A&E

The Weekly interview: Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes talks Elton, Bowie

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Rhodes (second from left) and Duran Duran released a new album this month.
Stephanie Pistel
Annie Zaleski

Synth-pop sophisticates Duran Duran are celebrating the release of 14th studio album Paper Gods, a strikingly modern collection of sleek electro-pop and dance music, with an impressive list of guests (Janelle Monáe, Kiesza, John Frusciante) and collaborators (Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Kanye West producer Mr. Hudson).

Prior to the band’s performance at the iHeartRadio Festival—and in advance of Saturday’s Life Is Beautiful appearance—keyboardist Nick Rhodes chatted about those cameos, balancing past and present, and the artists he and his Duran Duran bandmates are enjoying these days.

Duran Duran has a long history with Las Vegas. Do you have any enduring memories of playing in the city, or being there? Oh, loads. I remember the first time, at the MGM Grand. We thought, “We’re playing in a hotel? This is so strange!” because the rest of the tour was all arenas. Of course, it had an arena in the hotel! We weren’t used to that kind of scale, and as we all know, Vegas is an anomaly. It’s very different than anywhere else in the world, and I rather love it for that alone.

We’ve been there so much over the years, I have a real fondness … [although] we rarely have enough time to see the shows. I’ve seen several of the Cirque du Soleil shows, particularly the Beatles show, which I thought was great. I always want to go and see some of these other crazy ones, the magic shows and the showgirl shows, and the more obscure things, the cult things. I never quite have the time. Which is why, of course, everyone keeps coming back—because you never have the time to do everything in Vegas.

I could see Duran Duran putting together a pretty interesting Vegas residency at some point. You know, I wouldn’t rule it out, because I think things have changed very, very much. There was possibly before a little bit of a stigma that Vegas was for a certain type of entertainer. Probably more of the torch singer, and the middle-of-the-road artist and things. But as we’ve seen with Elton [John] doing amazing shows there, and people like Britney Spears doing shows there now, it’s very, very different. It’s much more modern, and people can do very, very special things there. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. We’ve been approached a few times, and we haven’t found the right space or opportunity yet, but you never know.

At this point, whenever Duran Duran releases a record, I’m not sure what it’s going to sound like. We don’t have a clue what it’s going to sound like either when we start. We try to literally wipe the board clean—it’s tabula rasa. What do we do? How do we reinvent this? How do we do something that interests us, and something that hopefully people somewhere might like? Sometimes the journey takes you somewhere that you’ve been, but somehow everything looks different. Other times, you enter a zone where you think, “Wow, what is this landscape? This is quite interesting; we haven’t been here.”

This album has a combination of both of those things. It’s got some more traditional Duran Duran influences, from the dancefloor and electronic music, but we’ve also brought in some sounds, some sonic architecture into the songs which we haven’t really used at all before. That makes it more interesting for us, and more challenging. We always say to ourselves, “Well, if we’re going to do another album, then let’s make it worthwhile for everyone. Let’s make something that we all love, and something that we feel proud of that we can put out and people can listen to. Otherwise, let’s not bother.” And inevitably, that turns into an 18-month-to-two-year process. In this case, it was two years.

What was the biggest challenge for you guys as you were putting the album together? We thought, in a way—as we always do—that it was important to try to make a different statement with it. On the last album, which we did with Mark Ronson, the All You Need Is Now album, we had, for the very first time in our careers, actually looked back and said, “Right, let’s use our own past as an influence.” We particularly looked back at the period around the Rio album, because Mark had said, “Well, if you were to make a record [that was the] follow-up to Rio now, what would it be? What instruments would you have? How would it sound? How would you write the choruses? How would we stack the vocals up?” And actually, it was quite appealing, because having someone like Mark onboard, we knew he would make it sound very modern, as well as using some of the elements we may have used back then. I think it produced a really interesting album for us.

But this time, we wanted to swing away from it again, because we said, “Okay, we’ve done that now. Let’s do something super-modern—but let’s do something that’s elegant and something that retains our values and all the influences that we’ve always liked, but also touches upon the new artists we like, or the new sounds that we like within hip-hop and EDM and other modern music out there. Let’s bring a little more into our sound.” It was a challenge trying to decide what worked with the sound, and what didn’t.

I can make you a record that sounds in the same vein as Diplo or Skrillex or Kanye—it won’t be their records, of course, they’re all individually very talented at what they do—but sonically, we could make something like that. But I think also it would be somewhat inappropriate, because although it might sound really modern, it wouldn’t sound like Duran Duran. And it wouldn’t have a lot of the elements in it that are very true to what we have always loved. We really had to make decisions that we thought were fitting for the band that felt natural, that we could go and play live, and that didn’t jump on a bandwagon, but learned from what’s out there. It was a very interesting exercise, I have to say.

Mr. Hudson’s production on the things he’s done, and on Paper Gods, is very modern and elegant. It’s not very overbearing; it enhances the artists he’s worked with. Ben [Mr. Hudson] is a really great musician and producer. He’s pragmatic and intelligent, and he’s got great taste, which are three of the things you really do need to hold that position. He’s got a fantastic pedigree—he worked with Kanye and Jay Z, a lot of people who have made some great, modern records. Equally he’s got one foot very firmly in British music, and appreciates a lot of artists we’ve grown up with.

He’s a big David Bowie fan, and anyone from my generation who grew up in Britain—and I’m sure a lot of people in America, too—understand how important David Bowie was to the development of what happened. After The Beatles for me, it was really David Bowie. The Beatles owned the ’60s, and David Bowie owned the ’70s. Ben could tell you as much about David Bowie’s catalog as almost anyone. And so it’s that fantastic balance that he has, between understanding and appreciating the history of great pop, rock, dance music, and being able to create beautiful sounds for cutting-edge modern artists.

And we found out he was actually from Birmingham [England], which is where our band started. We had no clue before we went into the studio, but it’s one of those small ironies, that people that are from this place that isn’t as obvious—it isn’t London or New York or Los Angeles—it’s somewhere slightly off the map. Big city, but slightly off the map. And he happened to be from about three miles from where we grew up. We bonded very, very quickly with him on a personal level, and then artistically it just flowed like a waterfall.

Nile Rodgers is also on the record. What was the biggest difference working with him this time as opposed to when you worked with him in the ’80s? Nile’s a force of nature. He always has been; nobody else has Nile’s c.v. I always say this to people, “Do you know everything the guy’s produced?” If you look at it from some of the things I like—Diana Ross to Grace Jones, David Bowie, The B-52s, obviously INXS, Duran Duran. He’s worked with just about everyone. Madonna. And he’s made a lot of their best records. Then there’s all the stuff he’s done on his own—Chic and Sister Sledge. A lot of more esoteric things, and things in different markets, like jazz or funk. It’s pretty remarkable, because he’s quite good at everything. He’s a consummate musician, but if you get Nile at his best—which he certainly is at the moment—he’s quite difficult to challenge on any level from the point of view of a producer, because he plays from his heart. And he plays from his guitar.

For me, he’s the sound of joy. When he starts playing his guitar, I just smile, because it’s so uplifting, and he’s got such an amazing energy about him. He’s just someone you want in a room. If anyone out there has the luxury to have the opportunity to work with Nile Rodgers, I’d say to you, “Do it.” It’ll make your project more interesting. He’ll bring something you wouldn’t expect. That’s Nile—his sound has obviously been in and out of fashion a few times, and at the moment, it’s very much in fashion. That’s helped him back to the position that he should’ve always held, which is pretty much as the world’s greatest funk guitarist.

He only did a couple tracks with us on this album. He did the single, “Pressure Off,” and “Only in Dreams,” which were co-productions between him and Mark Ronson. And also Mr. Hudson got involved. What really happened is we had a couple of days with Nile and Mark where we just jammed and came up with some stuff, some grooves. And then they both had to run off to do other things, so then it was left to us and Ben to go into the studio and make songs out of it. What we had as raw material—bass, drums, guitars and some keyboards—was very compelling. It inspired those songs. You can’t quantify what everyone does—you just know that when people are there together, something happens.

Mark’s big idea for our album was, “Let’s get Nile. I’ve always wanted to work with Nile, and I’ve known him since I was a kid. Please, can I work with you with Nile?” We just looked at him and thought, “Well, why didn’t we think of that? Of course.” Those are the sort of ideas that are invaluable, because we hadn’t come up with that idea at that time, at that point. Of course we could’ve emailed Nile, but it took Mark to be smart enough to say, “Yeah, why don’t we do that?”

We felt very, very lucky to have the two of them together. It’s an incredible team. The energy was fantastic when we were all in the room together. Imagine we’re in this room with the guy who’s just come up the back of “Get Lucky” being the biggest hit of the last two years, and Mark had just played us his rough mix of “Uptown Funk” which was about to come out. We’re all sitting together saying, “What should we do?” With that kind of combination, it’s inevitable—it’s like dynamite. It’s going to go bang.

That’s the Nile and Mark thing. It was great to have them for these things. And what they produced along with us, “Pressure Off,” is probably the most accessible single we’ve put out for a decade.

And Janelle Monáe, who’s on the song. Talk about a force of nature. She’s just indomitable. She was our first choice. Often with something like that, they’re not available or they just don’t fancy the idea. She was in immediately, and said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” That was perfect for us. [Vocalist] Simon [Le Bon] very much wanted an American soul singer with an attitude—someone cool and funky. And Janelle just ticked every box.

[“Last Night in the City” guest vocalist] Kiesza—what a voice too. Just fantastic. We were so taken aback by her beautiful energy, and even more by her astonishing, glass-shattering diva voice. It’s so pure. We’d seen her video for the song “Hideaway,” and it’s very special.

We’d said [to our publisher], “Do you have anyone [for this song]? We don’t necessarily need a big name, we just want someone who’s really got this voice that is just glass, that will cut through everything, with a real personality to it, and an energy.” He said, “Yeah, of course. It’s Kiesza. You want Kiesza.” So we said, “Okay, let’s try it out.” She was in London a few weeks later, and she came to the studio and she blew us away. She’s a superstar, that one. Of many of the singers I’ve come across in the last couple of decades, she’s one that is going to be with us for a long time. Very, very, very talented—we all adore her. We want to adopt her.

You need to bring her on tour, so she can come out and sing “Last Night in the City” with you guys. She guested with us [on The Today Show]. She looked amazing! She’s got the most incredible outfit on—quirky, mad, beautiful outfit. [And] there was the voice that’s on the record. We’d have her with us anytime. Well, and Janelle, too—let’s not have favorites. Janelle is equally as great, but in a very different way.

The way you’re describing everything, it seems like recording Paper Gods was a really positive experience. It was. All the guests were revelations, for sure. John Frusciante had sent [bassist] John Taylor an email saying, “Hey, I hear you’re in the studio—I’d love to play some guitar on the tracks for you, if you’re interested.” John [Taylor] came in and said to us, “I just got this note from Frusciante—what do you think?” We just looked at each other and laughed, and said, “Well, he’s probably the best guitarist in the world right now, isn’t he? Why would we possibly not want him?” He delivered amazing gifts.

It was like that. Once we start getting the guests, once we opened that Pandora’s Box, it was really fascinating to suddenly have different sounds within the Duran Duran sound. The process itself, though—we worked hard down in the mines for about a year before we actually even found a direction that we liked. It was really when we brought Ben on board that he helped pull the strings together and focus what we had, and brought a little bit of modern technology into the rhythm side of the sound. And suddenly it all focused.

Ideally, we would’ve done the whole album in a few months—three months or something. It rarely works out like that if you want to make something very special. Certainly it doesn’t for us; maybe other artists are able to pull these rabbits out of hats. Maybe you get it with a song—but you don’t get it with a whole album.

And we are so meticulous about what deserves to be on an album. We grew up in the 1970s, when we were buying these David Bowie albums, and lots of other great artists, too—Roxy Music, Sparks, Cockney Rebel, Giorgio Moroder. And these records, every single track on them deserved to be on the album. You didn’t want to miss a track—there was no shuffle, there was no, “Oh, let’s just buy one track.” If you loved the album, you bought the album. And that’s really stayed with us.

We’ve embraced the iTunes generation, and modern listening methods, but for us, the most brilliant format for modern music is still really the album. It’s the whole listening experience, as presented by the artist, when they’ve got something worth presenting. We still think about the tracklist; we don’t just stick it on there and think, “Well, they’re going to press shuffle anyway.” Ultimately, we think this is the best order that things should be listened to. I have absolutely no objection to anyone buying a track or saying, “I want to listen to it backwards.” But for us, there’s a reason we’ve done it like this.

I know you like David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, which is the same way. There’s no filler on it, and it’s sequenced in an interesting, meticulous way. It completely hangs together. Completely, because that’s the only way you could listen, unless you picked up the needle on the record and dumped it on another track. That’s the way you listened to things. So people were very careful about how they put together the sequencing. It’s actually, to me and certainly everyone else in my band, a real art form. It’s sort of what DJs do now. We might all mostly listen to music differently, in that we stick it on shuffle or go onto iTunes and buy a few tracks. But DJs are the ones that actually say, “No, this is the order. This is what works next to this. And I’m going to play that, because the tempo of this is going to go up a little bit.” There’s a reason that these DJs have sort of become superstars, because people relate to that experience.

That’s interesting, because a lot of superstar DJs don’t necessarily get much credit for their artistry. It’s a very different kind of artistry. Some of them are incredibly talented, and also make great records and do great remixes. Other ones just play tracks. And the ones that just play tracks, I understand why some people might be a little more cynical and say, “What are you doing? You’re just playing a record after another one? I do that at home every night. So why should you have a huge audience adoring you?” I get that. The ones that are hugely successful, there’s usually a reason. They’re either particularly good at just doing that, or actually they’ve got a greater talent in that they are able to mix, curate, create other stuff.

Do you have any favorites that you’ve been enjoying lately? We all love the Tame Impala album—I think it’s very special. It’s unusual, and it’s well-conceived. I’ve heard a lot of dance stuff out there that’s come out over the last year or so that I like—the Caribou record I like, the Jungle record, “Busy Earnin’”, I thought that was a great song. FKA Twigs, I think that’s an unusual album. There’s really cool stuff out there, there always is. The difficulty now is finding it. Usually a few things like those that I mentioned, they rise up, though, don’t they?

I’ve had this discussion with several musicians. There’s so much music out there, it’s almost like option paralysis. You have so many choices. I agree, that’s the wonder and the horror of what the Internet has done. It’s very hard to really find the right things, unless somebody tells you, or you just trust whatever’s at the top of lists and charts, or you find someone whose opinion you really trust. You need curators. That’s what DJs on the radio used to be. Long ago, when I was growing up in England, we had a DJ called John Peel who’s become quite a legend—sadly, no longer with us. He used to choose the most amazing things, and bring stuff from all over the world. It’s the most inspiring thing you can hear, because he taught us all something. He taught us that it wasn’t just about the Top 10 in the charts—there was actually something that might be much more interesting. But equally, then there was a lot less [music]. I’m sure even to him, whose entire life was dedicated to finding these quirky, incredible bits of music, I think now he would’ve found it quite overwhelming.

I’m very lucky, because I’m surrounded by other band members that love music. John is particularly good at finding things. I don’t know where he finds his time to listen to all this stuff, but he’s always saying, “I think you might like that.” And he’s usually right; he knows what I like. He introduces me to a lot of stuff. I don’t have to trawl around quite as much. But I do rely upon a few friends who discover great things to send me.

Duran Duran September 26, 9:20 p.m., Life Is Beautiful's Downtown Stage.

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