Duran Duran - Simon Le Bon Interview
JANUARY 25, 2012
This Interview originally appeared in the Electronic Beats Magazine, Spring 2011.
Mr. Le Bon, »All You Need Is Now« is the first single off of what’s supposed to become Duran Duran’s comeback album. The song offers a lot of Andy Warhol, at least in the corresponding video clip.
You mean the silver paper on the wall? Like they used to wallpaper the Factory at Union Square? Oh yeah, of course this is a reference. And it’s a tribute to Andy, too. But then again silver wallpaper is a very cheap way to make your rehearsal room look good on camera. Don’t you think so?
In one scene, a Warhol impersonator walks past the camera, while in another Nick Rhodes visits a cemetery resembling St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in Pittsburgh where Andy Warhol is buried.
Well, we all knew Andy Warhol personally and we were very, very sad, when he died. Why not remind people of that? But there are hidden links as well. Nick came up with the association to the Velvet Underground song »The Gift« off of »White Light/White Heat« - now that is a weird song. Nick also had the idea of getting a newscaster to read a text in John Cale’s same deadpan voice at the end of our new song »The Man Who Stole a Leopard« . You might not notice many similarities between our song and the Velvet’s original, but the echo of the original is there - even if the newscaster is a woman. In the end I think Nick just liked the style of the story being told.
How was it meeting Warhol for the first time in the early Eighties?
For me it was meeting another artist like myself. I considered myself an artist, you know? It was a meeting of equals, really. And I think that he saw it the same way. Nick and I went to the Factory and met him there. It was easy.
Easy? You could go there because you were famous.
Yes, exactly - for us it was very easy. It was very different when I met David Bowie for the first time, though.
Different in what sense?
I idolized David Bowie much more than I did Andy Warhol. So when I met him I was completely awestruck.
How was he?
He was lovely. I met him in New York and he was really drunk. He wanted to start a fight with me. But it was David Bowie, you know, so I took it as an honor.
So that’s what you consider ›lovely‹?
There are few bands in the world who really lived up to the Warhol superstar ideal. Duran Duran were instant superstars in the early Eighties. How do you connect to the borderline definition of the term “superstar” as coined by the Factory?
The answer is simple: You cannot survive life in the fast lane of Warhol’s superstars. You have to step back and lead a “normal” life at some point. Otherwise it’s just not healthy. And as you grow older, you do things that interfere with such an unhealthy lifestyle: you get married, you have children, and other things come into your life. The Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground ethic was okay for a short time for everyone involved. But let’s face it, weren’t the Velvet Underground short-lived? Didn’t they exist for only three or four years? And didn’t they then implode like a black hole? It wasn’t really a long-term thing. You have to have a plan if you want to build a real life around it.
Were you following a plan in that sense?
No, it wasn’t a plan - we had a more general kind of aim instead…I would say we had a direction. It’s actually kind of simple: we love music, we want to make more music, we want to turn people on and we want to do this as long as we can. It’s a great job if you can do it. But I think that I can speak for all of us in saying we want a life that’s fulfilling in other ways as well. You don’t need to have a plan for that, to be honest. You have to stay true to some values. That’s basically it.
But to continue as a musician nowadays means to continue in a world where the music industry is in decline.
Let me set one thing straight right here: I don’t think music is in a crisis, but I would agree that some aspects of the recording industry are in a crisis. The people making music are having a great time and there’s a lot of us who are able to adapt very well to this new way of getting our music out to the public. We don’t get paid for it in the same way we were used to, but I embrace the fact that the new sort of attention we get is more focused on the live performance than the recorded work. This whole development suits us because we love playing live. The fact that we don’t have to report to the so-called ›music industry‹ anymore has given us a much broader scope in relating to our audience.
You have to remember: When we started off in the early Eighties, there were just a few bands and just a few styles which had attracted so much attention. Now you’ve got all different kinds of music - world music, urban music, rock music, lounge music, easy listening music, new age music, dubstep music. And what’s more, compared to when we started, you’ve also got different ways of becoming popular. You still have people who become famous the old-fashioned way like we did – starting small and building up slow, playing shows, performing and recording some records. But nowadays you also have a different kind of approach as well, like with people who become famous because of a talent show. Some bands prefer the old-school way of staying independent, other bands prefer to put their future in the hands of management companies. In a way you could say that the music industry is very healthy these days, but in a different way than it used to be.
Duran Duran had been written off in the past. Have the new possibilities created by social media and improved home recording helped the band restart?
Absolutely. You’ve got much more direct contact to the people in the first place.
Let’s talk about the sound of your new album. It has a strong skeletal, new-wave foundation – one that many people might have missed in previous Duran Duran records…
I would call the sound atonal or discordant - the opposite of harmonic music. I would also call the sound architecture ›edgy‹, in a positive sense. Have you ever gone down into the basement of a tower building where the generators are running? They make a certain noise. I hear music when I am next to a generator - I always hear machines playing music to me when I am standing next to one. I can hear the notes and the tunes these machines are playing.
What you say sounds very ›Metropolis‹… Or in other words: German.
Yeah, absolutely! What other people consider noise is music in my ears. One of the greatest bands that have forever explored the field of this particular kind of noise is Kraftwerk. We’re very influenced by Kraftwerk, believe it or not. Listen to the track »Blame the Machines« - it’s no coincidence that I use the word ›Autobahn‹ in the song instead of ›motorway‹, you know? That already is an homage.
You’ve crossed paths with Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Grace Jones and so many others – have you ever met Ralf Hütter or Florian Schneider?
I have not, no! I would love to meet them.
You never tried?
Our paths have just never crossed.
But isn’t it easy for you to connect to people like them?
It’s always a big weight to approach people. It would be a different situation to play a show in Düsseldorf and to know they are in the audience and I know there’s somebody mutual who knows both of us. Of course, I would be delighted to be introduced to someone like Ralf Hütter. But to organize that same kind of encounter artificially…I always feel a bit uncomfortable about such gatherings and I always felt lucky when things happen slightly by accident. To be honest, it’s much more fun to meet people like that.
What kind of contemporary music do you listen to?
You know, it’s always difficult for a man of my age – I’m past fifty – to tell what’s going on in the new music scene. Especially in these times. The teenagers know on a day-to-day basis what’s happening. So when I think about new bands I still kind of think of Arcade Fire - absolutely knowing that they are not ›new‹ at all. But to me they’re new.
Do you like Arcade Fire for their music or for the dignity with which they’ve managed their success?
I admire Arcade Fire for both.
Would you say that Duran Duran’s new album has profited from the fact that you can basically make an entire record at home?
No, because we didn’t do it at home. We went to the studio because we all like to go to a place to work. Even if we are talking about the lyrics, I prefer writing the lyrics in a studio to writing them at home. Home is where my family is, where my kids are and where my dog is. I like to have a place to go to when I have to work.
Do the other band members see it the same way?
Yes, I would say so. Our producer Mark Ronson was, by the way, the only dude to stay at the studio the entire time. He was there when I wrote the lyrics and he was there when I wasn’t there but Nick was. And so on. We members of the band were coming and leaving. Mark was always there. I find this admirable. He was the only person constantly involved, and it was good. We come from new wave and punk, really. We draw from Roxy Music and a little bit of Chic and a little bit of the Sex Pistols. If you round that up it’ll make Duran Duran. It’s the early Eighties side of the band that you hear on the new album. Mark Ronson had a lot of impact on that sound. He said to us straight away: “Look, guys, when I was a kid, I had your first two albums, and I was disappointed when I bought the third one. It didn’t have the same kind of experimental spirit. »Seven and the Ragged Tiger« lacked the edginess. It sounded safe. It didn’t have that cohesive direction.”
So, how did you come to terms with Mark Ronson?
He just said, ”I want to bring you back to that particular experimental style.” Full stop.
Was he a key producer in that sense, like Nile Rodgers had been for »Notorious«?
Yes, he was key, very key. I’ll be honest with you: Duran Duran is a band that needs a producer. We are not particularly good at producing ourselves, I think. There are certain members of the band who might argue about that statement, but I think we do need a producer. We need somebody who stands outside of the group and who just guides us to get the best out of us. Because if we’ve got that person, we can concentrate on the nitty-gritty of the tunes and the words and the music.
So what makes a good producer? Does a good producer have to be a leader?
Yes, he has to be a leader. Yes, he has to have an opinion. You know, Mark has been a fan of the band for decades. That really helped because he knows what he wants to hear coming out of the band. He had a very strong vision of what he wanted to create and a very charming way of achieving it. That’s very important too. He’s someone who doesn’t want to intimidate you or to bully you or to piss you off in any way.
The album sounds black and white, if I may say so.
And I would totally agree. We haven’t done an album like that in a long, long time. This is what our third album should have sounded like.
You’re going back that far?
Yeah. »Rio« and our first album had that cohesiveness. And then we lost it - with the exception of »Notorious« and »The Wedding Album«, maybe. That one had a direction too. But it wasn’t completely as strong as our first two albums.
Were you surprised that »The Wedding Album« was something like a comeback?
We definitively knew that we had written something very special with »Ordinary World«. We just knew it beforehand. It was one of these rare moments where we knew - connecting to our past experiences - that this one would be a hit.
It was interesting to notice that on your 25th anniversary tour five years ago, the audience literally went berserk when you played that particular song.
That was a big deal because it made it clear to us that people were not just begging for the old songs but also newer ones.
What does it mean for you to play in Berlin in the context of the Electronic Beats Classics event?
The Berlin show has to be seen in the context of a few London shows that we’ll play before we kick off the big tour. But Berlin has always been good for us.
How can you say that a ›city‹ has been always good for you?
At times it had been very difficult to gain a foothold in Germany - we haven’t always had a great time there. Germany’s audiences hadn’t always been as supportive as, let’s say, Italy’s. But Berlin was always different in a positive sense. When you travel the world like we do, you always try to break routines. You basically long for some cities. For example, as we speak we’re in Dallas, Texas. This is not a very interesting city. Of course, you have the site where JFK was shot and there’s a museum there, but Dallas doesn’t have a lot of other places to go and see. Dallas has some nice restaurants and some nightclubs, no doubt about that. And nice people live there as well. But it doesn’t have the same kind of history and romance a city like Berlin has.
Maybe the history of Dallas had been overbuilt by the new city?
No, no. Dallas has no history. It’s quite a new city. But you know, we travel to a city like Dallas for no other reason than to do a show there because there’s the Super Bowl. And that’s our goal. We communicate with the people wherever we play. This is always the number one priority, in any place. We’re there to turn on people, to play our music, to entertain people. We‘re entertainers - that’s our job.
Duran Duran are on tour in Germany right now, please check for dates and tickets here.
— Max Dax