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Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes Talks Bowie, Fashion, and Mark Ronson

by Marc Spitz
December 20, 2010, 12:01 AM

Can you take four middle-aged, wealthy English gentlemen who’ve sold 80 million records and become synonymous with an entire era, and somehow re-connect them with the sound they invented when they were young, inexperienced, and hungry (like the you-know-what)? Mark Ronson, who fell in love with the sound of Duran Duran’s first two records as an adolescent, was determined to try. Following a live, Smirnoff-sponsored “megamix” in the Parisian nightclub La Cigale in the summer of 2008, the D.J., producer, and recording artist set his controls for 1983. The resulting record, All You Need Is Now (out December 21 via iTunes), is not entirely a vintage-Duran pastiche—Ronson’s skills and the band’s often underrated instincts wouldn’t permit it. Tracks like “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment),” featuring Scissor Sister Ana Matronic, is disco for the 21st century; and the ballad “Leave a Light On” has a worn-in maturity. However, others, such as “Girl Panic!” and the darkly campy “The Man Who Stole a Leopard” (featuring Kelis), are New Romantic classics that never were. Legendary keyboardist Nick Rhodes, who along with Le Bon has never left the fold (the unrelated John, Roger, and Andy Taylor reunited in 2004, with the latter departing two years later), explains the band’s latest reinvention and reveals where all those ruffled blouses, headbands, and deconstructed blazers currently reside.

Marc Spitz:As with David Bowie, Duran Duran’s always been about constant innovation and the “new.”

Nick Rhodes: Absolutely. We learned from the best.

And yet lately there’s been some tacit acknowledgment of classic elements: the original lineup’s reunion in 2004 and, with All You Need Is Now, a production quality that brings to mind your 1981 self-titled debut and 1982’s Rio. How’d you get back there, and was it tricky to find your way back?

What happens with music is, it’s cyclical. It’s getting more like the fashion industry in that in some seasons certain beats sound right—then next season it changes. Right now we have all converged on what we were doing quite early on—merging dance beats with rock music and electronics—it seems to feel right. Fresh and vibrant again.

Obviously Mark Ronson’s influence is at work here. He’s been very public about his affection for the band. How was it being produced by a fan?

Mark was very clear in his vision to create a classic Duran Duran album—for today. He’s really the perfect producer for Duran Duran. He grew up loving the band; he’s got a great musical ear. He’s got an unbelievable knowledge across many genres of music, and he’s not afraid to experiment. Given all that, and a sense of style and charisma—it just felt right for us.

Duran Duran’s always been a strong enough force to collaborate with a distinctive producer like Nile Rodgers (1986’s Notorious) or Timbaland (2007’s Red Carpet Massacre) and come up with something both characteristic and new, but you’d already made a Rio. Was there any pushback at all if you ever felt like you were repeating yourself?

A lot has been mentioned about Mark saying this is the imaginary follow-up to Rio.

He’s good for a sound bite, that guy.

Yeah, I realize that—it’s out there now. It’s ingrained. But what I think the interpretation was, is that Rio was a quintessential Duran Duran album. It had all the elements that people like about Duran Duran in the sound. He just felt that that sound had now come around and it was the time for us to reclaim that. So in the end, yeah, things grew organically out of suggestions and ideas from the team. Mark was very much a part of it. It was like he was in the band actually. He fit in rather well with us. He always wears nice shoes.

He’s very sharp. Visuals and fashion have always been something you’ve taken seriously.

With tongue firmly in cheek.

Yes, but you respect that it’s always been a big part of what’s made the band noteworthy—photos, videos.

Oh definitely. We love the fashion industry, and I think style is something that makes life a little bit brighter.

For 30 years now, there’s never been a real disharmony. You all fit together in terms of what you’ve worn but there’s no uniform. Have you had discussions about the “look” of Duran?

If we’re filming, yeah—you don’t want one person in jeans and a T-shirt and everyone else in suits and ties—you want some common theme. But we have a similar aesthetic.

I noticed you’re registered at your hotel under an assumed name. Are there still people from the “Fab Five” days who know you’re here in New York City?

We do check in under assumed names. And in this world of twittering and tweeting and blogging and blagging, people tend to know everything about everybody. And everywhere you go, somebody’s got a device that can film or take a picture that ends up on the Internet three minutes later and 10,000 people have tweeted “about what was wrong with it.” Such is life.

We mentioned David Bowie earlier. Do you archive the Duran outfits you’ve worn over the years like Bowie has?

Yes. I have Bowie to thank for the fact that I’ve kept my clothing. When we met him very early on, I started chatting with him. We were great admirers, and I asked him, “What did you do with all the clothes?” And he said, “I kept them, of course.” And I thought, “Well that’s smart. I’m going to keep all of mine.”

Do you do anything with them? I would imagine you could read the cultural history of the last 30 years into some of those outfits.

I recently lent several outfits to a fashion museum in Chile. We’ve loaned some to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—actually, they’ve had them long enough; I think they ought to go someplace else. The fashion museum said, “You have a very unusual collection.” I do have it across a lot of different designers. The Japanese. Yamamoto. Issey Miyake. Comme des Garçons. Things that were happening in Paris in the 80s. Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, and the English ones, Galliano and Alexander McQueen. Certainly Antony Price—he figured heavily in our earlier clothing. Quite a broad collection of things. I don’t know many people that have men’s-wear collections that span as broadly.

Do you ever try them on anymore?

I have done a couple of photo sessions. I haven’t done in a few years. They probably look a lot better on girls now than they would look on me.