Nile Rodgers interview: ‘Chic is a celebration of my life’

If you’re wondering how Nile Rodgers keeps on top of his endless collaborations and a to-do list as big as a phone book, the clue might be his early starts.

We get a lunchtime interview slot but it’s 8am in the States, he’s in the studio already and he’s been there for a while. Over the phone he laughs off any idea that it’s early, saying: “That’s how I’ve been rolling for a long, long time.”

Rodgers and his band Chic should qualify for Irish residency at this stage. Since 2009 they’ve sprinkled their white-suited disco dust over Forbidden Fruit, Electric Picnic, Iveagh Gardens, Belsonic, Live at the Marquee and Liss Ard — and that’s just the festivals, not counting their theatre gigs.

They were well into double figures years ago. We wouldn’t flinch if they turned up to play the national anthem at the All-Ireland final next year. Nile says: “You’re one of our best audiences in the world… who knows, I’d like to say that it’s because of my Irish heritage but I only found that out when I was writing my autobiography. It’s on my mother’s side, five generations back. Percentage Irish? Ah I dunno, that’s complicated, it’s too early for that!”

Rodgers and Chic are headlining the first ever Metropolis festival in Dublin’s RDS on November 8, one more chance to see them glide through disco classics like Le Freak, Good Times and Everybody Dance, as well as iconic pop songs Rodgers had a hand in.

For decades he has been the go-to guy for inspiration as a songwriter, producer, band leader and arranger. He can take credit for David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like a Virgin and Sister Sledge and Diana Ross’s biggest hits. Chic’s Good Times bassline kickstarted the hip-hop revolution when Sugarhill Gang nicked it for Rapper’s Delight, and he did it again on Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

'GODDAMN, THAT'S MY SONG?' - David Bowie to Rodgers after hearing Let's Dance
‘GODDAMN, THAT’S MY SONG?’ – David Bowie to Rodgers after hearing Let’s Dance

He says sometimes at festivals he’ll see a few surprised faces in the front row when he plays these pop classics, adding: “At first it’s like, ‘Hey are these guys a covers band?’ No, guess what, I did these songs!”

Rodgers says that since being “struck with a very aggressive form of cancer” in 2010, he started adding more of the big pop hits. Now cancer-free, Rodgers says: “It’s a musical celebration of my life. We started playing these songs in Japan. My partner in Chic, Bernard Edwards, passed away in Japan, and so we go there at the same time of year, every year.

“They would make requests and we would add one or two songs every year. Now it’s gotten ridiculous. If it’s our own headline show, oh my God, it’s like 30 records that were at least in the top five, and many were No 1s!”

We guess Rodgers’ negotiation skills must be at UN commissioner levels, considering the egos he’s had to work with over the years. How does he suggest to artists like David Bowie, Madonna, Grace Jones, Duran Duran or INXS that their songs aren’t quite right?

He recalls: “David was trickiest. The story of Let’s Dance is I was staying in his place in Montreaux in Switzerland and he walks into my bedroom one morning and he says, [posh English twang] ‘Nile darling, listen to this’.

“He played a folk song on a 12-string guitar and he was calling it Let’s Dance. I was like, ‘Wow David that doesn’t sound like what we’ve been talking about’. But I handled it in a way that was cool and natural… I had music paper next to my bed so I wrote out the score and changed the progression, the chords were still there, approached in a jazzy way, and instead of me just playing the song for him we went to the studio and recorded the song.

“As soon as he heard it he looked at me and said, ‘Goddamn that’s my song?’ and I just said, ‘Well that’s the way I hear it!’ It was so great, after that we ended up having an amazing relationship, he had so  much confidence in me. It felt great, cos this was at a low point in my career after a few flops.”

THANKING HIS LUCKY STARS: Rodgers performs with Pharrell, Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk at Grammys
THANKING HIS LUCKY STARS: Rodgers with Pharrell, Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk at Grammys

Rodgers says he’ll never get into disputes with collaborators, adding: “I don’t boss clients around, it’s their record. If you’re walking down the street, on the poster it’s gonna be your name in really big letters, it’s gonna say ‘GRACE JONES’ and a tiny [munchkin voice] Nile Rodgers.”

With the Nile Rodgers stamp on pop, disco and hip-hop, he landed another bullseye with Get Lucky in 2013 — but it wasn’t a shot in the dark. Rodgers was on a path to electronic music before he got the call from Daft Punk. He says he reached out to techno legend Carl Cox after seeing his set at a festival, and their paths crossed again soon after.

He says: “I went to his house and recorded an ungodly amount of songs. I was like, ‘You could be working on these for years!’

“When I worked on Get Lucky I’d already been working with Avicii and Carl Cox, Daft Punk were more vibing off Chic stuff.”

He’s just finished a record with Dutch EDM star Nicky Romero, and says of the new wave of electronic producers: “They are far more technically advanced these days, it makes for a really good collaboration.”

So even though we may be celebrating pop history at Metropolis, Nile is still out to put his seal on this decade — and beyond.

Chic’s new album It’s About Time is due this year, and he says it’s “everything I ever wanted it to be”, adding: “I’m very very lucky…the most beautiful thing about music is we wake up in the morning, we create something from nothing.

“Like right now I’m just talking to you on the phone but when I get off the phone, something wonderful is gonna happen musically for me…it’s the greatest gift that I have in my life.”

Originally appeared in Irish Daily Star