Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes releases the long-shelved 1996 project TV Mania
By Lauren Salm
Once upon a time in the ever-evolving land of dance music, Duran Duran’s keyboardist and founding member Nick Rhodes, along with guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, had a vision of the future that presaged the antics of the dysfunctional family in The Truman Show. With this premonition, they created a soundtrack in the form of an album called TV Mania: Bored With Prozac and The Internet? Shortly after they completed the final mixes, the project was put on hold and subsequently lost (or so they thought) between Duran Duran’s fruitful ’90s output and a cluster of filed mixtapes.
After Rhodes rediscovered the tapes, and now with a fresh take on the project, TV Mania finally sees the light of day. We talked with the legendary Duran Duran member about the story behind this diverse cinematic album, how he sees music evolving, and his plans for 2013.
Back in the ’90s, what inspired you to create this more electronically produced and out-of-the-norm project, TV Mania?
TV Mania came about initially through having some time on our hands when we were making the Duran Duran album Medazzaland. As ever, we always set out to try to make an album swiftly, but it usually isn’t the case because we end up with a few songs that have reached a certain standard that we require. Then some of the songs that don’t lead to that criteria, and so we end up writing more, the mix takes longer, or we re-arrange something. And during this process Simon [Le Bon, Duran Duran's vocalist] was going through a writer’s block and there were some long gaps in between the sessions. So Warren and I started to mess around with a few ideas to do something different. We came across something rather interesting because we had been watching some TV (a little bit of shows that air in the afternoon) and we started taking some samples from the shows because we recognized the characters from the shows were quite animated, and the way they spoke was interesting and quite musical. When we sampled the girl saying, “I wanna make films,” it was such a great title that we put it into the keyboard as a sample, and then I altered the pitch of it so it was even more musical. We wrote the songs based around those early samples that we were taking from TV, and it quickly grew from being something that we were doing out of curiosity to a full-blown project.
In the ’80s, did you ever think that you would be headlining one of the largest electronic dance music events in the world, Ultra Music Festival? How did this experience differ from your other tours or gigs?
Well, in the ’80s, there weren’t other electronic music events like Ultra. It was a very different musical landscape, and what we were doing was the closest thing to dance music at that time aside from funk and soul and a lot of other stuff that had been around for a while. We were trying to carve out our own unique form of dance music and there were a lot of other artists around at the time who experimented in the same area. But the way things developed through the ’80s and ’90s with hip-hop, house, and rave, and then certainly now into the hybrids that we have, I think it really became the singular strongest genre in music. I think in many ways, certainly for me, it outweighed rock music and indie music, so I’m not surprised all the festivals came up through that period. They are fantastic events. We had a lot of fun at Ultra. It was a great bill and had diverse and different acts than we would normally play with. We got a great reaction. I didn’t think it would be as easy as it was, but it worked seamlessly for us. I would like to do some more of them actually.
Do you hope to turn TV Mania into a continuous full-time project? How do you think your fans would react to such a shift?
Yes, I think the TV Mania project should become almost a genre of its own. I love the idea of creating these franchises that we are looking to do for the whole project. It was an idea I had since we’re not going to be touring with TV Mania. It’d be great if there were lots of other people who could enjoy working in the same way that we worked to create our album—in other words, taking samples of voices and then adding some electronic sounds, some beats, and creating their own music. We thought it would be interesting to actually offer TV Mania franchises to other artists around the world. There would be a manifesto on the website that would be more for fun than anything else, but for people to make rules and to become TV Mania. You would apply for a license, which we would grant for different franchises like TV Mania Brooklyn, TV Mania Beijing, or TV Mania London. And I’m curious to see what kind of things people would build. That’s how I would see TV Mania grow into the future. Warren and I, we certainly had a lot of fun. I’ve never laughed so much and we stumbled across things and managed to create a little magic somehow.
Tell us a little bit about how you rediscovered the tapes, and what obstacles you had to overcome to make this past dream become a reality?
In 1996, we completed the TV Mania project. We actually mixed it with the people we were working with and had a fantastic team. Anthony Resta, who worked on the project with the production and some of the instrumentation; Mark Tinley, who I’d worked with for many years (he’s the sampling champion of the universe and he remains undisputed in that title); obviously Warren and I; and the engineer Bob St. John were all a part of the team. We all worked very closely together and put a lot of care and attention into the whole album. When we completed it we looked at each other and thought, “This release is really something very different.” I took it to the record labels at the time who of course couldn’t stand it, thought I was completely raving mad, and were not particularly keen on releasing it, which I wasn’t surprised about. We were going to release it independently, but of course in 1996 things were very different. The internet was in its infancy for the general public, there was no iTunes, and it was harder to release things even independently. Presently, when we have digital distribution online and fabulous vinyl, it is the perfect time to release it. We are working with Vinyl Factory, who are releasing two different, delicious editions of the project.
But back to the answer to the question: In 1996, the reason we put it on the side was, one, we would have had to work hard to try to find a way to release it ourselves, and second, the whole concept behind the album was actually to tell a story about a dysfunctional family. This family had four very strong characters who were almost stereotypes of a family as we saw it at the time of everything that could possibly go wrong. There was a father who was somewhat of a fanatical religious person, a son who was obsessed with videogames who barely left his room and was also quite good at hacking into things, a mother who was disillusioned with life and lived on pharmaceutical drugs most of the time, and a daughter who was very bright and beautiful but just wanted to be famous in fashion and film at whatever the cost. With the backdrop of that family and all the interactions of the characters, we wrote the album with samples that fit all the different chapters we envisioned for the story that was initially going to be a Broadway musical. But then I started thinking of it more in a cinematic way. This family is being observed in a house by scientists so that they could try to judge what was really going wrong with the moral fabric of our society today. Then several months after we finished the album, a movie called The Truman Show came out, and some months after that, Survivor was put on television. We were obviously thinking along the same lines as other people. Had we put the album out before those two things, then we’d have been way ahead, but I felt somewhat disappointed that someone else had the same idea at the time.
We put the album down and thought we might need to rethink it some because we didn’t want people to think we were using an idea that somebody else had come out with. That really was one of the reasons we shelved it for a while. We intended to go back to it six months later, but then we finished the Duran Duran album and went on a tour, came back and went straight into another album. The original lineup of the band was reformed and that sucked out five years of our life, so it was just completely non-stop. We just lost touch with it, and by the time we came back to it I thought it had been lost until I was going through tapes in storage and happened to stumble across a little DAT tape which was the format that we used during that period. It was labeled and inside it said “TV Mania: Bored with Prozac and the Internet?” I had to find a machine to even play it on and to get it transferred and digitized, because that player is pretty much extinct now. When I did I was delightfully surprised because I obviously remember the songs and everything we had done, but I hadn’t heard them for a long, long time, and I felt the whole piece of music had taken on some kind of eerie presence (something of old: a book, painting, or any kind of complete artistic statement). I felt that it was sink or swim, and for me this had held up so I was absolutely thrilled and spoke to Warren. We obviously had the same fond memories about it and decided to put it out—and that’s the story. I’m very happy because it’s a very complete project. We haven’t touched anything at all. It is precisely as it was the day it was completed in 1996.
There’s a lot of crossover recently with electronic music being performed and produced in a live format with accompanying instruments. The tracks on TV Mania sound more like a full-on live electronic performance. What instrumental elements influenced you or were used to create tracks like “What About God?” or “Beautiful Clothes?”
It is mostly an electronic album, so it was done with a variety of synthesizers and a lot of analog gear that I’ve always favored. We used little things that pick up something from a little Casio, to a xylophone, to a Roland Jupiter 8 that I often used. But at the same time there’s a lot of live instrumentation. On a track like “What About God?” there’s a lot of live cymbals, percussion, and samples—operatic samples that I used. Anthony Resta added some fantastic percussion to that track and the sample itself was taken from The Outer Limits, which was Cliff Robertson from one of the very early shows. When we saw that we thought it was just heaven. Warren and I thought of the sample as a question of how existence and alien existence of any kind could exist, so it was a gift for us, really. It really fit in with the father’s vision of the world and his personal beliefs. We just pieced it together like a jigsaw and created canvases, while putting layers and layers of paint on each track to produce the most desirable effect.
You’ve been a pioneer of music in general for decades now. Seeing as how a lot of ’70s, ’80s, and indie music mixes sounds very similar to the latest electronic music, where do you think the next generation of music is headed?
Well, if it were me, forming a new band now, the first thing I would do is I would have a video person within the band onstage filming everything and creating live visuals. I would make it incredibly interactive. I would involve the audience, and I think clearly samples and electronics are still at the forefront of music. I’ve always loved guitars as well as live bass and drums. Different combinations of those things I think can still very much work, but my heart is in electronics. I would certainly use synthesizers, but probably not soft synths, which I know a lot of people do now. A lot of the dance records are made in the box. I still feel that analog synths as instruments have something. They have a lot more character and flexibility in many ways than digital synths and in-the-box synths. I’d be inclined to use analog synths, using video and interaction, and a killer singer with the best possible look and design.
What exact role would you say you held during this creative process?
I’m usually the instigator. I like to stir things up and make things unbalanced. That’s when you get the most interesting scientific results from your experiments. If you follow formulas it becomes incredibly dull, but if you actually look at things from a different perspective, you can usually carve out something different. I still believe there are many ways within music to create different combinations of instrumentation and arrangements. This is what I’m most interested in, of course. I love the composition of songs. I always like to invent; I’m not always successful. At its best, when I have a good day and the great song god in the sky looks kindly upon me, it’s a day when I have done something I haven’t heard before.
You are coming into 2013 in an entirely different light. What do you have planned that you can tell us about?
Well, I like the way 2013 is unfolding so far. I’ve always liked the number 13 just because other people don’t, I suppose. We are releasing the TV Mania project and I’m really excited about not just the release, but I am also excited about the franchise online and the exhibition. I’m doing a photograph exhibition for the first time in a long time to support the release, but it’s a group of photos I took that are related to the project. Then we start our Duran work in March, which is another chapter, another journey—and we’ll see where we go. After that, I really don’t have a clue. I’m personally going to archive my photo collection. I’ve done a couple remixes, one for MNDR and one for this project for the track “Beautiful Clothes.” Who would have thought at this point in my career I’d be doing remixes? But I actually have had a lot of fun.
photo by Dean Karr
Courtesy BeatPort (click to hear some TV Mania song samples as well)