Interview With Richard Hilton, Musical Arranger and Keyboardist From Chic

WHAT DO YOU LIKE MOST ABOUT WORKING WITH CHIC

The best things about playing in CHIC include getting to make music with some of the finest musicians I’ve ever known, including the band we’ve had for the past five years, and getting the opportunity to share in the happiness of the audience. I’ve also gotten to see a lot of really amazing places that I’d likely never have seen otherwise.

WHAT DO YOU FIND THE MOST CHALLENGING?

The rigors of travel, which are at an all-time high these days.

WHEN DID YOU START WORKING WITH CHIC/NILES? AND HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?

I started working with Nile in March of 1988. I had been interviewing for about two years for a number of different jobs with a company called “New England Digital” that made a proprietary computer music instrument called the Synclavier. They never did hire me, but when Nile Rodgers called them (being a user of their instrument) asking about a qualified programmer who could play keyboards, they kindly recommended me and that was it, I was in.

IF YOU WEREN’T WORKING WITH CHIC, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING?

When I started with Nile, I was teaching at a small college and going back to grad school to get a master’s degree. I hope to get back to teaching someday. I’m very keen to work with young people.

CHIC ARE ALWAYS A JOY TO WATCH, WHAT’S THE SECRET?

A tireless dedication to delivering the best possible show every night. There’s a lot of trust and love on the stage, and it seems to translate to the audience, based on the things they say to me. One cannot underestimate the value of the amazing repertoire we’ve given to play as a major contributing factor to making all this possible.

RUMOUR HAS IT CHIC ARE WORKING ON BRINGING OUT AN ALBUM IN COLLABORATION WITH DAFT PUNK? IS THIS TRUE?

I can’t talk about projects in progress.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR TECHNIQUE?

Adequate, but not great. I do a lot of things pretty well, but maybe none of them “great”. The players in CHIC are all far more accomplished than I. My abilities are spread across a number of different disciplines in my job, so my playing technique sometimes doesn’t get the attention it might otherwise deserve. I’m lucky in that music has always come pretty easily to me.

YOU ALWAYS LOOK SO HAPPY AND UPBEAT ON STAGE! WHY IS THAT?

Because I find the privilege of playing this music and sharing in the audience’s happiness to be quite overwhelming. Playing this music in CHIC is a pretty amazing thing, and I try to let that wash over me as much as possible while we’re doing it.

IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?

I’d try to tap less into anger and more into the love that I feel. There are a few other things specific to my relationships that I wish I’d done better.

IF YOU HADN’T BEEN BORN IN THIS CENTURY, WHEN AND WHERE WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE LIVED?

I’m happy to be here now. I don’t think in terms of “what if” very much. That said, getting to hear Art Tatum, Beethoven, and Chopin play would’ve been very nice.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE ARTISTS/MUSICIANS AND WHY?

I’m really no good at favorites lists. I listen to and look at a lot of stuff and really like it. My list would number in the 100’s, and is not limited to a few particular styles of music and/or art.

WHO ARE YOUR LEAST FAVOURITE ARTIST/MUSICIANS AND WHY? (YOU DONT HAVE TO ANSWER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO!!)

Generally speaking, those who contribute with all their power to the degradation of society and people in it. Bigots, pretenders. People who didn’t work for it, and had it handed to them by society.

WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME?

Learn more about the world, the people in it, and about my work. I do a lot of learning on my own, not limited to music subjects or technology. I like to cook, and to spend time with my wife and sons. I don’t watch a lot of TV – mainly some sports and historical stuff. I do read a lot and spend a lot of time with computers and devices.

ARE YOU POLITICALLY ACTIVE?

More in mind than body, but yes, I find myself increasingly appalled by the world situation as I get older.

DO YOU DO ANY VOLUNTEER WORK?

Yes I try to involve myself in the aspirations of young musicians as much as I can, I’m sure there’s a lot more I could do. I get involved as much as possible in my sons’ musical adventures, usually without actually directly participating with them. That takes a lot of forms; equipment advice and procurement help, attending shows, sometimes recording the shows. When they were in marching band, I was the unofficial videographer for the band, and posted videos so that the band could benefit from seeing their work.

As a fringe benefit, it turned out that band members’ families from all over the world were watching these videos to see their relatives performing at a high level. I got comments all the time about how “grandma in phoenix” watched every video and looked forward to them every week.

Also, because of my sons’ music, I meet a lot of young people here at the house, and we talk. I like to think they find me easy to talk to. I like talking to them.

HOW HAS AMERICAN MUSIC CHANGED IN THE LAST TEN YEARS?

This subject could fill a book but briefly it’s gone further down the rabbit hole caused by the democratization of the music-making process. Conversely, there has also been a resurgence of people interested in the live interaction between musicians, so that part is good. We’re still trying to recover from the affects of machine-driven music-making popularized in the 1980s and continued onward.

WHAT’S THE SIDE OF YOU THAT THE PUBLIC NEVER SEES

The angry, bitter, alienated side. At least, I hope they never see it. It’s not doing me (or them) any good at all.

HOW HAVE YOU CHANGED AS A PERFORMER/ARRANGER?

I’m more aware of the role that I’m expected to fill as a performer, and more involved in embracing that for the benefit of the whole team. I trust more easily now, and forgive more easily.

HOW HARD DO YOU PUSH YOURSELF?

I insist on keeping active with learning new things. I have a lot of competition for what I do out there from younger, hipper, more culturally-adept people, and the numbers are growing yearly. I meet them at college seminars and at trade shows.

I think the only way to stay current and involved is to continue to grow by bringing to bear my long experience in the business in combination with the knowledge and techniques I’m gaining now. A lot can be done today that, even just a few years ago, was considered impossible. I can’t stand still; I have to keep moving forward with knowledge to stay in the game at my age.

WHEN ARE YOU COMPLETELY SATISFIED WITH YOUR WORK?

I always feel like there is something I could do or have done to make it better. I think being “satisfied with one’s work” is a harbinger of doom, artistically. That said if it all ended tomorrow, I’d walk away feeling like I’d had a pretty good run of it.

WOULD YOU SAY YOU ARE SOMETHING OF A PERFECTIONIST

There’s nothing worth doing that isn’t worth doing well. If you call that perfectionism, then I guess so.

WHAT MAKES YOU THE MOST PROUD AS A DAD?

I have two amazing sons, James and Corey. James has just graduated with two bachelor’s degrees, cum laude, from Western Connecticut State University. He was awarded a special recognition from the MIS department for outstanding achievement. He is working in the computer field, and doing fantastically well.

Corey is attending Music College in Ithaca, NY. He is a recording student with percussion as his major instrument. In his first semester, he was made section leader of the symphonic band’s percussion section, and in both semesters he made dean’s list. He played a fantastic recital in his first year, and recorded dozens of concerts. He is also doing amazingly well, and is well appreciated by his teachers and his friends.

WHAT’S THE MAGIC FORMULA FOR SUCCESS?

Find something you love to do, and find a way to make it fit into your life in an appropriate way. That may mean making a living at it, or it may not. Don’t allow others to define who you are and what you should be. Success, to me, is finding a place of comfort and happiness in one’s life without hurting theirs, however that manifests itself. It’s not about fame and fortune – I know far too many famous and wealthy people who are not happy.

Also, for me, having good relationships with people in the world, both at home and out “there”, also helps to balance one’s life and views. In my own life, it’s hugely important.

Note from author: I was lucky enough to be invited to see Chic perform at Kew Gardens in the summer of 2012. The music lifted me off the grass! I met Rich Hilton, one of the nicest, most unassuming guys you could meet, Richard’s joy on stage, and off, is infectious, and he and Nile Rodgers have worked together for decades. What a blessing for soul/funk/disco music lovers like me!

Alice Frances Wickham is a book and music reviewer, she runs a literary agency for new and emerging writers. Alice’s agency, New London Writers, is seeking fresh book proposals.

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