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Nile Rodgers Remembers Chris Cornell and George Michael: Exclusive Interview

Ian Gavan, Getty Images
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

When people say Nile Rodgers has worked with everyone, it’s hyperbole. But barely.

The producer/writer/guitarist has crafted records with such diverse artists as David Bowie, David Lee Roth, Duran Duran, Daft Punk, and Diana Ross. Since beating cancer a few years ago, Rodgers has toured relentlessly with his disco outfit Chic and worked with friends old and new — his collaboration with DJ Tony Moran, “My Fire,” just topped Billboard‘s Dance Club Songs chart.

At 64, Rodgers has no plans to slow down. While he has had to weather the deaths of many of his friends in recent years — he was close with Bowie, Prince, George Michael, and Chris Cornell — he will only increase his workload over the next few months as he readies the first Chic disc in over two decades.

He talked with Diffuser about lost friends and his disco roots.

I love the pairing of Chic and Earth, Wind, & Fire as co-headliners on the current tour. I know Chic came up a few years after Earth, Wind, & Fire hit it big, but were you close with that crew in the ’70s?

We idolized Earth, Wind, & Fire. They were one of our most powerful influences when we started Chic. You can actually go on YouTube and search for the Big Apple Band, which was Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson, and my band before Chic, and you can find us covering “Get Away.” You can tell from that one performance where Bernard and I were going. We were a rock ‘n’ roll band but we were trying to convince the other guys that we should be more R&B- and dance-oriented.

You can hear the disco in the sound?

Yes, but you can also tell because Bernard and I are the only ones wearing jackets. The other guys are still dressed in more rock ‘n’ roll clothing. It’s very funny and very telling to see them look rock and have us to the right in suit jackets.

It seems you have never stopped being busy. You had a significant cancer scare and I know the doctors told you to “get your affairs in order,” but you seemed to hear that news as “work even harder.”

I’ve never not worked even as I’ve had a lot of failure. Most business fail, but certain ones become successful. If you look at each project, or each song, as its own business, some are bound to fail. But for the amount of stuff that I’ve worked on a high percentage has just worked. Through it all, I love doing it. I don’t stop because I have a long run of failures. I don’t keep going because I have a run of success. I just love doing the work.

Beating cancer must have been an amazing feeling, and yet, at the same time, you have had to deal with so much loss in the past few years, so many friends have passed away.

The last two years have been particularly… I don’t know how to say it… I want to say disturbing, but that’s not enough. They have thrown me off-balance. A lot of people have passed away and I certainly had no clue that it was coming. Most recently Chris Cornell, who was a really dear friend, and he was a friend in one of the best ways you can have a friend as a musician. We talked about music a lot, but we talked about life a lot. This was the same kind of friendship I had with Prince; we both liked each other as musicians, but we talked more about life in general. These are friendships you really, really cherish when you are in a public business, friendships where you can leave that business behind for a while. Both with Chris and with Prince, it was off putting, so unexpected.

I didn’t know you and Chris were so close.

Oh, yes. On my Facebook page, for my 60th birthday, he put a really fantastic little video where he told me as long as I was around he was going to be around, that I was his inspiration. It was just so touching and wonderful. Then his death, I just don’t get it, I just don’t get it.

I know you were working on the documentary Freedom: George Michael, about the making of Listen Without Prejudice: Volume 1, when the singer passed. Had you seen him recently?

On December 23rd [of 2016], I am at his house finishing up my work on the film and I leave to come back home on the 24th. Well, on Christmas Day we were supposed to speak and I get an alert on my phone that George Michael was found dead. It didn’t make any sense. It felt like one day to me that we hadn’t spoken and he was gone. It was shocking, it was alarming. After cancer I decided I wanted to chronicle my life better so I started taking more pictures on my cell phone. There is a photograph I took when I was approaching George Michael’s house on the 23rd. Before we made the last turn to go down his street, there was a funeral procession coming out of his street. At the time, I didn’t make anything of it other than photographing this tradition of the English to have a horse pull the casket. In retrospect it is spooky. I keep thinking about it. All of this impacts me artistically. I have been working on music thinking about these people as I do.

Let’s go to the positive: Finally we’re getting a new Chic album, right? The album It’s About Time, which will feature guests including Lady Gaga, Elton John, and Janelle Monáe, will be out this year?

Yes, we are just working on the final song. I can’t tell you who it’s with, it’s a surprise, but it’s big. And so yes, it will definitely come out this year.

If you have a new album, that means staying on the road to promote it, I am assuming?

We have another month of dates with Earth, Wind, & Fire. Then we go to Japan to work with Duran Duran at the Budokan Festival. Then we go right to Australia and New Zealand to tour with Lionel Ritchie.

Tokyo’s Budokan is the last place you played with Chic partner Bernard Edwards before he passed away the next day, back in 1996. I imagine that will be a hard gig to play.

I have not set foot in Budokan since Bernard passed away so it’s going to be really heavy. But I’ll be there with Duran Duran, which is like my other Chic. And Simon LeBon was with me that last night I played with Bernard at Budokan so to have him with me, well, that’s going to be… I don’t know how emotional it’s going to be but it will certainly be strange.

It is such a storied concert hall, it will be nice to get some more positivity associated with the place.

The Budokan was important for us before Bernard passed away because we both always loved the live album Cheap Trick at Budokan. That album was a big deal for us. The whole thing will strange but very beautiful.

I can see why this album has taken so long to come out. You don’t give yourself a lot of downtime.

Exactly. That’s the problem. I’m on tour with Earth, Wind, & Fire, and I’m still wrapping up work on the George Michael film. There’s only 24 hours in a day but thank God I don’t sleep very much.

That’s right, you do disco naps where you just sleep like two or three hours a night. How do you survive on so little sleep?

Actually, last night I didn’t sleep at all. I’ve been awake since the day before yesterday so I can get a lot done. In fact, the band and I are redesigning new choreography that just talked about in detail last night so it was good to have a few extra hours to work that out. [laughs] I know, I know life is insane.

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