You could accuse Nile Rodgers of being a name dropper, but given the circles in which he has moved for over four decades, I’m not sure he could hold a conversation any other way. From founding Chic, producing David Bowie and playing on Daft Punk’s biggest hit, the 66-year-old guitarist has got starry connections to spare, which makes him the ideal curator for the latest edition of the Meltdown festival.
Since 1993, a prominent musician has been asked to pick their favourite acts old and new for a series of concerts in the Southbank Centre under the Meltdown banner. With curators including David Byrne, Patti Smith and Nick Cave opening their address books in the past, it’s a prestigious invitation that frequently results in surprise reformations and collaborations, though Rodgers’ reality couldn’t quite match up to his glittering imagination when it came time to get down to the practicalities.
“At first I thought, ‘I can do anything I want.’ I was trying to think of the most fantastic thing possible and then start making phone calls, to put on a show like the Grammys. What would Let’s Dance sound like if it was me, Prince and Bowie? Man, ridiculous!” he exclaims. “Then I realised I had handcuffs on a little bit. It’s not quite like that. It’s a mini version.”
The end result is a truly international, highly hip selection that includes Malian rock band Songhoy Blues, Brazilian superstar Anitta, angelic South African singer Nakhane, American jazz innovator Thundercat and London soul collective Jungle. Rodgers, as is his way, will pop up to play his guitar with a few of them, as well as opening proceedings with a full set from his own band.
He’s got form for this kind of thing, having put together two editions of his FOLD festival, in New York in 2015 with Janelle Monae and Duran Duran, and in Fulham in 2016 with Beck, Alison Moyet and Anne-Marie. It stands for Freak Out Let’s Dance. “I get to call my friends and say, ‘Hey, are you working that day? If you’re anywhere near here, this is what I’m paying, it’s a pretty good salary and we’ll all get to hang out together.’”
Hanging out is something he does well. In his eye-opening 2011 autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny, he joked that his office used to be the women’s bathroom at Studio 54. As he puts it today: “I went straight from partying to the recording studio. Many nights you’d stay up for 24 hours, 48 hours. Grace tried to get me to stay up for 72 hours once, but I passed out on the second day. She’s an incredible woman.” He means Grace Jones, naturally.
One of Meltdown’s highlights will be the one-night-only transformation of the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer into Studio 54 – the Manhattan nightclub that was the celebrity-packed epicentre of disco for an all-too-brief spell in the late Seventies – complete with original DJs Nicky Siano and Jellybean Benitez. Apparently I’m not the first to ask him whether there’ll be a white horse in attendance too, like the one Bianca Jagger was photographed upon in 1977. “That was made to seem like she came galloping in like Sir Galahad, but she wasn’t on it a long time,” he clarifies, as an eyewitness. “It was her birthday and someone brought over a horse and asked her to get on it just to take a photo. But no, we’re not gonna do that again.”
It’s a little tricky for us to get together for this conversation, such is this cancer survivor’s work rate. He’s been spending time with Andrew Lloyd Webber at Abbey Road Studios, where he has a fancy job title (“Chief Creative Advisor”) and has been working on music for the new film version of Cats. Festival season is in full swing – in the last month alone, among many more, he and the latest incarnation of Chic have appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, the Nice Jazz Festival and Cardiff Castle. I catch him in a snatched period between rehearsals for his forthcoming appearance on another one-off revival: Dame Edna’s chat show. With a heavy steel chain around his neck, sunglasses and a large white beret which, perhaps unnecessarily given that it’s sitting above his familiar gap-toothed face, has his name embroidered on it, he looks like a celebrity but is no diva. He talks happily in a corner of the bustling TV production office while telephones go off all around.
And the celebrity tales rack up just as fast. It’s not easy to get a simple answer to a basic question, but it makes him fascinating company. The reply to an inquiry regarding last year’s It’s About Time, the first Chic album for 26 years, begins with a scene-setting story about him and Luther Vandross working in the house band for kids’ TV show Sesame Street in the early Seventies. His description of the day he became drink- and drug-free, almost 25 years ago now, involves him embarrassing himself in front of Cuban-American singer-songwriter Nil Lara on his way to Madonna’s birthday party.
He zips from talking about being Marvin Gaye’s support act in the Seventies, to performing with Diana Ross at a New York hotel opening earlier this year, to recording Get Lucky with Daft Punk in 2013 – Record of the Year at the Grammys and the song which generated more demand than ever for his band in this decade. Though if you ask him, it’s Daft Punk’s song Lose Yourself to Dance that’s the real “monster”. “It’s unbelievable – oh, man! Just think, these guys who could pile on a million things with their computers wound up making a song that’s just guitar, bass and drums. The simplest groove and it is funky as hell.”
Now it’s another generation looking to the man and his music for inspiration. It’s About Time, insetad of reviving his old friendships, looked to a cooler crowd for its guest artists, who included Nao, Stefflon Don and Mura Masa, not to mention Lady Gaga.
You can’t get much more influential than his power over Johnny Marr, however. The former Smiths guitarist even named his son Nile – who has grown up to be another guitarist in the band Man Made. Johnny will appear at Meltdown as a solo act on August 8, and told me about the friendship that has developed between two musicians known for their distinctive playing styles and wide catalogue of collaborators.
“We’ve known each other personally now for about 10 years, but I’ve mentioned him as an influence since The Smiths,” says Marr. “I think that initially came as a surprise to people, because The Smiths weren’t exactly connected much with R&B music or disco, but as the years have gone by it’s totally made sense to people.”
Now 55, Marr was just 23 when he quit the band for which he is best known, going on to play with, among others, Electronic, The The, Modest Mouse, The Cribs, The Healers and now, finally, releasing music as a solo artist. “I operate as a sort of single guitar entity, for want of a better term. There are not many other people who work in the same way, if anyone, besides Nile. So now people can see the things we have in common: producing people, being studio animals, turning up on other people’s records, co-writing, in our very different ways.”
No doubt they’ll share a stage again very soon. Rodgers, while still making new music, also seems to be at the lap of honour point of his career, and enjoying it immensely. “I feel that now, my life has taken a super positive turn, and I just want to say thank you,” he says. But it’s not over yet. As we part, he begins talking about marking Chic’s 50th anniversary. Watch out for more Good Times in 2027.
Nile Rodgers’ Meltdown, Aug 3-11, Southbank Centre, SE1 ( southbankcentre.co.uk)