Reflexology: Talking with Duran Duran’s Frontman Simon Le Bon
by Tony Phillips
Tuesday Oct 25, 2011
It’s hard not to wonder what one of the throatiest growls in New Wave must have sounded like spiked by a nasty case of laryngitis--an overly martinied Brenda Vaccaro at karaoke night springs to mind--but it’s too soon for jokes as far as Simon Le Bon is concerned. The 52-year-old lead singer of Duran Duran has recently recovered his remarkable instrument, but only after doctor’s orders placed him on vocal rest and disrupted the UK launch of the band’s first arena tour in seven years.
Fortunately, instead of a grueling world tour, Le Bon was able to spent his summer the way most folks do, at the shore. Only, in this case, it was the UK version of MTV’s Jersey Shore, of which Le Bon recently tweeted, "Them girls all look like they’ve nicked the brushes off street cleaning vehicles for their false eyelashes." It’s something Le Bon knows a thing or two about, when the band released its eponymous debut in 1981, they ushered in not only a brand-new romantic sound, but also a look that was decades ahead of the metrosexual mancake typified by Fallout Boy’s Pete Wentz and Disney star Zac Efron.
Le Bon rings up at the very un-Jersey Shore-ish hour of 8am pacific standard time from the Hollywood Hills home of band mate John Taylor and his wife and Juicy Couture co-founder Gela Nash-Taylor. The band is in Los Angeles rehearsing for the American leg of their world tour in support of their 13 studio album, "All You Need Is Now," a disc helmed by young turk producer and unabashed Duranie Mark Ronson.
Ronson is better known for his work with Lily Allen, Adele and Amy Winehouse, but the party line for his work with Duran Duran is that his signature production style freed the band up to get back to being themselves. This is predicated on their third album being the one where things started to get away from them, but it’s important to remember, no Seven and the Ragged Tiger, no "Reflex," one of their finest moments. But it can’t be denied that a song like "Girl Panic," and its attendant video peopled by the early 90 super models, makes it seem like Duran Duran have recaptured their stride for what will hopefully be a long second act.
A cheery Le Bon checked in about not only the new album and tour, but also his favorite pink leopard skin pants and how the nipples from the band’s first record would probably still keep them off the air today. And, of course, all that makeup.
Relaxed and committed
Tony Phillips: Good morning, Simon.
Simon Le Bon: Good morning, how are you?
Tony Phillips: Couldn’t be better, you’re in L.A.?
Simon Le Bon: I am.
Tony Phillips: Wow, it’s really early there!
Simon Le Bon: It is, but it’s actually really beautiful. It’s sort of misty. I’m up in the Hollywood Hills. I’m staying with John and Gela, his wife, and it’s absolutely beautiful here.
Tony Phillips: I guess it’s easier with the jet lag to be up at this hour, or are you normally a morning person?
Simon Le Bon: I am a morning person. I like daytime. I like the light. I really do.
Tony Phillips: So how are you doing? How’s the instrument?
Simon Le Bon: I’m pretty much fully recovered. I’m still taking it easy with the songs. I’m really not hammering it. You’ve gotta be relaxed and you’ve got to commit yourself, otherwise you are going to damage yourself and you’re not going to hit the notes, either. You know what I mean? It’s like a learning to swing a baseball bat again, really. You can’t be tentative about it, but on the other hand, you can’t push it. You’ve just got to swing it. There you go.
Tony Phillips: Do you have a routine for your voice?
Simon Le Bon: I have now. I’ve got a twelve and a half minute vocal warm-up which my incredible voice therapist in London, her name’s Ruth Epstein, has put together for me. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s only twelve and a had minutes long, but it completely warms me up and gets me ready for the show.
Tony Phillips: Did you ever think you’d be seeing the 30th anniversary of Duran Duran?
Simon Le Bon: It never occurred to me. But then, it never occurred to me that I’d see ten or 15 or 20.
Tony Phillips: What about your own personal milestones? You turned 50 recently.
Simon Le Bon: Mmm...I’m fine with that.
Tony Phillips: Big party to mark the occasion?
Simon Le Bon: I do like to mark the occasion. I had it in a very new restaurant ’come nightclub and they’d only just finished gluing the wall coverings on. So I had 50 people, 50 friends since it was my 50th birthday, and everybody got completely stoned on the fumes. It was hilarious.
Tony Phillips: That’s a pretty good way to kick off your 50s.
Simon Le Bon: Everybody had pretty nasty headaches the next day.
Tony Phillips: So I just saw this new play in New York called "83 Down" by J. Stephen Brantley. It’s about this suburban Long Island gay boy and when they open the house, he’s already onstage. We see him in his basement playing records. Before the play even starts, he plays the Rio album in its entirety.
Simon Le Bon: Oh, wow.
Tony Phillips: So "Hold Back The Rain" plays, and it was just so great to hear that song again really loud inside a theater, and then he flips the record over to play side two. I just thought, wow, things have really changed so much. How do you feel about technology and this sunsetting of the old record?
Simon Le Bon: Funnily enough, it’s not really a great concern of mine, as a singer, particularly. I know that yes, okay, I can go into a studio and I can sing bum notes and they can tune them or I can sing out of time and they can put it in the right place, but that actually doesn’t really apply to me because I’m a trained singer and I can sing it in time and I can sing it in tune. That’s really the big way in studio that technology’s come on the scene for vocalists. I think it’s much more challenging if you’re a bass player or drummer or guitarist. A lot modern music is difficult music instrumentally so you have to be really, really good to justify your place. I don’t know, technology can’t replace ideas and passion and that’s what people want to hear so none of us feel threatened by it at all. We all feel that whatever a machine can do, we can do better simply because we can put passion into it and a machine can’t.
Tony Phillips: So Nick Rhodes is a self-taught musician. That always surprises me. I always think of him behind that big bank of electronics.
Simon Le Bon: Well, the designers of software have cottoned onto the fact that the easier you make it for people to pick up, the more successful it’s going to be. You don’t necessarily need to be tutored if you can put your mind in the mindset of machine logic then it’s quite rewarding to discover it for yourself. And NIck’s like that. He’s really curious, he really loves to figure something out and go, "Oh, I’ve done it. And I figured it out all by myself." That’s a really big part of what Nick can do so he’s the perfect person for that.
Tony Phillips: The band’s had a lot of lineup changes, what’s the current configuration?
Simon Le Bon: Well, we’re the same since 2004-2005, when Andy Taylor left the group. It’s myself and John Taylor on bass and Nick Rhodes on keyboards and Roger Taylor on drums and Dom Brown is our guitarist.
Tony Phillips: Oh, so Warren Cuccurullo’s no longer with you guys?
Simon Le Bon: No, no. Warren’s gone.
Tony Phillips: Oh, that’s a shame, he was like your Tommy Lee.
Simon Le Bon: No, he was much more than Tommy Lee.
Tony Phillips: I meant more in terms of his sex tape.
Simon Le Bon: I knew what you meant! Warren’s a great guy. Really.
Tony Phillips: You guys have had your own videos banned before, I mean, not that Warren’s video is banned or anything, but I’m wondering if that’s something you’re anticipating with this album?
Simon Le Bon: No, but we had a video from our last album banned. That sound song was called "Falling Down," but quite why I do not know. It just shows models in rehab, for God’s sake. But I don’t think we’re going to get anything off this album banned because I don’t think anything is that bannable. I still think that if you put out that long form "Girls On Film" now in this country it wouldn’t get shown because it has nipples. There’s nipples, you see, and that’s a no-no.
Tony Phillips: It’s such a brilliant video, though, and you guys were so much about that, right out of the gate, kind of even before MTV impacted. Why has video been so important for the band? Are you guys film buffs?
Simon Le Bon: Yeah, there’s that. And there’s our managers, who are really into making videos. I think we realized that there’s something new that we could become a big part of, but I don’t think we really realized, at least in terms of our career, just how important it would be. It put us on MTV and us and a couple of other artists kind of owned MTV for a couple of months.
Tony Phillips: Tell me about the latest video.
Simon Le Bon: Oh, you’re going to be very interested in the new video. It’s for a song called "Girl Panic." We got five of the original supermodels to come to London and attempt to be Duran Duran.
Tony Phillips: Major!
Simon Le Bon: You’ve got Yasmin Le Bon on guitar.
Tony Phillips: Naturally.
Simon Le Bon: You’ve got Helena Christensen on drums. You’ve got Eva Herzigova on keyboards. You’ve got Cindy Crawford on bass. And you’ve got Naomi Campbell on lead vocals.
Tony Phillips: Wow, now can these guys actually perform?
Simon Le Bon: Wait till you see the video! It’s also about rock stars living it up in a fancy hotel in London as well, you know, the jet-set lifestyle. It’s directed by Jonas Ackerlund.
Tony Phillips: I love his work.
Simon Le Bon: Yeah, he’s great, isn’t he? We made it some months ago, but it’s going to be released to coincide with Harper’s Bazaar women of the year. So it’s great that we got some women of the year in our video.
Tony Phillips: So I was also surprised to learn you weren’t part of the original lineup way back when, it was someone else on lead vocals. And I’m wondering how much is true around the urban legend of your first audition, particularly the pink leopardskin pants.
Simon Le Bon: Well, I don’t know if I was wearing pink leopardskin pants the first time I met them. I think it was the second time, but they will argue that. I was actually wearing gray and black striped pegged trousers, but they don’t remember that. All they remember is pink leopardskin. It did have a great impact. They were my favorite pants, as well. And if I still had them, they would be on right now. They’re very now, aren’t they? Well, very last season, actually.
Reconnecting with fans
Tony Phillips: Tell me about working with Mark Ronson on the new record. He’s a huge Duranie.
Simon Le Bon: Mark’s great. He came to us and said I want to make an album that reconnects you to your fans. He said he had an idea of what our third album should have sounded like to him and so he had a very clear idea of what he wanted to create. And actually, I think that he did a fantastic job. I love the way the album sounds.
Tony Phillips: Well, it’s interesting, because you think about Mark and you think about him exerting influence on the band’s sound, but I think what’s so great about this new record is it sounds so much like you all.
Simon Le Bon: Yeah, but that’s it. He said, look, you’ve done a fantastic job of reinventing yourselves, but with this album, you just need to be you. You need to reclaim that territory that bands like The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs are in. They sound like you used to sound and you need to reclaim that territory. That was his whole concept for the album.
Tony Phillips: The band has an album of covers and there are some Duran Duran tribute songs as well. Do you listen to those bands that sound like you guys and who would you want on the next Duran Duran tribute album?
Simon Le Bon: Wow, that’s a lot of questions in one. First of all, I do listen to those bands and I really enjoy them. I love The Killers. I think they’re a fantastic band and I hope they make another album. I’m very fond of the Kaiser Chiefs too, and Block Party and Franz Ferdinand. I think they’re all great so I listen to them. And there have been Duran Duran tribute albums, but I prefer not to choose the artists. It’s not my place to do so. I think if you put yourself forward and you’re inspired to do so, then go for it.
Tony Phillips: Did anyone’s tribute surprise you?
Simon Le Bon: Um, yeah! I mean, so many of them have. Kylie Minogue surprised me.
Tony Phillips: "The Reflex." It’s genius. A little scary how much Ben Harper sounds like you on that track, though. So the last time I saw the band was on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre. I loved seeing that band in that context, I mean, under the proscenium. You really blew it out visually for those shows and I was wondering what’s in store for this tour.
Simon Le Bon: This tour is something special, it really is. It’s a different kind of thing. We’re playing bigger venues so it’ll have a different kind of aesthetic. It’s spectacular. That’s all I can say.
Tony Phillips: It must be a long time since you’ve played these big arenas.
Simon Le Bon: Well, we’re kind of an all venue band. We do little ones, a couple thousand and great big ones.
Tony Phillips: I have to be honest, Simon. I had a lot of makeup questions for Nick. Maybe we should get Yasmin on the phone.
Simon Le Bon: I’m sure I can answer.
Tony Phillips: Well, I’m just wondering, a bunch of blokes beat to perfection, how does that happen?
Simon Le Bon: It was really an extension of punk rock. It’s when color came into it, you know, the look. And it had a bit of glam in it was well. It was just normal for us at the time, completely normal for us. And we thought it looked good.
Tony Phillips: And it did, but I feel like it has a larger sociological import.
Simon Le Bon: Well, Nick did have a lot to do with it. He was the one who brought the makeup to the room when we were doing photo sessions. And instead of just putting makeup on to kind of look good in photos, we put makeup on to make ourselves look weird.
Tony Phillips: But it predated people like Pete Wentz and Zac Efron by decades. Do you look at them and think, been there, done that or is it a feather in your cap?
Simon Le Bon: Both. I feel a connection with it as long as it’s just not about the makeup, as long as they got music to back it up.
Tony Phillips: But Simon, there’s mascara in the mens’ department at H&M!
Simon Le Bon: It’s mans-cara (laughs). And guy-liner.
Tony Phillips: So your kids must be hitting that H&M demo right about now.
Simon Le Bon: Oh, my kids are pretty grown up now. I’ve got a 22 year-old, a 20 year-old and a 17 year-old. So they know what it’s all about.
Tony Phillips: So have they ever gone through a makeup phase?
Simon Le Bon: Well, they’re girls.
Tony Phillips: Oh, so then I guess, yeah.
Simon Le Bon: Yeah, they wear lots of makeup (laughs), but if they were boys I’m sure they would have tried it out by now.
Tony Phillips: Okay, well not to end on such a poorly-researched note, is their anything you’re looking forward to doing when you come to New York to play Madison Square Garden?
Simon Le Bon: Um, playing Madison Square Garden is about all I can think of, to be honest with you. It’s a massive, massive thing.
Tony Phillips: Well, I’ll scope out some freshly wallpapered restaurants for the after party. Break a leg, Simon.
Simon Le Bon: Thanks a lot. Cheers.