Keyboardist Nick Rhodes on the band's new LP, 'FUTURE PAST', his memories of David Bowie, the group's catalogue and more
“Duran Duran was always about songwriting, but it was also about pushing boundaries and trying to do something unique,” says founding keyboardist Nick Rhodes. “Trying to do something new each time, rather than just repeating the pattern.”
It’s a manifesto the band have rigidly followed since forming in Birmingham in 1978 – no mean feat for an outfit that tasted success on a global level with their first three albums (1981’s Duran Duran, 1982’s Rio and 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger) and for whom the temptation to repeat that winning formula could have trapped them in a cycle of diminishing creative returns.
Instead the band have spent the past three-and-a-half decades following their muse wherever it took them.
“We have decades of music behind us,” offers Rhodes, still a picture of well-coiffed elegance at 59. “And during that time we’ve done a lot of experimentation, we have crossed over into all kinds of different areas of modern music, from electronic to rock to dance to funk to ambient, even classical – we’ve used orchestras.”
That experimental urge is again present on Duran Duran’s just-released 15th studio album, Future Past, on which the band collaborate with Swedish pop titan Tove Lo, British rapper Ivorian Doll and Japanese rock band CHAI.
Produced by Erol Alkan and Giorgio Moroder, the record also features contributions from Mark Ronson, with whom the band first collaborated on 2010’s All You Need Is Now; songwriting and guitar work from Blur’s Graham Coxon; while David Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson guests on closing track “Falling”.
The result is an album that maintains the band’s dedication to moving forward, but for the first time also nods in the direction of their past, as Rhodes explains…
You’ve previously referred to the sound of the album as autobiographical. In what way?
Well it was interesting working with two very different producers – Erol Alkan, who comes from more of a dance-DJ-indie background, and Giorgio Moroder, who is the grand maestro of dance music and of course has got a shelf full of Oscars from all the movie music he did too.
They couldn’t have been more different, but they worked beautifully together because the opposites met at the other end of the circle.
We realised that with both producers we were using the same knowledge we had gathered over our careers, and were also making a contemporary record. And the irony of it was that contemporary at the moment is very influenced by the 1980s.
You listen to The Weeknd, Billie Eilish, whoever it is, there’s a lot of ’80s influence. And so it felt very natural for us to refer to our own work for the first time. We usually avoid that at all costs.
And particularly with the one song "Anniversary", that was autobiographical. It was us acknowledging where we’ve made it to and actually saying to everyone, well there are some things in life that are worth celebrating.
You mentioned that Giorgio and Erol had very different approaches. In what way?
Giorgio is very precise and he knows exactly what he wants, and he works quickly, and he listens to every bit of every melody and he zeroes in on it. And he knew very much what to do with us as a band. He knew what the toolkit was.
But what we wanted to achieve with him was the perfect fusion of Duran Duran and Giorgio Moroder.
We kind of knew what it should sound like, and fortunately the two tracks we did with him ("Beautiful Lies" and "Tonight United") did end up sounding like that. We wanted joyful uplifting dancefloor anthems, and no one is better at that than Giorgio.
Erol is much more of a wild card. Erol is like having rogue electricity in the room, and he just sparks off in different places and you don’t ever quite know what’s going on. But actually there’s something quite thrilling about it.
He just wanted to try everything. So it’s the complete opposite.
You’ve spoken in the past about Giorgio’s influence on you personally, particularly with the song “I Feel Love” which he co-produced. You’ve said it changed the way you thought about music – in what way did it do that?
I’d never heard anything like it in my life. The electronic pulsing that was that quick, it felt alien.
But it was also so exciting, and that tiny little snare drum and how tight the whole thing was, with of course Donna Summer's extraordinary vocals over it.
I just instinctively felt that nothing was going to be the same after that. It was one of those records, it was a game changer. Completely.
And Giorgio went on to make many many records that I love, particularly the Sparks album, No. 1 In Heaven. I think that’s a greatly underrated album, it’s up there with the best of the best.
But “I Feel Love”, yes, it changed a lot. It made me realise that [electronic music] mixed into rock music could be something special. And there weren’t a lot of people doing that at the time.
The band I always cite who again I feel were the missing link between punk rock and us, were the original Ultravox, with John Foxx.
Those first three albums they made together were enormously important and influential. Not just on us, but on that period of music. They really were charting the course.
Another collaborator on Future Past is Mike Garson, who was David Bowie’s keyboard player. Bowie was a huge influence on you – what was it like hearing Mike’s work on your record?
Having grown up with the "Aladdin Sane" album when we were little kids and listening to Mike’s playing, particularly on that record, which is sublime, we said, ‘Can you give us something a little like "Aladdin Sane" and "Lady Grinning Soul"?'
So we got it back, we all sat in the studio to listen to it, and you could have heard a pin drop. It was just silence and awe at his playing. It was so thrilling to have one of your childhood heroes on your record.
Growing up in the grey, industrial surrounds of Birmingham, what did Bowie offer you? A sense of escape and colour?
Very much so. Birmingham’s a great city, I love the people there.
But of course when you see factories and buildings and grey skies, and the ’70s was a pretty rough time in the UK with all the three-day weeks and miners’ strikes and power cuts, and we also had the IRA terrorism on the mainland, a lot of things that were really difficult, dark. And you wanted to get away from that, to find something brighter.
And David Bowie was a beacon throughout the 1970s for our generation. Somebody who represented something other worldly.
He was exotic, he didn’t sing just simple love songs like everyone else, he was singing about outer space. So much more interesting than, ‘I’ve lost my baby again.’ It opened up a very different musical dialogue.
Even when punk rock happened, David Bowie never fell by the wayside.
At the same time as I was buying the Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees albums I was buying David Bowie’s Low, which of course was going completely in the other direction.
But that was what was great about him. He was an originator, an innovator.
How did you come to terms with the fact that by your late teens/early 20s you were actually friends with him? And a peer as opposed to a fan?
It was a little strange at first. I remember the first time I met him I was probably 20.
I didn’t know what to say to him because literally five, six years earlier he’d been on my wall as a poster, and I’d been going to his concerts and listening to the albums and looking at the album covers endlessly.
But actually I got to know David very well over a period of years and I cherished the times we spent together.
We laughed a lot, spent a lot of time talking about art, looking at art, music obviously, and he was super sharp, razor sharp, a great conversationalist. We could always start having a chat and suddenly it was three in the morning. I consider myself very lucky to have known him.
A lot of people who meet their superheroes are let down, and really regret having met that person. David wasn’t like that, he lived up to expectations.
He was always looking for a new way to do something and never afraid to try things out. We all learned from that.
For a band like Duran Duran that’s been around for more than 40 years, there comes a time where you start competing with your past for fans’ attention. Was there a moment where you came to terms with that? That as much as you wanted to keep looking forward musically, you were always going to be competing with your earlier material?
I don’t look at it like that.
You’ve got to keep your blinkers on and keep moving forward with the albums: what can we make, how good can we make it?
What I’m particularly proud of is the fact that the last three, four albums that we’ve made, have all been different in their own ways. I think we found our way through this last decade or so and made something special that we all love.
Regarding the catalogue, when you play shows is when you realise. Because if we play somewhere of course the audience want to hear certain songs because they remind them of their youth, or because of where they were at that time in their life. And that song might be "Rio", it might be "Hungry Like The Wolf", but it equally might be "Ordinary World" or it could be "Come Undone".
And so we’re lucky enough to have enough songs from throughout our career that punctuate moments and that people relate to.
I think if we only had a couple of songs that we’d written at the beginning and then we’d spent all these years not really writing anything else that anyone wants to hear, that would be pretty depressing.
But I think that our audience has given us enough rope and enough space to say, okay, let’s be fair and balanced about this. As long as you play a lot of the songs we want to hear, we’re gonna stick around and we’re gonna listen to what you’ve done now. So we’re lucky. It’s finding the balance.
You mentioned that some of your songs resonate with your audience because they remind them of their youth, or a moment in time. Is there a song from your catalogue that holds special nostalgic meaning for you?
There are many. "The Chauffeur", a song on Rio, has some special meaning.
Simon [Le Bon, vocals] actually had the whole framework for that before he even joined the band, and it took us until the second album to really get around to it and for me to construct it electronically. But I think that one, it’s become a cult classic in a way.
I can look back at it now and remember making it in this tiny little room in Air Studios in Oxford Street, right above Oxford Circus, and looking down occasionally and thinking, ‘I’m never going to get this done’, because it was the last thing on the album to be done.
And then everybody else hearing it and saying, ‘Well, there’s no space for us to play on it.’ But then when we played it in the live show and we all figured out how to do it together it worked. So that has a special place in my heart.
"Ordinary World" is another one. That song really showed our band how to survive.
“The Chauffeur” has transcended genre – even Deftones have covered that song…
Yes. One final note on that, there is one funny story.
When we first met Mark Ronson, 15 odd years ago now, we did a show together in Paris, where Mark did an almost DJ remix of a load of our songs, so they all morphed into each other, and we put other people’s songs into the mix as well.
And one of the songs we put into the mix was ‘Song 2’ by Blur. Mark chose it because he said, ‘You realise it’s the same chords as “The Chauffeur”’, and so we were playing it and "The Chauffeur" slowly speeds up and turns into "Song 2"!
So on this album we had the great pleasure of working with [Blur guitarist] Graham Coxon, and we were in the studio in LA together working with Mark and we said, ‘You know when we first worked with Mark we did this’, and played it on video to Graham, who of course had never seen it. Fortunately it sounded okay!
Duran Duran's latest album, Future Past, is out now.