From the Archives: Interview with Bernie Worrell

| Interview

In 2002, we emailed Bernie Worrell and asked if we could interview him. Somewhat to our surprise, he agreed, and we ended up talking with him for quite a while on the phone one spring day. Here’s that interview again.

Bernie Worrell

If you have listened to music sometime in the last 30 years, you’ve most likely run across the sounds of his keyboard contributions — from Parliament-Funkadelic to Talking Heads, Material to the Pretenders, Keith Richards to Snoop Doggy Dog, and scores of hip hop artists that have made him the most sampled artist on earth by borrowing his innovative keyboard riffs. IndieDisco had the great pleasure and honor of spending some time with master keyboard player Bernie Worrell.

IndieDisco: So Bernie, what have you been up to lately? What are the WOO Warriors doing?

Bernie Worrell: Well, we’ve been touring. We just got off a two week tour. We start back up on June 8. We’ll be going to the Midwest… Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Ohio.

ID: What’s your strategy?

WOO: I don’t strategize, I just do it. Wherever the gigs are (chuckle). We were just in Vermont — the Mt. Snow area and Killington.

We interrupt this interview for a message from Bernie’s Management:

Actually, we DO have a strategy — some of the biggest drawing venues are driven by “jam bands”. It is interesting to note that one of the original “jam bands” was original Parliament/Funkadelic — not surprisingly, Widespread Panic, Deep Banana Blackout and Galactic (among others) do Parliament/Funkadelic covers… covers of songs Bernie co-wrote!!!!

So, part of our strategy is to bring the musical genius who wrote these songs to the attention of this generation of music lovers!!! Bernie recreates (and re-invents) the songs he wrote “back in the day”with his group “The WOO Warriors”todaywhile creating new songs “on-the-fly”. “Bernie Worrell & The WOO Warriors” just released a new live CD “True DAT” which is available at shows and on his website.In a few weeks, we will be releasing a live DVD of BW&WW and a couple of months after that, we will be releasing another DVD “Bernie Worrell Presents The WOO Warriors”!!! Simultaneously, we are shopping a deal for the first studio CD — so, yes, there DEFINITELY IS a strategy 🙂

Now back to your regularily scheduled interview:

ID: What’s it like being independent?

WOO: I like all aspects of it. I get bored quick, you know? I like my own group, the WOO Warriors, but I also play with other guys, like Jack Bruce (Jack Bruce & The Cuicoland Express) and Warren Haynes…

ID: Karla Schickele from the group Ida said that you stopped by to lay down a keyboard track for a song they were doing and at the end you said something like “I want to fix bar 37 and 56”. She was amazed that you knew precisely where you wanted to improve things. Are you always counting?

WOO: Well, you just look at the machine, you know? Or if it’s a chart you mark it. 2 minutes 30 seconds, whatever. I’ve been doing this a long time. A lot of people wouldn’t notice a little mistake…but you know, maybe it’s my classical training…to a lot of people, a detail like that might pass. Most people won’t even hear it, but I will. We want to give something extra. We try to do good work.

ID: You add a lot of classical touches to the work you do with funk. Was this a natural fit, or was it a lot of work to merge your conservatory background with the funk?

WOO: I was raised Catholic, so I was into Gregorian Chant… I also played organ for the Episcopal Church because my Mom was Episcopal.

ID: (interrupting) — did you ever play an Estey Organ? They made pipe organs for churches.

WOO: I don’t know that one, but I have played a pipe organ. It was phenomenal…

I was born with perfect pitch, so anything I can hear, I can play. I can mix all different kinds of music together. Like you know, Elton John to Thelonius Monk. Thelonius to an Irish folk tune…to Wagner. I know how to segue. It’s like a hybrid, you know?

ID: How does that work beat-wise?

WOO: (Laughs) Um, that’s just the rhythm, I was born with that, obviously. But with the mixing genres, I like to do hybrids. I’m no good with the same old, same old. Like I said, I get bored easily.

With music, I want to woo the audience. And everybody does the WOO, you know? Grandchildren WOO the grandparents, politicians WOO the people. We’re all into the WOO.

ID: We’ve got a question about funk. If everything’s on the one, what’s going on with the 2, 3, and 4? What are they for?

WOO: Well, you want to maintain the initial accent of the one. The one is the pulse, and the rest of the bar is just getting you to the next one, the pulse. BOOM, boom, boom, boom, BOOM, boom, boom, boom, y’know? Like going from the verse to the chorus or the bridge, you might come in with a crash cymbal on the one, just hitting the one. It’s all about accent.

James Brown started it, and then George Clinton adopted it, and put everything “on the one”.

ID: Let’s talk more about that. How about we go into detail with one song?

WOO: If I can remember it…

ID: You’ll remember this one. I thought maybe we could talk about Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.

WOO: Oh yeah, well, we do that one in the (WOO Warriors) show. In fact, just last night, the vintage keyboard I use on that broke again.

ID: Not the Mini Moog?

WOO: No, the ARP Pro-Soloist, that’s the one I use on that. I hope they get it fixed quick.

ID: Is that the great, nasty, gritty sound that starts the song off?

WOO: Yeah, it’s called the Cosmic? No, Comic Wow… I think. I use the vibrato with that, and you can regulate it, you know, just like a human voice.

ID: Where did the song come from?

WOO: It just started with the groove. It just happened. I recorded the tracks — came up with the keyboard changes, recorded the basic track — and then George Clinton came in and laid down the vocal. It’s a chant “Give the people what they want when they want and they wants it all the time. Give the people what they need when they need it and the need is yours and mine.” I think he might have got that from an audience somewhere. I know that “Give Up The Funk” was an audience chant from a show we did in Greenville, North Carolina.

ID: So how is this song put together?

WOO: After the basic track and vocal was there, I started overdubbing on top of the ARP.

ID: How does the bass interact with the keyboard?

WOO: Let me think. Who played bass on that?

ID: I think it was Bootsy.

WOO: Do you have it there?

ID: Yeah. Bootsy got the writing credit.

WOO: Ok, well it was Bootsy. I know I was playing left hand on that. Bootsy’s bass was doubling the left hand. We’re used to playing together.

ID: Most of the other tracks on “Mothership Connection” have horns. Why no horns on this one?

WOO: I didn’t hear horns. You don’t want to have horns on everything.

ID: There’s amazing percussion going on in that song. Shakers, ratchets, and of course, those great sleighbells.

WOO: Yeah, that was our Italian Brother, Larry Fratangelo. He came in with all this stuff — and weird gear… We didn’t need horns, you know? He played on Knee Deep, too. The cuica and stuff.

The audience is always requesting old stuff like this when I’m out with the WOO Warriors. I can’t teach the band everything, so I usually just play it myself. The drummer does something, and we just do little snippets. The audience knows all the songs, but the band doesn’t know everything, so I just give them a little snippet to appease them.

ID: If Bootsy and George stopped by this afternoon to lay down a new groove, what would happen? What’s your process?

WOO: Well, Bootsy wouldn’t do THAT, he wouldn’t just stop by. George might stop by, but with him, you gotta do terms and stuff. He’s got to talk to Judie, my manager, before we can do anything. If he comes by and there’s no terms, I’ll just take him across the street, into the woods and we’ll go fishing.

With Bootsy, I still do stuff with him, but I go to his place in Cincinnati. He’s got a new solo record with Warner Bros Germany, and I’ve been working with him on that. I don’t think that’s out yet. We’ve been having some problems with that.

ID: Musical or business-related?

WOO: Musical.

ID: So how do you guys collaborate? How would you put together a track with Bootsy?

WOO: Bootsy usually starts with something on the drum machine, then I lay down a bass line with the Mini Moog. Then I’d probably lay in the keyboard pattern and changes. Maybe add some strings or a vocal line. Then we do the Space Bass and guitar. If Gary Shider was there, he might come up with the groove and changes. It’s all about layering.

ID: Do you come in with ideas or do you just improvise?

WOO: We both improvise and we have ideas. Bootsy usually has some ideas. I can usually just come up with it while we’re working. There’s a proven chemistry there. It’s still happening. That’s what Nike wanted and so we did the Nike ad. We got the whole team back together for that one. Fred Wesley did horns.

ID: What’s going on in funk now? Especially given today’s industry climate.

WOO: Well, it’s not on the radio. The younger generation, different ethnic groups, they’re into funk. So it’s kind of like manual override. The audience tells you what it wants.

ID: Politics and funk have always seemed to go hand in hand. With secret governments and military tribunals, I would expect the funk to be flowing. How does politics affect your music?

WOO: It makes me mad! I’m not a lyricist, but I have lyrical ideas. I can come up with ideas and punch lines, then I work with a lyricist to do the actual song.

You can make a statement without lyrics, though. Chords have colors. A minor key is one color, a major key is another color. Augmented, diminished, they all have different colors. You can hear it. You can hear it in cartoon music. Like, bagpipes have a hypnotic effect. That’s how it works. You can do a lot just with the music.

I just want to keep the funk alive. And it stays alive by word of mouth. The college stations, the indie stations, are great. I’m not really into hip hop but I’ve worked with Mos Def and most recently, with Snoop. Snoop sampled me for days, now he’s using me on live tracks. I was out there in the studio with him recently, and he said “Wow, man, allright. Now I got the real thing!”

ID: Trouble Funk’s T-Bone had a similar experience. He met up with some of the people sampling him and said “hey, you can call me, y’know. I’ll record something unique for you.”

WOO: There’s all different kinds of people listening to funk. I was in Russia just recently, and I had no idea that funk was that big over there. I went to Moscow with the Groove Collective, and they had posters, banners with pictures of us across the highway. The people were lined up, 50, 75 people wanting autographs. They said “Let me get my picture taken with you” and “send us George, send us Bootsy.” They had all the old records, the Parliament records, my old solo cds. It was uncanny.

But it’s political for groups to play there. It was a big deal for the promoter who put our tour together, but he says it’s hard to do shows there. The Russian mob kind of owns everything…

ID: (laugh) You mean like here in the US?

WOO: Oh, yeah, we got it here to. It’s all in the guise of oil… But…let’s not go there.

ID: Right. You wrote the song Y-Spy, about how only people with something to hide have the need to spy?

WOO: Actually, Steve Jordan wrote the words to that one. Keith Richards plays on that track. He did three songs on that record. It was a lot of fun. I did his first solo record, and so when it came time to do this one, I asked him to play on one song. When we finished that up, he was like “hey Bernie, what else you got?” So he did two more.

Keith and I have roots. He always had good Mick jokes…

ID: You play with a lot of groups. For example, the Talking Heads. How did that come about?

WOO: Well, they heard I left P-Funk. Jerry Harrison called me up one day. They had known about us for a long time — Chris and Tina even tried to sneak into a show once. So Jerry said, would you be interested? And I said, sure, but I don’t really know who you are…

So, we met at Sigma Sound. I listened to some of their stuff. I saw how they worked. I had an idea already what they were trying to do, enlarge the group, get some black players in there. David is a genius.

ID: Didn’t they bring in some other P-Funk musicians, too?

WOO: Yeah, Lynn Mabry from the Brides of Funkenstein. They got Alex Weir from the Brothers Johnson. Alex is a cousin of the Brothers. Buster Jones doubled Tina’s bass. He just passed away recently. They also brought in Adrian Belew.

What I liked is that they worked similar to P-Funk, jamming on the grooves. Of course, they gave me freedom. David knew what he was doing, Jerry knew, Tina and Chris kind of knew too, but they know more now. I mean, Tom Tom Club had a bigger hit than any of the Talking Heads songs.

In fact, George Clinton was the one who suggested that Chris and Tina go out on their own. We were at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, down there for the Junkanoo festival. George told Chris and Tina they could do it on their own. Tina was really pregnant at the time, and George just touched her stomach that night, and the next day she had the baby…(laughs) But yeah, George said “go for it.” There was some animosity in the band at that point anyway.

ID: Do you ever run into Prince?

WOO: Prince inducted us (P-Funk) into the Hall of Fame. I also saw him at a Larry Graham show when Larry was coming back.

ID: So what’s with purple keyboard players?

WOO: Actually, Judie has always been really into purple. And Grady Thomas, he was into purple too. Everything he had was purple — he even had a purple motorcycle. Purple is just a powerful color. It’s spiritual. You see it more now then you used to.

ID: Is there a spiritual element to your music?

WOO: Yes. My music comes from God. There’s an aura. But you knew that.

ID: What advice do you have for young musicians in today’s industry?

WOO: (Laughs) I don’t know. It’s a different generation, and they have a different language, but the same format and rules apply as for the jazz musicians in the 50s. But as far as advice, I’d say, watch who your friends are, or rather, who says they’re your friend. It’s good to have some knowledge of the business. Definitely take as little advance money as you can, because you’re going to have to pay it back. Better yet, do it yourself. All you need is distribution, which is definitely hard, but you can do it. You need a good manager, someone who’s really into the music.

ID: Someone who’ll actually read the contract?

WOO: (laughs) I used to read contracts – all those tongue twisters and loopholes. But it’s hard to figure that stuff out. I’m lucky because I have Judie, and she protects me. And finally, pray…

Things are changing now. Young people can probably figure out some innovative marketing. Me, I like to work with partnerships, I like teamwork. Just keep the arguments down…

ID: Anyone we should be listening to?

WOO: You’re asking the wrong guy. Let me think. There’s the Groove Collective, who we toured with in Europe. They’re very democratic, by the way. When we were rehearsing for the Moscow trip, I used to get into their arguments and say “calm down” but they told me, “that’s the way we work things out”. So I learned some things from them.

I like Catawampus (Catawampus Universe), down in Lexington, KY. I co-produced their album. They’re definitely in the P-Funk vein, but they add in reggae and some other styles. Of course, they did just break up…

ID: Keeping the P-Funk tradition alive?

WOO: (laugh) That’s a good one…

ID: Any others?

WOO: You could check out Joe Stuby and Rocking Horse (of Clinton, NJ) . He’s got some Hendrix, P-Funk, and rock going on in his sound.

ID: Final question: is there any question you want to answer that no one ever asks?

WOO: Yeah, would you like some vacation money? Hell, we could do a vacation festival. We could go on vacation and have a music festival.

ID: Yeah, we’d like some vacation money too. And a music festival.

WOO: Just know that anything you can think up, you can do. You can do it.

You can find out about Bernie Worrell, the WOO Warriors, and much more at