The Reflex

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Duran Duran has always tried to make pop records for huge audiences. The band’s latest, ‘Paper Gods,’ is among the most diverse, accessible LPs of its long career. But will the pop audience care about a band whose members are in their fifties?
by Steven Hyden on August 25, 2015

Impossibly chic, impeccably cheek-boned, and improbably dashing while riding astride luxury yachts and wrestling with face-painted jungle models — for nearly 35 years, this has been Duran Duran’s indelible iconography. I imagined meeting the band at a dusty café in Sri Lanka, where we’d do bumps off the silverware while Russell Mulcahy maniacally displayed storyboards for Duran Duran’s next absurdly expensive music video.

When I actually meet the four Duranies, now in their mid-fifties, in late July inside a fabulously swanky apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they look predictably louche — keyboardist Nick Rhodes is the most stylish in a peach-pink suit, Golden Goose sneakers, and tastefully applied eyeliner. The others affect a business casual vibe in fitted T-shirts and trim slacks — comfortable, but also prepared should a photo shoot break out.

Have I mentioned that it was 95 freaking degrees outside? Shorts are a commonly accepted compromise in the midsummer heat, but in the presence of Duran Duran, my naked legs are instantly conspicuous.

“There’s not many rules in Duran Duran, actually. It’s a bit like the British constitution — we’re unwritten,” singer Simon Le Bon says. “But ‘No shorts’ is one of the rules, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know that,” deadpans drummer Roger Taylor, taking a seat next to Le Bon on a couch.

“Well, not when you’re on call or on duty. When you’re on holiday …”

“We could sneak them into the studio one day, I think.”

“I went through a Crocs phase, which was a really unfortunate thing,” Le Bon admits with an impish grin. “I still hang on to a pair of white Crocs at home.”

When the other half of Duran Duran — Rhodes and bassist John Taylor, buddies since childhood and the band’s cofounders — replace Le Bon and Roger Taylor on the couch 45 minutes later, my sartorial pragmatism once again comes under scrutiny.

“You could’ve shaved your legs,” says John Taylor dryly.

Ostensibly, I’m here to talk to Duran Duran about Paper Gods, the band’s 14th album. While Duran Duran will always be associated with a slickly sexy synth-rock sound that’s been reappropriated in recent years by bands like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand, Paper Gods incorporates contemporary pop into the group’s iconic aesthetic.

While reenlisting past collaborators like Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson, Duran Duran also leaned on Mr. Hudson — a 36-year-old British songwriter/producer best known for his contributions to Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak and Jay Z’s hit single “Young Forever” — along with guest stars like Janelle Monae, former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, the Canadian singer Kiesza, and Jonas Bjerre of the Danish rock band Mew. The roll call more or less reflects the sound of Paper Gods — up-tempo, dance-oriented pop tricked out with R&B, hip-hop, and alt-rock.

Unlike contemporaries such as Depeche Mode and the Cure, which have fixed sonic identities that have scarcely changed since their Reagan-era primes, Duran Duran has always been conscious of the latest pop trends and proactive about absorbing them. Sometimes this elasticity has worked out spectacularly well, like when Rodgers was tapped in the mid-’80s to remix “The Reflex” and produce 1986’s Notorious, the first of many Duran Duran “comeback” albums, recorded in the aftermath of departures by guitarist Andy Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor. (Both rejoined in 2001, though Andy Taylor left again in 2006.)

Other times, Duran Duran’s magpie sensibility has backfired — see 1995’s misbegotten covers record Thank You, which unleashed Duran Duran’s version of Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” upon an unsuspecting public, and 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, a dalliance with Timbaland that caused a minor revolt among fans.

Regardless of the results, however, Duran Duran continues to make a career out of embracing the now.

“They are constantly listening to new shit, digging for new sounds, singers, [and] producers,” says Ronson, who first met up with Duran Duran on 2010’s All You Need Is Now. “They’re four guys that, as you can imagine, have four different tastes in music but where they meet in the middle just happens to be a place of impeccably good taste. There’s no desperate sense of cool-hunting or trying to stay relevant.”

No matter how good Paper Gods is — and it’s better than you might assume — this is a group that will forever be associated with a specific time. Fair or not, the ’80s are imprinted on Duran Duran like a time stamp.

Defining an era is a tremendous achievement, but it comes with some obvious limitations if you still care about making new records several decades later. Duran Duran ceased being a current band decades ago. So why, in 2015, are these guys trying so hard?

I ask all four members some variation of this question, and it proves to be a litmus test for their contrasting personalities. Le Bon’s response is characteristically gregarious and grandiose. (“Number one, you’ve got talent; number two, you’ve got an audience. And if you don’t use that, you’re kind of wasting your life.”) Roger Taylor is soft-spoken and self-effacing. (“Well, it beats being on the golf course, doesn’t it?”) Rhodes is intellectual and referential about the public’s expectations. (“It’s like, ‘I love your movies, especially the old and funny ones.’”)

John Taylor is the moodiest member of Duran Duran, but also the most candid. Throughout our conversation, he leans back on the couch when he’s not engaged, staring out the window and silently counting down the seconds until a publicist rescues him. But when a question sticks in his craw, he suddenly leans forward and speaks incisively about Duran Duran’s commitment to pushing forward.

When I ask whether Duran Duran’s legacy will hinder Paper Gods, Taylor practically leaps out of his seat.

“Yes!” he exclaims. “I think part of the problem you have when you’re fortunate to be phenomena like we were in the early ’80s — where so many people went with us on a journey for a few years — is we’re indelibly linked to their life experience. Every day someone will come up to us and go, ‘Oh my god, you guys, I had the best sex to you when I was at school.’ We are in their experience.

“Does that mean our work in the ’80s was better than our work now? No, but at that time we were just connected with so many people,” Taylor says. “I don’t know if we can get into people’s lives in that same way. So we’ve just got to go with our gut. We’ve got to do something that feels right to us and we’ve gotta get it out there. But consciously to try and replicate that scenario it would make yourself crazy because you can’t.”

In the early ’80s, back when Duran Duran was one of the most popular bands in the world — imagine One Direction appealing to both screaming girls and screaming women — music critics regularly accused it of putting style over substance. This was due in large part to Duran Duran’s prominence on MTV, where videos like “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” portrayed the band members as suave, cosmopolitan globetrotters in the mold of James Bond or Indiana Jones.

The “style over substance” jab was silly for at least three reasons: (1) style mattered in pop music long before MTV, and it’s clearly mattered long after the music-video era has faded; (2) Duran Duran produced a string of excellent singles that still slay at weddings; and (3) the members of Duran Duran practically were world-conquering swashbucklers.

Consider the making of 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, a concept album about Duran Duran’s rise from playing the clubs of Birmingham five years earlier to international stardom. The “seven” are the five band members plus then-managers Paul and Michael Berrow, while “the ragged tiger” is fame. After workshopping new songs — including future classics such as “The Reflex” and “New Moon on Monday” — in the south of France, Duran Duran shipped off to the Caribbean to record Seven and the Ragged Tiger at George Martin’s AIR Studios.

In his memoir In the Pleasure Groove: Love, Death, and Duran Duran, John Taylor writes that the band showed up with a coordinated wardrobe, “wearing pale earth tones, pastels, pale blue and pink, cream, and white. No black, no leather, no military!” As for Le Bon, he recalls the perks of making a record in the Caribbean — “the sun, all the driving around in mini boats” — as well as the casual flaunting of the album’s enormous budget.

“I just remember this engineer, this very good-looking guy, [who] never seemed to do anything apart from go swimming and pick his ear. He annoyed the hell out of me, he did,” Le Bon says. “We ended up figuring, That’s not really low key. So we left there and then we went to Sydney, which is a much more workmanlike sort of atmosphere.” Duran Duran did finish Seven and the Ragged Tiger in Sydney, where John Taylor tried MDMA for the first time, according to In the Pleasure Groove.

All of this seems like a fantasy in retrospect: People make hit records in their bedrooms now. But you can’t talk about the backstory of Seven and the Ragged Tiger without picturing that “plane moving across a map” graphic from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Le Bon insists that Duran Duran’s extravagance in those days was the means, not the ends.

“There was this idea that the music was the most important thing. And nobody questioned that,” he says. “It didn’t matter how much money you spent. To a certain extent, we’re still there, you know, with the way we approach the music. We’ve got an eye on the budget because there isn’t as much money to spend on things. But the fact is that we still believe in the music.”

For Paper Gods, “we spent the better part of a year searching around, trying to pull together a direction that satisfied everybody,” Rhodes says. “We had a lot of really good material, but it just wasn’t cohesive.” While Ronson worked on the record early on, he eventually left the project to make his own LP, this year’s Uptown Special. Duran Duran, meanwhile, spun its wheels — for the bouncy EDM anthem “Danceophobia,” the band cycled through about 60 different versions.

After spending much of its career thinking as a band, and working out songs via endless jamming, Duran Duran adjusted to crafting sounds primarily on a laptop.

“I’m a bass player. It’s what I’ve gotten paid to be doing since I was 20. [But] I’m looking at the iTunes charts, there’s not a bass guitar in there. So it becomes, OK, what are we going to do about that?” John Taylor says, leaning forward. “It’s like, ‘Yes, we want that John Taylor thing,’ but we also want our records to sound like they’ve been made in the 21st century.”

Hudson proved to be an invaluable guide in that regard, though unlike Ronson — who performed “The Wild Boys” at his fourth-grade talent show — he didn’t grow up listening to Duran Duran.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t go in like an über-fan,” Hudson says. “I went in with respect and affection for them and obviously I know most of their songs and they’re an incredible band, but actually I went in thinking, OK, how can I help?”

Hudson ultimately provided a handy barometer for what was and wasn’t modern.

“Don’t worry guys, that’s Kanye-approved is one of his catchphrases,” Roger Taylor says. “And it’s like, ‘OK, let’s go with it.’”

It can be a blessing and a curse to stick around long enough to witness your revolutionary idea become common knowledge. Duran Duran was derided early on for merging the forward-thinking attitude of punk with the cutting-edge music of disco. Of course, synthesizing different scenes and cultures into freshly accessible packages has since become the predominant orthodoxy of pop music, which is why Duran Duran endures. Nevertheless, there are still pockets of the music establishment that would rather keep punk and disco separate, most notably the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has not yet deigned to include Duran Duran. All of the Duranies claim not to care about the slight — not surprisingly, Le Bon cares the least with the most bravado.

“Imagine Joy Division is your favorite band in the world — and I love Joy Division — but how much would you hate Duran Duran for what we sounded like and looked like after that?” he says. “We were color and we were a reaction against gray.

“I’m not sure I want to be part of that club,” Le Bon concludes when I bring up the rock hall. “And I have great respect for it, great respect. [But] it’s not as important as one fan who buys your record really, is it?”

To entice listeners to buy (or stream) Paper Gods, Duran Duran has made perhaps its most diverse album, digressing into summertime funk (“Pressure Off”), dance-floor decadence (“Butterfly Girl”), ruminative “state of the world” electro-anthems (“Paper Gods”), and paranoiac synth-rock (“You Kill Me With Silence”). The LP’s best song — and the track that almost single-handedly justifies Duran Duran continuing to exist — is “What Are the Chances?” which takes the melodrama of 1993’s “Ordinary World” and transforms it into a mini-opera. Le Bon sings a quiet prayer of gratitude like he’s Edith Piaf contemplating the heavens — it’s so grand that only a group that once commanded the world’s attention would dare to attempt it.

Will Paper Gods find an audience, or is Duran Duran destined to reside in the purgatory of perpetual nostalgia? Either way, the band members say they’ve made peace with where fame has put them all these years later.

“I think we went through it and experienced it, and we kind of came out the other side and went ‘Phew!’ And we’re still in that mode actually,” Le Bon says. “Even though it’s really exciting when you get a little bit of it, you would not want to deal with it on a daily basis like we did 30 years ago.”

“I love going on the Tube in London. It’s fantastic. Nobody’s chasing me now,” Roger Taylor beams. “I feel fortunate.”

Le Bon beams right back. “I mean, Harry Styles cannot get on the Tube,” he says.

Someday, Le Bon may even wear his Crocs in public.

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Courtesy of Grantland