Electropop artist MNDR, aka Amanda Warner, is lounging backstage at San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, dressed in her casual-Friday post-show uniform of cargo pants and bomber jacket; her glittery smudges of neon teal eye shadow are the only glamorous evidence of the fact that, mere moments ago, she was on the main stage with Duran Duran, standing stoically behind the synth banks while channeling her inner “Planet Earth”-era Nick Rhodes in an impeccable white suit. Since Rhodes temporarily left Duran’s summer tour to attend to an “urgent family matter” in the U.K., Warner has faced the task of filling the famed ice-king keyboardist’s mighty big Capezios. It has been intimidating, to say the least (Warner literally only had 20 hours to learn all of the set’s songs), but after a month on the road with the Paper Gods, she has finally hit her pleasure groove.
“At first, honestly, I just had to learn everything. It was like cramming for finals,” Warner tells Yahoo Music of the whirlwind experience. “I just had to get it done and figure it out. My first show with them was in Chicago, and the only thought going through my head was just, ‘Don’t look like a d—! Don’t screw up the leads! And play them on the right keyboard!’ The hardest thing is knowing which keyboards to play. Then, after about three or four gigs, I started to feel not crazy up there onstage, and then I was like, ‘Holy s—, I can’t believe this!’ I mean, Nick Rhodes is a synth legend. He’s an icon of keyboards.”
Rhodes handpicked Warner to be his replacement, having met her when she played in Duran Duran producer Mark Ronson’s Business Intl band. (Warner sang on “Bang Bang,” the first single from Mark Ronson & The Business Intl’s 2010 album Record Collection; Duran Duran’s Rhodes and Simon Le Bon appeared on that album’s title track.) This led to MNDR opening for dates on Duran Duran’s 2012 tour; Rhodes also did a remix of MNDR’s “Feed Me Diamonds,” and she returned the favor with her remix for TV Mania, Rhodes’s side-project with former Duran guitarist Warren Cuccurullo.
But even after all this, sometimes Warner (who says she’s on a “need-to-know basis” regarding Rhodes’s current personal situation) still can’t believe that she has become a member of Duran’s extended entourage. “In six years, I’ve run into them fairly often — which just seems weird. Like, ‘Oh yeah, hey, there’s John Taylor. What’s up?’ Seriously, what is going on? It’s surreal,” she chuckles. “But they’re really down-to-earth people and super-cool.”
It seems DD’s diehard devotees have also accepted MNDR as one of the Duran family — which comes as a massive relief to Warner. “That’s what hit me later. Their fans were legitimately nervous about [me filling in], and I don’t blame them. Because Nick is NICK RHODES, you know what I mean? I am sure they were thinking, ‘Is this going to suck? What the hell?’ Luckily, they’ve been so awesome, and absolutely so lovely to me. I haven’t had any negative feedback. I think if I didn’t live up to their expectations, they would be like, ‘That was disappointing.’ But I also think because Nick chose to phone me first, that helped. They were like, ‘OK, he obviously feels like she can do it.’”
With 18 years of keyboard experience and a lifetime spent listening to Duran Duran, Warner was more prepared for this summer gig than she humbly lets on. “I know Duran Duran’s catalog really well. Everyone was a Duran Duran fan in my circle. It was kind of like liking, I don’t know, Michael Jackson or Prince,” she says. Warner, a child of the ‘90s, is even a longtime fan of DD’s controversial and critically panned 1995 covers album Thank You — which probably helps when it’s time to play Duran’s version of Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines” every night.
“I actually really like ‘90s Duran Duran,” Warner says. “To me, they were an ‘80s band, and then they transcended that in a really huge way with hits in the ‘90s. So they really should be acclaimed as one of the best bands, because there’s very few bands that can do that.”
Another cover song Warner enjoys playing with Duran Duran is their new mash-up of “Planet Earth” with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” — a tribute to the Starman who was a huge influence on both her and the DD boys. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in North Dakota. I was a fierce David Bowie fan. He meant everything to me. I know every moment of his albums. So when we play that, it’s super-amazing. I get really emotional.”
But perhaps the ultimate show highlight — and biggest challenge — for Warner is “The Chauffeur,” a recent popular addition to this summer’s DD setlist. “They put it in last-minute, so we didn’t have any rehearsal. It’s just Simon and Nick — or Simon and Amanda, so to speak. It’s Nick’s part, and the song is very open. That song is tricky. Tricky, tricky, tricky! Their arrangements feel so natural, but as a songwriter and producer, I can tell you they always have something special and different in their arrangements that make it tricky — and better because of it. It makes them more iconic than a lot of their peers. There’s some really tricky chord movies in ‘Come Undone,’ too. It’s a Duran Duran thing. They just do this thing.”
As Warner alluded to earlier, she still thinks Duran Duran don’t quite get their critical due. Spending time in the band’s inner circle has only made her appreciate their artistry even more. “Nick is such the 360 artist — production value, visuals, and an incredible songwriter. I didn’t realize he produced ‘Too Shy’ by Kajagoogoo! I think he deserves more accolades as a keyboardist and synth designer than he probably gets.
“Simon is a really fierce, amazing performer and frontperson,” she continues. “He’s also extremely gracious and humble to all the other band members. I think that’s what makes it a band, you know? I’ve learned a lot from him about performing and run of show, and pacing a show. He’s really good at it.
“I think what people should realize — and will realize as time marches on, since this [Paper Gods] album has had such an incredible run — is that this whole band values music. I talk to John Taylor about music all day. He’s like, ‘What do you think of this Philly soul stuff?’ or ‘Do you like the new M83 album?’ Also, they push themselves extremely hard when they’re making an album. They’re not phoning it in. They don’t phone it in in onstage, either.”
After her trek with Duran Duran wraps up, Warner — who has lately stayed behind the scenes, writing for the illustrious likes of Kylie Minogue, Charli XCX, AlunaGeorge, Lion Babe, and Rita Ora — will take the lessons she’s learned from her Duran cohorts and apply them to her sophomore LP, the long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Feed Me Diamonds. “For my new album, I’m branching into a lot of new territory, and I see how Duran Duran made really great electrofunk records that also have a high level of interesting lyrics and amazing production value, but are also super-fun and involve everyone. Like, they’re not too snobby, nor are they boring and dumbed-down. It’s been inspiring, actually.” Warner says she has written “maybe 1,500 songs in the past two or three years” and her next release, out in early 2017, will be a conceptual double-album “about cults and modern-era media.”
As for other dream fill-in jobs or collaborations she’d love to take on in the future, Warner muses: “I fiercely love Depeche Mode. Like, I love them. I would literally die to play with them. Kraftwerk, if they called me, I would be like, ‘Whoa.’ And I would love to do a song with RuPaul, to be honest.” (RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 2 runner-up Raven, whom Warner calls her “sister wife,” starred in the music video for MNDR’s “Feed Me Diamonds.”)
“But really, it doesn’t get better than this as a keyboardist. It just doesn’t get better than being in Duran Duran.”