'You are bombarded with hit records from the moment you walk in the door, you just hear hit after hit after hit after hit.'

By Eric Renner Brown
Updated July 31, 2015 at 03:10 PM EDT
Credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

FOLD Festival, a two-day event launched by Chic frontman and legendary producer Nile Rodgers, kicks off for the first time next week—but the Riverhead, New York gig slated for Aug. 4 and 5 doesn’t exactly follow the now-ubiquitous festival format.

“With FOLD Festival I curate the artists and I curate the playlist as well, to a large extent,” Rodgers tells EW by phone as he prepares for the event, which has a lineup that includes Beck, Keith Urban, Pharrell Williams and Chic itself. “What winds up happening is that you are bombarded with hit records from the moment you walk in the door, you just hear hit after hit after hit after hit.”

That’s an unsurprising modus operandi for Rodgers, who has produced smashes ranging from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” to Chic’s own “Freak Out!” In fact, FOLD takes it s name from that Chic song and the Rodgers-produced David Bowie classic “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers will bring that collaborative vibe to the stage, performing with many of the artists during their FOLD sets. “I believe that when I’m with the right group of people the sum total is always greater than the individual parts,” he says. “I never do music that is about me, I do music that is about me with other people.”

FOLD is just one part of what’s shaping up to be a big year for the star. Chic’s first album in 23 years is due out this fall, and Rodgers says it’ll have guest spots from the likes of Chaka Khan, Janelle Monae and Duran Duran—all FOLD performers—as well as Elton John. “As with most things in my life, I follow a sort of crazy dream,” Rodgers says. “The crazy dream for me feels like it’s working.”

Rodgers also spoke to EW about FOLD’s diversity, what Chic has in common with the Grateful Dead and “fanboying” with Beck and Pharrell.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How’d you get the idea for the festival?

NILE RODGERS: A few years ago [the Montreux Jazz Festival] in Montreux, Switzerland wanted to honor me. I felt uncomfortable so I said, “Why don’t I honor the music that gave me my life and my career?” I wound up programming 11 hours of straight dance music. People are always opinionated about artists if they’re not fans of their work; I knew that going in, so I curated the playlist. People wound up realizing that they loved these artists, but not their full body of work—but when they played their hit songs, people flipped out. With FOLD Festival I curate the artists and I curate the playlist as well, to a large extent. This is my first attempt to actually see if something like this works.

I named the festival after “Let’s Dance” and “Freak Out!” FOLD is an acronym for those two songs. Both those projects spiritually represented major turning points in my career. It seemed like a cool, cool title—and I “fold” the acts together into one coherent thing, even though these seemingly disparate elements don’t go together. They actually fit together into a very nice mosaic of music.

We wanted to make it like an urban experience, but in the country. People said, “Why’d you do it during the week?” Because, the truth is that Americans, we all work so hard. Europeans, they really enjoy their summers! If I can do something cool enough a person will say, “You know what? I’m going to go out of my way to do this.” Typically people go to festivals because their friends are going. I wanted something that would seem as attractive as going to the museum or the movies—that’s what I do quite often. I see something I’m interested in artistically and go check it out. I don’t need to have anyone with me, because I just want to experience it.

The lineup is so diverse, what went into that?

I’m going to bring all of these people together and we’re going to play all of our hits and inundate people with hit after hit after hit—and then say, “So, you thought we didn’t go together?” I got Pharrell first. Starting out with Chic and Pharrell, between the two of us, oh my God, we could play for hours and it’s nothing but hit records. That made me feel comfortable. I’m in the middle of working with Keith Urban, then in two days I’m going into the studio with Beck. These are all people I was working with anyway. I knew their track records and I loved their songs.

It’s really wacky. Two consecutive Grammy Album of the Year winners, between Pharrell, myself, and Daft Punk and Beck. I thought, “Wow, that’s probably gotta be the first time that’s happened in rock and roll history, that the two consecutive winners are onstage at the same time on the same day at the same place.” And if not, it’s gotta be a small number that have ever happened.

When I came up a concert was basically going to hear songs you didn’t know. Even if you heard somebody like the Jackson 5 who had a huge number of of hit records, most of the show was songs on their new album—then you’d hear “I Want You Back” and “ABC” and all that. That’s how concerts were. We went to a concert to hear new music, not to hear old music, which is why you see Deadheads go, “Oh man, they played ‘St. Stephen’!” That was a big deal! Because most of the songs they played you didn’t know. [They] had this massive, massive catalog of music and they would play whatever they wanted to play. Unfortunately, in today’s world, when a band plays a new song everybody is talking or going to the bathroom.

What can you tell me about collaborations that could happen at the festival?

It makes all the sense in the world. These are all people that I’m working with, all people I feel unbelievably comfortable with, and it just works. We’re already doing it, so it’s like, “OK, how about we do it in front of people?”

We do this quite a lot because when we do charity concerts and charity work, it’s almost always about collaborating. We’ve performed with Bono, we’ve performed with Elton many times, we’ve performed with Sting God knows how many times. This is what we love doing—we actually get off on doing this. We do this all the time, we just have never done it in such a huge way.

Sam Smith had disappeared from the whole scene because he had [a] vocal cord operation. The first time everybody saw Sam Smith again was standing onstage with Chic in front of 80,000 people in Hyde Park three or four weeks ago and then he started touring again. This is actually our normal thing, but people don’t really see us do it that much, at least not in America. Outside of America this is almost second nature and people have gotten used to it. It’s almost like the Grateful Dead. They almost say, “I wonder who Chic is gonna come out with tonight?” We always have some surprise act. My normal life is about collaboration, because I believe that when I’m with the right group of people, the sum total is always greater than the individual parts.

So, why a Chic album in 2015?

I found some tapes that had been lost for a number of years and when I listened to [them] I thought, “Wow, these things are unfinished and it would be great to finish them. It would be also a great thing to just have new music that was organic dance music.” When I go to a record store—the few that are left—I always say to myself, “My God, if Chic came out now there would be no section in the record store for us, because dance music is all electronic.” But Daft Punk proved that you could do an organic dance record and it would still be considered dance music. I thought, “Maybe I can get away with doing an organic dance record and maybe Chic is the band that can do it.” That was really intensive for me. As with most things in my life I follow a sort of crazy dream and the crazy dream for me feels like it’s working.

To think that I’d have a record that has Elton John singing on it and Michael McDonald singing on it, it seems so wacky to a normal person, but if you look at any other Chic record we’ve had Luther Vandross, the Brecker Brothers. It’s always been people like that, people I have massive amounts of respect for, but usually who are in my immediate circle of friends. FOLD is the same concept. Chaka Khan is my friend. Pharrell Williams is my friend. Beck is now my new friend. We just respect each other and like each other—we’re like fanboying on each other, like every day.

The musicians I choose to work with on a daily basis always have something to add to my life artistically, because of whom I choose to have in my immediate circle. I think at the end of the day that is probably going to be my legacy—I never thought about it until you and I were having this conversation. I’ve always been able to choose mega mega mega ambition and when people come into our world they feel really comfortable. They love being onstage with us. That’s what my life is about and that’s what FOLD is about. I never do music that is about me, I do music that is about me with other people.