By David Nathan
In person interview, New York City, October 1979
"We've tried as much as possible to stay in tune with the people, by hanging out and talking to them, finding out what they like."
On the eve of their departure for their British concert dates, David Nathan talked to Chic about the chemistry that makes up their hit sound and production technique…
So where, we asked whilst sitting in the Thai restaurant on 8th Avenue in midtown Manhattan, do you go from here? Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Tony Thompson, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin (the nucleus of Chic) are, to put it mildly, enjoying enormous success right now on an international level. Dismissed by some eroneous music pundits as being merely a fad, Chic and Chic's music seem to be standing the test of time and there doesn't seem to be any let up in the degree of their success.
Through platinum and gold albums and singles, the group are currently hitting all fronts with their latest offering "Risque", topping off a massive hit with the single "Good Times". Add that mentors Nile & Bernard finally brought Sister Sledge home after years in the land of no-hits and that their next project, an album on French singer Sheila B. Devotion looks like another monster, and you've got quite an achievement for a team that's only been producing records for two years. Top it all off with the fact that they are about to produce the legendary Diana Ross and you have a serious phenomenon! So where do they go from here?
Says Nile, "Well, we don't feel that the group has peaked yet by any means. Musically, that is. It's great that the records are still taking off the way they do but now we have new challenges. We want the critical acclaim, we want people to recognize our capabilities outside of just making hit records, because you never know when that's going to come to an end."
The focus for the group's new challenges will be their live show. "We're concerned about a couple of things: projecting more entertainment value in our show. That will mean more props, lighting, special effects and so on because we really want to dramatize the songs more. Not just come out there and do the hits, because people expect you to just do that in a standard way. There's going to be more playing and singing, more dancing and more hard work! That should begin at the beginning of next year although we'll be trying some things on our European tour."
Another major consideration for Chic at this point is "developing the personalities within the group. We want people to see that we're not just singers and musicians. We have definite other talents and other aspects to us as people that we want to project on stage and through the media. Up until now, people haven't had a chance to really see us as people through our shows or on television. We wanna let the TV people know that we can speak — and we do speak English!! And everyone has other aspects that haven't been really portrayed properly."
Alfa notes that "I've been taking acting lessons and we want to use what I'm learning in our show" whilst Luci contends that "I'm crazy and we wanna show more of that onstage! It's about showing that we have a good time on stage and that what we're doing may be hard work but it's also fun!" Tony concludes that "everyone has hidden talents and they should be brought out". Hopefully, during Chic's upcoming shows that's exactly what will happen.
Meanwhile, whilst they're not on the road, the group is spending many, many hours in the studio. What do they feel is the one factor that's contributed above all else to the acceptance of Chic's sound? "The first reaction we get from people generally is that our music cheers them up — it's happy music. There's something positive in there that makes people want to dance, laugh and just generally feel good. Just a natural exuberance in the music." Nile and Bernard, as producers and writers and arrangers of all the material admit candidly that what they do with the music is "contrived to a degree. We think about the general idea of what we want to convey before we start working in the studio but, nonetheless, it turns out to be quite spontaneous. We're aware of what people have reacted to, what they've liked so there has to be a certain format to it but there is a lot of flexibility with our tunes. "Like "I Want Your Love" — we knew how that was going to be more or less from the beginning when we began writing it, and the same with "Le Freak", but in our more recent work, it's been more what's happened in the studio — on the spot."
Because their career has become more and more successful, the pressure has increased and both gentlemen agree that "the pressure means we do a lot of things at the very last moment" although they laughingly confess "we've almost always been that way anyway! We knew we had to do a new album three months ahead of time but we didn't actually begin working on it until six weeks before it was due!"
Although "Good Times" has certainly been the summer's giant smash across the world, it seems that that wasn't the original plan. "When we first started working in the studios "My Feet Keep Dancing" was going to be the first single. We felt that was the one. But it didn't quite gell to start out with. And then when we did "Good Times" we just knew that it would be the one and we seem to have been proven right."
Strangely, however, with the release of Chic's third set ("Risque"), it isn't "My Feet Keep Dancing" that's emerging as the next hit. It's " My Forbidden Lover". The team agrees, "Now that really surprised us! We didn't expect that kind of instant reaction to the tune. But we've studied it and we found that there's a certain rhythm pattern that happens in there that's what people dig. It's the same with all of our hits — a certain combination of bass and guitar that seems to really get to people."
Although they encountered slight problems initially with "Le Freak" in terms of reaction to the word itself, the group agrees that "My Forbidden Lover" is a whole lot more controversial. "We've tried to stay away from anything that was really controversial in our tunes so we were kinda worried about it but it seems that people are digging it anyway. You see, we try to write songs that will relate and the fact is that people — especially in big cities — definitely relate to the concept of a love affair outside of the conventional boundaries that society had set up."
In examining further some of the other tunes on "Risque" and coupling it with the cover concept, we discovered that in fact, Nile and Bernard are intentionally focusing in on what is definitely a new cultural development. "The whole disco scene has produced a new culture really. Add to that the general permissive society and the fact that there are more and more single people out there — it's no longer wrong not to get married it seems — and you'll see that we're writing about a whole new development. We're just observing what's going on out there and what's important to us is to stress the love content in personal relationships, whatever they may be. "We're not looking at life through rose-coloured glasses — we're just trying to make observations about the nicer aspects of permissive society!"
Just to show that they don't want people to take everything too seriously, we got a complete explanation of what "Risque" 's cover art is all about. "We got kind of tired of just doing the same old kind of cover so we decided we'd do something with a theme that tied in to some of the tunes on the album — like "What About Me", "My Forbidden Lover" and "Can't Stand To Love You". So there's really a whole mini-story linking the songs and the cover. We were thinking about all those old mystery movies — Charlie Chan, the whole 40s thing — the Agatha Christie books. So the essence of what "Risque" is about is "who done it?" We'll be illustrating that through our stage show more — we may even be putting together a whole mini-movie about it for the stage."
Without getting into the complexities of the cover, it seems that (for anyone who's seen it and the inside sleeve) the plot revolves around the gigolo, none other than Nile, the maid (Luci), lady of the house (Alfa), the unconcerned butler (Tony) and the man of the house Bernard. We won't give away the secret as to who actually "killed" Bernard but let's just say it wasn't the butler!! All of which attests to Chic's obvious intention to keep their whole presence both musical, interesting and lots of fun!
Yet another aspect of what has kept and keeps Chic at the top is the rapport they maintain with their audiences, and with people in general. "We've tried as much as possible to stay in tune with the people, by hanging out and talking to them, finding out what they like. We're aware however that as we develop further mass appeal, that may become a little more difficult and so we will have to make whatever adjustment is necessary.
"As it is, Nile and Luci tend to be the most recognizable members of the group and Alfa's getting that way. Eventually, we know more and more people are going to know what we look like and when that happens, it may not be as easy to just hang out like we have but that's the price you have to pay. But whatever happens, we will definitely be staying in tune and observing, watching, listening and looking at people and their lifestyles. There are only but so many different themes. What people go through and experience. It's like a lot of our tunes come from a woman's perspective since Luci and Alfa are singing leads," both Nile and Bernard agree, "and what happens is we sit down and talk with them and find out about some of their experiences and observe other personal situations. So what's in our music is based partly on what we've seen and what people have experienced as well as stories that we make up — yes, there must be some fantasy in there!.
It may not be fantasy but more like a dream-come-true for both gentlemen that they are about to produce Ms. Diana Ross and naturally, they're very excited about the project. Recalls Nile, "We met with Diana when we were out in California performing and she came backstage to tell us just how much she enjoyed our music and how much fun we seem to have onstage. It seems that she feels that she's at a point where she wants to have more fun onstage herself. She says that it's important to relate and that even her kids don't enjoy her music as much as they do ours! So she wants some of that light-hearted approach in her music so that's what we want to give her. It's going to give us a chance to write some real class material too — so it's a definite challenge for us — something we're really looking forward to.'
Meanwhile, Chic are completing a new album on Sister Sledge, a single on former lead singer Norma Jean as well as putting finishing touches to the Sheila B. Devotion album. After all of that, it will be time to start working on another Chic album. No doubt by the time the team gets ready to do that, they will have a few more platinum awards under their belt.
Without wishing to borrow a pun from another songwriting team, you could say that there ain't no stopping them now!
MY FORBIDDEN LOVER (LIVE)