Nile Rodgers is in a celebratory mood, and it’s not because of his imminent London shows or the new 46-track box set of the guitarist’s work with Chic and beyond, or even the world-conquering triumph that is his number one single with Daft Punk, Get Lucky. It’s a gala day for the 60-year-old because he actually slept in his own bed last night.
He’s there on the waterfront in Westport, an hour north of New York, for just one day, working on a new song for another French dance star, David Guetta. Then it’s back on the road for a man enjoying his busiest period since the days when he was writing hits for Diana Ross, Sister Sledge and his own Chic Organisation, joking that his office was in “the women’s bathroom at Studio 54”.
“I’m home but this is nothing like a day off,” he tells me. “It’s been like that for a while now. It’s been pretty insane.”
He can thank Daft Punk for the increase in ears turning his way at this moment — Get Lucky is a perfect pop song, the summer in your hand, its indelible tune propelled skywards by Rodgers’ long-familiar clipped, funky guitar work. Another track he wrote with the robotic producers and singer Pharrell Williams, Lose Yourself to Dance, is almost as good.
“It sounded like a hit to me but we didn’t think it would be this big. You do the best you can,” he says, stressing that Get Lucky was made more than a year ago, at a time when Daft Punk didn’t even have a record deal and had no way of predicting that they would capture the public imagination in such a way. “People kept telling me that if you have guitar on your songs today, they won’t play it on the radio. So I thought that me being on their record would make it irrelevant.
“For Daft Punk to be this brave and just do music because they love it … I think that’s what’s been lost in music. People are so afraid of failure.”
I get the impression Daft Punk hired him as much for his anecdotes as his songwriting. Thomas Bangalter’s father is the songwriter Daniel Vangarde, who wrote D.I.S.C.O. for Ottawan, so the duo already had strong connections to the era in which Rodgers ruled. He’s charming company, unfailingly upbeat, and the names of his starry connections decorate his talk like glitter. At one point he reels off a list of artists he has written for and produced, including David Bowie, Madonna, INXS and Duran Duran, that seems like it will never end. Then he mentions a Dublin gig last week at which “the boys from U2” were in attendance.
Get Lucky was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York, with which Rodgers was already linked. Chic’s debut single, Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) was made there in 1977 but even before then he was hanging out at the same address when it was a nightclub called Generation. In fact, you can name any location or cultural moment of the past 40 years and you’re likely to find, as detailed in his extraordinary 2011 autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny (Sphere), that Rodgers was there.
“I was the oldest eight-year-old on Earth,” he writes of a New York childhood raised by a mother who had him at 14 and a stepfather who was a junkie beatnik. Jazz legend Thelonious Monk used to drop by. By the time Rodgers was 18 he’d already taken acid with Timothy Leary, jammed with Jimi Hendrix and joined the Black Panthers.
Now he’s amused by the number of young people who have been converted to his music by their parents. “I grew up rebelling against my parents which is strange because they were really cool and they loved the hippest music in the world. But I felt it was my job to rebel. So many people walk up to me and say, ‘I love this song, my mother used to play it all the time.’ It’s such an odd thing.”
He’s having these conversations more and more, as over the past two years Chic have been fixtures on the live circuit. They’re currently officially known as Chic feat. Nile Rodgers, as the deaths of co-writer and bassist Bernard Edwards in 1996 and drummer Tony Thompson in 2003 prevent a full reunion. But there are no restrictions on the hits, which range from Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Madonna’s Like a Virgin to Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and their own Everybody Dance, Le Freak and Good Times. “We usually do a two-hour show and we don’t even scratch the surface of all the songs that we have,” says Rodgers.
The main reason he’s now playing so often, and another reason for his music being back in favour once more, is a diagnosis of aggressive prostate cancer in October 2010 that made it look like we were going to lose him. He had surgery, and maintained a painfully honest blog called Walking on Planet C. Today he is cancer-free and working harder than ever. When I ask what he’s doing next, he says we would need to schedule another interview to cover it all. Chase and Status, Avicii, Tensnake and Adam Lambert are some of his latest collaborators.
“Getting a severe diagnosis like that is so powerful and all-encompassing. I did what I believe most musicians would do, which is to do the thing that makes me feel the best: make more music. Of course I wanted to play more disco. I wasn’t going to play the blues.”
I saw Chic at the Forum in 2011 and gave them five stars for the most joyous, hit-packed show I’d seen in a long time but was surprised that this mid-sized venue was not sold out. “Booking Chic shows is the hardest thing in the world,” Rodgers claims, somewhat improbaby. “I’m not famous. My life has been spent in the studio, and we really only performed live in the old days to support the records.”
Ticket sales will surely have improved when they return next month to IndigO2, and before that, to the Forum next Friday for the disco-themed late-night event that also features DJs Derrick Carter, Seth Troxler and Studio 54 veteran Nicky Siano. “You were there last time. You could see how much we love to play and how good we sound.”
He’s right — and although he stops short of declaring this to be the next summer of disco, he’s glad that dance music generally is back on top. “I say thank God, oh happy day, that dance music is popular again, although I’ve never not played dance music. It’s a culture that’s been open and loving and allowed a freaky guy like me to come in. It makes me feel good.” See his band this summer, you’ll feel the same way.
Nile Rodgers presents The Chic Organization Boxset Vol. 1/Savoir Faire is released by Rhino on Monday.