you think the legacy of The Flecktones will be?
Fleck: I don’t really think in those terms. I’m always anxious to go from one project to the next. Deep down, I hope our music has meaning for people besides us. But I’m much more concerned about moving on to new projects and keeping up good spirit with the band, the rest will just take care of itself.