Passion is an intense emotion that inspires action. Inspiration is the action that moves the intellect. Curiosity stimulates exploration, investigation, and learning. Those three elements are exactly what drive a man to fabricate a drum set from a guitar.
Best known as the drummer/percussionist for popular jam band Béla Fleck And The Flecktones, Roy “Future Man” Wooten has used his passion, inspiration, and curiosity to make quite a career for himself. He has invented an electronic guitar studded with drum triggers named the “Drumitar” that allows him to play drums with his fingers, and a piano named “RoyEl” whose keys are arranged based on the periodic table. While the Flecktones took the past year off, Wooten teamed up with Street Maestro Jeremiah Able and formed the Future Man Project. A collection of turntables, samples, downtown beats, and electronic hand drums, it is a perfect avenue to share his musical ideas with the world, though it’s not his only one.
Much like there is no easy way to describe the Flecktones’ music, there is no simple way to describe Wooten. He certainly is eccentric, and his descriptions of his work fly out of him in an overwhelming flurry of words that leave you more confused than when you first started. The hard part is not listening, however. His energy is too infectious.
After the hiatus, during which each member went his separate way, the Flecktones came back ready to hit the road again thanks in no small part to Wooten’s contagious vigor — and a new album, The Hidden Land. “The new record, it’s almost like exploring hidden lands of music,” says the lively Wooten. “The record talks about hidden lands. The Flecktones were all coming out of the cave. We all asked each other, ’What did you find?’ Béla studied the roots of the banjo in Africa and Vic [Wooten, bass] has been in the ’Circus.’ He traveled the world in Soul Circus. Jeff [Coffin, sax] has been doing solo stuff with different people. Everyone’s got a wealth of experiences that they brought back. We’ve all been exploring these hidden lands and brought it back to the band. It’s fun and fresh.”
The fresh energy has also prompted Wooten to make more use of his acoustic drums. Until recently, he never felt the Drumitar’s cymbal sounds were good enough to combine with live cymbals and acoustic drums. “I had live cymbals, and the drums in my fingers — a hybrid of electric drums and live cymbals. This last record I think I did the best I’ve ever done it before. The cymbal sounds are so good that you can’t tell when I go from an acoustic cymbal to an electric cymbal. Now, it’s just aesthetics. Are you going to use pencil or charcoal? It’s kind of fun that way.”
Revitalized and ready to reacquaint themselves with their second home, the Flecktones are slated to be on the road for about 100 dates. In the midst of all those gigs, Wooten will keep busy with his Future Man Project and his new Einstein’s Violin venture, which is a string octet led by bassist Kevin Jablonski and violinist Zach Casebolt. “It’s so cool. Einstein’s Violin, in a way, is the right name for this way to look at music. I’m looking at music in the bigger picture and how music is such an important part of society. There’s a book called Einstein’s Violin, and it’s a conductor’s note on music and social change. It has a lot of insights about elements of music that I’m really interested in. I’m really interested in the ancient roots and symbols of music. Just like the Flecktones. The chemistry that we have live, it’s something that you can’t write on paper. Even as a composer, I’m picking these people and talent and the chemistry comes together and lifts it off the page. I captured some of that.”
The force influencing a man to do the things Wooten has done is unquestionably a strong one, but it is certainly no mystery. “What drives me?” ponders Wooten, pausing for the first time in the conversation. “Passion, inspiration, curiosity,” he affirms. “My mom always said, ’That boy is a curious child.’ There’s something driving that curiosity. I wanted to look at the drums like a scientist looks at a body and understands it on DNA level. I want to understand it so that if you give me a strand of hair, I can re-create your body. That’s the way I wanted to understand the drums. It’s like understanding it on a micro level.”
To declare that Wooten has a lot to say is an immeasurable understatement. The frenetic pace of his words and inflection of his voice underline his passion for everything he does. Yet, when asked what advice he would pass on to young drummers, he stops and thinks. And thinks some more. A few moments pass until Wooten finds the right words. He pieces together a thought and finally continues his frenzied speaking pace, his words graced with a sincerity that harmonizes with his passion. “One piece of advice would be learn from the past but keep aiming for the future. Part of my Future Man thing is that to get to the future and be out on a limb, I have to understand the branch and aim for the trunk of the tree, which is connected to the ground, which goes to the root. That’s how our talent is connected to the future.”
The words dash swiftly and strike almost simultaneously, but they make a great amount of sense. “To really be the future, they can be way out on that branch if they connect to the trunk. It’ll just make them stronger. Sometimes you’ll have ideas and realize that they connect to something someone did way back then and it validates your ideas. The history and relationship between the then and the now is a beautiful thing.”