Ahead of his Sandance gig, legendary hitmaker Nile Rodgers talks about his career and a certain collaboration with Daft Punk By Peter Feely.
When Daft Punk and Nile Rodgers finally got together at the famous Electric Lady recording studios in New York last year, something special happened. Featuring the vocals of Pharrell Williams, the resultant single ‘Get Lucky’ went number one across the world and sold over seven million copies. When the track’s co-writer and guitarist takes to the stage at Sandance on November 15 he’ll be rocking a back catalogue most musicians can only dream of – it’ll be a chance to witness pop music aristocracy.
In the past, Rodgers has penned ‘Upside Down’ for Diana Ross, ‘We Are Family’ for Sister Sledge and ‘I Want Your Love’ for his own band Chic. He’s worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Madonna as well as producing the bestselling album of David Bowie’s career, 1983’s Let’s Dance.
Yet Rodger’s latest commercial renaissance is nothing short of remarkable – something which isn’t lost on the guitarist. ‘To sell more than a million copies in the UK alone [of ‘Get Lucky’] is special. I’ve had 21 or 22 number one records. I’ve never sold a million copies in just the UK.’
On his collaboration with the French electronic duo of the moment, Rodgers reveals that, ‘They [Daft Punk] were in New York and they rang me. We had been trying to get together for 16 years. Well, we only tried twice but both times we failed miserably. This third time they rang me, I happened to be home and everything worked out perfectly.’
Daft Punk’s 2013 album Random Access Memories was expensively assembled and recorded with only live instruments and the best musicians, as with classic ’80s records like Thriller. This is a way of working that Rodgers clearly relishes. ‘That’s how I make records,’ he says. ‘Literally, when we got into the studio, they asked me point blank, “How did you make Chic [his band] records.” I said, “Well, this is how we did it,” and they said “Great, let’s do that.” As a result, Rodgers ended up working on three tracks on the album.
Despite being a grounded, gregarious conversationalist, Rodgers has some distinctly unusual quirks, particularly when it comes to music. ‘I don’t see music. I’m exactly the opposite. As I’m walking into a room, driving down a highway or talking to you, I hear music all the time. I actually have to cut it off. If you were around me you’d be amazed by the noisy environment I force myself to work in to cut off the music chatter that’s in my head all the time.’
This is partly due to Rodger’s childhood. Raised by bohemian, beatnik parents with a party lifestyle, he was often alone as a child. ‘Basically I grew up by myself so maybe out of necessity or a survival tool and a mechanism that I created characters or had a musical score going along with my musical life because I was always alone. Music was my constant companion, as it still is to this very day. Maybe it’s a condition which I helped to orchestrate.’
Inspired by the likes of Wes Montgomery and Johnny Smith, Rodgers refers to the complexity of making amazing pop songs, where you need to create unique ‘one-time only events’ which are difficult for the average person to hear but are ‘what make the linear journey of record-making interesting to the listeners.’ He describes his playing style as more like a jazz musician than a funk guitarist, citing a recent example where he struggled to play ‘Get Lucky’ live.
‘There’s a funny video of me in Ibiza last summer after ‘Get Lucky’ came out. They played it and asked me if I knew how to play it? I said, “No I don’t know how to play it but I can figure it out.” So when they were playing it, it seemed to take me a long time to work it out even though there are only four simple chords. And the reason why, is that regular guitar players just hear the four chords. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m trying to mimic what I actually did. When I play ‘Get Lucky’, there are parts that are changing throughout the performance. I was trying to learn that and copy myself and I was having a hard time as I was improvising at the time. I know what the basic groove is and that’s maybe why it sounds interesting.’
Rodger’s band Chic was destroyed in 1979 by the disco sucks movement in the US, originating from an anti-disco event in Chicago which ended in a riot. From being a number one band, Chic became musical pariahs almost overnight. This still haunts Rodgers, who describes the backlash against disco music as ‘surprising, devastating and disturbing. I was disturbed because the way it played out in America was almost like a Nazi book-burning. It was really horrible and it was a violent act – it wasn’t just a protest. Chic, my band never had another hit record after that.’
The supporters of the disco sucks movement were predominantly young white males and Rodgers clearly stills feels victimised by them to this day. He acknowledges indebtedness to David Bowie for bringing him back from obscurity. ‘When I did that record [Let’s Dance] I had six failures in a row. After disco sucks, no one was calling me, I couldn’t get arrested – it was really horrible and David Bowie took a chance on me when nobody else would and I did the biggest record of his life and one of the biggest records of my life.’
I ask Rodgers, who claims he only needs three hours’ sleep a night, how he keeps up his obsessive enthusiasm for recording and performing at the age of 61 and he reveals that this year has already been the busiest of his career. ‘I’m probably worse now. This year alone we’ve played for nearly two million people and the year’s not even over yet. Typically, I always enjoy the thing that I’m not doing currently the most. So if I’m in the studio, I can’t wait to get on the stage and play live. And when I’m playing live, I can’t wait to get home and write some new songs. And that’s a good thing.’
As for what’s next, Rodgers reveals that he’s going to work on unreleased Chic material from the ’80s with Daft Punk and that he’s open-minded about how it’s going to sound. ‘All I know is that we worked great together on Random Access Memories and I would love to see what we’ll do with this Chic material.’
Rodgers also can’t wait for Sandance. ‘What I saw from going on the internet and looking at the venue and the past concerts they’ve had, it seems really exciting to me. I hope it’s not just hype because I looked at it and went, ‘wow this Sandance thing looks amazing’. And he’s a man who knows a thing or two about hype.
Chic featuring Nile Rodgers appear at Sandance, Atlantis Beach, The Palm, Dubai on November 15. Dhs295-Dhs500, www.timeouttickets.com.
Collaborations with Nile Rodgers
The Sugarhill Gang