30 Years Later Still Hungry

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Duran Duran turned on the lights — and cameras — for music in the ’80s. The British band embraced technology — synthesizers, light shows and, especially, music videos. The band parlayed its tech savvy and cinematic good looks into stardom. Duran Duran was a staple of MTV, back when it really was music television, and it’s no surprise that the group’s two Grammys are for videos. But the band also has 18 hit singles, including “Planet Earth,” “Girls on Film,” “Wild Boys” and “Rio,” and has sold more than 70 million records during a 30-year career.

The group may have risen to stardom in the ’80s but it isn’t stuck there. In November, Duran Duran released its 14th album, “Red Carpet Massacre,” and embarked on an international promotional tour that brings them to Las Vegas this weekend.

During a telephone interview from Vancouver, British Columbia, founder and keyboardist Nick Rhodes talked about the past, present and future.

How have you managed to maintain your passion for the music?

You change things all the time. You keep making it interesting. We’re all very happy to be part of Duran Duran. It’s been part of our life for a long time. It’s our sort of diary, our way of living, and so each time we put out a record, each time we do another tour, it’s another chapter in our lives. There’s always something different about it. Sometimes people say to me, “Don’t you get bored with playing some of those songs?” I always laugh and say, “Of course not.” The ones we always play are songs that people really love, so you know when you’re playing them onstage that it’s going to evoke a reaction that’s going to uplift people’s spirits. There’s something great about being able to do that. It’s all about believing in what you’re doing in music. Our career has had its ups and downs and that’s what has made it more interesting.

What’s different about this show?

We’re doing an electro set, where it’s sort of a 20-minute section with the four of us all playing keyboards and electronic drums at the front of the stage. We’ve rearranged some of the older songs and a couple of new things. We first did it on our Broadway run last November. We did two weeks on Broadway to launch the album. We thought it would be a little different. A lot of bands tend to do those acoustic breakdown things, which we have done in the past — with an acoustic guitar and some congas or something. This is sort of our electronic version of that.

Why has technology always been a major part of your art?

We grew up in a time, in the ’70s, when artists like David Bowie and Roxy Music in England — who were never quite as popular here in America but a real innovative band — they were doing things with their records that were very unusual. David Bowie would change with every record and reinvent himself. Their live shows were always something special. I suppose we learned a lot from them. When we formed the band we knew that we wanted it to be something different from everything else out there. We wanted to carve out our own sound, our own identity, and so when we first developed the ideas it was all-encompassing. We wanted to use the best photographers. When we were putting together the live show we wanted to make sure we had the best lighting and the best backdrops and the album cover and the typeface and all those sort of things. And video was very much part of that because it was a new technology that was out there. I think for the first time people had really started thinking about doing videos for songs. Of course there had been some, notably, really, the Beatles did one for “Strawberry Fields Forever,” plus all the movies they made. But this was sort of a new way of looking at it. And it was affordable. Our first video, “Planet Earth,” was actually shot on video and it cost next to nothing.

There have been a lot of dramatic changes in technology since then. How have you adapted?

We embrace them. We have enjoyed technology, the use of it in our music and in our shows. Obviously, me playing synthesizers, I’ve always used technology to create the music. But it has affected us in lots of different ways. When I think about when we started, moving lights for live shows were barely there. When we first went on tour we didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have the Internet. Technology is beneficial all around, particularly the Internet for music. It has been quite spectacular. Obviously, we’ve seen the downfall of the music business as we knew it. I can’t say that I’ll be sad to see the end of the major labels. I think it will actually be a real exciting time for both really new young acts and for established acts to reinvent themselves and do something new with the Internet.

Do you really think the days of the major labels are numbered?

Without a doubt. For me they’re over already. If you look at the deals being done in the last six months alone — Madonna, Jay-Z, U2 — they’re all outside of the label system. And the thing is, a long time ago when record labels used to have a vision it was undoubtedly the major force in the industry. They used to nurture bands and actually helped develop their careers. But they became very lazy in the ’90s, just taking the quick cash from TV performers who’d come out of shows like “Pop Idol” (the British TV show that gave birth to “American Idol”). I think they lost focus completely. They didn’t know what to do with the advent of the Internet. They panicked. They tried to destroy downloading. They spent a lot of time hammering away at Napster when in fact what they should have been doing is saying, “Hey, this is such fantastic technology you have here. How can we make this work together?” I think they were incredibly shortsighted and foolish about everything. So I’m far from surprised at this place we find ourselves in now.

Are artists better off financially with the new direction of the business?

It’s very different now. I think established artists make a lot more from touring than from recording. Having said what I just said, I wish that we could find a sensible solution to prevent illegal downloading. Clearly it’s such an epidemic, a pandemic. But it would be very, very hard to stop it at this stage. But I still believe it is plain simple theft. There’s no doubt about it. Those songwriters, producers, performers, whoever it is, have all worked to create this piece of music and what people are now saying is, “We don’t really care about that. We want it free.” It’s tantamount to walking into a grocery store and filling your bag up with fruit and vegetables and whatever else you want and just walking out.

It’s a complex issue. What’s the solution?

It is very complex and it will be very hard to solve because people now are so used to getting a lot of things free. ITunes is now the world’s biggest distributor of music, which is a good thing, I think. But they pretty much have a monopoly at the moment, which is not such a good thing. It is a tricky situation. It will be interesting to see what happens with the MySpace venture with the major labels. But there will always be something new happening with technology, something that surprises everybody, something that comes from a different place where people have thought things out and it will catch on.


Courtesy Las Vegas Sun