An interview with Bernie Worrell

by Ryan Snyder

Bernie Worrell, who cut his teeth with George Clinton before becoming a legend in his own right, thinks talk is cheap. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

The story of legendary funk innovator Bernie Worrell hits you in the face with its staggering juxtaposition of sadness and greatness. As a founding member of Parliament and an integral gear in Talking Heads’ early ’80s live juggernaut, one would be hard pressed not to find a corner of the contemporary musical sphere in which his legacy has not crept. His genius and imprint is almost inescapable, which makes it all the more surprising that few would want to actually trade places with him. His life of bitter solitude, near constant personal trauma and business misfortune is spelled out in the little-seen documentary Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth. I recently visited with Bernie before he performed in Asheville and while he’s an extraordinarily soft-spoken, quiet man, talking with him feels more like an out of body experience. But, like other giants, he believes talk is cheap.

Y!W: You came close to being born in Greensboro, correct?

BW: My mother was raised in Greensboro. She spent much of her youth there, and I guess you could say she gained her appreciation for music there. She was able to recognize my abilities at a very young age and wanted me to be a concert pianist.

Y!W: You’re all over the map as far as collaborations in recent years. Who are you working with these days?

BW: I’ve got one group, Socialybrium, which is comprised of Melvin Gibbs on bass, JT Lewis on drums and Blackbird McKnight from P-Funk was with us, but it became too much West Coast-East Coast back and forth for him. We have Ronnie Drayton on guitar now. It’s an ongoing project, and the new thing Wes ‘N Worrell is with a young and talented bass player and songwriter that’s been together for about six months. Then I’m doing Method of Defiance with Bill Laswell, for the CD release gig in New York. His wife Gigi is going to Ethiopia in January for their 10 years together, and he called last week about that, and that will be my first time in Africa playing with her. She’s phenomenal.

Y!W: I saw her with Material in Tennessee. In fact, I saw you with Praxis that same weekend at a festival.

BW: (laughs) Many moons ago.

Y!W: Doesn’t feel like it. It felt like one of those once in a lifetime things then and it still does. Did you feel like something special had happened when you left the stage?

BW: It does feel like it to my body though. Well, first it was really special playing with those players, you know, Bill, Brain, Lily Haydn and Buckethead. We take it somewhere else every time we get together. We respect each other, and it’s a chance to be free, create and do what we do.

Y!W: How did you prepare for something like that?

BW: We just jam. You know, you just play. We know each other so well from the albums a few years back, so you know we just hit it. Praxis Transmutation was the first time we got together and nothing’s changed between us since.

Y!W: In an interview with a San Francisco magazine years ago, Bill Laswell once described him as a guy with a vision.

BW: I think he kind of hears it in his head. He speaks through his playing. I’m not much of a word person either, and Bill keeps his words limited. Buckethead doesn’t talk at all.

Y!W: You’re involved in so many projects at the same time, how do you keep from repeating yourself?

BW: It might be in another key, because everything fits. It’s all related for me. I can take one lick and fit it into a gospel piece, a Gregorian chant, rock, soul, funk. I can fit it into a Christmas carol or a nursery rhyme. It’s a gift I have. Every sound can find a home somewhere. I do often repeat myself, but it’s the context that matters most.

Y!W: A lot’s been said about the royalties you’re owed. Given the chance, would you trade the freedom you have now for what you’re owed?

BW: I’d split it in half. Just give me some money and some freedom. I might not be able to recoup everything, because at this point I’m going to have the freedom anyway. I’m just grateful for the change in the music scene.

Y!W: You probably get asked this a lot, but what’s Buckethead like to perform with?

BW: Quiet, shy. Onstage, you know how he is.