Duran Duran was the original Tiger Beat band, and bassist John Taylor was a big reason why: His model-handsome visage, staring out from the cover of teenybopper rags in the early ‘80s, moved a lot of magazines, and, more importantly, sold a lot of records.
But Duran Duran were no teen idol flash in the pan. Their early records leaned hard into atmospheric art rock, moody, impressionistic imagery and propulsive funk. John Taylor — ably abetted by bandmates Andy Taylor, Roger Taylor, Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes — played fluid, seemingly effortless bass hooks on hits like “Girls on Film,” “Rio” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” all of which are likely to be heard tonight when the band's Paper Gods Tour lands at Ascend Amphitheater tonight.
Last week, I spoke with Taylor via phone about why he switched from guitar to bass, what it’s like collaborating with Chic founder (and current tour mate) Nile Rodgers, how Duran Duran’s songwriting process hasn’t changed in 40 years and more. Check out our Q&A after the jump.
Tonight's show with Chic also features Tokimonsta on the undercard. Gates open at 7 p.m. Tickets start at $20.
So, I understand that you didn’t start off on bass, is that correct?
Yeah, I started off on guitar, and the first time I really got to play with a drummer was when Roger [Taylor] joined us. We were starting to work the sound out for the band, and I was switching from guitar to bass and back and forth, and I just really loved that feeling of working with the drummer and finding that pocket. We would take hours to work out fills. We wanted to be like a crack American rhythm section, you know, but we were a couple of punks. We were doing our punk rock imitation of these super sophisticated R&B rhythm sections. We just had a great bond and we would work away at making our corner as good as it could be. I’m not sure I have the commitment for guitar. Guitar players, keyboard players, it’s a big commitment; you’ve got to be very committed. Although I’m probably more committed to the bass guitar today than I’ve been in a long, long time.
I switched between bass and guitar some before and it’s a whole different animal, bass just feels a lot more natural a lot more comfortable.
Yeah, I mean, look, I love to play guitar. I’ve taken a guitar on the road with me. I sit in my room and play guitar, I don’t sit in my room and play bass, but I love playing bass in a band. … I love occupying that position in an ensemble.
I noticed there was a recent release of some early demos from 1979, looks like even before Simon [Le Bon] was in the band. I don’t know how official that release was or not.
If you want hear me play bass and guitar, those were some of the sessions I was still doing that.
What was the writing process like for that?
We have a way of working that we established many, many years ago and we kind of stick to it. The way we approach the writing on the Paper Gods album is not that different than the way we approached the writing on “Planet Earth.” We tend to start with a beat, with a tempo. When Simon joined the band, we’d already got the music, Roger and Nick and I had established the sound of the band. We had several pieces of music that Simon was able to walk in with his accumulated lyrics, poetry, his notebook of ideas, and then just start putting ideas, freestyling ideas to music we had already created. I think that set the template really, except, of course, now, Simon will be in the room and we’ll be jamming around, and I think we all love that. I think it’s one of the most fun parts of our creative process, is when we just meet and someone says, “Fast, slow, medium,” (laughs) and we just kinda hit it, more often than not it doesn’t go anywhere, but, you know, we throw these ideas down, ideas we get that are interesting to us get put under the microscope, and then we develop those ideas.
This album we were working on for two years, you know, it was quite a long project. I think this album is interesting within our catalog, in part, because of the amount of collaborators we’ve got on this album. That was something we never considered before. We always thought, we’re a band, we’re self sufficient, that’s what makes a band a band, and when one was watching this vogue in electronic music and hip hop for features, feature singers, you know, it was like, what’s that got to do with us? You know, this album, it started with John Frusciante, most people know him from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He reached out to us, wanting to play on our sessions. He played on a few song ideas that we had, and it was so mind blowing what he’d done, we then became obsessed about who else we could get.
We hadn’t worked with Nile in many years. Mark Ronson had suggested calling Nile [Rodgers], so Nile came and did a few days with us, and then the album started to take shape and the songs started to come together. We started thinking about diva turns. Janelle Monae agreed to come in, and Kiesza came in. You know, it really raised the energy level on the album. I don’t know whether we would do it again in that way on another album but, definitely, that’s what gives this album it’s particular color is these turns by other performers and instrumentalists.
The partnership with Nile Rodgers goes back, what, nearly 30 years at this point?
Yeah, I first met Nile, we were on tour with Blondie, and Nile was producing Debbie Harry’s solo album. I was a massive fan of Nile and Bernard Edwards, I mean Chic were a big inspiration for me, really going back to playing the bass. I’d never really thought about the bass before. I mean, I knew what it was, but it wasn’t something that interested me. I was into the guitar heros, I was into Mick Ronson, Ronnie Wood, Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music, I liked these kinds of guitar players. Then I got into punk rock, and Steve Jones and Johnny Thunders. I imagined myself as some kind of Johnny Thunder/Phil Manzanera hybrid. But then Chic, you know, the bass really spoke to me in Chic’s records. And disco, also, like Sylvester, like “Mighty Real.” When I heard that, I felt like the bass was really leading the charge. And, also I thought, well, I can do that, I can kinda play like that, [imitates bass notes with mouth]. So you know that’s kinda what caused me to shift to bass.
When the band came out we were always name-checking Chic, so when I met Nile for the first time, he knew, you know, and they knew that we were fans of theirs and we just hit it off right away. He’s a hard man not to get along with. We turned to him when we couldn’t quite get the formula right on Seven and the Ragged Tiger, which is our third album. It needed to be a global smash after the success of Rio and we were stuck. We put out two singles and it wasn’t really you know, it was starting to look like a disappointment. We had this song, “The Reflex," and everyone thought it had the potential to be a hit, but the way we’d written it and recorded it was not right. That was when we reached out to Nile, and that was the first thing he did with us, and of course he completely turned our careers around, really. You know the singles off that album were not terribly successful, and then with “Reflex” we had a global No. 1. Then we wrote “Wild Boys” with him, which was writing from the beginning, and we had the most fantastic relationship with him. You know, having him on tour with us is just massive. … We roll up to the show usually about the time Chic are taking the stage, and it’s just a lesson every day. Nile’s a fantastically inspirational man to know. It feels just so very authentic, you know, we’ve got history, he joins us onstage for a couple of songs, and it’s a beautiful thing and not to be taken for granted. Shout out to Tokimonsta, as well, the third artist on the bill. She’s fantastic. If you don’t know Tokimonsta, you should definitely get to the show in time to see her, because she’s fascinating.
So, I asked some folks online if they had any questions, and another bass player, a friend of mine, was curious: When you were starting out, coming into the punk rock and the New Wave scene, did you get any pressure from producers to tone back your playing, which was fairly flamboyant for the time in a pop-rock setting, not so much in a funk or R&B setting?
No, no, no. The first producer, the guy who did the first two albums, could not have been more encouraging. I think he really understood what was happening musically. I was listening to “Hungry Like the Wolf,” it was on a T.V. show recently, and I was just listening to where the bass was sitting in the track, and the kind of sound that the engineer had — you know, we had this engineer/producer Colin Thurston. Colin had worked on Heroes and Lust for Life and that kind of German period that David Bowie and Iggy Pop were involved in so his credentials were like perfect. He’d come back to London, and he was starting to get a lot of work with the new vogue of artists like Magazine, Human League, Bow Wow Wow. So he was very much this producer engineer dujour. What he did for us on that first album is, just, we could not have had a better guy, because he just raised our game in such an extraordinary way, and I think you almost take it for granted, and good producers will do that. I mean, we were pretty sloppy, really, we had something, some kind of charm, but the sound he was able to create for us on those first two records was just formidable. I think it’s very encouraging. I’ve never had anybody sort of, how did you put it, Put me back, I’ve always been asked to play out you know?
I think it’s part of Duran Duran, it’s part of what people expect. It’s interesting actually, I’ll tell you, it’s an interesting thing that’s happened. I do a lot of sessions, but if I end up in the studio and I’m playing bass for somebody, inevitably they’ll say, “Play something funky.” I get irritated when people say that to me because that sounds to me like such lazy direction.
They’re basically saying play “Hungry Like the Wolf"?
No, I don’t know what they really want. I don’t really know what that means, and yet, I did a couple of days in the studio with Nile, and it’d been a long time since I’ve played with Nile, so we set up in the room, and Mark was producing the sessions, and Roger and Nick and I were in this room, and Simon had a mic, and we’re all playing around with these ideas. And I got myself as close to Nile as I possibly could, you know, physically, and I just started playing into his playing, you know, and suddenly I was like, “Fuck, this is like the funkiest shit I’ve played in years.” It was just two days of very intense playing. It yielded the pressure off, the single pressure off. After two days my fingers were in shreds.
Of course, yeah.
I just thought, I’ve got to keep my game up from this point. I’ve got keep my game at this level. It was just so extraordinary, after all these years, you know, for Nile to come in and be able to inspire me and influence me in that way. That’s a great musician; that’s a great producer. It’s difficult today, because we’re living in this very high-tech environment, where musicians, you know, they’re on, they’re off. “You know what, just play a couple of bars and I’ll put it through pro tools.” It’s like you’ve almost got to force yourself on engineers and producers these days. [Nile] has been an amazing influence on us all.
Courtesy Nashville Cream