Victor Wooten needs no introduction. I first heard him as a member of the Flecktones and he opened my eyes and ears to what a bass player could do. I think he’s done that for a lot of people. I got the chance to talk with him about his incredible new album, TRYPTONYX, his approach to teaching music, and the importance of the artist’s vision on a record. The Victor Wooten trio is playing two nights at The Sinclair this weekend and it will be grooving; you should be there.
RLR: On TRYPTONYX, you describe music as a “cupid bomb”. You say, “You don’t have to know anything about it to understand it. It’s a language, a lifestyle, and it can save the world.” So what intrigues me about this is the difference between knowing and understanding–can you talk about that?
VW: With music, if your favorite song comes on and makes you want to dance, you don’t have to know what key it’s in; you don’t have to know the chord progression; you don’t have to know the mode; you don’t have to know anything about the rhythm; you just feel it. In a sense, you know it, but you know it your own way. You know what it makes you feel like. But you don’t have to know anything about it. All art is that way. If I paint a picture, you don’t have to know if it’s charcoal or watercolor, you don’t have to know anything about the brushstrokes; you can just love the picture. Now, if I draw a math formula on the board, you may not appreciate it as much. You’d have to know something about math to get it. So music is not that way and that’s a beautiful thing. You don’t even have to speak the same language.
RLR: I think Mark Twain said something like, “Science has revealed to us what causes a rainbow, and we have lost as much as we have gained as a result,” something like that. Do you think there’s a loss in gaining the technical knowledge?
VW: No, no, because you don’t have to lose. You should be able to appreciate more. But in often cases, we do forget. I know a lot of musicians who know so much about music that it seems like they know less than the dancer. When I say, “Hey, let’s play,” musicians who know a lot have to ask a lot of questions: what key? what’s the groove? A dancer just listens and goes, “Oh, it makes my body do this.” It doesn’t have to be that way, but sometimes we choose to lose the organic naturalness of what we knew before we knew anything.
RLR: Reading Tom Brown’s book The Tracker was a big influence on you, and you’ve adapted his teaching methods to music. Can you talk about some of the realizations you’ve had about how we should–and shouldn’t–teach and learn music?
VW: Tom and his books and teachings were a big influence. But even more so was the realization of how we learn how to talk. We let our babies learn to talk first, before we teach them anything. They become solid in who they are first, what their voice is. They learn the words they want to say first.
But in music, it’s opposite. We teach them what they have to learn first; this is the right way. In music, we have to learn someone else’s voice first, then we go out and find our own. It’s the process that we use to teach music that makes it so difficult. We get so focused on the method and the rules and the instrument. Tom and his instructors keep the questions going, rather than just giving you answers; they make you question things.
I end up doing that at my own camps: asking a lot more questions than giving answers. A student who is asking questions is attached to the answer already. When a person asks a question, it lets you know what they need to hear, and kids are always full of questions.
RLR: Why do you think some of the practices that focus on individual playing and individual practicing persist?
VW: I don’t know why, but here’s my thought. As soon as it becomes taught in school, it became institutionalized. Now, teachers have to make sure you pass the test to keep their job and we need a way of knowing how much you know. But any kid who learns music at home with their family, they’re good within a couple of years, playing festivals. In just about every case, whenever I meet a young kid who’s really good, like better than they should be, I ask “Who else in your family plays?” And it’s: my older brother, it’s my dad, or it’s my grandmother. There’s someone in that line that they had exposure to. And the person who influenced them doesn’t have to be that good. The kid just needs to be around it, have the freedom to do it in their way.
RLR: So what about saving the world?
VW: I actually think the world’s going to save itself. Before the earth blows up, we’ll be eliminated. But, we look at all the bad things in life and we focus on them. The fact that we focus on the bad things, in my mind, is proof that most things aren’t bad. I was speaking to a group of students here at Berklee; one student was complaining that he slept wrong and had a crick in his neck. He’s focusing on his neck because his neck usually feels fine. Every other part of his body is fine. We are numb to the goodness of the world. You know: my mail comes every day, I can walk, I can breathe. When something goes wrong, it stands out, and for me when it stands out, I recognize it: this is different, this is not normal, and it reminds me to sit for a minute and thank goodness of how good things really are. We give our energy to cursing what’s wrong or the few who are doing things wrong, rather than putting our energy into blessing, celebrating, thanking and recognizing the millions who are doing it right.
I’ll steal something from my brother Regi. He says, if a policeman says, “Hey everybody, raise their hands in the air.” Or if a politician does it: “Raise your hands in the air.” But if a musician says it, you know who can get everybody to do it, without effort. Easy. The musician has power, maybe more than anyone in the world. Like I wrote in my book, The Music Lesson, in sports, half the people are against you; if you’re a doctor, people don’t want to come to you in the first place; they avoid coming to you. But in music, people come to you to listen to you, and they’ll pay hard-earned money just to come and be on your team and cheer you on.
We played four nights in Seattle and there was a woman selling our merch who worked at the club, and she told one of our crew guys, “You know listening to you guys made me realize music is the one time we all agree.” And I’d never thought of it that way, but she nailed something. When we’re in that theater, listening to that music, we forget a lot of stuff: you don’t care who you’re sitting next to, who they voted for, how much money they have, who they pray to; we’re just united in music for those few hours. And it’s beautiful. I can go to another country, and not speak the language, pull out my guitar, and we’re speaking the same language; and that’s proof from having done it.
I’ve been on shows with politicians that I don’t agree with politically, but personally we got along great. I’ve been on Mike Huckabee’s show, and, man, it didn’t matter what he said or believed when we played music. And that’s what I mean when music can heal the world. So, you know, I think if we just…put together a band [laughs]…we get Trump, Kim Jong-un, and…you know, put a band together…[laughs]
VW: All three of us played together as the band for Mike Stern, jazz guitarist. That’s where we met, even though I had met and played with Dennis many years before. But I met Bob through Mike, and immediately he became one of my top favorite sax players. He just so good and so tasty and so knowledgeable, and just a great person. Unfortunately, over a decade ago, Bob’s wife passed away while he was on tour. And in some kind of way, he met my manager, and they hit it off, and now they’re married. So, now he’s part of the family.
The first couple of shows we did, I had an extra bass player, a friend of mine, Anthony Wellington, because I knew another bass player would free me up to play melodies and things like that. Right after that happened, a new technology came out called FretTraX, which brings MIDI to electric guitar and bass, fretted instruments. And all of a sudden, my bass was opened up to the world of keyboard sounds. And it hit me, as much as I love Anthony, he’s one of my best friends, one of the best players, and even better music teacher, I thought if we can pull this off as a trio, it’s going to be that much more special. And Anthony understood completely. So we started working on it as a trio; we went out and did some shows together, we went to Japan, and in my head, I was thinking, “We gotta get this recorded.”
After doing a few shows, playing together started to solidify the direction of the band, which really was any direction we wanted to go. The one thing I knew was this was not a straight ahead jazz band. Dennis, from his Parliament days; Bob has played with everyone from George Benson to Jennifer Lopez to Paul Simon to Celia Cruz. We were going to play some jazz, but we thought, we gotta get funky, there’s going to be some rock, and let’s just play music. And the record shows that.
RLR: Can you talk about the development of the songs with Dennis and Bob? How did the songs take shape once you started working together? I know from other interviews that a lot of the work had to be separate, except for a couple of days together–but are you composing and sending ideas, or...
VW: All of the above. Everybody’s so busy. I’m super busy, and Dennis is more busy than me, so it was hard to find time to be in the studio at the same time. What Bob and I would do is when I was home, or even on tour, I would write stuff, come up with ideas, and record at my house. So I would start these ideas at my house, and Bob was doing the same thing with other idea and we’d send them to each other.
The way Dennis likes to work, is pretty much, “Send me a finished song.” Dennis has a memory like an elephant or something. He doesn’t read music, but his memory is amazing. Bob and I would get 4-5 songs together and send them to Dennis; Dennis would memorize them and we would get him in the studio, with our parts close to being done–not totally, but close–and Dennis would come in and in one day do like five tunes. Just knock ‘em out in a few hours, because he would come in just knowing it.
But another interesting thing about Dennis is his memory’s too good. There was a song where I wanted this marching snare stuff, and I couldn’t program it, so I got a snare and a mic and I just played it. Dennis learned it. And I was like, “No, Dennis, that’s me; I want you. Don’t play my part, my part sucks!” [laughs] And then I realized I need to make sure I don’t put the real drum part on there, you know, just a shaker or something simple so the he comes doing his thing. You put drums on there, he’ll know it.
There’s a few songs that Bob wrote completely, and we have some co-writes. But I wanted to make sure this is a band record, not a Victor Wooten record.
RLR: I feel like there is a bit of a thread of perspective-taking on this record; it starts very up, very fast, grabbing you and shaking you a bit, and within a few songs, it’s grooving and settling down to cruising altitude. There is this throughline of a trip or a journey. How do you think about these songs in conversation with each other?
VW: It first starts with just writing music. I came up with this energetic groove which ended up being the opening track, “DC10,” which is based off a tapping thing I came up with, this repetitive tapping thing, and when I wrote it, I didn’t even realize it was in the time signature of 10/4, it just felt good. One of the songs we were going to do when we first started touring was “Actual Proof,” by the Headhunters, but we didn’t want to do any cover songs on the record. But Dennis said, “We need a song like “Actual Proof.”” So Bob that came up with, “Caught in the Act,” that energetic song that has some angles to it. But after we had a few songs together, we were listening and saying, we need a song that does this, and as a record comes together, you realize what you need. One of us would start a song like that; one of them was the ballad–”Soul Full of Ballad.” We were like, man we just need a ballad, something simple, no solos, just something beautiful. And Bob came in with that, and I just added bass melody and a bridge.
The other part of it is once you have the songs, the sequencing of the songs is key for the listener to get the experience that we want. We understand that young people of these days most likely never hear that sequence. They never hear the space between the fast song and the ballad that was put there on purpose. They’re going to go online, get a preview, listen to the songs they want, when they want. In my mind, it’s like going to a movie, and saying “I only like this scene,” and “I like this scene before that scene,” and you never really get the director’s perspective. So I’ve been urging people: listen to the whole record in order, not just mine, but every artist’s.
In my mind, I’m thinking like a movie: you start with something you have to pay attention, and then you hit ‘em with some action, but in movies, you gotta pay attention to that opening scene, because you know it’s coming back. If the movie stayed action for 2 hours, you’d be bored. The movie, to keep you interested, whether you realize it or not, has to come down, it has to almost get boring. So that when a song like “Caught in the Act” comes back, you’re like, “Yeah!” Or when that ballad hits, you’re like, “Wow that’s beautiful.” But if the ballad came after a bunch of slow songs, it wouldn’t be as beautiful. So every artist is paying attention to that, or should be. The order of the songs, the order of the set list, the keys of songs back to back, all of that matters to us, and it also matters to us that a lot of that is getting lost to the listener.
The Victor Wooten trio is going to blow some minds this weekend at The Sinclair. You should absolutely be there. It doesn’t matter if you know this record front to back or you’d be hearing these songs for the first time. You’ll have a memorable night. Get there. For other Northeast folks, they’ll be in Albany and South Burlington next week; tour dates are here.