Drowned In Sound meets Johnny Marr & Nile Rodgers – “The greatest artistic motivator in music is jealousy”

From Drowned In Sound:

The term “legend” is frequently tossed around with the carefree abandon of a Frisbee on a Spanish beach. However, there are certain times where it also seems inadequate to praise the true giants of their genre. And so, myself and Simon Catling were practically beside ourselves in June at Manchester’s excellent Parklife festival when we were offered the opportunity to sit and talk guitars, music and collaborating with two icons of late twentieth-century guitar playing: Johnny Marr and Nile Rodgers.

Nile Rodgers is the pioneer of innovative, multi-layered guitar parts acting as true counterpoints to the unique and era-defining melodies and grooves of Chic. He followed this with a tremendously successful producing career. Johnny Marr should equally need little introduction: conjurer of subtle, intellectual and beautiful tapestries of guitar sound (Or “guitarchestra” as he terms it during the interview) in creating the timeless sound of The Smiths, as well as countless playing and production credits with Modest Mouse, Electronica, The Pretenders and The Cribs amongst them.

Earlier in the day, Marr joins Chic on stage during their blisteringly tight Saturday afternoon set, adding a terrific series of driving, taut and deftly interwoven rhythmic guitar lines that mesh perfectly with Nile’s chopped, funky and intoxicatingly melodic lines. The band are tremendous; a unisex wall of intense playing and supreme musicianship, seeing classics like ‘Le Freak’, ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Good Times’ enthusiastically received by the sell-out crowd. But the arrival on stage of Marr – a hometown hero – brought one of the biggest cheers of the day from the mainstage crowd.

After the show, we’re originally offered ten minutes with the duo, but the interview quickly develops into a glorious 45 minutes of friendly, witty and fascinatingly enlightening chat at the top of the press centre bus, with Rodgers coming over as one of the most likeable, witty and enthusiastic people I’ve ever met: laughing loudly, slapping his leg and frequently taking thirty seconds to mime and vocalise songs, riffs and drum fills – the guy clearly loves music. And Marr is equally fascinating to listen to and speak to: intelligent, profound and full of tantalising glimpses into the mind of one of the most influential guitar players to ever pick up the instrument. But more than anything, it’s obvious and touching just how much respect and admiration he has for the music and influence of Rodgers: not only on his playing style, but also on his whole approach to music, production and collaboration.

And so, we kick off an interview with such lines as “When I was playing with Bowie” and “When we were recording ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’” mentioned almost as casual asides.

DiS: To kick off with the obvious question, what brought you together as musicians; what was the mutual attraction?

Nile Rodgers: Well, when the dude names his son after you, you’ve got to, really! (laughing)

DiS: Really?

NR: Yeah, it’s an amazing story

Johnny Marr: Well, Nile and I, we first spoke on the phone about twelve years ago. And I mean, first off in 1978, ’79 when I was first getting my guitar style together, I was turned onto Nile’s music and his songs and it was a game-changer for me, really sent me down a road that has really stuck with me. So he’s been a massive influence since then and that’s been on record over all the years of my career., which I think used to surprise people somewhat. And then, years would go by and I’d meet people who knew Nile and I think occasionally he’d hear about…”Who’s this guy? ” (Nile laughing) And then I think when Chic-ism came out, people were saying “Oh, you’re an influence on Johnny Marr” …”Who is this guy?!” So we spoke on the phone through mutual friends and then with the wonders of modern technology, we started emailing each other which was fantastic! But yeah, when my son was born, we named him Nile. And he’s turned out to be a pretty good guitar player and he’s very, very happy to be named after him!

DiS: He’s got some great influences!!!

NR: Last time I was here, we met each other for the first time and he said “Wow, it’s so weird to meet the dude I’m named after!” [both laugh].

JM: I was thinking tonight, he was stood at the side of the stage and I was thinking “Ah, thank god he loves Nile’s music!”… So that’s lucky. But yeah, the time I grew up with for my generation of musicians – myself and what became of post punk generation – we were done with the old rock clichés. And people who loved guitar culture…Nile was a real guiding light for everybody because he was about songwriting. He wasn’t about showboating and he had that beautiful technique in there. And it was totally unique: No one had heard…I’d never heard guitar playing like Nile’s. And there were a couple of things that drew me to playing. One was Bohannon, who as a little kid I was really into…Hamilton Bohannon. And the other thing was these beautiful, romantic songs. And everyone liked it: punks liked Chic, rockers liked Chic. Everyone who had ears liked Nile’s songs.

NR: It was one of the strangest experiences; the first time we came over to the UK….it was maybe 78/79. And we went up to Scotland and there were all these skinheads. And they all had this plan that they were going to throw rocks and bottles and shit. And they’d bought out the first couple of rows…it was like “that was clever planning!” [laughs] And the first Chic tours, we had more girls than guys in the band! I mean, both of our horn players were girls, we had the four string players, the two girls up front and another girl singing with Luther Vandross! And so those dudes were like “Fuck!” And we were funky, they couldn’t believe it – we were out there killing! And the next thing you know, these guys, they ended up becoming our roadies! And so they came from Scotland all the way to Brighton and they were hanging out with us; partying with us. And they were saying “Man, I didn’t know you guys played like that!” And I kept thinking “Well, what were you so pissed off about?!” So, like Johnny was saying, they all liked the music. But there was this weird political thing, because no-one knew that we were such good players. They just sort-of lumped us in with something…I’m not even sure what they lumped us in with!

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