Playing with Words and Music: An Interview with Victor Wooten (Part 1)
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” might be a familiar phrase to most of us, but Victor Wooten has evidently never heard of it. Or, if he has, he’s never heeded its advice. With his ground-breaking A Show Of Hands CD, Wooten launched himself into the limelight of the bass community (and the greater music community too), proving himself to be one of the most innovative bassists the world has ever seen. Given its success, many would have followed an album like A Show of Hands with another in the same vein (and then another). Not Vic. With each subsequent solo album, he took listeners in a new musical direction, offering fans a glimpse into the creative mind of a musician who has attracted the attention of acclaimed neuroscientists Dr. Daniel Levitin, who has conducted a series of interview with creative artists in an effort to better understand how their minds work. It will take more than science to figure out what makes this master musician tick, however, and the simultaneous release of two new albums on his new record label, Vix Records, proves the point. Sword and Stone and Words and Tones both drop on September 25, the same day the Victor Wooten Band hits the road on a fall tour.
In connection with this release, No Treble will be featuring three different interviews with Wooten, each focused on a different aspect of these new albums. In the first of these conversations, we got a chance to ask Victor about the motivation for such an unusual move. As you might expect, his reasons are anything but ordinary.
Okay, let’s start with the obvious question. You’re releasing two separate albums at the same time. Why?
Mainly to satisfy an inner desire to do it. This is something I have wanted to do for many years. I originally wanted to release two different albums on two different record labels on the same day. That was my original idea years ago, but I discovered that companies that offer the same type of services don’t want to work together. My hope was to bring people together in a cooperative way, but competing record companies just don’t want to share anything. That kind of competitiveness led to me starting my own label. Hmmmm [rubs head], maybe I’ll start another label and then I can release two records on different labels.
It would be a shame if those two labels couldn’t cooperate.
[Laughing] Yes, but it is possible, I suppose.
Can you explain the titles for the two albums?
The titles come from hearing my oldest brother Regi talk about the King Arthur legend of the sword and stone. Regi loves to play with words, and to show people different ways of looking at words. For example, he showed me that if you take the “S” off of beginning of “Sword and Stone” and put it at the end of each word, you get “Words and Tones.” “Who is wise and strong enough to pull the sword from the stone,” the story goes. Playing around with these words got me thinking about how we pull words from tones in music. I thought to myself, “Who’s wise enough to pull words from the tones we make?” In hearing Regi talk about these kinds of things, I began finding different ways of looking at common words—and music as well—which is how that song came about. Both CDs offer listeners two ways of looking at the same music.
This album prominently features female vocalists. Can you tell us about the reasons behind that choice?
I had a plan of doing a record of female vocalists for a few years, since I love playing bass behind female artists. As I was getting these songs together for that album, I would put melodies on them—mostly with bass—so I could send a version to the various vocalists. As I was adding melodies to the songs, I discovered I really liked them as instrumentals too. As a result, the idea of doing two separate albums at the same time popped back into my head, and I thought, “Well, I’m in charge now, so I can do it.”
You did a similar thing with the Yin Yang album, right?
Yes, but that was a double CD, packaged together, and only featured one song that was repeated on each CD [“Yinin’ and Yangin’”]. There are fourteen tracks on each of the two new CDs, and eleven of them are repeated. I like doing things that haven’t been done before. That is rarely my primary purpose, but I often come up with ideas where that is the case. In this case, I had never seen an artist release two versions of the same album at the same time—where you get two versions of the same songs. I thought that would be cool. Also, I have a lot of fans who tell me that they like the lyrics and vocals to my songs, while others tell me they like my instrumental tunes better. With these two albums, I am giving fans a choice.
With each of your albums, you tend to approach your bass playing from a different angle. For example, A Show of Hands was quite technical, while Soul Circus and Palmystery present the bass as more of a melodic solo instrument. What were you thinking on these albums, and what are you wanting to say with the bass here?
On these albums, I want to make a complete musical statement with the instrument. It’s not just that I want to do it with the bass, however. Playing the bass is just my best way of doing it. I’m not a great singer, and I don’t play keyboard or guitar that well. I play the bass well, but I hear music as a whole, so I sought to find a way to express music as a whole through different versions of the bass. Like any instrument, I think the bass is a complete instrument. In my attempt to be a complete musician, it allows me to make complete music.
Some musicians might challenge that. They might say that the bass is first and foremost a support instrument. It’s there to help complete music, not to do it by itself.
Sure, it was designed to be part of the music, and I do want to stay true to what the instrument was designed to do. But I think the bass is as complete as the musician playing it (or as limited). I’m not saying either one is better than the other, but I know I want to do more with the instrument than what was intended by those who created it. My best compliment from people who have listened to this album has involved them asking me about who is playing keyboards or guitar on a song—when there is no keyboards or guitar on the song. That lets me know I reached my goal of making a complete musical statement. Most of the songs on both CDs are just bass, drums, and vocals, but my hope is that you won’t notice that, or even care. I don’t want people thinking, “Wow! That’s all bass?” I just want them to enjoy the music. I didn’t do it with all bass to make a statement. I did it with all bass because that’s the best way for me to do it. I don’t want these albums to be about me playing bass. I want them to be about me providing you with good music to listen to.
From your first solo record, you’ve involved family members on your albums in a small way, but this album prominently features them, with your children, your wife, your parents, and even your extended family appearing on recordings. What led to that decision?
One reason is that my kids are old enough now and they can really do it right. For example, when I hear my oldest child Kaila sing, it’s not just cute—she can really sing. Adam can really play drums well, and Ariana sings harmony so beautifully [author’s note: check out “When U Grow Up” to hear all four of Vic’s kids on one song]. Also, I live with them, so they’re always around, and they’re free [laughs].
Can you tell us a little about how family factored into the song “Heaven,” which features a host of Wooten family members and seems very personal in its content?
I’m at that age where so many people close to me are dying, and I wanted to celebrate those who are still around. With my mom, my dad, and my brother Rudy all passing within a few years of each other, it was heavy on my heart and mind. “Heaven” came out of that. What better way to honor those people who have passed on then to get the people who loved them so much sing about it.
Divinity Roxx is on that track as well, right?
Yes. I had originally only planned on having family members on the song, but while I was recording it Divinity’s father passed away, so I asked her to contribute as well.
On that song, you and your brothers each play a small part of the solo section, with each soloist picking up the end of the previous one’s line as they begin their own. How did that work in regards to Rudy’s sax solo, which sounds remarkably different from the other parts?
That was a lot of fun. Each soloist, starting with Regi, fades his solo into the next, entering in the right side and exiting out the left. When it came time to add Rudy’s part, I could not find a recording of him that to use on the album. I had two computers with some old tracks of him, but I couldn’t get them off of either one, so I had to improvise. Fortunately, I found a live amateur video recording of Rudy playing with Regi at Third and Lindsley in Nashville. To make it fit my song I had to cut it up and put it on beat. If you listen closely, you can hear people cheering during his solo. It’s one of my favorite parts.
Can you tell us a little bit about the choral voices at the end of the song?
That was a blast. All my relatives happen to be here one weekend this past year, so I grabbed all I could and brought them over to the studio. I have one cousin named Tony, who can’t sing a lick. The whole family knows it, and so does he. He has a deep bass voice, but it can be in any key at any time. It was so great having Tony in there. He kept saying, “Yeah, I know I can’t sing a lick, but I’m on the record. I’m on it!” We loved it. Everyone there was so happy to sing, because they knew what they were singing about.
In the past, you’ve made it a point of not talking about issues related to spirituality, but this album includes songs like “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” and “Heaven.” You’ve also offered a “Spirit of Music” camp the last couple of years. What relationship do you see between spirituality and music?
A couple of things have changed my mind about speaking to this topic. First, more people have begun asking me about it and asking to talk about it at the camps. Second, I have become a bit bolder in my own views on spirituality. You can hear that in my song “I Saw God” from Palmystery. I thought people would be mad about a song that portrays god as a man and a woman, but people have been really supportive.
What do you think has led to you becoming bolder in this matter?
I think it’s my parent’s influence, especially my mom. She was the type of person who would say what was on her mind. If she felt you needed to hear it, she would say it, regardless of how you might react. Since she’s passed on, I’ve decided to take that up myself. I’m going to live that side of her. As she would say, “I do you a disservice if I don’t tell you what you need to hear.” So, that’s a big part of it. I’ve become more bold to say what’s on my mind, and I believe that the world is at a place where we all need to think on a spiritual level, consciously, until it’s more natural for us. Now, understand I’m separating spirituality from religion here. Through music, I feel I can share my thoughts on spirituality in the safest possible way. It allows me to convey thoughts that might be more difficult to share in a face-to-face conversation.
What do you expect in terms of fan reaction to the two albums?
I expect to sell a million copies by noon the first day [laughs]. Actually, I don’t really know what to expect, and I’m not trying to figure it out. Once I get an album out to the public, I usually just release my expectations and turn the album over to what they want to think. I’m okay with whatever people think because I served my own purpose. I do hope people love it, of course, and I know people will compare the two records, maybe preferring one over the other. I’m okay with that, though, because it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with them.
Look for next week’s interview, which will focus on the recording process of Sword and Stone and Words and Tones.
Photo credits: Steven Park (main photo) and Anthony Westmoreland (Victor playing cello)