Duran Duran Redefines Relevant 38 Years Later

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Duran Duran can claim a storied history that spans the 40 or so years since they started life as part of Britain’s so-called “New Romantic” movement of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Coinciding with the tail end of the U.K. punk scene, that trendy, timely fad deviated from punk’s irreverent attitude but shared the same adventurous attitude. Early on, the band became as well known for their look and fashion as they did for their music, especially as manifest in their exotic and extravagant videos. Taking that tack, Duran Duran became one of the first stars of the burgeoning new medium known as MTV. Naturally though, it took more than a glam image for the band to succeed, and with early hits like “Rio,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” “Girls on Film” and “The Reflex,” the group proved their musical mettle and embarked on a lengthy trajectory that made them more than mere fashionistas and in fact true international pop stars.

Nevertheless, like most things in the music biz, reaching the top means you only have that much further to fall, and indeed, by the mid ‘80s, internal fission tore the band apart and caused them to splinter. After a steady succession of outside projects (Power Station with Robert Palmer being the most successful) and changes in membership, four of the five original members — singer Simon Le Bon, bassist John Taylor, drummer Andy Taylor and keyboard/synth player Nick Rhodes, sans guitarist Andy Taylor — reconvened at the dawn of the new millennium and attempted to carry on where they had left off before.

Their latest album, 2015’s Paper Gods has been key to their re-ascent to a certain extent, thanks to songs that revive memories of the band at their best. On offerings like the title track, “Pressure Off” and “Sunset Garage,” the propulsive exuberance of the early Duran Duran is again brought to bear. Synth pop remains a key component in their sound, as evidenced in the irrepressible groove of “Change in the Skyline,” the tellingly-titled “Danceophobia” and “Face For Today,” but they’re not so calculated as to diminish the melodic intent either.

Glide recently had a chance to catch up with John Taylor during a break in their current round of roadwork promoting the current album.

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. If a fan of the early Duran Duran in 1984 had hibernating and awoke in 2016, what do you think are the major similarities and differences they’d notice now.

(Laughs) That would make a great premise for a movie! I think it would be pretty terrifying actually. Actually that scenario offers a very good example of the responsibility you have to your audience, You have to maintain a certain sense of self regard so as not to disappoint. Not entirely anyway. When we came out, we were all very much in the pop star vain. But now we’ve all become parents and homeowners and so much experience has gone into our lives individually, in addition to the career. At that point that’s all we were. Those three or four years, from 1980 – 1984, was massive amount of time for this 20 year old and what we achieved in those four years was extraordinary.

Other than the fact that you guys are older — and presumably wiser — what’s the dynamic like now?

It’s very different now the way time passes. This last album took two years to record because we’re not full time musicians anymore. We have to fit it in with our lives, with our responsibilities to our families. Time takes on a different aspect to it because at a certain point you realize you’re running a marathon, not a sprint. We were sprinters early on. You have to pace yourself differently. You get to a point where you realize that you need a partner in life and children. I need a home other than a hotel! There are these things you take on. And every kind of responsibility you take on does chip away at being an artist. That’s a fine balance.

So are you still as enthusiastic about making music as you once were?

When we get an album finished like Paper Gods, we’re all really pleased with the results. We know how challenging it is to get an album finished and then we get to take that to the stage. For me, there’s always something so magical about the moment when the lights go down and there’s this suspension of time. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to see “Wicked” or Arcade Fire. If it’s any good, you don’t look at your watch again until the lights go up again. When I was a kid and I’d go to see a certain band, I’d love that. I’d love giving myself over to this higher power in the room, whether that higher power was Freddy Mercury or Rod Stewart or Joe Strummer. I still love that and I love being the guy on stage now. I think we are still pretty close to those guys we were in ’84 when the lights go down. I think you could say that about the Rolling Stones or any other artist that’s stuck it out. We’ve stuck it out for that reason. There’s a reason why we’re still together. It’s because of the magic we’re able to create when the lights go down.

Did that early success set a high bar? Did it become intimidating or daunting to match that high bar later on?

In a hundred different ways. And it still is. Duran have always been a little bit genre bending. Who cared about genres in the ‘80s? I feel like the iTunes generation has brought genres back in a major,major way. With Duran, it’s like, what is this? It is it pop? Well. pop’s kind for the under 30 crowd isn’t it? Is it alternative? well… Is it dance? Maybe, but not quite. The question we tend to ask ourselves is what is a pop band without hits? I think we all became addicted to hits.

When we first formed, we weren’t thinking about pop hits. It wasn’t really on our agenda. Yes, we wanted to get on “Top of the Pops” like Siouxsie and the Banshees, but we weren’t thinking of becoming a band that had a string of hit singles. It was certainly nothing we discussed. We thought about making albums and doing live shows. So when you start having these hits, that creates this sort of magnetism, this power that you have where people are drawn to you. I’ve seen it, this magnetism that hit makers have. in our industry and I’ve seen what happens when that magnetism fades. It doesn’t mean that you’re not significant or that you don’t have a place in the continuum. You’re just not a hit maker anymore and it becomes a different quality of existence. (laughs)

Your sound has changed over the years, but in the last decade or so, you seem to be very cognizant of the musical environment that you’re operating in as well.

We worked at it. Every time we go back in the studio, we work at this reinvention. We look at our classic sound and we reboot it for now, whether now is 2015 or 2010 or 2020. Every time we do a new album we look at what’s out there and we think, ‘Yeah, that’s not too far off from the Duran Duran sound. (laughs) We can’t help ourselves. There might be a point where we go, do we have to chase that?

So you’ve had to alter the template a bit.

I think we’re at a point where when we’re building an album, it’s got a little bit of this on it, a little bit of that — it has these little 3 1/2 minute entries that have got a good tempo, and a certain pop sensibility that we’ve always had. It’s tricky. One of the things that was interesting on this last album is that we give a lot of thought to the sonic architecture and the sound, and one of the reasons we’e been able to adjust to the changing times and the changing styles is that you’ve got a bassist, you’ve got a drummer, you’ve got a guitarist and you’ve got a synthesizer player. And Nick has always been a synthesizer player. On almost every album, he shows up with a different bunch of synths. So there’s always something in the music that’s new. On this album we were thinking about synth basses. We were listening to a lot of contemporary synth elements and we were thinking, “Wow, could we do that? Could we try that?” And we put a lot of thought into that. But this time around, what we thought about was lyricism and how lyricism evolves.

How so?

It would be an interesting exercise to run the lyrics of the 30 most popular songs of every year from 1950 and see how the use of language has evolved. It’s crazy, right? Stuff that you can get away with today, you never could have gotten away with in the ‘70s or ‘80s. And some of the stuff that was done in the ‘70s, you couldn’t get away with now. It’s completely evolved. We have no problem changing up our drum sound, but are we prepared to use a vocal line that sounds like a Justin Bieber vocal line? (laughs) It’s easier with sounds, but with lyrics it’s more relevant to the current thing.

It sounds like you tow a fine line between what’s in vogue and the need to maintain Duran Duran’s classic sound.

You’re playing this game where you have to hold on to the classic values, but you still want to sound fresh and you want to sound like you have a clue at least of what music is doing right now.

Do you think Duran Duran wasn’t always taken as seriously as they should have been due to glam image the band developed early on?

No, not really. I don’t feel that way. I feel very loved. I feel like we have a fantastic audience or people that have followed us for a long time. There’s a lot of love for us. You can’t a career like this otherwise. You would have to be spoiled not to appreciate that. We probably are somewhat different to what we think we are. It’s like when you I look in the mirror I tend to present a certain face to myself and I think we put on a particular image to the world around us, but I think people see us differently than what we’re presenting. We are what we are and if I say we’re this, and we’re that, you’re going to say, ‘Well, what about that?” You see the whole 360. Most importantly, we’re still doing it, so everyday we have this chance to convince you anew. We’re very committed to our project. We’re not just in it for the money. We’re in it to learn and to deliver it the best we can. I think people appreciate that about us, and that we’ve stuck together, and the value of the team. It’s like a dying art, the ensemble. (laughs)

To still be doing it after 38 years is pretty amazing.

I know. But we’ve all dabbled at different things and looked to the side, and wondered, “Is this what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life? Is there an alternative?” We’ve all done different things, but the magic has always drawn us back.

Courtesy Glide magazine