Funk icon Bootsy Collins on music, psychedelics and why James Brown called him Benedict Arnold
The musician picked up the bass so he could play in his brother’s band, and became a legend
If you've heard funk music in the last half century, there's a good chance you're familiar with the music of funk legend Bootsy Collins.
Known for his trademark star-shaped space bass and star sunglasses, Bootsy has collaborated with everyone from James Brown to George Clinton, and from Deee-Lite to Snoop Dogg.
He was part of pioneering funk bands like Parliament-Funkadelic and the JBs, and he's put out many albums with his own group, Bootsy's Rubber Band.
Collins is back with a new record, The Power of The One, and q host Tom Power caught up with him for a feature interview.
In it, he reveals how he got into music, why his mother knocked his star-shaped glasses off his face, and what led James Brown to call him Benedict Arnold.
Some of this record was made before COVID-19, but a lot of it had to be made during the pandemic. How did you find being creative during the pandemic?
For me, this was the best time to write about anything — when you are still, and when you have to hear from the universe, when you have to not be doing so much, but being is more important.
That to me is when you get the best stuff. The best records come when the artist is sharing his or her feelings about a certain thing — even if there's no singing, just playing. So I wanted to bring that back to the forefront. Music is a great healer.
I want to go back to the beginning: you started out playing guitar, but you wanted to play in your brother's band. That's how you picked up the bass?
Yes, yes. I wanted to be like him because we didn't have a father in the house. I'm eight years younger than him. He was a teenager and I'm like nine years old. He's got girls hanging around, you know, so I want to be like that. I don't want to be like my age group; they're corny, man. I want to be like the hip teenagers. And the musicians, they wear the pointed-toe shoes, they've got their hair slicked back, they've got the sunglasses on. It was like, "I want to be like them."
But it takes a lot of work. Were you the kind of kid who was practicing eight, nine, 10 hours a day?
Yeah, but it wasn't like I was practicing. It was like, "I'm having the greatest time." You know how they do now when they play video games? That's what practice was to me. It wasn't work. It was always, "I'm learning something new, and it feels great."
Even if there's nobody there to say, "Oh, man, that's great," practicing was the thing that made you know that "Wow, I'm getting better at this, and I can do this."
Because you have to prove to yourself that you're worthy. I didn't wait on nobody to tell me I was worthy. I was like, "I'm going to learn this even if it kills me. [Laughs] I'm going to learn how to do this the best I can do it."
That just drove me and it kept driving me and driving me. And when I got with my brother's band, that's what drove me. I loved being in the band.
You said you wanted to be the Jimi Hendrix of the bass. What did he do to you when you saw him or heard him?
The strange thing was, I never got to meet him because we were always on the road with James Brown, and we worked seven days a week — and when we weren't working, we were in the studio.
But he was over my bed. I had one of these posters that when the black light hit it, it shined in the dark. We had an incense, and my room was always dark, even in the daytime, and my mother was like, "What is this boy doing?" You know, she walked through there and then the aromas would hit her. It was always so funny.
But we were listening to his music on James Brown's bus — and you know James wasn't going for that.
When you hear a James Brown song like Sex Machine, which you played on, what goes through your mind? What do you remember?
Being in a room with James Brown was like a dream. It was just like, "When am I going to wake up? This is too much." Because we always backed up people who imitated James Brown, like Cincinnati James Brown, and we were always the band.
To get on stage with James Brown, to get in the studio with the real James Brown, was really unheard of. So I don't really know what it felt like, but I know it was way beyond us. I guess our minds couldn't capture it at the time.
And then when I got away from it, I started realizing a lot of things that I had learned. It was like, "How did that happen? What were we doing?" Because it was all about rehearsing and getting it right, and being the tightest band in the world.
You were this great musician and you were backing up James Brown, but he was at the point in his career when he was starting to fine people if they were missing notes or they were late. It sounds like at a certain point, you got kind of fed up and wanted to stretch out more.
Yeah. Well, I think it wasn't just me that got fed up. The music was changing, and by the time the torch got passed to us, we were going to make sure that change was made. And we took the baton and just fell in the right place at the right time. It was like from James Brown, who was ABC, to George Clinton, who was XYZ.
Could not be more different, right?
It was one extreme to the other. James wanted you to be formatted, like a certain formula, and George wanted you to bring as much funk as you got. "Whatever you got I'll take it." And that's what he did. He took everything that you brought and put it on record or put it on stage.
He was more of an uncle than a father. James was like my father. You couldn't fool around with him. But with your uncle you could hang out with the chicks, you know, you could do your thing.
Did James mind you leaving? Was he upset that you left the band?
He called me Benedict Arnold. He was highly upset — not so much that I left. It was that I left and went with George, and George gave us all this freedom to do what we wanted to do. So I think that even heightened the whole thing.
I didn't try to rub it in his face. It was just time to move on. The music was changing, fashion was changing. Everybody wanted to do their own thing at that time. So I felt all of that, and it was like, "That has to be a part of my life, and can't nobody stop that." And James couldn't accept that. So we had to move on.
You ended up coming to Canada, right?
That's right. George actually lived there. We practiced there all the time. The hardest part was getting through the border. I mean, you've got eight to 12 people in a station wagon, and when you pull up to the border, you pull the window down and all the smoke comes out, and the officer says "Alrighty, y'all can go right over there." And that happened so many times.
We had to go in and get searched a few times, and they called George in and they had to pull his pants down. But we cracked up every time because we were loaded; we had to get rid of that stuff before go to the border. So it was a trying time, but it was very fun.
You were taking a lot of acid, too. What did psychedelics give you creatively?
For me it was the drug of choice because it took me out of the normal world, and you start seeing these things in 3D. Everything was so colourful and beautiful, and it was love and peace.
It just made me open up creativity-wise, and that's what started me really thinking and knowing that I could write, because I never thought about that until I start taking LSD, and the stuff I had been writing down started showing up on the records.
Not that I'm encouraging people to do that. At that particular time, it wasn't a business like they're running now. It's a whole different ballgame. Doing that for us was just fun; it just amped up whatever situation we were in.
Bootsy Collins became its own thing, like a character completely separate from you, like an idea or a brand. And I heard in the '80s he stopped doing drugs. At the time you said, "I was trying to get away from him. He was a monster."
He was a monster, like a Frankenstein thing. When that boy turns on you, it's over, because can't nobody stop you. I mean that monster guy's got so much built up in him and he knows all the angles and he's figured all this stuff out, and he's just one way of dealing with it and that's hardcore. He's just a hardcore mug.
She was telling me: You're not on the road. You're William. Come home. Take all that crap off. You're home, relax, take out the garbage. I felt like a little puppy with his tail between his legs, and I just came on in the house and did whatever she said. And I realized right then that I had to change my ways.- Bootsy Collins
The only thing that made me come to my senses was my mother. One incident happened where I came home, I had a whole entourage thing going on, I had my mirror star glasses on — you know, the original ones. We came home laughing and joking, and I knock on the door.
Mama came to the door and she started patting her foot, and everybody knew what that meant. And I'm looking crazy, and all the other people with me are looking crazy. The next thing I know, she slapped me and knocked my glasses off. And that was when I knew that I had gone too far.
She was telling me: You're not on the road. You're William. Come home. Take all that crap off. You're home, relax, take out the garbage. I felt like a little puppy with his tail between his legs, and I just came on in the house and did whatever she said. And I realized right then that I had to change my ways.
The next thing that happened was when I had a motorcycle accident, right around the time I recorded Body Slam. I was acting a doggone fool. I promised I was going to quit and I lied, and I had to have a terrible thing happen to me — and it happened.
And when they told me I wasn't going to be able to play anymore, that changed everything. I was determined. I was like, "Ok, I get it. That's the one thing that's going to turn me around." I had to stop doing drugs.
How are you doing now?
I'm doing really good. Clean lifestyle, got some grandkids, and they're acting more of a fool now than I am. So I feel pretty good.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Ben Edwards.