Bassist John Taylor on his journey from Beatles-loving kid to international pop star
By Lissa Townsend Rodgers
Most bands that hit it big in the 1980s have faded into obscurity. Count Duran Duran as one of the exceptions, a group that still plays for celebrities at the Ace Hotel in L.A., rather than for a $5 cover at Sunset Station.
Behind such hits as “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Duran Duran was at one point the shoulder-padded kings of both MTV and the mid-’80s pop charts. Since then, the group has constantly sought to stay relevant, rather than rest on past successes. To that point: Their 14th studio album is due out on Warner Bros. in September. It will feature production by Nile Rogers and Mark Ronson, while guests include singer Janelle Monaé and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante.
Those are hardly the only musicians to have been influenced by Duran Duran, whose songs have been covered by dozens of contemporary artists, from the Deftones to the Barenaked Ladies to Kylie Minogue.
Given such wide-ranging appeal, it’s no surprise Life Is Beautiful organizers sought to land Duran Duran for the 2015 festival. In the wake of the announcement of their festival appearance, we recently chatted with founder and bassist John Taylor as he took a break from “tinkering around the edges” of the new disc.
When you started out, did you imagine you’d still be making music all these years later?
What 18-year-old is thinking about what they’ll be doing when they’re 50? Nobody I know. I wasn’t following any kind of a predestined plan. I just knew I was excited by pop music, and I was feeling my way toward that. … When I started, I thought, “I fucking love this. This is my thang.” If I were thinking sensibly about what I was going to be doing when I was 50, I would probably not have been in a band.
Who inspired you to start playing music?
When I was 4 or 5, the Beatles sort of spoke to me: I was an only child, and they were like these four brothers who dressed alike and had the same hair, and they went around the world together and played guitars and met lots of girls. When I was a teenager, [David] Bowie came along. He appealed to my sense of alienation, and he wrote these really weird but beautiful songs and he had this really crazy look. Then when I was hitting the wall in school, the Sex Pistols and The Clash came along—bands I could really relate to. And I actually thought, “Wow, maybe I could play like that.” They brought music down off the stage and put it on the floor, and it became something you could aspire to without really having any formal knowledge of it. With just a bit of attitude, energy and ideas, you could maybe make a go of it.
Why the bass? Most aspiring musicians imagine being a guitarist or singer.
I was a guitar player when the band first started. Nobody wanted to play bass at the time; everybody wanted to be a guitar player. Roger [Taylor] started playing [drums] with us, and we were listening to disco music and Bowie’s funky era, Station to Station, and we liked the idea of working on a rhythm section. So I started playing bass with Rog. I really liked that feel of locking in with the drum kit, that relationship of the bass and drums, forming a rhythm section. And I thought, “Wow. If the two of us work together closely, we can make something really cool here.”
Speaking of Bowie, what’s your favorite album or incarnation of his?
Everything he did from Space Oddity through Let’s Dance was great. Ziggy Stardust perhaps is the most complete album, where every song is just five stars.
I listened to something from Diamond Dogs the other day—“Sweet Thing/Candidate,” which is this eight-minute piece that I and all the guys in Duran [love]. Someone raised on Bruce Springsteen might say, “What is this indulgent crap?” [laughs] So much of it is about where you’re coming from, your experience.
I like self-indulgence. That’s when art gets interesting. Most of the music on the charts is not self-indulgent enough, if you ask me. Great stuff happens when artists take themselves seriously, like Yeezus or The Dark Side of the Moon—artistry rather than just thinking, “This has got to be 3½ minutes long, it’s got to sound like everything else on the charts or nobody will buy it.”
You tend to change up producers and bring in guest stars for each album, and the new disc you’re working on is no different. What’s the reason for that?
I think we’ve always known that the producers are super-important for us. They keep you in line. There’s a lot of creativity flying around the room, and you need somebody quite strong to anchor it down, to say, “That’s good, that’s not quite so good.”
But in the last 10 years, a lot has changed in the industry. One of those changes has been the prevalence of featured and guest spots. It’s quite unusual now to hear a hit song that is just sung by one voice. Because of hip-hop and [electronic dance music], listeners are really sort of turned on to—I don’t want to say novelty, but where you’ve got a couple of vocal personalities going back and forth. So we had to learn that. It’s tricky, because when you’re a group, you tend to think, “Well, we’re a group for a reason. We cover the bases, we have a complete sound.” But when you want to stay in the game, you want your music to be relevant, you’ve got to look at what’s happening around you and how can you let that in.
We worked with Mark Ronson on the last album, we had Kelis come in and sing with us on one song. And on this album we’ve done it a lot more, actually. We’ve [also] got a couple of fantastic feature appearances. It’s made for a really interesting journey.
You’ve played Las Vegas before. Do you enjoy coming here, or is it gig and get out?
I always have a good time, because it’s the Entertainment Capital of America and I love entertainment. I love the atmosphere; I love the fact that everybody’s there to enhance the experience. Just being there, it’s a little bit like being stoned. Vegas has changed so much—when we went there the first few times toward the end of the ’80s, I just couldn’t relate to it at all. Now it’s so much hipper than it used to be.
I love these residencies, like the show that Elton [John] does. Rod [Stewart] has done it, and one day I really hope we get to do that. The trick is to have them build the room around you. …. I love the idea of settling down into a venue for an extended stay, where you can really experiment with the performance. We’ll see.
What keeps Duran Duran going?
There’s a great sense of urgency and ambition to the way we work and to the way we write. If we were just interested in being another legacy act, just touring around and around, we wouldn’t work the way we work. We work because we’re still driven. We still have goals that are very important to us.