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Published: 2000/11/15
by Bob Makin

Talking WOO With Bernie Worrell and Jen Durkin

When Jen Durkin left Deep Banana Blackout this summer, fans of the funk were a bit concerned whether she had made the right career move. But the sassy suburban groove gal was determined to grow as a performer and composer so she set her sites on a gig that would enable to create more and tour less. She found a match made in funk heaven with Bernie Worrell & the WOO Warriors.
While the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inducted Parliament-Funkadelic musical director-keyboardist and architect of funk and disco’s synth bassline is digging Durkin’s rabid young following, the vocal vixen is vibing off the Wizard of WOO’s classically-trained chops, as well as those of his New Jersey/New York-based band: keyboardist Greg Fitz, who’s from P-Funk’s hometown of Plainfield, N.J., and has worked extensively with Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band and Worrell’s ’80s funk project Quasar; guitarist-musical director Michael “Moon’‘ Reuben, underground bass favorite Donna McPherson; and drummer Gary Sullivan, who’s played with everyone from The Cro-Mags and The B-52s to Cyndi Lauper and Vernon Reid. The new Warriors only have a couple of weeks of gigs under the big-bottom belts, but that’s not going to stop them from blowing away Deep Banana Blackout’s crowd when Worrell and company open for Durkin’s old band on Nov. 22 at Irving Plaza, New York. If you can’t make that show, you’ll find more, among other things, at www.bernieworrell.com. Hopefully the following chats with Worrell and Durkin will make you want to clear your schedule.

How’s the new WOO Warriors with Jen? What does she bring to the band that wasn’t there before?

Worrell: She brings so much stage presence. She’s phenomenal. She talks to the people and mingles with them and her vocalization is superb and getting better on the funk side. She’s a great performer who dances and moves and twists and turns. And she moves the crowd. When she comes onstage, people recognize her and there’s a lot of love. We call her Sonic Vox. And she’s an Aries, like me. We get along really good. She’s constantly saying how much fun she’s having in this group.

Besides the Deep Banana gig at Irving, what will the WOO Warriors be up to?

Worrell: Well, we’ll be playing the House of Blues in Boston. That’ll be our first time there, but I played there before with Mos Def and with George Clinton & the P-Funk Allstars. I’ve been working a lot with (Talking Heads’) Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz in the Tom Tom Club and there’s a possible WOO Warriors tour with them. We’re going to finish up our record at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, N.Y., once the studio is done moving.

Comment on how you and Jen became friendly during the Waterloo Music Festival at Waterloo Village in August and how she ended up joining the band?

Worrell: She was playing with Deep Banana Blackout and I was playing with Gov’t Mule. Deep Banana went on before us. I had met and played with Banana Blackout like a year ago or so in upstate New York. I met everybody briefly. The WOO Warriors were opening for them and (Deep Banana) felt kind of embarrassed. We talked briefly but not at length. Then at Waterloo, we met again. By then, Jen had left Deep Banana and I was interested in her joining us if she so desired. She was thinking about the same thing.

We were given her phone number by Chris Franz because he got word of her leaving Deep Banana Blackout. I called her before the Waterloo Festival. That was the finalization of her saying yes, that she was interested and wanted to try it out. Moon sent her the rehearsal tapes and the rest is history. She had about a month to learn everything because I was on the road with Mos Def. In three rehearsals, she killed it. We had our first three gigs in Ithaca, Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y., last week. Each show got better and better. Since the WOO Warriors have not worked in a month while I was with Mos Def, we’re all getting back into gear. And it’s all good. The people really seemed to enjoy every show.

What do you think of young P-Funk-inspired bands like Deep Banana Blackout? Do they steal your thunder in any way?

Worrell: I see them keeping the funk alive, keeping it in the present and reminding those that forgot of the past. Also, it’s like an education to those that didn’t know about P-Funk. One negative thing is that a lot people think when they play a Funkadelic song, they think Deep Banana Blackout wrote it. Jen was talking about that to me one time. She was like, ‘No man! Don’t you know who P-Funk is? They wrote those songs. We’re just trying to cover it in our own way.’ So that’s the negative, but you have to expect that. On the positive tip, they correct people and say, ‘No, that was written by Bernie Worrell or George Clinton or P-Funk. You should hear the original’ So to me, they’re keeping the funk alive.

Comment on the loss of your friend Allen Woody, whom you played with many times in Gov’t Mule, including all over their box set, ‘Live…With a Little Help From Our Friends.’

Worrell: Oh man, I was shocked. I was hurt. I cried. I didn’t believe it. It shows how precious life is and friendship. We were real close. I can imagine how devastating it is to Matt Abst and Warren (Haynes) and Stephanie (Haynes’ wife-manager), the whole Capricorn crew. And his daughter and wife. You never know. It was a blessing to have been able to know and play with him. I was just at dinner socializing with him before he hit the stage at Waterloo. After that show, everybody went their own way. I just didn’t believe it. It’s a huge loss and I’m just saying prayers for Warren and Matt and showing my respect because I understand Matt and Warren are doing a duo thing at the moment. They didn’t go and get a bass player right away, you know, how some groups do that. That’s a rough one there. What do you do?

I’m meeting with Warren and Stephanie to offer my help on the playing side of things. I could play Moog bass on some gigs to help till they can figure out what they’re going to do as far as a power trio again. (Worrell’s manager-wife) Judie and Stephanie are trying to work that out so that I can play with them with the WOO Warriors opening. It’s the same type of thing with the Tom Tom Club. I had a lunch meeting with Warren and Stephanie about that but it got postponed because a (recording) date with Kate Pierson (of the B-52s) came up. But that’ll be forthcoming.

Now you’re a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with P-Funk, which is one of the funniest bands with the most serious chops and message anyone’s ever heard. Comment on the combination of those elements.

Worrell: I believe that came from the seriousness of my classical training and teaching the music to the other musicians and the vocalists and to George. That became mixed with the feel of the street musicians, which I would call the original Funkadelic: (guitarist) Eddie Hazel, (bassist) Billy Nelson, (drummer) Tiki Fulwood and (guitarist) Tawl Ross. That combination was mixed with Clinton’s humor and ability to process serious topics with a comical twist to get our message across and prevent government intervention. It got to where the common man could understand it.

What happened to the P-Funk reunion records that were supposed to come out on Mammoth?

Worrell: There was a falling out between George and Mammoth. In the meantime, the head of Mammoth was fired by Disney and there was a discrepancy over songs that George wanted on the album and they wanted. Mammoth got in touch with Bill Laswell to smooth things out. Bill tried but didn’t want to get caught up in it. He backed off, then George got pissed off. He’s not talking Mammoth so now you’re talking about another court situation. Here we go again. It’s crazy.

But in the meantime, George is in his studio in Tallahassee working on two or three different projects. Before I went on this last P-Funk Allstars tour, I was done in Tallahassee with him for a week. It was the first time I was in that studio in years. But they’ve got young, talented kids down there doing the engineering, running those machines.

If the Mothership lands again, will you be on it?

Worrell: Well, I was on it at Woodstock. I’m sure that they would work it out because it wouldn’t be the Mothership if myself or Bootsy weren’t there.

Comment on how P-Funk is a family, a dysfunctional family, but a family.

Worrell: Well, it goes back to Sly Stone, ‘It’s a Family Affair.’ One child grows up and goes onto one thing and the others go onto something else. In the P-Funk family, all the children are grown up doing other things, but it’s still the family once the differences are mended. They come back together for that family reunion, kind of like when families have cousins all over the country and they meet at a cookout. One’s got to think of it in that context. It’s dysfunctional but it’s funKtional.

I understand the WOO Warriors are going to be playing near P-Funk’s Plainfield origins at the Jersey jam haven, Crossroads in Garwood.

Worrell: Yeah, I would like for the people in the Plainfield area and Westfield and Garwood and Newark, the Oranges, Elizabeth, Linden, our older and new fans to come out. This is a chance for them to see us in Jersey. We always hear, ‘You know, it’s hard for us to come see you in New York with the parking and all.’ Well, now our fans can see us in Jersey at Crossroads. I’d love for them to make a big showing. That way, they will bring us back and I can stop hearing, ‘You guys never play around here.’

Jen, comment on getting together with Bernie at the Waterloo Music Festival in his home state of New Jersey.

Durkin: Before I hooked up with him, we did a gig with the WOO Warriors a few years back. I was completely astonished that we were not opening for them. I was really pretty blown away by that and couldn’t really understand why it was that way. I felt — out of reverence and respect for Bernie and the fact that we were so influenced by P-Funk — a bit embarrassed. I didn’t connect with Bernie that night at all. Deep down inside, I felt unworthy and bit sick about it.

Kind of like ‘Wayne’s World.’

Durkin: That’s exactly how I felt. There was some unhappiness for having to open for us from Bernie and his band. It was not a good way to start off. I felt uncomfortable about that. People let the numbers do the talking, but the thing is our crowd was coming to see us because of the live energy that we created thanks to the P-Funk medleys that we would do and that music that helped us create our music.

I was thinking about leaving Deep Banana Blackout because I wanted more of a challenge musically from people who were a little further along in the business and as composers and songwriters, people I look up to. I’m not saying I don’t respect the guys in the group, but I was not learning as much from them as might from other people. In the back of my mind, I was hoping that something like this would happen. But when it happened, it happened so quickly, I was astonished. I thought I would have to put a lot more legwork to get somebody like Bernie interested. It’s like a dream come true, and I’m still pretty amazed. It’s huge for me because I’m such a fan. I grew up listening to P-Funk. Not only that but Greg Fitz, who is the other keyboard player. I’ve seen him many times with Bootsy Collins’ Rubber Band. I’m a huge fan of his as well. The amazing thing is now I’m in a group with these guys I’ve seen them so many times with Bootsy. They’re teaching me so much about harmony and style. Stuff comes out that completely blows me away. It’s better than going back to school. It’s like funk graduate school.

And Bernie is so down-to-earth. He’s like, ‘You know, you already graduated.’ He treats me with so much respect that it’s easy for me to overcome the past weirdness, that whole scene where they opened for us. He makes it easy. That really has done wonders for my whole attitude. I respect him and feel good everything’s all right now, but I know I’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s exciting for me embracing this challenge because I like to work. So much of the time it’s about how many people you bring into the room, how much money you make at the door. For me, I really need to be about how to improve this year as a composer, songwriter, lyricist, singer and performer. I’m really focusing more on that and less on how you get thousands of people to show up at these gigs. Granted, when you are really good, hopefully that just happens. People become attracted to it and you end up successful in the business. But I wanted to focus on myself and my ability to grow and learn. These people are clearly much more advanced than me and very eager to share what they have.

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