Interview: Duran Duran's John Taylor
Interview by Nitsuh Abebe
Bassist John Taylor started Duran Duran around 1978, with his neighbor, keyboard player Nick Rhodes. It remains a mystery how one neighborhood could turn out two guys that good looking, or how a pop band could contain three different guys named Taylor without any of them being related. But after 30 years of the usual pop band stuff-- stardom, comebacks, lineup changes, reunions-- Duran Duran are still going. At the start of November, they played nine nights in a New York Broadway theater, in support of a new record, Red Carpet Massacre, created with Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Timbaland protégé Nate "Danjahandz" Hills. They printed playbills and everything. And their show, interestingly enough, contained a Kraftwerk-styled set including a cover of-- among other things-- the Normal's "Warm Leatherette", a grotty old synth oddity by Daniel Miller, whose lyrics, inspired by J.G. Ballard's Crash, are about having sex during serious car accidents.
We talked to Taylor about the new album, and the rock album that wound up being shelved, and "Warm Leatherette", and rehab, and Duran Duran's experimental streak, and the strike-- by Broadway's stagehands union-- that sent the band over to a new venue to finish its nine-night stand. By the way: If anyone reading this has access to a time machine, could I possibly borrow it? I'd like to tell my 10-year-old self that I have talked to a member of Duran Duran, and also that I have totally done it with naked ladies.
Pitchfork: So I saw that your last two shows had to be moved to a new venue, because of the Broadway strike-- I hope that hasn't messed up your flow too much!
John Taylor: Messed up our plans for world domination! The only thing that's changed, really, is that we built a show into the [Ethel] Barrymore Theater-- we had a lot of projections, and a lot of film, none of which we could take to the Roseland. So it forced us to change it up a bit. The Roseland is a great venue, but it's a different kind of experience. We built the show for the Barrymore, and it's a three-act show: We come out and play the new album start to finish, with a sort of film show that goes along with it. Then there's an interval, and we come back and do something we call the electro set-- it's kind of like a Kraftwerk homage, and it's built out of the idea of the unplugged acoustic set thing, which has become...well, everybody's doing it now, aren't they. And it had never felt authentic for us to do-- we'd dabbled in it, but it never felt right. So it's all, yeah, why don't we play synthesizers? So that’s that. And then we do some of the old-school stuff.
Pitchfork: The electro set is really something-- I was watching some clips from the show, and I don't think I ever imagined I'd see so many people cheering for "Warm Leatherette!"
JT: [Laughter.] The best thing about that was that Moby came to the show, and he told me that while we were playing that, he was texting Daniel Miller [of The Normal]: "I'm standing in a Broadway theater watching Duran Duran dressed as Kraftwerk performing 'Warm Leatherette.'"
Pitchfork: Well, that's one thing that's been surprising me, actually: You guys are working in a lot of different styles. You have a pop album with Timbaland tracks. You have a stage-show Kraftwerk homage. And I've read that you have an indie rock album on the shelf somewhere?
JT: Well...let's start with how we got to "Warm Leatherette". What's interesting is...we did a week of recording sessions with Timbaland, in New York. And one of Tim's crew is this guy Nate Hills, called Danja. And Tim went off on the road, so we approached Danja and said, "Do you want to come to London with us, and do some more work?" So he came to London-- he'd never been to London-- and he's a musician, a keyboard player, and he just joined the band for a month. We jammed, we had a lot of fun together. And, like...he's in his early 20s, from Virginia Beach, and our experiences are so fucking different! So we were hanging out together, and we just started putting him on to some different stuff. "Warm Leatherette" was just something we put on in the studio one day, while we were working on the title track. And we played it for him, and said, "This was a massive song for us, like 30 years ago, almost." We played him stuff like that; I was playing him Erik Satie; we were giving him Beatles albums...I mean, for him, everything is just innate, or he learned it in church, or I guess later on in clubs. Our experiences were just so different. But so that kind of brought up "Warm Leatherette" again.
I was just talking about Kraftwerk, earlier, about how they always felt like an anomaly-- they never felt like they were at the forefront of a movement. It was always more like a one-off, almost like a novelty act. "Warm Leatherette" and what Daniel Miller did subsequent to that-- that was what got the whole alternative electro movement going, I think. Up until Kraftwerk, keyboards were quite inaccessible. It wasn't until the late 70s, around the time Nick [Rhodes] started playing keyboards, that they started getting a lot more accessible, and you could get ones, fairly cheaply, that were quite versatile. And you could sequence and trigger them, and hook them up to drum machines-- I mean, back then, that took fucking hours! But that was exciting for us-- that was the movement and the music we wanted to dig into. We've always stayed a little bit separate from it, though-- we've never been like a pure electro band. We've always had this thing where we keep our feet in different camps. Dabbling in electro-- "electro-aware," I would say-- and then there's that sort of organic band thing that's gone on as well.
Pitchfork: There's another thing that interests me-- you guys have been productive long enough that the fashion's come around. I hear bands that seem entirely sprung from your bass part on "Planet Earth". And right now there are a lot of bands trying to reconcile those sorts of things-- a little bit dance, a little bit punk, a little bit electronic.
JT: Well, Simon said, you know, we started out as an experimental band, really, who had teeny-pop stardom foisted upon them. It was always quite incongruous to us, really. I'm not saying we ever discouraged teen press-- when you've made an album, you want people to hear the album, and you'll do any kind of press, really. And when I was a kid in school and the girls in my class had their teen magazines, Marc Bolan was in there, and Bowie, and Roxy Music were in there. For me, it was like...what's wrong with that? That's what teen press was in the early 70s. So, you know, we were kind of thrust into that, and next thing you know, that's what we are. But it was nice with this album to sort of...well, everyone around us is always about singles, singles, singles, and it's been nice to pull the reins back on that and make an album, something that's not just a collection of wannabe singles.
Pitchfork: I was hearing Timbaland say earlier that this was a learning experience for him, trying to work with a full band. How was that on your end, trying to make those two different ways of working fit together? I mean, especially as a bass player...
JT: It was a challenge! I know he appreciated that we were a band, but I think he had a formula, and...well, fuck, man, it's working! I call him "Motown in a box"-- he's got everything, in a box and a canvas bag, all his samples. He's extraordinary. But every day or so, we did sort of have to say, "We're a band, so we have to represent ourselves that way-- the audience needs to hear that." There was a curve. We only did a week with him. We kind of started out and he had some things prepared, a groove and a bassline, and that was "Nite Runner", and we came in and mostly added a vocal and a lyric. But by the third song we did, which was "Skin Divers", it was much more of a band feeling to that, and there's a sense of presence of myself and Nick and Roger [Taylor]. I think if we'd worked with him for longer, that collaboration would have broadened out.
What happened was that Tim went out on the road with Justin [Timberlake, who co-wrote songs on Red Carpet Massacre], so we went into the studio with Nate...and he just got up on the curve and launched off. He's a musician first, so we just jammed everything. And that's when we started to feel..."The Valley," the opening track, which we did with Nate, was clearly not a single-- it was kind of an esoteric groove track. Well, I call it a groove track-- I've got to watch my vernacular with you, that might mean a lot of things to Pitchfork readers. But it was like old-school Duran Duran-- there were always songs on our early albums that were like long-form groove tracks, and very heady, lyrically.
You asked me about the music that we had put on the shelf. We'd been on the road doing a reunion, because we put the original band back together about five years ago. We'd gone on the road, and we'd done an album together, which we were satisfied with. We'd done a lot of touring, and there was an energy there like we'd found ourselves, like we'd really discovered ourselves as musicians. So we came off the road and we went straight into a writing and recording environment. We cut a lot of stuff quite quickly, produced it all ourselves, and it was very organic-- guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, kind of an "if you can't play it live, don’t do it" sort of thing. And there wasn't a theme to the record, we were just writing about...well, there was political stuff-- it was what you would write if you weren't writing about anything in particular, if you were just like, living in this world. What are you gonna write about? You're gonna write about the same kind of shit that's on the TV and in the newspapers. So we took that record to Sony. And the cliché is "we're not hearing a single"-- they gave us a variation on that, which is, "We're hearing a second and third single, but we're not hearing a first single. So how do you feel about getting together with a producer? Anybody you like?" So we came up with Tim's name. And we had to wait six months to get him, so we were on ice for six months. And the idea was to work with Tim and come up with a couple of songs that we could add to the material we already had.
But two things happened that week. One was that we fell out with our guitar player [Andy Taylor]. We wound up without a guitar player. But the thing is, we lost a guitar player, but we got this fucking amazing sound! It was like...by the time we finished, it was like getting an enema, like the sound had gotten an enema. So we just felt like we could move forward with that new architecture. So instead of trying to patch this together, it was more...fucking leave that stuff on the shelf. We're gonna have all kinds of conflicts with Andy, so let's just leave that on the shelf. And these guys move so quickly, these producers-- it's like, we'll go in the studio with Nate, let's just do a whole album in this mode. And I think that the subject matter kind of changed, because the key words became "uptown" and "girls." [Note: I don't know if it was very professional or very unprofessional of me not to make a Billy Joel joke at this juncture.] Duran Duran Ultimate. Let's make that record that everyone wants to hear from us.
Pitchfork: The subject matter is something I wanted to ask about-- some of this stuff is very pointedly about celebrity scandal and celebrity culture, which is something you guys do have some experience with: Failed relationships, drug addictions, and so on. Now that those things seem to be behind you, it is strange to see all the attention paid to people dealing with it now?
JT: I don't think it's weird, no. What's interesting is...I mean, it's not like The Wall, where we sat down to write an album about the perils of celebrity culture. It was really just a phrase ["Red Carpet Massacre"] that had a ring to it, that the song was then written around, and became loosely based on. But it's quite a potent phrase, and you put that together with the "Falling Down" video [in which singer Simon LeBon plays some sort of celebrity rehab director], and it's like...it feels like there's a thread there. But it was unconscious-- we never set out to say "this is what the album's gonna be about." But when you start looking at it from a distance, it's like, "Oh yeah, this is what's going on for us." I mean, of course there's something exciting-- it's something we've been a witness to, that we do have experience of, that we can talk about. And it seems kind of current-- it feels like a young subject, with the whole TMZ culture and everything. So I suppose to be commenting on that gives us a kind of currency. But if we had consciously tried to do that...I think it works because it's not too contrived.
Pitchfork: Well, you guys have always been known for your videos, and I see that's happening again with the "Falling Down" clip-- I hear there's a version that can't really be used?
JT: It's so shocking!
Pitchfork: There are women! Shocking bits of women!
JT: We were looking for something that would be kind of sexy and fun, and the idea of playing with the "celebrity supermodel gets put into rehab" thing-- I mean, "Supermodel Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" was the subtitle for it. It just seemed like, on the one hand, I've been through that, so I'm very sympathetic to it. I'm a believer in it! I'm a believer in recovery. It's a strange thing to say, but I believe in the power of recovery and the 12 steps. But it seemed like something we could have some fun with, since it's such a big part of who we are today, and there's not a lot of...there's a bit of mystery about it. What happens when they go into rehab? Well, what happens in our video is not what happens, but it's a fun take on it, kind of like a Saturday Night Live skit on it. I mean, I know it's a sensitive issue, but...I can kind of see, this time next year, the new Friends sitcom actually takes place in rehab.
Pitchfork: We talked about your music background, how it goes back to a point where things like punk and electronic music and hip-hop didn't seem like they were so far removed from one another, so I'm curious: what kinds of things do you listen to these days?
JT: Ummmm...well, I've been on a kick with a lot of 20th century classical music the past couple of weeks, because I've been reading this book called The Rest Is Noise …
Pitchfork: The [New Yorker critic] Alex Ross!
JT: Yeah! That's been taking me down a road, downloading Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Webern, and I've made it to Gershwin. I like that new Robert Wyatt album, Comicopera-- I'm enjoying that a lot at the moment. I went to the Joy Division movie, which I thought was amazing. What have I bought? I bought a Black Dice album, I bought some Prefuse 73...you know, there's a lot of stuff out there.
Pitchfork: It's a lot to sort through.
JT: I got that On the Corner box set, which is pretty insane. It's interesting, because I've listened to that a few times before, and I'd always hit a brick wall. But I read a review for it, and it mentioned that one of the songs on it was a seminal track for Brian Eno. So I was able to go back and listen to it through the Eno lens, and...and I got it!
It's something I need, especially when I'm working. I'm away from home, I'm living for those two hours that we play, every other night-- I've got to throw a lot of shit on the fire. I've got to keep my enthusiasm. I've got to keep it burning very bright. But I don't think there's ever been a better time for that! We can be nostalgic for the closing of Tower Records, or whatever, but there's never been more music available, or more easy to get hold of. It's an amazing time for music, in that respect.
Pitchfork: Every bio I've read of you says that you grew up being...well, a big music geek, basically, and that it was only when you started playing music that you reinvented yourself as a glamorous star. [Taylor's childhood hobby involved hand-painted model soldiers, actually.] I don't know how true that is...
JT: That's basically true, sure!
Pitchfork: Well, is that kind of reinvention a priority for Duran Duran? Are you conscious of each new stage of the career changing things up, in each incarnation?
JT: It's interesting that you say that, because...what I'm really interested in right now is becoming, like, the eternal me. Almost like getting back to who I was before I even got in the band. And I'm actually almost there-- I am that music geek who just happens to be in a band. And I think that's the role I play within the band. And I think that when we started out we were very unselfconscious-- we never came out like "look at us, look at how cute we are, how clever we are." I think that's actually what was so appealing about us, at the very beginning! And then you become self-conscious, and you become self-important, and all these layers come on top of you, and you lose sight of who you are-- the audience loses sight of you are. That, to me, that's been the journey more recently, to really get in touch with that. I find myself almost going backward to what I was...before I became a drug addict! [Cue dark, self-effacing laughter: Taylor goes HA HA HA.] Back to that pure sensibility. Because if you can get back to that, and get in touch with that, you're never gonna lose.
I hate to use a parallel to Picasso, but I was reading a review of a book about him over the weekend, and he-- as a painter, he reached a point where he got in touch with his eternal child. And his work for the last 50 years, it was like...don't you always love pictures by kids? There's a certain purity about it. And so obviously you want to learn and have new experiences, but you don't want to do it at the expense of losing your purity.
Pitchfork: What do you think is next, then? How will you be continuing down that path?
JT: I don't know, man-- I'm just trying to keep my family sane and safe. And the work is, like...I'm very happy. We've got a record out today, and I don't take that lightly. Getting a fucking album out these days is like...every year, it gets harder. It seems to, at least from where we're coming from. I feel very good about getting one out there. It entitles me to coast for a little while-- we're gonna take the album out to the public, and we're going to be doing that, certainly, for most of next year. And, you know, if opportunities come along where we can go back into the studio and work with Timbaland, or Timberlake, or any of the others-- we'd jump at it!
Courtesy Pitchfork Media