Nile Rodgers by Jill Furmanovsky

Nile Rodgers at Sandown

Nile Rodgers at Sandown

The music legend talks playing live, his incredible career and his famous collaborations

You’re coming back over to the UK to do a big run of summer shows, including Sandown Park Racecourse on 27 July. Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road?

It’s going to be amazing. To know that I have a tour coming, when I look out at an audience at a festival, I look out at thousands of friends. I don’t look out as “I don’t know who these people are”. I look at them like I think I know every single person in the audience. I do this because I love it. I love how the music makes the people feel. When I first started practising guitar, I was practising so that I could do live concerts to play for really big audiences. That was my dream and now that the dream is a reality. Why would I not want to continue to live it as much as I can?

Do you have any pre-stage rituals?

No, we don’t, no. Just make sure my guitar is in tune. Every now and then with the drummer or the bass player we sort of like fist bump each other. That’s it just because they’re the two closest guys to me, if they don’t do it, we still put our hearts into the show as much as we can. If you’re in CHIC it’s your responsibility to play these compositions with a certain gusto, zeal, happiness, precision, and technical facility.

You famously have a guitar named “The Hitmaker”, but apparently you left it on the train once, how did it come back to you?

I was taking the train home and when I got to my stop, I ran off the train not realising that I had left my guitar in the overhead bin. I got all the way to my house, which is about a mile and a half from the train station and realised “oh my god, I don’t have my guitar”. So, here’s the really cool thing, I had a speaking event for Toyota a few months before and they let me borrow a consumer version of their race car. I had it at my house, so I jumped in this car, not thinking, I said to myself “if my guitar is going to be anywhere, it’s going to be at the end of the line”. So, I got on the highway, and I broke every traffic rule. I hate to say this but I’m just being honest! Most people don’t know that I’m a former amateur race car driver, I really know what a car can do, so I’m doing everything a car can do. I went to the train terminal, and they had a lost and found bin in the back and there was my guitar sitting there. It was with a skateboard that could have at best cost $70 and my guitar, which they call the $2 billion guitar!

Just to show you how great of a guitar it is and how it’s such a workhorse, everybody can’t believe that I treat it like it’s the cheapest guitar in the world. I show up to a session with somebody and they’ll look at me and go “is that the guitar?” and they can’t believe I have it in the cheapest gig bag because it’s small and it’s snug.

What is it that you’re looking for when you decide if you’re going to work with someone? How do you choose who you do want to work with and collaborate with?

It’s a certain thing that happens when we’re in rehearsal studios and I’m auditioning people. I don’t know how to explain it to you. But I’ll give you one of the simple things. My ex-partner, Bernard Edwards, may have been one of the greatest musicians that’s ever walked this earth. The first thing I tell when I audition bass players is to play the very first song I wrote for CHIC, called “Everybody Dance”. The person who can play “Everybody Dance”, that’s the one who gets the gig.

You’re saying you’re seeking perfection, have you got a sort of checklist for all the things you’re seeking?

Yes. So this is not snobbery on any level, this is the standard by which I’m judged. People expect a certain level of precision and expertise. If I’m not on my game, I don’t deserve to be on your record. That’s just how I feel about it. People always wonder why I don’t want to hear demos; I don’t need to hear a demo. I come from the world of being a studio musician, and as a studio musician we don’t know the song before we get there. This is old school, right? This is how I got into the business. We get there and the producer or the arranger expects a certain precision and interpretation from us that we must deliver. That’s how I learned and how I’ve been treated. That’s how I treat others.

When Daft Punk asked me to play on the album Random Access Memories, they explained to me the concept of the record and wanted to play demos for me. We had known each other for 20 years, but we never did any work together. I don’t need any demos that I’ll hear when I get to the studio the next day. I’ll do exactly what I have been trained to do, which is read the music right there on the spot, and then interpret it the Nile Rodgers way. So whatever you have written on the page, I will play that exactly if that’s what you want and then I will interpret my way. Then I say “you choose which one you like best”, that’s how I treat musicians. Most of the time the musicians surprised me because they have grown up with that same ethic. They see what you have on the page, but then they use their own sense of interpretation and say, “oh shit, maybe I can make it better by doing this, maybe I can feel the groove like that”. Whenever I do a show, you’re going to get the best Nile Rogers that I can give you that night. It varies from show to show; sometimes I could have taken a long trip, or I could be sick or whatever, but you’d be shocked at how quickly I recover from sickness.

You’ve been known as a legend of disco since the beginning. Does it feel as if working with David Bowie on “Let’s Dance” opened a new era for you?

When I met Bowie, my initial thought was that I was going to make a really cool David Bowie album. He had just come off of “Scary Monsters” which I thought was a fantastic album.  So, most people don’t know that David Bowie got dropped because he didn’t sell enough records to keep a record deal. Even after a brilliant record, like “Scary Monsters”, because the record company is in it for profit. David Bowie paid for the “Let’s Dance” album out of his own pocket. When he meets me, he tells me that he wants a hit album. And in a way, I was a little disappointed, because I had nothing but hits. In 1982 I was coming off of six failures in a row, all were Chic albums and the Debbie Harry KooKoo album. But prior to that, every single record I had was a minimum of gold, platinum or multi-platinum, with Le Freak being the biggest selling single in the history of Atlantic Records, the biggest record is a disco record.

I wanted the credibility that a David Bowie record would give me and typically a David Bowie record was a flop. I was perfectly fine making a flop with Bowie because prior to making “Let’s Dance”, I was just known as a disco producer. After doing “Let’s Dance”, I was just a producer. After Bowie I did INXS, then right after that I did the biggest single of Duran Duran’s career. Then Like a Virgin, we sold 28 million albums out the gate, it was like, holy cow. Suddenly, I just became a producer, I was not a disco producer. There was a huge reset in both mine and David’s lives. He became a gazillionaire doing gigantic stadiums after that and I became a producer. My career just became one of a producer and people respected me as an artistic producer.

Is there just one particular project or particular artist that you’ve worked with throughout your career that stands out? Whether it’s for what you’ve achieved artistically from that relationship or just the relationship that you had with the person?

Bernard Edwards, my partner bass player guy. Thank God he gave me discipline because I come from a hippie background, we were all into experimenting. I remember my very first hit single I ever had was called Dance Dance Dance. I had written this hook that was quite musical, especially if you’re a Jazz-er. My original hook was relegated to a secondary contrapuntal line over the verse. He would come in and say “yo, nah” on that 4-hour freestyle thing and say “how about let’s just go dance, dance, dance”. I go “ok cool”. That’s the genius of Bernard.

When it comes to choosing the setlist, how do you choose? 

Here’s what I do – you may have seen me do this, I’m not sure because I actually started doing this a couple of years ago. I ask people, ‘How many are seeing CHIC for the first time?’, if more than 60% raise their hands, I feel obligated to play all the hits. It makes them feel comfortable because I look at it like they don’t even know what they’re gonna get.

Nile Rodgers & CHIC headline Sandown Park Racecourse on Wednesday 27 July Tickets are on sale now from