Boots No 7 or Fairlight Series 3? Tony Reed trades fashion tips with the Duran and Arcadia ivory-tinkler
Even with the development of sampling keyboards, Nick still finds that all Rhodes lead to the Fairlight
One thing you never mention in the company of the very rich is money. Nick Rhodes, keyboard player and prettiest member of both Duran Duran and one of its recent offshoots, Arcadia, is indisputably rich. In the absence of any le Bon-style luxury yachts in the vicinity, afloat or otherwise, I at first had only the evidence of his shocking scarlet Edwardian frock coat to go on. But it didn't look cheap. 'How much?', I idly enquired. The question seemed to provoke some synaptic confusion. 'What?'. Never mind. Let's talk about gear.
What do you think about the Emulator?:
"Oh, I bought one when they came out..."
The beautifully sculpted features frown, just a little.
"...I think I used it about twice."
Anyway, it seems that Nick is a Fairlight man, preferring it both to the Emulator, and the Synclavier: "The great thing about the Fairlight is the way it's laid out, not six different boxes like the Synclavier... I got mine halfway through Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and having worked with it for such a long time, I find it very quick to use."
Initially employed as a glorified super-synth, ("You know, get a sound, play it, trigger it – nothing complicated.") Nick now finds himself writing and arranging whole songs on the machine, using its internal 16-track sequencer. Isn't it a bit limiting just using one machine – even one as flexible as the Fairlight? A lot of people have remarked how it 'colours' its samples:
"I really like the sound of digital things... of course, the Series II does colour things a bit, but the Series III doesn't at all, unless you want it to... Some of the sounds on that, some of the bass samples, are just fantastic! I can't wait until everything's digital, all the way through – digital synths, digital effects, recording – and then straight on to CD. We're releasing the CD of the Arcadia album, and it sounds brilliant. Imagine if you could write direct to CD, you could do your own one-off recordings at home!"
For a moment, the vision of Nick Rhodes hawking his latest DIY CD around the local record shops overwhelms me. Fortunately home taping technology has some way to go yet.
Do you do your own samples, or does some minion take care of that?
"I do them all myself. I've got about two library disks that I like, the rest – boxes and boxes of them – are all my own work, usually miked or DIed straight into the Fairlight. Rubber bands, explosions... recently, I've started recording sounds with effects already on them, or setting up a load of other synths, and sampling the result. It's just so much more reliable than other synths. On our last world tour, almost everything else – guitar amps, cabs, the other synths – broke down at some point. The Fairlight didn't break down once..."
The only other keyboard to feature significantly in Nick's life currently is a Roland Jupiter 8, for those times "when you just have to be able to turn a knob or push a fader and say 'I did that'."
On being pressed, he admits that the advent of MIDI a couple of years ago led to a flurry of purchasing: "Like everyone else I suppose, the first thing I wanted to do was build the biggest synth sound ever. You know: 'Er, strings, a bell, brass, an explosion, a handclap, a buzzy sound...' I soon realised that half the sounds were getting lost, and it was all ending up mushy. MIDI's nice in moderation, a second keyboard coming in on a melody, things like that. But if it gets too complicated, there's always problems. Recently I was trying to sync up a Linn 9000, the Fairlight, an MSQ 700, the Jupiter 8, and two other things... I eventually found that two of the synths just wouldn't work together. Obviously, MIDI's not 100%, but it is a fantastic thing."
"MIDI's not 100%, but it is a fantastic thing"
Remaining from that first flirtation with the fantastic thing are a few expanders, and the Korg Poly 800. Still a favourite with Nick, he used its onboard sequencer in the writing of Arcadia's first and most successful UK single release so far, Election Day.
"Sometimes it's nice to get back to simple things. Some of the sequencers and software that are around at the moment are too complicated, you can just lose sight of what you're doing. The Korg is so straightforward."
Straightforward is not the first word which would spring to mind to describe So Red The Rose, the recent album produced by Nick, Simon le Bon and Duran drummer Roger Taylor, aka Arcadia. A host of guests including Grace Jones, Sting, Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour, eccentric percussionist David Van Tieghem, sax maestro Andy MacKay, and Herbie Hancock all chipped in at various times, either at the invitation of the boys or "Just because they dropped in." (Thinks: Remind me to invite Sting over next time I need a hand with a demo.) The result is a 'complicated, esoteric' album light years away from the basic power dance of The Power Station, the other Duranies 'solo' venture.
Or, to quote further from the accompanying, reverent press release, the album '...maintains a consistent movement which runs through the entire project and links each piece.'
Aha. So this is a concept album, then, is it Nick?
"No, no! I hate concept albums. Well... The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was a good one..."
Enough said. Despite the complexity of So Red... Nick maintains that the writing process employed by him and le Bon was actually simpler than that used with Duran Duran: good ol' fashioned Tin Pan Alley stuff, with Simes crooning the lyric, and Nick noting down the chord structures on a real piano.
"I can't wait until everything's digital"
With a basic idea sorted, it was fine tuning time with the 'core' band of Roger Taylor, Jazz bassist Mark Egan, and axeman Alomar, both picked for their particular sound rather in the way we lesser mortals pick a new preset. Then – roll on the superstar cameos. All of them apparently are "Fine musicians" and "great people to work with".
Keeping track of the resulting chaos was producer Alex Sadkin, a man much admired by Nick for his ability to 'juggle lots of different elements at once.' With up to 20 tracks of percussion alone on each song, that's just as well; and the SSL at the Studio de la Grande Armee in Paris was earning its keep...
Then there was the little matter of David Van Tiegham's dildo. Dildo??
"Yes. We were playing away one day, and kept on hearing this funny buzzing sound. I turned round, and there was David, stroking bits of metal with this dildo. For Percussion, you see."
Of course. I should have guessed. The dildo doesn't seem to make much of an impression on the final cut, but then with almost everything triple-effected, AMSed, flanged, phased and fuzzed, it's kind of hard to tell. Nick admits that "perhaps it came out a little over-recorded, but it was a learning experience for us. I can see it feeding back into future Duran Duran stuff.'
Ah yes, the future. Arcadia, which is doing good business in the States and sod all here, will generate at least one more single – and then make way for the next Duran recording, due to start as you read this. If that concludes on schedule (around September), it will be followed by the inevitable tour. Beyond that – who knows? Nick's first dip in the murky waters of film scores, the collaboration with John Barry on the last Bond movie View To A Kill, led to well-publicised differences between the two. Clearly an experience he wouldn't care to repeat – or talk about. He settles for the standard 'Well, if the right project came up...' rockspeak response.
I can't say I blame him. After so many years in the media frontline, there can't be a question he hasn't heard, or learnt to answer. Even as my allotted hour with the man draws to a close, four or five other interviewers line up outside the aquarium-like interview room, each eager for a piece of his perfectly poised mind. The ever-attentive PR person escorts me to the door. Time for a closing one-liner: Do you like Sigue Sigue Sputnik?
"I like their press agent."
Perfect. He smiles professionally, not is goodbye, prepares for the next customer.
As I wade to the elevator through a sea of grey Axminster, passing lamps that look like scaffolding and chairs that only feel like it, I almost pity him. Almost.
Interview by Tony Reed
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