Interview: Victor Wooten, Bassist
Victor Wooten (twitter: @victorwooten) is one of the world’s most talented bass players. He is well known as a member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones as well as a solo artist. He discussed the biggest obstacles he’s had in his career, how he met Bela and how his family got him into music.
McClain Johnson: How old were you when you first started playing bass?
Victor Wooten: I was probably somewhere around two or three years old. I learned from my oldest brother, Regi.
McClain Johnson: Do you remember the first song you learned how to play?
Victor Wooten: No, I don’t. My brothers were smart. They had me playing with them before I was actually playing bass. They just had me strumming on a toy. So, I was playing songs with them, but I wasn’t really playing an instrument. When I became around three years old, Regi actually started teaching me where to place my fingers on one of his extra guitars, which became one of my basses for the first couple of years. No, I don’t quite remember what the first song was.
McClain Johnson: Were your parents musical?
Victor Wooten: Yes. My parents were very musical, but they didn’t play instruments. They loved to sing. They sang in church a lot. They were always playing records around the house. As kids, they wold take us to concerts. Through them, I learned that you don’t have to play an instrument to be musical. They know music very well, but no, they don’t play instruments.
McClain Johnson: It’s amazing the way that, no matter what you’re doing, your soul always comes through in your music.. How do you feel that your sound and style has evolved over the years?
Victor Wooten: Well, for one, I’ve made a conscious effort to make my records sound less technical. A lot of the bass players were just hearing the technique. They were learning technique, but not learning the soul and the feel. I made it a point to focus more on getting that point across. I think my style has become more musical. Hopefully, my songwriting and composition has gotten better.
McClain Johnson: Do you follow a certain process when composing songs?
Victor Wooten: No, I don’t have any one process. It’s not good to only have one process, because on a day that process isn’t working you need something else. You need to be able to fall back on something else. I understand that inspiration can hit at any time. Whenever I get an idea, at that moment, I’ll sing it into a voice recorder or jot it down somewhere, so I can come back to it later. When it’s time to write a song, I have a lot of ideas recorded. Just snippets of little things I can come back to. That helps out a lot.
McClain Johnson: Lyrically, what inspires you?
Victor Wooten: Lyrically, it’s just life. It’s what inspires you to talk. Everything that happens in your life. If I was going to tell you a story or if I was going to write a story, I would first have to think about what the story was going to be about. I look at songwriting in the same way. What is this song about? What do I want to say? At that point, you’re at a head start than if you’re just starting from scratch. If I have the music first, I’ll listen to the music. I’ll see what it sounds like and should be about. Sometimes I’ll just get a subject matter and go, “Man, that would make a good song.”
McClain Johnson: How did you first meet Bela Fleck? How did that come together?
Victor Wooten: I was working at a amusement park in Virgina, called Busch Gardens. I was playing in the country show, bluegrass music show. I started there in ’81. A friend of mine, who was a banjo player in the band there, he’s the one that told me about Bela Fleck. On our breaks, I would fiddle around on his banjo. I was doing all crazy bass stuff on banjo. My friend kept saying, “Man, that sounds like Bela Fleck.” I was thinking, “I’ve never heard any banjo sound this weird. Who is this guy, Bela?” He brought in a recording of a band called the New Grass Revival, which was the band Bela was in with three other guys. It blew me away. Immediately, I knew that I’ve got to meet these musicians. A few years later, I visited another friend I met through Busch Gardens. I visited him in Nashville and he introduced me to Bela. That was in 1987. That’s where it all started.
McClain Johnson: You guys just hit it off right away?
Victor Wooten: We did. My mutual friend had been telling Bela about my brothers and me. Of course, by that time, I knew very well who Bela was. It was just a matter of time before we met. When we did meet, I went to Bela’s house. We had a jam session, just the two of us, in his kitchen. We just jammed for a couple of hours or so. That led to him asking me to be a part of a television show he was doing. That television show wound up being the birth of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
McClain Johnson: Are you enjoying touring again with the original lineup?
Victor Wooten: Yeah. It’s a lot of fun having Howard back. It’s kind of like a family reunion. We’re so familiar with each other, but everybody’s grown. It’s a lot of fun.
McClain Johnson: What have been some of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome in your career?
Victor Wooten: One of the biggest challenges is going through the times when you’re not making any money. Music keeps asking you the question, “How much do you love me? Do you love money more than me or do you love me more than money?” It seems like music keeps coming back, tapping you on the shoulder, and asking you that same question over and over. That might be some of the hardest times. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I was born into a band. I’ve never had to look for people to play with. Things have gone pretty smoothly after that, but it hasn’t always produced a whole lot of money. Now I can support my family, and I’m very happy.
McClain Johnson: That’s got to be something else to get to the point where you’re able to totally support yourself on your skills.
Victor Wooten: Supporting yourself on your skills is one thing. Supporting yourself financially is a different thing. If you have the skills where everyone wants to play with you, you’ve got to find a way to make that monetary. At least where you’re OK, where you don’t have to have a second or third job. If you just want to make your living playing music, you’ve got to get to that point where you can do it. A lot of times, your lifestyle has to fit that.
McClain Johnson: You have to live your life in service of the music?
Victor Wooten: Right. Exactly. A lot of musicians, in order to become successful at music, all they do is practice their instrument. They think that, “Once I get good enough on my instrument, I’ll make it.” It’s the music business. You have to have a business mind to really make it. That was another thing that my brothers and I had to learn the hard way, since we were kids. Facing so many disappointments and broken promises. What people in the music business said they were going to do for us. It just never happened. It happened over and over. Ever since we were kids, we were popular as a five-piece band. You can imagine, seeing a five-year-old bass player, a thirteen-year-old guitar player and all the other brothers are in-between. Playing all the instruments, singing, doing a show and doing it well. We got to open tours for Curtis Mayfield when I was about six. There were a lot of times when people were like, “We’re going to sign you.” It just never happened. As kids, we learned about that disappointment. Our parents helped guide us through it. They allowed us to get through it and really be honest about why we’re doing this music.
McClain Johnson: Did you find things easier when you went over to indie labels? Once you were able to break away and do more of your own thing?
Victor Wooten: By the time I had gotten into the whole independent record label thing, I had been doing it for a long time already. I was an adult already. I had learned a lot and was a lot more solid in where I was as a person and musician. I wasn’t living at home with my parents anymore, I was kind of out on my own. I was a little bit smarter, but still I had things to learn. Going through a lot when you’re young, you learn from experience. You get toughened. You are also looking at things a little bit more honestly. When you’re young and someone offers you money to make a record, you’re excited. When you’re older, that little bit of money doesn’t mean the same thing. You realize a whole lot more what life is really about. If somebody offers you $10,000 to do something, as a kid, that’s a lot of money. As an adult, you’re going to say, “$10,000 will be gone in a week.” You’re just hopefully a little bit smarter. I’m fortunate for what my brothers and I, my family and parents had to go through. We went through a lot. It helped me become the person, the businessman, and the musician I am today.