John Taylor and Nick Rhodes founded Duran Duran almost 40 years ago – 37, to be precise. It’s the kind of longevity that could make anyone, in any industry, jealous, and in the music industry it’s practically unheard of (no one’s talking to you, Rolling Stones, move along). “It’s not the kind of job you get into if you’re concerned about what you’re going to be doing in middle age,” said Taylor, the band’s longtime bass player. “People who are drawn to pop music are not the ones who are concerned about the long life of a project. It’s all about the moment.”
Duran Duran, though, has had several moments. While they had their heyday in the 80s with a string of hits like Rio, Save a Prayer and Girls on Film, which carried them into the 90s with Come Undone and Ordinary World (the list goes on and on), they have scarcely slowed down over the years. Now the band is back with their 14th studio album, Paper Gods, and it’s a winner – although when you’re Duran Duran and fans are focused on your past body of work, it can be hard to get people to notice.
“We were talking about artists that have been around for a long time, bands who have been around for at least three decades, and we were trying to remember what albums they had made at this point in their careers – and it was a hard one,” said Rhodes, who plays keyboards. “They settle into a sound.”
“Getting people’s attention is the biggest challenge,” said Taylor. “People are so distracted all the time. There’s so much going on, there’s so much out there. We wanted to make an album and we knew that we couldn’t make just another business-as-usual album if we were going to get anyone’s attention. It had to shout. Bringing in other musicians, other voices, helps that.”
“We opened the album to collaborations, which he hadn’t done a lot of before,” said Rhodes. “It brings a whole different colour and texture to the sound.”
“The influences on the album are more global as well,” said Taylor. “When we were working on this album, there’s so much music available. You can bring songs from all over the world, all over history, and all over your life into the studio with you. The theme from Metropolis or whatever, stuff you would never have been able to go near at the end of the 70s. It’s a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing because when you’re creating, you have to limit yourself.”
“It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant,” added Rhodes. “You can’t have everything.”
That said, their new album has a lot going on. There are four producers: Nile Rodgers, who worked with the band on their 1986 album Notorious; Mark Ronson, who helped with their 2010 album All You Need Is Now; Ronson’s co-producer Joshua Blair; and the Kanye West collaborator Mr Hudson. There are four tracks featuring Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, songs with Janelle Monae and Kiesza. There’s even a track with Lindsay Lohan doing a spoken word piece. It’s a lot, but at this point in their career, Duran Duran can handle it.
While the band were already fans of Monae, whose album they play in the studio, Kiesza, the Juno award-winning Canadian singer, was brought to Duran Duran by their publisher. While they wanted to take credit for the choice, something else also comes with age. “We ran it by our kids,” laughs Taylor, and with the kids’ seal of approval, Kiesza was in.
The collaborations on the album highlight what Duran Duran does best: create danceable pop music that somehow transcends eras and genres. “We wanted to make this album classic, but also cutting edge,” said Rhodes, who also admitted they started using the unforgivable phrase “Brand Duran” in the studio. “We try to change things very deliberately, to excite ourselves and to make things feel contemporary.”
Despite the fact that they have a proven formula that works, the band’s willingness to evolve may account for their longevity and their influence. “It’s a huge compliment that bands like what we’re doing,” said Rhodes.
Having been around for so long gives the band a chance to reflect on how things in the music industry have changed since they started up in Birmingham 37 years ago. “The outlets for music are different, with the internet and everything. When we were starting out, there was only a couple of TV shows and the big radio stations. You put some posters on the wall and go on tour. That was how you launched a record,” said Rhodes.
“The choices are different today, too,” said Taylor. “When we were kids, you either wanted to be a singer, guitar player, or a drummer. I didn’t even know what a bass player was. Now, he [Rhodes] and I would probably have never formed a five-piece band. We would have a revolving door of front people and plugged it into GarageBand,” the Apple music software.
“Oh yeah, the first thing I’d be looking for in a band now is a computer hacker kid who’s an absolute genius and could operate on stage and move things in and out of sound all the time and deal with all the lighting and production,” says Rhodes.
“If you want to form a four-piece band with bass, drum, guitar, and singer, that’s hard now,” said Rhodes. “If you want to do something with SoundCloud and computers and kids in their bedrooms figuring out new ways to edit things, that’s modern.” Luckily for fans, even when Duran Duran are as relentlessly modern as they are on Paper Gods, they are still blissfully retro enough to be an actual band.