Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes might not be up on your favorite new DJ or band, but he's OK with that.
"Now I think I'm fairly discerning with what I listen to," Rhodes told HuffPost in a recent interview. "Because I don't need to particularly listen to something that is brand new unless it's really great. I'm all for any piece of modern music. Someone tells me, 'You've got to listen to this.' I'll always listen."
Rhodes, 50, says certain new acts have made an impression on him (he likes the Ting Tings' "Shut Up and Let Me Go" and says MGMT's "Kids" has "a completely different feel to it"), but wonders if the relative ease with which one can produce a song nowadays has brought with it a lack of focus on craft. "Are people going to be listening to it like they listen to the Beatles now, or whoever else who has endured?" Rhodes asked. "I'm not sure of that. I think the quality of songwriting is what we miss through the convenience of technology."
If that sounds like cynicism, it's not. Rhodes has always been on the forefront of technological shifts in the music industry (read below about his battle to release the first legal download) and finds such questions to be of great inspiration.
That's where TV Mania comes in: The side project of Rhodes and Duran Duran guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, TV Mania recorded an album of found samples, original instrumentation and vocals. The band made "Bored with Prozac and The Internet?" in the mid-nineties, well before we collectively decided that splaying our private lives on Twitter and Facebook was smart living. It was then lost, buried in tape storage where Rhodes recently uncovered it while digitizing other archival material.
When he happened upon the album years later, he couldn't help feeling it was a cipher of our current society (after all, "Big Brother" is in its 15th season in the United States, and the show is a global phenomenon). Confidence ratings in many modern institutions -- from Congress to the news media -- are at or near all-time lows while prescription pill usage skyrockets. When "Bored With Prozac" hits stores on March 11, music fans will be hard-pressed to find a more relevant record. And when the group announces its plans to "franchise" out TV Mania licenses to those who wish to create modern takes on the same theme, marketing gurus and tech-heads alike will be pleased to see a couple of 50-somethings putting young hipsters on notice.
We caught up with Rhodes to talk TV Mania and take stock of his decades long career in music. Along the way, he discussed MTV's descent into irrelevancy and the differences between the cult of celebrity Duran Duran helped create and the transmuted form of fame that today's Justin Biebers must confront. An edited transcript of the conversation is available below.
Did you stay up like [Duran Duran singer] Simon Le Bon and watch the Superbowl or is that not of interest?
To be honest, no I didn't. I don't even know how American Football works, but then I don't how most sport works. I play chess. I like the commercials in the Super Bowl. I seem to remember that was very entertaining.
For a lot of us at The Huffington Post it was more about Beyonce. The Beyonce bowl.
Oh did she? And she sung?
Yes, she sung live after all of the controversy with the National Anthem. Do you have any thoughts on that, by the way?.
Not really. I think those things happen. Everybody knows she has a great voice. I don't think it was that necessary. I guess they were probably concerned about the TV stuff. I think if you're doing that, perhaps it's better people know. But I'm sure she'll survive it very well.
Would you be excited about a Super Bowl gig?
Yeah, of course. How could you not be? It's one of the biggest events worldwide that gets such massive viewing figures not only in America but everywhere else. And it's a big audience there in the stadium. If there's an audience there, there's always a reason to play for them.
Let's talk about TV Mania, which focuses on privacy and the internet. Would you say your surprised with how much everyone is sharing online?
But of course. But I think everybody would be. What was clear to me when I found it -- because we really thought we'd lost it years ago because we have so many mountains of tapes everywhere. We'd lost the actual multi-track masters. We still haven't got them. Never seen them. Don't know where they are. They're probably in some studio somewhere in the world where they were mixed and God knows if the studio got shut down and they got thrown away or given to someone. Who knows. But by luck, I was looking for some other tapes in a tape storage and I found the TV Mania master of the actual mixed recordings from 1996. And I had to find an 8track player because I didn't even one to play it on, the format that we were using a lot then that we actually mastered to.
But it was so exciting to me from the point of view that I hadn't got a clue. And I remembered what the songs were but I didn't know whether it would stand the test of time or not. Because that's quite a long time ago. And of course I remembered all the detail of what we were writing about and what the premise was of the whole thing. But the songs themselves, actually putting them on and hearing the sonic quality of them and seeing what they're about and still making me smile a lot, I thought, "Okay, we should really put this out." Because either way, it's a bizarre time capsule. It never intended to be like that. When we shelved it in the first place I was hoping to get to it within a year or so. I'm thrilled to be releasing it.
What happened in that year or so? Were you just busy with other things.?
Well we had started writing it when we were doing the "Medazzaland" album which was '96. Eventually we finished the "Medazzaland" album but we actually finished the TV Mania album before that. Of course, we went to go on the Duran Tour and started promoting the album and then right after that, we did the "Pop Trash" album and then we did the reunion in 2002. That five years vanished very quickly. And it just really is one of those things that got lost and I didn't know where it was. And we didn't think about it so much because we were busy doing other things. And I suppose the other thing that happened was when we wrote it, it was quite a unique idea because it was truly written as a musical. I got the whole thing planned out to Broadway. I wanted to wire everybody's seats up and put virtual reality headsets in there so at certain points in the set they would put these things on and experience this different visual along with the music. And we started talking to people about raising the money to do it, which of course, that got very complicated because it was quite futuristic as well. And not traditional, sort of Broadway style. Then "The Truman Show" came out and and Warren and I actually looked at each other and said, "Hmmm, I guess there's a lot of other people out there thinking the same sort of thing at this point.
You were scooped.
Yeah, it was obviously the same sort of thing in the air. You could tell that's where things were going. But we hadn't gone there yet. And then "Big Brother" was announced, and I suppose that was the other reason that we thought we don't want to be copying anything at this point. We should actually put it on the back burner for awhile and maybe we'll rethink what it is. But as I picked it up recently, I realized that it's perfectly fine as it is. We haven't touched it. We haven't re-mixed it. We couldn't. We don't have the master tapes so it's exactly as it was and now it has taken on a different life of its own because it's literally of that period -- all the sounds we used, all the beats we used, all the samples from there and the thoughts we were having about pharmaceuticals, about video surveillance, about the internet, about big brother style reality TV. And we obviously had no thoughts and visions that it would be a TV show. But in our synopsis for the whole thing, we'd initially seen it as scientists wanting to do a study. And it was so fascinating that TV companies begged them to buy the rights to what they were doing with the family. And the number was so overwhelming that they caved in and allowed people to show it on network television and the internet. But I think having the hindsight now and seeing what really unfolded since 1996, it's quite interesting as a document as to what we were personally thinking. And, as I said, clearly a lot of other people were thinking along the same lines.
I think something that is very interesting about you and also Duran Duran is that you've sort of been very successful on a lot of formats, from the early MTV era on. You've also been close with technology, having performed at a big Microsoft launch event in 2003. This project seems like something that is very viral or very internet ready. Is thinking about these themes just a source of inspiration for you?
From the very beginning when we started Duran Duran, John [Taylor] and I had a vision that was much more multimedia. Back then, I believe, most artists were considering at the time -- and this was obviously way way way before the birth of the internet -- but it was wanting to cross pollinate art, photography, cinema, fashion, design, architecture, anything we could. We had a fascination with all those things and getting out visual aspect of the band to be almost of equal importance to everything else. Technology as it developed became not only a very powerful tool but a constant source of inspiration. Not only toward recording in the studio or computers or whether it's new synthesizers or digital effects, or whether you have to broadcast yourself online directly to millions of people instantaneously. Each one of the developments, the CD, obviously downloads, they were all important to music and for artists to be able to communicate. I'm actually very proud of the fact that we were the first band to ever sell a legal download. I remember the time when we did it I had to battle with the record label. They were absolutely insistent that I didn't do it. And it was only down to the foresight of one decent guy there at capital records in America that I finally got them to consent. But it was real uphill battle. And that song, "Electric Barbarella," was then banned by really all the major record chains in America. They refused to stock it. So I have no idea if it would have become a hit or not. But of course, it certainly didn't. And I feel that was one of the contributing factors. You literally couldn't' buy it. And of course online we didn't sell very many really anyway because everyone was terrified of the internet and putting their cards on there. And the payment systems, you didn't have Paypal and any other mechanisms. So it's interesting times.
Before iTunes came along and decided every song should be ninety-nine cents.
Exactly, I think years later, I think iTunes launched in the UK in 2003, and that was 1997 when we did that.
Theres been a sort of buzz about these dance music producers who will say they make a remix or a song on a laptop in four hours and put it out. You're obviously a band, and yourself, blended technology with classic rock elements. Do you feel in any way that rock has sort of been edged out of the pop consciousness a little bit?
I think times change. So they should. I'm all for pop culture dictating where things go. It's very easy to be cynical and say, "We only think the sixties, seventies and eighties, whatever we had, really revolutionized things." But what have kids growing up now got of their own? What's really special and what's going to annoy their parents?
And there isn't a lot. Certainly hip-hop was the major one that happened throughout the nineties. But since then, certainly rock music, there haven't been that many more ideas I don't think. Of course there has been some really good artists who have written great songs. But there's not been movement. I think grunge was the last one. That really was, to me, somewhat recycled punk. But Nirvana, undoubtedly is one of the last great rock bands to come out of America. And there have been plenty of things I have like since then. I like the Killers. I think they're really good. But I don't think they reinvented an entire genre. I think technology has been good. But it's a case of people starting to think about how to use and what to do with it because technology is dangerous in that it makes everything easier to share. There are plenty of producers that can make a whole track in four hours and produce and have it on the radio a week later. Or a day later. But is that track still going to be around in 30 years, 40 years, 50 years time? Are people going to be listening to it like they listen to the Beatles now, or whoever else who has endured. I'm not sure of that. I think the quality of songwriting is what we miss through the convenience of technology.
We also can't experience anything for ourselves anymore without this massive, immediate critical reaction from every voice. Do you think that's been healthy?
I think that one thing that has hit me clearly on the last couple of tours that we did is that I think most people in the audience now don't feel as completely immersed or engaged to me as they used to because half of them are holding their hand up with a mobile phone in it, filming. And I understand the joy of taking something home and saying, "Hey this is what I saw. This is my souvenir. I'm watching it again now." But I wonder really -- that must reduce your enjoyment of seeing a show. I personally like to watch a show live and have that moment live in my head. It's great if there's a crop of professional filmers and then afterwards I can watch it again. But I'm absolutely certain I couldn't stand there with a camera or a device in my hand holding it up watching it through there. Because I really think you lose the moment. So that is true of a lot of things in life now. I do lament the downfall of record stores because there's something so grand about being able to go through and browse through things. Sure you can browse online but not quite the same. And again you lose the atmosphere of being in there and having real people tell you things. And you can look at the recommendations. "If you bought this, then you might this too. Other people have bought this." But the reality of this is it's not the same as having a chat with someone about something. Or just discovering something for yourself in a more real way rather than in cyber world. So, I'm for one hoping that HMVs survive here in the UK because they're literally our last chain and they've suffered recently these enormous problems. But it's a changing world, though. You win some things and you lose some things. The CD was never as good as the album and the MP3 is no where as good as the CD. However, we've traded sound quality and the luxury of an album and the packaging and everything else was traded in for the convenience of the CD and digital quality. And now we've traded that for something that's crushed down even smaller that we don't even need to keep it home. It just lives in our iPod. I get it. And in many ways it is huge progress. But on the quality side, it isn't yet. The thing with the digital realm is that I do think that will improve as bandwidth gets so much faster at an exponential rate. It won't be a big deal to send WAV files instead of MP3s. And they are certainly more comparable to CDs. And that will personally make me more happy.
But isn't also that the point of contact for a lot of musicians has changed. For instance, I know that Justin Bieber has a lot of music fans, but at the same time, if HuffPost Celebrity posts a story about something involving him and his girlfriend, it's generally going to get far more interest than his music. And a lot of people are introduced to these musicians through their personalities -- which is not the case when you were starting out with Duran Duran. Even though image was extremely important to your career, they were still music videos.
I think in that respect, the world is entirely different. When we got into a band, we got into a band because we'd grown up listening to glam rock and punk rock and soul. And we wanted to form a band. And we were a bunch of friends who got together and tried to write some music together and had master plan for how we were going to take over the world and work every single day until we got as close as we possibly could. I think now, there is so much more stuff out there that is manufactured. And that stuff isn't as interesting and never would be as interesting to me, but I get that it caters for a market. It has just become a lot bigger now because of television and the internet. You can promote things so instantly. It's that culture of fame. It's sort of being famous for not really doing so much has generated this imbalance. A game that is very much a part of what the TV Mania project was about. People just wanting to famous.
Wanting to famous for what? It's great to be famous if you invented a cure for some horrible disease. It's great to be famous if you are the fastest guy alive and you don't take enhancing chemicals. It's great to become famous because you've written a beautiful piece of music. But to become famous just to become famous. That is a relatively new phenomenon that came out of the mid-to-late nineties.
When it comes to Duran Duran's work, are there any songs on the albums that are either uncomfortable or unusual and too far removed from your current life at all?
Really it's mostly for other people to judge. I certainly have enough distance from the TV Mania project to just hear it for the first time in many years. With fresh ears though, I'm at least able to make an artistic judgement on it as to whether I thought it was worth putting out. With Duran Duran things, some of them have already survived three decades at this point. I think you've just got to hope time is kind to your music. If you write songs that are honest and that people can relate to, even things with the most abstract lyrics, if it's something that people can relate to and they can get ahold of something that affects them some kind of way, emotionally or means something at a certain point in their lives, then I think you've got a much better opportunity for your material to endure. If you want to make a quick buck and you do things swiftly and it's all about just getting that thing done, I don't know how much artistry is involved with that. Some people can work very quickly.
But the things I like I realized were done by great musical performers, writers at the height of their powers. Now I think I'm fairly discerning with what I listen to. Because I don't need to particularly listen to something that is brand new unless it's really great. I'm all for any piece of modern music. Someone tells me, "You've got to listen to this." I'll always listen. There are tracks that have come out over the last few years. That MGMT track "Kids." When I first hear that I thought, "Okay, this has got a completely different feel to it." A few things over the years like that Ting Tings track "Shut Up and Let Me Go." You have to try and sift through because there is so much stuff now. That's the other thing that's really changed that everybody that's just leaving school can make a record now if they want to. Before, you had to be sort of be good enough or in a position where you could persuade somebody to pay for you to make a record. Now it doesn't cost anything so anyone can make one which is a nice thing. But at the same time, it makes it harder for us to really focus on which ones the great ones are.
In a lot of ways now, though, the albums that really break through and get both pop and critical appreciation are often the ones made by storied producers, from Dr. Dre (Kendrick Lamar's album) to Jeff Bhasker (fun.).
I think that is probably right, because what I think you're talking about is that those things have become more established brands. Because people do tend to trust things a little bit more when they're more familiar. It's hard to try to find new things. Occasionally you'll find things that break through the lines. You'll get an Arctic Monkeys or something that's got a little something about it that you'll say, "Oh this is different from the last 300 things I heard."
And then everyone will call them "the new Beatles."
[Laughs] I suppose that's right.
Can you tell me about your plans with Mark Ronson?
Well, we had a lot fun doing the last record with Mark. So it seemed to be an easy choice to say why don't we try to do it again. If you find someone where you have that kind of chemistry, particularly being at this point in your career, for us being on album 14 or something, then it's better to stick with it if you can than search around to find something else. And I also have no fear that we will come up with something very different with Mark. I don't think it will be an absolute replica of the last album. We're not looking to reinvent the history of music. But I'm sure we'll change direction a bit and try some different things out. So we are going to start a bit of writing in March and then we start work with Mark a little bit in April. But we tend to do it in bursts, spend couple of weeks together and then go away, write some lyrics, fiddle with some things and then get back together again a month or so later.
You were a memorable contributor to "I Want My MTV," the oral history of the network. I think we know the answer to this, but has MTV figured in any way in your music consciousness in recent years?
No. It's a simple answer. I stopped even thinking about MTV sometime in the mid-nineties when I started to realize that there was a ridiculously shrunken playlist and that reality shows were their new chosen destiny. I just remember seeing a newspaper headline that said "Toys-R-Us Wants To Get Out of the Toy Business." It sort of made me smile. It was a nice parallel to MTV want to get out of the music business and that would have been an appropriate headline at that time. And I understand. It started up as a truly beautiful idea and turned into a massive faceless corporation. It often happens and a lot of people did extremely well at it. I have no regrets about the time we spent with MTV. Being there at the beginning of it was very exciting. I think the only error we made was not buying shares.
The reason I ask is because in the world that TV Mania focuses on, one of the driving forces is reality TV.
As I say, I don't know whether they chose the wrong business model. They became enormously successful. I don't know where the figures were more than their height when they were really pursuing music all the time. But it's something they obviously saw too and they moved in that direction. But it's a shame to me that we don't have a focused music channel in the world. Well I suppose we do, it's called YouTube.