Simon Le Bon sounds exactly the way you want him to: flamboyant and utterly frank with an optimism that feels weighty and persuasive but not impulsive. There’s something about the spate of Duran Duran’s music that mines through these same touchstones. What I love about both is that they dig into our folk memory of the ’80s battalion of British pop, when bands like Duran embodied a foolproof disco-rock armory and took over America and the rest of the world, raking in millions of bucks along the way.
For those of us who weren’t around for their “new romantic” manifesto, “Planet Earth”, or its B-side, “Late Bar”, listening to Le Bon croon about all-night parties in hotel rooms through “la la la” chorus crackers, or are too young to remember “Ordinary World” and metaphoric sexual cravings on “Hungry Like the Wolf”, it’s easy to recall their lip gloss, bouffant mops, offbeat sci-fi music videos, and shoulder-padding swag and imagine the hoards of Durannies waving headshots before doors opened. Even now, after 35 years, countless comebacks, and semi-reunions, they remain a band that’s somehow both an example of and an outlier within their genre. Their 14th studio album, Paper Gods, arrives this week, and it’s clear this isn’t an exercise in nostalgia but proof of their continuing authority on pop music.
Now, it goes without saying that some pop music made in the ’80s and ’90s was so catchy you might have needed to stab your hand with a maths compass to stop pressing the play button again and again. The seemingly formulaic social orbit surrounding pop stars has charmed us too. It’s always felt like the world’s most exclusive club: an elite group of singers, producers, and songwriters from different backgrounds, cities, and fields all climbing into bed with each other’s songs and collaborating together – perhaps these artistic combinations have propelled pop music to where it is today.
Duran have toured with Blondie, worked with Nile Rodgers, Justin Timberlake, and Mark Ronson, but have never had such close encounters as on Paper Gods. The bill is knee-slappingly diverse, featuring contributions from Mr Hudson, Janelle Monáe, Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ John Frusciante and even – deep breath – actress Lindsay Lohan in a spoken-word ménage-quatre. The ever-brilliant frontman Jonas Bjerre of Danish rock band Mew told me how surprised he was when asked to sing on the track “Change the Skyline”: “It was all a bit surreal to me. They are obviously legendary, and I kept thinking about when I was a kid and my dad brought home VHS tapes with a bunch of music videos on it, one being “Wild Boys”. I obsessed about that song and video, this strange post-apocalyptic universe they created. It was such an intriguing mystery to me. That’s exactly the kind of music I love, the kind that makes you wonder and keeps you wanting to delve back into it.” The enigmatic vocalist ended up recording his vocals in a small studio in Russia on a “beautiful” old Neumann microphone.
We spoke to Simon Le Bon and tracked down drummer Roger Taylor to discuss being eternally against “bullshitting,” the unquestionable power of collaborations, Simon’s favorite song on the new album, and how a 1979 live performance by Kraftwerk sparked a lifelong love of electronic drumming.
So, Simon, you’ll be playing a few festivals ahead of the album release. Will you be sharing any new material?
No, not yet. It wouldn’t be properly productive to have the whole live album now because people haven’t heard it. It’s always better when people have listened to the record before you play the songs live.
I know, but there are so many catchy songs for super fans. I could imagine the crowd, even new listeners, going completely bonkers to hear new material.
[Laughs] I do agree with you, though, by the way, but people have to wait.
One of my favorite moments comes during the first song, “Paper Gods”, where a vocal comes in asking, “Who needs it?”
The stuff that sounds like the monks? Oh yeah, that’s Mr Hudson. Then I come in with the bow to the Paper Gods line.
I also like that after three decades you’ve remained particularly British. You say the word “Lad” during the track “You Kill Me with Silence”.
You know we always have to make a little reference to David Bowie in every album we make.
I thought as much! I remember reading something about following some of his drum patterns during the “Union of the Snake” too.
There’s always at least one reference, yeah!
So if you had to reduce this new album to a collection of themes, what would you say inspired its lyrics?
There’s just a few points of view where we find ourselves questioning what part of the tree this berry is hanging on. That would be a way of summing it up; just what it’s like for us at this particular point of the spiral arm of the galaxy. It’s not a concept album other than the fact that we wanted to make an album that people would dance to. We figured out it’s more fun being a party band than a sit-down-and-listen band.
That’s certainly been true for the band in the past. I do think the slower sit-down-and-listen tracks on this particular album are necessary too.
Sure, well, you gotta have a little darkness if you’re gonna see the stars.
That could be a line from “To the Shore”, you know. I do agree, and Pop music has always seemed like a science: What will make people feel good and have a good reaction and dance? Still, it must be quite challenging to do that.
That’s very interesting that you say that, because I think part of the problem with modern pop music is that people overanalyze it and try to approach it as though there’s some kind of formula that works. By doing that, they’re disabling their own creativity and spontaneity – that little spark of imagination by overthinking it. It’s important to be free! With this album, we gave ourselves the luxury of time. We gave ourselves time to try different things out and set our own boundaries and to experiment. And space, we really wanted to have space on the record, and Mr Hudson came in and gave us the confidence to put the space around the notes, same way you need the dark to see the stars… you need the space for the music as well. One of the most important sounds of the album is the sound of quiet.
Don’t you think that because you hold a legacy to your sound? Surely that’s how and why you can approach pop music in not such a formulaic way? Doesn’t that play into it?
Oh yes, but it occurred to me in a slightly different way for this album. Suddenly, we’re in a place where there’s no bullshit for a band that’s been around for 35 years. We don’t have to prove anything to anybody. We just have to make a good album. But, you’re still only as good as your last record, and we take the music very seriously, so we knew that we were not in the position to do anything but put out a fantastic album and really worked hard to make it inspired, beautiful, powerful, and full of passion.
And also it’s unusual in this day and age to hear a hit song that’s just sung by one band, and on Paper Gods your roster of artists feels like the biggest group of collaborators you’ve ever had — Janelle Monáe, Kiesza, Mew’s Jonas Bjerre, Mark Ronson, John Frusciante. You’ve even got London Youth Chamber Choir.
Well, it’s the only real group of collaborators we’ve ever had on an album. I’d always resisted the collaboration thing because I was holding onto the microphone quite jealousy and not wanting to share it with anyone for many years. With this album, it started when John Frusciante put himself forward to play guitar on some of the tracks, something we’ve never done before, and then it was so good it seemed like a good idea to try something different. We went with Janelle, Nile, Kiesza, and then Lindsay [Lohan].
Right, tell me how was working with Lindsay?
Oh, it was amazing. It was absolutely amazing. She’s completely professional, but it took about two weeks to get her into the studio. Once she was in there, she turned into this incredible actress she is, and she’s funny. She isn’t afraid of doing something that’s a little tongue in cheek and a little naughty.
No stab at your creative choices, but why does Lindsay speak and not sing?
Because it was a speaking part that we needed on the record, and that’s what the song required. She’s a good singer, though.
I actually agree, and her persona definitely suits what she’s saying here: “I am your doctor,” etc. The humor is there, and it definitely comes across.
And she knows how to use her voice. That’s what’s so great about Lindsay; she has a great speaking voice as well as singing voice. She’s the only person I know who could have done that in that way, and it was just fabulous. That’s one of my favorite moments on the whole record.
So what’s different about the vibe in the studio when you’re working with someone like Lindsay vs. someone like Janelle?
Well, they’ve got different approaches to their job. Lindsay comes in a cloud of perfume and drama. Janelle comes in, and she just sings her ass off, you know? And you’ve gotta be able to work with both, and they were both equally exciting with moments to savor.
I was also curious about the song “Sunset Garage”. Was that written within the two-year gap that you took to make the album, or was it written quite a while ago?
Yeah, it was written right in the middle of this situation. It was the third song that we did with Mr Hudson. The first was “You Kill Me with Silence”, the second was “Paper Gods”, and then this one. There was a lot of debate about whether it should go on the album because it’s got a slightly different flavor, but I have to say I love it so much. I love that song so much that I fought and pushed and pushed. It’s very special to me.
Yes, it certainly stood out, which is why I’m asking about it specifically. I think because the lyrics revolve around being drunk, I assumed it sat next to “Hold Back the Rain”, about staying out too late, taking too many drugs, drinking too much. Who is this song about?
I got this little tank girl image in my head, somebody a bit like I dunno, you know who – [Laughs] yes! You know who Yolandi Visser is?
As a fellow South African, how could I not?
[Laughs] Yes, I thought you’d know who she is, somebody like that – that’s the girl I’m thinking of.
You even say during the song, “Whatever happens, it’s okay/ Hey, we’re still alive,” which is such a simple, yet reassuring sentiment. So, Simon, I suppose because of all the imagery and words that come with Duran Duran and how fantastic your entire musical career has been, what is the thing that thrills you about being onstage now? What is the thing that keeps everything alive?
Well, I guess the fact that we’re not over ambitious. We’ve got a pretty simple job: We write songs, we record them, and then we go out and play them. We’re happy. That’s enough for us. We don’t have this burning ambition to run a clothing label, you know? We really just enjoy being in a band and commit ourselves entirely to what we do.
Thanks so much for your time! I know you’re super busy.
It’s a pleasure, Lior. It’s been wonderful and I hope we meet up one day!
I was quite surprised when I heard you were available for interviews.
I never liked it in the early days. I wasn’t a big talker, and I tended to speak through my drums – that was my language.
On this new album, what was your role in terms of the rhythm section?
It’s still very much me. I’m not afraid of electronic drums and programming. It’s always been apart of my DNA, if you like. Since the day that I saw Kraftwerk perform in 1976, I’ve always been into electronic music from that day on. A lot of the rhythm tracks on this record were actual performances using digital drums; I’ve got an amazing Roland electronic drum kit where you can trigger samples and sounds through that. I think the album does have my personality because a lot of it is played. There’s definitely still me in the mix.
This might sound silly, but is there ever a moment between playing an electronic and standard kit where you feel there’s a noticeable difference as a musician? Obviously, there’s that visceral feeling.
The development has been so amazing over the last 10 years, and I’ve seen it all. It’s so close to a real drum kit; you get to use a webbing, so it’s not like plastic. It feels like you’re hitting a skin that could be tensioned or loosened, and then that transmits a signal to the sample that creates a digital sound, so it’s very close to a real drum kit now.
Talking about witnessing that progression, in the ’80s, if someone gave you a glimpse into the future, did you ever think you would get to album number 14?
No! Not at all. The first amazing piece of drum technology was the Siemens kit; you probably would have seen it in the old videos, a kind of a hexagonal set of drums, which had two sounds you could use. You had the [makes sound] “pew pew” sound, and the “doof doof”, which we used in “Hungry Like a Wolf”, but the modern technology is obviously limitless. That’s the age we live in, isn’t it? I don’t have to make these sounds for you. Everything is available!
But is there an example of a song on the new record that you might not have done a few years ago because of technology?
Yes, a couple of songs. “You Killed Me with Silence” was very much written with my drum kit because I wanted to step away from our traditional sound, as the last record was very much about the traditional Duran Duran sound. Also “What Are the Chances” is very different territory for us where the drums enabled us to step put of the box we were in.
Do you feel like this record is a step toward another time? I suppose as a listener, you always wonder how you’ve adapted the concept of pop over time.
Duran Duran have always had one foot on the dance floor. I mean, we grew up in a club. It’s in our DNA to make people want to dance, and I think people just wanna dance and listen to pop records. That’s what Duran Duran have done from day one.
Did you write all the songs together?
We’re a true democracy, and everything that’s written we’re generally together on. We don’t write the backing track then walk away. We write very much as a band. A bit like The Beatles. We’re always omnipresent.
Female vocalists have been quite dominant in all of your back catalog. Is there a favorite female vocal part in one of the songs, past or currently on this album?
Well, we worked with someone called Kiesza, who is an amazing house vocalist from Canada, and we listened to her work and really liked what she was doing. She lit up the studio, and her voice is incredible. That was probably my favorite. I’m surprised you’re not asking about us bringing Lindsay Lohan on board?
Sure, that’s the most striking credit on the album but…
Out of all the amazing people we have, all people want to talk about is Lindsay Lohan.
Well, you’ve put her on the album, and you’re now slap-bang in the middle of a press run with US media. I’d prefer to talk about John Frusciante to be honest.
Yes! I think he’s the greatest living guitarist right now; he’s a genius, isn’t he? We’re so honored he played on our record. We’ve admired him from a distance for many years, so when we got the call that he was a fan and wanted to play with us, something just dropped from heaven, and it was the beginning of a lot of different collaborations but that was an incredible moment.
What’s the biggest takeaway you got from working with him?
That you don’t always take the most obvious route as a musician, his mind is astonishing because he finds these notes in the most unexpected ways. As a musician I’ll take that any day, I’ll take a different level of thought any day.