Bernie Worrell’s fingers are tired. For decades, the 71-year-old musician has been tickling the keys of Minimoog synthesizers, Hammond organs, and baby grands — most prominently as a founding member and musical director of the legendary Parliament-Funkadelic, but more recently as a hired gun and solo artist. At his age, it shouldn’t be surprising that Worrell’s body doesn’t work like it used to. He has trouble around moisture and air conditioners, which adds to stiffness in his joints. But he keeps at it with the help of muscle homeopathic creams, aquatic arthritis classes, and a Tae Kwon Do finger exercise he learned from veteran Parliament member Fuzzy Haskins. “I know they’re not like they used to be,” Worrell says of his precious digits. “But the audience, they can’t tell.”
In recent months, Worrell has kept busy with a dizzying range of projects. There’s the solo album he released in 2013, full of jazz and rock standards performed solo on the baby grand. The record was produced by longtime collaborator Bill Laswell. He also heads up the Icons of Funk live band with guitarist Leo Nocentelli from The Meters and former James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley. And then there’s the project he’s been playing in called Khu.éex’, which crosses funk music with traditional songs of Alaska’s Tlingit Indian tribe. Worrell’s also got a new solo album in the works, and on Saturday, November 21, he’ll be at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles with a 30-piece orchestra paying tribute to the music of Dr. Dre.
The reason Worrell has kept at it for all these years is partly economic; he has long complained (going as far back as 1993, according to one news report) that he is owed money for his contributions to P-Funk. But he says there’s still much to learn and clearly seems eager to try new things. Ahead of the “California Love” tribute concert, I got on the phone with Worrell to talk synthesizers, travel, God, and more. —Peter Holslin
When you first started working with Khu.éex’, did you have to mull it over whether Indian American chants and drumming could be combined with funk?
Bernie Worrell:No. I’ve mixed music before. I’ve mixed funk with classical or church [music]. I’ve been doing that for years. It was positive all the way, because I knew it could be done.
What do you like about mixing sounds?
Bernie Worrell:I get bored. I need something different, instead of playing just rock or just playing funk or just playing reggae or just playing classical — you know, the norm. I like to mix stuff, because it’s something different.
You grew up playing classical music, right?
Bernie Worrell:Yes, I was a child prodigy at three-and-a-half years old. My first concert was at four years old.
When was the first time you ever heard a synthesizer?
Bernie Worrell:I have to say when I was in college at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I had an Emerson, Lake & Palmer [album]. That’s when I first heard the Moog synthesizer.
How did you respond to it?
Bernie Worrell:It tickled my fancy. That was a big one. [Note: Emerson played an enormous Moog modular synth.] After joining P-Funk, they came out with the Minimoog, which is the granddaddy after the one that Keith Emerson [played]. I bought one, and then came “Flash Light.” And “One Nation” bass line, that’s a Minimoog. Bass line on “Aqua Boogie,” that’s a Minimoog. There’s actually three Minimoogs on “Flash Light.” Everybody gravitates towards the bass line, but there’s two more doing cartoon voices.
What is it about a nice fat synth bass line that you enjoy?
Bernie Worrell:I just enjoy the sound of it. It’s the sound — that’s how I put it. The sound of it, which translates into how it feels, but to me it’s how it sounds. It’s fat. Even the new Moogs, they’re not as fat as the original Model-D, which is what I prefer. I have about three different Moog synthesizers that they give me, but I always go to the old one, because it’s vintage.
Do you still have your old Minimoog from the ’70s?
Bernie Worrell: Yep.
Oh, wow. Does it still play?
Bernie Worrell:I’ll use that before I use the new stuff. Except for back-lining and you can’t find them all the time, so… yeah, I just bear with it and just use the presets on the new stuff.
Those old synths are a little harder to use right? More unpredictable?
Bernie Worrell:Well, for me it’s easier because I’m used to the knobs. The new stuff, it’s not my forte. I’m used to turning the knobs and creating the sound. A bass line, there’s nothing fatter in my opinion than the Moog. When you go to the other ranges, the higher voicing, higher pitch, octaves, shit everybody mixes differently. Some are more high end or more low end or mid range. I just hear it, try different settings and different wave-forms, and I don’t delve into… I just hear it. If it sounds good, that’s how I do it.
Your album Elevation from 2013 was the first solo acoustic effort and on it you play piano. What’s it like playing a baby grand versus playing a synthesizer?
Bernie Worrell:You need more technique. That’s where the classical training comes in. If you’ve been trained classically in the basics, there’s a lot more to it as far as your technique. Because each piano is different, in some have a light touch, some heavier. I have a light touch. [There are] Steinways or Yamahas that have different feel than a keyboard. It’s challenging.
It’s really cool that after all these years, you’re still playing music a lot and putting out albums and staying active. Are you still learning as a musician?
Bernie Worrell:You never stop learning. The minute you think you know it all, you’re in trouble. Different experiences and playing with different people—it’s a learning experience in itself. Because you have to listen. The key to everything is just listening. It’s not just you; it’s a band. Everybody’s playing together, and the key is to listen to what the other person is doing and sharing, and putting whatever you think to the table. One of the gifts God gave me was to be able to play different music, so I’m thankful for that.
Are you a religious person? A spiritual person?
Bernie Worrell:Yes, I’m a spiritual person. It’s not me—it comes through me. I’m a channel.
What’s your relationship like with God?
Bernie Worrell:I pray every day. All day long.
What do you pray about?
Bernie Worrell:To make it through this day without getting in trouble. [laughs]
What keeps you inspired after all these years?
Bernie Worrell:Bills! [laughs] That’s one of the reasons. And the other is I enjoy new stuff. I don’t particularly like playing the same thing, playing the hits. I’m tired of that, playing the same things every night. That’s why I like jam bands.
You’re still a working musician, then?
Bernie Worrell:Yes. I’ll be that until I’m not here anymore.
Are you able to pay your bills and live comfortably?
Bernie Worrell:I’m still able to pay bills, and I’m owed a lot of money. We have people trying to help out as far as collecting some of what I’m owed. I’m not the only one in that boat. I’m trying not to, you know, let the negative stuff in this business get to me.
Does it ever get grueling, having to keep playing at your age?
Bernie Worrell:Well, the traveling part does now. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I remember in the dressing room in Tokyo [for an Icons of Funk concert], we were all sitting in the dressing room and Fred and Leo were talking, and Fred said, “Yeah, the hardest part is traveling.” Checking into hotels and all that stuff. Planes and all that. That’s harder than just two hours onstage. That’s the fun part. The other stuff is work. Traveling and airports and blah blah blah blah blah. Checking in, checking out. I do a wheelchair thing in the airport. Everything is set up.
How often do you travel for shows?
Bernie Worrell:Well, it depends on what comes in. You know, different months. I just got back from Chicago last week. Maybe two weeks before that I was—where was I? I was in North Carolina with a jam band. It just depends on what comes in. Every month is different. I’ll be gone again in a week, and then there’s stuff back with Funk Icons in January, and something might come in before that.
So you don’t plan on retiring any time soon?
Bernie Worrell:That would be nice. But if I do, I’d still be doing something. I’d be playing here and there. That’s all I know.
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