The Walkman Changed Everything: An Interview with Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran

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If you were, in any meaningful sense of the word, alive between 1983 and 1985, you’re likely to have feelings about Duran Duran. The handsome, stylish, funk pop quintet from Birmingham, England, were as big as a band could get back when MTV was redefining bigness for a vacuous age. But after 30 years of vicissitudes, it turns out the most durable part of Duran Duran—unlike almost all of their telegenic early ‘80s New Romantic-adjacent counterparts—was their songs, which still sound bizarrely contemporary and perfect on the radio. The band is still on the road, in support of a strong record, Paper Gods, from last year. Lead singer Simon Le Bon spoke to me about it by phone.

You've had an extraordinary career with a lot of ups and downs, and made a lot of records at a lot of levels of success. Where does your ambition lie now? What keeps you interested?

I want to do music. That's the driving force in it, really. We'd like to move on. We like to challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zone, wherever that is. I don't know. It's a funny question to ask me, to be honest with you, because I'm right in the middle of a tour at the moment. I'm just not thinking about the future. I'm really thinking about where we are. Being onstage makes you very much in the present. It is very much in the here and now. It's like being in sports. It's like playing football. Things change very quickly, so you've got to be right in the moment. Thinking about the next project would distract me from what I'm doing now.

Well, speaking of what you're doing now: Your latest record, Paper Gods, is very contemporary-sounding. A certain kind of funk was always at the heart of Duran Duran's sound, but it seems like you've doubled down on it. I suppose that's hard to avoid when Nile Rodgers is involved as a producer.

Well, even before Nile was involved with the new record, the one word that was on everybody's lips was "dance." Or "funk." Funk and dance. We wanted to make something that got people moving, in the tradition of the best Duran Duran albums, really, like Rio, which is a dance record for the 1980s. People still play it at parties. We have that ability. When you get onstage, if you can get the audience jumping up and down, waving their arms around and singing along with you, you know that they're going to have a great time, and if they're going to have a great time, you're going to have a great time. Dance music is super, super important to us.

How engaged are you with contemporary pop music, and how do you guys balance the desire to make music that's plausible for young audiences as well as the people who've been following you for 30-plus years?

We all listen to a fair bit of contemporary music, though not necessarily Top 40 music. I'd say my favorite band of the last five years is Tame Impala. Maybe last decade, indeed. There's a lot to listen to. There's a lot to learn from that music. Kanye, as well. Hell of a lot to learn from Kanye, and Rihanna, if the truth be told. These are really smart musical artists who really care about what they're doing, and they're trying to take music further ahead, so they're very relevant to us, and also, it's the language. There's a vernacular, a music vernacular, which makes music accessible to young people. If you can tap into a bit of that, you make yourself accessible to young people. It's not an accident that on this tour we've been playing to much younger audiences than we have in the last 10 years, because we've had a song on hit radio. "Pressure Off" did well in the charts, and it's got that contemporary sound to it.

Is there a temptation to make a record that refers more directly to your earlier incarnations?

What you just described is the previous album, All You Need Is Now. That is exactly what that album was. Mark Ronson came into the studio, we all sat down together, and he said, "I want Duran Duran to reclaim the sound of the '80s—reclaim it from Kaiser Chiefs, reclaim it from the Killers, reclaim it from Bloc Party. They're using your sound. I want to give it back to you." And that's what we did, but you don't make two albums like that in a row.

A lot of people talk about how the business of music has changed, and that's not super interesting, except in the sense that it reflects how people's actual relationship to music has changed. You've been a significant performer for a long time. What differences do you perceive?

Nothing has happened recently that compares to the massive change that happened at the beginning of the '80s, when the Sony Walkman was invented. That was the biggest change in music. It still is. It's still massive. The fact that people listen to their own music, and they have their own playlists, their own set of likes. You don't have to listen to everybody else's choice. That, to me, still is the biggest development in the music scene in 50 years. Everything comes from that. The downloading, the internet, the relationship with music that the internet has provided wouldn't exist if the Sony Walkman hadn't been invented.

It's true that it introduced the on-demand paradigm, but it didn't do anything to change the nature of hits, or undermine the mass audience, both of which the internet has done.

No. You're right, but also, there's something else as well which is crucial to us right now, and that is how a live show is perceived. When we started out, live shows were considered promotional tools to help sell the record. Audiences really didn't have to pay a lot of money to come see you play live. Now, because recorded music is pretty much free to a lot of people, they can pick and choose. You don't have to go and spend $10 on a CD or a vinyl album to hear the one song you like because it's an album track. Recorded music has become cheaper. The value has dropped, but the value of the ephemeral moment, of the band onstage, that thing which can't be recorded because it's you and how you feel, it may involve the people you go with. Maybe there's a girl you're falling in love with, or maybe you've taken drugs. A lot of this stuff is all part of the experience, particularly in festivals, as well. We've seen this incredible, incredible rise of the music festival, and it's the personal experience that people are now investing so much more in compared to, say, 20 years ago. That has actually become the shared experience, as well. You share that with your friends. It's like all sitting around with the Rolling Stones record and rolling a joint on the album cover.

How do you feel about playing festivals? I definitely see the warm communal element, but there's also the sense of them becoming like a Walmart superstore for music.

I know what you mean. Yes, there's that, but then there's festivals with a lot more thought, a lot more of the sort of attitude and thinking behind them. A lot of the big radio stations, they have their so-called festivals. Those are like Walmarts of music, I agree. But then you have things like the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco, which we'll be playing. You've got Coachella obviously, which has got very strong ethics behind it. You've got the Exit festival in Serbia. A lot of these are very special. They've got their own flavor, and it's a very local thing. They've got a very distinct personality.

You guys still tour a lot, but it seems like the LP is still your center of gravity as a band.

It is. It's the little thing in the middle of a disc as it spins around. It holds everything in place, but then there's the other stuff that goes around it, which is also very important. If we put the hours into the album and we make an album of songs that we're proud of, then we're making an album of songs that we want to go and play live. That's why we're still on tour 30 years into our career and absolutely get the thrill that we had when we first started, because we're playing songs that really mean something to us.

The narrative in which a band has early explosive worldwide fame then settles into a life as a live act later is not new, but the amount of energy that Duran Duran puts into its new records after all this time seems like an extremely rare occurrence in music.

Yes. We are an anomaly. We're not the norm. We're not driven by commerce. We're driven by artistry and a desire to leave a body of work and a desire to be part of what's going on, to be part of the culture, and this is the best way for us to do it. We're enjoying it. It gives our lives meaning.

Courtesy The Stranger