Nile Rodgers: “Daft Punk are like David Bowie. Abstract… but very clear”

NileNile-GlastonburyWith ‘Random Access Memories’ finally out, Chic guitar legend and Daft Punk collaborator Nile Rodgers talks to me about 2013’s most hyped record.

How did you become involved with the record?

“We’ve known each other for a very, very long time and every time we’ve had the opportunity to get together it’s been completely chaotic. So finally the brilliant thing that Thomas and Guy-Man did is they just came to my apartment in New York! It was so smart because it was just the three of us sitting there face-to-face. Three artists who have mutual admiration for each other and have had it for such a long time. We actually sat around joking about the times that we’d missed each other… “Oh yeah, do you remember in St Tropez when we were supposed to meet up?” “Remember Paris when I ended up sat at the head of your record company’s house for three hours?” It was a wonderful moment when we could just laugh and laugh about the irony of the situation. The only way we could really have a chance to chill out and just be artist-to-artist was for them to come to my apartment. That meeting was the smartest thing and the most perfect way to do this. It was great because they didn’t have their gear and I didn’t have my gear. All I had was one acoustic jazz guitar. We just sat there and started talking and I picked up my axe and started jamming and playing some ideas. They said: “That’s how we want to make this record. We want to make this record exactly the way you made records back in the day. You just start playing, from the beginning to the end. You just play.” I said: “Oh, I know how to do that!” That’s what R&B and Dance records were, back in the day. We just went in there and we had charts or a template and then we’d just play this long, linear journey from beginning to middle to end.”

Did Daft Punk have a firm idea of what they wanted before they came to you?

“They may have had a solid idea. I think they’re too smart to have not had a solid idea, but they didn’t need to speak to me in those terms. Some of the brightest artists, and I always use Bowie as the great reference point: the smartest artists can speak to you in very abstract terms but you hear them clear as a bell. It’s almost as if we were spies breaking a code. They can speak to me in incredibly coded language and it’s 100% clear as a bell to me. When they started talking, and I started to realise that they were talking about making an old-school record, or using old-school techniques to make a record that’s timeless, a record that represents the past, the present and the future, it didn’t take a lot of explanation at all. I went: “Oh, I know what you mean” and I went and got an old fashioned guitar, an old jazz guitar from the 30s or 40s, and started playing new music on that thing. They went: “Yes! That’s exactly what we mean!” You can take something old that’s organic and beautiful and it’s made of wood and it resonates. Top-of-the-line craftsmanship went into that thing, and then you use it to play something modern, something that it wasn’t designed to do. When that guitar was made, it was made to play in a big band with Duke Ellington or something. It wasn’t made to play at 120 beats-per-minute with a vocoder next to you. All of a sudden, you mix these things together and they sound wonderful because they represent the past, the present, which is what you’re doing now, and hopefully if you do it right, it’ll sound fresh and wonderful and relevant to somebody 30 years from today. That’s what I think classic music is all about. I happen to be a jazz freak, so when I listen to Cab Calloway sing ‘Reefer Man’ I feel like it’s happening right now. I get into it. I want to dance jitterbug or lindy hop even though I can’t. It doesn’t feel like I’m listening to old fashioned music. It feels like I could walk outside and everybody would be wearing zoot suits.”

Giorgio Moroder told us they used a different microphone to record him depending on which era he was talking about.

“I get that! That’s a perfectly funny and sound example of how they think. They would use three mics to represent the past, present and future. That’s exactly correct. I love that. The things that’s really cool is that most listeners won’t hear that. They won’t hear it now. 10 years from now, when they get older, when they’re playing it for their kids or their friends, they’ll be saying: “Oh man, I remember when Daft Punk dropped this record.” They’ll listen to it and I have a feeling that they will have the same kind of feeling that I get now when I walk into a club and there are 16 and 17 year olds dancing to ‘Good Times’. They’re acting like it’s something brand new and cool, and I’m thinking to myself: “Wow, that’s so amazing.” You need to have that kind of passion, and the intellectual credibility and knowledge, to pull this off. You don’t have to make records like this, trust me. They didn’t have to do it this way. They chose to do it this way because they were either paying homage to something that they love and trying to recapture the feeling that made them want to make music, or inspired them to make the music that they made, but they also realised that in order to do that, you had to realise that the music that was being made at that particular time was inspired by people who were living before them. We are living in three different musical eras when it comes to making classic music. When it comes to making throwaway music, the sort of thing that everybody loves and then after five years it doesn’t really move you anymore. They say you ‘grow out of it’, and it’s true. We all do ‘grow out of’ a lot of stuff, but the stuff that’s classic, even though our styles may change, when we listen to that music it still gives off that feeling. It still conjures that primal or intellectual or spiritual or artistic thing in us. I know that’s the truth with me. I never grow up. The records that I heard when I was younger are still amazing to me.”

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Why do you think Daft Punk wanted to record with a live band and musicians like yourself?

“I don’t know, but that’s OK! They didn’t have to explain why to me because I didn’t really care. They just told me what they wanted to do and I said: “You mean, like this…” and I ran and grabbed my old jazz guitar and started playing and they said: “Exactly like that!” The next thing you know I’m in the studio doing that thing. That wonderful, organic thing. When it came to my guitar playing, I started to show them some of the old tricks we used to do. They got so into it that they couldn’t believe how we used to do it. They were blown away by it. It was a wonderful experience for me because I saw that they were just as enthralled with what I did. They wanted to get first-hand knowledge of how we accomplished that. Every little Chic trick that we used, I showed them. It was like: “Wow,  this is cool”. You can hear it on ‘Get Lucky’. The truth is, I can’t play that live because that’s two of me. I can play it something like that! It’s like now, when you see a Chic show, it sort of sounds the same as it did on record. To the average person in the crowd, when I play ‘Le Freak’ they think it sounds like the record but it really doesn’t. There’s two of me playing the guitar in that record!”

Are they reacting against EDM?

“That didn’t come up while we were working. W e were just artists making music. There was no big, holistic statement to make other than: “I wanna make great music right now.” The thing that I love about them is that they carry that holistic vision through on every level. The visuals and the music videos, it’s all part of a certain artistic commitment. There was one moment that moved me in a way I’ve only been moved a couple of times before. I can count those times on my hand. When we first played ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Good Times’ for a room full of strangers, and I saw their reaction. When I first heard Diana Ross outside of a recording studio, in a nightclub. People responded in a visceral, primal, spiritual way. Doing the music video for the next Daft Punk single, after days of shooting, when we finally did the first full playback from beginning to end it was the first time the extras heard it. They were weeping. They were hugging each other. They weren’t crying because of exhaustion. I’ve seen this before and it’s people going: ‘Something important just happened, and we’re a part of that thing.’ I was crying too! I kept thinking to myself: ‘Thank God I have my own trailer so they don’t see me like this. I’m supposed to be in control.’ I’d been up onstage jamming my butt off, and they were all into it, but then I went from Mr Riff Machine to welling up and saying: ‘I understand just how you feel, guys…’ It was funny and it was sweet and it was wonderful. In today’s world of pop music, how often does that happen? Not very often, man. Whatever happens with this record, the truth is I was a part of that moment and it was unbelievable. You can’t manufacture that moment, it’s totally real. It’s incredible to be part of something so truthful and organic. You don’t get that so much anymore because we’re so concerned with the hits. I’ve been lucky, because after 1980 I didn’t really have to have hits anymore! I could just live on royalties from that point on, but I love making music with creative people. I love people like David Bowie who can talk to me in abstract terms and make it sound like child’s play.”

What are they actually like to work with in the studio? Is it hard work trying to get exactly what they want or are there fun moments?

“Well, you can’t work with me without laughing! It’s impossible! As seriously as I take my job, and that’s very seriously, the most extreme personalities in the universe are always laughing and joking when I’m in the studio. I’m so thankful that I get to do this for a living that we’re in there cracking up. Also, you’ve got to remember that when you’re in this linear mode of doing an old school recording there are so many new events that are springing up during the course of the recording that the looks on the artists’ faces tell me what’s going on. Every time I looked up I’d see Guy-Man smiling and Thomas smiling and I’d think: ‘Wow, this shit is really fucking happening!’ They got to experience what I’ve experienced all my life, which is a bunch of really amazing musicians jamming and having a really great time, and then you hear something and you analyze it and say: “Wait a minute, let me try this” and you see that smile come over their face again. We had a blast, and I guarantee you that my parts were nothing but fun! I taught them a lot of old school Chic tricks. They love learning about old techniques and they love getting smarter. I think that’s the cool thing. They’ve remained teachable, as have I. I love when people show me something new.”

That’s the great thing about this record, it sounds like they’re really having fun and experimenting with things that are new and weird.

“Have you heard that track with Paul Williams, ‘Touch’? Wow. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. I just love it. I absolutely love it. Having made as many records as I have with Bowie, it felt very Bowie-esque to me. I love this album. Had I not played on it or wrote for it, and I’d just bought it as a fan, I’d probably be sitting at home grinning from ear to ear. It’s so cool to me. It’s great in the way that I’ve heard on many classic records in the past, and it does that thing to my soul that those records have done. I don’t get a chance to feel that way that much nowadays! I’m not putting other artists down, because people work in very different ways, and it’s all relevant, but when I work with someone who is being that artistic and clever and is touching your soul. To me, you touch the soul with simplicity. Complexity has to be deciphered. It’s like digesting a food, it might be wonderful and interesting to the palette when it’s complex, but it’s still got to get through your system. When music is so complicated that you have to think about it, that’s not what’s great. What’s great is when you just experience it and then you think about it afterwards and you think: “What the fuck did I just hear?” That’s what I like about this record. Some moments make you think first, but some moments just make you groove and dance and smile. When you analyse it after the fact you think: “Did they really just do that?””

What did you think when you heard the finished record?

“It feels like an old friend come home. That’s the truth. If I’d just bought this and listened to it I’d sit there for the first hour just laughing and going: “That’s so cool! I can’t believe they did this!” I’d be unbelievably impressed by the amount of sincerity and dedication spent on making a record this authentic. It’s not retro. It’s not a retro record at all. I think what they were thinking is that certain types of gear can give you the old school organic elements that still touch people in a particularly special way. If you know that that’s a fact, then let’s get that and stick in our music! There are certain things about analogue recording, certain types of synthesisers, my guitar… there’s a reason why I’ve played the same guitar on every single record for the past 35 years. I’ve got a million guitars, but when it comes to making hits, that’s my job, and I bring out The Hitmaker. I know that that guitar sounds a certain way. You can hear it on ‘Get Lucky’. I could play another guitar and I’ll sound like Nile, but I won’t sound like that. That’s the only one that sounds like that. When you listen to this record, you can tell that people have toiled over. That’s what I hear when I listen to it. It feels like a perfect record, that I love.”

Did Daft Punk mention any Chic tracks that they really wanted to try and capture something similar to?

“No, not at all. That’s what was smart. They know that I don’t want to know anything. I want to be surprised. I never want to hear anything before I get to the studio. I’m a professional. If you have the music written out, I can play it right there on the spot. If you don’t have it written out, I will write it out and play it from beginning to end. When I was young, I made my reputation by being fast. I don’t care what it is, or how complicated it is, I can walk into the studio and play it. So no, they didn’t tell me anything, I just went to the studio.”

Where was that?

“Very few people know this, but the studio I recorded with them at was the same studio where we recorded the very first Chic single. The song that broke Chic was ‘Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)’ and we recorded it at Electric Lady. What was funny for me was that was the neighbourhood I grew up in. I knew that studio way before Jimi Hendrix bought it. I knew it when it was a nightclub called Generation. I’ve been in that room throughout my entire life. When I was a teenager in New York the legal drinking age was 18, so being 15 or 16 I could get into that bar. I used to go to that joint every night and drink and jam.”

That fits the theme of the record perfectly, those random memories…

“It couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only do you get Nile Rodgers with his two classic Chic recording guitars, in the place where he made the very first Chic single, in a building I was in before Jimi Hendrix even made it a studio. I saw Jeff Beck there. I remember when Jethro Tull played there and they got their amps stolen, and they made an announcement and one of the Hell’s Angels eventually returned it! We’re talking serious history in that room. I’m not superstitious or anything, but you can’t deny there’s something wonderful trapped inside those walls. I’ve done a lot of records there. I did INXS there. I did Hall & Oates. I worked with D’Angelo there, I worked with The Roots there. Walking into that studio feels like going home, and this record feels like an old friend that’s come home. It’s no accident that they contacted me in New York and we went down to Electric Lady. They were eating it up, and I love sharing that!”

Are you looking forward to bringing Chic to Glastonbury?

“Oh man, live shows are sort of what we live for! The last night of my musical partner [and Chic bassist] Bernard Edwards’ life, he looked out at the audience from backstage at our show at the Budokan and he said: “Man, we did it.” I said: “What are you being philosophical about?” He said: “We did it. They didn’t come to see us, they came to hear us.” It’s ironic to work with Daft Punk because they’re sort of the modern version of Chic. With Chic we were this faceless band and the music was the star. We called it the ‘Chic mystique’. If you look at our credits we never tell you who plays what. We were as ambiguous as possible. When I play Glastonbury I get to be this faceless guy who comes up and says: “Okay guys, these are all my songs. Have a good time!” It’s never about ego, it’s about playing this body of work at a festival like Glastonbury, which I’ve heard about for gazillions of years. One of the most prestigious festivals ever. Not only do we get to play, we’re headlining our stage! Wow! You mean I get to play my full show? Are you kidding me? 15 or 20 songs? Are you kidding me? This is going to be amazing!”

Do you think Daft Punk will play live again soon?

“I can’t make any comment. You should ask them about that.”

Originally published in NME, 25 May 2013.

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