Rob da Bank vs. Nile Rodgers
Rob da Bank - 28 May 2012
Rob da Bank: I just saw this quote saying “You’ll hear a Nile Rodgers track today & it’ll
make you happy.” And looking through my records today I found Carly Simon’s ‘Why’ – I never
realised that you produced that record.
Nile Rodgers: Yeah, wrote AND produced it! It’s funny, I was saying to someone that that song is completely obscure in America, there was a backlash against Carly Simon when we did that record and we didn’t know anything about the politics of radio and all that. We thought: ‘this is our chance to make our way into the big time!’ The number 1 radio station in New York lets us guest DJ and we said ‘we want to play our new record ‘Why’’, and they said ‘We don’t support Carly Simon.’ I was like: ‘What do you mean? You said we can play anything we want!” That record was almost blacklisted in America and I don’t know why.
RDB: It’s a total classic and you hear it a lot on the radio in the UK, and it made me happy, so that little truism is definitely one to bear in mind! Reading your blog, it often says about songs you’ve got in your head. What songs have you had in your head this morning?
NR: I woke up early this morning as I was basically up all night, didn’t really go to sleep! I woke up to Janelle Monae’s ‘Tightrope’ when I took my early morning walk.
RDB: Ok, that’s quite an uptempo number!
NR: It definitely put some pep in my step, that’s for sure!
RDB: Amazing video as well, amazing artist.
NR: She’s fabulous!
RDB: Obviously, we can’t avoid that you’re writing a blog about your fight with cancer, so how’s that going?
NR: The writing on the blog or the cancer? Both are just...going. The blog is wonderful. Cancer stuff is just weird. I get my last test results tomorrow. At least that’s what they said I’d get. Whenever you get tested, you’re scared for a while. I’ve learned to not be scared, I’ve learned to just work, which is what I love doing anyway. And that’s why I started the blog, to fuse those what I call crazy cancer thoughts, they don’t even lie in your head dormant, they nurture themselves and grow, it’s like they put fertilizer on themselves and become these strong things.
You’re sitting there, terrified all night, and I think to myself ‘Come on, Nile. You’ve got a scientific background, you know that all things die, and if you want to even get into the exact scientific way of looking at it, all things die, but they never leave the Earth, they never go anywhere’. It’s like they say, energy just changes form, that’s just a scientific fact. We’re in a closed ecosystem, everything that’s here has always been here. The atomic weight of the Earth is the same as it’s ever been so we’re not going anywhere!
I remember when I was a kid, and I realised how brilliant Bob Dylan was when he wrote this lyric that went (sings): ‘As I went out one morning, to breathe the air around Tom Paine.’ And I thought to myself ‘is it just because he’s being poetic, and talking about Tom Paine, or is he saying that he knows Tom Paine’s molecules are still surrounding the earth, and Genghis Khan is still in the atmosphere?! They’re all still here, you don’t go anywhere, and I understand that. It’s not a big deal to me, but when you think about it, it is a big deal because it just makes you afraid – nobody wants to die. Steve Jobs said it great: “Even people who believe in Heaven don’t want to die to get there!”
RDB: Very true, yeah, yeah! You’re much braver than me I suppose. One of the things about the blog is when you post something, you immediately see this amazing reaction people and hopefully some sort of positivity coming back to you about all the amazing things you’ve done for people.
Anyway, let’s move on from that...
NR: Yeah, get to rock n’ roll!
RDB: Yeah! Obviously you’ve not always been a festival band. But we’re on a festival website so let’s talk about festivals. You’ve had such an illustrious career over the 30/40 years, but festivals have probably come along more recently. Is that true?
NR: No! Our second gig was a festival! We are actually a festival band! That’s the thing in fact, because we don’t work that much because we made a living writing songs and making records, we’d only go out and play festivals, and the reason why is because no-one really knew what we did, so only the festivals would take a chance to book us, because they’d say ‘Well, they have a hit record, and maybe we’ll luck up and get 2 good songs out of ‘em.” So we’d get booked with 10 acts and that’s how it’d work out. Then they’d realise: “Wait a minute, these guys are good! And all their songs are good!”
You gotta remember, when we first started, people went to a concert to hear music they did not know. And every now and then, at the end you’d hear the hit record, but a concert was about playing new music. 90% of the music at a concert you’d never heard before. Now 99% of a concert is what you know, and if you play something they don’t know, people go to the bathroom! You watch a new artist and it’s so frustrating, everyone’s talking and texting, then they play the hit and [screams] - we grew up at festivals, our first show at a nightclub called Casanova’s in Atlantic City, the second was at Oakland Stadium in front of 70,000 people!
RDB: There you go, you’ve proved me wrong! I suppose what it was is maybe you’ve conquered a lot of territories by playing festivals that previously you may not have played at before, everyone around the world knows your records, but maybe as a live band, that’s been a good way of getting into other places?
NR: Here’s the thing: The reason why people don’t think of us a live band is not because of a lack of playing festivals, it’s because we don’t play gigs all the time. You don’t see us at the HMV so-and-so, because I’ve never had to make a living after 1979, after I wrote ‘We Are Family’, ‘Le Freak’, ‘Good Times’, ‘I’m Coming Out’, ‘Upside Down’...those records kick off a couple of million dollars a year. If you make a couple of million dollars a year sitting at home, what do you have to go play concerts for? I have a modest life, some people who are really, ahem big stars, which I’m not, thank God, when you see big stars they lead big star lives. Remember when you’d read about Michael Jackson taking baths in Evian and stuff like that? Elton John has this castle and this apartment. I have an apartment in New York City which, I have to say is pretty elaborate and over-the-top, but I bought in 1980 when I was making 8 million bucks, back when 8 million was a lot of money! And I kept the same place. Where I’m talking to you from right now is a place I bought in 1979 in a state in America, Connecticut, that had no state tax. I did this all as an intelligent business move, and it wound up just being a modest place to live and it’s wonderful and I love it here. And now a person would pay millions and millions and millions to live here, but that’s not how I saw it, it was just a place to keep my little speedboat! And now people keep big mega yachts here! I have the same exact life, nothing has changed.
RDB: And where is your studio? Is your studio in one of those houses?
NR: My studio is at the place I’m talking to you from right now.
RDB: When you’re working with Daft Punk and new artists now is that where you’re working with them?
NR: Um, who said I was working with Daft Punk? [laughs] No no I’m not allowed to talk about it. But I’m allowed to talk about it but I’m allowed to talk about they definitely came over to my apartment and we definitely did something together. When I work with most artists they don’t come to this studio. No that’s not true, I did a whole Diana Ross here not too long ago. So some people do. When I’m working with vocalists they’ll come here because it’s a place where they love to record, it’s beautiful and it’s perfect for vocals. But if I’m cutting tracks I usually do it at a studio called Avatar which used to be called Power Station. That’s where I worked with Adam Lambert. Actually if you look at my blog, I do a daily blog, the last two days have been the Adam Lambert sessions.
RDB: When you’re listening to the music that new bands and producers are putting out, whether it’s on CD or mp3 or wav do you think, wow everyone’s making a really weedy sound these days, bring back some proper stuff into it or do you not think it’s changed too much.
NR: The world that we live in, which is really interesting, it’s a simulated reality kind of world (I do a lot of video games). What are we trying to do? We’re trying to do everything that we did in the tactile world in this simulated world. So what’s happening in the world of audio all the new gear is emulating the old gear. So you buy a piece of software and it really has all the characteristics of the old gear. And they really do work the same way – the interface looks the same way and you can do all the same quirky things, I mean they worked hard to get those things right. I actually think it’s a very exciting world now because I think there’s something to be said for (maybe this is the old hippy in me) giving everybody a shot and letting the cream rise to the top. I came up during the disco era which I found was the most liberated time in music. Every other week there was some new Cinderella band coming up and competing with the big acts. When we came along we were signed to Atlantic records, so who were the big acts on Atlantic? Forget the Ray Charles era and all of those people how it started which was Atlantic started as a black label. But then after the Woodstock era it turned into a huge mega rock label with Cream, Led Zeppelin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Yes – huge mega acts. Well there’s only one act that’s had a triple platinum single - Chic. Chic: the little band that got signed for £3500 dollars. So we could compete with these big, mega superstars, these stadium concert acts but guess what? We’re outselling you. We’re selling more singles than Cream and Led Zeppelin and all those guys and our records only cost £3500 dollars to make and our albums only cost £35000 dollars to make. You don’t see films about us taking hotels or chateaux in the South of France and making records and all of this romantic stuff. No, the black records are made on 8 hour shifts. We gotta get the hell out of the studio and that’s how I made all my records. ‘Let’s Dance’ was made in 17 days for £40000 and sold £10 million copies or something. ‘Like a Virgin’ made in forty days tops. And it only took that time because I wanted to work on Madonna’s vocals. We had ‘Like a Virgin’ nailed in two or three weeks.
RDB: So how much of that time was actually with the artist? So whether it was Bowie or Diana Ross or Madonna but how many days would you actually do with vocals and then they’d get out of the studio and you’d get on with it?
NR: Just a few days. We only knew how to make records the way black records were made. It’s just the way of the world – a hierarchy system. The rock acts got treated one way the black acts got treated another way. So the rock acts would book studios and live in there and all that sort of stuff. You can’t have an interview with somebody like a Pink Floyd… They always locked out the studios. I never locked out at studio until I did Duran Duran, Wild Boys. So, all those hit records that you heard from me, whether it be ‘Let’s Dance’ or all that kind of stuff, that was no locked out studio, they were done like black records - we were in and out in eight hours.
RDB: What you’ve just described – that rock versus black way of working, and how people were treated – do you think that’s changed now?
NR: There are no black acts even signed anymore in America, there are certainly no black bands. There are only two black bands that have deals. One are The Roots who have a national television show, Jimmy Fallon. If Chic were a band now, we wouldn’t have a record deal, we couldn’t get signed. They only sign solo artists.
RDB: Do you think it’s worse now?
NR: It’s much worse. There is not one black band that has a record deal except from The Roots and TV on the Radio who are a rock band and that’s it. There’s not a self-contained RnB band but self-contained rock bands get signed all the time. So the whole world has changed it’s a completely different paradigm.
RDB: You’ve made so many amazing records – if there is one record just to listen to now if you could only listen to one more record, which one would it be?
NR: It would have to be two: ‘Good Times’ and ‘Let’s Dance’ and the reason is because those are two records which really super changed my life. I mean of course ‘Dance Dance Dance’, my first record changed my life in that it gave me a record deal. But the thing is it’s almost harder to stay in the business than it is to get in the business. Once you’re in everything goes from loving you to hating you, especially if it seems like you have talent and it seems like you can do something that other people can’t do. Because a lot of the record executives are frustrated musicians and they go ‘Ah they’re just one-hit wonders, ok they’re just two-hit wonders. Ok, they’re three-hit wonders, ok four, ok five. Ok, we hate them for some other reason.’ I just have a love of music and of course I am always trying to make hits but I also just love music. I don’t necessarily care if it’s a hit. There’s something about the process that I just absolutely love. And when you make a hit there’s gravy. And I always tell my artists, we should have so much fun making this record because that may be it for us. We may not sell a record, we have no control once this thing gets out. Let’s make sure the recording process is fun, let’s have a good time. I just did this thing with Adam Lambert, we had a great time, we were cracking up but I’m taking it seriously. It’s fun but we’re focused. It’s loose, but it’s disciplined. It’s great and I would do that every day of my life if I could have earned a living doing it.
RDB: And you’ve got Sam Sparro on that track as well…
NR: Sam Sparro is KILLING! This record wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Sam. Sam sent me a tweet on Twitter and he’s like ‘Hey Nile we’ve got this funky track we want you to gig on’. Even though we’ve never met he’s wanted to work with me. Tell you how weird musicians are. We just did our first tour in Australia. I’ve had seven number one records in Australia and we can’t get a booking because no one knows what we do. It was our first time playing there. Sam Sparro came to two of our gigs. He never even came backstage and introduced himself! He went ‘oh my god this is the greatest gig I’ve ever seen’. And I’m like ‘is Sam Sparro here?’ Musicians are bizarre, we’re shy, we’re all sorts of things. I couldn’t believe this! When are we ever going to get to Australia again, and by the way Sam, we just did this great record together, will you come backstage?!
RDB: [laughs] Maybe he didn’t want to shatter the illusion of the great Nile Rodgers
NR: Oh come on man, we’ve been talking on Twitter, he’s like great, I love the guy, he’s so great. I love his last record I was like ‘damn!’ So, musicians are weird. And look, I’m standing at the front of the line, pal - I’m just as weird as everybody else.
RDB: Ok we won’t go into your weirdness [laughs]…so last question. We’re talking about festivals again and you said ‘they’re so much fun they should be illegal’. Why are they so much fun, what is the magic about festivals?
NR: It’s the communal aspect so not only do you have a good time, but the good feeling is amped up exponentionally by the size of the crowd. In other words, if you go to a party and it’s only half-filled you don’t feel like the party is that much fun. You want LiveAid, you want Woodstock. You walk out there and see this mass humanity of people and especially when their experience is the same and they’re all having a good time – you feel better, you had a better time. And that’s what I believe in – that’s what my charity is about, that’s what my life is about. We are family. We feel better when we are with people like and unlike ourselves that have a good time because that’s the affinity. That music that brings you together and all of a sudden, strangers become friends. Enemies become family. It’s weird, it’s a very unique situation, the festival mentality and I long for the festival mentality in America because it’s a form of communalism. I’m almost getting pissed of with being an American because we’re so stupid and you use a word like ‘communalism’ and it sounds like ‘communism’ and it’s like ‘socialism’ and it’s like ‘hey you idiots, study the English language dammit!’ so it’s communalism so it is a form of socialism. We all getting together, we’re of a single mind and we’re moving, like a flock of birds together and we make it better for everybody. So even the people who are down at the lowest end of the financial spectrum still have a great time because the richer people or the VIPS are interacting with you and you’re having a good time. When we played Camp Bestival two years ago, Elly Jackson from La Roux was in the audience dancing with those 50,000 people. I walk out in the audience I go out and listen to the bands. I don’t want to stand on the stage like ‘I’m a rock star I get to stand on the stage’. Yeah I get to stand on the stage I’m working. But I want to go out and hear it the way the people hear it. That’s what festivals are about. It’s a good feeling. I’m walking the crowd, having a good time because I wish I were out there. I like playing, I like doing my job, but when I’m not doing my job I want to have fun. I want to have that fun.