"We are here to entertain people," proclaims consummate entertainer, Renaissance man, and Duran Duran keyboardist Nick Rhodes, as he drolly discusses Duran Duran's new concert DVD, A Diamond In The Mind (check out two exclusive clips right here). "If we do a show, we will do everything we can to make sure that everyone has had a great night. We're not a selfish band. We don't go onstage thinking, 'Right, we're going to play our entire new album and we're not going to play any of our old songs at all, and we're going to stand with our backs to the audience because we're miserable and we want to write protest songs. It's not about that. It's about lifting people's spirits and taking people on a journey, Duran Duran-style."
Duran Duran are hardly miserable these days, but last year was a different story, when the Manchester concert where A Diamond In The Mind was filmed almost didn't take place at all--after Duran frontman Simon Le Bon lost his voice and a slew of tour dates had to be cancelled or postponed. "This was awful. We had all the top specialists looking at him and making sure he was taken care of properly, but none of us, including Simon, really knew whether he'd done some permanent damage--whether his voice was going to come back, whether he'd be able to sing in a week, a month, a year, or not at all," Nick recalls grimly. "So it was a pretty scary time. But several months later, when he finally came out of it, his voice was back in a way that I don't think he'd ever sounded--I guess going to vocal coaches and doctors, and people taking care of him all day every day for several months, probably made him more aware of the fragility of this fantastic instrument that he's got."
This was hardly the first time that Duran Duran had faced adversity, of course. They'd basically had to fight for credibility and respect since their formation in 1978, when their mastery of both makeup and the music video medium soon made them posterboys for a glamorous pop age--thus leading to many detractors ("cynical, tired, hackneyed rock critics" is the term Nick prefers) disdainfully dismissing the band as all style, no substance. "There were a lot of people who didn't like the concept that there was a new way of doing things," remembers Nick. "It wasn't the way of a lot of the 1970s, although many of the artists I liked--David Bowie, Roxy Music, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones--all took care of their imagery and their creative vision outside of just the music. It's just that when it became something you had to do, if you wanted to be on the frontline of music, that people started to object."
Gentlemanly Nick, with his impeccable Warholian coif and even more impeccable fashion sense, has always seemed on the frontline when representing the slick, sophisticated Duran aesthetic, and he makes no apologies for tending to Duran Duran's image as much as he has their music. "John [Taylor] and I are, I suppose, on the director's board of aesthetics for Duran Duran," he muses. "We've always, since we were kids, gone to art galleries together or gone to see the newest, coolest, strangest movie that came out, or we'd go and look at avant garde clothes design. Nothing's really changed in that way, because we're still fascinated by the same things: creativity in any of the visual arts. I think people sometimes separated out, for a long time, music and fashion. Music and fashion weren't quite as entwined as they are now. So when we first started wearing more fashionable clothes than a lot of the other artists that were coming out in the early '80s, that's one of the reasons that some of the 'rock' journalists took immediate offense--anyone who is interested in fashion can't possibly be interested in writing songs, right? But now you look around and every artist wants to solidify their identity and work with cool fashion designers. Exhibit A: Lady Gaga, who I find gloriously fascinating."
And so, the also gloriously fascinating Duran Duran will probably go down in music history as the first MTV superstars (incredibly, the only Grammy they've ever won was in the Best Video category). But while their iconic, exotic videos probably had much to do with the critical backlash that dogged them for much of their career, Nick doesn't mind Duran Duran being known as a video band. "I think it's part of our history, and I try to step outside and have a more balanced view of things historically. I think it's fair comment. We were clearly a major part of the MTV generation, and I think we did a lot with video that other people hadn't done--a lot of groundbreaking things, like taking videos onto location, using digital technology and effects that people hadn't thought about before. So I'm not surprised, and I'm not bothered that it comes up. Of course, there are people that feel that maybe the videos were more important than our songs--but those are the same old rock critics who didn't want things to change! They're the people who thought bands should only be going onstage in jeans and T-shirts.
"I am very grateful that our timing--our accidental timing--with the advent of music video was so fortuitous," he continues. "If we'd been five years later, I think the exciting bit was already over; if we'd been five years earlier, we would have been usurped by newer, younger bands. It just happened that we were at the right place at the right time. We got the idea very quick and said, 'Yeah, let's do it! What, we can watch music all day, 24 hours a day? What more could we want in life?' That was our view at the time. Obviously people like Madonna could lay claim for her contributions, and also people like Peter Gabriel, who made some of the greatest videos, in my opinion. What it did for me was it altered music forever, and after that, nothing really changed music that dramatically for really the next 25 years. And then, suddenly, the Internet started changing music. And that, to me, has created an even bigger shift than MTV did."
Just as Duran Duran were early adapters of MTV, they embraced the Internet early on as well, launching DuranDuran.com way back in 1997. Since then, they've enjoyed a major mid-2000s presence on Second Life and collaborated with David Lynch for a landmark live-streamed concert, and this week they premiered A Diamond In The Mind on Facebook and Spotify. (Nick confesses that the only reason he's not on Twitter yet is his "attention span is far too long.") The release of A Diamond In The Mind was in fact nothing less than a bona fide online event.
And of course, in true Duran tradition, A Diamond In The Mind is no typical live DVD. (Please note that Duran Duran's first concert film, 1984's utterly bizarre, Russell Mulcahy-directed Arena, was a high-concept project starring Barbarella movie villain Dr. Durand Durand, the sci-fi character that inspired the band's name.) Twenty-eight years after Arena, the Durans are still pushing the video format on A Diamond In The Mind, which was shot by longtime collaborator Gavin Elder at Manchester, England's MEN Arena last December. "We put together a tour that was quite visually extraordinary, and when we started rehearsing again [after Simon got his voice back], it sounded so good and it looked so good, I said, 'We really ought to film this!' Then we said, 'How are going to capture what the show really is about--all the screens and big mechanical moving arms and giant heads that have our faces in them, and the one point when the backing singer is transformed into a leopard?'" laughs Nick. "How were we going to get that onto the screen and capture the energy and excitement that's in the room? So we tried to make it a little edgier and make it a little more raw. We did a lot of that with film grading. I think a lot of people think that now that we have high definition, that everything's got to look like you can see every speck of dust on the screen. That's not the case. It doesn't mean you can't still mess it up, put TV lines through it, change the colors of it, process it, and so on."
And, of course, Duran Duran didn't go onstage in jeans and T-shirts.
So now Duran Duran are back and stronger than ever, still riding the high of their Mark Ronson-produced comeback album All You Need Is Now, which has garnered some of the biggest rave reviews of the band's entire career. But of course, Nick still isn't that concerned with what the critics have to say, even if it's positive. "To be quite honest, I'm always grateful if people say nice things about us, but we built our career on our self-belief, and we've managed to survive because the audience has been there for us. If we'd had to rely on the media, I'm sure they would have put a stake through out hearts long ago," he laughs, pointing out that it really has always been all about the Duran fans. "They're vociferous, for sure! And online, they're everywhere. But we love that about them. Because their passion has been so great, it's driven us to always do the next thing--to always play another show, always record another album."
As for that next album, Nick excitingly reveals that the band is in tentative talks with Mark Ronson about working on an AYNIN follow-up, and that they'll hopefully start recording in February 2013. As for Duran Duran's near future, their next high-profile gig will be at the Olympics' opening concert at London's Hyde Park on July 27, on a bill with Paolo Nutini, Snow Patrol, and Stereophonics. (Duran Duran may not seem like sporty types, exactly, but Nick amusingly says if he had to compete in an Olympic event, it'd be fencing, "because at least they have great outfits." Classic Nick Rhodes.)
And as for the more distant future? Well, it's unlikely that that Duran's many fans will ever see another five-member reunion with original guitarist Andy Taylor, who left the band in 1986, rejoined in 2001, and quit again in 2006. "You never say anything is entirely off the cards, but I have to say, Andy is an unusual person to deal with, and my view when I took him on last time was it would have a fuse that would burn quite quickly. I was surprised we made it to five years again!" admits Nick.
But here's to many, many more years of superb Duran Duran style--and substance. And many more years of Simon Le Bon's singing. Shine on, you crazy, glamorous diamonds. Shine on.