“Man, I tell ya, this is some new territory for me right here. It’s a whole different game getting tracks down without everybody being together in the same room. There’s something about being face-to-face and locking in with each other, and feeling the collective funk that I love. That’s powerful right there. When you get all of us cats together, working up the funk, feeling that energy, that’s how the magic happens. Now we’re doing it by ourselves at home, emailing in the tracks. It doesn’t always feel the same, but we just gotta do it. Whatever it takes, ya know?”
Reflecting on his current state of affairs in navigating the Coronavirus pandemic and embracing digital technology to record remotely, Bootsy Collins sits in his home studio in Cincinnati, where he recently finished tracking and mixing his upcoming album, The Power of One, which will see its release this October. For a man who laid down some of the funkiest bass lines in recorded history on albums by James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and George Clinton—oftentimes in one take, with a singular mic in the room—this social distancing era has made him reevaluate how he approaches his craft. But for an icon who defined the look and sound of soul for generations, he’s doing his best to evolve and adapt.
Like most Bootsy albums, The Power of One is full of guest collaborators, from bass legends like Larry Graham, Victor Wooten, and Christian McBride, to some guitar support in a longtime-coming collaboration with George Benson, and a big list of other first-call musicians. Quick to admit that he’s his own harshest critic, Collins is proud of his latest effort, despite his distaste for having to capture it all through isolation and distancing. However any hardships from the process are quickly overpowered by the positive messages in the music, which he very intentionally is releasing during the monumental pandemic and racial equality movements that the country is presently facing.
For the album’s first single, “Stars,” Bootsy enlisted drummer Steve Jordan, banjo legend Béla Fleck, Olvido Ruiz, American philosopher Dr. Cornel West, and young vocalist EmiSunshine, and he is donating all of the proceeds to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund. The inspiring track finds Collins laying back in the groove, working out the framework of the song with hints of the envelope filter-tone that he made famous in the ’70s. Bootsy guarantees the rest of the album contains plenty of funky bass lines that his fans old and new have come to expect from him. “I didn’t want to overdo it with my bass on ‘Stars’ because I wanted to let the message of it stand out more than anything. I was proud of myself for not getting too excited down low. It’s easy to want to do the wild thing if you’re from the wild days. But this album is full of the wild thing, don’t you worry.”
How did the lockdown impact the progress of your new album?
I had started on my new album last year, wanting to finish it sooner, but then the pandemic went down and threw me off, and I’m just now finally getting it mastered. In the bigger picture, it didn’t only throw me off; it threw the whole world off. The good news is that I have a studio here at my house, so I didn’t have to go out anywhere to work on it. That was an ace for me. I also had a lot of different projects coming in and I just kept working on them here. Once I get my parts down and recorded, I send them away and the musicians send them back, and so on. Instead of doing the live band thing, I’m doing everything on my own. That’s been pretty difficult for me. But I couldn’t just stop; I had to do what I had to do.
How difficult of an adjustment has it been for you to write and track isolated?
It’s a whole new beast for me. Luckily it’s been a long process with a slow curve because in the last three or four years I’ve been getting introduced to that new way of recording. You have to either get used to the new way of doing things or you just don’t do it anymore. It’s a totally different way of making records. I always put it in my head that I want to stay up with the technology, but I don’t want to lose the feeling of the music either. I started to see that this is the new way of how things are done. For most folks it’s probably the only way they know to record, but not for me. I’m from the old school ways of doing things.
How did you go about writing for the album, given the situation?
On some of the tracks I laid down an idea and started developing it from there. A couple of the tracks were done live before the pandemic hit. It was a mixture of all types of ways of writing. I just stayed on it and worked on it as much as I could. I’m used to working on an album every day until it’s done, but I didn’t have that luxury with this one. That’s okay though because the music will always speak to you and tell you what to do. It’ll tell you how to approach it. If a song tells you that you have to record it live, then that’s what you gotta do. If you have the track but you need other vocals, you either bring them in or you send it out and tell them to hook it up. So I did it both ways.
What can we expect from your playing on it?
Well, you get the space bass, you get some funk on it, you get some groove on it, and you get some different bass players on it, too. It’s going to be a very good, universal kind of album that any and everybody can gravitate to. I’m extra proud of this one. I’m very critical of everything I do, but this time I’m digging it. P-Funk fans, new funkateers, and even people who don’t like funk will start reevaluating their perspective on funk with this one.
You got some heavy bass friends to lay down tracks.
Yeah man, Victor Wooten came out and played on it, and you know what he can do. Larry Graham came out and did a track for me. We redid “If You Want Me To Stay,” by Sly & The Family Stone. Larry plays some big bass on that and it came out funky. Christian McBride even came out and played some upright bass on a few tracks. He actually came here and recorded in my studio. A funny little story about that is he was playing a show in Louisville and after he did the gig he came to Cincinnati to record with me. I went to his show and they were just tearing it up, and then he came to my place and he had a little Fiat car that was so tiny. I said to myself, “Where the heck is this guy’s bass?” Instead of asking him, I just waited because I know he has it together. Finally I broke and I asked him where his damn bass was and he told me it was in the trunk. I said. “In the trunk?! There’s no way an upright bass is in there.” But sure enough he goes in there and pulls out a case with a custom upright in it that comes apart for travel. He had to put it together and it didn’t take long for him to do it at all. It blew my mind. I learn something new every damn day. And man, he plays some crazy stuff on this album. I tell you what; this guy plays some walking bass lines that’ll get you running! [Laughs] That’s a good line right there, man! You can keep that one.
Outside of bass, I hooked up with an old, good friend, Mr. George Benson. Yeah, man! We got a chance to lock up and do a song, and he’s killing it. It’s a funky track and George added a jazz element to it. It came out with a fusion kind of vibe. People are going to be surprised when they hear what he’s done to this track. It took us forever and a day to get hooked up, but this pandemic thing forced me to look at all different angles and approach things differently. There’s nothing you can’t do now when it comes to being creative. I dove in deep and embraced it. I got young cats and old cats coming out to do this album.
Tell us about the album’s first single, “Stars.”
I was in the process of recording this album when the pandemic hit, and it hit so hard I had to shift my focus towards something that would shine some light on the situation in a positive way. I needed to put out something right then, in the moment. I wanted to help out all these mugs who are gonna listen to this. MusiCares has helped a lot of musicians in the past, so I wanted to do something for them to pitch in for the work they’re doing for us now. When the pandemic hit and tours got cancelled and all the gigs got cancelled and no one had work, they stepped in and helped us musicians, so I wanted to help them right back. I had the outline of the track laid out and I knew it was the one that I wanted to get over to them. Then I had to find the right people to work on it with. I started talking to EmiSunshine out of Nashville. I was watching her videos online and realized she has a perspective about a lot of things that a 15-year-old shouldn’t have. She’s wise beyond her years, man. I didn’t know how good of a writer she is, but I knew she could sing. So I sent her the song and she started writing to it, and we went back and forth, and I was like, yeeeah! She’s definitely the one. I wanted to do something that wasn’t expected. Everybody knows Bootsy and what a Bootsy album sounds like, and I didn’t want it to be that. I wanted to do something like my girl Bonnie Rait said and give them something to talk about. The message of this song talks to people and tells them that we’ve got to come together and start working together. It all comes out in the music video. I don’t always like the stuff that I write, but I love what I’m doing on this.
What do you want listeners to take away from this song?
I want to bring everyone together with this song because that’s what we truly need right now. We can do things better, and to do that, we need to do them together. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what you look like, we can work together and do big things. All this tension and hate and division needs to go. And this pandemic is one of the worst things that could’ve ever happened, but at the same time it’s good for bringing us in and to reset and recharge, and rethink what we’re doing. We’re all too busy with our day-to-day lives to stop and look at the bigger picture and everything that needs fixing. Everyone has been trying to do so much for so long. And if you ain’t good at multitasking then you’re way at the back of the bus and left behind from everyone else. That’s the way of the life we live now. But I’m one of them, I’m way in the back of the bus [laughing]. I do one thing at a time and I put my whole focus on it. So even I’m learning right now.
How did you track the bass on “Stars”?
I played both my old Fender Jazz Bass and an old Vox bass that I used with James Brown. I used the fuzz that’s built into that bass and tweaked it out a little bit. I like how it came out. I didn’t want it to do my whole space bass kind of thing. I wanted the bass to provide a solid groove with some syncopation, kind of like my JB kind of approach.
What is it like playing in a rhythm section with Steve Jordan on the song?
Aww man, it was amazing. We actually cut that track before the pandemic hit. He came up to the studio here on my property and we played the track together. It had the right feeling, with all of the different elements to it. It has funky bass playing, groovy drums, banjo picking, and a lot of other flavors that just mesh together. Steve is a big time drummer and everything he does has some magic to it. Getting Bela Fleck to come onboard, and the other musicians I had on it, made it special. We all come from different races and cultures, and none of that matters. It doesn’t matter who you are or who your father is, the only thing that matters is that we respect each other. That’s what it’s all about.
You do a lot to mentor the next generation of bass players. What motivates you to take the up-and-comers under your wing?
I love giving young musicians an opportunity to do their thing and then see how they react when it works. They always light up when something clicks, and I see myself in them from when I was young and that was happening to me. JB would let me do my thing and I would come up with bass parts, and he would be like “Yeeeah baby! That’s what I’m talking about!” And I would just light up like a firework. You gotta give players that feedback and put them on. You can build up these youngsters’ confidence and let them know that they can do this and they have their own voice in this. We need that kind of uplifting spirit nowadays more than ever. If you encourage people then they’ll encourage someone else and so on. It’s a domino effect.
I tell you though, these young cats remind me of myself. Music is my first love and I enjoy seeing youngsters take to an instrument and practice it and flourish. They might come in to see me play, but I love going to see them play. For me, JB would come watch me rehearse and I would be like wow, this is amazing. I know how it feels and it’s a good feeling. We’re losing feelings now because we’re getting programmed not to feel them. That’s why self-expression feels so good, and music is the root of that. Our feelings are all we got. Everything else you gotta pay for. They gonna start charging us for our feelings some day. Oh you want one funky feeling? That’s $500 right there! [laughs]
What advice can you offer fellow bassists for staying positive and keeping morale high?
Long story short, as creators and musicians, we should all make this the best time of our writing careers. Just start writing riffs. It doesn’t have to be whole songs, experiment with ideas. Get your playing right, get your practicing up, and make it happen. Get your talent together to present it to the world and take it to the stage. Put those feelings down and let it be heard. This is the best time, man! You can sit there all day and say “Woe is me,” and that’s fine if you’re a regular person. But when you’re a musician, you ain’t a regular person. You’re special and you hold up the light for the world. You are that special, even if nobody is telling you that. Know that! Bootsy told ya so!
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