Nile Rodgers on a long and illustrious career: “Most of my records are failures!”
The disco legend has teamed up with Fender to look for music’s next star. And, despite what he says, he knows a thing or two about writing classics
Not many people have worked with both David Bowie and The Zutons, but Nile Rodgers – whom the Scouse indie tykes recently revealed to be adding his disco don Midas touch to their first record in over a decade – has done it all. The Chic legend saw massive chart success in the ‘70s, survived the “Disco sucks!” movement (59,000 knuckleheads descended on Chicago’s Comiskey Park to burn disco records in 1979) and became one of the world’s most sought-after producers.
Now, alongside the likes of Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, the 69-year-old has joined the judging panel of Player Plus, Fender’s bid to get emerging artists back into the studio. Any sound goes and the guitar brand will reward the winner with 10 hours of sweet, sweet studio time in the US, UK, Australia, Japan or Mexico. Here, he tells NME all about the competition, lockdown’s disco resurgence, making history with Bowie and why failure is nothing to fear.
Hey Nile! What’re you up to right now?
“I’m Abbey Road Studios, recording with The Zutons. I tell you, man, it’s such a pleasure to be recording with a live band, no click tracks, just like the old days. People can’t believe I recorded [David Bowie’s] entire ‘Let’s Dance’ album in 17 days, but that’s because we did it like this.”
You’ve also teamed up with Fender for ‘Player Plus’, a competition to find the next great musical talent…
“I love learning, and I certainly love sharing, because that’s the way I’ve learned: people who were smarter than me, sharing their knowledge with me and helping me to become a better musician, a better producer, a better arranger – everything. So when I work with younger artists, they don’t realise that they’re teaching me as I’m teaching them. As a judge, I just wanna see what I believe sounds the most rewarding to my ears.
“I don’t have any preconceived plan; I’m wanna be surprised. I want them to teach me something and go: ‘Wow! How cool was that!’ We’re in the here-and-now, and I wanna do the best that I can do for anybody. If I can help an emerging artist go to the next level, along with Fender’s help, that would be great!”
You’re very supportive of younger artists in general – we loved ‘One More’, your recent track with NME fave SG Lewis…
“Ah, man! SG and I have so much fun working together! When we’re working together, we have no fear, because that’s what it’s all about. You want to touch people’s souls… Way back when I was 23/24 years old, my music teacher said: ‘Any record that’s in the Top 40 is a great composition.’ I said, ‘Why would you say something so absurd?’ He said, ‘Because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.’ Two weeks later I wrote ‘Everybody Dance.’ Doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo-doo! Clap your hands!”
Disco came back in a big way last year, from Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’ to Kylie Minogue’s, erm, ‘Disco’. Was that gratifying to see?
“Very much so. Years ago, I worked with Eric Clapton and, at the end of the session, he said to me, ‘You know, Nile, I’m gonna play blues for the rest of my life’. I was a little bit offended – I love Eric Clapton, and Cream, and everything he’s done. I don’t just wanna hear [Robert Johnson blues standard] ‘Crossroads’ over and over again! But I went home and thought about it: ‘Eric can play blues for the rest of his life – he’s earned that right. What the hell! I’m gonna play make people dance for the rest of my life!’”
Why do you think dance music, counterintuitively, flourished in lockdown?
“Because it touches your soul! You don’t have to be in a club with other people. I’ll go on TikTok and see somebody dancing in their kitchen to a song that I’ve done, and it just blows me away. That’s what it’s all about. Yes, it’s true that you became part of a magical collective when you go to an EDM show or a disco show or a dance show: When I first met Aviici, I was so thrilled to hang with his audience and see where they were coming from.”
“What we went through in America, with the whole “Disco sucks!” thing, didn’t really resonate around the world. In America, after [Chic] had two Number One records in the exact same year, we never had another hit record again after “Disco sucks!” But thank God we had a bit of a reprieve with Diana Ross [and her hit, Nile Rodgers-produced 1980 album ‘Diana’]. Even after that it took me a while to find my footing, and I did because of David Bowie.”
What a way to come back!
“Five failures in a row – and then I meet David Bowie. And he wants a hit. And I knew a guaranteed hit is a record that will make you dance!”
Working with David Bowie on ‘Let’s Dance’ must have been a memorable experience…
“I actually thought I went over to [Bowie’s then-home in] Switzerland and did only one demo, but the family sent over a copy of the recording sessions that I did and I actually demoed that entire album save for ‘Ricochet’, which was then called ‘Shame Shame (It’s Not The End Of The World)’. I did the entire album in two days in Switzerland with a bunch of jazz musicians; I wrote out the charts and they all played it. David was completely impressed and blown away. I said: ‘You think this is something? Wait until you heard my guys play it!’”
Do you view that as a big turning point in your career?
“Prior to Bowie I known as a disco producer; after Bowie I was just a producer.”
Before performing with The Zutons, you recently ‘Grammed your appreciation of the canal system in Liverpool, which went surprisingly viral…
“I know! That was weird, right! It was the first time I had walked along a canal. And the people in Liverpool are so friendly! It’s incredible. And what was amazing was that everybody I met along the way was coming to my concert. I was shocked that they were saying, ‘Hey! We’ll see you at the show tomorrow!’ All along [the canal], people were inviting me in for tea. I couldn’t believe I was recognized by people. I’ve never thought of myself a star. And I couldn’t believe the level of friendliness!”
What’s the secret to more than four decades of chart success?
“I’ll be totally honest with you: I don’t know how any of this stuff worked. The only thing I could say is that anything I’ve done, I’ve done from my heart. If you look at my discography, the failures far outweigh the successes – I thought those records would be big, but they weren’t. Most of my records are failures! But the few [Rodgers-produced] that are hits typically become the biggest hits of the artist’s life. Bowie never had another record that was even close to the numbers of ‘Let’s Dance’… That’s been my lucky streak.”
Do you think part of it is not being afraid of failure?
“I’m not afraid to take a chance – our success is a result of being fearless… With Duran Duran, I had this huge, huge record [1986’s ‘Notorious’]. They were getting a lot of bad press at the time – especially from you guys, from NME! I only remember two articles written about artists my entire life – and I’ve been doing this a long time – and I was trying to make Duran Duran be viewed upon like U2… The review in NME for ‘Notorious’ said: ‘Just when you thought it was time count these jerks out, they come out with one that’s not only good, but worthy of respect’.”
See! We’re always right! What have you got coming up for us soon?
“I recently cut three songs with Will.i.am – the one that’s out right now with Jay Rae [‘Pull Up’] that’s doing quite well – I’m doing [American singer] Idina Menzel’s album and composing and all the rest of it. I just finished doing a song with Ariana Grande and John Legend. I’m working like crazy every day!”