Books, documentaries, French robots, not to mention so many hits eventually there will be a chart just devoted just to his work, Nile Rodgers is a force in modern pop culture. When not contributing to Daft Punk albums or telling his remarkable story in his 2011 autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny, Rodgers can be found on the road performing the songs he wrote for the likes of Madonna, INXS, Duran Duran, Bryan Ferry and, of course, his own band Chic. With a packed summer of dates including a headline slot at Bristol’s Love Saves The Day on 26 May ahead, Q spoke to Rodgers In a rare quiet moment at his New York studio.
How the devil are you?
“I’m great, really wonderful.”
You’re playing loads of shows this summer…
“As we’ve done for the last two years straight! A quick history on that is I was blind-sided with cancer a couple of years ago and after my operation I said to myself: The main thing I’m going to give myself as part of my therapy is I’m going to do a lot of work and I’m not going to stop! I read somewhere that somebody said if you have a reason to get up the next day it will prolong your life [laughs] So I said: That’s it, I’m going to have a reason to get up the next day, and put together this absurd schedule. What’s been great is I haven’t let anyone down yet over the last two years. Every gig, every speaking engagement, every book signing, every deadline, I’ve made everyone one.”
It sounds like it working for you?
“It’s great. I feel like a million dollars. I’ve written ten songs in the last couple of weeks, played a party last night, doing a musical benefit for the rainforest in a couple of days. It’s a crazy, crazy schedule.”
People might know you better for your studio work, as a producer and a songwriter, but how much do you enjoy the live side of things?
“I love it! As a composer and person who makes records, there’s an enjoyment that you get out of that like anything else, but when you get to perform the music for people… in my case that was my original goal: I just wanted to play music, I just wanted be a minstrel and play stuff. The fact I never have to play a record I didn’t write or produce for the rest of my life, that’s amazing to me. I could have a five hour show and that could still be true. It’s incredible.” [laughs]
So the perfectionist producer in you doesn’t come out onstage, you’re happy with live music and all its unpredictability?
“To me I like it all. Something I noticed years ago that is performers always like doing the thing that they’re not currently doing the most. When I’m touring I think: Jesus I can’t wait to get home and write and record! And when I’m recording I think: Man, I really wish I could play a show tonight! Maybe that’s a good thing, it always gives you perspective and you’re always looking down the road, you have something to look forward to. I’m always planning what I want to do next.”
You said you only have to play songs you worked on, what does your set look like these days?
“It all depends on the show, but songs that make every single show are Good Times, Le Freak, We Are Family, He’s The Greatest Dancer… but lately we’ve put in Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like A Virgin. Last year we did a song I wrote for Carly Simon called Why for the first time since I did it in the studio. La Roux’s Ellie Jackson, she was killing it. It was amazing so we added it to the set. We also do snippets of songs by other people that are based on my songs! We do a little homage to the people who have paid homage to us, it’s funny.”
Any chance you might include a snippet of a certain Daft Punk song which went to Number 1 recently?
“Get Lucky? I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable playing it this early on. Our set is so loaded with hits and sometimes I look at people at the shows and think: Shouldn’t we give them one song to go to the bathroom to? So it’s hard to make room, plus we’re always respectful of the other talent, we don’t cut into the band going on after us. We’re not a big headliner, we’re the filling act!” [laughs]
Surely you’re more than just filler…
“No, it’s fine with me. The whole thing with Chic was we built our concept on being anonymous, it was the music that was the star. The problem in today’s world of heavy branding people don’t know half the records I did. When they come to our show they go, Damn! He wrote that too? Last year was the first time we ever went to Australia, I’ve had seven Number 1 records there. We played INXS’ Original Sin for the first time. The band actually came back to the show and said afterwards We should go back to playing it that way. So we might add that, and sometimes we’ll even do a Duran song and it goes great.”
Despite your attempts at anonymity, you do seem to be the man of the moment: books, gigs, documentaries, Daft Punk… Do you feel a little bit famous right now?
“A little bit, but I really don’t pay attention to it because one thing that hit me more than anything in rock and roll was when I was in London producing the Wild Boys with Duran. At that point they were so popular we couldn’t go anywhere without a mob scene. I went to the St James Club with John Taylor for tea one afternoon and Paul McCartney was there. There was this screaming mob of Duran fans outside but when Paul left he walked right through them. No one said anything. I thought Woah! So I keep it all balanced because I saw the most famous songwriter in the world, part of the most famous rock group that’s ever existed and he walked out like it was no big deal. When I saw that I realised how fleeting this stuff is. So I take the good with the bad. When I have flops or no one is talking about my music I’m not depressed. I don’t live for that day, I look down the road and I also I’m happy about the past. My phrase is I look back but I don’t stare. I’ll make a big deal out of the past and the future. A few people are talking about me now, but in a few weeks they won’t be. Seriously, that’s rock and roll. It’s cool. It’s nice but I don’t get into it. It will stop, believe me, I’ve had many Number One records and it stops after a while.” [laughs]
You are one of the few people in the world for whom a success like Get Lucky is not entire new…
“The interesting thing about this, not only was the relationship with Daft Punk was great and making the record was cool, but I’ve never had a record leak before. The guys were really upset, everyone had agreed to a schedule and next thing you know the record was turning up before they expected it to come out. People were getting nervous, they were worried about it not fitting the marketing plan and I had to try to be the voice of reason. At the end of the day it’s about music not marketing. No one I’ve known has ever brought a record because of a clever marketing campaign, they buy music because they like it. You can hear it for free any how, if someone marginally likes it they can wait till it comes on the radio again, or whatever. When it gets under your skin and you have to have, you have to own it, that’s what you’re going for! I said: Guys, people will either like or they won’t, we can’t deny that’s the record. It would be awful to say that’s not the record when it really is. I can understand how it was unnerving as they thought they had it on lock down but our hand was forced. People will either like it or not, and that’s what you have to think about.”
Of course, it’s not your only appearance on Random Access Memories. They’ve kept you busy?
“Yeah I worked a lot on that record, it’s great. It was so great.”
What do have planned next?
“Right now I’ve been writing songs with Avicii. We almost can’t write enough together, it’s just insane. I know that sounds weird to people, they say he’s not in my league, but that’s what people used to say about me when I was 24. When we worked with Diana Ross I was 26. I think Avicii is absolutely in my league and we’re having the time of our lives working together.”
Any dream collaborations you still want to do?
“The only person who comes to my mind right away because she kills me artistically is Janelle Monae. She’s just amazing to me. The first time I met her she was my sister, we couldn’t stop talking each others’ ears off.”
Your famously only play one guitar, a white Fender Stratocaster called “The Hitmaker”, where do you keep it?
“It goes with me everywhere. Many times you’ll see me walking down the street with it slung over my shoulder. It’s rarely out of my sight! I’m insanely protective of it, but I’ve not changed it much at all. Once I made it look like that, that’s how it’s been for the last 37 years. I did that finish, it was a whacky looking thing when I brought it, but that’s why it’s unique.”
“When they made those strange finished guitars the guys from Fender would do them at home. So they had specs they were supposed to adhere to but every so often they’d go, What the hell! and improvise. Nobody knew, they just sent them out. I got this weird looking guitar that’s thinner and lighter than any other Strat because it’s made from a crop of wood that the Fender factory never used again. It was too expensive. It’s a one time only type thing.”
Imagine you’d gone to the guitar shop a day later and someone else had brought it?
“Exactly! I didn’t even know it at the time. I was just buying it because it looked like the kind of guitar I wanted to play because of Hendrix. I made some adjustments when I got it home and it’s stayed that way ever since. I’ve never even replaced a pick-up. I play the same guitar on every record. Somebody did an article saying it was responsible for $2bn, though because of Get Lucky they’re going to have to adjust that number!” [laughs]