A conversation with the legendary Victor Wooten

Victor Wooten @ the Mountain Winery - Aug. 19th, 2017 (Photo: Kevin Keating)
The Victor Wooten Trio, consisting of legendary musicians, Victor Wooten on bass, drummer Dennis Chambers, and saxophonist Bob Franceschini, will play at the Regency Ballroom on Friday, January 12th in support of their recently released album, TRYPNOTIX (iTunes). As of this writing, tickets can still be found here. They'll also be at the Rio Theater in Santa Cruz the night before, tickets for that show can be found here. We were extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Victor this past week and asked about the new album, his early influences, the Flecktones and more. We've interviewed our fair share of musicians in the past, but I can honestly say that Victor was the most gracious and humble artist that we've had the fortune of speaking with. For those of you unfamiliar with Victor's music, he's a 5-time GRAMMY winner, has won best bassist by Bass Player Magazine 3 times (the only bassist to win more than once!) and in 2011, was voted by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 10 bassists of all time! Artists who are that good tend to have an ego, but Victor is just an incredibly down to earth and amazing human. You can find a recent show from the Trio just below and our full interview further below!

SFBayAreaConcerts: First Victor, let me say what a complete treat it is for us to speak with you today. Let's start right in by talking about your new album with the Victor Wooten Trio, TRYPNOTYX, which was released this past September. This is your first 'solo' album in 5 years, and I know you’ve been keeping busy since your last solo record, but what made this the right time for TRYPNOTYX?

Victor Wooten: What makes it the right time is just that it feels right. Because I put records out on my own now, I'm not with an outside label. I do things on my own time, and I'm not a person who puts out a record every year. I just put 'em out when it feels right. And the best thing I can say is that it felt like it was time. I had new music, I had this new project that I was working on with the trio, and after the trio did a few dates, I felt like 'yeah, we need to record this. This is a band. We could put out a record.' And it just felt like the right time.

SFBAC: And were you working on these songs since your last album? Or were they all relatively new?

Victor Wooten: Well, only one of the songs was an old one. It's a song called "Liz & Opie". I had recorded a version of it many, many years ago for a compilation CD for a guitar company called Taylor Guitars. I just wrote a song for that CD and then I re-did it for this band, but everything else was brand new and written for this band. So it was all new music.

SFBAC: In the past you've spoken about the importance of the other band members to listen to each other’s music and that the music will inform what they should play. I’m wondering if you could talk about the writing and recording process for TRYPNOTYX and either compare or contrast it against your typical Flecktones record?

Victor Wooten: Well, it's a lot like sitting down and having a conversation with people. What I say is based on what you say, and vice versa. And you're not going to say 'hey man, say this to me because I'm really good at saying this.' We just sit down and talk and see where the conversation goes. And that's what happened with this band, we just played. We did talk about a few songs, but we leave it open for interpretation and a lot of jamming also. And so the musical ideas came out of that. And then Bob, Bob and I did most of the writing. But because Dennis is such a great drummer, there's no way I'm gonna tell him what to play. So then we bring the songs to him, and he adds his flavor to it, and that completes the trio. A lot of it's done separately because everybody lives in different towns, everybody has their own careers. So we can't just get into the studio and write music. It has to be done remotely. But now with technology, writing together remotely is easy. So I can record some ideas and send it to Bob. He adds some horns or some melodies and we send it to Dennis and say 'hey, what's this sound like to you?' That's easy to do these days. So it was really done like that.
The Victor Wooten Trio (Bob Franceschini, Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers) - (Photo: Vix Records)
SFBAC: Regarding the Flecktones, is the band back on an official hiatus, or are there any plans to work on a new album? Can we assume you guys might have been working on new material during your tour this past fall when we last caught you at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga? [You can find our review of that show here.]

Victor Wooten: No, I mean we've just done a few weeks a year over the last few years. And there's no talk yet about getting into the studio and writing and recording, because that for us, is a long process of getting the music together, and things like that. We don't usually record remotely, we do it in the studio together. And so that would be a year long process of writing, arranging, and finally recording and mixing and all of that. And we haven't talked about it yet, so we've just been going back and doing older material.

SFBAC: As I alluded to earlier, you keep yourself busy with various extracurricular activities including teaching, writing, acrobatics, magic, you’re a naturalist, your extensive work at the Wooten Woods Music Center, and running a record label… With a sequel to your book, The Music Lesson, in the works and touring life to support your new album, what aren’t you doing that you’d also like to fit in?

Victor Wooten: [Chuckles] Being a dad and a husband. Yeah, that's the main thing. Trying to find a lot more time for that. But, the truth of the matter is everybody's busy. Everybody's doing jobs, working, making ends meet. I'm just lucky enough to get to do what I love, and most of what I'm doing is really exercising my creative muscle. And so I feel very fortunate and very lucky in that sense. But everybody's busy, everybody is working a job. My job keeps me moving... different cities every day... keeps me looking for more time at home. But I believe everything in life comes with a cost and a payoff. So yeah, I'm doing all of those things, I don't do the acrobatics or the magic as much anymore. I turned a lot of that over to my kids now, who are doing that kind of thing. Playing the sports and doing the acrobatics and doing that kind of stuff. But I am writing a couple of other books, playing a lot, teaching a whole lot, and just really enjoying life. We're about to start our nineteenth year of running music camps. And it's just amazing. It's amazing that life allows us to do what we want. But like I said, there's payoffs, and then there's sacrifices that we have to make. But if we do those, life is open. It's and open book, we can do what we want, and I'm just doing it.

SFBAC: Were either of your parents musical, or was your bass playing encouraged by your brothers?

Victor Wooten: My parents were very musical, but they didn't play any instruments. But they loved to listen, and they didn't know anything like theory... they knew music in the most organic and natural way. They knew what sounded good, what moved you, and they would take us to see those concerts. But my real musical ability came from my brothers. My three older brothers all started playing at the same time. They're very close in age, just a few months apart, and my oldest brother Regi taught Joseph how to play keyboards when he was born. And then when I was born they taught me to play bass. And that filled out the band. And so, from age two or so on, I played in a band with my brothers. And so I've never not done this. So I mean I should be good at it. I've been doing it over fifty years, so that's not a surprise. But I'm thankful for what life has allowed me to do with the gifts. And that's the thing that our parents prepared us for. It's who we are as people. Because they knew that if they could raise us to be good people, good honest... making good decisions, caring about other people, knowing who we are... if they could create those kind of kids, they didn't really care what we did. They didn't care so much about what we did, because they knew we would make good choices, and do good things with whatever we chose to do with who we were. But who we were as people was the focus. And I'm so happy that I had that growing up and still have it.

SFBAC: You credit your early ability to play a variety of musical genres due to the fact that you moved around quite a bit growing up due to the fact that your parents were in the Military. Do you think all the moving around also influenced the number of activities you’re involved with today and your willingness to perform with so many musicians?

Victor Wooten: Well, I'm sure a lot of that plays into it, but being a kid, moving is just what you do. You're not thinking about it, a kid doesn't say 'I'm moving again, this is going to ruin me.' That's an adult mentality, kids just adapt, and do what they know unconsciously. My parents were very talented, and when you're poor, you have to be talented; You have to improvise, you have to be creative. If you don't have money to buy things, you have to learn to sew, you have to learn to build. You can't afford the doctor, you have to go outside and find flints. So I learned that from my family growing up, but I learned it unconsciously. And then my brothers were so into everything, that's where I learned magic, that's where I learned acrobatics, and of course that's where I learned music, but I also learned sports from them. And every little child looks up to their older siblings whether they admit it or not; we look up to our older siblings and I had four incredible ones that were into everything. And so, because they were into everything, and I was so into them, I became interested in everything also. And a lot of these cases, I kept up with them, like doing magic and acrobatics and things like that. Along with the music, everybody kept up with the music. But I became interested in everything that they did, and then in a lot of cases these days, I get the credit for it, for writing and all this stuff, but I picked it all up from those guys.

SFBAC: Back to your book, The Music Lesson, I understand it became part of the music curriculum at Stanford University (among other schools and universities.) We’re just down the road from Stanford so I’m curious if there’s a story behind how your book became part of the music curriculum there?

Victor Wooten: I have a really, really good friend who was a professor there, and when I was writing the book, I would write a chapter and I would send it to him at Stanford. This is a gentleman, a friend of mine named Rod Taylor, and I would send him a chapter, and he would read it, and mark it up with the red pen, and print it out and send it back to me. And then I could see, it was like I was in school almost, you know? But he would point out things to me that, me not being a writer, I didn't see, and he actually pointed out that I have a style of writing. And he would say 'you know, in this chapter, or this paragraph, you left that style, you left it.' Did you mean to? And I would go, 'wow, cool'. So he was so much a part of the book and he loved it, he's a musician also. He always used music in his writing and his teaching. So to have a music book that he could talk about, really worked. So he would have his students read it, and then other people, and other faculty read it. And it maybe spread out a little bit that way. But I know he was integral in making sure that it was used at Stanford.

SFBAC: And are you working with him at all for the sequel?

Victor Wooten: Yes, Rod has since moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Which is where I live, so I get to see Rod a lot now and we work together often. And that's great. And also, with Rod, while he was there, I think maybe three years in a row, we put together a music program kinda based off of our camp. We used music to teach the incoming freshman, I won't even say teach, to show the incoming class at Stanford... every year they spend the week before school starts [on campus]. And for two or three years, I can't remember, their week ended with a big program that Rod, myself, and some other musicians, one being Steve Bailey who's now the chair at Berklee College of Music in Boston, we would put together a musical program because music is a great way to show life. Different qualities and aspects of life. And we would use music to talk about these freshman's next four years of college. And how they can help each other, some of the pitfalls they might have, things like that. And music is a great way to do it. So fortunately, Stanford allowed us to do that for those freshman.

SFBAC: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe two of your early influences were Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller who you’ve recorded with under SMV. Looking at the modern crop of bassists, are there any out there that can carry your torch? Who are you impressed with and why?

Victor Wooten: Sure, sure. Being a product of the sixties, I was lucky enough to have the experience of radio in the sixties. Radio's different now. It's still good, but it's different. When I was young, pop music did not mean what it means today. Pop music was just a short term for popular. And if you had a pop radio station, it played whatever was popular. And so that could come from any genre of music. As long as it was popular. And that was very, very cool. So even though I gravitated towards soul music, R&B, and Motown, because that's what we were asked to play a lot, we were aware of rock, jazz, classical... we were aware of gospel. All different types of music, because radio played it. And our parents would take us to concerts and things like that. So there are so many musical influences where I didn't even know the bass players' names in many cases. Like the band War, it took me awhile to realize who the bass player was. I was much older. Or when I would hear bands like Yes, or the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin. I didn't know who the bass players were. Or hearing Marvin Gaye, the Temptations or the Jackson 5. But as I got older, I realized wow, James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Duck Dunn, Carol Kaye, Bob Babbitt, these people have influenced me. I didn't know their names. But now I know a lot of the names. And so it's those older bands, like Larry Graham with Sly and the Family Stone, Verdine White with Earth, Wind and Fire. Those are the guys I grew up on. And nowadays, of course, or even when I got a little older, and I mean early double digits, nine, ten, eleven years old. That was when the fusion scene hit, so you had bands like when Stanley Clarke was with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, and then you had Weather Report was like Miroslav Vitou┼í, and then Alphonso Johnson, and then finally Jaco Pastorius, and then Victor Bailey. And then you had bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, and all those different bass players that played with them. So I was heavily into those bands, as well as the straight ahead guys with Ron Carter, Jimmy Garrison and those people. And so all of those were influencing me at a very early age, a very early age. And that's just continued. Now there's a lot of people that I grew up with that are out there doing amazing things. A great bass player named Oteil Burbridge who's one of the best bass players in the world, ever, in my opinion. If I had to pick my top five all time favorites, Oteil would be one of them. But he's been playing with the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead. Tedeschi Trucks with Derrick Trucks. He's been playing in that scene, and I love it. My friend James Genus who I grew up with, he tours with Herbie Hancock, and also plays on Saturdays with the Saturday Night Live band, but he's also toured with everyone! And it's nice to see my friends out there doing it. And I know this is a long answer, but there are a lot, a lot of great new young bass players from all over. Michael Pipoquinha from Brazil. Mohini Dey from India. Michael League from Snarky Puppy. You know, now with the Internet, you're finding amazing top notch musicians from all around the world. And I try to keep in touch with all of them.

SFBAC: Back to the 60's, were you settled at that point? Where regionally were you at that point?

Victor Wooten: You see I was born in sixty four, so that's when we were moving a lot. So I was born in Idaho, I don't know anything about it, I don't remember it, but I was born there and I would guess for a year or so, my dad was stationed there. Eventually, we moved to Hawaii. The part I remember was Waipahu on Oahu, but apparently Regi says we lived somewhere else for a while there too. That's where I actually started playing music around one and a half or two years old. I remember just a little bit of that. After Hawaii we moved to California. I definitely remember that. That's where I started school and stayed there till the end of second grade. And then we moved to Newport News, Virginia which is where I say I'm from. Because from third grade, up until about six years after high school, that's where I was, and that's where my musical friends were and things like that. So a product of the sixties, I was young there.

SFBAC: Was it East Coast pop radio or radio from California that got you exposed to the greats?

Victor Wooten: Well, I'll start with California first, because living in Sacramento, now I'm five years old or so, and that's when we start playing gigs. That's when we really started hitting it. We were the opening band for Curtis Mayfield when we were really young. Regi said it was the Superfly Tour, going up and down the west coast. We opened for War. We became kind of a known little kid band, but we were really good. So when big concerts would come, they'd call us to open for them at the Coliseum's, and that's how we got a tour with Curtis Mayfield out of that. And so, I did that, before I even started school. And then up until the end of second grade, and then we moved to Virginia and started doing the same thing. Opening for more bands, traveling, doing clubs, and things like that. So it was radio in both of those areas. I was playing enough music and aware enough because of my family, and was in tune with what was happening on the radio, in Sacramento on the west coast as well as Newport Beach, Virginia on the east coast.

SFBAC: With the turbulent sixties and the racial divide, were you aware of what was happening or did your parents and brothers shelter you from what was going on outside of music?

Victor Wooten: Yeah, mostly sheltered. My older brother's knew more. My parents were living it. But I was a little bit sheltered, but you know, there was one time in California we were driving, I think it was California, it might even have been Virginia. We get pulled over by the cops, and the cop ends up putting the gun to my dad's head, for no reason. And fortunately, it was his partner that talked him down. And you know? Those things happened, and my dad, I mean we got lessons that young African American kids these days have to get, and it's sad, you know? If a policeman pulls you over, here's what you do, and what you don't do. We know we get treated differently. For everyone else, it's a, I don't know, a conspiracy theory or whatever, but anyone who grows up of color understands. It's different for us. It's like growing up a female. Life is different, it's still run by men, and it's run by white men, and I'm not criticizing, that's just a fact. And so you know, you have to grow up differently. And oh yeah, we have that stuff and it still affects me today. But, I did not, and hopefully will never have to go through what my parents went through. I mean my dad fought in the Korean War, it's just crazy.

SFBAC: Because we’re a SF-based site, what comes to mind when you think of playing in San Francisco? Do you have a favorite venue? Favorite moment or memory you could share?

Victor Wooten: Well, San Francisco's always fun, There's legendary venues there and legendary musicians, and for some reason, the audiences have always been good to me, and me through Bela Fleck and the Flecktones first. We opened a show in the early Flecktones days, we opened a show for the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum, New Years Eve. What was it? 90 going into '91? Amazing opportunity. We did at least two more shows opening for the Jerry Garcia Band, again, amazing opportunities. And I think because of that, we just had amazing opportunities, and the Bay Area has just been amazingly supportive. Whenever I go there, there's a packed house. It's just been great. So I've been very, very lucky. Very, very lucky.

SFBAC: Of everything you’ve achieved, and without mentioning your children, what are you most proud of and why?

Victor Wooten: Well, it comes back to a similar thing, it's growing into the person my parents wanted me to be is probably the most. Because they had high hopes for us, and they really cared about who we were as people. Not so much that we were good musicians. They said, 'that's easy, all you need to do is play a lot.' But being a good person, and I believe I've achieved that, and I thank them and my brothers for that. And that's my most proud thing, because it's something that I feel good about. What other people feel good about is their choice. Whether they hate me, that's their choice. I mean, I do feel good that it seems that most people in this world do love me, and I love that. I get awards, I get compliments, I've got great friends, I love that too. But this may sound egotistical, but I love the fact that I learned through my parents how to love myself. Because I actually realized that what other people think is really pointing more at them than me. It's what they allow themselves to see. But when I look at myself, I'm very happy with who I see. And that allows me to see everyone else, that way. I see it through my own camera lens. And for people whose camera lens is dirty, they get a dirty view and then blame the view not realizing it's the lens. And I have learned to keep my lens clean so that I can see a beautiful world, even in the midst of what else is going on. I still see that the world is more beautiful than not. You know, the things that go on that stand out as negative, they standout as negative because most things aren't negative. You know, if everything was bad, those few things wouldn't stand out. You know? And so I'm so happy to have been able to, just to be able to learn this as a youngster from my family. I'm just very happy about that. That just has to be the thing I'm most proud of. Another thing that's more tangible, is that I get to touch people's lives through music. And life, whatever you want to call it, it's really the public that's given me the opportunity to where I get to travel around the world and make people happy with music. That's amazing that I get to do this. And I'm proud that people like you have made it possible. It's people like you, that have given me a career and I'm happy about that.

SFBAC: Well, Victor, it's been an absolute joy speaking with you and you deserve all the success you've achieved! Thanks so much for your time today and we'll catch you in a few weeks with the Victor Wooten Trio at the Regency Ballroom on January 12th!

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