Bootsy Collins: “It’s not about being the greatest bassist in the world – you want to do great, but learn some kind of discipline as well“

Bootsy Collins
(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

70 years old in 2021 and almost six decades into his career, William Collins – as nobody calls him – is in a unique position. The coolest cat in pretty much all of bass guitar history, Bootsy is showing no signs of slowing down, resting up, or diminishing his message that music will unite us all, if we’ll only let it. 

His new album, The Power of the One – on which he namechecks his endorsing companies Warwick, DR Strings, Pigtronix, EHX, Eden  Audio, Mesa Boogie, Boss, and others – features a whole list of world-class musicians, including Larry Graham, Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, George Benson, Bernard Purdie, Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, Béla Fleck, Victor Wooten, MonoNeon and many more. 

That’s quite a band. Still, The Power of the One is no mere gathering of famous names. It’s a call to arms, although that’s a slightly incongruous analogy given its message of peace and tolerance: In the songs, Bootsy suggests that adherence to the one – whether the first beat of the bar, or some ineffable uniting presence – is nothing less than a way of life. 

There’s food for thought there, as you’d expect from a musician who honed his act under the merciless James Brown before expanding the contours of the musical universe with George Clinton, Parliament-Funkadelic and his extensive solo career. It’s a privilege to meet the master.

Enjoy his thoughtful interview, which he punctuates with constant laughter, as if to illustrate the absurdity of it all. Go with the cosmic flow, friends...

How are you managing through the pandemic, Bootsy? 

“Thankfully, we have music to hold on to, and to help us. I think it got people back to thinking about their next moves and about what we really take for granted. It has made us go back to being creative and try to do different things, with new mixtures, and become like a cook. When I got a hold of this new album, it just started flowing out.“  

You have a wide range of music on The Power Of The One.  

“Yeah, and I had to take all of that into consideration when I was doing all different music. I had to mix and blend stuff with other genres of music, that ain’t supposed to go with what I do, ha ha! It’s about seeing the world in a different look – like, this is what we should be doing. 

“We got to come together, no matter what our disagreements are – we still can create together. It’s so traditional to say, ‘This don’t go with that’, or ‘That don’t go with this’, but it’s all music, man.“  

What is the message of the new album? 

“That we’re all people, regardless of our different loves or different colors or different religions. We’re all people on one planet. This is our mothership. This planet is our mothership and it’s spinning out of control. That’s what the power of the one is about, no matter what they call it. 

“We got to quit getting upset with each other, just because my father might be different than yours. What’s the difference? They’re both fathers. And who cares about our different names? I mean, come on – we got to stop taking things so personal. 

“We gotta start learning how to have fun again, you know. And that’s what I wanted to imply in this record, which is about unity and bringing people together. We can still have fun, regardless of any challenges. They actually make us more creative. 

This album is my best effort to bring people’s awareness into one of us as one people. Us as one music. Us as one color. One nation under this groove

Do you think the message of the album is all the more important because of the events of 2020 – the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, and the US presidential election? 

“Yeah, yeah – it’s not just a musical thing. It’s a lot of things. It’s a collage of things all melded together, that makes us one. We’re human beings. I think that’s where people get a lot of confusion. We’re so separated, whether we know it or not, but we don’t have to be – we really don’t have to be. 

“And so this album is my best effort to bring people’s awareness into one of us as one people. Us as one music. Us as one color. One nation under this groove. We gotta learn how to groove together. I know we can do it – and so that’s the message. “

Bootsy Collins

(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

It’s delivered by such a cast of musicians – Victor Wooten, Snoop Dogg, and Christian McBride among them.  

“Well, the really good thing about it for me was that these were people that I can look up to as well. I told them to play what they felt and to just be themselves. And that’s pretty much the message. A lot of times, a musician will try to please you and try to play what they think you play like. 

“I said no, do what you do – that’s why I asked you to play. I want you to be yourself. And once they realized, ‘Oh, you want me to just be myself?’ – because this is about being yourself and expressing yourself on top of the groove – it was a piece of cake and everybody was happy. It was like we were all together, recording this as one. Everybody joined in. Everybody was down with it.

Anything I could do to help, and help folks to be in touch with who and what is playing nowadays, that’s where I’ll be, because James Brown did that for me

You also give some space to bass players like MonoNeon, who is known to us in the bass community, but who is still making a name in the wider world. 

“Well, to me, I got an opportunity to be a platform now. Not just a player, like on a football team. Once you’ve been a player for years, you start to maybe want to coach on the sideline. I’d rather see the ones like Mono and Kingfish out front, man, because people need to know who they are. 

“All these talented people are getting missed, because they’re not getting any exposure. Anything I could do to help, and help folks to be in touch with who and what is playing nowadays, that’s where I’ll be, because James Brown did that for me.“

Do you think that talent levels are higher now among young people than they were back in the '60s? 

“Heck yes! They would play circles around anybody, because that’s what it is nowadays. It’s like, how fast can you play that? To me, that’s a beautiful thing, too, because it’s something new and it’s something fresh. It takes the bass players from being at the bottom of the totem pole. They can really stick out front now, because they can play all of these different things. 

“I think it’s great, man. I’d rather see the kids playing live like they’re doing now, than going through that void where the kids were just throwing their instruments away. We were going through that for a while. Kids did the rap thing on computers and that was it, but over the last four or five years, they’ve really gone at these instruments. 

“That gives me hope, a lot of hope – thank God that music ain’t gone away. Yeah, it makes you feel good, and it also makes me want to do anything I can do to try to push any of them ahead. Anything I can do, I’m there.“ 

Once you’ve been a player for years, you start to maybe want to coach on the sideline

Do you find yourself inspired to play better when you see these young bass players? 

“Oh yeah. It’s like me getting on the track and someone saying ‘Go!’ I could try all I want to try, but the good thing about it for me is, I got a signature vibe. That’s my saving grace. Because if we all start on that start line, and somebody say go, ain’t no way I will keep up with you, haha!“ 

The Fender Precision was launched in the year of your birth, 1951. In other words, like you, it’s going to be 70 this year. So today’s kids who are picking up the bass for the first time have got 70 years of techniques to learn, whereas when you started, there was much less bass history behind you. 

“Exactly, and it was coming off of upright bass, and that’s a whole other animal right there. For us, the determination had to be made whether to can the upright, and let’s just pick up these Fenders, let’s see what happens. 

“That’s really what James Jamerson did at Motown, because all those songs he did before, he was playing upright bass, until he got that Fender and decided himself that ‘I’m gonna play this.’ Everybody else wasn’t down with it. 

“They were like, ‘We’re selling records with you playing upright bass.’ Know what I’m saying? He had to make that decision, and people don’t give him that credit, maybe because they don’t know. But that needs to be known. He made that decision.“ 

Bootsy Collins

(Image credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Did you know Jamerson? 

“I went to meet him one time in Detroit in 1972. That was a hell of a time, trying to get to meet him. They wouldn’t even let us into Motown, because we were dressed too weird, and we just weren’t looking right. We laughed about getting thrown out, but they were serious. So no, I didn’t get to meet him and I didn’t get to shake his hand. That was my dream. I didn’t have to play with him. I just wanted to meet him.“ 

They wouldn’t even let us into Motown, because we were dressed too weird, and we just weren’t looking right. We laughed about getting thrown out, but they were serious

Was ‘the one’ the focus of your bass playing from the moment you started playing, or did that come later on? 

“It probably came later, because I didn’t know what the one was, haha! I learned that from James Brown. It was predominant in his music, so I can’t take the credit for it. When I talk about it, it’s funny, because who would ever have thought that we would still be talking about it years and years later?

“It’s crazy, because even in today’s computer systems, you get that click on one. No matter where a musician’s one is at, you always come back to it, you know? Whether it be funk, jazz, 6/8, 7/8, whatever it is, you always know where that one is at. And so it goes for all kinds of categories.“  

Is part of the funk approach being strict about serving the groove, rather than showing off? 

“Yeah. That’s the part of it that’s so easy, but yet so hard. I learned that, starting over at [James Brown’s Cincinnati, Ohio label] King Records, those producers wanted you to groove in a certain amount of space. It wasn’t about you, or how much you could play. It was about ‘We’re doing a record, and we need you to accompany the music’. If you don’t learn like that, you don’t have to stick to that, but I learned like that.“ 

Starting over at King Records, those producers wanted you to groove in a certain amount of space. It wasn’t about you, or how much you could play

When did you begin to expand your style? 

“When I got with George Clinton, I was able to explore some freedom in the music. By that time, I was like ‘I didn’t think I was ever gonna be able to show that I could do this’, but one thing just led into another, and that led up until now. Musicians don’t have to think about that now. 

“All they have to think about now is being great. They can show off, but we didn’t have that kind of freedom. It was good for us, and it’s good for the musicians now because they have that opportunity. One door opens up for another one.“

Bootsy Collins

(Image credit: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images)

So we need to let go of our egos, and serve the art? 

“Yeah. To me, that’s what it’s really all about. It’s not about, ‘I’m the greatest bassist in the world!’ You want to do great, but learn some kind of discipline as well. I’m not saying that people aren’t doing that, it’s just it was a big part of our growing up. We had to be like that, because we played with everybody, and you played whatever they felt they wanted. 

“James was telling me I was playing too much, like, ‘Give me the one and then play all that other stuff, but make sure you give me the one.’ James wouldn’t try to make nothing out of it. He just wanted to make sure the band was playing right, and I had to understand what the heck he was talking about, because I had never been told that. I had to quickly find out what this man was talking about. 

“Playing on the one with the drums became our signature, and that’s what made him happy, so it made me happy to see where he was at. When I went on over to George, now, I took that with me, because that’s what I had been taught. George saw it and felt it, and made a whole concept of everything being on the one. We just went crazy with the one, and it became our whole thing.“

I can’t think of a band that looked like more fun to be in than Parliament-Funkadelic. 

“Haha! That was so incredible. It was one of those things that you thought was going on forever. You never thought about the day after the next day. You was always into what you’re doing right now.“ 

It’s the privilege of youth – you don’t need to think about the future. 

“Yeah. It was just a beautiful thing. It was beautiful being with James too, but it was another kind of lesson, because you really wasn’t free to learn on your own. You were taught certain things to do, like how to dress and comb your hair and shine your shoes, but I needed that, because I didn’t have a father at home. James was great for all of that, but I didn’t realize until I got away how great that was for me.“ 

I was taking LSD to get out of the confines of what was going on around me. The groove was already there

Quite a few bassists tell us that cannabis and LSD help them focus on the groove. Do you have a view on that?

“Well you know what, I think it’s another point of view. As far as locking in on a groove, I couldn’t do that. I was taking LSD to get out of the confines of what was going on around me. The groove was already there. LSD took me to other places while I was in the groove. 

“If I had took it to groove, I probably would never have made it, because it took me away from watching James so close. We had to watch his every move, because every move meant something, for the band. And if you missed it, it was a fine, or you’d get yelled at, or you got insulted. That was no fun, and when you did get insulted like that, if you’re on LSD, it’s okay, because all we did was crack up about it. So I think there’s different reasons for taking it.“  

Bootsy Collins

(Image credit: Stacy L. Revere/FilmMagic)

Was acid a creative tool for you?

“It expanded my whole thinking, as far as being creative in writing, and making me realize that I was more a part of the groove than I thought. I understand what you’re saying: To get into that groove, I definitely understand that, because if you don’t have nothing else to worry about than the groove, then LSD would be a beautiful thing, haha! 

“But we had other things to worry about. I knew better than to take it, but James kind of pushed me to that point, and when I did, I don’t even remember what happened. So I know that that wouldn’t work for me, taking it to groove with James. That definitely wouldn’t work. 

If you don’t have nothing else to worry about than the groove, then LSD would be a beautiful thing

Are you focused on good mental health? 

“Yes. That’s all a part of being creative. Everything we got is on loan, and we have to start treating it like that. If you lend me a car, I’ll get you that car back in the same shape or better, and bring it back to you washed and cleaned, because you went out of your way to do something for me. These bodies and these minds are all on loan, and we’ve got to start taking better care of them.“  

Is your best work ahead of you or behind you? 

“I think it’s ahead of me. I’m looking forward to what’s ahead, rather than living off my past. I look forward to the future, and I think that is critical for a musician. If you asked me if I want to go back and play with James again, the answer would be no. I’ve done that. 

“I want to play with George Benson, I want to play with Kingfish, I want to play with Béla Fleck. I want to see what we can come up with. That, to me, is the excitement. That’s the inspiration. To look back, for me, is kind of sad. I know people love that past, and I love it, too – but I don’t want to live in it!“  

  • The Power Of The One is out now on Bootzilla Records.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.