We catch up with the highly influential Chic guitarist, recent Daft Punk player and collaboration-prone songwriter extraordinaire responsible for some of the biggest records in the history of pop music – Nile Rodgers – to discuss finding a new audience though Random Access Memories, why David Bowie was the easiest artist he’s ever worked with and his future work with UK duo Disclosure.
Where in the world are you and what have you been up to today? Today I’m just waking up in Iceland. I performed in Reykjavík last night with the band. It was amazing. really, absolutely amazing. It’s been the strangest summer for them here in Iceland. They say that it’s never rained this much since 1947. But the one day we were here to perform it was completely sunny and beautiful. People were going without jackets. It was amazing. But today the weather is so extraordinarily bad that I was awakened by windows and doors blowing open.
So god parted the skies for your performance? He did. Amazing. He must love dance music.
The last time you were in Australia you described your performance at Golden Plains as “spiritual”. Can you explain what you mean by that? Oh man, it felt magical. We’ve achieved this thing a few time before where the crowd, it feels like you could walk on top of their energy. There’s an Indiana Jones film and I’m not sure which one in the series it is but there’s a scene where he has to take a leap of faith and walk out over a gorge or ravine. And when he puts his foot out there there’s a magical bridge. That’s kind of what it feels like. It’s scary because it feels to me like I could just walk off the stage onto the energy of the crowd and just walk above them. It sounds stupid but that’s what it feels like to us. The energy of the people feels like it’s supporting us in a way.
So that doesn’t happen at every show, that transformative vibe. That exact kind of thing doesn’t happen at every show. But good feelings – they pretty much happens at every show. That’s what our music is for. But every now and then you get those magical shows where it’s like “wow, I can’t believe what I’m feeling”.
How have you found the reaction from young people discovering you as a songwriter through Daft Punk? That has been the most unique thing because when I was a kid I loved the music my parents were into because my parents were beatniks and weird. They were playing cool stuff and we developed an affinity for the same type of music. But what is a little strange and unique is to see kids getting autographs for their parents and the kids being such fans of the music. I thought that it was a unique phenomenon in certain cities and places. It especially shocked my when we played in Manchester a little over a year ago and the median age was 20 years old. So there was a lot of 16 and 17 year olds. And they were singing the songs at the top of their lungs like they were new records. So I just decided to stop the band just to see. And we stopped the band and they kept singing and we looked at each and thought “this is really weird”. And we played one of our obscure songs and they went even crazier, they were glad that we played it. It was the most bizarre thing ever. Their appreciation was genuine. Believe me. I know how much effort it takes for someone to memorise the lyrics to your song. That takes a lot of work. That’s a lot of playing and replaying. They knew the lyrics to obscure songs. The UK is a strange market in that compilations are the way that people are accustomed to consuming music. I don’t know how these kids got these obscure Chic songs. It’s amazing.
Manchester is a great place for bands to go because there’s such a rich history of music there, can you tell us a bit about the reaction in America? We haven’t really been playing in America a lot. It’s unusual. When we do play shows in America they’re great. But America doesn’t have the nationalistic concert mentality or a festival mentality. Traditionally in America, and I guess this is because we don’t really have holidays or vacations, we say we do but we don’t, really, whenever you go to an American event it gives you a really good indication of the psyche here because, if you go to an American sporting event, say, if your team is losing and it’s pretty clear that they’re going to lose most Americans will leave the arena just so they can beat the traffic.
I’ve seen Miami Heat basketball games. Exactly. We don’t have what I call the festival mentality of chilling and listening to music. I remember once we played in Italy and we played one of the Grand Prix races and I couldn’t believe how many people there were chilling with wine and food and whatever. These were families going out and having a good time together. In a way, that’s something I long for. As people we value our time too much and it’s a shame. The average American gets two weeks vacation and typically what they try and do is spread those two weeks all around the calendar. They don’t like to take it straight.
Did you know “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself To Dance” were hits the first time you heard the final versions of them? Hit is an elusive concept. It’s not really a word you can use prior to it happening. It might feel like a hit or sound like a hit but you never really know if the songs will find an audience. Or if it’s going to feel like a hit to others. We make music for ourselves but ultimately we make recorded music for others. Otherwise what’s the point of recording it? You could just sit around and jam it and play it and record for yourself. So we liked “Get Lucky”. We had a good idea that it would do well. What it’s actual done we had no idea it would do. And “Lose Yourself To Dance” is just one of those grooves that gets under my skin. I know I’m a weird guy so I like stuff like that. Think about it, one of the biggest records of my entire career only has drums, bass, guitar, one vocal track of Madonna except for the chorus where she doubles and one keyboard overdub that just happens at the chorus.
Like A Virgin. Correct. The simplest, barest track ever. And that album has sold more than 20 million copies.
What’s the easiest collaboration you’ve ever done? In terms of the ease of input and output it would absolutely be David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” or the very first Chic album, Club Chic. The first Chic album we did in a week. The first Bowie album we did in seventeen days. We were on such a vibe. Before we did one note of music we artistically established what we were doing. We knew what the goal was. So when you go into the studio and you have a clear vision of what the outcome should be artistically and spiritually and physically, what it should feel and sound like, you pretty much know that when you get it. When musicians get a take right – this is the great thing about live music – when you get a take that you know is right, everybody in the room knows it. And I can think back upon my history of cutting songs like that. Joss Stone, her biggest single, a song called “You Had Me’, we did that song in one take. INXS “Original Sin”, one take. We knew. I mean, I knew it. The band weren’t exactly positive. They wanted me to do it again and I thought, “okay, I’ll try it but we’ve got it.” First take was the take. After a while they finally agreed we couldn’t top that.
What was the most challenging collaboration you’ve ever done? I would say Diana Ross because that was the first album we ever did with a big star. Not only was she a star she was a superstar, one of the biggest artists on the planet. And now here’s one of the newest production teams in the world. We’re young, only know how to work one way which is we have to be the boss and it’s funny because at the time her record prior to ours was called “The Boss”. She had to be in charge but we had to be in charge. We didn’t know any other way of working so that caused a wee bit of a rub. But at the end of the day it all worked out and the person who’s closest to me out of everyone I know in show business is Diana Ross.
What collaborations do you have coming up? I work with other people all the time. That’s sort of my M.O., that’s just what I do. In terms of unreleased Chic material I’ve yet to start to finish it off because every time I put the tapes on I’m just so happy to listen. It’s such a pleasure to listen to these analogue recordings. It’s amazing. It’s a wonderful thing. Daft Punk have expressed an interest and desire to collaborate with me on it. We’ll get to that when we have the time. Hopefully it will come soon. I’ve been approached by some young producers called Disclosure. We’ve yet to record anything but I got a great letter from the guys yesterday. It was great. So whenever I get time in the UK, we’re just trying to juggle that now. It’s really interesting because I like working with people who have different ways of working and I adapt to their style because it’s so much easier for me to do that. So we’ll see. I love what they do. I think they’re really cool. I love their records.
Thanks for your time Nile. Thanks man, appreciate it.
“Nile Rodgers Presents The Chic Organization Up All Night”, a two disc collection of classics including some of the greatest moments in the illustrious career of Nile Rodgers is available now through Warner. Nile Rodgers and Chic will return to perform live in Australia later this year as part of the Meredith Music Festival.