Duran Duran / Offbeat Magazine

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Duran Duran
By Alex Rawls and Richard Giraldi

At this point, there’s little to say about Duran Duran. They formed in 1978 and, with the release of their first album in 1981 emerged from England’s New Romantic scene. Their second album, Rio, made them MTV darlings and one of the biggest bands of the early 1980s. Changing times, tastes and lineups left Duran Duran seeming adrift and out of place for much of the ’90s, but when the full band reunited in 2001, it found audiences were still, er, hungry like the wolf for them, and they still had the knack for pop hits that they once had. They released Astronaut in 2004 and“(Reach Up for the) Sunrise” reached number one in Billboard’s Dance Charts, with all the hallmarks of the band in its prime.
Nick Rhodes talks about the good ol’ days, the not-so-good ol’ days, and what it’s like to be in Duran Duran almost 20 years later.
You started your tour last year in New Orleans at the Lakefront Arena, is that right?

I believe that is right.
Was that an accident of scheduling or a particular affection for New Orleans?

We’ve always had a fantastic time in New Orleans. It is as good a place to start as any.
When you’re looking at things, it’s very strange what can direct you to where you start. It can be availability of venues, it can routine, it can be a desire to start somewhere where you love the audience and you know you’re going to have a good time. With New Orleans, I think it was probably all of those things. We’ve always had terrific shows there. In the big ’83 tour, we didn’t actually play in New Orleans, we played in Baton Rouge. But I remember that show still, so somehow my brain is in tact.

What stands out about that show?

It was at a college or university. In England, where it was pretty much the only place we played—England, Australia, Japan before that on that tour; we had never really done a big tour of America—only in clubs and dancehalls. We couldn’t believe that colleges had arenas this size. You just don’t have that anywhere in Europe. I think it was such a great idea that you have this captive audience of kids that are going to school and want to get their favorite bands into their arenas. We played several of them, of which Baton Rouge was one, and they were just a crazy mob.
Sing Blue Silver, the DVD documentary of the 1984 tour of North America, shows your audience largely being young girls. Were your audiences in America different from your audiences in England?

Not really. I think what happens with bands that are new and manage to build some excitement with an audience is that you are able to get a lot of kids because they are the ones who are fanatical about music. When you are younger, you tend to have a little more time. It’s one of the first things that brings you great pleasure. I remember when I was 10 or 11 years old becoming completely obsessed with music at that time. It was glam rock followed by punk rock and electronic music in England.
We were lucky enough to be around at a time in the early ’80s when people experimented a little more and you could really create your own sound. I think in the ’90s there was a tendency to try and copy everything else that was around or everything else that had come before. In the ’80s, it was very much about being individual, and when you created an identity along with that came a group of like-minded people—an audience that related to what you were doing, and I think that would be true, not just of Duran Duran, but many other acts that were around: Prince, Madonna, U2, Depeche Mode, INXS. There were a lot of really identifiable yet different sounds. For us, we very quickly got an audience of teenagers who used to follow us all over the place, and that happened very early on in England because we were based there. But America came on a couple of years later in ’82, around the time of MTV as well, and it looked very similar.

Is it strange to see your audience getting older and maturing?

I think for us in 1983, 1984 when we had a lot of hysteria and a lot of screaming girls coming to the shows, it was a little surprising because we felt that the songs often had fairly dark subject matter. And somehow standing on the stage singing ‘The Chauffeur’ or ‘Waiting For the Night Boat’ didn’t equate with teenage girls screaming at us. But having said that, we were very grateful to have an audience and an audience that was so crazy and so enthusiastic that you sort of forgot about it. And looking at some of the great acts of the past like the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, it happened with them. It just hadn’t happened in a long time since. So we found ourselves in this very bizarre situation that was filled with excitement.
How is it now, when the girls who saw you then are back and bringing their daughters?

It’s got a slightly lower pitch, the audience.
We’re lucky that we’ve crossed over generations. I recently saw the Rolling Stones when I was in France over the summer. Looking at their audience, it’s like a cross-section of the world. You’ve got people there with their grandchildren and also really young kids that are there on their own because they are the Rolling Stones and they’ve never seen them before. They clearly weren’t even born when they were making albums 20 years ago. I think if you can do that and use your music to relate to people on the level of the songs, then you’re definitely on to something. For us, it was fantastic to see, on the last tour, that we’ve managed to do that.

It seems like you get more respect now than you once did. How does that feel?

It’s always nice to be appreciated. I think if anyone had ever said to most artists, “What do you want—critical acclaim or do you want an audience of real people that you can get through to?” Most people would take the audience. To have both is a dream scenario. We were very fortunate that we always had the audience there. And even if we didn’t get great reviews for our songs or for some of the shows, it didn’t matter as long as the audience enjoyed it and stuck with us. It was a surprise when it came along and we started winning awards and getting good reviews. We thought there is something wrong here, what’s going to happen? Is the audience going to leave?
Was there a time when mediocre reviews became tiresome?

To be honest, we were moving so quickly we didn’t read a lot of it. I think if you do read your press, you’d have to read all of it, all the good stuff and all the bad stuff, and weigh a realistic judgment. I’m all for constructive criticism, but I think what we suffered from a lot was a lot of the more serious rock writers and journalists who couldn’t get beyond the fact that a lot of girls like the band. So they never really listened to the stuff a lot.
I think the other thing is that we came along at a time when, particularly in America, the radio world was ruled by the heavy rock guys and serious lyricists. People like Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Boston, and Styx, and all those kind of bands were around. And we were really the complete antithesis to that because we came along looking different. It wasn’t about jeans and T-shirts. We came along with all kinds of concepts and wanting to do videos, bringing fashion and photography into the fray as well. And with songs that were very futuristic and used electronics and sounded different. I think the reactions to that is they liked what they were listening to already: “No, they are trying to change something and we like it as it is.” That’s partially what happened. Then in years to come when people got used to that kind of sound and it worked its way into the fabric of our culture, it’s at that time when people accepted it and said, “You know what? It wasn’t as bad as we thought it was.”

You started at an interesting moment at the end of punk when people were looking to see what would come next.

We wanted to create our own sound because everything we’ve ever heard, whether it was Kraftwerk, or David Bowie, or Chic, or the Sex Pistols, they all had their own sound. So we knew we needed ours. As much as it would have been great to be in any of those groups, we weren’t. And we were new, and we had to make our mark. So we really took a lot of elements of all the things we liked and all the knowledge we had at that early age and put them together to form the Duran Duran sound.
I think there were other acts coming out of the punk movement, groups particularly like Ultravox, who I don’t think ever really made a big impact in America but they had several big hits here in the UK. They were starting to do what we were starting to do. They were blending electronics with the energy of punk. They hadn’t quite made it onto the dance floor yet, which is where we were pushing it as well, but nothing ever happens overnight with music.

When your first singles and album came out, it was hard to gauge here how genuinely big you were in England, and I suspected that some of the press was an NME writer’s attempt to guess at the Next Big Thing.

You’re absolutely right, of course. Even dating back to Beatles, They were literally playing in little cinemas that probably held at the most 300-400 people. There were girls waiting outside going crazy in the local towns. Maybe half a dozen girls waiting and screaming and causing a fuss, which was then making it into local newspapers and then into national newspapers. We’re smaller than the state of Texas, the whole of the UK. Although it seems big to us living here, it’s a tiny little island. News travels a lot faster, even more so now than it did in the ’60’s and ’70s with all the electronic media and the news channels.
If there is a good story out there, it doesn’t take long for it to come along. The Artic Monkeys are the first band I think that you can say that had huge success through breaking through the Internet. They had a number one record here. That happened so quickly from the Internet, and then they were suddenly all over the radio. Maybe some years back, in the ’70s, bands would have to tour a little more. Go around, play some clubs, do some shows in London, get some reviews, to actually create some excitement. That is certainly what had to happen with Duran Duran. But still it happened relatively quickly for us. Within a year or year and a half of having our first line-up, we had a big hit record in England.

Weren’t you London based?

No, we were Birmingham based.
So you would have known what Human League were doing?

The Human League was another band I would cite as being some sort of an influence early on. Particularly with their original line-up, when they were a little more obscure. They put out this song called “Being Boiled.” Fantastic track. I remember hearing that for the first time and saying, “Hey look, it’s not just all about the punk scene. The electronic thing has crept over from Germany from bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!, and there is an English band playing this stuff.” They are from Sheffield, which was father north than us. It’s a terrific record.
I understand you’re working on new record?

Yeah, very much so. We’ve been working on it throughout the year at different times. We started by doing a bit of writing in San Francisco fairly early in the year. Got a bunch of songs, came back, fiddled around with them. Then went and wrote again and did a second batch. Then more recently at the beginning of September, we were in New York and we did three songs with the producer Timbaland. They turned out really well and one of them features Justin Timberlake. It’s a diversion from us, but one I like. I think if you don’t collaborate and actually experiment a little bit more, then you tend to get stuck with the same ideas. They are real groove tracks, and I wanted to get back to a little of that with this album.
My favorite Duran Duran album is still the first.

I think the thing is with band’s first albums—it has always been incredibly interesting to me—is that’s almost like you are writing your manifesto. This is what we think we can offer people and from there you can branch out and you can do a different type of album. But ultimately, a lot of the ideas that really form what Duran Duran is about were in that first album. From having a seven-minute instrumental track with an orchestra on it to having songs like “Girls On Film,” which probably is representative of our sound throughout our career so far as you’ll ever find.
When do you think you’ll have the new record completed?

We’ve got this tour, which is fairly short. By the middle of November we’ll be back in the studio again to do the final few tracks. Then we’ve got a bit of mixing to do. So, I think we’ll be finished by the end of the year. Realistically, that’ll put us into March or April.
Is it important for you to get out of England to write and record?

I think some of the best songs we’ve ever written were written in the UK. Certainly the first two albums were all written pretty much in Birmingham or London. Songs like “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” were written in London. Songs off the last album like “Sunrise” and “Astronaut” were written in London. But it was great to be in New York, which had a high energy to it.
Some of the urban producers, particularly Timbaland, work very, very quickly, which I like. I think it was a lot of pressure on Simon to make sure he got lyrics done so we could get the song finished that night. We pretty much did a song on every day and a half, which is super fast for us because generally I would say it would take five days to get a song completed. I thought that really brought some energy and vitality to the project.

How is recording different now than it was during your heyday?

We’re a lot more relaxed about it now. When any band starts off, you just want to be heard and pour all your ideas at once into every song. You all want to play all the way through everything so that people can hear you. And you don’t tend to give each other space, which is a very important thing in music. That can give you a real boost and give a song some real energy. When you learn to appreciate how good the other members of your band are and what you’re doing and you relax a little more into it, you tend to allow people with space to shine through, and I think we’ve become a lot better at that. That is the most major difference, just laying back and saying, “That sounds really good as it is and let’s not cover it with to many other things.”.
Other than that, it’s pretty much the same. We all end up having the same arguments; we all end up tugging in different directions. It takes a lot to satisfy all of us. It is a hell of a committee, but when we reach a point where we all say, yeah we like this one, there is a sense of relief and elation that we’ve managed to agree.

Was there a point when writing and recording for Duran Duran became particularly dysfunctional?

Oh yeah, many times.
A low period for me was around the Liberty album when it was Simon, John, and I in the band with Warren Cuccurullo, who was great, and Sterling Campbell, our drummer at the time. We somehow decided that we wanted to make more of a rock record. This was also the time when hip-hop was the only game in town, certainly in America, and we had techno happening here, and on the rock side you had grunge that was peaking with Nirvana. We didn’t fit into any of those boxes anymore. The 1980s were over, and some people would have been happy to just lock the door and throw away the key with us on the other side of the door. It was a truly difficult period. I think when we were writing, we were searching for something that just wasn’t really us, and that didn’t feel natural to us. We ended up with a few really great songs on the album, particularly a track called “My Antarctica” that was never released as a single, but I think it’s one of the most beautiful ballads we ever did. As an overall experience and the results, it was definitely a low point and very, very hard. The whole thing could have fallen apart at that time had we not taken it back to basics for the next album and written The Wedding Album.

I read that you have something to do with a Web site called Second Life, but I’m not sure I understand what’s happening after reading the press release. Can you explain it?

Second Life is quite remarkable. It’s an Internet site, secondlife.com that I was shown months ago. When I saw it, I personally thought that this really is the future of what’s going on on the Internet. In the most basic terms, you go to the site and you make yourself an avatar. An avatar is a digital version of yourself, or if you don’t wish to enter the world as yourself, you can go in as a giant goldfish or a witch on a broomstick or a talking apple—anything you like. So you make your avatar, then you enter this world, which is the second life world, and you go about your life with your computer. You communicate with people by going up to them and talk through instant messaging, so you can have conversations with anyone else who is living in there. It’s an entire city; it’s the size of Luxembourg already, in digital acres. There is just about everything in there—nightclubs, parks, bars, houses, and cities. You can go shopping, and you can buy yourself some virtual clothes. They have their own money called Linden dollars. It’s 300 Linden dollars to one U.S. dollar. So it’s quite extraordinary.
When I saw this, I thought well I’d like to have Duran Duran exist in here. We made virtual versions of Duran Duran, our avatars. We built a virtual Duran Duran city on four separate islands. We’re going to perform a concert with our avatars within this environment. That concert will actually be live and will be attended by other avatars within the city. That’s sort of what it is, but you should have a look at it because it’s absolutely fascinating anthropology anyway. Seeing how people react to each other and seeing what people look like in there and what they like to do, it’s extraordinary.

Courtesy Offbeat Magazine