By Ray Chelstowski
George Clinton has always looked at music as a “family affair.” Through large ensemble acts like Parliament and Funkadelic he created an approach to recording and live performance that turned studios and stages into festivals of their own. Even when he attacked a solo project, he found a way to work actual family members and former bandmates into the roster, because in his mind they were all part of one much larger kinship.
Across his career he has led one of the most prolific outputs within modern music and in turn has created a catalog that is comprehensive and remarkably complete. It defines multiple genres and stands apart because of its inherent sense of independence and singular vision. Compositions bounce even better because they incorporate generous amounts of humor and are brave enough to tackle topics tethered to science fiction, social change, and more.
His live performances are spirited by his eccentric and whimsical sense of fashion. His approach to band leadership makes set lists irrelevant and the journey unpredictable, and seldom repeated. That spirit is alive and well on his current One Nation Under A Groove tour. George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic (P-Funk) remain a family affair, and he continues to be backed in part by grandson Traf Lewis on guitar, granddaughter and vocalist Tonysha Nelson, and longtime keyboardist Danny Bedrosian. Goldmine spoke to them together just prior to a show in the United Kingdom and discussed the lasting impact this music continues to make, what it’s like to work for “George,” and what they hope to get out of this tour that has them sharing the stage with a number of funk and jam band favorites. It was a terrific and lively exchange that found George, on the eve of his 81st birthday, firmly footed as “The Godfather of Funk” and in no particular hurry to jump off this jam-driven journey.
Goldmine: When did you first see that you were having an impact on music outside of your direct world?
George Clinton: Probably when we first started doing Funkadelic stuff. When Maggot Brain came out we knew it by then. We knew that we had an “event” and were doing something different.
Then when hip hop arrived we knew we had done something very special. Back then before the songs came out we heard them on what were called “mixed tapes” and we could tell something was ready to happen. This was just because of them covering the songs in a new format that would be known as sampling.
GM: What album would you go back and remix if you could
GC: The song "Super Stupid" (on Maggot Brain, 1971). I always wanted to go back and do that as a real rock and roller. Or the album By Way of the Drum (Funkadelic, 2007) because we didn’t actually mix those. The record company actually did it themselves. That’s why you don’t hear many people refer to By Way of the Drum as a Funkadelic record. I actually like some of the electronic versions, the disco versions.
GM: The 50th anniversary of the release of America Eats Its Young just passed. It was the first album to include the whole of The House Guests and it was the debut of the Funkadelic logo. Would you still release it as a double album today?
GC: “Everybody’s Gonna Make It This Time” was actually recorded in London. We used The Who’s drummer’s drums. I wouldn’t make it a single. I think it’s worth two records just for the cover. (laughs)
GM: You have always been so prolific. From 1974 to 1980 you released a new studio album every year.
GC: Well, we had two groups going at the same time. The when Bootsy (Collins) arrived we had three bands. By the time we got to 1980 we had about six different groups. Now we have about 15 groups. (laughs)
GM: What is the record that you think best defines your career and why?
GC: That’s hard because they all join together. Some of those that I like a lot of people don’t know anything about — both Bernie Worrell’s records and Eddie Hazel’s records. Then The Brides (of Funkenstein) second album, Never Buy Texas From A Cowboy I really felt good about. I wasn’t trying to get hit singles at that time. I was just doing albums.
GM: I love your solo album The Cinderella Theory. Will the song “Airborne” make its way into your shows on this tour?
GC: That particular song is getting ready to be re-recorded. It was one of my favorites. Actually my son was just coming into his thing around then and so we used him and some of the members of his band. That song is one of the slicker ones.
GM: Is there any stop on this tour that you are particularly looking forward to?
GC: Well, I’m always happy to go to Manchester (England). It’s one of the first places we visited when we came here in the late 1960s. Manchester has always reminded me of Newark (New Jersey). That place and Birmingham always remind me of the projects.
GM: Bob Weir has dreams where John Mayer is carrying the Grateful Dead torch forward after he is gone. Do you see that with your grand kids?
GC: Well, you can see them all behind me now. That’s exactly the reason we have been practicing for the last three years; for this setup to live on.
GM: Danny, I read that you maintain a classical music practice regimen of up to three hours daily. How does that help inform what you contribute to the funk?
Danny Bedrosian: Yeah, it’s like three to five hours every day. That’s what I grew up on. It’s also what Bernie Worell grew up on. Like me he started at age three and did his first recital at age four. So coming into P-Funk, having that classical background was a huge advantage. In particular it helped my study skills. This is the biggest catalog of all time. So you had better have some kind of study skills if you’re going to get it right. The practicing also helps with the stamina needed to keep up with P-Funk shows. When I first started we were still doing five and a half hour shows regularly.
GM: Are you still doing that thing where you call out a song from the band’s history that has never been performed before?
DB: Yeah, every few shows I try to break out something that we don’t do regularly; studio favorites, fan favorites, cult favorites. I go all of the way back to the beginning. It shows people how much bigger this catalog is than they ever knew.
GM: How is your approach to keyboards different than the players that preceded you?
DB: For the first 10 years I spent my time trying to figure out the whole cannon. All of the people who played keyboards in the group had their own way of playing. They made their own variations and I try to get little bits a pieces of how each guy did it because a lot of fans know the songs from those live versions too. So I tried to surround myself with all of them and after ten years I felt like I could start putting my little piece into that puzzle as well; subtly at first and then after seeing what sticks that becomes my contribution.
GC: George Clinton is said to be a strict band leader. What’s his biggest pet peeve?
DB: Don’t act like you’re going to tell him something that he already doesn’t know. I remember this one moment when they were recording our performances and then selling them later after our show, and there was a guy on the bus trying to tell us which songs we needed to do. He was trying to explain to George what songs would work best. I was only with the band for about two years at that point and I thought “Well, that’s never gonna happen!” He was effectively telling a producer how to produce.
GC: I can’t even tell people that because I have no idea what I’m going to do until the very last minute when I look out at the audience, and I might even change my mind after that because you never know what might happen.
Traf Lewis: I can’t name names because I don’t want to embarrass very famous people, but I was in the Valley in California at an apartment that we had set up for a little recording session. The main person who was to be featured on a track was in the bedroom with his girlfriend, messing around. The door was locked. Grandad was pounding on the door saying “It’s time for work.” This went on for 30 minutes straight. Now on the street the story about George is about the drugs and the crazy hair, the superficially, glitz and glam version of the man. Not the father or the grandfather. So with all that he has lived through, produced and done, the one thing he has always done is show up to work. With all of the stories you may have heard, there is no one more consistent in showing up on time, ready to work.
GM: Do you arrive on stage with a pre-determined set list?
GC: It’s not at all. It’s the number one “no no.” There is no set list.
TL: Five minutes before the show starts he tells us what we’re going to begin with. Then he might change it again two minutes before the show starts. That’s all we know. Then we get started and he calls it as we go. You have to be very good at watching, paying attention, reading lips and body language.
Two nights ago we were on stage. The show had already started. Grandad asks me if I had the tracks; a mixture of live playing and backing tracks. During the show he asks if I have a slower song that we haven’t played in years. I had to download tracks live on stage to the computer. It was literally 60 seconds before the girls vocals were to begin. That’s how intense it can become.
GM: Traf, your side project, God’s Weapon, is a metal act. Does that rock edge ever make an appearance in your playing with George?
TL: When I was a kid I had no interest in playing music, or playing with my grandfather. The reason was two-fold. One, I didn’t think that I had anything to add. I never listened to his music and thought he should do this or that. I just thought that it was good in and of itself. I got into metal in college and later came on tour with my grandfather as a guitar tech. Then we just found a way to integrate what I’m doing into the music. So I started to develop my character on stage my grandfather always insisted that I just be me and that allows me to come at things from a completely different angle. So with God’s Weapon I make angry music for little girls. (laughs)
GM: What are you all looking to get out of this tour?
TL: America Eat’s Its Young is just as relevant today as it was 50 years ago, just look at the news. What we enjoy about these songs and lyrics is not as important as it is for us to remember that they remain current and mean something to everyone in the crowd. We literally have all ages, all ethnicities, and all genders attend our shows and they may be hearing some of these songs for the first time.
Tonysha Nelson: I think that on this tour we returned having really missed each other. Working as a unit is really what’s best for all of us. There is real momentum and power in this creative circle.
One Nation Under a Groove Tour Summer 2022
06-24 Fort Wayne, IN - Piere’s @#$
06-25 Indianapolis, IN - Clowes Memorial Hall ~
06-26 Cincinnati, OH - Riverfront Live @$
06-30 Asheville, NC - Salvage Station $!@
07-01 Knoxville, TN - The Shed at Smoky Mountain !@
07-02 Pelham, TN - The Caverns Underground Cave $!@
07-07 Philadelphia, PA - The Fillmore #@
07-08 Toledo, OH - Promenade Park Stage <>+!
07-16 Aurora, IL - The Piazza @+!
07-22 Fort Worth, TX - Wild Acre Live $%@
07-23 Cedar Park, TX - The Haute Spot $%@
07-28 Seattle, WA - Seattle Zoo $^@
07-29 Portland, OR - Pioneer Courthouse Square $^@
07-30 Eugene, OR - The Cuthbert @~
08-11 Tempe, AZ - Marquee Theater $^!
08-13 Las Vegas, NV - Craig Ranch Amphitheater &*
08-17 Inglewood, CA - YouTube Theater $!
08-19 Saratoga, CA - Mountain Winery &$!
08-20 Blue Lake, CA - Blue Lake Casino &$!
08-21 Napa, CA - Charles Krug Winery $!
! with Dopapod
@ with Pimps of Joytime
# with The Floozies
$ with The Motet (Ft. Shira Elias and Josh & Chris of The Horn Section)
% with The Soul Rebels
^ with Fishbone
& with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
* with Fantastic Negrito
< with Robert Randolph & The Family Band
> with The Main Squeeze
+ with Blue Eye Extinction
~ Additional Support TBA