Archetypal '80s rockers Duran Duran play the "Live From the Garden" series at the Memphis Botanic Garden this Friday. Here's what founding keyboardist Nick Rhodes has to say about the band's sound, youth, and staying hungry like the wolf:
Memphis Flyer: When I think of Duran Duran, the first thing that comes to mind is the texture that you brought to the songs: the clicking cameras at the top of "Girls on Film" or the swelling airplane noise that starts "Rio."
Nick Rhodes: It's distinctive what came out of the early '80s. We were a part of that, but you also have bands like Depeche Mode, INXS, U2, the Smiths, and the Human League. It was a time for innovation and experimentation, and we were all trying to carve out our own identity. With Duran Duran, I suppose what we had all naively done — we were just teenagers at the time — was to take elements from everything we loved. We'd take a bit of glam rock, a bit of funk and disco, a bit of electronic music, electronic pulses, sound effects, and the energy of punk rock, and we glued them together. One of the things I loved was movies, so I was trying to create soundscapes. That's where the sound effects came from. That and John Cage, I suppose.
You were self-taught, so at first you're more interested in organizing sounds than notes and chord.
We were all self-taught. A lot of the great musicians that I've always loved, whether it was John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, or the Sex Pistols were self-taught. It was a period when you could invent the way things were going to be. You could experiment and say just because I can't play Beethoven's Fifth perfectly from the sheet music doesn't mean I can't write a song. At the time, things had gone from the guitar to the synthesizer somewhat. Now, it's all gone to the laptop, and to the iPad, really, and people who know absolutely nothing about classical music composition or scales are making dance music, some of it enormously successful. Some might argue that that's not music. I, of course, would take the side that if it works, it's a new form.
And, as you say, you were working from this naive place.
One of the great beauties about youth is that you don't see failure. And there wasn't anyone there who could say to me, "Hey, you can't really do that." When people ask me if there's anything I'd advise younger artists, the only thing that I'm always happy to say is don't let anybody water down what you have. Keep it as pure and as potent as you possibly can. For me personally, that's always more interesting. I'm excited by innovation, and that's remained throughout my career.
That's evident on recent recordings.
There's a moment on the last album, the title track, when I found this noise on a synthesizer I'd fiddled with, and it sounded almost like a chainsaw. And I started playing the most annoying-sounding voice on the keyboard. That became the main melody on "All You Need Is Now." I haven't seen Simon [Le Bon] so excited in years.
In the MTV era, every band had a look but Duran Duran had an aesthetic.
That was our intention. We had a grand vision to combine many different art forms — photography, fashion, graphic design, film, and music — and we'd use whatever we could from each one of those. We were determined to present ourselves in that way, because it felt like the right modern approach for the time. In some ways, it was so radical compared to late-'70s rock traditionalists that it created a lot of negativity with more serious rock journalists of the time.
After all of this time, how does the band get on?
We probably get on better now than we ever have. Like a family that's been through everything, seen everything, and at this point it's almost indestructible.
Duran Duran is at the Memphis Botanic Garden Friday, August 17th. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.; show starts at 8:30 p.m. $45.