Nile Rodgers must have played thousands of gigs in his time as bandleader of seminal disco outfit Chic but he’s such an engaged and enthused human being that he can summon up standout performances with ease. Admittedly, he only has to reach back one year to remember the two nights when Chic stormed the Kelvingrove Bandstand in front of a few thousand mad-for-it Glaswegians, footage of which was then threaded throughout his BBC4 series How to Make It in the Music Business.
“The enthusiasm level was insane,” he recalls, down the line from his native New York. “The decibel level of that crowd had our ears ringing louder than 250,000 people at Glastonbury. It was raining like crazy, but when we left the party was still going on. There was some dude with a boombox playing Chic songs and everybody was having a secondary listening party.”
Rodgers had such a blast that he is returning to Kelvingrove Park with his travelling funk festival Freak Out Let’s Dance (or FOLD for short) as part of this year’s West End Fiesta, with Chic again headlining two nights alongside a supremely tasty soul R&B bill including funk legends Earth, Wind & Fire and Roy Ayers, veteran hip-hop outfit De La Soul and a procession of divas from Emeli Sande to Laura Mvula, Goldfrapp to the Pointer Sisters.
It’s not hard to imagine Rodgers in his element at the heart of the party, such is his appetite for collaboration. Chic has been his main musical vehicle for over 40 years now, 20 of those in partnership with bassist Bernard Edwards until his untimely death in 1996, but Rodgers has also worked his musical alchemy on landmark albums by Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna and, more recently, Daft Punk, whose worldwide smash Get Lucky introduced a new generation of listeners to the Nile Rodgers experience.
“Let me just give you a crazy perspective on the way I look at records,” says Rodgers with a storyteller’s relish. “Whenever I perform on records, whether I’m producer, guitarist, co-writer whatever, I look at it as simply being invited to join the band and we’re making decisions together and it’s a wonderful loving feeling. So all these people who I’ve been writing with, whether they realise it or not, they are Chic members.”
This year alone, he has produced sessions for Bruno Mars, Ray BLK, Jorja Smith, Anderson.Paak and The Disciples, all in a matter of weeks in his newest role as creative advisor at Abbey Road Studios. Rodgers is on an artistic roll which not even two bouts of cancer, nor the deaths of some of his closest compadres – David Bowie, Prince, Chris Cornell and, most recently, superstar DJ Avicii – have managed to curb.
Having been pronounced cancer free again at the end of last year, he can now proceed with his most ambitious project - the release of the first new Chic album in a quarter of a century. Rodgers describes the playfully titled It’s About Time as “a Chic record on steroids” for its characteristic melodic funk sound, its party-on themes and its stellar cast list, including Debbie Harry, Elton John and Craig David beside younger artists such as Disclosure, Mura Masa and Nao, who appears on new single Boogie All Night.
“I look at an album as a film and the singles are the trailers, designed to make you want to listen to the entire story,” says Rodgers. “I don’t want you to read one chapter of the book and then keep reading it over and over again, although some people do that. I compose an album designed to make you sit down and watch that movie from the beginning to the end.”
Rodgers is full of such nuggets of musical philosophy. In the past, he has spoken about his original concept for Chic as a cross between Roxy Music’s classy aesthetic and the immersive theatre of Kiss. When David Bowie came to Rodgers with the specific request to help him make an international hit, Rodgers’ suggestion was to put the word “dance” in the title – after all, it had worked multiple times for Chic. Rodgers re-arranged Bowie’s proffered number and Let’s Dance was born.
Ever since Chic arrived fully formed in 1977 with Dance, Dance, Dance, Rodgers has stuck to the winning formula of his clean, clipped jazz fusion-inspired Stratocaster sound, unison female vocals and almost always kicking off the song with the central hook.
“Well if you look at it as a film experience – when the film starts, it typically tells you the name of the movie,” he says. “So the name of our song usually comes at the top of the film. Let the people know what they’re listening to because then the story is easier to digest.
“I want my records to be cinematic and tell you a story about a period in time when I thought music was the remedy. We’re a twisted modern version of the jazz band era where people would have no jobs but would pull their pennies together and go out to these dance marathons and speakeasies to take their tensions away because life in America was really difficult and people needed reassurance that there’s going to be a future. Nothing seems to do that as well as music, though unfortunately things seem to be getting worse.
“I was so idealistic when I was younger,” he continues. “I was one of those kids for whom the year 2000 represented this fabulous millennium turning point. In 2000, everyone’s going to be a cool, nice person. I’m a hippy so I thought it was going to be all about peace and love, no more wars, we’d walk around the planet – I didn’t even think we’d need passports in the year 2000, we’d just be the Earth! We’re all connected so why do we need to stop at a border and say ‘I’m different than you?’ You’re right next door, we’re all the same, it’s cool.” Sounds like a cue to freak out and dance whether it is 2000 or 2018.
Fiesta x FOLD, Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow, 30 June and 1 July