When I first meet Danny Bedrosian, I’ve heard of Parliament-Funkadelic, but I don’t know how much P-Funk I’ve actually heard. He’s a friend of a friend. He doesn’t strike me as this world-class musician who gigs on six continents with George Clinton. Danny’s just this ridiculous, hilarious guy that comes around the house sometimes and knows a lot about geography.
One afternoon, I drive to Danny’s house, sun setting orange through the oak and pine and crepe myrtle of his quiet Tallahassee neighborhood. He opens the door and introduces me to his cats: Ruby, Lucy and Mumphy.
For a second, I remember that this guy is some kind of famous. I don’t know much about the band. I have a lot to learn. I have to get it right. I don’t know where to start.
It turns out I’m not just talking to a member of Parliament-Funkadelic, but that I’m talking to one of P-Funk’s biggest fans. A kid who, at 11, decided to play keyboard for George Clinton and worked diligently until he did. A hype-man historian, a critic-connoisseur who teaches me some of the intricacies of a sound that has become synonymous with modern American music outside of the United States, and that represents, for P-Funk’s millions of American fans, a genre in and of itself, a groove that’s all its own.
Five hours later, I had a lot. Digressions into Middle-Eastern history, analyses of federalist politics—we covered a lot of ground.
“You have to start a conversation about P-Funk with George Clinton,” Danny begins, graciously running down a history of P-Funk for the uninitiated.
“He’s the founder and leader of the band; he’s the guy who most people associate when they think of [Funk] and the ethos of P-Funk—he’s the conceptual leader, the spiritual leader, the producer, the main songwriter—the most constant, contiguous songwriter—and one of the many lead singers.
“[George] started Parliament in 1955 as a Doo Wop group. Now, there’s no break in the continuity of this history, so the band is 58 years old. [P-Funk] also has the largest discography of any one musical unit and is the longest-running band of all time, with the bandleader still alive.”
P-Funk represents a 60-year slice of American music and history. I ask Danny to talk about P-Funk as an American band. He lights up at the chance.
“P-Funk represents the importance of African-American influence on American pop culture and music. The band had always been on the bad end of the segregation of radio; they’d always been ‘too black for the whites and too white for the blacks.’ But, there are a number of hits that got played.” Like “Flashlight,” “Can You Get To That,” and half a dozen other songs I quickly learn are P-Funk tracks I’ve been jamming to for years.
“Still,” Danny continues, “most members will say it has always been a ‘zebra band.’ I represent one of those stripes, but I’m not even the only Armenian guy that’s played for P-Funk! It’s that varied. It is very much American in that way.
“After the band had its first big single in ’57-’58, then a bunch through the 60s, they started morphing into a more Soul, R&B, Motown thing. But they always had this edge. George has this really unique voice; a lot of the people that were performing with him at the time said he was doing harmonies that weren’t even heard of at that time. There was a very progressive nature within the confines of such a commercial outlet as Doo Wop. Even before the psychedelic era the band went through a phase where they were all dressed up like pregnant ladies, fake boobies hanging out, with duck faces—and this was before acid! A lot of this music is long and raucous and there’s really no one single genre in the catalogue. You hear Psychedelic Rock and Motown and Doo Wop and Metal and Jazz and R&B. And a lot of Clinton’s most progressive stuff was his most divergent; it would take a generation before people finally got it.”
So how did P-Funk become the international tour-de-force it is now?
“The first time they left the country for touring was in the late 60s early 70s, and it’s been pretty constant since then. That being said, this band has become more and more international as the years have gone by, to the point that we’re playing places the band has never been. I’ve been a lot of places with George where’s he’s been like, ‘This is the first time we’ve played dot-dot-dot.’ And I have to say dot-dot-dot because there’s so many places.”
Even before Danny joined Clinton’s group in 2003, new markets were opening up. “That happened once really big with the fall of the iron curtain,” he explains. “All of a sudden Eastern Europe was open to American rock bands. It happened again, not in the actual Arab Spring, but in the kind of pre-revolution that was happening prior to that, in order for places like North Africa to open up for American bands.
“Now I play all six livable continents with George. The only place I haven’t been is Antarctica, and it’s pretty much the only place we don’t go to every year.”
I’m surprised to find out that this intensely experimental music, a sound grown out of the American Soul tradition, is so popular where it is.
When I ask Danny where they play most, he says, “all the provinces of France, 17 or 18 different cities in the Netherlands, believe it or not, a ton of Western Europe, the UK extensively. In Switzerland, we play in these ancient Roman amphitheaters—there’s like some serious history in those places. Maybe we represent some kind of cultural exchange, if you will, in the romance countries.”
Then Danny tries to explain why the Germans seem to get P-Funk better than some other fans, but I get lost at “ultra-futuristic, modern, post-modern view of Funk.”
I change track. What’s it like to play with P-Funk? Danny talks about the band as if I’d asked him about a genre. It starts to make sense, weeks later, when I’m two or three albums into Parliament’s discography and I discover Funkadelic.
“One thing with P-Funk is that the songs are always evolving, which is something I’ve always taken pride in, even before, as a fan, and as a classically trained musician. I applied my classical training when I was learning P-Funk, all the way from when I was eleven. My mentor, Bernie Worrell, was a classical guy who played this funky-ass music.
“If you strip the ego from the classical thing, it’s actually a brilliant academic thing. And P-Funk was very inherent in me. It was my favorite genre of music. It’s very feel-based. You have to be expelling every ounce of yourself on every note.”
Is it about keeping it pushing? I’m not quite sure what I mean, but the question just comes out.
Danny gives the question more consideration than I expect, then answers carefully: “Sometimes the push means pulling.” He grins every time he gets to talk about the intangibles of sound.
“There are so many feel-based things in the actual theory of playing P-Funk. George’s thing about how everything is accepted in its own way has both allowed our spread to influence P-Funk on the world and has allowed the world to come back and influence us in a positive manner. There is a huge mythology surrounding P-Funk, you can learn about the characters, the literature. But there’s this other thing that is both alien and aboriginal; it’s future and past; it’s cultish, but it’s also, like you said, very accessible.”
P-Funk’s diverse makeup, its progressive sound, its cross-cultural appeal: The band that is a genre becomes a movement somehow, over the course of our conversation.
“We look at ourselves as positive American ambassadors to the world,” Danny says. “Not coming from a place of the upper-class—coming from a very humble, meager place, but a place of acceptance and excellence in the arts. We don’t have a lot of that humility in American music.”
The next question seems obvious. What do you think of American music?
“I’m a little bit neutral at this point. I don’t particularly listen to a ton of American music, but a lot of people my age, or even just Americans in general, find the trend to just hate it. I find that to be both counter-productive and just a waste of time. For me it’s more A) what can you get out of it? and B) what strains are more marketable to you? I run a production company, so I find that there’s a lot of good in everything. There are good versions of every genre and there’s good in every genre. I believe in the good.”
Since we’re a journal of the road, I have to ask. What’s it like being on the road with P-Funk?
“You might as well say we live the exact same life as the truckers: We’re at the Flying J, the TA, the Loves, the Pilot. On a regular day, I’ll probably see seven truck stops. We spend 240-300 days [traveling], including show days.
“It’s funny because it doesn’t feel like I’ve been in Tallahassee for a decade. It does in time, but not in experience. I’ve played all over Tallahassee, but I don’t know Tallahassee as well as I should.” I joke that Danny’s only lived here for two years out of 10. “Exactly,” he laughs. “I’m like this funny novice.”
Does traveling so much turn everything into a blur?
“At the end of the year you forget what order things happened in. We just did 6,000 miles on the last tour in eight days. Arizona, Colorado, the long way back through Kansas. It was crazy. That can be the most excruciating thing: 30 hours of driving in one go. In Europe, some of those tours are two or three flights a day.”
What are you talking about on these long days of travel?
“We’re talking about everything: politics, social issues, things going on in the States, things going on in the world, terrorism, socialism, history. On my bus, we play a lot of classical music and talk about everything from football to history. We represent such a cross-section. There’s a part of the band in New Jersey, there’s a part of the band in the Midwest. Then there’s where we currently live. This music spans seven decades and there are people born in all of those times represented in the music. Everybody gets their fair share. Everybody’s extremely respectful about each other’s social, political, and spiritual beliefs.”
What do you see on the road? I try to be esoteric, but I’m just vague.
“Right now it’s an extremely alien environment, just bizarro.”
“No, bizarro. There is an almost endless loneliness that is felt on the American road today.
“Most people don’t know this, but those people are living really hard lives. Driving through Oklahoma is one of the most depressing things. There is a poverty happening there that people don’t know about. Ghost towns are happening now. That didn’t end with the mining and the gold rush and all that crap. Towns that used to have 8,000 people now have eight—and that’s real. A similar type of disparity is happening among the Native-American populations in the Southwest. Miles—hundreds of miles of Arizona, New Mexico and southern Colorado of just extreme poverty, extreme nothingness, people begging to get out of where they are, and there being no way out.
“All of this sort of sadness, and loneliness, and helplessness is felt a lot, but it’s funny that a lot of the places people associate with that sadness in the modern American context, aren’t necessarily those places.”
“There is a ton of vitality, and interest, and joy coming out of Detroit. I love Detroit.” Danny grins wide when he says it. “Some of my favorite restaurants are in Detroit. Some of my favorite people are in Detroit.”
The loneliness of the road is almost part of its appeal, but I can’t help but wonder how we can get past that sense of alienation. How all this travel and distance and difference can be a good thing.
“Unfortunately, America to me is a multitude of countries. I say it’s unfortunate because I like the federalist idea of America. Some of these people in the US have been divided by the stupidest things. We’re very lucky to be around so many different kinds of people. My wife’s stepfather is the exact opposite politically and socially than I am—he is nothing like me—and yet he’s always accepted me for who I was. He’s always been like, ‘Well that’s what Danny believes, and this is what I believe.’ I wish more people of every sect were more okay with that.
“One thing that we need more of here are experiences for the sake of experiencing them.” Danny recalls his last trip to Europe, and the different outlook he encounters there. “We as Americans are taught to be workaholics, and that can be a very good thing. But we don’t tend to take a lot of experiences with us that aren’t a part of our daily structure. So, where we are a great collective of a varied people that can all come together and tell each other different stories, unfortunately, not often enough do those stories intersect in a way where it can become an experience: sitting on a hill and enjoying a glass of wine, eating something you wouldn’t normally eat, enjoying the sounds of life with someone you love, whether it be silence or the mutterings of everyone.”
What do you think is keeping us from stopping to enjoy these experiences and celebrate our differences? Is it anxiety, fear?
“Yes. Immediately I can say yes. Because before seeing that in regular people, I saw that in musicians. All of us who have come up as musicians have come up in a giant body of musicians. As the years go by, most of the time you lose people because they stopped playing—and 90 percent of the time it’s because of the fear. I used to talk about the fear a lot to musicians in Tallahassee. At the end of the day, the one thing that’s stopping you from doing everything you want to do is you. It sounds like some stupid self-help crap, but it’s 1,000-percent true.”
Danny’s got some decent evidence to back his claim.
“When I was 11, I said, ‘I’m gonna be the keyboard player for P-Funk.’
Everybody laughed at me and said, ‘You’re a good musician, but that’s crazy.’ They’d cite a color thing, or they’d cite a famous people thing, or they said I wouldn’t work enough. Then I made it. And it’s only because I said I would. I didn’t give myself any alternatives. It seems crazy, but it really is the only way, for an artist. And of course I live in a world of anxiety, but it’s just an example of how things can be done when you don’t psych yourself out.”
It feels like the right time to try the question again: What’s it like to play with Parliament-Funkadelic?
“It’s a dynasty,” Danny says. “I love being a part of it. It’s an American thing. It’s an Earth thing.”
Daniel P. Bedrosian has been the keyboardist for legendary American Funk band Parliament-Funkadelic for over a decade. His production company, Bozfonk Moosick, records, produces and publishes his own music and over a dozen other artists’, and serves as a booking and marketing agency. He currently tours all over the planet with George Clinton and P-Funk.
Christopher Cartright is a writer, a founding editor of Blacktop Passages, and a professor at Armstrong State University in Savannah, Georgia. He is currently working on his second novel.
Photography by Ulia Lee, William S. Thoren, Tracy “Trazae” Lewis-Clinton, and Ricardo Lewis.