The old adage ‘what goes around comes around’ certainly holds true for CHIC, the legendary disco group that were a music industry phenomenon in the late ’70s with humungous sales for smash hits like ‘Le Freak’ and ‘Good Times’ but whose chart fortunes were irrevocably torpedoed by the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement in 1980. Now – and due largely to NILE RODGERS’ telling cameo on Daft Punk’s recent UK chart topper, the insanely catchy ‘Get Lucky,’ which he co-wrote and played guitar on – The Chic Organization are in the spotlight again and have a freshly-minted retrospective of their greatest musical moments called ‘Up All Night‘ riding high in the UK album charts.
A revived and rejuvenated incarnation of the band led by Rodgers is currently touring Europe as part of a hectic concert schedule that’s actually their busiest ever in the history of this illustrious band. They’ve even just played the Glastonbury festival, where they went down a storm, so it’s no surprise that Nile Rodgers – the only surviving member of the original group and who in the 1980s established himself as a go-to record producer after helming a slew of global hits for the likes of David Bowie, Madonna and myriad others – is in demand by the media. SJF’s Charles Waring was fortunate to catch up with the articulate and charismatic Chic leader in Reykjavík, Iceland, of all places, where the group had performed the night before…
(pictured: Daft Punk with Nile Rodgers on the far right).
How is the tour going because you’ve done a lot of festivals recently, haven’t you?
Yeah, well, it’s actually been great. This (in Reykjavík) is one of the few gigs that we played that wasn’t a festival; that was just a straight, what we call, hard ticket, venue. It’s their new concert hall. I guess it’s heir equivalent of the Sydney Opera House, because everything about it is geared to classical music. When inside you can see the dressing rooms say conductor and soloist. All I can say to you is that last night was beyond a sell-out: and it got so crazy that one of Iceland’s most famous artists couldn’t get a ticket to the show so he came and gave me a painting. It was amazing: I was like ‘wow!’ I was just absolutely stunned and honoured and blown away and the show was incredible.
Do you feel like you’re spreading the Chic message again?
Yeah, I kind of sort of have been doing that ever since the year after my former partner Bernard Edwards died. I was asked to return to Japan (where Edwards died in 1996) to do a concert to pay tribute to him. And since that moment I’ve been playing more and more concerts every year, with this year being the most absurd amount ever. I thought last year was absurd and I even wrote in my blog (http://www.nilerodgers.com/blogs/planet-c-in-english) that we played more concerts last year than in any year since the Chic Organisation was formed back in 1977. However, this year will easily top last year.
Was it hard for you resurrecting Chic without Bernard and drummer Tony Thompson?
I thought it would be. The thought of it was worse than the actual deed because the deed was to pay tribute to Bernard and that was great because Tony was still alive. See, what happened to Tony, and with Luther Vandross, and Raymond Jones – they were all still alive when Bernard passed away – so it was a conscious effort from Bernard and I to put Chic together again without Tony because Tony had had an accident (he was seriously injured in a car crash) which I didn’t know about until I called Tony to play on a record with Eric Clapton. So I thought it would just be me, Tony, and Bernard going in with Eric Clapton and just being our ridiculous, crazy, monstrous selves. But he was struggling to keep the groove and I was so embarrassed and that was when Bernard told me about his accident that almost killed him. And I was like: ‘dude, why didn’t you tell me about that beforehand?’ Bernard said: ‘well, we hadn’t made any records for a while so I figured he was on the mend’ because Tony was a bodybuilder and he looked in great shape and everything was cool but it’s not just about muscle memory; it’s also about the nerves and things being connected. So when Bernard and I got back together, we realised that that was the real core of our relationship and I wanted to be with him and he wanted to be with me, so we put Chic back together and we did a record that didn’t have any of the old people on it except for Fonzi Thornton. Luther Vandross had now become a big star (laughs); I’m sure he would’ve sung on the record if we’d asked him but we couldn’t afford him at that point (laughs): “Oh sure, I’ll sing background on your record, but it will be like $8 million!”
To what extent do you think that your contribution to French dance duo Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ has raised the profile of Chic with younger listeners and audiences?
I can’t tell because it felt like we were already on that trajectory. I made ‘Get Lucky’ more than a year ago and even though it’s just been recently released and has become really, really popular, all the gigs that we’re doing, we didn’t get those gigs because of ‘Get Lucky.’ We got those gigs because last year we had performed some record amount of shows and this year we surpassed that. That had nothing to do with ‘Get Lucky.’ ‘Get Lucky’ came out while we were out on the road.
How did your collaboration with Daft Punk come about?
We met when I was invited to their listening party for their first album about 17 years ago. It was right after Bernard had passed away and they had told me that they were quietly dedicating this record to Bernard and to Chic and I said really? I was already a sort of fan of theirs before the album came out because they had this really cool single called ‘Da Funk’ which was amazing. So I went to a listening party, we met there and then we subsequently tried to hook up in France, twice, but it never worked out. It was interesting because the first time we tried to hook up I was stuck in St Tropez and they were in Paris. And the second time we tried to hook up they were stuck in St Tropez and I was in Paris. And then 16 years later, they called me and I was at my apartment in New York. I invited them over and they said they wanted to play something for me because they wanted me to play on a song. Just one song. They came over and we spoke about the concept holistically. We had a great meeting and you could even see on my blog that they came to my apartment and I was playing a jazz guitar. Of course, I didn’t show their faces (the duo like to remain anonymous) but I had their pictures cut-off at the head. But I do say that this is Guy-Man and this is Thomas. It was really the way meetings should happen when you’re talking about music. It was so artistic and cerebral and wonderful and then they tell me that they’re working at Electric Lady (a famous recording studio in New York). I said all right, cool, I’ll come down and play on that song. So I went down and learned the song but it wasn’t quite doing what I thought it should do. So I said turn off everything and just let me play to the drums. And I mapped out ‘Get Lucky’ on the guitar and then started to play on top of myself….
It’s got that distinctive Chic groove and is a terrific collaboration.
It really is. It was so perfect that everything that I did that day made it on the record. I was actually going to play just one song. I was fine with that. I do that all the time. You’ll see that there are tons of records where a person calls me up – like Britney Spears or someone like that – and I just go in and play and it’s cool; I just have a good time. I knock it out in an hour, just like the old days. With Bryan Ferry, I’ll go in and play like 30 or 40 songs in two or three days. I can easily do seven, eight, nine songs a day. That’s just the old school way; you go from one record to the next and the next and the next and you try and add something original to every record you play on. So imagine if I’m doing a Bryan Ferry session and he’s got like 30 songs for me to play, I don’t want any of them to sound the same so it’s a big day and a big commitment and that’s sort of what happened with Daft Punk. I went into the studio and I knocked out the first song and I think that they didn’t believe that it would happen so fast. I think they thought that I was going to spend the whole day doing that record, that one song, ‘Get Lucky.’ But I said, okay, that’s done, I’ll see you. And they were like, whoa, whoa, wait a minute! We’ve got this other thing: will you try that? So I did that, knocked it out, and they were like wait a minute, wait a minute: we’ve got another thing. And the next thing you know, I was like guys, I’ve got a life. It’s funny, I jokingly say, had I not left the studio, we’d probably still be making records…