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One thing that stands out to me about your work is the huge diversity – you play jazz, classical, bluegrass rock – with musicians from all those genres – is it ever difficult to make the mental switch, so to speak?
Actually, it’s all music to me. Once in a while there’s some physical differences in playing… I consider those to be more difficult than the mental side, because I feel kind of naturally what I should play in the different situations, but sometimes the muscles are different. For instance for playing a lot of jazz lines you have to be very dexterous and all over the instrument, and when you’re playing bluegrass a lot of times you’re staying in one position and playing a real strong, forceful pattern. And it’s just different muscles.
Which probably cancels out my next question, which is, where do you feel the most at home?
Um, I feel the most at home musically with whatever I’m really working on at the time, but I think really the bluegrass-related music is my home base, and nowadays I think I feel just as at home in the Flecktones. We’ve been playing for so long that we’ve kind of carved out our way of playing together. But really when I get back into an acoustic music bluegrass type of situation, I feel very relaxed and at ease.
How and when did bluegrass – and I guess new grass – come into the mix? When were you first aware of it, as a music?
The first thing that I heard was the “Beverly Hillbillies,” on television, and just the sound of the banjo introduction to that television show just threw me for a loop. I was just so excited about that.
A lot of people feel like that’s a stereotypical show. Do you feel like the music was too?
Well, it’s tough, because the show was a stereotyped show that sort of made fun of rural white Southerners, and yet it was the greatest bluegrass band in the land at that time – arguably, some people would say Bill Monroe was better – I don’t. I feel like Flatt & Scruggs were one of the greatest ever and certainly had the best banjo playing! [laughs] So for me, it was a mixed blessing.
You know, the same thing happened on the “Andy Griffith Show,” where you’d get to see Doug Dillard play the banjo every once in a while, but he’d be dressed up like a hayseed – and like it or not, that’s part of the past of the banjo, the history of the banjo. But you know, if you keep following the banjo back, you get into black people playing the banjo, slaves and so forth, and if you follow the path [past that], you get into Africans playing it in their native land. And so there’s been a lot of periods for the banjo, and they all have their stereotypical images.
How old were you when you first heard that show?
It’s hard for me to pinpoint, but I’m gonna have to say somewhere between five and seven. Mighta been four.
And that’s when you decided you wanted to play the banjo?
Unconsciously, maybe, but really what happened is I became very excited by that sound, and it was just a passing thing for me – I was like, “Wow! What is that?”
I always remembered the sort of explosion of hearing it for the first time, and then as I got to be a teenager, I would notice when there was a banjo player around. I would say, “Hey, Mom, can we go hear – there’s supposed to be a banjo player at that garage sale, or somethin’, can we go?”
But it wasn’t ’til “Deliverance” came out when I was 14 that I got really, really serious. I remembered that sound, and it was blowin’ me away all over again, and talk about stereotypical – that’s a really ugly image of the South. But nonetheless, even though I was growing up in New York City, it hooked me, and I got my first banjo when I was 15.
You were 15 – a teenager. Did the other kids make fun of you?
p>Oh yeah, there was a lot of arm-slappin’ that went on when I walked by, especially since I went to high school in Harlem with a lot of black and Puerto Rican kids. I’d have my banjo on my shoulder and they’d do their little “hee-haw” dance – ’cause that was their reference, and you know, it’s fun to do that, I guess, for them, and I found it very insulting, but you know, what do I expect?
Eventually, you know, it changed, as they got to know me through high school and we all got to be friends. They’d say, “yeah, he plays banjo, but he’s cool – he’s tryin’ to do somethin.’” And I was, trying really hard to have everybody like it.
Do you think you’ve succeeded?
For a lot of people I think I have. You know, I don’t really think about it that way now, but I look back and I realize that there was a lot of motivation in me to prove that the banjo is not just a backwater, country, hillbilly instrument – even though as time goes on I appreciate that side of the banjo even more.
I mean, I love good, traditional bluegrass and old-time music and the music that came before it, and Irish music. All of these really rootsy, beautiful musics that the banjo plays a major role in I am equally excited about as the stuff that I do, which just happens to be what I do, which is a more modern variant. But I also like the idea of breaking a stereotype, which is actually an inaccurate stereotype, because the banjo’s history is so broad, and to just take a snapshot of the southern white banjo player is missing 90 percent of the banjo’s history.
I know you have pushed the banjo into musical realms it’s never been before – when I talked to you last it was with [bassist] Edgar Meyer and we were talking about playing Bach on banjo, and why it worked. Could you explain again why that works?
I just try to play the banjo as if it were a musical instrument.
And sometimes when I say that people laugh, but it is a musical instrument [laughs] – it’s got strings, it’s got frets, and you can play anything on it that you can figure out how to finger and play.
I mean, certain things are hard to play simply because the range of a musical phrase might be too great. Like for instance, certain Chopin music that’s very much about big, wide arpeggios, and the banjo doesn’t have the range for it without rewriting, and you don’t want to rewrite Chopin!
And the other thing is certain, evocative slow melodies are harder to play on the banjo because it doesn’t ring very long – but when you do play them, there is a powerful quality that comes into it, just by leaving the space, so even that is sort of up to the musician to deliver a good way to play that music. So, I don’t know – it’s music, you gotta figure out how to do it, you know, you gotta apply yourself to it and you gotta find your soul in the whole mix. And if you do, I mean, there’s been a lot of great banjo players and there still are, and they all play very differently from each other and they all cover different emotional aspects of it.
Could you name a few, that you admire and that play in those contrasts?
Sure. Yeah, I’d love to. Tony Trischka was my teacher, and I still think he’s one of the greatest ever. Earl Scruggs, who was the father of three-finger banjo playing – a lot of people argue about whether somebody else may have done three fingers before, but it doesn’t really matter because he was such a glorious player that nobody ever played it like that or even close – and he continued to be a god, musically, to people.
Then people like Mike Seeger, who studied all of these old styles of banjo that come way before Earl Scruggs – claw-hammer players like Richie Stearns who played with the Horse Flies and is doing really unique, cool stuff based on an older style of banjo as well, and it goes on and on and on – I mean, there’s so many styles and so many great players.
New grass, which you’ve been associated with for a long time, blends other styles of music with bluegrass and other types of music with bluegrass instruments – what other styles work with bluegrass?
Well, it’s interesting, the word “new grass” is actually a [term] that came to describe the second generation of bluegrass players. In other words, Flat & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and even the Stanley Brothers, though they came a little later, would be considered first generation. But after them came the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, the Country Gentlemen, who were doing new things in the ’50s and ’60s with bluegrass, and that was called new grass.
I didn’t realize the term was that old.
I’ll explain the rest of it. When Sam Bush started the group New Grass Revival with his partners, they were talking about reviving the new grass concept in the ’70s, and what that meant to them was taking the current music of the day and applying it to bluegrass, and bringing back [what] the Country Gentlemen and Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers had done.
So it’s interesting - people later started calling it new grass based on the band New Grass Revival. “Oh, did you hear newgrass? Or listen to – that’s new grass. That’s what New Grass Revival is, that must be new grass.”
But really, it’s not the most accurate phrase, anyway, and plus there’s so many people that play music that you could call new grass, but they don’t call it that. For instance, all of the music that J.D. Crowe did with the New South, and Tony Rice, and David Grisman, even Ricky Skaggs and Boone Creek, Doyle Lawson and his first Quicksilver band, lots and lots and lots of bands doing new music that would not call their music new grass, but it just became a catchall phrase, and it may stick. It may end up being the phrase that people continue to call that music.
The brand of bluegrass that you do...
I don’t like to call it new grass, because it connects to too many things that I don’t actually think is what I’m doing. In fact, I find it – I hate to say demeaning, but [it’s] locking it into a certain idiom, when what I’m trying to do is create my own specialized blend that’s very personal, based on what I think works, and what I like.
Yeah, if people wanna call it new grass, that’s ok, but it might run off a lot of people who actually would like it, if they didn’t hear that term. They’d say, “Oh, I don’t know if I wanna hear that.” When if you say, “Well, would you like to hear, you know, banjo with some classical elements, and a really hot guitar player and a great fiddle player really play some old time music, but also play some new kinda stuff,” they might think, “Oh, that sounds interesting.”
It’s a fine point.
I see what you’re saying, I guess how I’ve always heard the term is as maybe a blanket term that describes music that is experimental, that has its roots in bluegrass.
Right, and for instance, I don’t know if I would call Nickel Creek a new grass band, but you know, by the definition that I am a new grass musician, so are they. And also, being in the band New Grass Revival, I guess that gets kinda put on me sometimes a little bit, too, and the music that I’ve been doing before and after New Grass Revival is progressive in its nature – but really I think it’s more about expression for me.
I don’t really want to be in part of a – I don’t want to be in a club. I want to do my own music that’s about expressing who I am, or expressing things, or the musicians that I’m playing with in a given situation, and doing something that matters to us, and not just being part of a club or being part of a genre. That’s not interesting to me.
[brief conversation about his cat, who is meowing in the background]
The second group you’re going to be working with later this year – could you tell me a little bit about them?
The guys that I’m playing with right now are really extraordinary musicians, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do a trio, basically a bluegrass style of trio, if I hadn’t found these exact guys to play with, because they’re able to carry the music with just the three of us.
Brian Sutton is the guitar player – he came to prominence playing with Ricky Skaggs when Ricky went back to bluegrass, and was sort of one of the stars of Ricky’s band, one of the hottest flatpickers to come along. Sometimes I talk about him as like the Second Coming since Tony Rice. He’s sort of the new hot, amazing guitar player. But he grew up in North Carolina and he really knows the music and knows where it comes from, and yet he’s able to add, take it to a new level, really, with his guitar playing.
And then a fiddle player that I’ve been getting to know over the last six or seven years, named Casey Driessen. And Casey’s from Chicago, and he’s been doing a lot of playing with a lot of people over the last while, particularly with Tim O’Brien. He’s a really gritty, powerful, rhythmic fiddle player – I find him to have almost an old-time sense, even though he went to Berkeley and learned jazz. [He] also has a rhythmic [style] that reminds me of Sam Bush’s mandolin playing, in that he plays – you know, he can play a chop on the fiddle the way Sam does on the mandolin, and with him being such a strong rhythmic player we actually can do it without a mandolin, which makes it a very small, tight group that can move fast and make quick changes.
And we’ve been learning music from my old records, such as “Drive” and “The Bluegrass Sessions,” which, those are records people always come up to me and say, “Hey, why don’t you ever play that stuff?” And so I thought this year, while I was taking a year off from the Flecktones, and we were on hiatus, might be a good time to go back and do some of that music. So this is the group I put together to do that.
Sounds like an amazing group. Have you started touring yet?
Yeah, we’ve been playing – we’ve done six shows already, and we’re getting ready to leave tonight to do our seventh and eighth, and then we’re gonna be at MerleFest and then we’re gonna work our way up to you [in Roanoke, Va.]. So by then, we’ll be up to, I don’t know, nine or 10 shows. It’s been amazing, ’cause from the very first show, it was on. I mean, the rhythm was so hot, and the players were so hot, and it’s just very intimate, but it’s a lot of music for three people, and that’s what I like. I like to be in a small group where everyone is very powerful and very important at all times, and this is turning into that.
Why the hiatus from Flecktones?
The hiatus from the Flecktones is something that we’ve been planning for a couple of years, and it came from [bassist] Victor [Wooten], who has been talking about wanting to have a year where he wasn’t on the road quite so much and could be with his family - now he has four kids. But also, he also has a solo career and wanted to spend time on that, so I think he’s doing half the year doing solo dates and half the year at home.
And I was up for it because we’ve done 15 years straight of 200 days a year, sometimes more, sometimes a little less, and I thought it was a good time to sorta take stock and have other experiences and, you know, take a moment. So we recorded a whole new record before we split for the year, and it’s really good – it’s gonna come out in January right when we start touring again – and then started doing other projects.
What I think is interesting about the Flecktones is the personalities – you all seem to be polar opposites – do you ever have personality conflicts? How does it work?
It’s an amazing group of musicians musically and personally because there’s so little conflict. I don’t know – I can count the times when there was a serious misunderstanding on one hand – or maybe two – but, a serious difference of agreements, very, very rare. And the guys are just really, really cool.
So you know, I think one of things that I learned from the bands I was in before the Flecktones is to give everybody lots of space to do what they need to do, and that people being happy in the group is a lot more important than any particular gig that we can or can’t do.
But if we accept a gig, we gotta show up and we gotta kick butt, we gotta be great, and so I think everybody appreciates that this is a situation that they can grow musically in and continue to put a lot of themselves into, but they’ll also have the freedom to do their own thing when they need to and when they want to.
And I need that too, because even though the Flecktones is technically “my” group, it’s, you know, a compromise, it’s what the group wants to do together, not just what I say, because I’m a leader among equals, I’m not a dictator. And so although I can push it in directions that I think are good for the group, everybody has to like it. And that’s true of every group that I’m in. I mean, this trio with these guys, with Brian and Casey, I’m much more of the leader of, but by the same token, I want everybody to be happy about everything we’re doing. I think that’s gonna be the best for the music, and the guys have tons of input, and they’re bringing their own songs, and we’re writing things together, but they’re also playing a lot of my tunes, so it seems real good, right now, it’s a happy situation for everybody.
When do you do your writing, and how much are you doing – how much time do you have for it?
I write lot of times when I’m on the road. Sometimes it’ll be when I first get up, or sometimes it’ll be after a show I’ll be in the back of the bus… while they’re packing up, and I’ll start doing a little more playing. Sometimes I’ll wake up with an idea in my head, and a lot of times if I create space to leave time with nothing to do, I’ll end up writing.
But it’s harder and harder to do that, because I have so many, so many opportunities coming at me all the time that’s it’s very hard for me to say no to actually doing something, and it’s hard to say I’m not going to take anything this week so I can just sit around and see if anything comes to me – but that’s what it takes. That is what it takes.
So I feel like I need to really dig into writing. But more and more I find myself writing for a situation – like, oh, I’ve got a gig comin’ up with these guys, what can I write for us to play? And then the pressure of knowing that the show is coming, and that the rehearsal is coming, makes me, you know, focuses me and makes me do it by a certain date. So – it’s lots of different ways, lots of different ways.
How do you balance your time? You’re so often on the road, and so often writing – do you have down time?
I’ve been takin’ more down time. This year is turning out to be much busier than I thought it was gonna be, but I have managed to squeeze in some periods where I’m not working, and I’m not playing. I actually intended to have more time this year when I wasn’t playing, when I was relaxed and didn’t have the pressure of getting on the stage and having to be at my best.
But I don’t know – I try to prioritize every day. I get up and say ok, what do I have to do, and what can wait? And then a lot of times I spend way too much of the day working on business, responding to e mails, making sure that photographs are going to the right place in time, or that the bookings are set right, or for instance, making sure that I’m doing everything I can to help the shows go well. For instance if the show’s not selling that well, they want me to do more interviews, that takes time away from me. You know, just like everybody does in their lives, trying to figure out where to put your energy.
What about the month in Africa then?
Originally when the Flecktones were gonna take the year off, I thought all I was going to do was play some bluegrass with Casey and Brian – that was my goal. And then I got a call from Jean Luc Ponte and Stanley Clark, who are heroes of mine. In fact, one of the things that made me want to do more modern music on the banjo was hearing Stanley Clark when I was 17, in a band called Return to Forever, with Chick Corea on piano – it was a seminal fusion band. Jean-Luc was part of that same group of people, although he wasn’t in that band, people that were really changing jazz into a whole new kinda music.
And so when they called me and asked me if I would do some dates with them, I said yes before I even though about it, and now I realize that the year when I was supposed to be off, you know, I’m gonna be doing, I don’t know, a hundred and fifty shows, between the bluegrass (I’m calling it the bluegrass trio and the jazz trio) and dates with Edgar Meyer, and then my month in Africa that I spent. It’s turning into a very busy year, but it’s fun, you know. I’m having a great time.
That was something I had planned to do when I thought I was gonna be having a year off – I was thinking what would I do that I never would normally do in a regular year? ’Cause it took so much time to get ready, and so much focus. I’ve always wanted to go to Africa and pursue playing with the African musicians and look into the African roots of the banjo, and so that’s what I did.
I went over for a month. I went to Uganda, I went to Tanzania, Gambia and Mali and brought over a camera crew and a recording crew and we recorded everything I did, sometimes on the street, sometimes in a field, sometimes in a recording studio, with musicians playing instruments that I’d never heard of, never seen, and found ways to make music with them. It was very exciting. It’s gonna be an album that’s gonna come out probably in about a year and a half, and also there’ll be a video – either a DVD or a movie, or some kind of documentary about it.
I don’t know if there’s an answer to this, but who would you love to perform with – or even just jam with, that you haven’t already, someday?
I’d like to play with Herbie Hancock [laughs]. Wouldn’t mind playing with – oh, man, there’s a lotta great musicians. A lotta jazz musicians. Some of the people I’ve been dying to play with I am gonna get to play with, like for instance Zakir Hussein, who’s an incredible tabla player. I’ve actually got a commission – Edgar [Meyer] and I are trying to write a symphony piece, a triple concerto for Edgar and I and Zakir, so I’m looking forward to that.
And I’ve always wanted to play with Bobby McFerrin, and that just recently happened and it looks like it’s gonna happen again.
I don’t know – some of the people I really wanted to play with I’ve gotten to play with. Pat Metheny is a guy I always thought I would have a great time with, but somehow we’ve never quite gotten together and I hope that happens someday. And then lots of great drummers - Joey Baron, Billy Cobham, it goes on and on. Stanley Clark I would have put high on my list, but now we’re playing together. And so it goes.
This is a question I’m asking everyone – I don’t know how often you get to the Blue Ridge, but what is it, in your opinion, about the mountains and about mountain geography that makes mountain music what it is?
I’m not an expert on mountain music, but I would think it would have something to do with the isolated nature of the terrain, and the fact that it’s not that easy to get together with people, and so you make your own music.
I was talking to Earl Scruggs recently and he said, “You know, back then we didn’t have any radios, so if you wanted to hear some music you had to make it yourself,” and I imagine that it has to do with that, and it being a real expression of who people are.