Few musicians have been as science fictional, for as long, as William "Bootsy" Collins. He's been the cartoon character at the heart of George Clinton's UFO-inspired Mothership. He's helped Buckethead construct a giant robot. He's kept it weird for decades.
And now Bootsy is back with a new album, Tha Funk Capital of the World. We were lucky enough to talk to him by phone this morning about the robot uprising, the aliens who created human beings as a halfway-failed experiment, and why it's more important than ever to get off this planet.
In case you don't know who Bootsy Collins is, here's a quick rundown:
In 1970, James Brown had a labor dispute with his then-band and decided to fire them right before a concert. He flew in a new band: a raw, untested group of teenagers. That band's bass player was a young Bootsy Collins, who added a nervous energy to Brown's already-staccato basslines. Collins only played with Brown for about a year, but played on many of his most famous jams, including "Superbad," "Sex Machine" and "Soul Power." Check out the video to see Collins in action.
After leaving James Brown, Collins joined up with George Clinton's Parliament-Funkadelic, co-writing most of P-Funk's great anthems. And in 1976, Collins was launched as a solo artist, with a slew of albums that featured him doing the voices of various cartoon characters and weird space-monsters. Collins half-sang, half-talked, but usually also featured other singers, but the star was frequently Collins' insane fuzztone bass playing and hyperactive arrangements. His solo hits included "Stretching Out," "Bootzilla," "Body Slam" and "I'd Rather Be With You."
Collins has kept recording as a solo artist ever since, including one album under the name Zillatron that featured a song that appears to be named after William Gibson's novel Count Zero. He's also worked with tons of other artists, from Bill Laswell's stable of ambient-dub-metal-funk musicians to Dee-Lite. He's also been at the core of several science-fiction-inspired supergroups, including Praxis and Science Faxtion.
So we were beyond excited to talk to Collins. Here's what he told us:
This new album is playing tribute to a lot of people who've influenced you, and there's a lot of guest stars. It's like being on the Mothership.
It's kind of my musical biography, if you will. It kind of takes people back in time a bit and like in a time machine - or on the mothership. And lets them revisit where I got my funk from, who influenced me. Where did I get my inspiration? Who are my heroes? Where did I get my star? All of those things kind of start out on this record and I wanted to make sure that people who know me, or people who don't know me from a hole in the wall, they know where the funk came from. I wanted to make sure it was said by someone that was there. And since I got the opportunity to do it the way I felt it needed to be done, I did it. I wanted to do it to the max, you know.
Not only just musically, but I wanted to make sure we had people on there that really did something, people with voices. People like Samuel L. Jackson or Dr. Cornell West or George Clinton. These people were there, coming up in that same era, they had a chance to experience it, feel those times, I wanted them to be a part of this record along with the new people, people like Snoop [Dogg] and Ice Cube and Chuck D, people who kind of had a hand on their own generation and are still relevant today. This to me is what holds up the funk.
The liner notes end with a picture of the Mothership and "instructions for leaving the planet." That seems like it could be useful. Do you think people will need that?
My main reason for doing that was not only that I believe in that - it's the fact that people need something to hold onto, and with so many distractions today: your phone, our iphone your ipad... all of that stuff can be used in a good way, but at the same time we get distracted so constantly by them that we don't even pay attention to what' s coming, to what's around the corner. And I wanted to put that down musically, so you can groove to it, but at the same time you get something out of it. You get an awareness, an awakening to what's happening every day, right before your eyes. I've kind of been through it over this 40-year thing and watched the whole world change, from not having a TV in the house to having a TV and an iphone in every pocket. And it's a whole different world now.
On the new album, there's a song called "Free Dumb," that includes the line, "You say you got a smart phone, but you still make dumb decisions." Do you think technology helps people to be stupid faster?
Yeah! (Laughs.) I mean, it's helping more of us to be stupid, and get stupid quick. I mean you don't have to waste time to get stupid any more. What it really is, is the smartphones are smarter than us now, you can't even get lost. If I told you, "Go get lost," you would probably laugh at me, because you can't even get lost no more, 'cause you got your smartphone with a GPS. And getting lost actually was fun, because you had to find your way back, and when you take those things out of the human experience, that's what you take away: the human experience. We are the greatest computers in this world, but now we've created the smart phone which is smarter than us now, but we're still making dumb decisions. We have given our creations more power than we have, and that to me is dumb.
I've been listening to your Science Faxtion album a lot.
Actually that [album] gave me the leeway, it led to the record company giving me the freedom to do this record the way I wanted to do it.
And when you were promoting Science Faxtion, you said you were worried about our technology getting so smart it decides to kill us. Are you worried about a robot uprising?
Well, it ain't like I'm worried about it. It's like, if we keep going in this direction, it's definitely going to happen. So it's not nothing to really worry about, it's either: we're going to get smart, or we're going to continue to be dumb. It's really up to us. It's something that's kind of there that I'm looking at, and I just want to make people aware that this is what's going on, y'all. I know we're all out there trying to survive and in surviving you don't look at real things that's happening in the world and why your world is changing, you don't even want to see those things, you just want to survive. It's very important that people realize: the air is being taken away, the oceans are being taken away, the room is being taken away, but we're so worried about gas prices that we don't even see this stuff.
The room is being taken away?
The room on the earth. The planet is just getting smaller and smaller as people are growing and growing. There won't be no room, we're going to have to go to other planets.
Are you in favor of us colonizing other planets?
I think what's a good solution would be to be as smart as a smartphone (Laughs) and use [our minds]. If we only used a tad bit of doing the right thing for people and situations, man, we could wipe this stupidness out so quickly.
After Star Wars, every pop group and soul group was doing science fiction songs. But you and George Clinton started doing that way earlier. Where did that come from?
Well, I think we kind of grew up in that, and it always intrigued George. It always intrigued me. George really helped me with it, and I kind of grew up with it on TV, watching Star Trek, Lost in Space, Flash Gordon, I mean all of this stuff. Reading the comic books. And then George got me into really reading books. Chariot of the Gods, The Naked Ape, all these kind of books. Cloning... I can't remember the authors right now, but I still have the books - the original books that I got when George and I used to go fishing.
And speaking of Star Trek - William Shatner - you know, I'm actually doing a record with him, and that's like a dream come true. And then doing animation stuff. I mean, watching this animation stuff, and being a part of animation, I've always been a part of it because we got those kind of characters naturally. So science fiction always intrigued us and we figured — well, actually, George figured — let's just make it a whole concept, we don't even have to try to play the parts. We are those parts. On stage, it's just a big mothership. It's a spaceship with all these space aliens on it. And we considered ourselves space pimps.
How was the transition between the psychedelic era of P-Funk and the science fictional era? Was it overnight, or gradual?
Well, coming out of the psychedelic era made it that much more real, and that much more easy. Because when you're tripping, you see all that kind of stuff anyway. And it becomes more real, and because really for me, it is real. Science fiction for me is really science faxtion. It's really a fact. This is closer to the way it is than what we think.
We think we're the smartest beings that is being, but that's dumb right there. And it's like, not really wanting to face the fact that the universe was here before we even got here. We're just experiments. Before, you know, with the dinosaurs, with the land of the giants. With the horses, and horse-butt, and then the man-face — all those things were experiments that went bad. We're actually the results of an experiment that went halfway right. But we're still not there, we just kind of took over. The ones that brought us here, they kind of left us and kept an eye on us to see what we're going to do.
And now we've taken another step and we've created the smart phone, and we're leading the way back to where we came from.
What do you mean, back where we came from?
Well, you talk about aliens and people from other worlds and all of this kind of thang. And we are actually at the forefront of that. We are evolving into these beings: part robot, part human. That's really us. That's going to wind up being us. Because that science fiction stuff ain't really science fiction. That's where it's going.
You and Bernie Worrell worked on a song for George Clinton's T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M. album called "Cyberpunks," which was never released. What was it about?
Kind of what we're talking about. To get even deeper, I look at where we are right now as an experimental junkyard. And this is where they chose to come to do their experiment. And that's kind of where the song is coming from.
Finally, you started the Bootsy Collins Foundation to help teach kids to play musical instruments. Given that you were one of the pioneers of electronic music, why do you think it's important for kids to learn to play analog instruments?
I think it's really important, because we're kind of throwing away the analog portion of it - and analog meaning the human manual labor part. I think the combination... just like on the new record, I think it's very important to introduce the two of them as one. [The analog portion] is our working brain, that's our working part that I was talking about earlier, that we're throwing away. That's the real "Free Dumb," you're throwing that away to become dumb. We're giving the digital world the whole control, and when that shuts down, we're out of business. If the computers shut down, what do we do? You're talking about some dummies, and we're supposed to be the smartest mugs in the universe. I want you to ask the fans. Tell them Bootsy said, "What would you be?"