Editor’s note from Lori Majewski: Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a diehard Duranie. And if you really know me, you are probably aware that I’d edited a Duran Duran fanzine back in the day, Too Much Information: the Definitive Duranzine. Interviewing Mark Ronson for Mad World brought me back to my formative years in journalism, when I’d stalked many a celebrity just to quiz them on their favorite Duran Duran songs, members, and memories. Some, like Jared Leto, would wrinkle their brow and say, “Can’t we talk about Nirvana instead?” Others, like Claudia Schiffer and Trent Reznor, happily obliged. Mark Ronson belongs to that second camp. When I called him at home, I was treated to a talk with a fellow fan. What follows is an “extended version” of the quotes from Mark that appeared our book…
MAD WORLD: What are your earliest memories of Duran Duran?
MARK RONSON: I was in fourth grade and put a band together so we could play “Wild Boys” in the talent show. I assigned everybody their parts, and we rehearsed together twice, never with the whole band in the same room. We thought if we just showed up on the day and did it it’d be all right, but it was a disaster. The saxophone player came out and was playing the theme song from Fame. We went back to homeroom after, and the teacher just tore into us: “You are an embarrassment!” I don’t know how we had the audacity to think it was going to be acceptable. Luckily we were the oldest kids in the school, so at least there weren’t any older kids who could throw stuff at us. Also, my stepdad was in Foreigner so he had a lot of friends who were rock ‘n’ roll stars. I remember being told John Taylor was coming over one night, and me and my twin sister got really giddy and were trying to stay up late to see him. I’m sure I had quite a few posters on the wall.
MW: How has the band been influential in your own work?
MR: There are certain songs you love when you’re young, and you don’t really need to explain them; they’re just good pop tunes. And then there are the things that really strike a chord, and I find with most of those now, when I look back, I can understand how they shaped me. I think the main thing with Duran Duran was they had this rhythm section that thought they were in Chic. There’s an incredible mash-up somebody made on YouTube where they take “Le Freak” and “Girls On Film” and splice the two together. They’re in the same key! It really brings home the fact of how much John was influenced by Bernard Edwards. I mean, it’s one thing to be influenced, but it’s another to be able to conjure his spirit. There are a lot of people who are influenced by Jimi Hendrix who play guitar, but there are very few people who can make you think of him when they play guitar. John and Roger had that Chic/Bernard Edwards-Tony Thompson thing down.
MW: There was an avalanche of interesting new-wave artists in the 80s. What set Duran apart?
MR: They had the best songs. There were other things that definitely helped — they were arguably the best-looking — but they just helped enforce that. And they could play their instruments. John’s the one who’s such a diehard music fan, who was pushing them, saying, “Allright, we’ve got to sound great, we’ve got to sound progressive”; Nick is the conceptual mastermind; Simon had these incredible melodies and such a singular voice; and Roger’s one of the greatest keeping-time, quick-track drummers I’ve ever recorded. Unfortunately, I never got to work with Andy; we met (in 2012) and got to hang out a bit, but that was the first time I ever met him.
MW: You produced Duran’s 2011 album, All You Need is Now. How did you find working with your idols?
MR: They are very progressive. Everyone in the band, they’re all really turned on by new music, really progressive music. You could talk to John for 45 minutes about a Diplo mixed tape. He’s very aware and switched on to what’s going on. It’s pretty evident in the people they’ve collaborated with over the last 10, 12 years: Dallas Austin, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake.
MW: But it was you who steered them toward their new-wave roots and and style of playing on the Rio album.
MR: Maybe in a slightly selfish way, I — and most people around me, whether they were musicians or friends who were diehard fans — just wanted to hear the Duran Duran that plays to each of their strengths. I [had] to broach that subject with them without trying to make them feel like they were taking a step backward. It was about getting them back in the headspace of when they were brash young men making those sounds and not being afraid or not over-thinking it. I learned so much from making that record, especially from Nick about synths, which informed my whole last solo record [Record Collection], and the Bruno Mars album [Unorthodox Jukebox] that I worked on.
MW: In Mad World, John credits you with helping him to get his groove back. Where did it go?
MR: John is quite modest as a musician. They got a lot of stick for being pretty boys — people forget they can really play. I was touring with a good friend of mine, Stuart Zender from Jamiroquoi, who’s considered one of the best bass players of his generation and, technically, a bit of a wizard. We did a gig opening for Duran, and Stuart, I had never seen him so — he was a little awestruck. [He said,] “I used to practice playing bass to “Rio” all the time!”
MW: What is it about “Girls On Film” that makes it such a seminal Duran song?
MR: That amazing rhythm section. That being the backbone of the song is, for me, square one. Then to have that incredible guitar riff — there’s nothing light about it! It’s just, like, a fucking Les Paul through a Marshall. It’s as Steve Jones as anything, which is such a juxtaposition to the slinky groove. Nobody was really putting those two together. Then you have this incredible wall of synth that was coming from Nick Rhodes, and [lyrics] that [are] all about sex — that is the home run right there! It’s not just about sex: The song is sex. It’s just a killer combination. Obviously, it wasn’t premeditated when they were doing it. They weren’t like, “Alright, if we can take this and this,” like they’re mixing it in a lab. It just magically came out. It’s just the sum of its parts. You just know when you put the record on, and you hear [hums the first few chords]. When that guitar and that groove comes in, it’s just alchemy.
MW: What are your favorite Duran songs?
MR: “Save a Prayer,” The Chauffeur,” “The Reflex,” “Notorious,” “Lonely in Your Nightmare.” They’re constantly rotating. And then you go to a show and you see 20,000 people singing ‘Ordinary World,’ and it like touches you, and you’re like, “Oh, another great one!”
Courtesy Mad World Book