Friday, 31 July 2009
Depressingly often, talking to a musician is far less interesting than listening to their music. When "we just make songs what we like, like" is the most perceptive explanation a band can give about their creative processes, the facepalm is instinctive. That's not the case with Dave Longstreth, mastermind of the Brooklyn-based Dirty Projectors, whose new album Bitte Orca is one of the best records of the year so far. Despite Bitte Orca being an endlessly inventive and fascinating listen - and a fun one too, beard-scratchers - he talks a real good game, if you can actually get hold of him. Sure, he's performing with David Byrne, and yeah, he's in the studio with Bjork; we've heard all these excuses before, press person! When Clash finally does touch base, he's still juggling a million things to do, but while we've got him, he's going to make an impression.
Dirty Projectors have been a going concern since 2002, and used to include two members of Vampire Weekend. In recent years they've been cultivating a reputation as a band easy to admire, but not quite so easy to love. Isn't the idea of a chopped-and-screwed rock opera about a suicidal Don Henley kinda amazing? That's Dirty Projectors 2005 album The Getty Address. And what if a band tried to cover an entire album that they hadn't listened to for 15 years, basing the whole thing on blurry fragments of teenage memories? That's Rise Above, from 2007, in a conceptual nutshell. Both albums had plenty of great moments, but ultimately felt like they were born of better ideas than execution. Bitte Orca isn't so easy to narrow down, but it seems like the absence of an overarching theme has taken the edge off its abstract experimentalism, allowing the band more room for baser aims, like hooks.
So I ask Longstreth to explain what Bitte Orca's about, really, and he says this: "Collapsing dualities, conciliating factional antagonisms, creating Mexican blankets of formal beauty and arresting emotionality". I don't quite know what to say to that, so he continues: "Parsing the future for potsherds of the past, reggae kaleidoscopes, goofing around with noise-gated snare drums". There's a pause. "'Stillness Is The Move' is sort of a love song" he continues, much to my relief. "The beat is based on T-Pain. We commissioned a radio mix of the song by the guy who mixes all of Timbaland's records, but the mix we made sounded way better, so we didn't use it." 'Stillness Is The Move' is the album's first single, a juddering, trilling, soaring kind of alien R&B ballad, featuring bright lead vocals from Amber Coffman. Explaining the new prominence of both female band members -- following song 'Two Doves', a clear tribute to mournful German chanteuse Nico, is sung by Angel Deradoorian -- Longstreth says "I wanted it to feel like a Beatles album, each of the singers with a lead number, playing with foreground and background. So much of our singing is about sharing a melody between two voices, or dividing a harmony into component voices, you know. Giving the girls a lead number felt like a natural application of that idea to the album as a whole."
Like all Dirty Projectors albums, Bitte Orca is packed full of ideas - but this is the one which gets them all to coalesce together most smoothly. It's all pretty odd on first listen: you'll hear flashes of Peter Gabriel, King Sunny Ade, Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, Talking Heads, The Fiery Furnaces, Arthur Russell and Frank Zappa in there at different times, not forgetting the aforementioned T-Pain and Nico. Somehow, even though he's pulling from so many different boxes, Longstreth still manages to put his hundred-piece puzzle together and form a clear picture, a picture that looks in whole like no-one else. It's been enough to convince two of the world's most critically revered musicians, David Byrne and Bjork, to collaborate with Longstreth in the last few months. Firstly, Byrne and Dirty Projectors recorded 'Knotty Pine' together for the Red Hot Organisation's Dark Was The Night charity compilation this winter. Then Bjork got in touch, having been impressed by a Dirty Projectors cover version of her own 'Hyperballad', and Longstreth agreed to write a suite for her to sing, again in support of an AIDS organisation. The six-song Mount Wittenberg Orca, which is planned for release "sometime", is about an imagined moment of eye-contact between Coffman and a whale. "Bjork is a huge inspiration for me," Longstreth says, "It was a big honour to write music for her. She said the only other person's music she's ever sung was Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire." That's not a name that often gets dropped in interviews with indie-rock bands. But Dirty Projectors are not a normal indie-rock band.
Thursday, 30 July 2009
festival review for the skinny
Strangely, but thankfully, the Wickerman Festival near Dumfries is a Friday-Saturday weekender, not a Saturday-Sunday affair. That's fortunate because when The Skinny got up on Sunday morning to pack up the tents and head home, the gusting winds and lashing rain soaked us skinwards within minutes. We were lucky - other than some brief showers on Friday afternoon, Wickerman was blessed with long spells of gentle sunshine, particularly on Saturday. All music festivals are dependent somewhat on favourable weather, but it seems particularly important for Wickerman, because this year's packed line-up was still pretty bare of appealing acts. That puts more emphasis on the ancillary pleasures of camping and drinking with friends, and on the non-musical entertainment, because there's fewer bands to get excited about. In theory, at least; we got excited about plenty of bands.
Much of our weekend was spent in the Solus Tent, a long and narrow marquee dedicated to up-and-coming Scottish bands. But when we first walk in 5 minutes before the start of Meursault, it's completely empty bar the sound guy. Singer Neil Pennycook isn't a quiet performer, so his bellowing voice soon draws people in to a set which focuses on highlights from last year's debut album. As great as that record is, it's new song Crank Resolutions which has been the standout of recent sets, its pulsing beats and racing rhythm contrasting with Pennycook's distressed vocals.
The Seventeenth Century play to a slightly bigger crowd, but they leave me unconvinced. They seem to adhere very closely to the Arcade Fire's eloquent brand of melodrama, using long maudlin violin lines and wailing vocal outros to convey a vague melancholy that doesn't quite match the mood of the evening. Perhaps they'd suit a dusky bar setting, but their self-seriousness today doesn't connect.
On the other hand, the always-impressive We Were Promised Jetpacks know exactly how to play to a festival crowd. They warm us up with, eh, Keeping Warm, and then Quiet Little Voices entices the quiet little crowd to begin using their own, eh, voices, in support. By the fourth song everyone has got it, so wild finale Short Bursts is served to a crowd on the verge of climax. It's a perfect set closer, shifting between quiet and loud moments with ecstatic energy. Jetpacks are getting better with every gig.
Headliners The Human League bring a touch of glamour to this very modest festival. Singers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall still look gorgeous 30 years into their careers, while Phil Oakey commands the stage in a tight black lab coat, looking like a slender Dr Evil. They reel out hit after hit -- Tell Me When, Love Action, Open Your Heart, Seconds, Mirror Man -- and to finish, Don't You Want Me, which is incredible, of course. Even those who came with high expectations left fully enamoured.
Saturday's schedule kicks off with a Solus tent show from Bronto Skylift, who are really not the kind of band you want to soundtrack your hangover. So instead of being gently eased back into life, we're smacked around the chops by the savagely loud Glasgow duo, who play their instruments like they're trying to kill them. In "the closest thing we'll ever get to a love song", screeching feedback and vicious drumming underpin what I think is the repeated romantic yell "I'm a tiger, I'm a tiger!". A family with three young kids look a little perplexed, but three cooler boys aged about 10 start their own moshpit at the front. Shame on us for leaving them to start it.
The afternoon provides a good opportunity to sample some non-musical fare. Down at the spoken word tent, a middle aged man recites Bill Maher's comedy routine about translating rap lyrics into "white" - watch that here - and then tried a rap of his own, which we'll generously call 'spirited'. Then we try the nine-hole crazy golf, which was only crazy insofar as it was pitch 'n putt with no putters and no fairways. So the first 20 minutes were spent looking for missing balls in deep, rough grass, and the next few minutes were spent trying to tap them into the hole with sand wedges. A once-over with a lawnmower, and some putters, would've made the golf far more enjoyable.
Back at the main stage were Norwich's The Kabeedies, who fulfilled just about every stereotype of meaningless art school post-punk you can think of. They looked cool and they danced a lot, but their patter was terrible. "How do you pronounce this place, is it Dun... Dun... Dundrennan?". Not. Hard. "She hit me on the arm, I have a bruise! That's amazing!". Not. Amazing.
Candi Staton seems to be best known now for her vocal on The Source's 1991 hit You Got The Love, but her biggest solo hit was Young Hearts Run Free, and in the late 60s she recorded some beautiful soul ballads, like What Would Become Of Me and I'm Just A Prisoner. But after trumpeting how many hours she'd travelled to be here, her set may as well have been torrented in. A lacklustre cover of Suspicious Minds is followed by a wedding singer performance of Stand By Your Man, cheapened to novelty status by a calypso beat. Clashes call.
Punch and the Apostles are much more fun, if a little ridiculous at times. Most of the time it's a cacophonous din, as each song is built up towards a big melodramatic climax and then brought down to earth again slowly while the saxophonist wails free-form solos. Occasionally, moments of glorious clarity break through the headache-inducing fug, suggesting that there is method behind the apparent madness after all.
But by far the best show of the day, and possibly of the whole weekend, was still to come: Drums of Death, in Solus, face painted like a zombie panda bear. He's hopping around a laptop and mixer, running to the barrier, working the crowd, rapping and singing, and I've no idea what he's saying but his beats are just brilliant. They seem to incorporate bits of everything -- electro which leans to Italo, to house, to punk, to techno, to grime, to indie-rock -- and he's putting everything into riling the crowd. There's a piano-based interlude, like recent LCD Soundsystem, which bangs back into life with astonishing force, and unbelievably he moves onto something even better. Who is this guy? He's called Colin, he's from Oban, and he's jaw-dropping live.
At midnight, the 30ft Wickerman which has stood watching over the site is ceremoniously set alight and fireworks are let off, but it's not the end of the festival yet. A DJ set from Utah Saints on the main stage is surprisingly brilliant, because their song selection is a perfect mix of big-hitters (Justice, The Killers, MGMT) and lesser-known maintenance beats. Finally, Edinburgh's William Douglas and the Wheel perform classic rock covers and originals to a raucous crowd in what was earlier the spoken word tent. We stumble back to the tents at 3am, actually get to them at 4 (don't ask), and thank the heavens for waiting until the end of the festival before unloading on us.
Thursday, 23 July 2009
album review for the skinny
The press sheet for Is Skyscraper notes that mysterious singer-songwriter Julian Plenti took a sabbatical between 2001 and 2006, but doesn't explain why. Actually, it was because he was busy being Paul Banks, moody Interpol singer and unintentionally funny lyricist responsible for such classic face-smacking lines as “She says brief things, her love’s a pony, my love's subliminal", and "the subway, she is a porno". He's grown a moustache too; are we sure this isn't actually Brandon Flowers? Thankfully, no such lyrical duds intrude on Is Skyscraper, an ambitious and accomplished record that uses unsettling string arrangements and snippets of film dialogue and found sound as often as guitar riffs or heavy drums. Third song Skyscraper is more like a classical mood suite than a rock song, Madrid Song is clearly inspired by Boards of Canada, and On The Esplanade's finger-picked bed is overwhelmed by a array of dramatic string sweeps.
Thursday, 16 July 2009
covered for The Skinny
I suggest (if time allows) reading the full coverage over at The Skinny website, for a much broader picture including blurbs by Darren Carle and Chris Buckle. Friday review here, Saturday here and Sunday here.
But here's what I wrote anyway...
T in the Park 2009 was largely pre-billed as "the year T went pop", as if it was totally something else before. Bands that write their own songs and play guitars 'n' that can still be pop bands, of course, but this year the presence of fashionable girlies like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry was supposed to show an ideological side-step. And there was, slightly.
For us, this year's disappointing aspect was how the biggest bands on the Main Stage - Kings of Leon, Razorlight, The Killers, Snow Patrol - sucked up the crowds like a black hole in the middle of the site, to the noticeable detriment of the shows on the eleven other stages. It's great that T is trying to encourage diversity by adding more stages, but how long can that last if the punters continue to gravitate to the same predictable big-hitters instead of trying something different?
It wasn't just the Main Stage, actually, it was more about which artists are on the telly all the time: more people watched Tommy Reilly than Nick Cave or Nine Inch Nails, while the King Tut's tent was half-empty for the Manic Street Preachers but bursting full the next day for The Saturdays. That kind of thing's depressing for musos like us, who've had our lives changed by bands like NIN and can't believe so few others have too; and then we can't even get near the front for a perv of Frankie Sandford. It's just a wee bit outta balance, that's all.
Navel-gazing aside, T in the Park 2009 was brilliant. We saw some fantastic performances from a wide variety of bands on loads of different stages. We drank a lot. And the sun came out, and stayed out, for most of the weekend. There's no better way to spend a weekend than at a music festival with good bands, good friends, beer and sunshine. It ended with an epic set from the newly reunited Blur, an hour-and-a-half late but worth the wait. Sometimes a Main Stage band deserves to swallow up the entire crowd.
An Edwyn Collins gig isn't like a gig for anyone else. Four years ago, the ex-Orange Juice frontman suffered two serious strokes, which he's been slowly recovering from ever since. He can't play the guitar, walks with difficulty, and it takes real effort for him to speak: "I. Am still. Learning. To talk" he tells us, hand clawing forward as if to throw each word out. It's impossible to divorce the context from the performance: this man could easily choose to retreat into a comfortable retirement, but instead he's determined to push himself because he loves playing music. The couple hundred fans here really appreciate the effort; they'd respond rapturously to Falling And Laughing, Rip It Up and A Girl Like You playing on a pub jukebox; to have Edwyn Collins perform them for us is just magical.
13 years since they formed, Camera Obscura finally make it to the Futures Tent. (Well, at least it wasn't the BBC Introducing... stage). Having just released their gorgeous fourth album My Maudlin Career, it's a shame that Camera Obscura are tucked away like this at their own local megafestival. Their performance is tight and professional, and comprises six completely lovable songs, including French Navy and the title track from the new record. They're not the most exciting live band, but with songs like these it doesn't really matter.
We're standing pretty close in for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but it's still difficult to even hear at times. Their two favourite ballads, first album classic Maps and new album re-write Skeletons, are drawn out and whispered so thinly that the guys tunelessly singing along beside me completely drown out Karen O's vocals. But they can't drown out the pipe band which appears at the end of Skeletons, to inevitable roars from a crowd easily pleased by a pop star merely acknowledging we're not English. New songs Zero and Heads Will Roll are much better, and final song Date With The Night goes down a storm too. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are much better when they're audible.
Nick Cave's headlining set at the second biggest stage - the Radio 1/NME Stage - is watched by a pitifully small crowd, but he shows no reservations or signs of disappointment - he's as ebullient and theatrical as he would be in front of a packed stadium. Red Right Hand, The Weeping Song and There She Goes My Beautiful One are highlights, but it's the pre-encore finale of Stagger Lee that, ahem, staggers me, with a crazy cacophonous climax and blasting lights followed by an extra verse and another screeching, screaming ending. More people needed to see it.
So maybe I'm just too old - I have a beard and have been drinking legally purchased beer after all - but Unicorn Kid's so-called chiptune niche is just Nokia Tuned happy hardcore, right? This being T In The Park, the wee crowd at BBC's Introducing stage is going, going, going fucking mental for 17 year old Oliver Sabin's fairground beats, but that's because they've clearly forgotten an important lesson from history - Bonkers. It's a responsibility of every sanctimoniously minded elder to remind the youth of today of the horrors wrought by Bonkers, lest they occur again. Ten minutes of Unicorn Kid's Jamster Dance is enough to concern any right-minded citizen about this country's future.
It'd be easy to snark on Edinburgh hip-hop trio Young Fathers, if they weren't such endearing live performers. It's the natty synchronised dance moves that do it -- well, the beats are pretty sweet too -- and final track Straight Back On It really gets the crowd going, if only after a bit of on-stage cajoling. There's one definite lull -- a ballad with the line "do you connect to my ringtone?" -- but Young Fathers' party jams do exactly what they want them to do - they ignite a party atmosphere, for a few dozen folk at least. Watch the set here.
It's a bit silly having The Twilight Sad on the BBC Introducing stage - it seems to be the biggest crowd this stage gets all weekend, and no-one is being introduced. From near the back, beyond the roof, the sound swirls out a bit, and the nearby Slam Tent's beats interfere; but I can also see the whole crowd, and how positive and excited everyone is. There's several stunning moments: new single I Became A Prostitute's explosive drum slams; the slow, almost a cappella intro to Cold Days From The Birdhouse bursting into its ascending three-chord maelstrom; James Graham screaming "head up dear, the rabbit might die!" as And She Would Darken The Memory approaches its incredible cacophonous crescendo. With a second album just approaching, it's tempting to feel that The Twilight Sad might be on the verge of something big here: the Futures Tent, beckoning for 2010. Watch the performance here.
(Here's a shot of Andy and James from The Twilight Sad performing an acoustic version of their new single, I Became A Prostitute, in, eh, a tent dressed up like an old fashioned kitchen, in the media bit. Expect the video to be posted to theskinny.co.uk within days.)
Bloc Party's last two albums haven't been as rewarding as their first continues to be, but they do deserve credit for making significant efforts to do interesting things with their sound. Some of the bizarre noises they sneak into their mid-afternoon Main Stage set are quite unsettling, and not what crowds standing here are usually challenged with. A new song, for example, starts with heavy 4/4 Slam Tent beats, a giddy piano riff and a low-slung grooving bassline, very odd in combination but it seems to work. Mercury continues to be divisive, with the hardcore fans near the stage lapping it up while the rest of us get distracted. But of course, no-one's attention wanders during This Modern Love and Helicopter.
"Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm" Adam Thomson sings during Roll Up Your Sleeves, but nobody's staying calm at We Were Promised Jetpacks' early evening T-Break set. Everyone is waving, singing, clapping, cheering, jumping, moshing, climbing on shoulders; the energy in this packed out tent is incredible. Then before Quiet Little Voices, he lies: "This is our only decent song"; it segues straight into an epic Ships With Holes Will Sink, and then Short Bursts keeps up the momentum as blinding lights flash at every cymbal hit. Wow.
The Pet Shop Boys' first ever T In The Park show comes across like a Kraftwerk pastiche at times: the German-language sloganeering, the tinny techno beats, the dancers wearing blocks on their heads like robots. Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe know they have no stage presence, so they entertain us with blockheaded dancers and bizarre video wall projections instead. Pet Shop Boys aren't just a singles band but few here know anything other than the big singles: it makes for long spells watching the screen between momentary eruptions for Go West and Always On My Mind, before noticeable numbers trail off for Blur.
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
album review for drowned in sound
How much trust can you put in a band when their first big creative decision - their name - is a stinker? And what if the record sleeve is terrible too? The Phenomenal Handclap Band, the name, is surely a play on The Incredible String Band - and not a very funny one at that. Rightly or wrongly, there's so much music available now that people make snap decisions on what's worth trying, and I can't help but feel that The Phenomenal Handclap Band have given themselves hurdles before they've even recorded a note. Nobody needs another Polyphonic Spree right now, you might fairy think, so let's try something else. Fortunately, despite the name, The Phenomenal Handclap band are nothing like The Polyphonic Spree.
For a start there's only eight of them, all formed around New York-based DJs Daniel Collás and Sean Marquand. Collás and Marquand apparently got bored of playing other people's records, deciding they could do it better themselves. There's much to like in The Phenomenal Handclap Band's loose, languid style, which embellishes its disco beats with George Clinton's psychedelic funk, Curtis Mayfield's blax-light grooves, and on 'Dim The Lights', Marc Bolan, generally. There're spaceship swoops, pulse pad percussion, high buzzing synth riffs and cowbells (of course), but also harmonica solos, alternately weeping or grinding guitar licks, and melodramatic echoing whispers for full Funkadelic props. And the beats, which step, stride and swagger unhurriedly throughout, cohere all 12 tracks together into a nonchalant but focused whole. Following in the footsteps of Sound Of Silver and Hercules And Love Affair, this is a disco record that believes in the rockist concept of an album, rather than the dance stereotype of the good and not-so-good singles collection.
This album's first two singles - 'You'll Disappear' and '15 To 20' - are probably the standout tracks. Taking musical cues from LCD Soundsystem and CSS respectively, they both use casual but cute female vocals to portray a playful self-assurance about potentially awkward topics. But after that 11-minute mid-section peak, there's a noticeable drop in standard towards the end. At 66 minutes long, The Phenomenal Handclap Band isn't particularly long, but the final three tracks could certainly have been lopped off without detriment. Penultimate song 'Baby' irritates because its repeated soulful refrain - "Baby/ I could rule the world/ with a girl like you/ on my arm" - is a terrible chat-up line; or if he's addressing an established partner, even worse to be that girl. Once would be forgivable, but repeated over the whole song it speaks to a lack of ideas. Then, final track 'The Circle Is Broken' takes nine indulgent minutes to announce the end of the record - "The circle is broken, the people have spoken, no reason pretending, our time here is ending" - which, like the guy at the party who has to personally say goodbye to everyone three times before leaving, is just a bit exasperating.
While the first nine tracks are harder to criticise in specific terms, there's perhaps something self-defeating in The Phenomenal Handclap Band's own coolness. It's hard to get excited about music which never gets too excited itself. What good ideas The Phenomenal Handclap Band do have are spread a little thinly on this debut.
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
feature for Clash
Ask any music fan around Edinburgh who their favourite new local band is, and there’s a fair chance you won’t get the same answer twice.
This is a boom time for a city which lags way behind bigger brother Glasgow in terms of musical heritage. At the forefront of the capital city’s efforts to catch up are Meursault, a foursome led by singer and songwriter Neil Pennycook, who released a superb but slept-on debut album late last year.
Pissing On Bonfires / Kissing With Tongues was released at the height of year-end list season, meaning its many gushing reviews were quickly forgotten in the rush to put 2008 to bed and get on with 2009’s next big thing. But fans in Edinburgh didn’t forget - Pennycook is a big guy with a big heart and a big voice - why look for anyone else?
Though he tells me the word bugs him, we can’t proceed with a description of Meursault without talking about folk. Any group which uses banjo, ukelele, accordion and acoustic guitar, and which has songs that create mythologies around long-forgotten local heroes, is inevitably going to be associated with folk music. But that’s only a small part of the Meursault story, because they also use an assortment of electronic devices to add beats, beeps and rushes. Please, don’t call it folktronica - it’s much more fun than that.
Take ‘The Furnace’ for an example. “I was trying to write the catchiest, most infectious pop song with the weirdest bunch of instruments I could get my hands on,” Pennycook says, and he succeeded: it’s got a ridiculously catchy banjo melody sitting between skipping beats and abrasive scratching noise. Recent live shows under the side-project name Art Fag have demonstrated even more experimentation, with new influences like Holy Fuck and Animal Collective appearing. These recent shows have been stunning.
But then, when the noise subsists, Pennycook’s gift for straight-forward songwriting shines through. Songs like ‘Salt Pt.2’, ‘The Dirt And The Roots’, and ‘William Henry Miller’ from the ‘Nothing Broke EP’, are simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. “There’s not a lot of hard fact out there about him,” Pennycook says of the latter titular figure, “that’s why I like it, because you can piece things together and make your own pseudo-folklore.”
But perhaps their most impressive single feature is Pennycook’s unmistakable foghorn voice, which you can sometimes hear just wandering the Old Town streets, where you used to hear bagpipes. Now there’s a new way to seduce the tourists.
Saturday, 4 July 2009
Nile Rodgers has an abundance of amazing stories to tell. Some of them are about his band Chic, who were the biggest group of the late 70s disco explosion, and his side-project Sister Sledge, who had several more dancefloor filling hits. Some of them involve world superstars like Diana Ross or David Bowie or Madonna, because be produced the biggest-selling albums any of them made. Some of them involve other stars like Debbie Harry, Duran Duran, INXS and Mick Jagger, whom he also produced. And some of them involve the birth of hip-hop, at which he was present, thanks to The Sugarhill Gang’s unauthorised borrowing of Chic’s Good Times to lie under Rapper’s Delight. He enjoys telling these stories, and The Skinny enjoyed letting him.
Like, there was the one about the time Debbie Harry took him around New York to visit some hip-hops – congregations of hip youths, hopping – where at every single one, Good Times was being spun, over and over. Some time later, he went to a nightclub and heard it again, only for the DJ to start rapping on top of it – "I said a hip-hop, a hippy to the hippy to hip hip hop..." – only, it wasn't the DJ. "I looked in the DJ booth and I thought it was him and a couple of friends rapping over a musical bedtrack which they had created." That was a reasonable assumption to make, because for a while fans had been jumping on stage at Chic gigs to grab the mic and rap. "We didn't mind seeing this in a live arena, like what we'd seen at a hip-hop, that was cool 'cos it was just a performance thing, and it was interesting to watch. To know that people had rehearsed rhymes and routines to perform over Good Times – that was cool!" But the DJ wasn't rapping in the booth, the vocals were coming off the vinyl. "The thing that was ironic was that Rapper's Delight generated more revenue than Good Times because it was only available on 12", so you'd pay $3 for a song that we would sell for 79cents, almost four times the amount! When it comes to artists sharing work there's a sort of unwritten rule that some things are cool. I always find it a little bit weird when we all know where an idea came from but the person changes it enough that, y'know, it's cool. I'm pretty sure you can think of dozens and dozens of records you know that come from another record. I mean I do it all the time myself, we all do! But there's a difference between inspiration and plagiarism. So, basically that happened with Sugarhill Gang, they crossed that line."
It’s interesting to think of that in light of Rodgers' unexpected explanation of Chic’s formation. “When you're coming up with a band and coming up with a concept, you work with artistic ideas the same way you would do a sculpture, you mould those ideas or reinterpret them. It's very clear in today's musical world there's more of a collage culture, because of hip-hop, it's a re-interpretive culture.” In the early 70s, Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards had become fans of Roxy Music, and especially liked the glamour portrayed by Bryan Ferry's beautiful model girlfriends on the covers. Meanwhile their friend (and later keyboard player) Rob Sabino was hanging around with a guitarist called Ace Frehley. “This was before Kiss really blew up and got signed to Casablanca. They were still an underground band, but they were already doing the makeup thing. So basically the concept of Chic was a fusion of those two ideas, the Roxy Music covers with the girls and the Kiss logo and Kiss's anonymity because of their makeup. Our version of Kiss's anonymity was putting on suits and pretending to be bankers from France or something!”
The bankers from France didn't stay anonymous for long. "We thought in our hearts artistically we were doing the right things and it would be successful. When Dance Dance Dance forced the black station to play our music because the white station had started playing it first, we realised that, OK, we got something pretty unique here!" In this country, that doesn't really make sense. What's a white station? "David Bowie told me something really fantastic," Nile Rodgers begins another anecdote. "He was explaining to me why people from the UK know so much more about music than your average American. It's because of the way that the radio was formatted, on BBC [Radio] 1 they were just playing whatever was happening, they didn't care whether it was blues or jazz or R&B or dance or whatever." Contrarily, in America, radio stations only play specific niches to specific demographics. This is important, because it's difficult to think of disco without also thinking of the backlash it provoked in America in the late 70s. If disco isn't your cup of tea, that's fine; but in Chicago in 1979, 75,000 people donated disco records to be exploded, with a bomb, in a Baseball stadium. Disco sucks, they said, and then BOOM, and big cheers all round. Isn't that a bit much? Isn't that a bit like a book burning?
That rabid hatred of disco was likely driven by homophobia and racism, but music always finds a way to challenge preconceptions. In these senses, the disco explosion in the States mirrored the UK's punk breakthrough. Both genres were propelled by a new generation rebelling against what rock had become in the mid-70s – no longer the vibrant and exciting challenge to the status quo it represented to the post-war baby boomers, but the status quo itself. Punk's anti-authoritarianism took on confrontational guises, while disco became a vehicle to challenge the homophobic attitudes of the mainstream, as embodied by the macho rock fan. Most disco artists preferred messages of positivity, community, and triumph through dancing – rather than the aggressiveness of punk – as exemplified on Chic hits like Everybody Dance and Good Times. And, of course, Chic became so popular that stations demarcated for white music and white listeners programmed them too. Popular art melts more hardened attitudes than moralising texts or lectures do.
The story of Chic's inspiration coming from Roxy Music and Kiss is telling too. How many of the 75,000 seeking to burn disco down in Chicago donated Chic records and were also fans of Kiss or Roxy Music? It's fair to assume that there were probably quite a lot. With American radio stations so precisely targetted towards narrow demographics of listener, it's no surprise that American listeners heaped a whole pile of identity issues onto everything they heard. Musicians don't care about demographics; musicians are inspired by music, and then they make their own music; it's only marketeers and listeners who make it tribal. Of course, British fans conflate music taste and identity politics too, but we're lucky enough to have a dominant set of non-commercial radio stations which expose us to a wider range. "In America we're very compartmentalised by race and genre and stuff like that," Rodgers continues. "I remember when I was a kid the first time I played in England. There was some song called The Ugly Duckling. We were like R&B guys, and the audience was grooving to us, and then when we finished performing some guy came on-stage and went [singing] 'there once was an ugly duckling', and we were like 'you gotta be fucking kidding me!'".
The transatlantic success of Dance Dance Dance was followed by more seductive grooves on Everybody Dance, Le Freak, I Want Your Love, Good Times and My Forbidden Lover. Then as Chic's successes scattered, Rodgers and Edwards took on the struggling Sister Sledge and gave them We Are Family, He's The Greatest Dancer, Lost In Music and Thinking Of You. Rodgers is especially enthused when I mention He's The Greatest Dancer as a personal favourite. "I really dig what you just said there, because it's funny, a song like He's The Greatest Dancer doesn't get mentioned as much as I believe it should do because it was overshadowed by We Are Family. But it's one of my favourite songs that I've ever written! How often do you hear a diminished chord in a pop song? I make a big deal of that diminished chord, it goes [singing] 'Mweu! He's the Greatest Dancer!' We don't get a chance to do that that much in a pop song and we pulled it off there!" By the turn of the decade, Rodgers was hot property. He was approached to resuscitate Diana Ross's struggling career with Diana (1980), and did just that. Familiar sounding hit singles Upside Down and I'm Coming Out even led to the criticism that Ross was just a new vocalist for Chic. In a previous interview, Rodgers recounted how Ross was suspicious that singing "I'm Coming Out" might lead listeners to think she was gay. Rodgers persuaded her otherwise, that "I'm Coming Out" had an innoccuous meaning, and it worked, though he hoped that the song might become a gay anthem. Ross embraced her new iconic status, encouraged to do so by a career now revived to the tune of ten million album sales.
Later, Rodgers produced Bowie's biggest ever album Let's Dance (1983). "When I worked with him his concept was to do a really really big record, and that's not David's normal life." Only in the 80s could massive commercial success be an 'artistic concept'. This album, of course, spawned the chart-topping title track, and was Bowie's last essential full-length before the inevitable artistic demise. "I spent a very long time working with Duran Duran after Bowie," and 1984 duly gave LeBon's boys their two biggest hits yet - The Reflex and The Wild Boys. Then up-and-coming coquette Madonna chose Rodgers to produce Like a Virgin, and it launched her to superstardom. "The fact that Madonna's the biggest star in the world now doesn't change the fact that when I met Madonna, she couldn't really pay her rent! When I met Madonna I think I had, em, nine gold albums and eight platinum records and she hadn't even sold 300,000 records!" Like a Virgin, including the very era-appropriate Material Girl, sold over 20 million copies and turned Madonna into an icon too. Then there was Jeff Beck, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, The B-52s; sadly, there's only so many anecdotes Rodgers can recite in a half-hour phone call. He's got time for just one more."I think probably one of my favourite records that never really made it to the big time was Al Jarreau's L Is For Lover, and I know why - we sabotaged ourselves! Al Jarreau did a theme for the TV show Moonlighting and we thought our record was so artistically cool that we didn't want to put the theme for Moonlighting on our record, so we put it on another label's product, and that other record went platinum with our single as its lead record!"
At the end of July, Rodgers is coming to Scotland with some new bandmates for a Chic Organisation spectacular. Former core members Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson have both passed away, but Rodgers is sure that "all the musicians I know are the best people I've ever worked with. We do all the Chic stuff, but it's a bigger world than that, it's also Sister Sledge, it's Diana Ross. Now we've increased the set so we do a Bowie song, we do a Madonna song, we do this song called Spacer which we wrote for a French artist called Sheila B Devotion, and this will be the first time we've done that. Playing with Chic is one of my big loves. To think that I never have to stand on a stage and play a song that I didn't have anything to do with, that's incredible to me."
Nile Rodgers has an abundance of amazing songs to play.