We got lucky: Our sit-down with a legend, Chic’s Nile Rodgers

Nile Rodgers brings Chic back to Las Vegas this weekend.
Photo: Mark Allan/Invision/AP
Annie Zaleski

In a career that has spanned well over four decades, Nile Rodgers has worked with superstars galore—David Bowie, Madonna and Robert Plant, to name a few—in addition to creating groundbreaking work with his own troupe, dance music pioneers Chic. More importantly, however, the producer/songwriter/musician has kept pushing forward and innovating: In recent years, Rodgers has worked with Avicii, Disclosure, Nervo, Rudimental and Lady Gaga—and, along with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, co-wrote and performed on the global No. 1 smash “Get Lucky.”

This summer, Chic is opening for Duran Duran on the latter’s tour behind Paper Gods. (Yes, Rodgers’ production imprint is all over that album.) The Weekly sat down with the legend in his dressing room before his Detroit show a few weeks ago, for a freewheeling conversation touching on all corners of his career.

Have you had any memorable experiences or shows in Las Vegas? Absolutely! Oh, my God! The first time we played in Las Vegas, we were playing for the Warner Bros. convention, a party for all of the Warner labels. We played, I believe, the Tropicana, and it was the first time I had met a person named Nile other than my father and myself—and the spelling is like the river, N-i-l-e, as opposed to the English or Irish version of Nile, N-i-a-double-l. And I couldn’t believe it! I was going, “Wow, your name is Nile?” He said, “Yeah.” And he was white, and he worked for Don King, the boxing promoter. It was amazing. Somebody recently played a recording of that show for me—I don’t know where it came from, because this was years ago, it was back in the ’70s. And I couldn’t believe how flawless the show sounded. I was just blown away.

It’s amazing when you look back. When you’re actually in the moment, sometimes you’re like, “Oh, I messed this up” or “I flubbed this.” And in hindsight, you’re like, “What was I thinking? I was so hard on myself!” (Laughs.) To this day we’re still a completely live band. We don’t use backing tracks or clicks or anything like that. Our reputation for keeping the pocket was incredible. When I heard [the recording], I was like, “Jesus, you could set your watch to this stuff!” It was just like— [snaps fingers]—every song was, like, perfect, grooving and killing. I’ve heard other live performances of ours from back in the day, like when we played one night in New York at a really big club called Bonds, with Blondie and The Clash. It was amazing. I was like, “Wow. How did they record this? Somebody had, like, a little Walkman or something?”

Are people just giving you this audio? The Vegas thing, someone sent me. [It’s] a mid-level-quality recording, and it’s pretty good. I just don’t know how they captured it—and it was the whole show, from beginning to end.

And also, we were flown there [to Vegas] in the Warner corporate jet. We were flown in the night before, and when we were approaching Vegas, and we were still far away from it, the pilot said to me, “You see that really bright light on the horizon? That’s Las Vegas.” It was like midnight or two o’ clock in the morning. It was amazing—it looked like an exploding star or something.

You’ve worked with Duran Duran so much over the years. You’ve seen them evolve as players—what have you noticed the most? I’ve never seen a bad Duran Duran show, but man, the way they play now … Before every show, after we come off, they have a practice room set up, back here. There’s always a practice room that they have next door to me. I think they probably plan it like that (laughs). They sound so funky and so amazing, just jamming before the show. They never play anything that they’re actually going to do; they’re just making up jams, and they’re killing it. I get so jealous every night.

Duran Duran’s Notorious turns 30 this year. What do you remember about working with them in that period? That was really tricky, because we had just had so much success prior to that, with “The Reflex” being their biggest single, which I did. And then I did “The Wild Boys,” which is totally different than anything they’ve ever done. I was trying to push the band in a more arty direction. We got a hit—it was a big hit—and then they break up! Two guys leave the band. And people don’t realize how super-important Andy Taylor was to Duran Duran, ’cause he was sort of like the main writer. He’s [an] extremely talented composer. Now I have Andy and Roger [Taylor, drummer] missing, and I’m like, “Where’s my man?” I had to figure out a way to make a Duran Duran album without Roger and Andy.

It was incredible because after experiencing all those hardships—and it was the most expensive record I’ve ever made—the album does extremely well. And “Notorious” was huge.

1986 was huge for you. You played on Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” and on the Cyndi Lauper album. Right, “Change of Heart.” Cyndi and I were laughing about that the other day—everybody thinks it’s Rick Derringer playing on that song, ’cause he’s in the video, right? Everybody thinks that what you see is what it is. I was like, “No, that’s me doing the solo.” Most people don’t hear me play rock ’n’ roll solos on records, ’cause that’s not usually what I do. That’s what I did with Cyndi …

I think I’ve had—and am continuing to have—an extraordinary life in music. Just this morning, I finished two songs for the new Baz Luhrmann television series [The Get Down], and I think I’m going to probably wind up doing five songs, three more in the next couple of days. I’m always working with cool new people, which is amazing to me: Daft Punk, Avicii, Disclosure, Sam Smith. I get to do all these cool things.

You’re working on a new Chic record, too. Where is that in the process? I have one single left to finish. it’s killing me, because when I started the record, I was so excited to find all these missing Chic recordings. There’s not a lot of them, but there were a few. And I was so excited, I thought, “Okay, great, well, I’ll finish these, and that’ll be the album.” I put out the first couple of singles [“I’ll Be There” b/w “Back in the Old School”]—I did it in the old-school format, A-side and B-side. The single “I’ll Be There” featured everybody that’s ever been in Chic, which is amazing. Everybody. It was a great concept. [The] record charted at No. 1 dance on Billboard, so that was huge for me. I think this year alone just on the Billboard dance charts I’ve had three No. 1 singles.

And we’re only halfway through the year. Yeah. It’s amazing. … My life continues to be cool and exciting; I get to play on a bunch of records, and write cool stuff and write cool parts and write. And now touring with Duran—in a weird way, it’s like a surrealistic dream, because emotionally I feel like they’re my other band. They’re like my other Chic, ’cause a large portion of their show are songs that I did (laughs).

You guys really sort of grew up together, which is so cool. So few people get to have that relationship. It’s amazing. I don’t feel like it’s 30 years, the way I jump around onstage like an idiot.

It keeps you young, your muscles warmed up. I don’t know what it does, except ruin my knees every night. It’s amazing for me that our music resonates with such a wide-ranging audience. Outside of the U.S., because we play a lot of festivals, most of the people that come to see us are pretty young. I’ve asked them, “Well, how do you know our music?” And they go, “What are you talking about?” They’re like “That song’s in my favorite movie” or “my favorite video game,” and I go, “Oh, right,” because of all the licenses that I do. Chic songs pop up in some very interesting movies.

What’s the weirdest place you’ve seen it pop up in a movie? In Mission: Impossible III when they play “We Are Family,” when Ethan Hunt [Tom Cruise] is trying to tell the head of the IMF, I’m still with you guys even though you think I’m a rogue agent. [Laurence Fishburne] plays the head of the IMF, and Ethan Hunt puts the walkie-talkie next to the [radio], and [Fishburne’s phone] goes [sings], “We are family …” [He] goes, “You gotta be kidding me.” (laughs)

On your discography, it says you did a song for The Beavis & Butt-Head album, The Beavis & Butt-Head Experience. How did that come about? Yeah, “Come to Butt-Head.” Mike Judge called me. He’s like, a super-genius. Beavis & Butt-Head are amazing, but everything he’s done—Silicon Valley, I think, is incredible. He’s just such a smart guy. Writing and working with him was amazing. He knew me from [my work with] the Vaughan brothers. I don’t know why he called me, but we had so much fun.

That song is so much fun. It’s so great. I’ve heard the term serious comedy. You have to be serious. Butt-Head is singing this romantic song, and we have to be in his frame of mind and figure out how he’s going to seduce this woman. He says—which to him is like a big sacrifice—”I will do homework for your love.” (Laughs.) One of my favorite lyrics: [in Butt-Head voice] “Huh-huh, I will do homework for your love.”

That’s the other part of my career that I’ve had a lot of fun with—sometimes the songs and the films don’t become as big as Coming to America, but, like, writing joke songs to me. Writing “Soul Glo” was awesome. Like I said, you gotta take it seriously. I remember when I was writing that and I said to John Landis, the director of the film, “Hey John, every black family always has one person in the family who tries to be like some super-intellectual guy but always screws everything up.” The actual intro that I originally composed said, “You can be everything you’ve always wanted to be: smooth, sta-phisticated, easy as 1-2-3.” John Landis said, “If I put ‘sta-phisticated’ in this movie, I would be run out of Hollywood.” (Laughs.) I said,”But every black person is going to be crying!” He made me not do it.

But it was fun—it still works and it’s still funny pronouncing it properly. Being serious about it is what makes it funny. And also the execution, too. Musically, it’s actually killing: The guy who sang it is unbelievable, so we’re wholly dedicated to making it amazing and unreal, even though it’s completely absurd.

I wrote a song [for 2008’s Semi-Pro] with Will Ferrell called “Love Me Sexy,” same thing: It’s completely ridiculous, but it’s really good. It is really, really good. And I remember a similar kind of thing happened—and you would think that with Will Ferrell, they would allow this to happen, but the lyric I write, he goes, “Take off your shoes and suck me sexy,” and I have the background go [sings], “Suck, suck, suck, suck me seeeeexy.” Really loud. But when they finally mixed it, you can’t hear it that loud. It was like, “Come on, that sh*t was funny!” (Laughs.) The guy who directed the film [Kent Alterman], it was his first time directing. I guess he was a little shy. And the film didn’t do well at all, it was sort of like a bomb, but it was funny. That part of the movie was hysterical.

You just did the song with Keith Urban and Pitbull, “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.” Keith Urban—[he’s a] monster. He’s like my brother. He and I, we talk almost every day. I love Keith Urban. He’s a ridiculous guitar player, great musician and the nicest person in the world. The song, I think, is terrific, and I don’t think the community that he usually appeals to really liked Pitbull on it. But I think Pitbull does a really cool job, and I think Keith Urban does a magnificent job. With art, you’re just trying to do what you feel in your heart. And you just hope that others feel it, see it and hear it the way you do. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Is there anyone you haven’t collaborated with yet that you’d like to? Yeah, but I can’t say, because that’s who I’m trying to get … that’s how I’m trying to finish the Chic album if I can get them. I just wrote ’em this morning saying, “Come on.” This was supposed to happen the day I was coming to join this leg of the Duran tour, but the artist somehow wasn’t available, and I know why.

We’ve had all these tragedies. We seem to be in a really dark period. It was the day after the murders in Orlando [at] Pulse Nightclub. And it’s weird, because there’s just so many events, like, every week, if you think of Brussels and Paris.

And then we were onstage a couple of weeks ago in Istanbul when they did the bombing at the airport. We were onstage at the exact moment that happened. We were the headliner, and it was … at least 8,000 to 10,000 people, if not more. This was a huge venue, I mean, really big. And as far as the eye can see there were people. And when the bombing happened, my horn players knew it first, because in real-time it was broadcast on CNN or something like that. They were getting Facebook or Twitter messages, because they read their music on their iPad.

Oh, wow. I’m out there, I don’t know what’s going on, and I see the crowd starting to look down at their cell phones. You can feel that there’s something happening. And you know there’s no specific reason. It’s not like there was another band coming on after us, because we were the headliner. That was it—after we played, the show was over. And we started seeing these people moving. There was this sort of ripple effect in the crowd. Then finally, the message gets to me. And it’s the promoter, and he says he would like me to stop the show. And I say, “Why do you want me to stop the show?” and he says, “Because a bomb just went off at the airport.”

I know enough about the Middle East and performing. I knew that the people would probably want us to continue playing. I just asked them, “Do you want us to stop?” I said, “I know what’s going on,” and everybody’s looking down at their phone. And the whole crowd starts screaming, “Play! Play! Play! Play! Play!” It was overwhelming; it almost brought tears to my eyes.

It’s a very dark period in the world right now, because every day or every other day there’s some kind of mass shooting or bombings or something like that. When you’re a band out doing what we do, we’re somehow in close proximity to it on some level.

Even meeting people—or online—you can’t escape it. Everything feels very emotional on the surface, if that makes any sense. It is. It’s sort of like … when we first started Chic, even though America was going through the greatest financial recession since the Great Depression, we were able to perform sort of escapist type of music, which was sort of the whole disco thing. Even though people were doing poorly, we were in this celebratory mode.

We were sort of … I guess, in the knee of the political curve, of the black liberation movement, the women’s lib movement, the gay rights movement. All of that stuff was sort of happening, and almost feeling like it was moving forward. So we were celebrating openly; it was just like a big party. Like, man, we ended the Vietnam War, we’re talking about this, and people like Gloria Steinem were the talk of the day. The world felt very optimistic to us, so we were talking about not the world that we lived in, but the world that we were going to live in. That’s what our lyrics were all about.

I remember when we put out [“Good Times”]; we were being criticized because we were talking about “These were the good times,” and it was 1979. This was during the gas rationing in America. And meanwhile, we’re going [sings], “Good times! These are the good times/Leave your cares behind …” And we were trying to explain to a lot of reporters and journalists that we had patterned Chic after the celebratory bands of the jazz era. So during the Great Depression there was Duke Ellington, Count [Basie]—all of this stuff going on. And that’s what our music was like. That’s why the song “Good Times,” we actually used the lyric from the song “Happy Days Are Here Again.” The first lyrics go [sings], “Happy days are here again/The time is right for making friends.” And there was another famous song by Al Jolson called [sings] “The stars are going to twinkle and shine this evening/About a quarter to nine …” And we go, “Let’s get together/About a quarter to 10…” (Laughs.) “And then tomorrow, we’ll all do it again.”

Music fans that dig into that stuff love the callbacks to other eras. They love finding those things buried in the songs. Trainspotting. Exactly—that’s exactly what we do, all the time. I’ve never stopped. The Chic formula—every record actually has been the same formula. Basically, the concept of every Chic album is we’re the opening act for big stars. It’s just like what we are with Duran. Duran are the stars, and we get to be the opening act. This is our philosophy; this is what we’ve always done. We always come out—we have to tell you who we are—and then play the hit song and people know, “Oh my God, I know that song. I don’t know who that band is. Who’s Nile Rodgers? Oh, I know that song.” When we started out, that’s how our career started, and we’ve actually always embraced the concept of being the opening act.

The Chic record—is it coming out next year? I’m trying to do this year. I was actually trying to have it out for this leg of the tour, but that didn’t work. But the great thing is, my record label, Warner Bros., they just said, “Nile, you just let us know when you’re done, man,” which is cool. Like I said, I gotta knock out this last song and we’re done, and it’s ready to be mixed and delivered.

I know you were looking at the concept of time. Has that shifted at all? It’s shifted a little bit, but I still want to call the album It’s About Time. Because it is. I started in 1977, and it’s amazing to me, because a lot of rock bands get to do that, but very few R&B bands—and dance/R&B bands, disco, whatever, it’s like impossible. So the fact that I get to do this after all this time, and put out a record with a major label, is amazing to me.

You and the late Bernard Edwards just went into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June. What did that mean to you? To me, that’s probably the greatest honor ever, because to be in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, you’re not just in there with people from your specific genre or anything like that. You’re in there with Cole Porter.

Chic opening for Duran Duran with Tokimonsta July 29, 7 p.m., $47-$138. Mandalay Bay Events Center, 702-632-7580.

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