A Q&A with Simon Le Bon, who hits town with Duran Duran on Saturday
The seminal British synth-pop group hits town behind 14th album Paper Gods, with support from CHIC feat. Nile Rodgers
Posted By LEILANI POLK on Thu, Mar 31, 2016 at 4:00 AM
Though nearly four decades deep into a career spanning 14 albums, British synthpop group Duran Duran is still managing to re-invent itself. Singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor are enjoying their latest comeback via 2015 full-length Paper Gods, which featured a few newer groove-oriented producers at the helm (Mark Ronson, who worked on 2010's All We Need Is Now, and Ben Hudson) joining longtime collaborator Niles Rodgers. A notable cast of musical guests didn’t hurt, from the unexpected (ala Lindsey Lohan’s spoken word passage in stealthy dancefloor burner “Danceophobia”) to the sublime (like John Fruiciante’s soaring guitar solos in mid-tempo reflective “What Are the Chances” and Janelle Monae bringing future soul to the supple strutting disco-funk of first single “Pressure Off”). The result is a Duran Duran that feels fresh, revitalized – and most importantly, relevant a sonicsphere they helped shape so long ago.
I had the rare treat of getting LeBon on the phone while he was in London gearing up for the tour that brings him to Tampa on Saturday, and he proved a proper British gentleman – charming, witty and gracious – as we discussed Paper Gods and his plans while he’s in Florida, which include splashing around in the sea and seeing his mum, who has a house in Clearwater. As to whether she’s going to the show, “Of course she is! She’s not going to miss that, it’s one of her favorite things, EVER, is when I come to her town.”
Is there anything in particular that you do to prep for tour?
Just the normal stuff. I try to be in reasonably good shape when you start, is the thing to do, make sure I’m fit enough to spend two hours on my feet on stage, fit enough to fit in my clothes without looking like a sausage in a too-tight skin.
Oh, Simon. You always wear your clothes very well.
[Belly laughs] That’s very nice of you to say so, it’s a compliment I take with great gratitude.
Paper Gods feels really breezy and effortless. Was it easy to put together?
Well it took two years to make, Leilani, so it didn’t just sort of fall into place. There’s a definite dynamic to the way it worked, though. We spent a whole year starting off with Mark Ronson, sifting through the bits and later on, we started to dig, and it really started coming together after a year. We hit a rich scene/stream of creativity, which coincided with the arrival of Mr. Hudson on the project. The sound – he really brought he sound to a different class for us, he gave us space around the notes, he gave us a slightly scary emptiness which we found very exciting, it was very new for us. We’ve always filled up every possible gap with something, layers and layers of keyboards, quite mushy sort of sound at times. But you listen to "You Kill Me with Silence" and there’s an abyss around the music, which gives you an excited feeling.
You talk about working with Nile Rodgers, Ben Hudson, Mark Ronson – what is it about these guys that really made it work for you?
A similar idea of quality in what makes good music, actually. Not wasting our time doing stuff that’s crap and frivolous.
So that everything you do is really meaningful…?
That maybe makes it sound a little prosaic and dull. Because I just suddenly realized there is actually frivolity on the album, but it’s fresh, it’s not cheesy, it’s not sentimental, and it’s free and thought out, rather than just haphazard and there for the sake of it. It’s fun, not frilly.
You’ve been around for decades and you’ve literally set standards for bands that are playing right now. Seems like it’d be a challenge to keep re-creating yourself and manage to sound fresh, when everyone around you is doing what you used to do?
Yeah, I think you’re right. And that kind of, everybody around us doing what we did, was very much the reason that All You Need Is Now sounded the way it did, that was Mark Ronson coming to us with this slight sense of outrage, going “There’s these guys who sound like Duran Duran! You’ve got to reclaim your territory!”
And we did that. And it was great and it worked.
But, we didn’t want to make the same album twice, ‘cause it would’ve been boring for us. So, we picked up where we left off and took it somewhere new. And I think that will always be our approach to making an album. The thing is, they sound different but the process is pretty much the same every time. Finding those ideas that are really good. And melodies are so important. Finding a melody that nobody else has come up with before, is a challenge in itself.
Think about that melody on “The Universe Alone.” Think about that. [Hums a passage of melody to me.] It’s unique, I promise you, that melody’s not been used before. And you would think, well there’s only 12 notes in a scale, that all the good melodies would be used up by now. But they aren’t! They’re out there, in their infinite variety! That’s me quoting Shakespeare (chuckles).
There were a lot of guests on the album. Was there anybody you particularly enjoyed working with?
All of them added so much to the record. There was a lot for me to let go of. I’ve held onto that microphone pretty jealously for the last 25, 30 years. To get my head around collaborations was quite difficult. But it was really when I listened to what John Frusciante added to the album, how much he really re-invigorated Duran Duran, I thought, ‘Wow, this could be really good,’ and I gave myself to it.
I think we’ve got some splendid, splendid work on the album from different artists. I’m very proud of it, I’m very proud they wanted to work with us and happy with the results.
I feel like, you get a phone call from a producer to work with Duran Duran, you don’t turn it down.
That’s great, and if that is the case, we’re very, very lucky people.
Are there artists out there you’re still itching to work with?
There’s always people. I tell you who I do want to do something with, I don’t know if it will be with Duran Duran, or maybe just me. There’s a lovely Estonian violin player called Maarja Nuut. I looove the way she plays violin, I love what she does, she’s very clever, but she’s very folky, you see. I have a sort of rich folksiness myself, but it doesn’t get that much of an airing with Duran Duran, as you can imagine.
Is that something you plan on exploring more in the future?
If I was going to do something without the band, it would definitely be more acoustic.
Just looking at what’s happening now in music, are there any artists you feel are setting the same high career standards as Duran Duran, as far as touching on quality of studio music, fashion, live performance, sex appeal …?
There are some really great bands making really great music. I’m really getting into the Royal Blood album that came out a couple years ago. I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s the music that counts, great artists like FKA Twiggs, she is fantastic. Tame Impala. Who cares whether it’s mixed with fashion and stuff. I get what you’re saying. But I think we very much took that from the Andy Warhol school of operation. And it takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot of money. So, in today’s kind of stripped down, music for the austerity age, there’s not a lot of space for that.
But it will come back I’m sure. If you’re really going to look at who does it now, you have to look at artists like Beyonce. I would say, she’s approached the synergy of it all. That sense of grandeur – delusions of grandeur even!
I wrote a song once called “Undergoing treatment,” and the final verse of it went [sings] “We are, undergoing treatment, but will the doctor’s ever cure, these delusions of grandeur?”
I read something about one of your song’s being made into a ballet?
That’s a dream that’s not realized yet, it’s still only a dream, but it’s a great idea, it’d be lovely to do something like that. And we’ve got just the piece of music for it. It was going to be on Paper Gods, but we just felt it needed to be developed. And frankly, I think it will happen but I’m loathe to talk about it now, it’s not in process at the moment, but I do believe it will happen.
You guys are going on the road with CHIC and Nile Rodgers – will there be some onstage collabs?
We’ve done enough work together in the studio, I fronted Niles' band before, he comes on stage with Duran Duran, we did Notorious together, we did Pressure Off. There’s plenty of scope for collaborations, yes indeed.
Is there anything that makes a song that you’ve played a million times easier, or fresher? A lot of artists hate playing old material?
I think, good songwriting in the first place is what you need. Good material. When you’ve got , good material, it’s not a pain in the ass playing it. When you’ve got songs like “Ordinary World” and “Save a Prayer,” they’re heavyweight songs, they’ve got depth and profundity and passion and meaning. And funny enough, I can get something out of “Reflex” as well, when I go on stage and do that.
I love our songs, I’m proud of them. We don’t have that one sort of, millstone-around-our-neck song, the one everybody wants to hear all the time that we just get sick of it. We’re lucky, and we’re respectful and we’re grateful for our success as well. And to disrespect those songs would be kind of like, being ungrateful for the amazing luck and good fortune and success we’ve had over the years. You’ve got to have respect for that stuff.
Any plans while you're in Florida?
My mum has a house in Clearwater.
Is she coming to the show?
Of course she is! She’s not going to miss that, it’s one of her favorite things, EVER, is when I come to her town...I don’t know what the exact schedule is, we’ll be down there for a week or so, give us the chance to jump in the sea and play by the pool.
Duran Duran: The Paper Gods Tour
with CHIC featuring Nile Rodgers, Sat., April 2, 7 p.m., MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater, Tampa, $29.95-$145.95.
Courtesy Creative Loafing, Tampa