EG Interview: Duran Duran

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Some of the biggest stars of the 80s are at the Arena next week on the Here & Now tour but there?s none bigger than Duran Duran. And they have their own date booked for July. MIKE ATKINSON spoke to Roger Taylor about the pressures that drove him out of the band and the musical vindication that their reunion has brought...

I notice from your tour schedule that you're on a bit of a break. Are you enjoying having a few days off?

Absolutely, yeah. We've just done Australia, the Far East and Central America, then we're off to Vancouver next week, so it's good to get a few days at home, pat the dog, kiss the wife???

You played a storming show at Nottingham Arena back in April 2004. It was one of your first UK dates with the full original line-up, so there was a sense of not quite knowing quite what to expect. Did it feel at the time that you were on a mission to reclaim your heritage, and to remind people of who you were?

I think we had to prove ourselves. I don't think there's anything worse than going back to see your childhood heroes, and having them not quite live up to how you remembered them. So I think we were on a mission to prove we could still do it. When we originally got the band back together, we started by playing very small theatres. From the energy of those small performances, it grew into a huge scene, where we got to play five nights at Wembley Arena, and Madison Square Gardens in New York. So it suddenly felt like a new band again, and not something that had been trodden into the ground.

Something that surprised me about that show was your audience. During your "imperial phase", you were almost seen as a boy band by certain people, and so I had assumed that I'd be one of the very few men in that audience. But actually, it was a fairly equal 50:50 split. So either your audience has changed over the years, or else it was never really about the screaming girls in the first place.

Maybe the girls dragged their husbands along, I don't know! But there's definitely more of a crossing over now - especially in America, where we get a lot of guys coming to see us - whereas in the 80s, it was 95% female. Because we had a real teenage audience, that maybe scared off the guys. But we've come out of that now. I think the guys have come back and said: actually, I always liked Duran Duran, but I was afraid to admit it. So it's cool.

You've had an interesting journey in terms of going in and out of fashion. It's completely OK now for bands such as The Killers or Franz Ferdinand to name-check you, so that must be extremely gratifying to witness.

It is, because music journalists - particularly those in the UK - would constantly try to write us out of history. They'd have preferred it if we didn't exist during the 80s, and if it was just The Smiths and New Order and U2. So it's been really cool that the new bands are saying: actually, they were a cool band, and we are influenced by them.

When you first emerged, you were part of what some people called the New Romantic scene, although in Nottingham we liked to call ourselves Futurists. Very early on, you played at Rock City to a deeply fashionable crowd, and it became quite a legendary gig. But when Is There Something I Should Know came out, the DJ at the same venue denounced you down the microphone, as everyone thought you were turning into the Bay City Rollers. Did you care? Was it a conscious decision?

I don't think so. As you become very successful, you become very uncool, and unfortunately it's very hard to run those two things together. We were breaking America at the time, so we didn't give two hoots about the criticism.

It always seemed as if there was an "arty" faction in the band, led by Nick, and a "rock" faction, led by Andy. We particularly saw it when you split into Arcadia and The Power Station. But it seemed that you were the guy who floated between those factions.

I think you're probably right. It was like being in a gang at school. But that's what made it so creative. It wasn't like you had five Nick Rhodes, all wanting to be like Depeche Mode. You also had Andy in there, who wanted to be like AC/DC. When we went to America, they were ready to accept us because we had a guitar player that could play heavy riffs. And then of course you had John, who was into the disco bass lines. So you had this real clash of musical cultures.

When I think of Duran as a rock band, with all the rock and roll excess which goes with it, you strike me as the sensible, grounded, non-starry one. If Duran were the Rolling Stones, you'd be Charlie Watts. Fair comment?

You could say that. I'll take that as a compliment, because I do love Charlie Watts. I think drummers tend to play that role in the band.

When you left the band in the mid-1980s, did you have any thoughts of returning to music?

I just wanted to get as far away from music, and from rock star culture, as I possibly could. I bought a farm in the Midlands, and I retreated there. The pressure surrounding the band had become so intense. You have no idea what it was like. In those few years, we lost all of our freedom. We'd get to a hotel and you couldn't actually leave your room. You couldn't go into the lobby, and you couldn't walk down the street, because you'd get harassed by a thousand teenage girls. People were camping outside our houses, and it was all very intense. I got to the point where I'd just had enough. I had no idea what I was going to do, and no idea if I was going to go back to music, or reject it for the rest of my life. All I knew was I needed to get away from it for a while, and that turned into a number of years. I slowly started getting back into music, and then the chance of a reunion came up.

Did it require any persuasion to get you back into the band, or were you eager as soon as the suggestion was made?

It was a real surprise. By the year 2000, I thought: that's it, it's never going to happen again. Then I got a call out of the blue from John. It took me a little while to think about it, but I think I was ready. I don't think anybody needed persuading, as it was one of those things that almost had to happen.

Do the Rolling Stones set an example for bands who mean to carry on?

That's the thing about the Rolling Stones: they have opened that option. There are only a handful of bands who are still going: U2, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Depeche Mode, and not many others. But the Stones have said: actually, you don't have be done when you're 40, or 50, or 60.

I'm intrigued to see you worked closely with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on the current album (Red Carpet Massacre). What were you looking for them to bring to the table?

Timbaland has been one of the world's biggest producers over the last few years, and Justin has been one of the biggest male artists. So if you get those two guys saying that they want to work with you - of course! It was a no-brainer.

It must have been a departure for all concerned. I'm not aware of Timbaland having worked with any bands before. Was it a two-way learning process?

I think we were the first band that he's worked with. It was very much an experiment. We had no idea what to expect. We all just turned up to this little studio in New York on a Sunday evening. Timbaland was there with his beat box, Justin was there with some lyrics and melodies, and we just jammed. It could have gone completely wrong, but luckily it worked.

Timbaland is known for using electronics to generate beat patterns. As a drummer, do you find that today's technology can take some of the challenge away? Is there a danger that it can dull your edge?

Well, I've never been a down-the-line rock drummer. I've always used electronic drums and I've programmed, so that makes it a lot easier. If I was a rock drummer with no interest in electronics, it would have been difficult, but that's always been very much part of the Duran sound. We grew up with Kraftwerk and the Human League, and we formed the band in a club, so that made us much more open-minded.

I heard that there's a section in this tour where you explicitly pay homage to Kraftwerk. All four of you take to the keyboards, is that right?

Yeah, I play a little electronic kit ?? la Kraftwerk, and the other guys play keyboards. Our roots were electronic, which is to say Kraftwerk. So we thought that a great way to do our "acoustic moment", if you like, would be to get out the electronic instruments and pay homage to our roots. It really gets us in contact with the audience, because we're all right at the front. It only lasts for 15 or 20 minutes, so it's a nice contrast to the live band thing.

Courtesy This is Nottingham