Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes on Releasing Long Lost Side Project
The history of rock is littered with legends of albums never quite completed. In the case of TV Mania: Bored With Prozac and the Internet?, longtime Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo, guitarist for the band from 1986 to 2001, had actually finished their side project in 1996 before losing it entirely. Seventeen years later, this experimental, sample-heavy concept album has finally been released.
The only Duran Duran member to have weathered all of his band’s many personnel changes, Nick Rhodes, the 50-year-old musician born Nicholas Bates, spoke to Rolling Stone about making music about pop culture from within the belly of the beast.
What was the inspiration behind this album?
We were working in London on a Duran Duran album, Medazzaland. Simon hit a brick wall with the lyrics, and said, “Look, I wanna take a few weeks out to try and find the right subject matter. I like the songs; we just gotta get this right.” So we had a little downtime, and Warren Cuccurullo, our guitarist at the time, and myself, we didn’t want to stop working. There was a TV show on every day at 2 p.m. when we’d start work called Planet Fashion, and the people being interviewed always said things that were song titles waiting to happen. One day I said, “Warren, we should sample some of ’em, put them in my keyboard, and I can alter the pitches and we could write songs.” So he started recording, and that’s how we ended up with titles like “Beautiful Clothes” and “I Wanna Make Films” and “You’re Dreaming Pal.” And when we started piecing it together, we managed to make these musical tapestries with lots of samples and old rhythm units mixed in with super high-tech things from television, analog synthesizers, and harsh digital sounds.
We created something that I think is truly unique, and when I took it to our record label, EMI/Capitol, needless to say, they thought we’d gone completely crazy. They were awaiting their Duran Duran album with some finely crafted pop songs, and we brought this strange art piece made by a couple of Dadaists in Battersea. They just said, “I don’t think it’s for us.”
At that point, we were gonna go off and release it independently because we had finished the album in 1996. But it ended up being shelved because we then wanted to complete the Duran album. A few years passed because we went on tour, made another Duran Duran album, and then the reunion of our original lineup happened, so it just got lost. I thought it was gone forever. Then one day 18 months ago, I was searching through one of our tape storage places trying to find a Duran track to digitize and I opened a little DAT [digital audio tape] box that was mislabeled and inside was the TV Mania album. I didn’t even have a DAT player anymore; it’s one of those lost formats. So I had to get one, and I was really happy when I heard it because it’s aged rather well. It’s a real time capsule.
You had intended to turn it into a Broadway musical?
It was written as a concept album about a dysfunctional family. The father was an extremist, obsessed with religion. The mother was addicted to pharmaceutical drugs and spent most of her time looking at the Internet. Her son was completely infatuated with online games and learning the skills of hacking. And the daughter, a very beautiful girl, just wanted to be famous for no particular reason. We imagined this scenario where scientists had been looking for a family to study why our society was crumbling. They found this family, this ideal mixture of stereotypes, and were going to put them in a house with surveillance cameras, seal them off completely, and monitor all their behavior. The TV channels offered the scientists so much money that they caved in, and it became an international show. That was the premise – before Survivor or Big Brother. The Truman Show came out some months after we completed the record. Warren and I saw that and thought, “Wow, there goes that idea.” Obviously there were a lot of people thinking the same things. We never finished everything because it was going to be a couple of albums long. The second album was going to be slightly more traditionally song-based.
Why release it now?
One, because I found it. Two, because it’s much easier. One of the great ironies to me is was that I wanted Medazzaland to be the first album sold digitally online. The technology was barely available, but I found a company called Liquid Audio, and the first single from that album, “Electric Barbarella,” actually became the first track to be sold as a digital download in 1997. We subsequently got banned by every major record store in America. They were completely horrified by it and, in hindsight, you can see why, but I thought that this was the future. It was clearly such phenomenal technology that Napster had, but it didn’t take so much to see the devastating effect it was gonna have on the industry if everybody started stealing music. I thought it would get sorted out, but instead of adapting the technology and using it sensibly as Apple did six years later with iTunes, the record labels decided upon going down the path of taking a sledgehammer to Mr. Anonymous in Idaho instead of thinking intelligently about what to do with the future of the music business. But that’s all in the past now. We know what happened.
In I Want My MTV, the oral history of MTV, Duran Duran come across as the voice of reason in an insane industry.
I think we’ve always been pretty pragmatic about the industry. MTV certainly was fantastic timing for Duran Duran, and when it started it was all you could ever wish for: 24-hour music on television with videos, interviews and bands popping in – it was really something. But once they decided that game shows were gonna be more successful and they only wanted a playlist of five songs a week. . . The quote I’ll always remember – I saw it on the front of a newspaper – was “Toys ‘R’ Us Wants to Get Out of the Toy Business,” and I thought that was so applicable to MTV. “MTV Wants to Get Out of the Music Business” would’ve been the appropriate headline.
This isn’t intended as a criticism, but there’s never been an artier band more successfully marketed to teen and pre-teen girls than Duran Duran. How did you reconcile that?
Well, I suppose by looking back at the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and other bands that made a lot of music that wasn’t necessarily engineered to be screamed at. It’s very easy to be analytical and say it lost us some of our “rock cred,” but I care so much more about songs and how things sound and the shows we put on, so we never really paused to think about it much because we were too busy doing the things that we wanted to do. The fact our audience enabled us to do that, I’m hugely grateful. I get why it was strange: Believe me, the first time we played “The Chauffeur” [Rio’s droning, synth-heavy final track] and people were screaming and we couldn’t hear what we playing, it was surreal. But you get used to these things. When I took my daughter to concerts when she was younger and there was a lot of excitement in the audience, it creates a different vibe that you don’t get if you just have a load of men in T-shirts shaking their fists in the air.
Your bassist John Taylor writes in his autobiography about the addictiveness of the life lead by Duran Duran. Not just the drugs, which became a problem for him, but the constant stimulation on every level – sex, fame, travel, stress. How did those conditions shape your perspective to make this album, which deals with many of the same issues?
(Laughs) Well, I love pop culture. I love to be inside of it, and step outside and look back in. “Too Much Information,” one of Simon’s great lyrics, was about the overload of the media back then. I think pop culture is the greatest subject matter out there – “Other People’s Lives,” as we wrote about on the last Duran Duran album. Most ideas for great songs come from real situations, something your friend said to you the night before, the girl that just left, or something traumatic in your life. The irony was that Simon was searching deep to find words at the time and we were just taking them from pop culture right in front of us – more like William Burroughs’ cut-up technique than traditional writing.
Why have you chosen to stay with Duran Duran and not do more experimental projects like this one?
Because I can pretty much do whatever I wanna do within Duran Duran, as most members of the band can. I got to work with lots of great people in art, fashion, design, photography. The year before last, we made a film with David Lynch. David prepared loads of original material and he overlaid the band live; we put it out live on the internet, and had over seven million people tuned in at different times looking at this thing that was happening in a theater in L.A. with us playing and David’s beautifully strange imagery being double-exposed over the band. We’re going to put it out at least as a DVD at some stage. Even the producers we got to work with – from Colin Thurston, who worked with Iggy Pop and David Bowie; Alex Sadkin, who worked with Grace Jones and Bob Marley and Talking Heads; and we moved on to Nile Rodgers [Chic, Bowie, Madonna] and more recently we worked with Justin Timberlake and Timberland and then with Mark Ronson on the last album, which was pure joy. Those collaborations have always kept it interesting.
Many rock musicians are now celebrity DJs, but you were one of the first – possibly the first – to have played records in a club, Birmingham’s Rum Runner disco, where Duran Duran was the house band, before you became widely known for playing in a group.
Yeah, I was 16 when I was doing that.
How did that DJ experience shape what came after?
Probably more than I ever think about. It gives you a sense of what works musically – what tempos work, what people like to dance to. The anthropology of it is extraordinary because you can see which songs make girls come onto the dancefloor, and if girls come onto the dancefloor, boys follow. I was playing all the things I liked at the time – Kraftwerk and Ultravox and David Bowie, and then mixing that in with Grace Jones and the Sex Pistols and Frank Sinatra. It was very eclectic, post-punk. We were looking for the new directions.
What do you hear musically and see culturally and think, “I helped make that happen?”
[Laughs] I can’t be that presumptuous. But I have to confess that I have seen stuff over the years after we’ve done it and smiled, whether it’s a magazine layout that looks like our last album cover, or a new young band that sounds somewhat like our first album. It’s nice to see that we possibly had given some inspiration to other musicians. I know how important other musicians were to me and still are to me for what we do and what we create. And I still love music – that’s never gonna go away. If you can be a part of that and pass something on to the next generation, than I think that’s special.