Throughout four decades with his New Romantic-era-spawned supergroup Duran Duran, keyboardist Nick Rhodes has busied himself with many diversions, like photography, a trailblazing skincare company called GENEU, and various short-lived splinter groups like Arcadia, The Devils and TV Mania. So he wasn’t intending to form another side project during his pandemic downtime, he swears. Astronomia, his Dead Can Dance-classy new duo with British-born, Los Angeles-rooted singer/auteur Wendy Bevan, was a happy accident, a serendipitous surprise that, over the past year, has amassed 52 atmospheric tracks, which are being released seasonally, in four separate discs, starting with this spring’s Astronomia: The Fall of Saturn and continuing into the brand-new Astronomia II: The Rise of Lyra; two more volumes are set for fall and winter releases.
“I think the thing was, we didn’t really know what we were making when we started,” Rhodes elaborated in a recent phone call from his native London, with Bevan on the line, as well. “It was tabula rasa, just nothing whatsoever—just a blank canvas, like ‘What do we do? Let’s just start making a noise.’ So Wendy would make a fabulous noise with her violins and vocals and layers and effects and then send it to me, and I would listen to it and just add layers of analog synths, percussion and sound effects. Or I would come up with a little structure and some sounds and send it to Wendy, and then she’d send it back with these beautiful, ethereal atmospheres swooping over it. And we suddenly realized, about five or six tracks in, that we had created our own unique sound.”
Given Rhodes’ deep affection for analog keyboards (his inventive work with early models like the Jupiter 8 just earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award from Roland), Lyra texturally feels like a more restrained Enya fronting a Sorcerer-era Tangerine Dream, with evocative titles summoned from Greek mythology: “Vega,” “Apollo’s Gift,” “The Charm of Orpheus,” and an appropriately ominous “Eurydice and the Underworld.” And while he’s already returned to punching the Duran Duran clock (a funky single, “Invisible,” is already paving the way for a forthcoming Future Past album, with a cutting-edge video created solely by an artificial intelligence named Huxley), Rhodes will be collaborating with Bevan for some time to come, even after touring demands toss him back onto the stadium circuit again. The duo had much to say about Astronomia in the meantime …
Paste: Oddly enough, I was just speaking to MNDR, or Amanda, and she was still amazed that she got to sit in on keyboards for you on a recent Duran Duran tour. Small world, right?
Nick Rhodes: Yeah! I had to leave the Paper Gods tour for a few weeks to deal with some things in the U.K., and I didn’t want to stop the tour, so Amanda stepped in, and did a very good job, too. So now I know—I’ve got a stunt double for sure. And we met through Mark Ronson—we met when we were working with Mark, and she was on Mark’s tour, and she was on Mark’s solo album. And of course, she’s an analog synth geek just like me. So the two of us got on very well, and Simon and I guested on a couple of Mark’s solo shows that Amanda was playing on, and we got to know each other. But it came to mind, because we needed to find somebody quite quickly. And I thought, “Well, she’d be great, if she’s up for it!” And I think she had a nice time, so that’s good.
Paste: And who introduced you to Wendy?
Rhodes: We were introduced by a mutual friend here in London, who actually had said to me, “I think you should meet, because you’re going to like Wendy. You two have lots in common, and maybe you can work together on something, because she wants to do a new solo album.” And so we did meet, and we got along very, very well, and we did have a lot of things in common outside of music, like photography, particularly, and art, theatre and cinema. And so we got chatting, and said, “Well, let’s do a day in the studio.” And it was for Wendy’s solo album, which is regular songs, and she’s singing throughout. So we worked on that, on and off, for over a year, and just about last January, February, we were completing it in the studio, and suddenly the world changed. And so we said, “Well, perhaps we’d better not put the album out yet.” Because Wendy wanted to support it with promotion and obviously some live shows, and it just didn’t make sense. So we ended up separating—Wendy went back to Los Angeles, where she was living at the time, and I stayed in London, and we were able to continue working remotely, sending files backwards and forwards to each other, which is what became the Astronomia project. So we missed Wendy’s release date, that’s for sure.
Wendy Bevan: But we’ve created four other albums since, so things didn’t turn out so bad.
Paste: Wendy, it seems like anything goes with you artistically. Your last U.K. exhibit, Slow Light, was photographic prints, projections, plus a music installation with violin sounds. Plus you have a certain Gothic sensibility.
Bevan: Yeah, and I think Nick and I particularly get along because of that. But Slow Light was an audio/visual thing, and basically a self-portrait exhibition that I put together, so all the images were self-portraits. But they were very multiple-exposure, so you couldn’t tell that they were self-portraits. So I had two sides to the exhibition, one was that there were several images printed on gauze, like a silk organza gauze that was very, very thin, and then there were about 12 of those blown up to two meters by two meters, and hung, suspended in a row. So it sort of looked like a big light prism when you stood in front of it. And then in another room, I had this sort of a blacked-out box, where I then projected all the same images onto actually what was a parachute, but knitted in a way that it looked like this completely suspended, unknown shape in the room that was lifted up and down with a wind machine. And then the music was playing to it, so it was an experiential piece. And I wrote an album for that, which I think was really one of the starting points of me composing a lot of this music. And it was definitely something I dipped into for inspiration at the beginning of writing Astronomia.
Paste: Where did that interest in studying your own reflection come from? Was it a Cindy Sherman kind of thing?
Bevan: I think it’s studying … one’s own character, and the multiple characters that I seem to create as an artist, be it through music or projecting that onto the image. I think it was that, really—one of the main things in my work is always the theatricality of it, and the feeling of it, and the universe it creates. So that’s where it comes from—looking at character and exploring that.
Paste: I’m sure you’re fans of Man Ray, probably Jean Cocteau, too.
Bevan: We certainly are!
Rhodes: Cocteau has long been a massive inspiration, my superhero, too. And when I said to Wendy, “Let’s make this about the universe, but let’s also bring in some mythology,” that’s where we bonded over Cocteau, and said, “Oh, my goodness, yes, of course! The Orphee trilogy and all the characters, like Eurydice—I think those are such fantastic, inspired stories that they just never get old, in a way. And so bringing that in made the music more mystical and magical, as it went along. And as you’ve probably gathered if you’ve seen the titles of some of the pieces on this couple of albums, we have certainly used mythology very much.
Paste: Like “An Argonaut’s Dream,” or “The Charm of Orpheus.”
Rhodes: It was the idea that—as I’m sure you know, loving the Cocteau movies—that Orpheus could play the lyre more beautifully than anyone else in the universe, and that really appealed to us. But it’s still a very sad story, as you know.
Paste: In researching this, and digging into myths and legends, did either of you learn anything new?
Rhodes: Yeah. I think we came across things that were interesting, particularly with constellations and things like that, and the names of various stars and constellations. Because, although, of course, it’s fairly fictitious what we have created, what we did want to do was give it an authenticity. So when you look at The Fall of Saturn, the first album, the titles are related to Saturn and to that part of the universe. For example, one of the things that I didn’t know, personally, was what the Cassini index was. So it was fun to find out that that is actually the greatest distance between any of Saturn’s rings. So yeah, we did learn some things, which were actually fascinating.
Paste: Early in the pandemic, a lot of housebound folks started gazing skyward again, and constellation guidebooks started selling again. Did you guys find yourselves stargazing, too?
Rhodes: Unfortunately, there’s so much light pollution here in London that it’s very difficult to get a good view of any of those beautiful stars up there. But we love the whole idea of it. Since I was a little kid—and I’m from the space-race generation—the universe has always been a great fascination, and again, really, a massive inspiration, from when I first saw David Bowie on Top of the Pops at the age of 10 years old, singing “Starman.” I knew that that was something that I wanted to do—I wanted to be in that world, and I loved that he was singing about things from another world.
Bevan: Yeah. And I certainly was able to have a bit more space out in L.A. at the time of writing this entire project, so actually—while Nick was trapped in a flat in London with light pollution, I did head out to the desert quite often, which, of course, is very close to L.A. So with Joshua Tree or Yucca Valley, I was able to get out there quite often and take a bit of time with the stars.
Paste: Obviously, the stargazing metaphor is much huger—we’ve all been contemplating some deeper, darker stuff. But what conclusions did you come to along the way?
Rhodes: Obviously, it’s been an incredibly dark and sad time for the world. But I hope, like most other optimists out there, that when we are able to return to the new normality, that people will have understood a little more and perhaps care a little more. Because I think the danger with our world is, we see so much greed out there, and we also see such neglect and poverty and uncaring. And you’ll find that most artists, I’m sure, across all genres, that we do tend to care, and we want the best for humans. We want good things in the world—we’re not greedy, selfish people. It just doesn’t come with what we do, generally. And so I think seeing some of the things that people have done, the sacrifices that people have made, and certainly our health services, worldwide, what they’ve been through, and what they’ve provided for all of us, is quite extraordinary. And it must have been so difficult for all of them, and unbelievably upsetting, having to watch the suffering—and death, in many cases—early on in the pandemic, for sure. And so I think it’s … perspective, is what really will come out of it, I hope. And I feel, for Wendy and I, making this project throughout that period was a real lifeline—it gave us something to focus on, it gave us hope, it was a channel for our creativity, and more than all of that, every note that’s in this 52-piece project, every note of it, really, is our diary of those times. It’s how we were feeling and what we wanted to convey, emotionally, to try to connect with people. It’s the soundtrack of that year that we all experienced, really.
Bevan: And now that it’s a time capsule of four albums, I think it captures it rather well. But for me, like everyone else, I went through several different stages of hope, hopelessness, feeling alone, feeling at peace with that. So I think all of that came out in the music, and it was a journey—for me, personally, and for everyone. And like Nick said, it became a lifeline for me, the project. So I’m glad that we managed to capture it in the way that we have.
Paste: Here’s a weird undertone to it all—you’re releasing it seasonally, but suddenly last year, artists who usually traveled all year were stuck at home, where they could experience all four seasons, intimately. And maybe reflect more on mortality in the process.
Rhodes: I do think that people have discovered a lot more about themselves. And certainly I’ve spent most of the past four decades running. I’ve been chasing around the world—release a record, do a tour. I haven’t had time to sit back and contemplate much. And when you do have a little more time to think, and a little more time to yourself to do whatever you want to do, it makes you feel differently about life and certainly focuses you on the things that are important to you. And I think Wendy and I realized—ironically—that one of the things that was most important for us was to keep going, and to keep making things, and not to stop, and not to take a break, because creativity, or putting things out, making things, is certainly what makes me happiest. If I make something any day—whether it’s a photo or a song or a little short film clip—I feel that I’ve achieved something. Whereas just sitting there—as we all did, through some of this—feeling a little helpless was a great sense of unease.
Paste: I personally felt a prime directive to keep informing readers about great new music.
Rhodes: And during this period, I found myself turning to music more—other people’s music, just music that I liked to listen to, more than I had in several years. One, because I had more time. And also because you find solace and comfort in music. Whether it’s a really dark piece you’re listening to, or whether it’s some uplifting disco song, as long as it’s something that just clicks with you somewhere. And certainly for me—and I think most people, too—music punctuates periods in your life, doesn’t it? There are songs that immediately take you back to a period, and you remember what you were doing, or a happy time, or perhaps even a sad time. But each song that you really love in your life usually fits to something that gives you a lot of memories. So I believe that during the pandemic, that’s the reason a lot of people did turn to music even more than before.
Paste: During the pandemic, I discovered an old band from England called The Honeycombs, produced by Joe Meek, and I couldn’t stop playing ’em. What did you find yourselves listening to on repeat?
Rhodes: I listened to quite a broad cross-section. I always find myself returning to a lot of classical music. I particularly love Chopin’s nocturnes for piano, so I played that endlessly, as well as a lot of classical music, actually—everything from Shostakovich to Beethoven. And Tame Impala—of modern bands from somewhat recent times, they’ve made some great records. I actually really enjoyed listening to the Billie Eilish album—I think she’s a super talent, and it’s refreshing to have someone that young coming up with something really new-sounding, yet definitely super-radio-friendly. I listened to all kinds of stuff. A lot of electronic music—once we’d started this project, I did find myself going back to Wendy Carlos, and having a listen to things like the A Clockwork Orange soundtrack, but also some of the earlier work she did playing classical music on analog synthesizers. It was interesting to listen to that—they were beautiful pieces.
Bevan: I love classical music, too, and Mozart’s Requiem was definitely something I listened to several times during that period. But also artists like Alice Coltrane, and some other classics. I love P.J. Harvey and Nick Cave, so I sort of always turn to those guys and have a listen.
Paste: Is the GENEU shop you were connected with still open on New Bond Street?
Rhodes: No, funnily enough, it’s not. I wish it were. It was fun to actually do that project, because I’d never overseen a whole brand before. I was brought on to advise on, and create the look and feel of the whole brand, which I really, really liked. But they ran into issues with their lease, and then their backer, and all kinds of things happened. So, very sadly, it closed. And it’s a shame, because it was a very forward-thinking, futuristic project, and the actual product itself was really very good, and had fantastic results. But that was not my part in it, I’m afraid—I had nothing whatsoever to do with the business side. I was purely involved in the aesthetics.
Paste: And I heard construction workers at the former recently unearthed a Nick Rhodes Dorian Gray portrait, hidden in a back room.
Rhodes: Ha! Well, I dread to think what that must look like!