The world first learned about The Fearless Flyers on YouTube. In early 2018, Vulf Records released a live, in-studio video of a new band with a blistering yet tactical sound playing a new song, “Ace of Aces“. The group was comprised of notable players with unusual instrumentation: Vulfpeck‘s Joe Dart on bass, Vulf cohort/prolific solo bandleader Cory Wong on guitar, Snarky Puppy‘s Mark Lettieri on baritone guitar, and renowned jazz drummer Nate Smith on a bare-bones drum kit. All three guitars floated on stands at an angle. All three guitarists stood in blue flight suits and dark shades behind them.

The band’s look was striking, instantly memorable. Its sound took the minimalist feel of Vulfpeck and cranked the throttle, trading Vulf’s pop sensibility for precision rhythm section aerobatics. The response to the video was explosive—just like Vulf boss Jack Stratton pictured it when he first plucked the idea for The Fearless Flyers out of thin air fully formed.

During a candid discussion with Live For Live Music on Jam Cruise 19, all four members of The Fearless Flyers recalled their introductions to the band’s blueprint, discussed the unconventional qualities that define the group’s mystique, and reflected on the continued creative breakthroughs brought about by its striking specificity.

[Note: The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.]

Live For Live Music:  The Fearless Flyers have lots of defining characteristics, but I’m curious how you would describe what it is that you’re doing.

Cory Wong: It is a sprinting band. Speed-metal punk, but just in the context of funk music. I feel like I’m playing in a metal band or something. … It’s like this Olympic funk band [laughs].

Nate Smith: It’s one of the most physically taxing gigs, ’cause the energy is always so high and the momentum is always so high in the band—this, like, propulsion thing. So, it always feels more like a rock band, even though we’re playing groovy stuff. It’s the energy.

Live For Live Music: I think that’s a big element of what makes this band interesting—it’s consciously minimalist in its setup, but consciously maximalist in its output.

Nate Smith: I play with three instruments [in this band] and it’s like, “How much sound can I get out of theses three instruments.” It’s a question I’m asking myself every eight bars. It’s a really interesting challenge to do it, ’cause it’s like, no cymbals, no toms, this is it, so dynamics are a huge part of it, phrasing. … My texture is limited to these three components, so what can I play? What can I not play? What you leave out is just as important as what you put in. You have to do more with less, and that requires a lot of creativity.

Cory Wong: A lot of [drummers], when it comes to kick, snare, hat, their dynamic range overall [goes from] like two to five. … But what I love about Nate is that he constantly is showing us that there’s a 2.1, a 2.16, a 2.18. It forces us into a deeper level of musicality. The way that you were talking about the minimalist/maximalist thing, it’s very purposeful in the way that this band is set up. Part of what this band is about is showcasing rhythm section stuff.

Live For Live Music: A lot of elements of The Fearless Flyers have always felt very purposeful—the unusual instrumentation, the flight suits and sunglasses. Was that whole Flyers mystique part of the deal from the start?

Cory Wong: I think Joe will be able to say better when the first time Jack [Stratton] said this was, I believe it was in a bathroom at a urinal. It was something along the lines of, “The Fearless Flyers. Three guitars on stands. Guitar, baritone guitar, bass guitar. And just kick, snare, hat… It’s Nate Smith.” He’s got that kind of mind where he’ll see it and just know it’ll work.

Joe Dart: He basically had this vision two or three years before [we did it] and told me about it. The flight suits and everything, it was all one cohesive idea for Jack. Nothing can be divorced from one another in the idea of this. He had it distilled from early on.

Live For Live Music: Guitars floating on stands, in particular, is such an unusual and specific detail to just know off the bat, but it wound up working well with the whole schtick.

Cory Wong: It makes the thing more sticky. You walk in the room and you see the guitars on stands and it feels iconic. Yes, it’s shtick, but it’s also cool. I think that’s something that a lot of bands have a hard time finding, both in their sound and in their visual. We’re all trying to figure out how to stand out, how to do something that feels unique. This visually has something that’s iconic that Jack saw in his head, and then the three ranges of guitar, three drum kit pieces… It kind of lined up in his mind for whatever reason.

So, he said, “Alright. Dart, Wong, Smith. Figure out who the baritone guitar player should be.” And within five seconds, we were all just like, “Mark.” It was obvious at the time, because he had this baritone funk Thursdays thing happening on Instagram…

Mark Lettieri: Yeah, I had started making these demos of hyper-funk fusion tunes, but I was playing all baritone guitar. It was a sonic thing that I was realizing in real time by posting these videos and just seeing how people were reacting to it and getting comfortable with the idea of baritone guitar as a funk instrument. This was before I made Baritone Sessions Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 or any of that stuff. Cory had seen the videos and was like, “Well, that’s the guy that should do baritone.”

Live For Live Music: Joe and Cory were obviously connected via Vulfpeck, but did the rest of you know each other at all beforehand?

Nate Smith: Nope.

Mark Lettieri: I mean, I knew of the dudes. I had played with Joe one time.

Cory Wong: People had been waiting for a Snarky Puppy/Vulfpeck crossover for a long time. The internet relates the bands. They take a similar software for a lot of people, which I totally understand.

Mark Lettieri: But yeah, Cory sent me an email…

Cory Wong: Cold email.

Mark Lettieri: The famous email. It was about as many words probably as Jack’s original pitch to Joe. He was like, “Hi, this is Cory from Vulfpeck. We’re doing a new project…”

Nate Smith: I’ve probably got it on my phone.

Cory Wong: I was so nervous sending it to both of you guys. I email Mark, he calls me right away. He’s like, “Hey, what? What’s going on here?” I’m like, “Oh yeah, we’re starting a new band. Just trust me. It’s going to be dope. It’s going to take none of your time and it’s going to be awesome.”

Mark Lettieri: When he reached out to me, just from a personal artistic standpoint, I hadn’t embraced the baritone yet. I was sort of like, “I want to play guitar in this band. I’m a guitar player. The baritone, ah, it’s cool, but…” Guitar players are territorial, we have egos, so it took me a second. I remember I called you…

Cory Wong: He called me and basically said no [laughs]. I heard him thinking out loud on the phone to me when I first started talking to him, kind of having an internal discussion to me.

Mark Lettieri: [laughs] I definitely trusted your opinion.

Cory Wong: He’s like, “If I’m going to be honest, I have to do this session in Ireland where I’ve got a lot of tunes to learn that are really weird and hard. It’s just a lot of stuff to do. I don’t know if I can… I don’t think I can do it.”

Mark Lettieri: But they don’t understand that going into a Snarky Puppy session, it’s like, “Okay, everybody prepare for brain surgery in five minutes. Don’t snip the wrong nerve ending or everyone dies” [Everyone laughs].

Cory Wong: Then, maybe seven minutes later, he calls me back, like, “Dude, I’m an idiot. Yes, yes, yes. Yeah, I’m going to do it.”

Live For Live Music: Did Mark and Nate know the extent of the plan for the visual stuff at that point? 

Cory Wong: They walk up in the [first] session and I’ve got three flight suits, three sets of boots that didn’t fit, and a leather jacket and a bomber hat [laughs]. Jack had no idea that there would be apprehension from Mark or Nate when they got there and saw the full vision, but there was a moment when the session was about to start where I had to look at Joe and be like, “You think these guys are actually down?”

Mark Lettieri: [to Nate] You and I may have had a little conversation in the courtyard, between the two of us…

Cory Wong: Mark’s like, “Uh, I didn’t know this was a wardrobe deal.” I was like, “Dude, just trust.”

Live For Live Music: Was there anything that wound up changing from the initial vision as it materialized?

Nate Smith: [laughs] The only thing was… Jack had this idea of me wearing his leather bomber jacket and this, like, old school helmet, with the goggles. I was looking at it like, “I sweat like a preacher when I play, man. The schvitz is strong, you know. I’m going to roast. I’m going to be a f—ing piece of rotisserie gold.”

If you watch all the first videos from [that] album, I’m wearing the jacket. We did “Barbara” with Sandra Crouch, and she’s killing it! The camera pans to me and it’s like I just came through a car wash. So I finally said, “Man, I got to take this jacket off.” I only had on this t-shirt that the sleeves were cut off, because I was hot as f—. And that became the thing.

Cory Wong: That session was three days. The jacket definitely was gone after day one. But it was Sandra Crouch, legendary tambourine player, and I think that maybe helped neutralize the Mark and Nate not wanting to wear flight suits [laughs].

Mark Lettieri: Once I realized how the composition process was going to work, I was like, “Dude, this is easy, but also really cool and inspiring.”

Live For Live Music: What was the composition process exactly?

Nate Smith: I remember Jack pulled up Instagram clips of us playing and said, “This thing you’re doing with the hi-hat, I want to build something around that clip.” He found this other thing [Mark was] playing, and he’s like, “Man, let’s build something around it.”

At that point, Vulf had a fully formed online presence. They built their presence online basically, so they [also] knew what their audience was going to look for. They knew what the fans were going to engage and comment on. This is a testament to [Jack’s] brilliance: He was like, okay, so not only the coolest musical shit, but what are people watching?

Joe Dart: Yeah. It’s cool to strip it down completely. That’s the thing about Fearless Flyers—so stripped down, nothing extra. Jack loves that visually, too, always trying to get drummers to subtract things and mics and everything so you can really see what’s happening. Also, the “supergroup element,” if I may use the term, is fun and it’s not something you get all that much of out here. It’s kind of a rare, cool thing that doesn’t always work.

Live For Live Music: That element definitely didn’t hurt. How quickly did you catch on to the excitement over these musical worlds colliding?

Nate Smith: Man, I’ll never forget—I posted on my Instagram page the first day we got there. I posted a screenshot of a text, just me typing out who I was playing with. And I called Mark “Mike.” And then he commented like, “Man, who’s Mike Lettieri?

Mark Lettieri: [laughs] Did I lose the gig to some brother I didn’t even know I had?

Nate Smith: It’s rough out here. … And I remember when I posted that, just a screenshot of the names—I don’t think I’ve ever told you [all] this—a booking agent hit me up 20 minutes later: “So when are you guys… I mean, we could make an offer.” And then when the “Ace of Aces” video came out… It was amazing. I was like, “Oh s—. Okay.” Not just because it was good musically, but because it was so unique and so incredibly branded visually.

The Fearless Flyers – “Ace of Aces”

Live For Live Music: The Fearless Flyers didn’t play a live show for six months after the initial video release. When the band started, was it just a studio thing?

Nate Smith: I didn’t know. I thought it was really smart that we didn’t play any shows, because I think that’s what every band would do. But this was actually like, okay, let’s put it out and let’s let the s— simmer. It was really smart of Cory and Jack to use Vulf as the platform for us to play the encore at Red Rocks or to do… Did we do the North Coast [after-party first]?

Cory Wong: Yeah, North Coast Festival.

Live For Live Music: That was your first show ever, and Jay Kay (Jamiroquai) comes and sings with you, and Eric André introduces your encore, and Theo Katzman and Antwaun Stanley sit in… No band has a story like that.

Cory Wong: We definitely leapfrogged a lot of steps, and it was purposeful and it was strategic for multiple reasons. I mean, yes, our first show, Jay Kay coming and sitting in, all of Jamiroquai watching us side stage, Eric Andre doing a comedy set while we just stand at our instruments for 10 minutes. And he bombed. And it was incredible… That’s a pretty heavy first gig. A lot of it is a testament to what was built with Vulfpeck. Obviously, we’re not starting from scratch. … [But] I think there is a lane right now for people to build their thing on the internet and get themselves comfortable and then go out and play in front of audiences from the beginning,

Live For Live Music: You didn’t start from scratch but you definitely started big. Even after your first show, it seemed like the selectiveness of your gigging just increased the intrigue surrounding the band. Newport, Hulaween, Europe, headlining festivals, and you haven’t even played 10 shows total.

Cory Wong: Yeah. Newport Jazz headlining was like our sixth show or something, which is unbelievable.

Nate Smith: We’re like a band that came out of nowhere but has been around. All four of us have been around for a long time.

Cory Wong: Fortunately for us, for better or worse, we don’t have a “Blackbird” or a “September”. We don’t have a song that you actually have to play every time. I think a lot of times people are there just to see us do this thing rather than hear this song. … What I love about the jam audience—I’m not coming at the jazz crowd, the jazz crowd is great—is that the passengers, the fans, are down for that ride. They’re down to not just watch you jump off the cliff musically and take that risk, they’re willing to jump off the cliff with you and trust us enough that we’ll build the parachute for them.

Mark Lettieri: They’re there to watch you figure it all out in real time. They know the tunes if they’re a fan of the band, but even if they’re not, they want to see players take chances. They want to see stuff happen spontaneously. They understand the mistakes might happen, that there might be a crossing of wires at certain times, but in some respect, that’s what improvisational music is and becomes.

Live For Live Music: Joe, how does your approach on bass differ with the Flyers versus with Vulfpeck, where things are generally more clean-cut?

Joe Dart: With Vulf there are more people on stage, for one thing. They are more song-oriented, especially with vocals. I’m pretty much sticking to my part and then embellishing a little bit, but treating it like I’m in a backing band or something. With [The Fearless Flyers] we have four guys up here. It’s incumbent upon each of us to compose and step out a little bit… as much as you want to—really, as much as you can.

Finding new parts within these songs is something that’s really fun. In high school, I played in a jam band where [it was] three hours of a heavy improvisational kind of set, so we just put the reps in.

Live For Live Music: You were in a jam band?

Cory Wong: [laughs] The guy had “jam” in the band name. Classic high school band name.

Joe Dart: It was a very nice, concise, elegant name for the band: Something Different in the Homemade Jam was the name. Rolls off the tongue.

Mark Lettieri: They definitely wore shorts onstage.

Joe Dart: We would step out on stage and not know what we were going to [play to] open the show. Suffice to say, Vulf hasn’t done that yet [laughs]. Not that there’s not a lot of mystery. There f—ing is. There’s a lot of moments [with Vulfpeck] where I’m like, “What the hell is about to happen?” But at least I know, okay, we’re going to hit this song, this song, this song, ’cause they work live and people want to hear and we love playing them. So it’s cool to be back in that “jam” setting.

Live For Live Music: The Fearless Flyers are sort of like if Vulfpeck was a jam band. 

Joe Dart: Absolutely. And you wouldn’t necessarily think a band that is known for two-minute songs that could fit on an Instagram clip would be a jam band, but I do think the elements we have at play here really lend themselves to heavy improvisation.

Live For Live Music: Things inevitably change and grow when you’re improvising. Have you found any of the various day-one particulars of The Fearless Flyers evolving over time, as you’ve played more live shows? Or are those specifics still your guide here?

Joe Dart: I think we’ve learned better what works and what’s compelling. When we’re in the studio, I think it’s still very much oriented towards YouTube … but it’s trying to find a new angle. I think next time we’re in the studio, it will be a little bit of a fresh start because now we’ve worked out these early records on the road, so then they feel like, okay, that’s complete. It’s not really complete until you go do it live. It feels like next time we’re in the studio, it’ll probably feel a little bit like a second era of the band.

Ten months after our conversation on Jam Cruise 19, The Fearless Flyers found that new angle. Rather than recording their latest EP in a studio as they did on their first three, they instead co-opted an eight-show live stint at New York’s iconic Blue Note Jazz Club as the sessions for a new “studio” album.

“We are gonna attempt the fourth studio album live, in the studio of Blue Note,” Jack Stratton explained to the intimate audience when he strolled onstage at one of those shows. “It’s a nice, dead room, we got great D.I.s coming off them, good drum mics… it sounds good. Tonight might be the night. … Six songs.” He said something similar at each of the eight shows, codifying his succinct vision for the album within the Flyers milieu via repetition as the band racked up takes.

While minimalist funk with maximalist output remained their main directive, the new songs drilled deeper than ever into the diverse sounds and talents of the band’s members, mingling with a range of styles and expanding their creative scope even from their narrow conceptual lane. Sure, this was a novel approach for a group with such strict operating instructions, but its most significant characteristics were more on-brand than ever: By treating the band commandments—the uniforms, the instruments, the structured simplicity, the full-band, “live” recording process—as inspiration rather than restriction, they found a creative way to evolve, improve, and deliver something unique. Thats the Fearless Flyers way, after all.

The EP recorded during the Blue Note run, The Fearless Flyers IV, is out now on streaming platforms and available to order on vinyl through the end of February. Pre-order your copy of the vinyl here.

The Fearless Flyers – The Fearless Flyers IV