Taking shelter from the rain backstage, Justin Madgwick met legendary guitarist, writer, singer and producer Nile Rodgers.
The star has worked with everyone from Madonna to David Bowie, Britney Spears to Duran Duran, Dianna Ross to Mariah Carey – the list goes on – as well as fronting his own band Chic and running his own label.
Virtual Festivals caught up with Rodgers at Camp Bestival to talk James Blunt, insomnia and video game music.
Virtual Festivals: Nile, I know you’re on a huge tour at the moment, how long have you been in the UK?
Nile Rodgers: “We arrived in Scotland yesterday, we were in Spain the day before and left there at 4am, so we were in both places on the same day.”
VF: We heard from Candi Staton earlier that the weather was amazing in Scotland.
NR: “Yeah, it was, we played indoors, so the weather was great! We were performing at HMV which was really good, pretty cool.”
VF: You’ve been performing at festivals for years, what has your UK festival experience been like recently?
NR: “We played at WOMAD last year, which was incredible and we played at the one in Hyde Park, what’s it called?”
NR: “Yeah that’s the one, Wireless, with what’s his name [sings] “You’re Beautiful.”
VF: James Blunt?
NR: ”Yeah Mr. Blunt, and Gnarles Barkley who was great.”
VF: How are you geared up for today, have you seen the crowd out there?
NR: “No, I haven’t seen the crowd, I’ve been back here as it’s freezing.”
VF: Well, it’s a warm crowd out there. What’s your touring schedule like for this year?
NR: “We have a lot of gigs and come back to England in a few weeks, we’ve got LA, the Hollywood Bowl, then we’re back in Spain, it seems we have a gig every day right now.”
VF: Do you have a particular fitness regime to keep up with that schedule?
NR: “Man are you kidding me? I’m the most unhealthy guy in the world, I don’t sleep, I’ve had insomnia since I was seven years old, all three types, I never sleep, since Thursday I’ve had a total of five hours sleep!”
VF: Is it the buzz from performing that keeps you going then?
NR: “When I pick up my guitar and see the people, it’s like I’ve slept.” [Rodger’s manager reminds him of the UK tour dates] “Back to the tour – we’re in London on the 5th September and Ireland on the 6th.”
VF: So tonight, are we to expect a mixture of Chic and Nile Rodgers hits?
NR: “Yeah, and this is the first time, the very, very, very first time that we’ve formally played songs that I have written for other people other than Chic. Up until three or four days ago, for the last 14 years, we’ve only played Chic organisation songs not Nile Rodgers compositions. Last night, it started as a joke, and I hate to say it, we did [Madonna’s] ‘Like A Virgin’, we didn’t mean it in a harmful way, we were just fooling around, but the crowd started singing along, so we played it. My drummer got a little jealous and said he wanted to sing a song, so I asked him what song would he like to sing and he said [David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and I said ‘what you talking about you wanna sing Let’s Dance?’ But we did it and it rocked, we made a few mistakes, but we’re good enough to pick it up! When we do jazz festivals we can do a lot of that sort of thing as you can improvise freely, but when you’re at a gig you have to put a proper form to it and it worked - I was shocked!”
VF: I guess throwing in the unexpected can surprise the audience, make them listen as they weren’t expecting that track as they are only aware of Chic’s tracks.
NR “Yeah and it works well as they do only expect Chic and didn’t realise the other music we’ve created. You hear them say ‘Oh my god, he wrote that too!’ and that’s the way we set it up. When Bernard, my partner in Chic, set the band up it was basically an extension of our compositions, so we would write the songs and then Chic was the vehicle to try them; it’s like when Beethoven wrote his 9th, he could only play the piano element of his piece, but he couldn’t do the whole thing. So I write the music and we use Chic as the unit to fine tune the whole piece.”
VF: Virtual Festivals have been covering festivals for 10 years this year, obviously you’ve been performing a lot longer than that, what changes have you seen in the last 10 years?
NR: “Wow, 10 years. Since we did our first festival, which was actually on our first Chic tour, the second gig we played was the Cool Jazz Festival, Oakland Stadium, the night before we played a disco called Casanova’s in Atlantic City and then we were in front of 80,000 people and it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. But we became accustomed to that, playing the big baseball stadiums, having what we called festival seating – where people would be in raised seats at the edge of the festival, and then that sort of petered out, that mentality left America and over the years, I’ve watched it change.
“For us it wasn’t like one year we’re in a stadium and next we’re in a bar. Also it’s different for me because I don’t play for a living, Chic has never been about me making money but about the tour. I make my living from all my other productions and also because I own Video Game Music, a record label – the biggest in the world for that market – you know we do ‘Gears Of War’, ‘Resident Evil’, ‘Dream Fighter’ – I do [festivals and tours] for me and it’s my chance to share my music with people, since I was little boy playing my guitar in my bedroom that’s what I wanted to do.”
VF: There are some huge fans of yours out here today and I know that they will want to know of all your performances over the years, of all the compositions you have been responsible for, is there one that does it for you more than any other?
NR: “Well, up until yesterday I would have said ‘Good Times’, but last night we played ‘Soup For One’, which was totally obscure, from a movie that bombed and then it was remixed by a group called Mojo and we played it last night for the first time and it was unbelievable and I thought, how come this wasn’t a hit?”
VF: Maybe now’s the time to put it back out there?
NR: “Yeah, maybe we should do a mash up of ‘Soup For One’, it’s good fun to play and I realise the composition is key. It’s the only song I’ve written that starts with the bottom chord. But I do have to say I love the Diana Ross material and ‘Good Times’, ‘Le Freak’, ‘I Want Your Love’ and I have to pay tribute to our very first song, ‘Everybody Dance’, the very first song I wrote for Bernard and I said ‘Listen man, it has these really cool chord changes and the chorus goes, [sings] ‘Everybody dance, doodooloodoo, clap your hands, clap your hands,’ and Bernard says to me, ‘Brother, I really like this, but what the fuck does doodooloodoo mean?’ and I said, ‘you know, like lalala or tralala,’ and he says ‘so why not go lalala’ and I said ‘because lalala sucks and doodooloodoo is cool!” He said OK and that was the first Chic song.”
VF: So we can expect that and ‘Soup for One’ tonight?
NR: “Yeah man. It’s funny we played ‘Soup for One’ last night and people had the record, the film, the soundtrack in the audience holding them up and it almost made me cry man.”
VF: Looking forward to that Nile, thanks for the time.
NR: “Pleasure, thank you man, enjoy.”