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"Acufunkture" Revisited: An Interview with Nile Rodgers

Christian John Wikane

Record Mirror called Debbie Harry's KooKoo "riveting". Smash Hits called it "dull". PopMatters speaks with the man behind a notoriously misunderstood album and why listeners didn't even remove the shrink-wrap.

+ Get Ready for Her Sexy Battle: An Interview with Deborah Harry

It got so that people were telling me what I should look like. Gimme a break! I wanna become like the chameleon, you know, in 'Chrome'. I don't want to do one thing.

-- Deborah Harry (Record Mirror, 1981)

It was some time during the heady late '70s music scene in New York that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards first met Deborah Harry and Chris Stein. Neither Rodgers nor Harry seems to remember the actual place. Maybe it was at an uptown club called Bond's. Or maybe at the Mudd Club. Maybe it was at one of their concerts. Wherever and whenever the introduction took place, it eventually brought two of the most successful collectives in popular music together for a funky fusion of sounds that couldn't be so easily categorized.

By 1981, Chic and Blondie were no strangers to the summit of the pop charts. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had just produced diana (1980), which became the most commercially successful album of Diana Ross's career, with hits like "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" joining "Le Freak", "Good Times", and "We Are Family" in the Chic Organization's catalog of million-selling singles. Deborah Harry and Chris Stein's creative synergy had just earned Blondie two number one singles off the Autoamerican album, following Harry's acclaimed collaboration with Giorgio Moroder on the American Gigolo (1980) soundtrack. When Harry decided to take a break from Blondie and pursue a solo project, she tapped Rodgers and Edwards for production duty, much to the consternation of Chrysalis Records (Blondie's label home). Both contingencies sought to break away from the commercial and image-centric pressures foisted upon them after becoming massively successful. The end result was KooKoo -- an album that surprised, shocked, and confused listeners who expected a retread of Chic and Blondie's greatest hits.

Remembered now more for the controversial cover art by H.R. Giger than the actual music, KooKoo deserves a proper re-evaluation. With the arrival of Harry's fifth solo album (Necessary Evil), Nile Rodgers takes us back to the land of "acufunkture"...

How did you and Bernard first meet Deborah Harry and Chris Stein?

I'm not exactly sure how we met. All I know is that when we met, we were really, really great friends right away. We got along instantly. It was like a big mutual admiration society: we liked their music and they liked ours.

Why did you decide to work with them?

Musically and artistically, and on other levels, we had overlapping similarities. Debbie and Chris turned me on to a lot of cool stuff. They turned me on to H.R. Giger first [and] all the artwork they collected. Debbie and Chris turned me onto hip-hop. Before those guys, I never really knew about hip-hop, I didn't know about it as a cultural movement. I knew DJs used to rap over records but I always thought that everybody who rapped were MCs at clubs or on the radio. I never realized that people from the streets were doing it, too. Debbie and Chris were big fans of "Good Times". They took me to a high school in Queens where we walked into this gymnasium and the only song that they were playing was "Good Times". People were just kicking rhyme after rhyme. It was really exciting to see the energy; everybody breakdancing and rapping over my stuff, which was incredible!

Was there any outside resistance about you working with Debbie?

Yeah, there was a lot. I hadn't done Let's Dance (David Bowie, 1983). I hadn't done Like a Virgin (Madonna, 1984) so I really hadn't worked with any of the big acts that I wound up doing those huge records with, so Debbie and Chris were the first artists in the rock genre to sort of take a chance with myself and Bernard. They were obviously pioneers and we were actually trying to find our footing when it came to working with them. As much as I love KooKoo, in my own heart I have to say, artistically, that had that same record happened a couple years later, it would have probably net a different result. We would have probably had a much more finely honed perspective on what to do with Debbie and how to really just make that a great record. A lot of people were saying that it was a really, really terrific record and it's a good experimental record. The main thing that didn't connect with people was the cover. The cover was so off-putting that a lot of stores wouldn't stock it. It's weird, to me, to be in rock 'n' roll and to hear stupid stuff like that. It's weird when people start to read all the nutty shit into visual art.

The other thing is that people seemed to want her to be blonde. They didn't want her to project this other sort of artistry that transcended a look. It wasn't about the look, it was about the artistry behind everything.

I forgot all about that! That was the first the time anybody had seen Debbie Harry not blonde. They didn't see "Blondie" and Blondie was so loved by the rock and roll establishment that that was a huge statement. There were three big things to digest: one, the unorthodox production style of Bernard and myself and the fact that she went with us over the big popular rock 'n' roll producers at the time. Two, that she came out as a brunette and that she had needles in her face. [Laughs.] When an artist is making a new statement and it's so sweeping and complete, the backlash can be sweeping and complete too. It really was with that record. I felt like we had killed Debbie. This is a person who's a good friend of ours. You would think that we were responsible, like we did it. It was really tough. That was a bitter pill to swallow.

What about on radio? Was there resistance to playing songs from the album?

I don't ever remember hearing that record on the radio or anything like that. There was a problem with radio. There was a problem with retail. It was different and it wasn't really as commercial as Blondie. Bernard and I were looking for a way to escape our commercial box. We were pretty successful and, typically, every artist shoots themselves in the foot when you're that successful and you want to show off your artistic side.

I remember reading an article where Debbie said that you and Bernard brought out the bottom in her voice. It wasn't EQ'd like it had been on the Blondie records. When you were recording with her, what did you find unique about her voice?

The thing that I loved about Debbie is that she always convinced me of her songs. When she was singing and I listened to Blondie, I believed the role that she was playing. I loved when I heard a song like "The Tide Is High"; I really believed her storytelling. When we were recording and working with her, the one thing that I wanted to tout in her was not only the bottom in her voice but that sort of warmer characteristic, instead of just the cute pop iconic girl.

How would you characterize the sound of KooKoo?

I can't really categorize it because it was so experimental. We weren't clear as to what we were really going to do, going in with her. We just thought it would sort of happen. Every record we had done up until that point [had] some amount of pre-production and preparatory work but most of our records came alive in the studio. If you ever see an interview with Sister Sledge or Diana Ross, any of those people, they all say, "We got to the studio and they didn't even have the lyrics written."

It was to get a raw performance out of the vocalist.

That's exactly it ... also to get something exciting out of ourselves. When you have that many hit records in such a short amount of time, you can easily take yourself for granted or become somewhat complacent. We knew that we worked better under pressure. We also knew that the element of surprise for ourselves -- improvising -- was an exciting part of music. We loved writing in the studio. Our best attributes were telling people what to do and directing people on the spot. We were so accustomed to doing live shows and having things go wrong and having to fix them on the spot. That's the environment we excelled in. In our own way, spiritually and artistically, we were using Debbie and Chris and others that we worked with to show the different sides of our own talents.

Probably because of their success and our success, everybody figured you put the two things together and it would be unbelievable. There was that automatic pressure of having to deliver Blondie and the Chic organization. Put those things together and what do you get? Rocket fuel! [Laughs.]

Yes! It didn't have to fit into a box. It didn't have to be pop. It could be something as irreverent as a song like "Under Arrest", which I love.

"Under Arrest" is really an interesting, artistic piece of work. I love that. When I think about it, I guess half of my frustration is knowing how much I care for somebody and wanting it to succeed. When that doesn't happen, you feel let down and that you let the person down. A few weeks after that record came out, I was in London with Duran Duran. I was hanging out a club with Culture Club and the record came on and all of the artists loved it. The DJ was playing it and trying to pump up the people and everybody kept saying, "Ugh, that's that album with that ugly cover." I could hear the chatter in the room. Because of this whole concept that Bernard and I had called the "Chic Mystique", nobody really knew who we were. They knew our music but they didn't know what we looked like so we could always hear people talking about us. We didn't care about us because we were pretty thick-skinned but when they were talking about an artist that we worked with that we loved, we were like, "Man they don't get it. They don't understand."

What would you differently if you were to go back into the studio and record KooKoo today?

I would probably talk a lot more [with Harry] and do more pre-production, knowing exactly what the songs were, having more of a framework before we went in, instead of depending upon our improvisational skills.

What songs still resonate with you?

I like "The Jam Was Moving" and I like "Under Arrest" a lot. [For] lyrics I must say that I do like "Backfired"! [Laughs.] I probably really like the whole album, I just feel like it's not probably finished. With Debbie, I was feeling, "Damn, I wish we could go back and finish it." Bernard would say sometimes, I would write songs, and he would say, "You know, bro, you got an unresolved cadence there." I think that if we could do that same record right now and have those same songs, we'd make them amazing.

Would you consider recording again with Debbie?

It's tricky because in today's world I don't have the incentive to make the regular pop records that I had because I have a peculiar relationship, spiritually, with the record industry overall, starting with the way they sort of demonized Napster. I was like, "Wait a minute, guys. This is an intelligent thing if we can get everything in place." Right from that moment I just sort of watched it spiral downward into what we have now, which I don't even know what it is. The motivation to make a record is different than the motivation to just go into a studio or play a live show. I'd love to play a live show with Debbie and just play. In today's world, I get a huge amount of satisfaction just performing and playing in front of people as opposed to thinking that it has to be recorded to make a profit on it. Maybe a lot of people say that I could have that highfalutin attitude because I make so much money in royalties, that of course I can have that profession. Maybe that is true but I also think that when you become a little bit more mature, you have a different perspective. When we were younger, we wanted to be at the top of the charts. Now being at the top of the charts is a very peculiar thing. I don't know what that would feel like in today's world because it's so fleeting.

It would be such a thrill if you and Debbie performed together again.

I saw Debbie and Chris performing a year ago at a private party and we had a blast together. I really love them. It's one of those things, like I said, it's hard one to resolve in my head artistically because we expected it to be so huge. Debbie can go back and dye her hair blonde and we can put out the same record under a different cover! [Laughs.]

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