Good times ahead – Chic are back

He’s collaborated with all the musical greats, but he’s best known for Chic who play in Leeds next week. Nile Rodgers spoke to Duncan Seaman.

Nile Rodgers of Chic performs on stage at the BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park Festival
Nile Rodgers of Chic performs on stage at the BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park Festival

In his engrossing memoir Le Freak Nile Rodgers details how every song that he and Chic band mate Bernard Edwards wrote had to have a special ingredient.

They called it Deep Hidden Meaning – or DHM for short – and it meant “understanding the song’s DNA and seeing it from many angles”.

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“Art is subjective,” Rodgers wrote, “but if we knew what we were talking about then we could relay to others in various disguises while maintaining its essential truth.”

Edwards may have sadly passed on in 1996 but today, as Rodgers prepares to unveil Chic’s first single in nearly 25 years, it’s evident that he’s sticking to their “golden rule”.

This time the DHM of I’ll Be There is deeply personal.

“I was doing a show in Japan and I was being honoured as the super producer of the year,” says the co-writer of dance floor classics such as Everybody Dance, Good Times, We Are Family and Lost in Music. “So it was Steve Winwood, Slash, myself, all buddies that I’d worked with, and Simon Le Bon and Sister Sledge, we did a series of three really big concerts and after the last one Bernard went back to his room and he died.

“When I found his body I said to him, ‘Now I can be there for you in death the way you were there for me in life’. I just said to him, ‘No matter what, I’ll be there for you.’

“The reason why people don’t quite get that is because in Japan they don’t believe in embalming so I had to get his body, I had to have the coroner report, also in order to put a human body on a plane you have to have a special container, so I had to get him embalmed. They don’t do that in Japan, the only place they did it was at the military bases and they said to me ‘One guy’s a butcher, the other guy’s a real artist’, so I had to track down the artist, who was in Okinawa, bring him back and I was producing a television show.

“The Japanese are very respectful and honourable but precise. So I had to do all of that stuff and still take care of him. It was my honour to do it, it was just so important to me to get the body to the family, to do everything right, to do all the paperwork, so that’s why I’ll never forget that statement – ‘I’ll be there for you the way you were for me in life’.”

As the “hippie sort of recalcitrant” of the band, who had always thumbed his nose at authority Rodgers appreciates how much Edwards did for him. “Bernard always kept me from getting fired,” he says.

Poignantly, Rodgers remembers that Edwards had said in their last interview together; “I love playing with other people but I never have more fun than when I’m playing with Nile. I’m his bass player and he’s my guitar player.” “Damn,” Rodgers says, “it almost sounds like, ‘I’m your husband and you’re my wife’ or ‘I’m your brother’, ‘He’s my guitar player, I’m his bass player, done, end of story’.”

The release date – March 22, the vernal equinox – is “super important” to the 62-year-old New Yorker who as a child was “a science geek, I loved astronomy, I still do”.

He’d originally “lied” to Warner Bros that the record would be out in 2014 “because our last Number One single was in 1979 – it would be 35 years between singles if I happened to go to Number One, it would be amazing”, but he was also conscious that in 2015 certain parts of the Northern hemisphere would have a total solar eclipse on the vernal equinox.

“I don’t even know how many hundreds of years that takes to happen,” he says. “Not only that, I knew there was going to be a super moon [when] the moon is closest to the Earth so it’s actually a really rare celestial event. I just thought it’s like, ‘Wow, my band is being re-born’”.

“It may sound stupid,” he chuckles, “but it’s sort of symbolic and artistic and it’s fun, it makes me laugh, but it also represents something that I’ll never forget. I don’t know what day we put out Chic Mystique on, I don’t know what day we put Good Times out on, or Le Freak or Everybody Dance or Dance Dance Dance, I don’t know what day Upside Down came out on.

“Guess what? I’ll know exactly when this one came out for the rest of my life. Sink or swim, it’ll carry weight for me, just as Bernard said, ‘He’s my guitar player and I’m his bass player’. No matter all the dates that I don’t know, I will know this one date that I brought my band back to life.”

An album is due to follow in June. Rodgers says he wanted a decent interval between 
the two releases because “the way that Chic records have always worked – it takes time for them to melt into the cerebral cortex, when it’s in there then you think, ‘OK, they’re into it, now let them hear the other stuff’”.

“In today’s world people put out the album and the single at the same time because they think that the most sales that they’re gonna get is that first week.

“The record business has become like the film business, it’s about opening weekend and no matter who you are, you sell the most records right away and then the next week it falls off, probably like 50 per cent or less, and I thought to myself I just don’t want to be something that I’ve not been before.

“I grew up a certain way and records mean something to me and I want that feeling back. If I don’t sell I don’t sell but at least I still have that feeling,

“It’s hard to explain that to people because so many of my friends do records to sell and to make money and I’ve already had I don’t know many Number One records, I’ve already made a lot of money, my life is not going to change financially but spiritually, emotionally and artistically it will change. Like I said, I’ll always remember the day I’ll Be There came out forever.”