Bootsy Collins on his unique persona and getting his start in funk playing with James Brown
Bootsy Collins (due tonight at the Boulder Theater), a bass player with a larger-than-life persona, first came to prominence in the James Brown band. After leaving Brown's outfit, Collins was convinced by a friend to go to Detroit, where he hooked up with George Clinton, with whom Collins ultimately formed Funkadelic and Parliament -- bands that truly fused free-flowing creativity and musical prowess with an unforgettable stage show.
Since then, Bootsy has worked on collaborations of great variety and depth, putting his indelible mark on every project he's involved with. In the early '90s, he and his band went on tour with Deee-lite and introduced a whole new generation of fans to his talent and artistic versatility. This year, Bootsy released The Funk Capital of the World, which he's currently touring around. We spoke with the iconic bassist about how he got into playing funk, his stage persona, Jimi Hendrix and some of the surprise guests on the new album.
Photo by Michael Weintrob
Westword: How did you get into playing funk bass, and how did it come to be that the Pacemakers got hired to be James Brown's backing band?
Bootsy Collins: I'll answer the second part of that first: My brother Catfish was the reason I started playing guitar. I would have to say that if it hadn't been for him, I probably wouldn't have been a musician, because I wanted to be like him, without a father and all. He was my older brother. He was like eight years older than me. So he played guitar, and I wanted to play guitar, and I kept pestering my mother to get me a guitar, and finally, she got one. When I got it, it was practice, practice, practice.
Then one day, my brother was playing a gig and needed a bass player, and he couldn't get nobody because everybody else had gigs. So I said, "Well, if you can get me some bass strings, I will be the bass player." He really didn't want me to play bass. You know how big brothers don't want their little brothers around. So he was like, "Nah, nah..." And I said, "You get me four bass strings, and I'll show you." He got me four bass strings! And I put them on my guitar, and I went and made that gig, and he was so shocked. That was the first day that we played together, and we continued on from that day. We never stopped playing together from that day on.
From there, we developed a group called the Pacemakers, and we started earning a reputation around Cincinnati, Ohio, and King Records was here. James Brown recorded his records, and his production company was right here in Cincinnatti. The A&R guy down here heard us, and everybody wanted to use us on their records. James Brown heard about us, and he wanted us to come in to hear what we sounded like. That's where it started with him, and that's what led to everything else -- once I started playing with James Brown. That kind of set the funk thing up for me.
You have a flamboyant stage persona that is hard not to like. What inspired the adoption and the development of that persona?
I guess it's all in the self-expression thing. Music is the great cosmic communicator. Once I got off into the music thing, I wanted everything associated with it to be a part of the music. And I want to be able to say whatever I want to say, even if I don't say anything. Just walk down the street and it's like, "Wow, the clothes say it all! What is this guy? Who is this guy?" Even if they don't know I'm in music.
A lot of young kids today wouldn't have a clue of who I am, but if I walked past them, they'd think, "Who in the heck is that guy?!" So it's like a true expression of me. I've come up like that. I've come up under people that were before me that inspired me: Liberace, Elvis Presley, Little Richard -- you name it from back in the day -- Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone. All these cats had not only music, but they had expressions in what they wore.
I'm from back in the day, and people in the street had self-expression. In the places where I came up, you had the prostitutes, the players, the pimps -- everybody had the flamboyant thing. These are the kinds of things I kind of came up in. The comic book characters -- Thor, Spider-Man, Green Lantern -- all these cats had outfits, costumes and masks. That always intrigued me. I always felt like I was one of those people.
On "Mirror Tell Lies," I see it features Jimi Hendrix. Why his music for that song, and did you ever get to meet Jimi?
I never got to meet him. He was definitely, next to my brother, my total hero, musically and for being who he was at the time when he did it. I mean, that was pretty incredible for me as a young person growing up. He not only opened the musical doors for us, he opened up our minds and said you could do whatever you wanted to do, be anybody you wanted to be and go wherever you wanted to go.
So he was, I mean, like a god for me. His picture was the only picture I had in my little room. I had a little room with a black light, incense always going, Jimi Hendrix music always playing, Miles Davis, Santana. But Jimi was the one. I had him over my bed. Howlin' Wolf, all this stuff I was listening to, taking acid, having a great time, and it was cool with Jimi.
For me, it was a very experimental time and a very creative time that challenged you to see how far you could go, you know? That's what I think we're missing now. We don't have that kind of challenge now. It's all about being the next guy that has that hit record. Where does that put our little Einstein that's really creative? They're all in that same box. It's like everybody's got to go after that same dollar.
We were going for creativity for creativity's sake. We were playing music for music's sake. That was our passion. Now it's a passion for the dollar. We had a passion for music, for art and the whole creative process, which led to a dollar for some of us. For a lot of us, it didn't lead to a dollar or two. It just led to a great musical and creative experience.
Now a lot of people are profiting off of that and calling it their own. That's why I did point back to a lot of the people who inspired me, because young people don't know. And if they're not exposed to our history, they will never know, and they'll always think it's them. So I figured who would be better to point back than myself? So I wanted to do that, and hopefully I did that in this album.
It's bigger than Bootsy Collins doing an album again. For me, it was bigger than that. It's not just about me anymore. I had my "me time." My me time was great, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. But now it's about advancing the creative process and evolving and expanding it and bringing it out of the box and letting people see that you don't have to be a rapper, a singer or a musician to express yourself -- what's truly in there. And not because you're led by a dollar.
That's what happened on this record. People weren't led by money. We didn't have money to pay these people, not what they're worth. So it was more about them really wanting to be a part of this than wanting to make a dollar, and that's the difference -- that's when you get true creative forces together, when it's not just about making a dollar. It's more about, "Let's see what happens with this." I think the more of us do that this, we'll open the creative process, which needs to be open, because look at what you've got now. You know -- we've got a few gems out there, but it's gotten so narrow that it's scary.
The Funk Capital of the World has some impressive names in the credits. How did you approach people like Cornell West and Samuel L. Jackson to collaborate with you?
I had been working with Samuel L. Jackson on some commercials for the last seven years, doing different things with him on and off. Two years ago, we were working on a Tiger Woods commercial, and I was then starting on my album, so I just asked him if he would want to be a part of the new album. I didn't even know what the new album was named. I just had a track that I knew he could speak on, and it would be great.
And he said, "Yeah." And once he said yes, he asked, "What do you want me to talk about?" So I told him that I just wanted him to express what music did for him in his life and how music helped get him to the silver screen. He said, "Okay, turn on the tape." He got in the booth and rattled off the top of his head, didn't write nothin' down. That's pretty impressive.
Dr. Cornell West, same thing: He came and asked what I wanted him to talk about. I told him the concept is we're making all these smartphones and we're still making dumb decisions, and he said, "Wow, that's great! Turn the microphone on!" I turned it on, and just with that concept, he came up with something off the top of his head, and that's what's on the record.