Update: Duran Duran’s show Wed 8/29 at Ravinia is canceled; Nick Rhodes is ill.
Duran Duran was rooted in the British New Romantic movement, which was defined as much by foppish wardrobes as by music. But despite the band’s synthesizer-heavy studio sheen and pastel-drenched look, early smashes like “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” were big, riffy rock songs with hooks as broad and muscular as anything by the uber-butch hard-rock bands they were eclipsing. After sending enough singles up the charts during the 80s to have more or less defined the sound of pop for the decade, Duran Duran found themselves unfashionable at the dawn of the 90s. They continued on, though, and with 1993’s surprise hit “Ordinary World” they proved their continued relevance in a musical ecosystem dominated by alternative rock and hip-hop. Since then they’ve been steadily releasing albums—some good, some much less so—and lately a new generation of synth-pop musicians has inspired a reappraisal of Duran Duran’s early work that highlights its experimental streak.
In this week’s Artist on Artist, keyboardist Nick Rhodes is interviewed by Mia Park, best known for the 14 years she’s spent as straight woman to sarcastic, pun-loving puppet cohost Ratso on Chic-a-Go-Go—a brilliantly anarchic music-and-dance show on CAN TV that’s a favorite of kids and hipster grown-ups alike. She’s also performed in some two dozen rock, jazz, and Korean folk groups around town over the past two decades. Currently
she drums she’s a percussionist in Girl Group Chicago, a 21-piece all-female pop orchestra that covers songs from the girl-group era, and she’s recently begun playing the Indian devotional music called kirtan, which dovetails with her longtime practice as a student and teacher of yoga. —Miles Raymer
I wanted to ask you about inspiration, and start off with a personal story. So a few years ago, way before [the 2010 Duran Duran single] “Girl Panic!,” I started a female Duran Duran cover band, and it was a lot of fun. I ended up turning the show into this huge fund-raiser, and I’ve been doing it annually. So thank you for the inspiration, for causing this cover band to raise all this money for this women’s homeless shelter. Thank you, I’m glad to hear that.
And I have another quick story. My friend Marie Walz has a blog called “Nick Rhodes. Outer Space. Waffle.” And I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but she puts together these classic designs of you in beautiful outer-space sceneries, with different waffles, and it’s quite lovely. So this is a way that your inspiration is kind of filtering through to our reality.
What I’m wondering is, what inspires you these days? Well, inspiration, it’s such a difficult one, isn’t it? Because I think if we knew exactly where it came from, then I would bottle it and sell it for a lot of money, and there’d be a long queue every day—we’d never close. But personally I know where some of it comes from for sure. It can be a conversation that I just had with a friend; it can be something I saw on television or read in the newspaper; it can be a painting or a photograph that I’ve seen; it can be a book that you’ve just read, a movie you’ve just watched; it can be a child’s drawing. It’s really the things that you’re surrounded with and how you interpret them and what kind of emotional impact that they have on you. For me to be inspired personally to write a piece of music or a lyric, then I definitely need to have had something that has affected me in a way that’s enough to want to create something relating to that. I mean, “Girl Panic!,” for example, was inspired by one beautiful girl across a room—and pure fantasy, really, from then onwards.
But you know, it really does vary with songs. “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” the inspiration for that . . . I had the title as a rough title, because I’d started it as an instrumental—[producer] Mark Ronson had asked whether I could go and create something sort of from the same DNA as “The Chauffeur.” And so I said sure, let’s see what happens. So I went off and started doing something, and I needed to give it a title so that we could find it and log it in the computer, so I called it “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” thinking, well, we’re never gonna use that. So that’s OK, because it won’t interfere with Simon [Le Bon] writing something. Because sometimes when you give songs titles, the rough title can stick, and it’s not quite good enough and then it creates all kinds of problems. So I thought no, we won’t use that. Then we became so fond of it as a title that John [Taylor] said, “I really think we ought to write it as ‘The Man Who Stole a Leopard.'”
So I started thinking about it more and took the inspiration from several different things. One, the book and the movie The Collector, which is about a man who captures a girl and keeps her prisoner. Another source of inspiration was “The Gift,” the Velvet Underground song, which John Cale does a rather macabre monologue over the whole thing and tells a story. You know, you just pick up different influences from different places. And I suppose the title itself, “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” would certainly be a nod towards “The Man Who Sold the World.” So many, many different things, but obviously what you’re trying to do, wherever you take influence, is come up with something that’s ultimately unique.
So do you feel that—it seems to me that you’re really in your dharma. I’m also a yoga instructor, and so I frame the world through people fulfilling their dharma, which to me means fulfilling what their purpose in this lifetime around is. And it seems to me that you’ve found that. You’ve been in the band for so long, and I remember your Polaroid exhibits and your different creative ventures outside of just music. So do you feel that you’re walking the path that you’re destined for? Like, is there something else you want to do? Well, as I was saying to someone a little earlier today, if anyone had asked me three decades ago, well, do you think you’re still going to be doing this, do you think you’re still going to be in a band, I would have just laughed, because you never know whether you’re going to be in a band for more than three months. Even three decades later—yes, of course, we’re planning already next year and we’re very excited about going to the studio again, but the bottom line of it is, you never know when somebody’s going to change their mind or make a different decision or. . . . It was nearly all over when Simon lost his voice last year. We had no clue whether he was ever going to be able to sing again. And it was obviously at this stage worrying for all of us, particularly for Simon, but when things like that happen, you just don’t know. It seems at this point as if I’d had a stable job for a long time. Duran Duran has been a vehicle for all of us within the band to be able to express ourselves in many different ways with the things that we like to do. So obviously there is the songwriting and the live performance, but then we’ve got to work with some of the greatest artists in music, film, photography, fashion—and those sort of collaborations are part of what we’ve done and kept the whole thing exciting for us.
Yeah. Is there anything personally that you’d like to venture off to? Oh, lots of things. I still would like to write and direct a film, which is something I’ve been talking about for probably a quarter century at this point.
Right. I think I remember reading that many times too! There’s a point where you have to just shut up and actually do it and not talk about it anymore or just forget about the idea and understand that it was a pipe dream. That one is still very high on my list, for sure. Photography I continue to do all the time, so I have a vast archive now, and that is something that I keep getting asked to do books and exhibitions, and I think I really am ready to start unfolding that a little bit over the next couple of years. So that would be fun.
I think that you will get to the movie. I know you’re so busy creating music and supporting the music you’re creating with touring and interviews like this, but I have a feeling that you’re gonna make an amazing movie. Well, I hope you’re right because it’s still a big ambition for sure.
Are you gonna write and direct it? That’s what I would like to do, but again, as I say, you never really know what shape these things are coming in. Certainly I have several ideas that I’ve developed over the last few years that I feel could be worthy of doing a project, but making movies I think is much harder than making records. ‘Cause at least when you’re making a record you’ve just got yourself to answer to, and when you’re a band you all just work together and figure it out, but making a movie requires quite a lot of people and a lot more organization and a lot more money too.
Are you good at organizing your projects, say like a movie? You know, I’m very good at organizing—if anything I think we all suffer from the same thing, in that we try to do a little too much. And for sure we’re ambitious as artists, which I think can be a great thing, because it keeps driving you, it helps you produce new things and trying to do things that are a little bit further out there than perhaps you can reach. But at the same time, 30 years of Duran Duran has been what has prevented me from doing movies and doing more photography and writing a book and whatever else it might be that’s in my head, because there simply isn’t enough time.
Right, right. It’s kind of a really wonderful dilemma to have. It is a lovely dilemma. I’m certainly not complaining, I’m just purely illustrating.
Is there anything last-minute that you want to add? It’s interesting, always, to be talking about inspiration, because it’s that thing that’s in the ether that you can’t put your finger on, but when you do and it happens, it’s the most special uplifting moment you can imagine.
Yeah. I don’t know if you’re a spiritual person, but I almost see it as transference. I mean that’s what Plato talked about too, it’s just kind of, we’re vessels—like the bard is someone who transfers all this information from the heavens and relating it to our human experience, right? Personally, I’m sort of agnostic about all those things. I’d love to think there’s other forces at play, I’d love to think there’s aliens up there that are going to come and land and actually be friendly and help us do Rubik’s Cube much quicker one day, but I’m somewhat uncertain. I’m a big advocate of science and what that brings to us, and as it all unfolds and we learn so much more about the universe and about how the human body works and about our very nature, that to me is the most fascinating thing. But I never rule anything out. I like the unexpected.
Well, that’s great, thirty-some years of being in the same band—as you say, that’s very unexpected. Yeah, ironically, yes.
The same thing in an unexpected way—how’s that? Yes, indeed.