Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes on “Medazzaland” turning 25: “I love the sonic architecture”
On Nov. 5 in Los Angeles, Duran Duran are being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Twenty-five years ago, when the group released their ninth studio album, “Medazzaland,” such an honor seemed very far away.
“Wow. After this amount of years of us being together, we’ve still got such passionate fans that want us to succeed.”
That’s no knock on the album itself, which contains some of Duran Duran’s darkest and most experimental music. Inspired by technology and seismic cultural changes — as well as self-reflection and musings on friendship, loneliness, fame, and obsession — “Medazzaland” is full of dusky moodpieces. The meditative and delicate “Michael, You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For” is somber; “Out of My Mind” is paranoid synth melodrama; “Midnight Sun” is trippy psychedelic rock burnout; the title track (featuring Rhodes on spoken-word vocals) is avant-garde sound sculpting. The one major exception is the single “Electric Barbarella,” the kind of cheeky electrorock Duran Duran do so well.
This different sound also reflected a changing band lineup and creative approach. A co-founding member, bassist John Taylor, had left Duran Duran before “Medazzaland” was finished, leaving the band as a trio of Nick Rhodes, Simon Le Bon and Warren Cuccurullo. Le Bon frequently had writer’s block, meaning Rhodes contributed a hefty dose of lyrics; Cuccurullo and Rhodes also had a side project called TV Mania that was an ongoing concern.
“Medazzaland” had a challenging reception, as it peaked only at No. 58 on the U.S. Billboard charts. The album was also never released in England, as the band parted ways with their then-label there. The split was amicable — Duran Duran left with the rights to find another home for the album — but business got in the way.
“I’d planned to put it with another label quickly,” Rhodes says now. “But then it just became really complicated. I was having to manage the band at that time too, which was really not a lot of fun. It’s not something an artist should ever be doing, but it was a necessity.”
Today, “Medazzaland” is receiving renewed attention thank to a lavish new vinyl reissue (and a CD reissue as well). However, Duran Duran are firmly in the present day, closing out an already busy year with another busy stretch.
There’s a Halloween show in Las Vegas (“That will be an interesting one — I’m not going to say more, but there won’t ever be another Duran Duran show like that one,” Rhodes says with a laugh) and a new live concert film, “A Hollywood High — Duran Duran Live in Concert,” playing in theaters on Nov. 3 and 9. And then there’s the band’s long-awaited Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.
“It was the fans, really,” Rhodes says of the honor. “We won the fan vote, hands down, and it just made us all smile so much, because I realized, ‘Wow. After this amount of years of us being together, we’ve still got such passionate fans that want us to succeed and to be in places that they think we should be in.'”
These same fans buoyed Duran Duran in the late ’90s and early ’00s, Rhodes says, during a wide-ranging conversation about “Medazzaland” discussing the genesis, lyrical meanings and the time Duran Duran became early web pioneers thanks to the MP3.
Simon LeBon (L) and Warren Cuccurullo (R) perform with Duran Duran at the opening reception of the exhibit “The Warhol Look: Glamour, Style, Fashion” at the Whitney Museum of American Art on November 6, 1997 in New York City, New York. (Catherine McGann/Getty Images)
Looking back at the “Medazzaland” era, what sort of memories has this brought up for you?
“I wasn’t a big grunge fan overall, but I think Nirvana had something incredibly special.”
A lot of things. [INXS frontman] Michael Hutchence. When we wrote the song “Michael, You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For,” it was a very personal lyric that Simon wrote about friendship. He and Michael were joined at the hip for a period of a few years. I was very fond of Michael, too. We were all in the south of France together in ’94, ’95, when we were trying to complete the “Thank You” album. Simon wrote that song, and I thought, “What a great lyric it was,” at the time, because it really is like a lovely postcard.
We used to play it live when we were on the Medazzaland tour at the beginning. Then Michael passed away, and it suddenly took on this whole different meaning. What was a sweet, uplifting song suddenly became darkness to us, and it was such a terrible, sad period. And so we never played it again after that point. But when I listened to masters for the vinyl — it’s the first time I’d heard most of it in a long time, particularly that track — I was really taken with it again, and I thought, “Yes, it really worked well.”
When we did it, Simon sung it in Warren [Cuccurullo]’s living room, where we were recording, in Battersea. It was literally just a very simple local house. There was traffic going by and airplanes going off above us. Usually, we would re-record the vocals on a better microphone and obviously with a room with better acoustics. But there was something about it that was so charming, because he was just sort of sitting in a chair, casually singing. And it captured what it should have been. And we could never, ever get it better. We tried several times.
So the version that is used on the album is the first take he ever did, sitting on a couch with a cheap mic, just figuring out what he was doing.
When I was re-listening to the record to prep for this interview, it really struck me what a delicate vocal it was—probably one of the most delicate vocal performances I think Simon ever committed on an album.
I agree. We completely fell in love with it. We tried literally half a dozen times to make it better and make it more perfect, but every time we made it more perfect, it didn’t have the right mood for the song anymore.
Another one of Simon’s lyrics on that album that I loved was “So Long Suicide,” which was written for Kurt Cobain. He’d recently passed away at that time, and we were all quite taken aback by that. I think Nirvana really were the first band that had come along for a long time that we all felt, “Well, those songs are proper. They’re really, really great pop songs.” The lyrics were interesting and the structures were good, and it felt new, for sure.
I wasn’t a big grunge fan overall, but I think Nirvana had something incredibly special. So that really hit all of us, I think, when he went. It was a terrible, terrible shame and that was sort of Simon’s goodbye note to him.
“I’d written more lyrics on that album than any of the previous ones, because Simon had hit a bit of a brick wall. He had writer’s block.”
There was so much darkness and sadness in the ’90s, when you think about the high-profile musicians who passed before their time. It really was “The party’s over,” in a sense. It struck me that there is that undercurrent of darkness in this record, maybe more obviously than some other Duran Duran records. Maybe I see it more now because I’m an adult looking back at it — that there was just something about it.
I think you’re right. At the time, I don’t ever know. I’d written more lyrics on that album than any of the previous ones, because Simon had hit a bit of a brick wall. He had writer’s block and he said, “I don’t know what to do. I’ve written so many lyrics and I can’t think of new ways around it at the moment.” And it was strange, because we hadn’t been in that position before, and so I started throwing ideas at him. A few of them stuck, and a few of them didn’t. But I thought, “Well, the only way we’re going to get the record finished is if I write some of the lyrics.” So I started to do them.
Simon is very much from his heart, and a lot of the lyrics, even the more abstract ones, usually relate to some sort of relationship or human interaction. I tend to think slightly more conceptually, and so it made the balance of the album quite unusual.
You’ve got those two we just discussed next to things like “Electric Barbarella,” which was really a song about loneliness. I’d started to look at the modern world and thought, “Wow. So people really are moving into this future ahead where their best friends could well end up being dolls or robots.”
I’d seen a few bits of media, and I often go to these sort of tech conferences to look at what’s out there. And it occurred to me that the sex dolls of the future were going to be like people — and they are now in fact becoming much more like that. I found it both terrifying and rather depressing. At the same time, I was able to find some dark humor in it, and to say, “Well, yep. This is what’s coming.” So that was “Electric Barbarella.”
One of the other things I’ve always really liked about this record is that Duran Duran became the first major label band to sell an MP3, with “Electric Barbarella.” How much of a struggle was that to convince the label to let you do that, and where did that idea come from?
It was a complete nightmare, full stop. Firstly, the Napster technology . . . I’d seen it like everybody else at the time, being a musician, [and] I admired the technology because I thought, “How fabulous is that, that we can just click a button anywhere in the world and get a song that we want. That’s absolutely where things are going to go.”
“We got it all set up so it would be the first download ever sold online.”
But at the same time, I was a little concerned, not just for me so much, but for other musicians, thinking, “Well, if this happens, none of us are ever going to get paid for anything, are we? And how will young bands survive? How will they ever even make it to their second album if everybody downloads their free album off Napster?” or whatever the other ones were, BitTorrent, all those things that came out.
I thought, “Well, the obvious answer is to make a legitimate version, so that at least people who are honest and who can afford it will say, ‘We’re going to support the music. We’re going to buy it.'” But if that doesn’t become available, then people are going to use the illegal downloads all the time anyway because of the convenience of it, and I understand it.
So I went to the record label, that was Capitol Records I was dealing at the time [in the U.S.], and EMI in the UK, and I said, “This is what I’d like to do. Can we release this?” We’d found a company called Liquid Audio who said they could do it and you could pay. So I said, “Can we please do this for the record?”
And nobody there wanted to do it; they really argued against it. There was one [employee] whose name I’ve forgotten now, who was much more forward-thinking, and she went and fought with them and said, “I think we should let them do it.” I think, in a way, because we were always known to use technology and to try to do things in a different way, they finally took a view on it, “Well, somebody’s going to have to do it, I suppose. We may as well let them do it.”
I sat at Abbey Road Studios with Simon and Warren, and I pushed a button on the computer where we got it all set up so it would be the first download ever sold online. Of course, there’d be many free ones. The payment went through, because there was no PayPal or anything like that then. So, in fact, it worked. It came back.
I was a little disappointed with bandwidth. I thought it really sounded like a slightly better cassette quality than even a CD. At that time, MP3s weren’t what they became. But it worked.
We didn’t sell very many copies of it. I mean, the low thousands I think, because nobody wanted to put their credit cards online, understandably then. [Laughs.] And there were no other payment systems, so very few people actually bought it that way, but it did become a big story.
In fact, most of the major retailers, certainly in the United States, banned the record and refused to sell it. They’d seen it as us really violating the system by going directly to our audience and cutting out retail when, of course, that was the last thing on my mind. It was much more, “I like the technology, let’s make it work for everyone and somebody’s got to do this.”
You were making music with a side project called TV Mania around the time of “Medazzaland” too. How much did that shape your mindset going into the record?
Quite a lot, because Warren and I were working very closely. Simon was going through a different sort of period, so he wasn’t at the studio as often as he would be, and I get bored if I’m not doing 10 projects at the same time, and so Warren and I just started this thing.
“Both [Simon] and I knew in our hearts that Duran Duran without a Taylor in it was a very bizarre thing.”
It came from an idea: We were watching some TV show, some fashion thing one afternoon. It was just on in the background and there were these fabulous voices of all these fashionistas, and I said, “Wow, wouldn’t that be great if that one could sing?” And Warren said, “Well, we can make them sing, can’t we?” And I thought about it for a minute, and I said, “Yeah, actually.” So I sampled them and put them on a keyboard. I can make them sing whatever they’re saying in a different way.
There was something about that that was just fascinating, and we were at the time of sampling, so it was very easy to do. We started making a couple of tracks from these videos, taking the audio from TV things. I became obsessed with what was going on in the world with technology, with pharmaceuticals, with the internet. It just felt like a period of seismic change, and so that album to me was all about the new modern world.
“Medazzaland” was this mix between Simon’s random thoughts about things that had happened and people, and a bit of my technological stuff seeping in through there. But there’s definitely a relationship between them. Obviously, the TV Mania album [“Bored with Prozac and the Internet?”] sonically sounds very different than “Medazzaland,” but I think both benefited in a way. The TV Mania album would never have been born without “Medazzaland,” and I’m not sure that “Medazzaland” would’ve ever got completed without the TV Mania album.
We’d work on it any time. Simon would perhaps pop in at 3 in the afternoon and go home at 6 or 7, and then Warren and I would maybe work till 10 or 11 p..m. on tracks for the other one. And we just laughed so much because, again, that one’s just riddled with irony and humor. That was what was driving us along.
And that is so 1997. I mean, when you look back at the musical climate, there were so many transition records. U2 put out “Pop,” and David Bowie had his great record “Earthling.” There was so much interesting energy and people embracing technology in new ways and trying to see how they could reshape their music. There was a lot of that in the air in 1997.
I agree. It was an interesting time for us because we sort of lost John [Taylor]. There’s the elephant in the room. And that was very odd, to say the least. It felt like something very serious had happened, but we hadn’t quite come to terms with it somehow.
John’s on several of the tracks on the album, but obviously he’d withdrawn at that point and he wanted to change his life completely, moved to Los Angeles. And so we were soldiering on, but not really knowing. We were sort of walking around in the dark trying to find the way to get this record finished. And I think half of that was what affected Simon, too, because both he and I knew in our hearts that Duran Duran without a Taylor in it was a very bizarre thing. To lose one, to lose two, but to lose three really was just a bit much.
I wrote “Buried in the Sand” about John. We’d had a conversation, and we’d known each other since we were kids. I was 10 when I met him, he was 12, and we’d been together that whole time. And we’d been on the journey until 1996 together. So it was really, really strange when he called up. I was sitting on a chair in my living room thinking, “Is this really happening?”
And it was — and I of course tried to talk him out of it and said, “Take some more time. Think about this, think about that,” and he said, “No. Believe me, I’ve thought about it all, and this is what I have to do and what I want to do. We’ve had an amazing time together.” Then Simon and I had a conversation with Warren, too, of course, and I suppose we were just a little numb from it.
And we were halfway through the record anyway, so we just carried on. Then we did the tour and we had to get in a different band. Warren really helped with that again a lot. He got Wes Wehmiller, who was a lovely human being and a great bass player, and Joe Travis on drums who had come from the Zappa background. They were great musicians and they learned all our songs, and I think the sound of the band was good then. But it felt entirely different.
Those couple of years from ’97 until 2001, those few years, were really difficult. We had a lot of fun too. I remember the Medazzaland Tour very fondly, but it was after that, and then when we’d done “Pop Trash,” we knew we’d really reached the end of that line, and either we had to stop or put the band back together again. That’s how the reunion happened.
Simon Le Bon (left) and Nick Rhodes of English new wave band Duran Duran, 17th November 1998. (Colin Davey/Getty Images)
“Medazzaland” was such a different time, different lineup, different everything. What in the album’s DNA is in modern Duran Duran? What do you see?
“Smudged, I should say. Rather than muddier, it’s more smudged and smeared around, the sound on that record.”
What do I see? That’s an interesting question. Well, I see my personal contributions are still from the same DNA, meaning that this album had a lot of ideas in it that perhaps don’t surface in the same forms on later albums, in that I will throw an idea at Simon and if he likes it, he’ll grab it and he’ll write the lyric. I honestly think that he’s as good a lyricist as anyone out there when he’s got the idea in his head and he knows how to communicate it.
So I have written plenty of lyrics since this period, but I feel that it opened a door more between — a gateway, if you like — between Simon and I to discuss lyrics more together than we ever had done. So that sort of remains even though I’ve happily handed the torch back to him to write most of them.
I think our spirit of experimentation remains. The first couple of . . . well, the first three albums that we made together were very much about trying out different ideas and crossing over genres. Then I think by the time we got to “Notorious,” that album was a singular vision. We wanted to make a funk record. And then some of the later ones — “Big Thing” became a different type of record, electronic with a bit of dance music, a bit of experimentation.
But “Medazzaland” reclaimed a lot of that very early experimentation. And so when we made this record, I think that stuck and still is there now, in that all the records we’ve made after this, we’ve looked back a little at “Medazzaland” and the first three records, for the way that we do things.
Sound. I love the sonic architecture on “Medazzaland.” In a way we referred back to the ’70s a little bit more, to all those great Bowie records and even to The Beatles, for sure. I think there’s a few nods to them on the album. So that’s very particular to “Medazzaland” and “Pop Trash,” actually, I think that kind of sound. We normally have a bit more clarity, but I quite like blurring some of the lines. Smudged, I should say. Rather than muddier, it’s more smudged and smeared around, the sound on that record. So that sort of stuck with me too.
And a little bit of the darkness that’s always been there with the band right from the very first album. For me, what makes music interesting is the balance between lightness and darkness. If you don’t have that, if it’s just a happy-happy record — or even just a really dark, sad record — yes, some of those are amazing and can put you in the right frame of mind. But if you can balance both of them together in the same record, then that’s more of a representation to me certainly of what we are as a band and the sort of life that we live. We have great happy times and obviously darkness and sadness, like everyone else too.
Would you consider playing any of the songs live again from this record?
Oh, definitely. Most definitely. Funny enough, we’re about to do a Halloween show in Las Vegas of all places, and one of the songs on the list for that show was “Out of My Mind.” In the end, we had so many other ones that we wanted to do that it didn’t quite make the list, but everybody loves that song. “Electric Barbarella,” we played in the last 10 years for sure. I’d love to play “Michael, You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For” again.
I always wanted to open the show with “Silva Halo.” I was going to have Simon standing there very, very still at the center of the stage, and at a certain point in the song when the chorus comes in [during] “Silva Halo,” it’s a very short piece, I wanted to elevate him slowly up with his arms out almost like some kind of bizarre, Christ-like figure up into the rig. [Laughs.]
I thought it would be so dark and strange, but we never quite got to do it. And I think perhaps Simon sabotaged it once he’d realized he was going to have to get all these wires strapped to him. [Laughs.] But yeah, I love that song too, “Silva Halo.” It’s another little strange surrealist poem. But yeah, I absolutely would love to play them again.
I’m thrilled that the album’s got a little bit of attention from people, because it’s always been one of those sort of sitting in the cupboard somewhere. But I hadn’t realized that it did mean something to quite a few people, so I’m glad it’s out there again.
I love having it on vinyl too.
Well, the special edition will come hopefully next year. I’ve got to go through all the tapes, because we’ve got endless tapes from “Medazzaland.” None of them are really finished songs, but I think there’s probably enough to add enough interesting pieces of music as sketches so that people can understand what else was going through our heads in that period.
And I always look at things like a fan. I always think, “What would I like to hear from somebody else when we’re making things like that? And would that be interesting, or is that just overindulgent or too dull or not finished enough?” That’s how I make the judgements. And so I’m going to go through them, and if there’s enough interesting things there for sure, there’ll be a deluxe version later in the [next] year. There’s a plan, but now we got to see what’s there.
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