Bernie Worrell Adds The P. Funk Dimension to the Talking Heads

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(In honor of the late Bernie Worrell, we are posting his classic Keyboard interviews as we prepare a tribute for the October issue. This is Worrell's second interview with us, from November 1985.)

JAMES BROWN, SLY STONE, AND JIMI HENDRIX may be the Trinity of contemporary black American pop music, but Parliament/Funkadelic is just as holy. For twenty years, and under various names (Parliament, Funkadelic, P. Funk All-Stars), this band released uncompromising music that was guzzled by funkaholics (it wasn't watered down enough for mainstream listeners). George Clinton and his wacked-out imagination masterminded the group, but playing Secretary of State to Clinton's President was musical director Bernie Worrell, who orchestrated the sound heard 'round the funk world.

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It was Worrell who, on "Flash Light" (from the 1977 Funkentelechy Vs. The Placebo Syndrome), was one of the first keyboardists to lay down a funk bass line on Minimoog. Even Stevie Wonder paid tribute to Worrell's funk mastery. "He used to come to our shows in Detroit," Worrell recalls, "and sit right in front with his little portable keyboard and play along with us." And it was Bernie who, with his rigorous classical training, made P. Funk more than a dance band. Thanks to him, the tunes were as much for the ears as for the feet. [Ed. Note: For more about Worrell's association with P. Funk and his musical background, see Keyboard, Sept. '78

In the four years since he split with P. Funk, the 42-year-old Worrell has added his more-than-a-dash-of-funk to records by artists ranging from Fela to Public Image, from the Last Poets to Nona Hendryx, and from Toure Kunda to, most recently, the Rolling Stones. But his greatest contribution this decade has been to Talking Heads. When David Byrne expanded his prototype new wave quartet into a nine-piece band embracing African polyrhythms and layered funk grooves, Worrell was the first musician recruited. Byrne knew that if anybody could help develop such a musical fusion it would be Worrell. Not only because Bernie had been a giant star in the P. Funk solar system, but also because of his openness to new sounds and his desire to play with a variety of musicians.

On the P. Funk discs, Worrell's shocking polytonalities and compelling bass lines leap off the vinyl. With Talking Heads, he offsets the groove with electronic squeaks and squawks and occasional burning Clavinet solos. He's always in control of his instruments, yet he never sacrifices a sense of spontaneity and revelation for technical virtuosity. In studio sessions he embellishes what's already there—he's not interested in stealing the spotlight. Worrell's conversation is crowded with abstractions, socio-political musings, and jokes. He doesn't like to talk about his gear or analyze his technique. Instead, he discusses playing what he feels, and the different vibes given off by various instruments.

HOW DID YOUR ASSOCIATION with Talking Heads come about?
Jerry Harrison called first, and then the manager, after they found out about the breakup between George Clinton, myself, and P. Funk. They asked if I would be interested in playing with them. I didn't know anything about their music at the time, so I met them at the Ritz in New York when I went to see another group. They had been fans of mine and P. Funk, so knowing about the breakup, they jumped and asked me. I said, “Yeah, let me check it out and see what it’s like.” David [Byrne] works the way George [Clinton] does. And Talking Heads works in the studio similar to the way P-Funk did.

In what way?

The way they develop the tunes; starting from scratch until the tune is finished. The concept of putting ideas down and then after it’s done, listening and saying “yes” or “no”. The freedom type of thing. Some things are structured, but not everything. You start with the bass line and the drums and build from there.

Does Byrne control what’s going on in the studio?
Sometimes. I do what I want because they know that’s how I work. I play what I feel. There are some times when David might have certain changes that he wants; or he’ll be in the control room and Jerry will do whatever and if David likes it, cool, and if he doesn’t, they’ll talk about it.

Did they have the line up set for the expanded group by the time they asked you to join?
No, I was the first one. I played with them the first time the big group played at Heatwave in Toronto. That was the beginning of it. They hadn't had a gold record until the big group, until the merger of everything. David has always been into other cultures: African, South American, Egyptian—he's into it, so he merged it all.

How did it work out with two keyboardists?
You play with each other; it's no big deal. There shouldn't be a problem between musicians. It's like a marriage. If you're playing the chords then I can double it if I want to reinforce the same chord structure to make it larger, or you can do a chord structure and I'll play a line. Of course, if there's an ego problem it doesn't work so well. I don't have one; I'm known already. With Jerry I don't have a problem: He loves me and I love him.

Did Harrison direct your efforts on his solo album, The Red And The Black, or did he let you play whatever you wanted to?
He had his ideas. We fussed and fought a little bit, but it's his record, so I did what he wanted—he pays the money. On my record, he'll do what I want. On your record, I'll do what you want.

What was the Stop Making Sense tour like?
One thing about that show I'll never forget was that everywhere we went, people would say, "Thank you for coming." You don't hear that a lot. That struck me; that told me right there. Check the mixture—white and black onstage playing for mostly white audiences and they say, "Thank you for coming." We burned, we played, baby. They were surprised to see what we did; they didn't know what to expect. The experience they got from all of us playing together and the way that it all meshed and blended together brought about a happy feeling, a good feeling. I did what I wanted, and we killed them with that show. Of course, there was the other part of the tour, which was the movie: the lighting and staging. David is into that, and he's a genius at it.

Did you play the keyboard solo in "Burning Down The House"? It sounds like a Clavinet playing the lead line.

No, I didn't play the solo; Jerry did that on a Prophet-5. The influence there is obviously funk, and I played lines similar to Jerry's—he copied my influence, so to speak. I took Clavinet solos in "Once In A Lifetime," "Life During Wartime," and the front part of "This Must Be The Place."

Which keyboards are you using now?
I don't use much equipment because my stuff was stolen from in front of the Power Station [recording studio in New York] in 1980. So I had to start over again. But I can play anything. And whenever I do sessions, the producers usually get keyboards for me. [Producer] Bill Laswell gave me a [Yamaha] DX7 last year as a Christmas present. All I need to play live is the DX7 and my Hohner Clavinet. I've also got a Roland TR-606 [Drumatix] drum machine. I'm getting ready to get a Yamaha RX11 drum machine to run with my DX7. I'm building my rack as I go along; I'm getting new modules.

Do you prefer a particular keyboard instrument?

Depends. You see, whatever keyboard I touch, I get different vibes from. I play it for the feel of whatever it is. I'll play an authentic handmade harpsichord or clavichord differently than I'll play the German-made Clavinet built today. You get a different touch, a different feel. If I switch over to acoustic piano on the same tune, I'll get a different feel. If I go to a [Hammond] B-3 or to a synthesizer, I'll get another feel. I work by sound and feel. And you must feel it first, baby. Bill Laswell knows it's all about feeling. He doesn't have to tell me anything: We are perfectly matched. Same with Talking Heads.

Do you consider your rhythmic feel to be a jazz style?
They say I can play it that way, but I don't consider myself a jazz player. I played jazz changes with P. Funk and Talking Heads; anybody who's got ears can hear that. But as far as soloing, I don't like to do solo runs. I do them in spurts, but I'm a rhythmic player. I'm rhythmic within the chord and the melody. I mesh it all together.

Who have you been working with lately?
I just finished [drummer] Sly Dunbar and [bassist] Robbie Shakespeare's album. I was musical director for Yoko Ono's album, with Sly, Robbie, [drummer] Tony Williams, and Bill Laswell. Before that I worked on some other Laswell projects: Fela, Last Poets, Manu Dibango, Toure Kunda, and the Rolling Stones.

How many songs did you do with the Stones?
That's really crazy, because the tape keeps rolling. We played arrangements and then jammed for as long as Keith [Richards] wanted to jam. Then we went through some tunes from the Motown catalog. I have no idea what they'll choose to use on the album, but it was fun; especially when we got to reminiscing on the older tunes.

You're also working with your own group now, Bernie Worrell & Friends. Will you be recording and touring with that band?
We'll soon be doing a record for Jem Records and we've been touring. We played Syracuse University, Irving Plaza, the Bottom Line in New York, and George Washington University. Syracuse University wants us back with Jerry Harrison. Hopefully, we'll be touring more after the record, but that's actually for the other people in the band, because I work anyway. It's a strange situation: A tour has to be scheduled and worked out, because I'm in and out all the time. Sly and Robbie call, I got to go. If Yoko calls, or Laswell calls, or Mick [Jagger] calls, I'll go to Japan or wherever. In the meantime, my band should be able to carry on and play while I'm gone. That's how I'm trying to set it up, until something solid happens. And then I'll still work with other people because that's the type of person I am. I work within and without you.

Which do you enjoy more, leading your own band or playing in someone else's?
I like leading, but I don't like all the lead. I don't want all the lead. I like to accompany, which is an art in itself. And I enjoy playing with a variety of people, because I get bored playing one thing. I'll play one tune five different ways; if you challenge me, I'll play it ten different ways. That's where variations and merging styles come in. That's what I did with Talking Heads. See the diversity? I can't play just one thing: I got to move.

Watch Bernie Worrell play "Burning Down the House" with the Talking Heads in the film Stop Making Sense.

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