What are your most powerful memories about when you first heard the music?
My most powerful memory was hearing Earl Scruggs on the Beverly Hillbillies as a 5 or 6 year old. That sound just blew me away, shook my head up.
Then, when I was 15, "Dueling Banjos" came out. It was a big song; a number one hit on the radio and you couldn't get away from it. My grandfather bought us a banjo. I was on the train back to the city-- I grew up in New York City-- a banjo player was on the train and saw me with the banjo and asked if I could play it. I said no. He said, "Well I can," and tuned it up for me and played some Scruggs-style stuff. I asked him, "What do I do? How do I learn this?" He pointed me to Pete Seeger's book How to Play the Five String Banjo.
I was taking guitar lessons before I got my first banjo, and I was doing better with finger picking than flat-picking. One day I asked my guitar teacher if he could teach me some banjo. He said no, but that I should see a guy downtown named Eric Darwin. Eric taught me a lot of folk-sounding banjo things then eventually passed me on to Mark Horowitz, who was much more of a bluegrass player. Mark was an encyclopedia of every banjo lick anybody had ever done. He could play all of that chromatic style which was big at the time. After a couple years with Mark, I would make a cassette of him playing, take it home and then learn it over the week. I asked for a lot of Tony Trishka stuff and he had to learn more of that. I would get there and he'd just barely have it. So I started studying with Tony Trishka. Here I am taking lessons from maybe the best modern banjo player that's ever been. He just turned it upside down. I was very fortunate and I was voracious, just soaking it up.
It was not before too long that I had to find my own stuff. I wanted to learn what else was out there, like scales and modes and sax solos and piano solos and classical pieces. As time went on I began to get more into Earl Scruggs and eventually moved down to Kentucky and Tennessee. I really wanted to get it.
Who was the first influence on you when you moved down there?
When I moved to Lexington, KY I worked with a lot of musicians that revolved around JD Crow, who became a big influence. There was a Holiday Inn there in Lexington. JD and bluegrass bands from all around the country would play there. So I moved into the Holiday Inn and played with a band called Spectrum. All sorts of people would play there-- Ralph Stanley, the Cardinals. I was really in the middle of it all.
What was the idea behind the bluegrass revival in taking bluegrass a step up?
Newgrass Revival, when it started, it was local. Everyone in it was living in the Kentucky area. It was Sam [Bush] and Courtney Johnson, and a bass player named Ebo Walker, and a guitar player named Curtis Birch. They had a personal rough-hewn modern quality to them. Three of those guys left, so Sam brought me and Pat Flynn in. It was like a new lease on life.
Even when I was in Lexington I would get together with a lounge jazz group and play. When I finally got to make records every couple of years for Rounder, I would try to do the craziest stuff I could think of. After I was in Newgrass, I started recording with drums - making records with Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor and Newgrass guys. I even put together a band called Banjo Jazz on the side when I was home from Newgrass, which had vibes, banjo, electric bass and percussion and drums. That was a sort of precursor to the Flecktones. But it wasn't quite there yet.
And then the telephone rang and it was Victor Wooten. He played the bass over the phone to me and at that point I was so deep into Newgrass that I was not thinking about making a new band. That all changed. I was organically thrown in with Victor. He told me about his brother who played this crazy electronic drum kit with his fingers. I got Howard Levy to join us at that time. Howard was an incredible harmonica player - just turned the instrument upside down. So now you have four guys playing their instruments together in their own way and there was an appeal. It was so bizarre that it was actually commercial, in a non-commercial way.
If you were to describe the Flecktones music in a few words, how would you?
I think the Flecktones are a mixture of acoustic and electronic music with a lot of roots in folk and bluegrass as well as funk and jazz.
This music came up from different ethnic groups that borrowed from each other just as there was a step in the late 60's where the blues bands became integrated.
Yes, that's what I really liked about being able to be one of the first to integrate the banjo, an African instrument. We try to bring the banjo back to jazz. It is a fun idea, but we need some black banjo players. That is how I feel about it. In the early 1900's the banjo was used in Louis Armstrong's music where it was strictly strumming. Later it was replaced by guitar, which would then be amplified to compete with a drum kit, a trumpet etc. You can see how the chords were used in early jazz music. It is interesting that it went away completely. But I think there's a place for it in jazz. The problem is that most black people won't pick the banjo because they think it's the music of whites, but it isn't. It is their instrument.
I think it is very ironic that most people think that the banjo is a southern white instrument. It came from Africa and even for the first years that white people played banjo they would put on blackface. The heyday of the banjo was in the1800's when suddenly it was the most exciting instrument in the world and everybody wanted to play it-- kind of like the guitar was in America in the1960's. But it's funny that bluegrass comes from when the banjo was way over the hill. There were a lot of banjos around from when it was popular. I asked Earl the other day, "Were you very aware of all that music coming out in the1800's when the banjo was so popular?" And he said, "No we just heard what was on the radio, and there were a lot of banjos in people's closets."
What did Earl Scruggs bring to the banjo? Could you tell us about that?
A lot of people credit Earl with being the first 3-finger banjo player, which isn't true. But he's certainly the best. He came up with a whole vocabulary of idiomatic banjo stuff that created the book for all players who would follow in the 3-fingered style.
Is there a mission behind the Flecktones?
If there is a mission its not calculated. When I got together with Victor and Future Man it was like, "Got anything else? Got anything more complicated?" They were just soaking this stuff up, so I was being pushed to write more complex stuff for the first time.
Who were some of the musicians that influenced you?
The musicians that influenced me were Earl Scruggs, Chick Corea, and Charlie Parker, as well as the guys I worked with: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas,Victor Wooten, Edgar Meyer. I always try to work with people who are better than me, so I can learn more.
I think also you're symbolic of what has happened in the music. It is finally an integrated band and the music represents that integration.
I see integration in a lot in all different types of music. It's self-aggrandizing to say, "Hey black and white together!" Growing up in NYC, Pete Seeger and the folk movement made sense to me. When I was going to high school, it was very integrated and we all got along really well. So for me it wasn't much of a stretch; but maybe it was for the bluegrass world because these were some of the first black guys that played at the festivals.
Could you talk about Pete Seeger's role?
He carries joy about playing music, about the banjo, and life. Some people in the South didn't see this, but I always felt that he was about freedom, equal rights, all the things that we hold dear...and playing some damn good banjo along the way. He did some really creative things with the banjo-- things done throughout the1800's, Caribbean, classical, the music of the day.
The audience for bluegrass is mostly traditional and the festival at Telluride seemed to grow out of your music.
It grew out of Newgrass way before I was in it. My influence is in it now. But before, I was just a guest and it was wild. Telluride was so important because it was like the first festival that really opened its arms to so many kinds of different forms of bluegrass and folk. It was called the Telluride Bluegrass and Country Music Festival.
There are always phases with festivals. Lately there has been a ricochet back to almost extreme traditionalism. I remember when I was playing in New England there were some very progressive festivals with both very traditional bluegrass and modern bands. I think that was always going on too. You can't characterize it as one thing. Bluegrass is very rich.
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