READ PART ONE OF THIS INTERVIEW HERE…
Yeah. Oh, indeed, I can see it and I can spot it. I remember walking into a radio station one day to do an interview and Justin Timberlake had just done the song, I think it’s called ‘Rock Your Body’, that was written by Pharrell, and the thing was, everyone at the radio station was so uncomfortable when I walked into that interview, because that was their featured song of the day and it has that breakdown which sounds just like me, and I was like ‘Guys, that’s cool, that’s what we do’. This is what we do. I hear a Pharrell joint and think ‘Oh that’s a clever idea’ and I’ll take something, I’ll hear the Foo Fighters and I’ll take something and we recycle these ideas, we get to perfect them from our point of view. I think it was Verdi who said ‘Good composers borrow, and great composers steal’!
It is, I’m probably misquoting him but it’s something like that. God I’d hate to misquote Verdi. I’m paraphrasing Verdi, that’s probably putting it better!
Well I think that a lot of it has to do with being fascinated with gear, because gear, when it comes out, always does something to your music that the other thing didn’t do. We have a joke around the studio, there was a very cheap piece of gear that came out by Roland called the Dimension-D, and no-one can figure out what this damn thing did, no-one! But we would push a button and go ‘We like it better, we don’t know why, but we like it better’. And then we pushed two buttons and we’d like it even better, and finally we pushed every button on the thing – it wasn’t made to have every button pushed, but we did that – and went ‘Get it in!’ after we’d pushed every button! So it became a euphemism for pushing every button, we’d just say ‘Dimension-D it’, which meant that the song sounds good but if you push every button on the Dimension-D and put it in, it’ll be better! Literally, like last week, we saw this new software interface version of the Dimension-D and we figured out how to push every button on this thing, we were crying laughing… it sounded the same!
So it’s been about the gear, and this was actually one of our philosophies with Chic, that we would never do another record without buying a piece of gear. We always bought, no matter how frivolous or insignificant, we bought a new piece of gear and figured out something to put it on. So that was just part of the process, because it felt like evolution. These are all things that we considered logical and I even talk about this concept in the book, called Band Logic, which is not to be confused with actual logic! So we’d go ‘We can’t make a record until we go out and buy something’. And what would happen was that once we bought a new piece of gear and figured out what song that thing went on, for whatever reason, we felt we were moving in the future.
We also knew that we had no control over the release dates of our records, so we always made what we call ‘Future Music’, and now I start to understand, in retrospect, but only in retrospect, why so many people in the music business hated us, because, we never tried to be anything that was on the radio. We kept saying ‘But by the time our record comes out, that’s going to be old’. So we were playing music for them that they’d never heard before. Now I’m willing to give them a break, but we couldn’t understand how we could play a song like ‘Le Freak’ and no-one could hear that it was a hit.
I’m pretty sure I tell this story in the book, because it’s so important in my life, that the biggest record of my career, the biggest single song, the only triple-platinum US single in the history of this illustrious label that has artists like a who’s who of important artists in American music – Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton and Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin and Crosby, Stills & Nash – none of them had a triple platinum record. We do. But when we first played it we cleared the conference room. You know the song, it goes ‘One, Two, aahhh freak…’ and the count, we leave the count in, we left it on the record because we thought it sounded cool. And they were going ‘But that’s a mistake, why would you leave the count on the record?’ and we went ‘Because it sounds cool’ and they went ‘But no, people don’t leave counts on the songs because that’s just something that musicians do, you count and then you edit that out’. Think about it, it would be a whole different record if it didn’t go ‘One, two, aaaahh’. We’re in a room of geniuses and we’re trying to explain the concept of track development and one-time-only events. I’m going ‘This is Pop Record 101 guys, we’re explaining to you your business, you’re experts and we’re telling you your job?’.
I think so, I think that’s a good solid explanation. I once asked a journalist ‘Do you consider Chic a disco band?’ and he said ‘Yes’, I said ‘Really? Have you ever listened to a Chic record?’ and he said ‘Sure’ and I said ‘Which songs?’ and he named all the singles. I said, ‘Yeah, but on that same album there’s ‘Happy Man’, which is a sort of reggae song, there’s ‘Chic Cheer’, there’s an instrumental, there’s ‘Savoir Faire’, this beautiful jazzy thing and the B-side of our first single was an instrumental called ‘Sao Paolo’ and it starts with this Brazilian stuff, what disco bands do that?. We’re jazz R&B guys who learned how to write pop songs, the same as Kool & The Gang or Earth, Wind and Fire, these are instrumentalists, you know Donald Byrd & The Blackbyrds, Herbie Hancock, those dudes who learned how to write pop songs. When Herbie Hancock came out with ‘Rockit’, all of a sudden you didn’t call him a disco-pop-funk guy, no it was still Herbie Hancock, he just put out a fusion record, but he was still a jazz guy’. This journalist said ‘But Nile, thing is, yes, you’re right, your records were all those things, but you didn’t exist before 1977’ and all of a sudden he just nailed it, he’s right, THAT’S the most important thing, the timing, because Kool & The Gang and Earth, Wind and Fire and all those other people who had their biggest records were disco records. The Rolling Stones, their biggest record is a disco record, but they existed before 1977. We came out at the height of the disco thing so all the focus was on disco, disco, disco, and we had some of the biggest hits of that era so why wouldn’t we be associated with it? When that journalist said that to me it all made sense. I’d been a musician since I was a child, but I’d only been in Chic since 1976, and only had a record deal in 1977. So you’re right, but all of a sudden it made sense to me and I was a little less bitter, but only a little! The cool thing is that I’m not really bitter, I just make the observation, because the truth is I have an amazing life, I have so many hit records, so many great artists, so many wonderful hours in the studio with people, so many hours in nightclubs, so many great experiences. If you were only to have two or three of those things you would have a fabulous life and I get to have the coolest, coolest life in the world.
Absolute awesomeness! Just go to YouTube and have a look. This is what I grew up wanting to do. As Bernard used to say, whenever we would have a bad show, and this is wonderful, if we had a bad show Bernard would be sitting around like seething and going ‘I feel sorry for that fucking audience tomorrow because we are gonna RIP!’. We love it, and this year Chic will have played more than we’ve ever played in any calendar year since the formation of the Chic Organisation.
But coming back to your question, there’s this interesting thing about what people expect. I did a concert a few weeks ago in Australia, and the fact is that I’ve had seven number one records in Australia but had never gotten a gig there because whenever the promoter says ‘Hmmm, shall we have Chic or KC & The Sunshine Band? Well, we know what KC & The Sunshine Band do, but we’ve no idea what Chic is going to do, let’s book KC and The Sunshine Band!’. You know what they do because they’ve been doing it all their lives. We never had to support ourselves by doing that and we were fortunate enough to make a living being in the studio. We lived in the studio, we made a living making records so I never had to perform live. It was more better back then – not just monetarily but spiritually and on every level – that I get to interact with, say, Diana Ross and change her life. I wrote the biggest record of her life and she was the first star I worked with… but when we left the studio, don’t you think we’d give the best shows you could imagine? We still do.
Yeah, and then to say the same about David Bowie! But I had never worked with a superstar until I worked with Diana Ross, one of the biggest in the world. It was insane, so we went from you know, guys just doing everything on our own and dealing with our truths to looking at this person and saying we have to write songs for her. Typically how does Diana Ross gets songs? A bunch of writers submit songs and blah blah blah blah blah. That’s not what we do, we sat down and we interviewed Diana Ross for days at a time and then after we found out who she really was, then we wrote her documentary. That album is her documentary, if we were film makers it would be a movie. If we were journalists it would be a Vanity Fair or Vogue article or whatever. And that’s what it is, non-fiction. ‘My Old Piano’, that piano’s sitting in her room, ‘Upside Down’, was what she said she said she was gonna do, turn her whole world upside down. She wanted to leave Motown, who would ever have thought Diana Ross wanted to leave Motown? Well we knew, because she told us, but we couldn’t say that so we just said ‘upside down you’re turning me…’ OK Diana, we’re gonna help you do it! Then there was ‘I’m Coming Out’. I’m at a club and I’m standing in the bathroom urinating and there’s a bunch of Diana Ross imitators in there, and all of my stuff is true remember? There it was, drag queens dressed up like Diana Ross, coming out of the closet, it’s her coming out song to start her show, and it couldn’t be more perfect!
The record company hated it, hated it! They took the record away from us, said they weren’t going to put it out. They said ‘this is not a Diana Ross record’ we said ‘of course it’s not, it’s not an old Diana Ross record, it’s a new Diana Ross record. The old Diana Ross, that’s what she used to do, this is what she’s going to do. This is future music. When people hear this it’s going to be ‘Wow, have you heard that new Diana Ross record?’. We tried to explain to these geniuses their own business, and it was like, here we go again, business as usual. We’d spoken to her, we know her frustration, we know what she wants to do, this is Diana Ross’s record. You don’t know your own audience, we know her, because we sat down and we talked to her, we took the time, we talked to her, we know what she wants, we know her better than she knows herself’.
Well, I’m writing two Broadway musicals. I may start another book, may start one! I think I want to write fiction and to me that seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. Non-fiction was impossible, but fiction’s going to be really impossible. I have a bunch of ideas and I think they’d be great because they’re based on non-fiction, it’s all real life stuff but with the names are changed to protect the innocent because the stories are so fantastic it’s like you wouldn’t believe that it really happened, but it all really happened! So there’s a million things that I know, a million things that have happened that can start with the non-fictional element but can blossom into these beautiful stories. But anyway, I’m old, I better start writing this thing fast!
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