This Sunday, Nile Rodgers & Chic will play the British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park London, where they will be supporting the mighty Duran Duran. Now a massive part of the Chic family, drummer Ralph Rolle spoke to XS Noize about his journey with Nile Rodgers, the late Taylor Hawkins, THAT Glastonbury performance in 2017, his love of European audiences and his world-famous cookie business…
Thanks, Ralph, for taking the time to speak with XS Noize in the midst of a very busy tour schedule.
RR: It’s busy, yeah, but it’s cool. It’s been fun.
You were playing last night, right? How was that?
RR: Lytham was really cool. The crowd was very spread out horizontally. There were a lot of folks way down to the left and way down to the right. So, it was a challenge to engage with the whole crowd because the view was quite short. There were a lot of happy people, and luckily the weather held up too.
How is the main man, Mr Rodgers, doing?
RR: Nile is doing well; he is such a cool guy. He’s very easy to work for and work with. I’ve been with Nile for 16 years (2006). It does not at all feel like 16 years. When I look at the progression of what our unit has done, it’s kinda mind-boggling, man. My first gig was in Gstaad (Switzerland). I was very prepared for that gig. I had all of my notes; I listened to what the show was about, all of the nuances, with what Omar Hakim played live and Tony Thompson had done on the recordings, and incorporated all of that into my performance. I wanted to shine. I wanted Nile to hear me because I loved Chic. For me, it was all about, “Let this man see who this guy is (me), so if he ever needs me moving forward, then he knows what I’m good for.” I’m someone he can depend on.
You weren’t going to blow that opportunity. How did that opportunity come around?
RR: I was at my daughter’s school play with my wife. My daughter was about four years old. I was watching the performance, and my phone vibrated. It was Nathaniel Townsley. Townsley is a killer drummer. The first time I heard Nathaniel, he sat in at a club I was playing at in New York City called Nell’s. It was a Tuesday night open mic. My friend and singer, Melonie Daniels, has done a lot of work with Mariah Carey for many years. She said, “Can Nat sit in?” I said, “Of course”. So, this kid (Townsley) sits down, and he is killing it; he’s not trying to overplay, he is just trying to access the music – just a solid, young man. I heard him, and I called a friend of mine, the late Ron Grant, who was someone that ran a few open mics.
He had one big open mic that he would run every Sunday at Chaz and Wilson’s, and celebrities would come and hang out. Prince would come in when he was in town. Nathaniel’s father is a pastor, a preacher. Ron was very involved in the church for his entire life and knew Nat when he was a very young boy. From that point, Ron started calling Nathaniel to the open-mic sessions. Nat ended up being Ron Grant’s drummer for many years. Nat came on the scene in the early 2000s. He was young; he was in his early 20s, maybe even a teenager. But his sensibilities on drums were really good. Now he’s got his own band – the Nathaniel Townsley Trio.
He was the interim drummer at the time when Nile was looking for drummers. So, getting back to my story, my phone rings. Nat says, “I have another gig to do, but I am working with Nile Rodgers. Is it possible you can sub for me?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” He didn’t know my love and personal romance (chuckling) for Nile Rodgers. I was 47 at the time. So, I took the gig. Even if I had a gig that weekend (which I think I did), I was subbing my gig so that I could work with Nile.
So anyway, I get a phone call from someone in the band, possibly Sylver Logan Sharp. She wanted my contact information so that she could email me the music and the show in its entirety. In terms of my study habits, in New York, in order to get work, you had to be special. There are 500 drummers looking for the same gig, so you always had to separate yourself so that people knew what you were doing was special. At that particular time, I was really busy doing a hundred different things. My main gig was at the Apollo Theatre with Ray Chew. So, I’d study, I’d study, I’d study, got all my music ready to go because I want to nail this. Then I get a phone call right before the gig. Nile wants to do a rehearsal to hear me, and I’m glad because I’ve got questions! When I get to the rehearsal room, the only person there is Barry Johnson, the bass player before Jerry (Barnes).
I’ve known Barry for many years – he’s an old friend. Nile comes in, so there’s just the three of us. Nile’s always very nonchalant, very matter-of-factly, says, “Hello. How are you doing?” He then says, “Let’s take it from the medley.” That started with ‘I’m Coming Out’. We then get halfway through the second song, and he goes “okay” and starts packing up. Fear sets in. I tell drummers all the time you need to ask questions if you don’t know. Never assume. Hear it from the top. I say, “Excuse me, Nile, is everything OK?” He said, “Yeah, you sound great. I’ll see you in Switzerland.” And that was that.
But this is the part I’ve never really talked about. We stayed in a chalet. Everyone had a room. There was no internet. I was going, “Oh boy, what did I just put my foot in?” I think the chalet was owned by a personal friend of the guy who set up the gig. We get to the gig, set up, and it’s a club called ‘The Billionaire’s Club’, so everyone in attendance was a billionaire. It was small, maybe 2-300 people. I don’t care; I just want to play. This was my first gig. I don’t know if there’s going to be a second gig. So, we play the show; it’s finished, and the same singer that sent me the material said, “Nile wants to know if you want the gig?” I said, “But this is Nathaniel’s gig!” She said, “No, not really.” Nathaniel’s my dude, and I’m not trying to take somebody’s gig. She replied, “We’ve been trying out drummers for this spot, and Nile likes the way you sound. No one has come in and nailed the show like that.” I said, “well, if it’s cool, yeah, I want the gig.”
Nile is no taskmaster. He’s not on your neck for every note. He’s all about letting the music flow and letting it be what it is. As a professional, you should know how far to go or not to go. That’s why the band has a certain sound and feel.
Every time I see clips of you guys playing live, it just looks like a big party every time. Can you describe just how much fun it is to play in a Chic performance?
RR: Let me be clear when I say “band” I am not just talking about the people you see on stage. The “band” is the entire organisation. We have a WhatsApp group that contains everybody – the admin staff in New York, attorneys, the publicist, and previous members of the organisation, and that’s because of the relationship that we still have with them. In all of my 750 years of being in the music industry, I’ve never been in a situation like that. If it’s someone’s birthday, their kid’s birthday, an anniversary, that’s how deep it goes. We all just chime in. That transfers onto the stage in a big way because it’s a family situation. We’re literally in touch all the time. It’s beautiful. I am lucky to be in this situation.
You played Dublin, Cork and Derry in Ireland recently. What was the energy like at those gigs?
RR: Always the same (chuckling). We can depend on Cork and Derry to be absolutely out of control. Trust me, that’s no slight to Dublin or any place else, but there are some of the most enthusiastic, over-the-top, incredibly wonderful crazy people who happen to be in Cork and Derry. It’s like a big family. I call the audience family. I say, “Hey, what’s up, Derry family!” It feels like a big-ass living room, full of everyone you know. It feels incredible.
Chic has had one of the best rhythm sections, with Bernard Edwards on bass and Tony Thompson on drums. That’s pretty big shoes to fill on the drum kit. Did you ever get to meet either of them?
RR: No, I never met either one of them. What’s crazy is that a lot of people don’t talk about Tony Thompson’s range and his scope of ability. I’ve started looking back and learning more about Tony and his playing, playing in different situations. Tony was a beast. There aren’t too many drummers that can handle different styles and handle them well. He’s one of those guys that can play different things and make it sound really good. He was gone way, way, way too soon. He was a young man. With Chic, many people are just grooving to this music, not realising that these drum sounds were created by Tony Thompson.
It’s nice to hear Nile still mention the guys at gigs, and there is that love for them many years later.
RR: When Nile speaks of Bernard and Tony, you can see him looking at them. You can see him reminiscing and visualising those times. He knows what they stand for.
You saw the Jackson Five perform at the Apollo in New York at a young age? How influential was that?
RR: Amazingly influential. I can still remember it like yesterday. I was nine years old, and this was right before their first record came out. No one even knew who they were, and I happened to see this group at the Apollo Theatre. They were incredible. The Jackson Five – I thought they were a gospel group! So, they came on stage, and you had Marlon, Tito and Jermaine, then Michael came on stage, and it was mesmerising. There is no other word to describe what that kid (Michael) was doing on that stage. At ten years old, he was years above what any other ten-year-old could do. You have talented kids, but then you had Michael Jackson. Nobody commanded the stage as he did. No one had the vocal musicality and scope that he had.
You had a tough childhood growing up in the Bronx. Was music an escape for you, and what were the biggest influences on you in terms of musicians or bands growing up in the 1970s?
RR: It wasn’t tough. When I was a kid, I didn’t know we were poor. My mother (Rose) worked really hard, and I’m just a kid being a kid. I don’t ever remember wanting for anything, growing up in ‘The Projects’. Things didn’t start changing until I was a teenager. When the ’70s rolled in, things started to change – the gangs started to come in. Me being the youngest, my mother was very concerned about this new thing. But I was such a nerdy kid, man, that she never had to worry about that with me. Also, I never wanted to disappoint her. As an adult now, I know what those relationships mean; you just want to belong, and sometimes you are dragged into something that you think you belong in that ain’t so good. I was a nerdy kid, following behind my big brother, hanging out with other nerdy kids. My mother picked my friends, and I’m so glad she did it.
Was your brother a musician? Do you recall when you hit your first snare drum?
RR: My first introduction to the drums was through my brother, Howie. My first introduction to a lot of stuff was through my brother. My brother is now a retired engineer. He listened to everything. He had a reel-to-reel, and he would splice his own music tapes together. My brother had his own playlist before people were doing playlists (both laughing). He wanted continuous music. My brother is amazing. I loved watching him tinker. He was the male role model in my life. He grew up just loving everything. The most important introduction that he made to me, musically, was Motown – Marvin Gaye, The Temptations.
The first group where I became a ‘groupee’ was The Temptations. I had a chance to see them live as my mother used to sponsor these bus rides out to Long Island to the Westbury Music Fair. We would go out there, and they would have these amazing shows. I remember how exhilarating they were just watching that – the precision and the sound. After I heard the Marvin Gaye’ Ecology’ record, and growing up, learning things about life around me, I started to listen to the lyrics and look at the album cover, and I realised that this was not just a record; this was a movement. Then, I started going back and listening to artists that I had passed up (like Al Green) in a different way. Al Green hit me, and I was like, “How the hell did I miss this?” (Both laughing). This is dope! I started getting into the subtleties, the grooves, and the horn section. So then, later on, when I started working with D’Angelo, one of the grooves on his record is an Al Green groove.
You played with Prince – what are your memories of that?
RR: We played with Prince at the Essence Music Festival in the New Orleans Superdome. He came on stage with us when I was doing ‘Let’s Dance’. He and Nile were trading licks back and forth. This was actually the second time I had the chance to play with him. He came up on stage at Ron Grant’s open mic. It was funny. Everyone on stage knew Prince was in the back with his entourage (giggling). Something we were playing hit him because he came up on stage and put on the guitar. Then everybody in the band just started to overplay (laughing). So, just as quick as he put his guitar on, he took it off. He wanted to access what we were doing before he got there, but when he got there, all the musicians in the band started playing crazy. He literally just left! He said, “OK, I’m done; I don’t wanna groove now.”
You guys seem to have such an affinity with Ireland and the UK. You have even sold some of your famous Soul Snacks Cookies at the Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland.
RR: Yep, I performed there with Chic, but I also did two celebrity chef sessions at the festival. It was incredible. The Irish audience loved the fresh-baked cookies that came straight out of the oven. I’m interviewed whilst I am preparing the cookies. People are looking at me, going, isn’t that the drummer from Chic making cookies? So, whilst the cookies are in the oven, I have the time set to play ‘Let’s Dance’ on the drums. It’s so much fun. So, when the cookies are ready, I give them out, and it’s a big party! I’ve done it twice at Electric Picnic, and it’s always fun.
That’s brilliant! – and why the affinity with the European audiences?
RR: What I learned was when I started coming over to Europe, my first time over here was with a punk rock band called James Chance & The Contortions. The other name they had was James White & The Blacks. One of the places I got to know was Holland. We stayed in The Hague for a while in a hostel, so it wasn’t a money tour (chuckling). The DJ that brought us over to play in his house, he had an entire wall, floor to ceiling, of vinyl records, and all of this vinyl was alphabetised. He knew where every record was, and he studied everything. Then I found out that the more I talked to people in Europe, their taste in music was so in-depth compared with America.
Truly a study in human behaviour in a positive way. Many artists that are retro artists have careers in Europe. European audiences embrace the artist forever. They are not like a flash in the pan. In America, you can have a record that is three years old, and they are already calling it ‘Old School’. Over the decades, America has made music disposable. We could do better by our legends.
We lost Taylor Hawkins earlier this year. Did your paths ever cross as a fellow drummer?
RR: So, how weird is this? Nile Rodgers & Chic is in Bogota, Colombia. There’s a festival going on, and the group that goes on after us is Foo Fighters. So, we leave the hotel for the soundcheck; the roads are bumpy. Normal day; do the soundcheck, go back to the hotel, rest, we go back to the gig. My drum technician, Martin Oldham, who is the greatest drum tech that I have ever worked with, both live and in the studio. He always hands me my sticks to warm up. It just so happens that there was this cool drum set, and I didn’t know to who it belonged to. His riser was the only place to warm up on. Then, this guy comes over, jumps up on the riser, and he’s very serious looking. He starts taking the drums down. I then thought that this must belong to the drummer before our set. I finish worming up; we go on stage. We’re playing for a very enthusiastic Bogota audience, who were incredible because I’ve never played in Colombia before.
As we’re playing, road cases behind us are being carted off the stage. I’m thinking, that is the rudest thing I have ever seen in my life. No one knows I’m thinking this. At the end of the set, we go backstage, and it’s kind of empty now, and we go to our dressing rooms. We shared the area right next to Foo Fighters. I had literally gone and given them cookies before our set. I met Dave Grohl before, and I wanted him to sample cookies from my company.
Then, our production manager Nick Gosling, very sadly, gathers everyone together and he tells us what happened. He starts crying. There were a lot of emotions going on backstage that he couldn’t show, and now he’s with his Chic family, he could express himself, the way he feels. I had wanted to stay around to meet Taylor and say hi to Dave.
Three words to describe your memories of playing Pyramid Stage performance at Glastonbury in 2017?
RR: Un-f’n-believable (both laughing). Barry Gibb was there. Everybody’s a Bee Gees fan. The Saturday Night Fever transcended cultures. You had folks in the hood goin’ (he sings ‘Stayin’ Alive’). Barry being the soundtrack of our youth, Nile also being the soundtrack of our youth, it was surreal being backstage to be hanging out. His band members were extremely nice. It was just so cool being around them. Barry comes on stage; Glastonbury is packed; it’s a beautiful sunny day. You couldn’t ask for more. He goes on the stage and wears the people completely out. We go backstage; we take photos. And when we hit the stage, there were cameras on my drums, big eyeballs looking at you. I never get nervous, but for some reason, after Barry came on, I looked up into the audience, and it literally disappeared over the hill. I felt a twinge of nervousness, but as usual, when I look over at Jerry (Barnes), and he looks back at me. We have this very deep connection, on and off stage, and all was fine. We played an incredible show. I remember when we were singing ‘Let’s Dance’, I told the audience, “We were gonna break a record and get as many people jumping as possible.” When people started jumping, with the sound hitting their ears at different times, it was like a visual wave. It was crazy.
You are supporting Duran Duran on their North American tour later this year. What a blast that will be? Have you performed with Duran in the past?
RR: This will be our third run with Duran Duran, I think. They are very nice and approachable. For me, again, my thing is just being kind and having a good time, enjoying backstage and onstage.
It’s been great speaking with you. I love your approach to life and music. It’s a joy to watch. Thanks for taking the time on your day off.
RR: Thank you, brother; I appreciate it.
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