Freak Speaks with Bernie Worrell
Rock The Boat II cruise along the Mississippi River
FreakIntro: It was the pleasure of a lifetime for me to sit down to talk to Bernie Worrell the innovative quintessential funk music pioneer & master musical genius. Bernie struck me as a very kind warm spirited person. He was down to earth & wonderful to share a conversation with. The setting for this was a casual and spirited outdoor pre-party (before Rock The Boat 2) along the flowing river upon a spectacularly beautiful evening. This is how it went:
Timmy the Freak: All right. It’s truly an honor and a pleasure to be here with the founder and forefather of the whole funk genre, Bernie Worrell, the Wizard of Woo!
Bernie Worrell: My pleasure being here with Timmy!
Timmy: Thanks Bernie, thanks for taking the time to chat. How are you doing and how’s life?
Bernie: Life is good. I’m blessed. I’m still here on this plane in spite of some arthritis problems… We’ll call it old age problems. (both laugh) I’m busy. And life is good, God is good. And it’s great to be here in Minneapolis on the river!
Timmy: It is, it’s a great thing. I’m really looking forward to tonight. And you look great, man. You do, you look really good.
Bernie: Oh, thanks man.
Timmy: So let’s start out talking about the word and the concept of Woo—I know you’ve been embracing this for like, decades.
Bernie: For sure, for sure. I just had my shirt on, and it had the meaning (of Woo) definition of Woo on it… I left it at the hotel though.
Timmy: Cool. I was just going to see what your own take, and your own definition of it is.
Bernie: Well, unlike the dictionary… Woo is… Everyone’s got a bit of Woo. An example, grandchildren with the grandparents, they can entice them and get what they want when their parents won’t give it to them.
Bernie: Woo is the ability to, I like to use the word “entice,” to entice someone or something in order to get some pleasure that you want.
Bernie: You’ve got a lot of Woo. Let me Woo you! Let me Woo you baby!
Timmy: (laughs) Right. So it could be both innocent or like more…
Timmy: …or more romantic, or…
Bernie: Oh, yeah, it can be… Money Woos people. Romance. Sex Woos. Animals. Like I said, you know, children…
Bernie: The government woos people.
Timmy: Yeah. I hear ya.
Bernie: So Woo can be positive or negative just like anything.
Bernie: Both sides…
Bernie: But I’m the good Woo! Let me Woo you! Let me make Woo to you!
Timmy: (laughs) Right. So how do you assess the state of funk on this planet?
Bernie: Depending on whose funk! (both laugh)
Bernie: So I don’t know what state. But I think the whole music scene is getting better. It was funky. I’m talking about negative funk.
Timmy: Right, I hear ya.
Bernie: Me myself, I just choose public radio, college stations, or stations that play the old school. Old school, that stuff from the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s…
Timmy: Right. There’s so many Internet stations that do that too.
Bernie: Yes. Thank God for that. That’s a saving fact. One good positive thing, the hip-hop generation, the rappers are starting to use live music with their performance. And that was always my concern: the hands-on. You know, put your machine in front and that’s… You can only go so far. If you have hands-on training, and touch your instrument, it’ll help you composing, your creativity on the instrument.
Timmy: Yeah, it’s always real.
Bernie: So now I see that they’re mixing the turntable with live instruments.
Bernie: Hopefully, it will get better.
Timmy: I think they’re really relying on the fans to follow them, you know, or to kind of push them that way.
Bernie: What I hear myself is that a lot of the young generation is getting tired of it. They want to see it live.
Timmy: I think so. I mean, I’m over 40, but I feel that.
Bernie: You don’t look it!
Timmy: Thank you, thank you. It seems like, yeah, I’ve seen some artists that I really love, and then I realize that they’re coming out with a drum machine, and I’m thinking they’re just cutting corners, they don’t want to pay a band. And I’m that’s not right, and I know that you agree with that. We need to get back to the real, and like you said, the hands-on, and the…
Bernie: I mean, you can cut corners… Everybody, I mean, the economy, everybody, all walks of life, it’s tough. It’s rough.
Timmy: It is.
Bernie: But don’t cut corners with the music! (laughs)
Bernie: You know, you can, don’t get a gas guzzler, cut corners there, or stay in a cheaper hotel. Cut corners somewhere else.
Timmy: Right. Well, not only are you well known for your extreme talent, forever, but kind of renowned for playing and combining, really experimenting with different styles and genres of music.
Timmy: Which I love, and it doesn’t seem like a whole lot of people are doing that. You cover the whole spectrum, everything from country western to jazz to swing to… everything, and even the classical stuff from your youth, you know. So do you think that musicians are just sticking too close to their genre, and not spanning the horizon?
Bernie: Well, I can’t… It’s not for me to say. If a person is interested, if a musician is interested in trying new avenues, it would behoove them to do so because they’ll get the pleasure of seeing what another type of avenue can bring them, and that’ll help their creativity to open your ears up, open your head up, open your mind.
Bernie: And help you create something different…
Bernie: …that you learn from trying another thing. You might end up with something that you wouldn’t have (had) if you were doing the same old thing.
Timmy: Yeah, exactly.
Bernie: So me, I like it. I get bored quick. I ain’t going to stay in one set (style). I guess that’s the gift; I was born with perfect pitch, so anything I can hear, I can just play.
Timmy: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Bernie: Yes sir. Thank God for that. So I like to mix musics. Like I said, I get bored real easy. So it’s interesting to me, and it makes people happy. Play a classical piece and then all of a sudden play a cartoon ditty… I love doing that!
Timmy: I know, it’s like cartoon music, no one even talks about it, it’s almost like an untapped genre. (laughs) It’s beautiful.
Bernie: Yeah, except Bootsy’s Rubber Band!
Timmy: And you!
Bernie: Right. But I hear a lot of… some of my close friends that I jam with, like Buckethead will do anything. We just played together again a couple weeks ago when I was in Ohio. See now, there’s a few of us, there’s a lot of the jazz instrumentalists, put some of the old standards into the new…
Timmy: Right, that’s cool. I like that. I already kind of touched on it, but I want to talk about improvisation a little bit. Earlier today, I was listening to the radio and they were interviewing the musician Tab Benoit down in Louisiana. He happens to be a friend of mine, he’s kind of a Cajun blues guy. He was talking about how, like as far as improvisation, he’s tired of just sitting down and rehearsing songs so he really put his energy into like, learning how to really improvise, you know. He really put a lot of time and energy into it, and he says it’s a good way to lead out of something if you need to, or lead into something, and I liked the way he was talking about it, because he was more… Like you said, I think he was bored by just…
Bernie: More of the same.
Timmy: Playing the same songs the same way, you know. He wanted to, when you lay it down recording, he’s like, “You do it in a couple days, you lay it down, you let it live.” You don’t like, pull back and beat it to death.
Bernie: (echoing Timmy) …Beat it to death. Right!
Timmy: I know that you’re very much into improvisation, and a lot of your grooves are improv-savvy with a lot of the direction…
Bernie: Like my new group SociaLybrium, which is the new configuration.
Timmy: Yeah. Cool!
Bernie: Blackbyrd McKnight on guitar.
Timmy: From P-Funk, right.
Bernie: …And musical director. Melvin Gibbs on bass. And J.T. Lewis on drums. Legends in their own right, three legends. And we play, well… It’s going to be all genres. (laughs)
Bernie: We just finished a CD. It’s not mixed yet. Did some live gigs in Ohio, and New York.
Timmy: Yeah, I saw that.
Bernie: So yeah. Some of them are jams, some are written format… But after we jam on it, we take it in… (laughs) No lyrics yet. We might add a vocalist on some gigs.
Bernie: But yeah, that’s why I like the jam band scene, because I’m tired of (rehearsing)… Anyway… I’ve been doing it long enough.
Timmy: They’re real open-minded, it seems like.
Bernie: Yeah. Whoever I play with, they’re of the same mindset, so we maybe have one get-together, and just hit it!
Bernie: Hit the stage and just listen. That’s part of creating and playing, is listening. And you don’t have so large an ego as you’re just playing for yourself, because it takes a team. I’m a team player. So you listen to each other and then you have fun.
Bernie: So I agree with what you’re saying.
Timmy: Yeah, I get that from you too. And I know that… People say that Bernie Worrell, he likes to share the spotlight with everybody, and that’s what you’re saying. He’s a team player, and…
Bernie: And I don’t like a microphone in front of me either.
Timmy: Right. So it’s great. The team player thing works in so many situations in life, and especially well with bands, especially when they tune into each other like you guys do.
Bernie: That makes real magic. It’s magic.
Timmy: Yeah, I agree. I did see some videos of the SociaLybrium thing from, I think it was from the Colorado show. It looked great. Sounded good.
Bernie: That was with the original configuration, which was T.M. Stevens, Blackbyrd McKnight, and Cindy Blackmon on drums.
Timmy: Okay. So the lineup’s a little different now.
Timmy: Okay. Yeah, I liked how like you said, it was kind of deep spacey groove funk, you know, attack like, you know. It was raw, kind of like the old Funkadelic, and kind of instrumental, so far, you said.
Bernie: Yeah. T.M. was with Funkadelic and Bootsy Band. So T.M.’s more rock-orientated. He can play jazz… everything.
Timmy: Yeah. I think that’s what people want.
Bernie: Yeah. That’s entertaining. Not the same thing for two hours.
Timmy: That brings the party.
Timmy: Cool. Yeah, okay, we just talked about SociaLybrium, and…
Bernie: Look for the CD to come. It’s on LiveWired Music, a music label dedicated to the musicians. [visit: livewiredmusic(dot)org]
Bernie: (It’s an artist-friendly) record company.
Timmy: Yeah, yeah.
Bernie: Mr. Melvin Gibbs has a project called (Son of) Shango…
Bernie: On LiveWired Music. [research: Melvin Gibbs’ Elevated Entity]
Timmy: Okay, cool. That’s great. Yeah.
Bernie: (After glancing at Timmy’s notes)… Here ya go… Bill Laswell? We just got back from Montreaux. Bill’s music (project) was called Method of Defiance, M.O.D…. Defy, as in… Bill’s a rebel. Defy, I’m a rebel.
Timmy: Yeah. (laughs)
Bernie: (with) Bill’s thing… And we’ll be going to Japan in two weeks. And just about three dates in New York. There’s a DVD of the Montreux Jazz Festival show.
Timmy: Okay. Cool.
Bernie: I’m just sort of… as far as names, so…
Timmy: No, that’s great. You’ve had so many groups, and you’ve collaborated with so many people, I don’t even know where to begin, but we were just talking about (Bill) Laswell. A friend of mine years ago turned me onto the Blacktronic Science album, which I just absolutely love that. I try to turn people onto that, like, “You ever heard it?” And I love it. I mean, it’s timeless.
Timmy: It’s one of those recordings that’s just… It’s awesome. I just wanted to mention that.
Bernie: Thank you, thank you.
Timmy: Okay, what do I have? Parliament/Funkadelic, Praxis, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains…
Bernie: Buckethead, now just, we played the same festival in Ohio two weeks ago, and Socialybrium played that at Nelson Ledges Quarry. And Buckethead asked me to play on the last song. I played on a couple songs that he and I wrote years ago. We just jammed. He called me on stage, people went crazy.
Timmy: Cool! That’s the way it should be. Yeah, and Government Mule, working with Warren Haynes…
Bernie: Oh, yeah, Warren.
Timmy: I saw, I was actually at that Deepest End concert, that was at the Saenger or somewhere.
Bernie: Yeah, in New Orleans.
Timmy: Yeah, in New Orleans in ’03. And I just happened to, this was like a seven hour show, I just happened to go during the time that you were up on stage.
Bernie: Oh! (laughs)
Timmy: It was great! I was like right up there! My friend was doing the monitors or something. So I was onstage, I was only 20 feet from you, it was just killer.
Bernie: Oh, man! (laughs)
Timmy: And now it’s all documented on film, which is beautiful. So that, and, let’s see, there’s…
Bernie: Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains.
Timmy: Yep, I’ve got that on here. I’ve got Black Jack Johnson, Baby Elephant.
Bernie: That’s with Mos Def (speaking of Black Jack Johnson, which also included Will Calhoun, Doug Wimbish & Dr. Know).
Timmy: Yeah, right, that was cool. Cool.
Bernie: Oh, “Stop Making Sense.” Talking Heads.
Timmy: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Talking Heads. I’ve got that here.
Bernie: Have you heard the DVD (“Stop Making Sense”), the digital version?
Timmy: No, not yet.
Bernie: Do you have the movie?
Timmy: No, I don’t have the movie.
Bernie: Oh, man, you’ve got to get it!
Timmy: I’ve seen it. I saw it when it first came out.
Timmy: But I want to get the DVD. So it was awesome. Now maybe they’ve added some stuff, like a director’s cut.
Bernie: They did.
Timmy: Awesome, yeah, I’m going to definitely pick that up. Let’s see. (getting excited) I also want to talk about the Woo Warriors, because I’ve seen you a couple times over the years with them, once at the Cabooze and once at First Avenue here in Minneapolis, and both shows were just absolutely mind-blowing and I just couldn’t believe that it wasn’t just packed full because that’s what you deserve, Bernie.
And you were so cool. I mean, the music was so funky! I was glowing and raving about these shows for days on end after I saw them. And especially like the Cabooze show, after the show you came out and you were really… You know, you were hanging out with your fans, and it was just awesome. I just wanted to bring that up because… And I think I talked to you one of those nights, because I was there and you were there, and it was just a cool scene. And I guess I want the world to be able to tap into what you’re doing. And that’s part of why I wanted to do this interview, (showing emotion) and it’s just great to have you here in town.
Bernie: I appreciate that Timmy.
Timmy: Yeah, man.
Bernie: People still ask about the Woo Warriors. I didn’t do another Woo Warrior thing with Ron Kat. He’s one of the bass players on stage with George (Clinton) in San Francisco with his group last year. And I could resurrect that again, you know. We’ll go out for just a couple shows…
Bernie: Right now it’s called SociaLybrium.
Timmy: Cool. That’s great, man… I can’t wait to check it out. But yeah, another thing I realized was a lot of the people that I’ve interviewed over the years, you worked with. Like I’ve interviewed Warren Haynes. I met him back in ’89… Derek Trucks.
Bernie: Oh, Derek Trucks, man. Derek, every time… Derek always calls me up on stage. His whole band loves me.
Timmy: Yeah, that’s awesome. Yeah, they are just amazing too. I guess I’ve known Derek since he was like 17. He hasn’t changed a bit. He’s the same sweet guy.
Bernie: Yeah, sweet guy.
Timmy: He’s just so kind. And then June Yamagishi from Papa Grows Funk, I know him pretty well. G. Love, I interviewed him.
Bernie: Oh, right, yeah. There was something on YouTube.
Timmy: Yeah. He did a little backstage jam at Warren Haynes’s Christmas jam or whatever. That’s cool. There’s so much…
Bernie: I played with Leo Nocentelli from The Meters.
Timmy: Okay, yeah. That’s awesome. I love The Meters. George Porter Jr., I’ve met him a bunch of times.
Bernie: I’ve played with George Porter. Steve Kimock, do you know him?
Bernie: We just played in Ohio. So George Porter Jr., Steve Kimock. And Steve’s son, who is awesome.
Timmy: Yeah, yeah. I saw him, John Morgan Kimock. That’s awesome. I’ve met Steve a few times. And I’m just going to venture off of music for a second and talk about, what are some of your other interests besides music that you like to do?
Bernie: I like to fish. I’m not as avid fisherman as Les Claypool… But that’s how I…
Timmy: Right. Mostly freshwater, or saltwater?
Bernie: Freshwater. I used to go saltwater with George Clinton.
Timmy: Cool. Bernie: Years ago, down in Florida if we’d take a break. But mostly freshwater. There’s a river right across the street from where I live in New Jersey. And I like horseback riding.
Bernie: And… (Bernie goes off the record).
Timmy: Okay, that’s off the record. (insane laughter)
Bernie: So yes.
Timmy: That’s great, I mean fishing, you’ve come to the right spot, we’re the Land of 10,000 Lakes. I guess there’s even more than that. That’s just what they used to say.
Bernie: I never got a chance to fish in Minneapolis.
Timmy: If you’re ever on the road… I’m going to give you my number, and if you ever have a day off or whatever here in town, my family lives out on Lake Minnetonka. It’s a pretty big lake about 20 miles out from here.
Bernie: Is that where they make the moccasins?
Timmy: No, that’s Minnetonka Moccasins. That’s in the area but it’s not part of Lake Minnetonka.
Bernie: I like moccasins.
Timmy: Yeah, they make good ones. I love moccasins, too, I like to feel the earth under my feet, you know?
Bernie: Yeah, yeah.
Timmy: That’s cool. Here’s another kind of non-music question. What are some places around the world that you like to visit, or want to visit, and not necessarily as a touring musician, but just to go see?
Bernie: Africa. I haven’t been to Africa yet, I’ve got to go.
Bernie: I’ve gotta go. Ginger Baker, you know, Ginger Baker right?
Timmy: Uh-huh (from Cream).
Bernie: Ginger’s lived back in Africa, he always stays in Africa because he loves African people.
Bernie: I’d like to go to Africa. I’d like to go to India. I’ve already seen it, but I’d like to go to Brazil more. I’ve been there twice. I like Brazil.
Timmy: Right on, yeah. I want to go there too.
Bernie: There’s some of the islands. I haven’t been to Aruba yet.
Timmy: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s just gorgeous.
Bernie: Yes. I’ve been to Jamaica. I was hanging out with Sly & Robbie, Montreaux Jazz Festival, hanging out. I hadn’t seen him in a while. Hanging out with Grace Jones.
Timmy: Oh, yeah, I love her.
Bernie: And Quincy Jones at Montreaux.
Bernie: Yeah, Africa, Brazil. More Brazil. I love New Zealand. That’s gorgeous.
Timmy: I’ve heard that’s great, too. That’s another one I want to get to someday.
Bernie: I’ve never had really fresh air like that. I’ll show you the places.
Timmy: The waterfalls, and just everything.
Bernie: There are triple rainbows almost everyday.
Bernie: Double and triple rainbows.
Bernie: Oh, I forgot… Hawaii! Been there, but…
Timmy: Yeah, I haven’t been there yet.
Bernie: Same thing, waterfalls, double rainbows.
Timmy: Yeah. There’s just so many… The world’s so big, you know.
Bernie: Yeah. See, if you get a chance to go to Europe it’s smaller, you can cover more of it, a lot of those countries in one week.
Timmy: Yeah. I want to take that trip.
Bernie: Use the Eurail Pass. You can go by train, and if you stay in hostels it’s cheaper.
Timmy: Right! I know, I finally got my passport a few years ago, and I’ve traveled up to Canada a little bit, and down in Mexico a little bit, but I’ve got to get out to the real world, you know, get out to Europe, go to the other continents.
Bernie: My son was born in Toronto. My wife, she was born in Montreal. Hey!
Some Passing Girl: How are you?
Timmy: Well, I’m really looking forward to tonight.
Bernie: Hope I can keep up with the kids!
Timmy: (laughs) I have trouble keeping up with these kids! They’ve got a lot of energy to them, you know.
Bernie: My arthritis is getting worse. My body, my fingers…
Bernie: My fingers, I have sciatic problems, you know… Enjoy yourself while you’re young!
Bernie: Sixty-five (referring to his age)…
Timmy: I know that… I know for arthritis, there’s essential oils. I think massage is probably real good for that. There’s some homeopathic stuff that’s pretty decent out there.
Bernie: I’m going to see a specialist next week. I’ve got tiger balm I’ve got to put on. Any type of water, change in the moisture, the humidity… Being by water, air conditioning kills me. When I fly, I can’t take it. Winter time…
Timmy: Right. This has been great talking to you. I know that you’ve been a musician your whole life. Was it three and a half years you started playing piano?
Bernie: Three and a half years. I played my first concert was when I was four years old.
Bernie: I wrote (forty) classical pieces. I wrote my first piano concerto when I was eight years old. Played three piano concertos in front of the Washington Symphony Orchestra (at age 10)…
Timmy: The rest is history! And then you got into the P-Funk community, and…
Bernie: Actually, I was… You know a group named Tavares?
Timmy: Tavares. Sounds familiar.
Bernie: They had three or four pop hits. They were on Capitol Records. But they were known as Chubby and the Turnpikes. They’re Portuguese. They’re from Providence, Rhode Island, and I was their musical director when I was in college in Boston at the New England Conservatory (of Music). I started playing in the nightclubs at night when I was in college, and going to college, going to classes during the day, trying to make it. So actually before P-Funk, I was playing in nightclubs for a while.
Timmy: That’s awesome. I’ll have to look that up. That sounds really interesting.
Timmy: Tavares. That’s great. So you’re going to be sitting in tonight with these guys a little bit?
Timmy: Awesome, that’s great. I’m really looking forward to that. You know, I really appreciate you taking this time. It’s very kind of you to share all these things, and I’m really looking forward to publishing this.
Bernie: And when Timmy becomes larger than he is now, I can say, “And I helped!”
Timmy: (laughs) Yes, you can. You know, I want the whole world to know that the true funk resides in this, the Woo-niverse!
Bernie: Thank you.
Timmy: And thanks to you man, it’s a pleasure to meet you and talk to you. So yeah, that’s great.
Bernie: You all study hard and work hard! Don’t be the lazy American.
Timmy: You get a lot of culture that was made by people who came here from other places.
Bernie: Right! If you don’t want to work, well, then shut up.
Timmy: Right! (laughs) All right, that’s awesome.
Bernie: If you wanna box, well, fine, see you in the ring!