BY MEREDITH KLEIBER Anyone who views the banjo as strictly a bluegrass instrument clearly hasn’t been introduced to the music of Béla Fleck — or his new banjo concerto (you never expected to see those two words together, did you?). Since cutting his teeth in the music industry in 1979 with the release of his first solo album, the 12-time Grammy winner has re-proven his ingenuity time and again. He continues to surprise audiences with complex compositions and innovative approaches to the banjo, and Rocket Science, his new release with the Flecktones, is no exception. The new album features the incendiary harmonica of founding member Howard Levy, who rejoined the band in 2009 for the first time since his 1992 departure. If their performance at the Keswick on Thursday night unleashes even a fraction of the energy as Rocket Science, be forewarned that your repeated attempts to dance will most certainly be stifled by your fellow audience members. Seasoned Flecktones fans know that the first rule of Flecktones theater performances is do not obstruct the view of other Flecktones-theater-performance attendees, so, unfortunately, you’ll have to wait until set break to bust a move. Don’t worry, you won’t be the only one. Phawker had the pleasure of asking Mr. Fleck a few questions in anticipation of Thursday’s performance. Here’s what he had to say.
PHAWKER: Having been named after three influential composers — Béla Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek — you must have had a very musically oriented upbringing. Did your parents ever pressure you to make a career out of music, or was it something that was in your blood and was just meant to happen?
BÉLA FLECK: Nope, actually my mom and father had split, and he was the one who named me after all the composers. But he wasn’t around, so no pressure whatsoever.
PHAWKER: At what point in your career did you start thinking of the banjo as more than just a bluegrass instrument?
BÉLA FLECK: Pretty early, actually. I just loved the sound of it, and since I played it in NYC — a place where people my age were not into banjo — all my friends were surprised by how versatile it actually was. They encouraged me whenever I did unusual things with it. So even a year into playing, I was aware that it had untapped possibilities.
PHAWKER: Is it easier being a genre-bending musician than confining yourself to one style of music, or do you feel pressured to continue to surprise your fans since they are always expecting the unexpected?
BÉLA FLECK: I want to surprise myself most of all. And I want to keep on changing and evolving, plus keep a high technical standard. It’s hard to be a good musician; the work never ends. But it is a very fortunate place to be, and I know how fortunate I am!
PHAWKER: In most bands, there are musicians who lead and ones who are designated to play backup, but in your band, every member is a virtuoso. Do you compose your songs with that in mind?
BÉLA FLECK: Yes. We always look for opportunities for improvisation, and places where a particular person could excel.
PHAWKER: Why did Howard Levy leave the band in 1992? Were there any hard feelings about his departure?
BÉLA FLECK: It was hard when he left, but really there were no hard feelings. He had been unsatisfied for a while, and it became clear to everyone that he shouldn’t be in this band if it wasn’t thrilling him. Although we were sad and even scared to lose him, there was no blame.
PHAWKER: I saw you guys when Levy first rejoined the band in 2009, before you released Rocket Science (which is, by the way, an amazing album). Did it take a while to adjust to playing with him again, or did things just fall into place like he had never left?
BÉLA FLECK: It took a little while, but not long. I think by the second gig, things were really starting to happen again.
PHAWKER: I read that on this tour, you’re only playing music from your first three albums, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, The Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, and UFO Tofu, as well as Rocket Science, since those are the albums that feature Howard Levy as the fourth band member. Even though he is no longer playing with the Flecktones, do you think that Jeff Coffin’s influence has left an impression on the band insofar that on this tour, your approach to the songs from the first three albums is different than when you played them back in the day? Or would you chalk that up more to the maturation of the band members and your approaches to music?
BÉLA FLECK: Jeff has certainly had had a profound and positive effect on us, and I hope we have had the same on him. That being said, I don’t think that we consciously think about him when we play with Howard. And his time in the band was fantastic. And having Howard back is also fantastic in a totally different way. I love that we get to have both experiences. Hey, playing as a trio before Jeff came along was a pretty awesome experience as well.
PHAWKER: What’s the biggest difference between playing with a horn and playing with a harmonica? Do you see yourselves playing with Jeff Coffin again in the future?
BÉLA FLECK: We have no plans after the April tour with Howard. It’ll probably be a good while before we have to think about that.
PHAWKER: I have to tell you that I secretly take credit for the re-emergence of “Bigfoot” on your 2006 tour. (It’s my all-time favorite Flecktones tune, so I emailed Future Man and begged him to ask you guys to play it, since you hadn’t played it in over a decade. He responded positively, and then you played it throughout the tour that year.) Are you guys always so receptive to fan requests?
BÉLA FLECK: If we hear about them, and we agree with them, yes!