It would be understandable if someone who’s never listened to The Fearless Flyers thinks their instrumental post-modern funk might be nerdy, or that it perhaps falls into the Jamband category or that it’s experimental Bitches Brew-type jazz, but the band’s songs are written with catchy pop-length arrangements that hook listeners and take them through the changes, much like a well-written, singable hit.
There’s no passage, no section, no phrase in the five original songs slated to appear on Fearless Flyers III, their EP set for release on March 4, that sound self-indulgent. The music is stripped to its core with no noodling guitar solos and no meandering into Grateful Dead- or Phish-like space jam territory that can bore even the most devoted listeners of those bands.
The songs possess a unique quality not found in 99.5 percent of what is contemplative music by musician’s musicians and provide a glimpse into the Flyers’ – bassist Joe Dart, guitarists Cory Wong and Mark Lettieri, and drummer Nate Smith – approach to composition. Dart and Wong said the band learns new arrangements on the spot, putting them together from ideas individual members bring to the studio, rehearsing the parts three or four times before recording them for posterity.
It’s the vaunted Neil Young approach to writing and recording – lay it down heavy, play it back mean – and on Fearless Flyers III it pays dividends to the listener.
“Everything you hear on the album was recorded anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes or an hour max after we learned it,” Dart said. “An idea is introduced and we start coming up with those lines on the spot. We’ll discuss things like, ‘What if we do this chromatically? Will it land?’ If it sticks, cool, there’s that section, and we hit record on the fly. It’s intentionally a very on-the-edge record and we allow the energy and pressure of getting it right the first few times to really make it happen.”
Fearless Flyers III, the product of their lightning-in-a-bottle aesthetic, is crowdfunded through Qrates. The band took the crowdfunding approach for all three albums in order to fund and print “a single run of records and only the right amount,” Wong said. Vulfpeck mastermind and Vulf Records orchestrator, Jack Stratton, arrived at that undisclosed number with the intention of releasing a small-batch production whose novelty embellishes fans, but also so Vulf doesn’t have extraneous inventory, Dart said.
The original fearless Flyers songs that have been trickling out on streaming platforms, “Running Man,” a nod to the 1963 surfer classic “Wipeout,” “Patrol Acrobatique,” and “Three Basses,” are dripping with a sense of the post-Covid lockdown catharsis that the musicians experienced in Los Angeles last January. It had been close to two years since the Flyers were in the same room, and their collective excitement for getting the band back together resonates on those tracks.
“The songs are very hook-driven,” Dart said. “Stratton has a lot to do with that. He has a very keen eye as a producer, a real ear for the hook, and what’s captivating. (Fearless Flyers III) is hyper-arranged and composed. They’re the shortest, most jam-packed, tightly-composed songs we’ve put on record yet.”
The mention of Stratton involved in the songwriting and production of the Flyers, three-quarters of which are/were members of Vulfpeck, Lettieri of Snarky Puppy the lone exception, begs a humorous thought: Does Jack Stratton own your souls?
“Without Jack, I don’t think there’s any way any of that at least I could have gotten this far in music just being a bass player on my own,” Dart said. “He’s a musical architect, but he’s also incredibly fair and equitable and democratic, and he has always given us equal ownership and an even share of every Vulf song, so it’s quite the opposite of owning the soul of any of the members of the group.”
Clearly, through listening to the Flyers, Dart, Wong, Leitteri, and Smith are talented and experienced enough musicians and songwriters that each could enjoy a fruitful career as a pop producer, crafting songs that others perform, and cashing in the rewards. Dart and Wong are at least tangentially aware of this but said they instead choose to work on projects that are fun rather than chasing big music-industry money.
“I have written songs for and with other people, and I’ve played on a lot of sessions for pop singers and songwriters, but what I chose to do a long time ago was to work on music that brings me fulfillment,” Wong said. “Everybody in the music industry is shooting at different places on a dartboard, and if pop singles are the bullseye, I’m not even trying to hit the bullseye. I’m trying to hit triple 20s. Is that a difficult path to mainstream success? Yes, but this is the most frictionless way for me to love and enjoy what I’m doing. I really feel like I’m living out my calling.”