Mark Ronson was slightly preoccupied while working on the new Duran Duran album Paper Gods.
Between talking to Duran about possible production Ronson was obsessed with finishing a song of his own called Uptown Funk that would go on to conquer the globe.
“Mark played Uptown Funk to us nine months before it was released to ask us what we thought of it,” Duran’s Nick Rhodes says.
“Mark’s very smart. He likes to test the waters. I think he knew he had something very special. It sounded amazing even as a rough mix.”
Ronson, who produced Duran’s previous album, 2010s return-to-form All You Need Is Now, suddenly found himself too busy to commit to the whole album, but had some ideas to put forwards as both Duran Duran fanboy and producer.
“I think Mark was on version 35 of the 75 versions of Uptown Funk he eventually went through,” Duran’s John Taylor says.
“We played him some stuff we had and he said ‘What about Nile?”
Nile being Nile Rodgers, the human hit-machine who started his career in Chic before soundtracking the ’80s producing Madonna, David Bowie and Duran Duran’s The Reflex and Wild Boys.
Ronson had grown up knowing Rodgers through New York, but the pair had never worked together before.
“Mark said we should work with Nile but that he wanted to be there too,” John Taylor says.
“I had Nile on the phone in a shot!”
Drummer Roger Taylor says working with Nile Rodgers was so obvious it took someone else to point out to the band they should call him.
“I’m still amazed when Nile Rodgers walks into the studio, because he was in Chic,” Roger Taylor says. “I still remember sitting in John (Taylor’s) bedroom in 1979 and he made me listen to Chic’s Good Times. Chic became one of our biggest influences. So when he turns up with his guitar to play with you it’s still an incredible moment. He picked up his guitar and jammed and that became the first single Pressure Off.”
John Taylor says Rodgers’ approach was dramatically different to Ronson’s.
“Mark is brilliant but he’ll walk around for six months thinking ‘What if we try this?’ Nile is immediate. If he’s in the room the s--- is happening. Whether that means it’s a No. 1 hit single in 2015 I don’t know. But he doesn’t overthink it. That is so refreshing in an industry that’s very pontificatory.”
Rhodes says the fact Duran had the two men behind Uptown Funk and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky working together wasn’t lost on them.
“Those two songs are probably the two biggest, and deservedly so, dance records of the last few years,” Rhodes says. “We’re all sitting there going `Right guys, what should we do?’ Pressure Off is what came out of that.”
Pressure Off is the introduction to Paper Gods, the 14th Duran Duran album.
Unlike other acts who dominated the ’80s Duran never actually split up.
There were the dark days in the late ’90s when Duran downsized to just singer Simon LeBon and keyboardist Rhodes, but they’ve never stopped recording and touring, even if at times the world wasn’t listening.
In 2004 the classic Duran line-up reformed with bassist John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Andy Taylor all back on board.
Andy Taylor lasted two years before leaving again in acrimonious circumstances, but the foursome have kept Duran creatively alive and out of the dreaded nostalgia circuit.
2007’s Red Carpet Massacre saw them plug into Timbaland’s R & B circuitry, with an album only diehards could love.
Ronson, who said Duran were his favourite band as a teenager, coaxed the band to reclaim the sounds of 1982’s Rio that contemporary bands were now trying to recreate.
The resulting album, All You Need Is Now, was highly acclaimed as a return to form.
Paper Gods sees the band return to a major label (Warner) although they’d spent two years making the record out of their own pockets before signing the deal.
The band were aware that it’s a crucial album in their catalogue as it’s a pop album as interested in tomorrow as yesterday.
“We really had to go deep on this album,” John Taylor, 55, admits. “No half measures.”
“We’d had a casual conversation about making what is quite an adventurous album for a 14th album,” Nick Rhodes, 53, says. “Who else has done that? Who are our contemporaries? Where are we in the world? We went through bands we were fond of, who we all own records of, but we couldn’t think of any band who’ve made a recent record where we thought that is a truly great record.”
Roger Taylor, 55, says the two-year gestation was a matter of making the right album, regardless of how long it took.
“We knew the bar had been set pretty high after All You Need is Now so we decided to take as long as it takes to do this record properly. We really gave it the time. We didn’t book any gigs, it was totally open-ended. We really knew we had to make a good record this time. Every record is important but this seemed to be a bit of a watershed moment. If we’d make a record that wasn’t quite as good as All You Need Is Now it could be the start of a downwards curve.
“We were very conscious of making a great record. We knew we needed to be experimental. We knew we needed to honour the legacy, but we knew it had to have a contemporary sheen to it.”
Paper Gods has a varied mix of collaborators — R & B singer Janelle Monae on Pressure Off, Hideaway club star Kiesza guesting on Last Night in the City and guitar work from Sex Pistol Steve Jones on Planet Roaring and former Red Hot Chili Pepper guitarist John Frusciante over several tracks including album highlight What Are the Chances?
“Sometimes we’ve lost a little of the experimental stuff in our quest to write the perfect pop song,” Rhodes admits. “You spend too much time on trying to write hits and you don’t meander down the road where you find some of the more interesting stuff that’s never going to be a hit but actually is a more valid piece of music than something trying to be hit. We’ve definitely got that balance right on this album.”
Frusciante, who left the Chili Peppers five years ago, contacted John Taylor when he heard the band were in the studio. The pair had met when Taylor played on a record by his ex wife.
“John is a hermit, he’s a mystery man,” Taylor says. “When I first met him we had an interesting chat with him about Adam and the Ants. It was so weird to go this guy’s house and he said ‘Yeah I always liked the guitar player from Adam and the Ants’ and I said ‘Marco Pirroni?’ and he said ‘No, the first one (Matthew Ashman)’. I walked away from that session going I really need to listen to that first Adam and the Ants album (Dirk Wears White Sox).
“And then out of the blue John emailed me saying ‘Would you be interested in me contributing to the album?’ We were all knocked out. I mean, he really stands out from the last 20 years of guitar players, doesn’t he? The first thing he did, we sent him What Are the Chances? What he gave us was everything we ever loved about electric lead guitar. The melody, the texture. It just raised the bar.”
Taylor was surprised when Frusciante said Duran Duran’s 1982 ballad Save a Prayer inspired him to make music.
“He told me ‘When I was a kid, before I’d ever picked up a guitar I heard Save a Prayer and thought ‘That’s the kind of music I’d like to make if I become a musician’. Which I thought was really generous thing to admit.”
The Killers’ Brandon Flowers was originally meant to be the co-vocalist on Change the Skyline, a role now filled by Danish singer Jonas Bjerre.
Flowers, who is on the new New Order album, is a sore point for Duran.
“We don’t talk about that,” says Simon LeBon, 56. Was it record company politics? “No. We just don’t talk about it because he’s not on the record.”
The most random guest on the album is actor Lindsay Lohan, who provides spoken vocals on Danceophobia.
LeBon met Lohan when they were both on US morning show Regis and Kelly.
“She told me she’d just had a Duran Duran themed birthday party and dressed up as me,” LeBon says. “You couldn’t have won me over any quicker than that! We just stayed in contact after that.”
When Lohan was in the UK doing a play she heard Duran were recording and called LeBon.
“She told me she should make an appearance on a Duran Duran album.” LeBon says. “We had this space on Danceophobia and we knew we wanted something really special for the middle. This idea of a slightly naughty doctor came up. I said ‘Lindsay wants to be on the record, why don’t we call her?’ But it was contentious.”
Rhodes insists it was a contentious choice only because they’d expected a singer.
“Lindsay can sing, she’s put out a record. But first and foremost she’s an actor. But it’s the perfect combination, she’s got a vibe and an attitude.”
LeBon says her timing was perfect — on the record.
“She did it in three takes. But getting her to the studio, well, that was quite a performance!”
Birmingham singer and songwriter Ben Hudson, aka Mr Hudson, was the album’s unsung hero. The British performer is best known for his hit with Jay-Z, Forever Young, as well as songs with Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and Idris Elba.
Hudson became LeBon’s right-hand man on the record, helping him with lyrics and co-writing and co-producing half the album.
Hudson also sings on the album’s seven-minute title track, already previewed online.
“It’s uncompromisingly long, isn’t it?,” LeBon says. “I think that’s a great way to open the record. It’s one of the strongest songs on the record. We’re all very proud of that one. It’s Ben Hudson’s finest moment on the record too.”
John Taylor says music always comes easier to Duran than lyrics. Hudson joined the brains trust helping LeBon finish the words for Paper Gods.
“The best thing Ben did was say ‘That’s fine, what you’ve written is really good’ rather than telling me to rewrite it,” LeBon says. “There were times when he took it into a direction it wouldn’t have necessarily gone into. Nick gets involved with lyrics, John does a little bit. I put them together because obviously it’s my mouth they’re going to have to come out of.”
Rhodes says as a band goes on lyrics become harder to write.
“Lyrics are tricky, particularly when you’ve written as many songs as we have and particularly for Simon who writes the large majority of the lyrics,” Rhodes explains. “There are only so many things to write about, only so many approaches you can make to things. Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to find those absolute gems, a different perspective that’s interesting, elegant, unusual — it’s difficult. Wherever you can find a title or the right inspiration for the story, the trail of the song it’s important to recognise it. Simon’s particularly good at that.”
LeBon points to a line in You Kill Me With Silence that Hudson gave him.
“He said ‘You kill me with silence, that’s your style girl’. I would have never have written ‘That’s your style girl’, that’s just something that would have never come out of me. But Ben told me ‘That’s what people say in pop songs now’ so I thought ‘Yeah, that’s great, let’s have some of that!’”
For LeBon the fact he still has a voice to deliver those lyrics is a blessing. While touring All You Need Is Now LeBon’s voice gave out.
“I had a complete vocal breakdown,” LeBon admits. “I burst a blood vessel on my vocal folds, which meant they (went into) shutdown mode.”
A London-based vocal coach taught LeBon how posture could improve his singing, holding himself up rather than leaning forward squashing his voice.
“It’s made an enormous difference,” he says. “It’s made us able to do a lot more musically. It used to be I could last for a month and my voice would be blown out pretty much for the rest of the tour. That was it. For the rest of the tour. Now I’m able to sing stuff with clarity, and that’s my singing style, I’m not a grungy rock voice, I’ve got clear hard high notes in full voice. To be able to do that deep into the tour is great for me.”
Duran were endlessly compared to Spandau Ballet during the ’80s, both spawned from the ‘new romantic’ scene.
Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp said seeing Duran reform their original line-up was motivation for him to do the same with Spandau Ballet. Unlike Duran, Kemp wrote all of Spandau’s material, which caused the band to split initially in a nasty fight over money that wound up in court.
Duran Duran, like U2 and Coldplay, split songwriting democratically from the start, meaning their string of hits — Planet Earth, Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf, Union Of the Snake, Notorious, Wild Boys, A View To a Kill, Girls On Film, Save a Prayer, Is There Something I Should Know, New Moon On Monday, Ordinary World, Come Undone, (Reach Up For the) Sunrise — have been band compositions.
“It’s one of the reasons we’re still together,” LeBon admits. “It’s very important. Ultimately it’s our livelihood, it’s the most meaningful expression of how we regard each other, what worth we put on each other.”
Roger Taylor says the democratic approach also helped them allow more ‘outsiders’ than ever into the creation of Paper Gods.
“It’s been helpful not to have one person write everything, like here’s one I made earlier,” Taylor says. “We don’t have a leader. That democracy was really strong on this record. All four of us sat there for two years, day in day out, during the writing. That was strong. No one person can run away with an outlandish idea, they’re pulled back in. It’s created a very strong band.
“We call the band ‘the group conscience’, that’s the four of us and that’s very strong. We are able to let people in with confidence knowing it’s not going to disrupt the balance of the band. I don’t think we could have done that a few years ago. Our egos may have been a little too fragile to let people in.
“Particularly for Simon to let people in and sing some of his parts has been a big step forward. Mr Hudson was drumming and playing percussion, I was happy with that, I wouldn’t have been a few years ago. It just shows you how strong a unit we are now.”
While it was once easy to dismiss Duran Duran as a teen-band from the ’80s still trading on the past, the band say there’s now an even split of gender at shows and the haters seem to have given up the longer the band continue.
“You’re never going to get rid of all the haters,” John Taylor says. “You have to learn to love the haters. There’s something there. What’s this about? What am I supposed to learn from the hate?”
“It’s like actors isn’t it?,” Roger Taylor says. “If you make enough films for a long enough time you’ll eventually get respect. Even if the first few movies are really great you have to make a lot more before you get respect. Finally we seem to be getting the respect.”
They’re still are some will always want to freeze-frame Duran Duran on a yacht in the Rio video.
“Some people can’t get away from that,” Roger Taylor says. “Because we started in that very glamorous imagery, the teen fan base, there are people who will never ever let that go. We’ve learnt to survive whatever is written about us. It’s something we’re conscious of but it’s not something we’re dependent on. We don’t lose sleep over it. It’s good the general feeling is one of respect and that feels pretty good, I must say. It’s good to feel it’s an enduring band. We’ve got that endurance thing, all the great bands have had long careers and I think we’re starting to get that longevity.”
How INXS changed Duran Duran’s career
While Duran Duran were longtime Chic fans, it took INXS to get them to work with Nile Rodgers.
At a party at Molly Meldrum’s house in Melbourne in November 1983 Duran Duran heard just-released INXS’ Original Sin.
“We made them play it again and again and again,” Simon LeBon recalls. “We had a look at the label copy and saw ‘Produced by Nile Rodgers’. And that was the key to our relationship with Nile starting.”
Almost immediately the band contacted Rodgers to remix Duran Duran’s The Reflex, which became an international No.1. He also worked on their 1985 hit Wild Boys.
John Taylor said Duran were already INXS fans.
“I remember getting into The One Thing and Shabooh Shoobah,” Taylor says. “We asked them to open for us in the UK, that wasn’t in their plan. Original Sin was the hit that got away internationally I think. It should have been massive, but I think it was tricky, lyrically, for some parts of the world.”
LeBon later became friends with Michael Hutchence as well as serious party pals. LeBon released the song Michael You’ve Got a Lot to Answer For on Duran Duran’s 1997 album Medazzaland, released a month before the singer’s death.
“I haven’t seen the INXS telemovie, I don’t know if I want to,” LeBon says. “I have my own memories. I did see a still from it, the guy really looked like Michael. We had such a great time together. It’s burnished on my memory. One day I might write a short story about it.”
Roger Taylor has his own memories of seeing INXS in Sydney in 1982.
“It was in a tiny bar. The drummer, every time he hit the cymbal he let the drumstick go into the audience. I thought ‘That’s cool, I’m going to do that one day’. Fast forward 20 years in Washington DC and I thought I’d do what that INXS drummer did at that bar in Sydney. I hit the cymbal and the drumstick flies towards someone’s head in the audience. The guy can’t see it coming because of the lights from the stage and it was a centimetre away from his eye. He came backstage and said ‘You nearly blinded me man’ and it all went back to that moment of INXS in a bar in Sydney. I never did it after that. INXS were one band we all loved. I think they were very close to us in their DNA, very close to Duran Duran. A great band.”
Duran Duran Q & A for Durannies only
John, you’ve said the one Duran Duran album you don’t like is Liberty. What’s your problem with it?
JT: I checked out halfway through that album. It wasn’t fully realised, that’s how I’d describe that album. There were a lot of good songs on it but the sound of the record is really pedestrian. It just didn’t take off in the recording. That’s one of the albums Nick and I talk about going back and doing a director’s cut of. But, you know, we often talk about those retro projects but at the end of the day we’re more excited about moving forward.
Why does My Own Way never surface in Duran setlists?
JT: It’s just not essential is it? I can’t really see where we would put that song in. There’s usually three or four songs from Rio we feel more connected to.
Roger Taylor: It’s one of the wayward children of the Duran Duran catalogue that one.
Duran Duran setlists always feature the big hits, what about some ‘fan favourites’ from previous albums?
RT: We are thinking about playing some of the more obscure songs on the next tour. We’re fortunate. We’re not a band who only had one or two hits that support the rest. Someone complained to me recently that we played a 90 minute set and it was all singles.
JT: I think that was Nick!
RT: No it was a fan. But what a great position to be in that you can do that.
Simon LeBon: We do have a list of album tracks to play on the next tour. And no, I’m not saying what they are.
Nick Rhodes: There’ll be maybe half a dozen obscure tracks we’re rehearsing and maybe play a different one each night to keep moving things around.
How do you balance catering for nostalgia and playing new songs when you put a set list together?
SLB: We’ve been through this a lot. It’s a ratio. You can’t go more than half, maybe one third new material. I think it’s very mean of an artist to force you to listen to their new stuff. It’s a mistake. I hate it.
NR: It’s very self-indulgent. We’re all music fans. When you go and see someone and they only want to play their new material it’s actually a bore. It doesn’t matter how good the new material is, you still want to see certain songs.
Nick, Simon and Roger are the last Duran members left to not write your autobiographies. Any plans?
NR: Simon and I could write a book at any stage. It’s finding the time and inclination. I think at some stage I’d like to do one. But we’re more focused on what is coming next to be honest.
SLB: Mine would be largely surreal and it’d be a comedy as well.
NR: If either of us couldn’t write a comedy it’d be a disaster.
RT: Maybe one day. Keith Richards always says Charlie Watts’ book is going to be the best Stones book because the drummer sees everything. Maybe when I’m older with lots of time on my hands I’ll do it.
Did you all read John Taylor’s autobiography?
NR: I didn’t read it very deliberately in case I want to write my own.
SLB: Good point. I didn’t read it because I lived it with him.
RT: John’s so good it’s actually hard to follow that. I couldn’t put it down. It’s interesting seeing the same story from a different perspective. I was engulfed by it.
JT: It was a good thing to do. It was like getting a lot of scum off the surface.
Paper Gods (Warner) is out tomorrow. Duran Duran plan to tour Australia next year.
Courtesy Daily Telegraph