Interview: John Taylor Talks Olympics, Producers and Playing O.C. as Duran Duran Returns to Pacific

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Maintaining longevity in the music business takes sheer determination. Duran Duran, the English group that came to prominence amid the early ’80s New Wave era, is a prime example.

Thanks to a sharp mélange of pop, rock and funk sounds, pioneering music videos and a stylish visual image, the Birmingham quintet achieved international success and chart dominance with its initial three platinum-selling records: Duran Duran (1981), Rio (1982) and Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983).

Various lineups – singer Simon Le Bon and founding keyboardist Nick Rhodes have always steered the musical ship – and fluctuating album sales marked the next decade and a half. Yet Duran Duran stayed innovative: “Medazzaland” was the first song to be sold in a download format across the Internet in 1997.

By the turn of the century, bassist John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor returned to the fold, with a Pacific Amphitheatre gig serving as the original Fab Five’s official U.S. reunion tour kickoff in July 2003. The dance pop-leaning Astronaut was unveiled the following year.

The veteran British band’s 13th studio release, All You Need Is Now, came out digitally in December 2010 and debuted atop the iTunes albums chart. When the expanded physical CD emerged a few months later, the critical consensus was that the new songs retained the same panache as Duran’s high-water mark, Rio.

John Taylor’s time away from the group was spent in Power Station (with the late Robert Palmer), Neurotic Outsiders (comprising the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones plus Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum of Guns N’ Roses) and Terroristen, while also acting in a half-dozen feature films and made-for-TV movies.

Last week, we caught up with the easygoing bassist, 52, for a brief phone chat from his home in Los Angeles as the band prepares for another packed house at Pacific this weekend.

Soundcheck: What can fans look forward to seeing Saturday in Costa Mesa? Will it be a continuation of what you presented at Nokia Theatre in 2011?

John Taylor: It’s like the final victory lap of the All You Need Is Now tour. It’s a show we started in the spring of last year. It has evolved visually and in its energy. I think it’s gotten better and better. This year, we had a couple runs through Europe. We took it through Australasia, South America. Every time we do a run, things get tightened up. We’re always looking for ways to improve it, make it a little slicker and make it more impactful.

Are there any past O.C. concerts that stick out in your mind as particularly memorable?

Irvine Meadows. We’ve had a couple of good shows there, like the night we played with the Bangles. When I left the band for a few years, I remember working the O.C. corridor in San Juan Capistrano [where he played The Coach House three times as John Taylor Terroristen in 1998-2000]. It was enjoyable and I learned a lot playing that area.

Duran Duran has always had a huge Southern California following. Back in the day, KROQ and DJ Richard Blade were early stateside supporters. Do you think that helped provide a springboard to your success here?

That definitely gave us confidence and served as an introduction. There was KROQ on the West Coast and [another station] on the East Coast. I don’t know if that still happens. When we got to the Roxy – which I think was the first place we played in California [in June 1981] – there were already people who really knew a lot about us. Mostly through KROQ.

Back to the present: Duran Duran just performed at the BT London Live concert in Hyde Park, held in conjunction with the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. What was that experience like?

There were a couple moments in that show where I thought: ‘This is a real high point.’

Was there a strong sense of patriotism in the air?

I don’t know if we got caught up in that, really. There were people from all over the world. I think there was a great sense that London was the center of attention. It felt like it was the place to be. There is a sense of patriotism, but it’s not entirely real. The presentation of the games is a global event. Obviously, if you’re British, you want the British teams to win. If you’re American, you want the American teams to win. My wife [Gela Nash-Taylor, co-founder of fashion line Juicy Couture], who’s American, and I have quite an interesting time watching the games.

There was a rumor going around that Duran Duran was considered to record the theme song to the next James Bond film, Skyfall.

There’s no truth to it.

You did a great job with “A View to a Kill” in 1985, which definitely ranks high among 007 themes.

The way things were set up for the music industry and Duran in the mid-’80s, I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it was possible to come out and have a worldwide No. 1 song. I think it would be very tricky to pull off anything like that today. Unless they have Adele singing it.

Simon still manages to sing the high notes in “A View to a Kill” pretty well. Nick has said in interviews that he thinks Simon is singing better than ever since last year’s vocal paralysis. Would you agree?

I would. Certainly in a long time. He’s learned a lot of new tricks. He really is singing extraordinary well. None of us have any real technique. It’s all just improvisation. None of us had any formal [music] education. Any kind of tricks we might learn about how to protect ourselves – it’s almost like hearsay that we pick up along the way. So he actually got three months of real formal therapy. I think he came out of it with a lot of knowledge and a new way to go about his business.

A Diamond in the Mind, the band’s great new live DVD+CD, was shot and recorded last December at the Manchester Evening News Arena in England. What do you like about the concert film?

There’s a very authentic energy. Nick said, ‘Let’s do Manchester. It’s a great town for us and a great venue.’ It was a good call. It was held on what they call Mad Friday, before the Christmas holiday. Everybody just goes crazy. Everybody was really in the mood to party.

That’s clear when the camera pans over the audience.

We brought in director Gavin Elder, who we’ve worked with for years. He stayed quite invisible to us. The key when you’re filming a live show is to make like there’s no cameras, because what you really want is an authentic performance. You want the musicians to do what they’re doing every night. People can get nervous and instead of giving 100 percent, they actually pull back. We were all happy with the performance that we gave and the way that it was shot. Fans and media alike are responding extremely positively.

The band’s American Express: Unstaged webcast show at the Mayan Theater in L.A. last year was quite unique with onstage guests and bizarre images. What did the band take away from working with director David Lynch on that? I know you and Nick were fans of his as teenagers and went to see his 1977 debut film Eraserhead together.

He’s a bit of a Peter Pan with a tremendous curiosity and sense of humor; great vigor. Everything you’d expect from a renaissance artist who’s in the fourth decade of his career. He was rigorous in his dedication. We were so amazed when he came onboard. He’s been dabbling more into music over the last few years. He sent us a remix of a song from the new album. We had no relationship with him at all. No sense that he would ever listen to our music or anything.

Just out of the blue, we [received a message] saying, ‘Hi, I’m David Lynch and I did a remix of your song “Girl Panic!”’ We were like, ‘Really? Wow, that’s very sweet of you.’ We listened to it and thought it was cool. We’d been talking to American Express about this concert series and who we could bring in. We thought, ‘Would David Lynch be interested in doing it?’

Lo and behold …

He was up for it, and I don’t think any of us could believe it or the degree to which he was engaged in it. There were no half measures. He really put his whole self into it.

Were you surprised at how well All You Need Is Now was received? Duran Duran has never exactly been a critic’s darling.

It’s always nice to get positive feedback. You can’t rely on it. Fans really responded to it. I think that’s why we’re still on the road behind it – because the Duran Duran audience really connected with it in a way that they hadn’t with the two albums previously [including 2007's moderately received Red Carpet Massacre]. And probably even more albums before that. Even though Andy wasn’t a part of this one, it seemed to express the Duran Duran aesthetic.

His replacement on guitar, Dom Brown, has really fit in well.

Fantastic. We’re really lucky to have him. I love Andy and it was great to be on stage with him. But I have to say that Dom’s energy and his youth relative to ours – he’s just about to hit 40 – makes me really enjoy playing with him. He brings a lot of energy to the team.

Do you think letting a younger producer/musician like Mark Ronson take the studio reins for All You Need Is Now gave everyone a creative boost?

Massive. The thing is, we’re kind of at the age where we think we know it all. Actually, we’re at the age where we really need direction. But there’s so few [producers] that we all trust. Finding somebody that we all believe in and are prepared to put our faith in [is rare]. We did that to an extent with Timbaland [on Red Carpet Massacre], but he just wasn’t ever gonna hit the spot. I shouldn’t compare it, because it was a very different situation. Mark undoubtedly was the right man for the moment.

You’re planning to re-team with Ronson again for the next album in 2013.

Yeah, we’re talking and all of us are very much looking forward to it. I think it’s something that he wants to do as much as we do. It’s unusual to get that much …

… enthusiasm from a producer.

Yeah. I like the idea of doing another album with him. I feel like we’ve had a different producer on every album we’ve done for the last 20 years.

Your autobiography, The Pleasure Groove, comes out Oct. 16 via Dutton Books. What can you tell me about it?

It’s quite an authentic representation. The book’s in three parts. First is growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in Birmingham. Then the body of the Duran section is the early ’80s and that phenomenal rise. The third part is my coming to terms with becoming a human being and the challenges of fame. I’m happy with it.

Do you take a no-holds-barred approach to discussing the ’80s, when it really was a time of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll for you?

Well, you’ve got to hold some things back or nobody would ever speak to you again [laughs]. One’s still got an image to protect. You’ve got to put enough out there so people get the experience. Nobody needs everything. You’ve got to keep some for yourself.

Think your longtime followers will be surprised by the book?

Yes and no. I think fans have a sense of who I am. God knows there have been enough interviews, blogs and people who follow me on Twitter. They know what kind of person I am. I’m pretty open. I mix humor and honesty [in the book]. People usually have a snack with me and this will be like taking a three-course meal with me. I love one-on-one relationships. For me, that’s where I thrive. So it was an opportunity to have a really deep conversation or monologue.

Duran Duran performs Saturday, Aug. 11, at 8 p.m. at Pacific Amphitheatre, 100 Fair Drive, in Costa Mesa. Only lawn tickets remain, for $29.75.

Courtesy OC Register