Le Freak, C’est Chic… An interview with Nile Rodgers
Songwriter, composer, record producer, guitarist, musician, showman… Nile Rodgers needs no introduction.
The Chic frontman has loaned his talents to artists ranging from David Bowie to Diana Ross, and from Grace Jones to Lady Gaga, and is showing no signs of slowing down, with Chic’s ninth album, It’s About Time, having been released just last September.
Younger listeners will know Rodgers for bringing the funk to Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories in 2013, as well as recent work with artists like Oliver Heldens (Summer Lover), Christina Aguilera (Telepathy) and Mura Masa (Till The World Falls), among others.
In fact, in total he’s written, produced and sold some 75 million singles and 500 million albums, globally.
Chic play Dublin’s St. Anne’s Park this Sunday (2 June), and Rodgers and co. are no stranger to these shores in recent years, having played sell-out shows at Malahide Castle and the RDS, as well as festivals including Electric Picnic and Forbidden Fruit.
But in a modern music industry where success is often judged by Instagram likes, and traditional chart singles are becoming an increasingly rare breed, how does Rodgers explain his – and Chic’s – longevity?
“I’m not a music snob,” he explains. “I like music, and I like challenges, so I’m always working with people that are either up and coming or people that will never be known, but are just talented. I’ve learned a lot from new artists. Obviously I still work with artists in their 40s and 50s, but that’s rare.”
One such artist to call upon Rodgers’ talents was the late Avicii, who worked with him on the 2013 single Lay Me Down. Rodgers described the Swedish DJ as a “great friend” prior to his recent passing.
“The first night I met him, we decided we were going to work together,” he says. “I work with a lot of young DJs. I have maybe 20 records coming out this year that are all done by people whose average age is around 25.”
It’s not just the artists that have changed, either. Studio technology has moved on hugely in the 42 years since Chic released its self-titled debut album (which included the seminal Everybody Dance), in 1977. If Rodgers had the change to go back in time and do it all again, would there be anything he would change?
“Well, obviously, if we had today’s technology, we may have approached things differently, but that’s a tricky question,” he says.
“The audience… and I don’t mean to sound like an age chauvinist, but I could prove it scientifically by what people consumed back then. The audience then was more sophisticated when it came to listening to compositions, because of what the songs were like. In the old days, songs were much more complicated and sophisticated.”
As he explains, music these days tends to be based on more basic loops, making it more “primal, and simple,” he says.
“We think more in terms of the lyrical content in today’s world than about all of the orchestral musical elements that it takes to make a record. You had to go to a professional recording studio to make the record when I was a kid. You couldn’t make a record on your laptop at home. There was no such thing as a laptop.”
When technology arrived, Rodgers was an early advocate, investing in a computer setup that cost him a cool quarter of a million dollars – a tidy sum even for a top hitmaker.
“Computers in those days were really expensive,” he says. “We were just using it to help us explore different sounds and different things we could import into our environment without having to hire someone every single time we had an idea. In those days, without your own computer, you’d have to hire someone else to see if your idea was a good one.”
What’s remarkable is that Rodgers, now 66, has been performing since he was 17 years old, while his first Chic release was at the age of just 24. That’s some legacy. Was there anyone he wished he had played with during close to five decades of performing?
“When I became a professional musician, either I wasn’t in their league yet or they were older and had passed away,” he says of the great musicians of the first half of the 20th century. “I would love to have played with Cab Calloway. Back in the day, I’d have loved to be part of something like that.
“As a matter of fact, we were so romantic about that era that Chic is based on the whole jazz age. When we did the album with Good Times on it [1979’s Risqué], we did a song called My Feet Keep Dancing. We actually have the Nicholas Brothers tap dancing on the record.”
Past artists aside, however, the sheer number of artists that Rodgers has shared a stage with is enough to fulfil any ‘dream concert’ fantasy.
“I’ve played with everybody from Prince to Parliament, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, the B-52s, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton — I’ve played with so many great people. Any one of those artists could have fulfilled the fantasy.
“One night we played with Elton John. I always make a joke every time I see him. I say, ‘If I hadn’t stopped, we’d still be playing.’ That was three years ago. He didn’t want to get off the stage, he wouldn’t stop playing. I said, ‘Come on, we’re done’.”
It’s testament to Rodgers’ legacy – and his enthusiastic personality – that even artists not closely associated with disco and its offshoots turn to the maestro for inspiration.
“Typically I meet somebody, we like each other, and somehow that meeting turns into a record,” he says. “I’ll give you a great example. I recently met Noel Gallagher for the first time. I was an Oasis fan, but I’d never had a chance to meet him. So I’m in the studio, and Noel was right next to me. I’m the chief creative now at Abbey Road. Noel and I started talking.
“He said, ‘Hey Nile, check this out… here’s my tribute to Chic’. He played this song with a Chic kind of groove. I thought, ‘Wow, who would ever have thought that Noel Gallagher would write a song with a Chic kind of groove?’
“Then I asked him to call me, and I suggested that we play together. Then I suggested we call Johnny Marr. So I called Johnny Marr, and we picked a date that we could do this, and it happened just like that.”
As you might expect from an individual who has influenced so many artists, Rodgers says that he is “completely flattered” by musicians that seek to imitate him, or are inspired by what he does.
“When I started playing, I was imitating other people until I developed something that felt like me,” he says. “I grew up as a classical jazz musician, and when I started to play pop music, I couldn’t be satisfied with just the way that regular guitar players play.
“So I developed this sound where I wrote music that is dependent upon my knowledge of harmony and inversions and voice leading and stuff like that. I don’t play guitar like the typical guitar player. I play more like a jazz guitar player, but I’m still doing pop music.
“It seems to work. I mean, it’s working pretty good.”
You get the impression from talking to Rodgers that he is comfortable in any situation, such as when meeting Hollywood stars like Vin Diesel – “he gave me his whole background, and we knew all the same people” – or writing a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber – “I wouldn’t have believed that it would come together like this in a million years” – or on stage.
In fact, such is the infectious fervour with which he throws himself into every task, that he wouldn’t mind even longer days just to fit it all in.
“Don’t you wish that the day was 48 hours long?,” he asks. “I’d like to do even more work than I do now, which is already an extraordinary amount.”
Something tells us he wouldn’t get tired, either.
Interview by Eileen Shapiro, edited by 909originals. Chic play Dublin’s St Anne’s Park on Sunday 2 June, supported by Kaiser Chiefs and Toucan. Tickets are still available, and can be purchased by clicking here.