TV exposure cuts both ways for Duran Duran

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TV exposure cuts both ways for Duran Duran
December 15, 2007

Nick Rhodes and John Taylor of Duran Duran are talking about celebrity, specifically the differences between the teen-pop machine that plucked them from art-rock obscurity and thrust them into megastardom in the early ’80s and the same machine making stars of blemishless youngsters today. And then Taylor makes an extraordinary complaint.

“Now it’s all ‘American Idol,’” he says, nearly sneering. “It’s all about TV.”

Without TV — specifically then-fledgling MTV — one could easily argue that the world would never have discovered its wolf-like hunger for Duran Duran. Many, indeed, have laid the crimes of the music industry’s modern-day penchant for style over substance at the feet of these very gentlemen. ’Twas a potent marriage between a new music cable network and a band that (a) believed in a Bowie-like equanimity between sound and vision and (b) looked freaking fabulous, particularly on the bow of a sailboat. Their first singles, after all, were “Girls on Film” and one that boasted of being “some New Romantic looking for the TV sound.”

But Rhodes — sitting alertly on the edge of his seat and already in full make-up, while Taylor sprawled back on the couch during Friday’s pre-concert interview at the Park Hyatt — sees an important distinction.

“There’s a massive difference in the bands then and the groups today,” he says. “It’s not so much pulling up an existing band now as it is creating the band, handpicking this one and that one and telling them exactly what they’re going to do to maximize profit potential. The industry today doesn’t really want to work with bands.”

True enough, and it’s the reunion of the original Duran Duran lineup — singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Rhodes, bassist Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor (guitarist Andy Taylor left again recently) — as a unified band that’s given the new music enough solidity to find an audience, old and new, still after all these years and all those lineups.

Much has been made of the collaborations with Justin Timberlake and red-hot producer Timbaland on a few tracks from the band’s new CD, “Red Carpet Massacre,” but at heart it’s a very traditional Duran Duran record. The contributions of Timberlake and Timbaland are evident but hardly jarring or out of character. According to Rhodes, it’s the cohesive band dynamic that kept things even.

“Listen to ‘Skin Divers,’” Rhodes says. “The reason that song is the most successful on the album is because we just started jamming. Timbaland and Nate ‘Danja’ Hills were working with us at the time, but this was us creating this wall of sound, and it was really quite exciting.

“Working with urban producers is refreshing because they bring an element we don’t have. They look at things differently. They hear synthesizers differently. And it was wonderful to be energized by that. But in the end both of them sort of sat back and worked with what we gave them. Which was” — he looks back at Taylor with a nod — “quite good, I think.”

Timbaland’s success has come from working with individual singers and rappers. This was the first band he’d produced.

“And he wasn’t used to it at all. He wasn’t used to drum kits and basses lying around. They do it all with little boxes, you know,” Rhodes says, miming some typing on a computer keyboard.

Any working pop musician with half a brain would seek out either Timbaland or Timberlake to work with right now. But it should be noted: Timberlake called Duran Duran.

“We’d spoken to him at a couple of awards shows,” Taylor says, “and when we were in the studio he called up and asked if he could contribute something.”

“Justin said he wanted to help make a record the fans would really like,” Rhodes says. “He loved ‘Ordinary World’ and ‘Come Undone’ when he was younger, and he wanted more of those ‘tempo ballads.’”

The band is not playing those songs on a proper tour as of yet. They did one-off shows in London and Dublin, as well as nine consecutive shows on Broadway last month, where they played the entirety of “Red Carpet Massacre” (“as if the fans had dared us,” Taylor laughs) and included a wacky electronic homage to the band Kraftwerk.

For this months radio-event shows, like Friday night’s annual Miracle on State Street concert sponsored by WTMX-FM (101.9), the set list, Rhodes says, “is Duran Duran’s career distilled.”

“We started playing ‘Rio’ again on Broadway, actually,” Taylor says. “People were saying we should play it, and at first it was, ‘Over my dead body.’ But then we played it, and tweaked it a bit, and it was great. You fiddle with the arrangement a bit and it brings out something totally new.”

“Little plastic surgeries,” Rhodes says with a wink.

“It doesn’t get old,” Taylor says. “It’s like performing Shakespeare.”

Courtesy Chicago Sun Times