The Long and Winding Rhodes: Fashion, Staying Power, and Mulletspeak
By Jon Chattman
In the 1980s, Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes was to feathered mullets, headbands, and make-up what George Michael was to ass-hugging jeans and John Oates was to mustaches and wife-beaters. To put it simply, those specific styles defined a decade and always looked hip– well in that particular moment of time anyway.
As a band, Duran Duran, too, defined the decade churning out more hits than Edy’s ice cream does flavors from “Rio” to “Hungry Like the Wolf” to “The Reflex.” There was arguably no bigger band in that decade than Duran Duran. They were on everything from MTV to t-shirts-to teen magazines. Everywhere you looked, there was Simon, Nick, Roger, John and/or Andy. Unlike most 1980s performers, however, when the 1980s passed, the group didn’t go the way of the Kajagoogoo. As a matter of fact, the band, which constantly has transformed itself (band members leave, come back…new ones arrive, leave…old ones come back, leave…rinse, repeat) over the years, remains relevant and cool today. Case in point: their recent release “Red Carpet Massacre” was an electropop frenzy produced by Timbaland and featuring guest vocals by one Justin Timberlake.
To cut to the chase, Duran Duran are like the super hot models the members have dated: they have had a good pair of legs. Can’t get enough of shitty metaphors? Here’s one more: The band are like mustaches – every time you think they’re gone, they come back seemly out of nowhere to become bigger than ever. I had the good fortune to speak with Rhodes earlier this month before a tour date in Cali (The Red Carpet Massacre tour kicked off in Seattle on April 30 – the band plays New York later this month), and asked him about the band’s staying power, their current tour, and what the future might bring.
How excited are you to go on the road in support of Red Carpet?
We’re always excited when we’ve got an album out and we’ve got some new songs to play and touring America. We’ve been doing this since 1981, so we’ve got to know a lot of the country quite well. I can only imagine I must’ve been to more places in America than most Americans. It’s an interesting journey because you come across completely different cultures in almost every state and sometimes even from city to city.
You have so many songs to choose from – how do you choose a set list for the show and the right amount of new songs to perform?
Well, we start off with a huge long list that would probably be about a four-hour show then we slowly widdle it down to the essential ones…the things we really should play. We obviously try to strike a balance between some of the new material and keeping people happy with all the songs they want to hear, and putting a few surprises in there to make the show a little bit more interesting. Then when we play them, we see how things go down with the audience and how they react. We don’t always keep every single song that is just the one that goes down best – we try to find that balance to make it interesting.
I think if you just go and play a pure greatest hits show, sure lots of the audience are happy but then you’ve got a whole load of the audience that are actually pretty unhappy because they’ve seen that maybe a couple times before and they want to come and hear some of the new songs or something obscure that you haven’t played before. So it’s just really balanced. This is a very interesting set that we have this time. It’s just over a couple hours long so there’s plenty of time to cover everything but it’s broken down into three acts. It was taken and developed from our broadway show that we did for a couple weeks in November to launch the Red Carpet Massacre album.
Can you describe it?
The first act is a mixture of a bunch of the new songs with some very familiar material. The second act is what we call the electro set where it’s Duran Duran’s version of the acoustic moment in the show except ours is completely electronic. It’s the four of us in front of keyboards and electronic drums and we’ve rearranged and broken down some of the hits, one of the songs off Red Carpet Massacre, and a cover version of the song by The Normal called “Warm Leatherette.” We just play all of those sort of in the front of the stage and that’s been going down incredibly well with the audience. It’s very, very different. I mean I’ve never ever seen a rock band do it before. Of course, it’s sort of our homage to our roots to people like Kraftwerk. That’s about 20-odd minutes of the show then the third part is really sort of all the hits and more.
Are there any songs that you simply don’t want to play anymore but you know you have to?
No. People say this but honestly you can play a song, and you’ve got an audience of thousands and thousands of people there who are going absolutely nuts and love that song. It does usually put smile on your face. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve played it. Really we’ve got enough that we can swap things around. I mean we usually play “Rio”in the set, but honestly if it comes to a point one night that we say ‘oh, lets take it out tonight,’ we’ll give them something else instead. We’ll put in “Wild Boys” or “Hungry like the Wolf.” There’s always a balance there.
Are there any surprises on this tour? Any songs you haven’t played in a long time ?
On and off, we’ve been performing a bunch of them on this tour. “New Religion” off the “Rio” album we hadn’t played for a long time. We played that a little bit when we were in Australia. When we were in Japan, we did “White Lines” off the “Thank You” album, which we hadn’t done in awhile…”Last Chance on the Stairway” in the electro set, which I think the last time we played that was probably 1982. We always swap things around, and I’m sure during the tour we’ll get the urge to try something new off of one of the albums and work it up in a soundcheck somewhere.
Would you ever perform any Arcadia songs?
Funny enough – John, who obviously wasn’t in Arcadia, said recently he’d really love to do “Election Day.” We sort of prepared it and figured out what certain things are and what sounds we need and all these kind of things, but we haven’t rehearsed it yet. So yeah, that’s going to be coming into the battalion. We like to keep adding things to our repertoire so that we’ve got some choice. We can draw from so many songs now. That one we haven’t gotten around to.
I love that record…
I’m very proud of that. For that period, when you hear it now, and I haven’t heard it literally for about 15 years until a few years ago, I was very pleased with how its held up sonicly… We played with some amazing people on that record Sting, Grace Jones, Herbie Hancock – amazing people.
And you continually play with amazing people. Timbalake and Timberland are on this record. Any chance one or both of them might turn up on this tour for a surprise cameo?
Those things if they ever happen, they usually like you said, somebody’s in town and say ‘hey we’re here,’ and we say ‘want to do one of those songs with us?’ Justin has such a ridiculously busy schedule like ours but at a teenage speed. I hope he gets to see the tour somewhere.
Was working with Justin and Timbaland an effort to change your sound or did you simply want to work with them?
We particularly wanted to work Timbaland as we’d been huge fans from very early on with all Missy Elliot and his own material. Then when we heard Justin’s album and Nelly Furtado’s album, we thought ‘well he’s gone completely over into our area really.’ I mean he’s making terrific dance, pop records. So he seemed like the perfect choice for us. We always worked well with urban producers – Timb and Danja are kind of the Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of their time. So we were very excited about that.
Justin had spoken to us a little about working together, which we of course said ‘yeah that’ll be terrific.’ He was apt to be in New York when we were doing sessions with Timb and said ‘can I join for a day.’ So we were thrilled. Having another musical mind in the studio like that, there was a lot of ideas floating around. The track “Nightrunner” particularly I mean that was done with Timb, Justin and Danja. We never worked with that many collaborators before but actually I see why they do it. Because there’s always someone to raise the game a little bit higher. It was a really good experience for us. With Justin, he said he grew up listening to “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” and I think he and Simon really bonded over the melodic structures of the songs. I think we made a different special sounding record.
It’s so different yet it still sounds like a Duran Duran record…
Oh, absolutely. We didn’t want to make a hip hop record. We wanted to make something that was ours but also get the best of those guys out there. Timb’s beats are as good as anyone’s out there in the whole world. Songs like “Skin Dive” and “Nightrunner” are great examples of how that’s worked.
And I hear you’re doing a show with Mark Ronson in Paris…
I had no idea he was a fan. I think he made two of the best records from last year – his own solo record and Amy Winehouse’s record. He’s got a real talent for melody and arrangements, and there’s a little bit of old school in there that I quite like. We’re doing an event together. He’s going to do a bit of remixing and then we’re going to play the songs live and see what we can do with them. I’m very excited about that.
Do you think it could lead to another album or are you taking baby steps here?
Baby steps at the moment, but there’s quite a lot of work to do. I’m sure if we have a great time and like what we’ve created, there’s a strong possibility we’ll want to do more.
Do you ever feel Duran Duran is underrated at all?
You know I’m not really like that. We’ve sold an awful lot of records, and we’ve had a very loyal audience which is what’s really mattered to us over the years. Critically, we’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but you know when you’re trying to do something radically different chances are critics don’t like it until much later anyway.
I remember when we first came out, we were absolutely annihilated by rock critics because they all thought music should be about Bruce Springsteen and whoever was writing these serious rock songs getting up there in their jeans and t-shirts, which was the antithesis of what we were doing. We wanted to change things. We didn’t want to see that stuff. We wanted to turn music into this multimedia experience and to do something that really blended rock music with disco, punk, electronic music and make this hybrid sounding new. I think when you do those things you have to be prepared to let history review it all later.
Still, you guys have had legs. Every time you seem down or out, you come back with a hit album. How have you been able to stay around and more importantly, stay relevant?
We’re really sort of a band’s band. It never ceases to amaze me. We were playing a festival or something [a few years ago] and all the other bands at the festival were all fans. A lot of really heavy bands and then deeply electronic bands and then all the hip hop crew and it’s quite diverse [were watching us perform]. Honestly, we see ourselves as an art school project. On each record, we don’t go out there and say ‘hey let’s write a Billboard #1 ‘ – listen I loved to have one, but we’re out there saying ‘what can we do with this? How should we develop our sound?’ Or ‘ooh, that’s an interesting story should we write a lyric about that?’ We get in a room together and start fiddling with gadgets and playing music together and trying to inspire each other to do something really different. We’re just not a traditional band.
I think a lot of bands, when they get to a certain point, are very set in their ways and they think ‘listen we’ve got our sound and we don’t really need anyone messing with this and I’m not sure we want open up things and write with other people.’ Duran Duran is just the complete opposite of that. We’re always looking for something new. We’re incredibly open minded, and we were thrilled that young producers want to work with us and are fans of the band. I mean one of my favorite albums we ever made was one of our worst selling albums Medazzaland. I think artistically for that time the sort of things that we were doing and how we ended up with all the tracks, and what mixes sounded like and the lyrics and the energy, it was one of our better ones. It’s completely about music.
When you look back to your hair, makeup, etc. in the 1980s, what do you think of it now?
Um, well if you look back at any pictures from any decade, you’ll look at the style, the clothes, the hair, and you can almost identify the year. We were definitely guilty of being part of that. I can certainly say when I look at a picture of myself which year it was and it’s usually because of the clothes or the hair. I have such a good memory that I remember where I was or what I was doing. I think in the 1980s, one can look at the grand mullet and sort of smile a little bit and say ‘why did we do that?’ but I sort of feel like the ’80′s was so much more interesting than the ’90s stylistically. Think about fashion just for a minute- the ’80′s were responsible for Gorgio Armani, Gianni Versace, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, Asadina Ilaia, Jean-Paul Goutier… John Richmond, gosh I could keep going… and going. And to a large degree the rise of Calvin Klein and Donna Karin. It was a pretty incredible time. So you had all these incredibly different designers out there shaping the future of what was to come and if you look now and what came out through the ’90′s, the ones that remain your Armanis and the empires… sure, but I think something about ’80′s in all fields – in art, in music, in fashion – people wanted to create a mark and do something entirely different.
I think we lost that in the ’90′s a little bit. People wanted to copy everything -grunge and brit pop. Nirvana I thought were spectacular but after that I wasn’t interested in grunge at all. People wanted to fit in in the ’90′s. It wasn’t about having a different haircut and different clothes, it was more about having the same clothes, the same pair of trainers, and same pair of jeans and if you didn’t, you didn’t fit in.
True story speaking of style. My sister was fascinated with Simon until he showed up with a mullet and unshaven in the “Wild Boys” video…I believe that was the first video Simon appeared with some stubble…
Right. It caused some drama for us. You can let your sister know. We weren’t quite so sure about it, too. Believe me, I was there with my bic Razor or whatever it was – just waiting in the wings.
On another side note, during your “Liberty” tour I literally stepped on your foot outside of Radio City Music Hall while you posed for Japanese photographers. Sorry about that.
Ah, where there ya go. Nothing was broken.
Lastly, what’s next for Duran Duran? What can you do to top yourselves next? A Broadway show?
We’ve got all kind of projects at the moment. Mark Ronson, we’re excited about; we’re going to play in the Louvre – we’re the first band to play there. John and I have started work on a photographic book history of Duran Duran, and then of course, they’ll be the next album. [Until then] at the moment, each tour date I’ll be on stage and I’m actually very excited about that.
Duran Duran fans can link to the band’s profile in the Zune online music community through http://www.zune.net/duranduran