Still the grand high priest of funk at 65, Bootsy Collins returns tells us about star-studded new album World Wide Funk, hats, girls, star-shaped basses and getting burnt by the business
Bootsy Collins’ telephone manner doesn’t disappoint. “Are you keeping the funk alive?” he demands as his opening gambit – thus setting the tone for the headscratching and snigger-inducing encounter to follow. In a world of dour, sleeve-muttering bassists, the 65-year-old is like an explosion in a charisma factory. His wardrobe suggests a trolley dash through the set of Boogie Nights – all star shades and garish smokestack hats – while his patter is the kind of hot-buttered-funky drawl that make us feel suddenly very squeaky-voiced and suburban.
Bonkers Bootsy is a much-loved caricature, of course, but it’s not the full picture. Behind that persona is a heavyweight musician with watertight pedigree. In a career as glittering as his garb, Collins made his mark in the early-70s behind soul godfather James Brown, brought the low-end to George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic, then drove the P-Funk scene with his pioneering Rubber Band and ostentatious custom Space Bass.
It’s some measure of the respect he commands that new album, World Wide Funk, gathers a roll-call of esteemed veterans and rising stars for 15 riotous, hip-bucking grooves. Are you pleased with World Wide Funk? “Oh yeah, man. The hardest thing about that record for me was getting started. But each day I worked on it, it kept getting clearer. It’s like starting a love relationship with a chick. I had a relationship with this album, y’know? I didn’t know what she was gonna say at first. Then she started speaking to me. And I was kinda shocked. One day you wake up and realise, ‘Hey, this thing is a monster!’” What is it about funk that you love so much? “Funk is the root of everything. Funk is the essence of all that is. So that means that you can’t start nothing without funk. Funk was born between an a-hole and a pee-hole. So how you gonna not be funky? I mean, everybody was born between an a-hole and a pee-hole, and we all got some of that on us. And then they try to act like they’re not funky. But you’ve gotta be funky, y’know?” How did you want this album to make people feel? “I want them to feel the energy, the happiness, the joy and good vibes. That’s the whole thing behind World Wide Funk. It’s to eliminate the pain you’re going through and hopefully bring a smile on your face. Y’know, I might say something totally stupid out of the clear blue that will make you laugh while you’re grooving. For me, this album is right on time. We’re in a deep place. So if I can pull anybody up, that’s what I’m here for. It’s bigger than us. I gotta spread that hope and joy. Because that’s the best remedy for our trials and tribulations.” What can bass do that guitar can’t? “It’s the thing that brings you the one [that is the first beat of the bar]. Rhythmically, the bass can move those frequencies. Those frequencies are like the essence of life. They can help you get in tune with a woman. Or stay in tune with the woman – while the guitar is going all over the place. That’s good, too. But the bass is the basics. Without the basement, can’t nothing be built on top. That’s basically what the bass is. It starts in the basement and it moves to the top. And it can shake you pretty hard.” What was your approach to bass on the new album? “I was getting back to playing melodies and basslines. To me, that’s what the bass needs. I had totally got away from that. So this album, for me, goes back to the beginning, and takes it to a higher energy level.” What are your favourite bass moments? “Worth My While, Pusherman, World Wide Funk. It’s the moments when I went out and then I come back, y’know? That to me is kinda my signature. I want to play it, then go out, take up the space a little bit – then bring it back to the one. I liked what I did on Come Back Bootsy along with Eric Gales. He was playing guitar and I had to follow his solos, and trying to play guitar lines was a stretch. Especially with Eric, because he’s kinda deep.” What bass tone were you shooting for on the new album?
“Onstage, I do all this hard fuzz stuff, and on this album, I wanted to establish that, along with the talking bass sound. I got the whole pedalboard thing going on. There’s the Big Muff, the Mu-Tron III, the Morley Fuzz Wah and for delay it was the Eventide [H9]. I used these preamps from Warwick Jonas Hellborg, along with a couple of M9 Mesa/Boogies. Depending on the song, I go back and forth, see what sounds best.” The Mu-Tron has always been key to your sound, hasn’t it? “Definitely. That was the start of my whole signature sound. I was using that when nobody knew what the heck that was. When I did the Stretchin’ Out album , my engineer at the time didn’t like it. He was one of those Motown engineers up in Detroit. So he was like, ‘Why you hooking up pedals? Come on, man, just plug that thing in!’ But I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. I wanted to sound watery and rubbery and wet. Then he started helping me get the sound.
“And the record came out and people started really getting into it: ‘Oh man, how d’you get that sound?’ I was just trying out different stuff to see what was gonna stick. That one stuck to me pretty hard, because it just sounded so un-bass-like.” Are you still playing your signature Warwick bass? “Yeah, definitely. We took that all around the world for a good four years, and I was like, ‘Well, I gotta do some stuff on the record with this, because it’s got that funk on it.’ I like the shape. I like that it ain’t as heavy as my original Space Bass. That’s really heavy. But I never even paid any attention to that, because it was always my baby anyway. I didn’t care how heavy it was. The harder it was to play, the better. It was good for me. But then, when they made the Warwick, it’s much lighter. I would say it’s easier for me to play. But I still haven’t had anything to touch the sound of that original Space Bass. It’s just so thick. It’s deep. The Warwick is the only thing that came close. That’s why I love the Warwick. It proved itself.” Where’s the original Space Bass now? “It’s right here in my little meditation room. And it ain’t goin’ nowhere! Last time I took it out, I went to Europe in 1998 – and they lost it! It was on the same plane as me, and we get off over in Europe somewhere, and they couldn’t find it.
“Bernie Worrell had a friend with the airline, and the only reason we found it was because she actually walked down in the [baggage handling area] and saw it just sitting by itself. Once we did that tour and I got back home, I said, ‘Nah, it’s getting too deep. I can’t take this out anymore.’ That’s the original one, y’know, the 1975. So I’m like, ‘Nah, I can’t’. Because it got stolen too, back in the day. So then, when this happened, it reminded me of that. I didn’t know if I was gonna get it back!” Do you own more basses or more hats? “[hoots with laughter] That’s pretty good, man. I never counted them. That’s close, man. Probably more basses.” When you play a star-shaped bass, everyone is going to look at you. Does that appeal? “Oh yeah, that was always the intention. When we started, it was like, ‘I wanna play, because I wanna get the girls, I wanna take them out, we’re gonna have some wine.’ It was all about playing to get the girls, y’know? Back then, it wasn’t about getting paid, it was just about getting onstage and having fun with the girlies, y’know? I guess that kinda stuck with me. And so anything stupid – or anything that looked crazy or weird – I was all into it.”
“Funk is the root of everything. Funk is the essence of all that is. You can’t start nothing without funk. You’ve gotta be funky”
Bass-Rigged-System features you, Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten and Manou Gallo. That’s got to be the most bass legends ever assembled on one track, right? “Oh man, that’s what I was shooting for. And they really came through. When it’s time, you just can’t stop, so I probably got more stuff that we didn’t use than what we did. So there is a part two and part three to all of that. I always cut more than what I need.” What was it really like playing bass for James Brown? “When I first got there, I guess he was annoyed that I played a whole lotta basslines, instead of just locking with the groove and givin’ him something he could hold on to. I was all over the place, because I’d learned on a guitar, y’know, so I didn’t know nothing about what a bass was supposed to do. I was listening to my boy James Jamerson – I was trying to be like him, get his lines. I mean, nobody could never play like him. But I was trying to get what the bass is all about.
“James Brown was like, ‘You gotta give me the one. You can play all that other stuff whenever you want to – but give me that one.’ When he told me that, it cleared everything up for me. Whatever came to me, I played it, but I made sure, with the drummer, I was with the downbeat. And it started working.” Was it different with George Clinton? “George gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. His philosophy was: whatever you can bring to the table, bring it – ’cos I’m funkin’ with all of it.” How proud are you of the Rubber Band? “Oh yeah, very proud of that time. But I got introduced to the business part of it – and I hate that. Y’know, the music, playing in the band, that’s the beloved. That’s what you get in it for. Then you find out you gotta take care of business, pay people, do this, figure out that. It’s like, ‘Aw, man’. I think that’s the downer for a lot of musicians. Y’know, back in the day, you get in it to play. But it’s kinda like George said: the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill. That’s true. The bigger you get, the more business you have to take care of. It’s crazy. You need accountants, lawyers. That’s why Jimi and all these cats freaked out, man. They didn’t want to hear nothing about business – they just wanted to play!”
Bootsy and his famous Space Bass during the 1970s P-Funk heyday of the Rubber Band, Parliament and Funkadelic
Bootsy Collins always desired his bass style to sound rubbery