Dubbed by many as “The Controller,” synth magician Nick Rhodes jointly formed Duran Duran out of Birmingham, UK with bass player John Taylor in the late 1970s. Rhodes has been a constant in the shifting line-ups of the band since the very beginning.
One of the most inventive artists of his era, Rhodes made the sound of electronic sequencers truly his own, featured on the likes of the iconic “Planet Earth,” “Save a Prayer,” “Rio” and “The Reflex.”
Fresh from their latest North American tour, which also featured Nile Rodgers and Bastille, an incredible ride preceded the current season for Duran Duran when they were Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022. The band have sold north of 100 million albums around the world since 1981. 2021’s FUTURE PASTalbum saw the group once more earn widespread acclaim. It was their 15th studio album.
Now, following a chance Halloween inspired concert last year in Las Vegas, their latest and creepiest offering to date, Danse Macabre is out today. This Halloween-themed album is a mix of originals, covers, and new versions of older Duran Duran songs. The album includes covers of Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend,” Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (feat. Victoria De Angelis of Måneskin), The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Spellbound,” Cerrone’s “Supernature,” and The Specials’ “Ghost Town,” along with the Rick James-inspired “Super Lonely Freak.” It also sees them re-unite with original Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor on a number of the tracks. Under the Radar caught up with Nick Rhodes to discuss the new record, creating the “Danse Macabre” video with the aid of AI, and playing with Andy once again.
Lee Campbell (Under the Radar): Congratulations on the latest leg of the FUTURE PAST tour. It’s been pretty constant the past couple of years. How’s the energy levels?
Nick Rhodes: I am sort of happy and relieved and a little tired, yes. That latest leg in America was quite a tough schedule, the sort of thing we tried to do when we were 17, and regretted it when we were 17. At the same time it was so uplifting and the audiences were great. We got through it all without having to cancel anything. So yeah, we all felt a sense of achievement.
Where’s your main homebase these days?
London is always home for me. I came back from tour in kit form and I am trying to check that all the pieces are actually there.
The new album is called Danse Macabre. This project seemed to grow legs from a gig last year. Who came up with the idea for the Las Vegas Halloween concert in 2022?
I am getting the finger pointed at me for all of it this time and I can own up to it happily. We were going over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance awards, and you play a few songs on the show which are televised everywhere. Everyone in the band said, “Let’s not just do a TV show, let’s do a few gigs and be warmed up.” So we said, “Okay, let’s see what’s available on the West Coast.” It was fairly short notice. The agent said, “Well actually, there’s a weekend in Vegas that falls on the 30th and 31st October.” I thought, 31st October, Halloween, Las Vegas, it’s too irresistible. So absurd in a way, but it was just a fantastic opportunity. So, I floated the idea with the rest of the band and said, “Let’s do a regular show on the first night (the 30th October) and on the second night, let’s do something that is 95% different.” For the most part, the set lists were entirely different, which required us to learn about 14 new songs, some of our own that we hadn’t played for about 20-odd years like “Shadows on Your Side.”
Ah, yes, “Shadows on Your Side.” I must admit I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t make it to the final cut of the album.
We thought there was nowhere to go from the original, whereas some of the others like “Lonely in Your Nightmare” was a mash-up with “Superfreak.” “Secret Oktober” was completely different. So, with having to learn all of these songs, everyone was thinking we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew, particularly Simon as he had to learn all of the lyrics and all of the melodies to the cover songs. Actually, everyone rose to the occasion and we had a great night on Halloween and afterwards it was just so much fun. It was crazy. We had decorated the whole stage, everybody was dressed up.
Was it hard getting Roger into make-up?
Oh, no, no, no, he’s a pushover [both laughing]. He made a very good zombie actually. So, once we’d done it, we had all of this material. We thought we could put out a live album because we filmed it. Well, it also would sound really great in the studio to do proper versions because we had learned all of the songs. So, we recorded them as they were and added a few things. I wanted to change the arrangement on “Secret Oktober,” then we added a couple of other things, notably the Billie Eilish song [“Bury a Friend”] as I thought that something contemporary that had been released in the last four or five years would be good, although we wanted to make that very different to her version. Trying to copy that would have been the wrong way. So anyway, we ended up with this crazy, eclectic mix including three new songs. How’s this going to work? Even I thought that this was a stretch. But of course, as we had all played them in our style, it sounds like a Duran Duran record.
You’ve always been heavily involved in the Duran videos. The new video for the title track, “Danse Macabre”—were you central to the visual creative process on this one also?
This one nearly finished me off. I was almost like one of the characters out of the graveyard. It has a magic to it I think. We did it using AI. A lot of people seem horrified and terrified by AI. I’m not, I’m actually really excited by it. I think you need to use it as a creative tool. You don’t just say, “Oh, write us a song AI or make us a video.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to put in every single detail of every single thing, and when it doesn’t come back the way you want it, you change it again. You work with it as a tool. It was fascinating because we were teaching this AI as we were learning from it and what it could do. It was a very new animations programme. It was amazing, I spent over 100 hours on it, but Linc [Gasking], who directed it, spent several hundred hours on it. It was a lot of work. Linc also worked on the other AI project that we did, on “Invisible.” Things have developed so rapidly, even in those couple of years.
Latest single, “Black Moonlight” seems to have some of the vibe from the likes of “Tonight United”—had this song been brewing at the time of recording FUTURE PAST?
No, no. We did that song in a day. It’s got a big dose of Chic in it. We were allowed because we were doing it with Nile [Rodgers]. Nile is a force of nature. When he plugs in, the electricity illuminates entire cities, so, it’s easy just to play with them and play together and jam along. It’s infectious. He finds something quickly and we grab hold of it, slowly grapple with it and then turn it into a song. That was done after Nile got off a 26-hour journey from Hawaii. He slept for two hours and came straight to the studio and said, “Right, let’s go!”
Some popular cult Duran tracks such as “Secret Oktober” and “Lonely in Your Nightmare” have been chosen for the album. What was it like re-visiting these tracks in particular and what was the process in deciding just how much to re-imagine them without losing their magical essence?
It was interesting. As we only did them initially for a live show, we wanted them to be fun for us and something that would really surprise the audience on Halloween, a bit mischievous. We didn’t change our versions for the live show that much. I changed “Nightboat” a little bit because as we were opening with it, it would be fun to have a slightly different version. The version we played live was still much closer to the original. “Lonely in Your Nightmare” into “Superfreak” was an easy thing because I always thought those grooves were very similar. They fit like a glove. “Psycho Killer” we didn’t really do much to because the original was so great. We were just doing a Duran Duran version of a song that we loved very much that we can introduce to a different audience. Of course, a lot of our audience already know the Talking Heads version, who doesn’t?
With the Duran songs, it became different when we got to the studio. “Secret Oktober” has never actually been on an album, so instead of just doing a copy why don’t we make it something special? I had this musical box that I had bought years ago that I wanted to use on something that I could program. It started out from that once I figured out we could make that pattern. Simon didn’t like it for a while because I had changed some of the chords underneath it on how it worked with the melody. He had a very good point on some of it, so we battled over that for a while until we came to a compromise on the ones that really worked. As ever with the band, our arguments usually end up making a song stronger. “Nightboat” is not hugely different, it’s just the orchestration of the chords underneath it. We actually slowed it down a little too.
It is great to hear Andy again on some of these songs—did you get to spend time with him in the studio or was it all recorded at arm’s length?
Andy played on all of the original Duran tracks that appear on the new album. Actually, on “Secret Oktober,” he’s not on the original. Back then, it was just Simon and I. We had to do it overnight for the B-side for “Union of the Snake” and nobody else was around, so we just made something and that was that. With Andy playing on it this time, it was nice to bring the whole thing round into this circle. Simon went over to Ibiza where Andy has a studio, along with Josh [Blair], our engineer and co-producer. They worked with Andy for two or three days and did about eight tracks. Warren [Cuccurullo] played on the track “Love Voudou.” We did three new songs, so one for Andy [“Black Moonlight”], one for Warren [“Danse Macabre”], and one for Dom Brown [“Confession in the Afterlife”]. Nile plays on “Black Moonlight” and “Supernature”.
What was it like working with writer-producer Mr Hudson once more?
Mr Hudson was on Paper Gods—he was on a lot of that record. We like to create a team of people that we enjoy working with. In that team I would include Nile, who we’ve worked with forever, Mark Ronson for sure, Mr Hudson, and Josh Blair, who is pretty much the silent member of the band at this point. He knows where every single track is, he’s mixed our live stuff so many times. Josh virtually knows what I’m thinking before I play it at this point, which means I can work super fast with him. It’s efficient and he understands what my taste is and what I need to do. He’s like that with the whole band. Josh has overseen and co-produced some of the best vocals that Simon has ever done.
Did I also read that Josh had been tasked with cataloging a lot of Duran material that could be used in a potential Anthology project—any timescales for this to happen?
I wouldn’t dare put a timescale on it. But what I would say it is inching closer, because what we now have is a vast amount of the tapes logged properly and we know what stuff is there from almost every album now. I had all of my cassettes digitized so that means we found things like the day we played our very first show in London at The Sundown Club when we did Top of the Pops. There’s all kind of crazy things in there such as The Hosteria Wine Bar which is the show we got signed by EMI from. I don’t know if we’ll ever want anyone to hear these things but…[chuckling]...the first thing to do on this type of project is to think about the stronger things. For example, the Reportage album should be finished because it was pretty good. We just didn’t put it out because everything had fallen apart with Andy at the time and it went in a different direction. We said, let’s leave [Reportage] as it was and we’ll put it out one day. I think that day is getting much closer. There’s plenty of strong songs on it and it was more political than our songs usually are, pointing out the mess that the world was in at that particular time. Sadly, I don’t think things have got a lot better.
There’s a demo that exists somewhere called “Seven & the Ragged Tiger” which I believe was potentially going to be a title track for that album. It eventually morphed into “The Seventh Stranger”—do you ever foresee there being a release of demos like this?
Possibly. I was almost single-handedly responsible for changing it because I loathed the song so much at the time. I didn’t mind the title of the album in a sort of T.S. Eliot kind of way, but in the song, hearing those words being sung just didn’t fit right to me. Funnily enough, now I feel different about it. It had an incredibly catchy tune. The melody was much more upbeat on what ended up being “The Seventh Stranger.”
Aside from the three new tracks and re-imagined versions of the older songs, a lot of the album is a collection of covers. You haven’t done something like this since the Thank You LP in 1995, which was met with some criticism. Is there an element of trepidation when approaching songs that are so loved such as “Ghost Town” and “Paint it Black?”
A mixed response from the media, yes, but I still stand by that album. Ok, there were a couple of tracks that perhaps I wouldn’t have done, but I’m so happy we did “White Lines.” “911 Is a Joke,” I still think sounds really interesting and different. But if there’s snipers out there and they’ve got a good view, they’ll take a shot anyways. We’ve never, ever been bothered by reviews. Of course, everybody loves to have good reviews, but you can’t take them too seriously, because if you do, then you also have to take the really bad ones seriously too.
One of the cover tracks that works best I think is “Psycho Killer.” I love the collaboration with Måneskin’s Victoria De Angelis. How did that one come about?
John and Victoria are pals. They met somewhere and they definitely have a bass guitar in common. They really hit it off and apparently “Psycho Killer” is one of her favorite songs as well as one of ours so John asked her to come and play on it. She came over to London and brought a nice energy. That crazy middle section is nearly all Victoria. For me, I remember when that song came out and thought, “Wow! What’s that—I’ve never heard anything like it.” The lyric is so great and David Byrne’s delivery is spectacular. For me, they are the greatest American band of their time.
The final song on the album, “Confessions in the Afterlife” somehow sounds eerily familiar. When and how did this one come together?
That’s another we did with Ben—Mr Hudson. We were going for two songs. The first song was “Danse Macabre”—we went uptempo. We got that and then said let’s go for a more moody, darker, slightly Halloween themed thing. Simon had the title and an idea. When he’s got a title and an idea, it’s always a good place to start. I started playing the chords with an organ-type sound. There was something quite ethereal about it, and Simon found his verse melody quickly, then we figured out the song in the studio in a day, in a few hours really. I wanted it to sound in the same vein as the Arcadia song “Missing.” There’s something about that song. I always loved the atmospherics. I remember being in the studio. I was in the control room and everyone else was playing live in the studio. [Producer] Alex Sadkin slowly brought up the faders so that we could hear the guitar and the percussion, the bass, and I was playing the arpeggio part. It sounded so mystical and strange, unlike anything I had ever heard before. That Arcadia album is one of my favorite things we ever did. It took the longest, over a year to make because we were so obsessed with the detail in the sound. For me, Alex was the greatest producer in the world at the time. I am glad it exists and that we made that record. Simon thought he was going on holiday [laughing].
Some closing, quick-fire questions Nick. Your favorite horror movie and character?
Rosemary’s Baby and Dracula.
First thing you wanna do when you come off a tour?
Most prized collectible?
Books. I have a lot of rare photography books. There’s a Japanese one called The Map by Kikuji Kawada, which is extremely rare at this point. I bought it many, many years ago. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Most inspirational visual artist?
I could go back to Caravaggio, Andy Warhol for sure, Jean Cocteau. Cocteau on many levels is my biggest super-hero. My admiration for him goes back a very, very long time. I don’t think there’s anyone who was as inventive and unique in so many different fields.
Who coined your nickname “The Controller” and when?
I don’t know. It came from the fans I think. It’s funny as I am somewhat of a control freak. I hate not knowing what things are going on that are out of my sight. But in reality as we’ve always said about this band, everybody gets their say, everybody changes decisions by swaying the votes. I think our democracy works better than any political democracy.
Roger Moore, Sean Connery, or Daniel Craig?
Sean Connery, although hats off to Daniel Craig.
Duran song or album you are most proud of?
It’s always the new project, which I know is a cliche. Undoubtedly Rio is the one that had the most impact and launched us to a higher level. That album is pivotal. There are tracks on there that we can’t get out of a building without playing. Also, the TV Mania album I made with Warren [Cuccurullo] is one of the strangest records I ever made, but one I am super-proud of.
How would you describe the period around the making of the Notorious album?
It was a leap of faith. We knew we were taking a big gamble when we made that record. But suddenly, having Nile Rodgers in the band, having Steve Ferrone on drums, the horns section. It wasn’t our original five-piece, it was something entirely new, and therefore, artistically, very inspirational. It was around the time that we all had discovered the likes of Sly and the Family Stone which was a real revelation for me. The Fresh album was a huge influence on Notorious.
Closing thoughts on all five members performing live on stage together again in the near future?
We haven’t really discussed that, but of course we hope that Andy’s health remains good. Never say never. We invited Andy to play at the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame. Unfortunately that didn’t come to pass, but if there was something and Andy wanted to play on it, I wouldn’t say no, because the band started that way. We had our disagreements as people, but we all appreciate what we did together musically. Nobody’s ever questioned anybody’s musical taste. Andy’s a great guitarist and I was happy to hear his parts on the new album. It’s what I was hoping for. We’ll have to see how things go. We’ll see.
Courtesy Under the Radar