Collins is known for his colorful costumes, but it doesn’t stop there. His bass tonal colors helped define the funk genre. “It’s kind of like painting,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I don’t like that color. Let me try another color.’” He’s shown here in 1990 with
his 1969 Ampeg upright bass. Photo by Ebet Roberts
How much does that original Space Bass weigh? It looks like it weighs a ton.
Well, you know, the first one actually did weigh a ton. I don’t know exactly what it weighed, but it was all solid wood and it was heavy. I never really paid it that much attention because I guess I was so young and energetic and I didn’t care. I just wanted to play that star bass. I didn’t care what it weighed. I was really concerned with how it sounded and what it looked like—and that’s pretty much it. If I could play it, then that’s what I wanted. The one I got now that’s made by Warwick, it’s much lighter. I notice it now because I put the old one on—the 1975 one—and it’s heavy. But I never noticed that before.
People don’t know that you’re also a guitar player. I interviewed George Clinton and Blackbyrd McKnight a few years ago [“Parliament Funkadelic: A Funk Guitar Roundtable,” March 2016] and they said your guitar playing is “dangerous.”
[Laughs]. That’s pretty deep. Nah. I just play what I hear in my head and that’s usually when we’re coming up with stuff—like a track and a riff. I’m pretty good at that because those are things I just hear. That’s probably why they said it. But being amazing and dangerous and all that? No, I doubt that very seriously.
Do you play the rhythm guitar parts on the new album? Is that mostly you?
A lot of it, yeah. And then Keith Cheatham, who was playing a lot on the road with us. He took Catfish’s place. I’d never found nobody that had Catfish locked down, other than Keith. He used to play with Sun [’70s/’80s R&B group], and he plays on a lot of this new album. It’s hard—it’s almost becoming a dinosaur thing to be able to do that, because that’s not the emphasis now—but for me, it’s always about that groove, that lock, that riff, that hook. You get that going and then you space out. But of course, that’s the idea from back in the day. Now it’s like everything is outer space. But I can dig it.
Are your guitars recorded direct to the board or do you have guitar amps and effects set up in your studio as well?
I got amps and I got direct. I got the old 50-watt Ampeg with the two 12s. I mean, you name it. The old Epiphone, the old Gibson, the old Fender Twin Reverb—all that old stuff, I got it. I got the B-3 organ. I mean, fully blown. Musicians come in and have a field day. It’s like having a studio with things you can touch. These are things you can actually get on and play. And I don’t care what era a musician was brought up in, when he’s able to sit down, jam, mess around, and experiment—when he can do that—that’s when he fully gets a chance to open up with his own self-expression and beat it out of himself. I think it’s very important to be able to beat it out, because otherwise you sit there and play with yourself. And I just don’t like playing with myself like that [laughs].
Do you play guitar with a pick or do you strum with your fingers?
With a pick. Just like my older brother Catfish. I learned from him and he was the greatest at it.
You feature a lot of other bass players on the new album as well. How do you arrange that?
It was about coordinating it and putting it together in a way that doesn’t step on anybody’s toes. This was like a team kind of thing. I didn’t want to do it where it all just sounds like a whooof. You know how you can put a lot of comedians together who are all great on their own, but when you put them together it just ain’t happening? Well, that’s the same idea. I wanted it to be where you had your own space and wasn’t nobody stepping on that. That’s you. It’s your turn.
You travel with a second bass player in your live act as well.
Yes. I started doing that because it kept getting more difficult for me to perform and take care of all the crazy business. It was just nuts. I’ve always loved to play, but to play and take care of all the airports—I mean, the road is just so stupid now—and it’s like I needed somebody I could rely on. I play and sing the songs and that was getting difficult—playing, singing, and trying to entertain the people was a little bit much for me. If it was just getting up there and playing, okay, I can do that. It was a lot of pressure lifted off when I added that. It made playing and being onstage a lot more fun.
When you play bass, does he lay out or do you just have two basses going?
He drops his volume or he leaves the stage, it just depends on what song it is.
How was the album recorded?
I engineered all the analog stuff. We did about 65 to 70 percent of the album here in the Bootzilla Rehab [home studio]—and the other parts we had to send out. Iggy Pop did the intro at a studio in New York. Dennis Chambers was on the road, so this time he had to record the drums where he was at. A lot of the musicians that I used were on the road—because it was the summer time and everybody was out. I took off to do this record. I had time to do whatever I needed to do. But the people that I wanted to get, I had to see if it fit into their schedule. Some of them came in and then had to leave right out. Some I had to send the files to, and me and my engineer, Tobe Donohue, interacted with the other musicians through Pro Tools.
When you record in the studio, do you sit in the control room or do you sit with your amps and play?
I’m in the control room, because once I pretty much got my sound, it always stays set up. That’s a good thing because when I used to have to tear it down to go out on the road, it was really draining to have to set it all back up. Through this album, it was always set up. All I had to do was turn it on and if I needed to put a different pedal or different thing, it’s all sitting right there in the control room.
You didn’t slap at first. When did you start doing that?
Well, when I first started, I was playing with my thumb. Then the new thing was the fingerstyle. When I saw Marshall Jones, of the Ohio Players, doing it with the fingerstyle, I was like, “Wow, that’s the new way of playing.” I jumped on practicing like that and I got good at it. And the next thing, Larry Graham came on the scene playing the slap, and I wanted to pick that up and infiltrate that with what I was doing. And that’s where it all started.
Many years ago, I was backstage at a P-Funk show and you showed up wearing an amazing jacket that had an American flag on one side and a Soviet flag on the other. Do you still have it?
Actually, I’ve still got that jacket. I mean, I probably wouldn’t wear it right now. [Laughs.]