GQ&A: Nick Rhodes on Genetics, Posing with a Python and his New Album with Mark Ronson

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In the back of a lavish recording suite in Battersea Studios, Nick Rhodes is lounging comfortably on a plush leather sofa. Fresh-faced and sharp-suited, you'd not have thought the 50 year old founder of Duran Duran spent the night prior celebrating the opening of Bei Incubi, his latest exhibition of photography in The Vinyl Factory Chelsea. The exhibition grew out of a collection of snaps taken as sample artwork for his recently released LP TV Mania. Recorded in the mid-Nineties, TV Mania was recorded in partnership his band-mate Warren Cuccurullo. It's ruminations on the reality TV behemoth have proven remarkable prescient. In conversation with GQ, Rhodes discusses his sixth sense for zeitgeists future, wild times from the past, and just how the present is treating him.

GQ: Has a TV diet become the substitute for a social life?
Nick Rhodes: For me a bit of anthropology in the evening is always better than staying and watching the telly. The irony is that people are now more interested in other peoples' lives than their own. Of course I understand the fascination with watching reality TV disasters and seeing how people are going to react is human nature. But actually, I would always encourage people to go and find someone you can talk to rather than someone you can just watch.

A quote from TV Mania's vintage promotional material seemed particularly interesting: "A bizarre TV cyber soap opera about a family who gives away their freedom for a high-tech modern lifestyle and reality TV fame." Would that ever be a tempting offer for you?
No, not even slightly! But this was 1996, which is why I think it's interesting now. When Warren Cuccurullo and I made the album, we were also recording Medazzaland. Simon LeBon had hit a bit of a brick wall with lyrics and said, "Look, let me take a couple of weeks out. Let me find some inspiration for something." Warren and I were watching this TV show one day and I said to Warren, "They're talking in song titles." Everything the characters were saying was a song title: "Beautiful, beautiful clothes," "I wanna make films," "Am I dreaming? You're dreaming." We started recording the sound bites and sampling them; we were making up these songs from all these different samples, based on this concept of a dysfunctional family being studied by scientists in a house covered in surveillance cameras. So of course I took it to the record label and they said, "What the hell is this?" They wanted finished Duran Duran songs, beautifully crafted things. I'd brought them this mishmash of samples and noises and beats that they really just didn't get. We said we'll release it independently. The years passed. We moved on. And then when The Truman Show came out, we both said, "Oh well, there goes that idea then."

You'd pitched the movie without even realising.
Well, the film must've been written at the same time as TV Mania. And then Big Brother came out soon after as well. A lot of people had clearly had similar thoughts. But who would have thought [the reality TV medium] would snowball like it has?

So we're not likely ever to see you on reality TV?
Well, I should never say never because you learn to regret those things as you get older, but I can't see any reason to want to do one. One major show actually did offer to have me come and be a judge, but I just couldn't see myself in that position. It would have to be something extraordinary for me to be interested.

How do you feel about the rise of social media?
I've never actually "done a tweet" myself, for example. I think maybe my attention span is too long to tweet. I think I'd at least have to blog. But I think social media is a fantastic invention - I think it's interesting that people use it as a soundboard; the Duran Duran Facebook I'm very, very fond of because it's a great direct route for us to talk to our fans. But do people need to know I'm outside the sandwich shop? That now I'm going to buy a sandwich? And, oh no, they've run out of the one I want? Do they need to know that? I don't think so.

If you were working on an album like TV Mania now that becomes oddly prescient in 15 years time, what sort of topics would you focus on?
Where I would go now is genetics and nano-technology, because I think that's what will change our futures the most in the coming years. I'm fascinated with genetic science, and I have been for a very long time. I always look at science and technology because I think that the developments in my lifetime have been so remarkable - and we're only at the tip of the iceberg with projects like decoding the human genome. Even with music, say, in 40 years we've moved from vinyl and cassettes to having an entire record collection on a little chip in your pocket. And that's a minor achievement, really, compared to what's going on with medical science and the big things in our life.

What music are you listening to at the moment?
I listened to the Lana Del Rey album the other day. She has something fragile about her that I really, really like. So I'll listen to a little bit of hip-hop, a little bit of electronic music, which is probably my favourite genre, but then I listen to classical music at home. And I just played Off the Wall for the first time in ages, and remembered how damn good it is.

Who would you say any photographers who inspire you particularly?
Man Ray is probably my superhero, but there are a lot of photographers working in that period when there was more experimentation and people were so inventive. Hans Bellmer, for example, that lovely little book he made of the doll is an extraordinary thing from that period. But I also love fashion photographers. Helmut Newton really created something that nobody else did and obviously Avedon certainly has a better back catalogue than most people. Photographers now? Nick Knight is great and Ellen Von Unwerth too.

Which director do you admire?
How could I live without Fellini in my life? I have to watch a Fellini movie every three or four months. That always makes me feel better.

What would you say has been your strangest experience on a photo shoot?
A photographer called Rebecca Blake who did a lot of photographs with us in the mid Eighties, she for some reason always had the most ambitious or difficult visions. One time she decided she'd take the photo of us five Duran Duran guys with a snake. And the guy arrived, and I thought, "This is going to be some little snake, surely?" No, it's some great, big python and it comes in a sack. With a guy with a stick. He gets the thing out, poking it with that stick, and the thing is as wide as my leg in places. It had to be wrapped around all of us and Simon had to hold the snake at the front and it was quite tricky - and I seem to remember Andy, our guitarist, being in a particularly difficult mood on that day too.

So when someone comes to you on a shoot and says "I have a huge python in a sack and I want to wrap it around you," is that ever something you have reservations about?
Well at the time I thought it was an interesting idea. You know, it could've been much worse. You look at what Avedon said to Nastassja Kinski, you know, "You're here, you've got to be entirely naked, and I'm going to have to wrap a snake around you." That I might've said no to.

What is the strangest gift you ever got from a fan?
A giant box of sawdust with nothing else in it. It always stuck with us - we always wondered whether there was supposed to be something in there. I never found out the answer though.

What's the most important item on your rider?
A nice bottle of wine. We usually have very simple food: fruit, sometimes sushi is on the rider. I don't eat much sushi I have to say, but it's popular with the rest of the guys.

There's a Duran album on the horizon and you're working with Mark Ronson…
Well, we're literally just about to start. From here I'm running over to our rehearsal room in Wandsworth and we've just started writing this week. We've done about four or five days. Next week we're in with Mark to see if we can sort through what we got and get a couple of songs out of it. I'm very excited. I think he was the perfect person for us on the last album - stylistically, musically, reference-wise, his knowledge of everything: from the greatest grooves to the best rock music, electronic music, hip-hop and pop. He's perfect for us because we're incredibly eclectic. We don't function without a style guru.

Are there any other contemporary artists you'd love to work with?
We worked with Kelis on the last album, which was sort of great - I think I'd like to work with her again. Grace Jones I can't get enough of, I always think she's contemporary. Years ago Brandon Flowers came on-stage and did "Planet Earth" with us and his voice and Simon's voice together are actually really quite a good blend. So I thought, one day, it'd be fun to do something if The Killers were up to it. You never know.

One of the descriptions you used for the exhibition was that you look for "the perfect flaw" in any given image. What is your perfect flaw?
I don't like things when they're sort of too glossy and photoshopped. In this show, there's nothing photoshopped at all - the most I did to any photo was crop it a little. And it's not that I don't like Photoshop, don't get me wrong. It's has a great tool for creating beautiful, artistic things. But when I see photos of someone that's been photoshopped to the extent that they look like a Thunderbird puppet - that doesn't look right to me. It's not my aesthetic. When I talk about flaws, I mean things that have an edginess to them.

David Bowie's new album seems to focus on themes similar to those you're riffing on in TV Mania. Have you heard The Next Day?
David's always had an interesting perspective on life and I'm very happy that he's made another album. For my generation, I think, he's one of our super-heroes. He influenced us enormously and virtually every other artist that came out from that period.

What do you look for in a suit?
I look for things that are beautifully cut, that feature great tailoring. I don't tend to go for completely wacky design at this point. I probably did at some stages - throughout the Eighties for sure. But I like to look for clothes that have a nice twist to them. Whether it's the collar that's a little different, the fabric has a certain sheen to it or maybe the shoulder is just sculpted a little more than it normally would be. Just little details that give the silhouette something different.

A perfect flaw, then.
Yes! That's great. It's funny enough; I lent some clothing to a fashion museum in Santiago, Chile. They have a beautiful fashion museum there and they were doing a show that had a lot of Eighties clothes. Jean Paul Gaultier had lent them a lot of stuff and they said to me, "Could you show us some of the things you've got?" I've kept all of my clothes from the period. I have everything. In the end I'd lent them a fair few things - and [after the exhibition] the curators came back to me and said, "Do you realise that what you have is actually probably one of the best collections of menswear from that period?" I guess I bought and wore a lot of things that other people wouldn't wear. It's everyone from Gaultier to Comme des Garcons, Yohji [Yamamoto] to Antony Price and Thierry Mugler. All those designers were out there doing amazing things in the Eighties. I'm really glad I kept their work.

Would you ever consider a little fashion exhibit in its own right?
We're probably going to, at some stage, do a larger Duran thing. But I think my clothes - which we're trying to archive properly at the moment - there are now some interesting pieces for sure, because they show you what happened in that period. They tell a story. I always say to people, the Eighties were so inventive because people wanted to stand out. By the time we got to the Nineties everyone wanted to fit in. It was all about having the same pair of trainers and the same pair of jeans. That's fatal. Whereas the Eighties you would NEVER be seen in the same pair of jeans that somebody else was wearing. You wanted that one jacket that nobody else had.

Courtesy British GQ