Duran Duran on Punk, Fashion, Sacred Choral Music from the Renaissance—and Their Brilliant New Album

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Duran Duran’s newest album, Future Past—just out—is that rare thing: a new album from a legendary band that manages to thread an impossible needle. If you’re familiar with the band—I mean, at this point, could one not be?—the new record makes sense as a Duran Duran album (it’s their 15th), but it also makes sense as a 2021 album without having to try to hard.

Earlier this summer, I sat down in a private room at Manhattan’s Neue House with the four pop principals of the band—lead singer Simon Le Bon (in jeans, an agitprop t-shirt, and Chuck Taylors), keyboardist Nick Rhodes (in an impeccably appointed powder-blue peaked-lapel summer suit), bassist John Taylor (wearing the sort of wide-lapeled screaming-green jacket that would stop traffic on the streets outside), and drummer Roger Taylor (the only normcore-ish one of the bunch, in white tee, camo jacket, jeans, and black sneakers)—for a wide-ranging chat about everything from their art-school origins to their uber-80s screaming stardom to their almost shocking (for pop stars) ability to actually enjoy one another’s company.

Vogue: You had this album more or less finished more than a year ago—and then COVID hit. How did you each spend your time during isolation?

NICK: We had to stop the Duran project, but we all took on different things to do: John started painting a lot, Simon started his own radio show with Sirius…

ROGER: And I walked the dog.

NICK: Roger walked the dog. [laughter] And I worked remotely in the studio and made the Astronomia project, which we talked about before.

John—you started painting for the first time?

JOHN: Well, I went to art college as a kid, but I just started very simply painting and drawing about two years ago and realized it was something I really liked doing—and then during lockdown, suddenly the trip to the art supply store became like the big event of the week. But also, both Roger and I did these tutorials—

ROGER: I went through my private records and did this thing where I presented my musical history on YouTube. But yeah, the art and the drawing is interesting: It’s one of the things—sometimes the only thing—that we were all really good at when we were growing up.

SIMON: I went to art school for a foundation course at Harrow—a one-year course that you do, pre-degree, where you get to dabble in a bit of everything: photography, textiles, life drawing, graphic design, and then from that you make a decision on what you want to focus on.

JOHN: But we didn’t do that—we just did the first Duran Duran kick. My end of year show was our first demo tape. [he pauses for effect] Fucking smaaaart. [laughter] I remember the head teacher going, “Well, what’s this?” And I’m like “That’s my work for the year…” [John flashes a massive cat-that-ate-the-canary grin]

I’ve interviewed a lot of British bands and read so many more biographies of them, and everyone seems to have gone to art college—mainly, it seems, to get them out of their parents’ house or to give them a lot of free time. You’re the first band I’ve met that actually went to art college for art! [laughter]

NICK: Well, there was no college for forming a band, was there?

JOHN: If you’ve not had any musical training, if music hasn’t been brought into your house—speaking for most of us, there wasn’t a piano in our houses, and the last thing you wanted was to be in the school orchestra. So the idea of being a musician was way over there. But the idea of turning a fondness for drawing into a career path—that seemed more realistic.

NICK: The art room at school was my absolute solace: I used to go there when they were doing gym stuff and the art teacher sort of protected me and let me go there and just make things—

JOHN: We can’t have Nicholas doing games!

NICK: For goodness sake! It’s just not right!

Three out of four of you are from Birmingham, a quite industrial city. What was the first spark that told you that you weren’t going to work in a factory or weren’t going to do what most people around you would do with their lives? I guess I’m asking: What gave you permission to think you could be pop stars?

NICK: For me and for many musicians of our generation, it was David Bowie, without a doubt. When I saw Bowie on Top of the Pops for the first time, it was a revelation: Coming from the grey and the factories and the unemployment of Birmingham and the IRA and terrorism—that was the backdrop of England in the 70s—you had to dream outside of that. We wanted to get out of Birmingham—we wanted to see New York and travel the world; we were curious.

JOHN: Punk was the key, though, because none of us really knew how to play. And punk rock was like You don’t need to play! You just need to be the right age.

ROGER: When I heard “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols, it opened up an entire other world of possibility. I got into music quite young—my dad worked in a factory, but he dabbled at playing instruments: He played classical guitar, and he was in a harmonica band. He always had this dream that he could be something outside of his day job. And when I was fishing around for something that I could do, I saw Dave Brubeck playing on TV and I saw his drummer, who was amazing, and I thought That’s what I want to do. So I started playing on pots and pans and piles of books and found I had an aptitude for it.

SIMON: I always sang. My earliest memory is a musical memory: It’s lying in a cot when my mum put me down for my afternoon sleep. She used to leave the radio on—Radio 3, the Light Program, as it was known—and I remember listening to the music, and in my head I could hear where it was going when I knew that I’d never heard it before. I could extrapolate and predict where it went. [whispers] And it fucking went there! It was a huge epiphany. It felt like music was mine, that I had a bit of it in me. So I did a lot of singing for competitions, and at about age eight I joined a church choir until I was 13 or 14, when my voice broke. The choir master, Mr. Turvey, had us all learning how to read music, to sight read; he taught us musical theory, and I became aware of what you could do with harmonies and just how incredible the human voice is when you stack it up, when you have more than one person singing.

NICK: You have a very unusual sense of harmony that I think is absolutely a part of what identifies Duran Duran’s sound. We’ve all listened to many many records with amazing harmonies, but none are quite like Simon’s. It’s unique.

How would you describe it?

SIMON: I wouldn’t say it’s completely unique. But my harmonies aren’t based on the R&B scale.

NICK: Which most of rock music is based on. Also, you don’t always use parallel harmonies—yours go all over the place and cross over and—

SIMON: I like to sing one note as the harmony and have the melody move around—it creates these different intervals between the drone notes—

NICK: That’s exactly what I’m talking about—

SIMON: I grew up listening to early music: Henry Purcell, William Byrd. Early music is my favorite thing; it’s wonderful, it’s incredible.

Thomas Tallis?

NICK: Yes—we’re all big fans. We used a piece of his for the intro for the last tour, just before we came onstage. It’s the most beautiful thing, because it just made a—

SIMON: —no it’s Purcell, isn’t it? The Death March of Queen… Queen Mary… [technically it’s Funeral Music For Queen Mary, but point taken—in any case, Simon is now singing an early music melody]

NICK: That’s Thomas Tallis.

JOHN: That’s Purcell.

I don’t recognize that—I’m more familiar with Tallis’s Miserere and Spem In Alium, the famous 40-part motet.

[Simon instantly starts singing the central melodic line of Spem In Alium]

ROGER: Who did that Tallis piece that we listen to—was that Vaughan Williams?

SIMON: Well he did Variations on a Theme By Thomas Tallis, which is probably his most well-known… well, one of his well-known works. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s a certain coolness to it—the intonation, the tonality: I key into those things. There’s also a band out now—nothing to do with early music, mind you—called King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, and they’ve got a very strong Arabic inspiration—it’s the intonation of the notes. A lot of what they’re playing isn’t the Western scale, it’s a Middle Eastern scale. It’s so exciting. That’s the sort of thing that makes me really gush.

OK, before we turn this into a MasterClass of early liturgical music, let’s get back to where we were with punk. I think I get how punk changed your lives—but how did you get from the Pistols to what became your musical signature, which was somewhat exotic, beautiful, escapist pop?

SIMON: Punk affected our musical style, our way of dressing; it affected me lyrically massively—the single biggest lyrical influence on me was Patti Smith. That album Horses was a punk rock album. But then something happened between us and punk: It went into a slightly more austere kind of style where everybody wore black, and the album covers were monochrome. It all got a bit dull. And as teenagers, after six months of that we were ready for the next thing, y’know? There was a collective consciousness: There were shops in Birmingham like the Oasis where suddenly color had come back into fashion. And I turned up, famously, in pink leopard-skin pants.

ROGER: We also started looking back a little bit as well, to Bowie and Roxy Music. The whole glam thing became a part of the scene, and Kraftwerk became a big part of the scene as well—and all of that filtered through the new things that people were doing.

NICK: We also had the benefit of having lived through the 1970s musically, which was the most adventurous, crazy decade, with all these different genres. And, unusually for the time, we liked quite a few different things from different genres. I mean, we all liked glam rock and Bowie and Roxy and T Rex and Sparks. But we also loved the Clash, the Pistols, the Damned—and then goth: Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure.

SIMON: And there was soul in there as well! Do you remember—we were upstairs at the Rum Runner, and Mulligan—from the band Fashion—came running up, and he says, “Have you heard the new Diana Ross song? It’s a-mazing!” It was “Upside Down.” And we listened to it, and it just seemed like: We can have that. We can have that as well as the punk sensibilities.

NICK: And Giorgio Moroder. And Studio 54.

ROGER: In terms of one’s collision with the zeitgeist, there were also things that we were able to do that nobody could have done before us simply because of technology and the availability of things.

I mean: videos, to name maybe the most obvious of these zeitgeist-defining things.

SIMON: We just came at this incredible time when all these roads crossed at the same place and we were at this junction—it was musical, it was fashion, it was the technology of the video—

Yes, okay: Everybody else had the technology of the video—but they weren’t hiring people who wanted to shoot them on film and who had feature film credentials, as you guys did. Is there something about that that you saw early on as having potential?

ROGER: One of our managers actually wanted to be a film director, and being the manager of Duran Duran was kind of a stepping stone or a rehearsal for him—he wanted to make these epic movies.

NICK: We were as close as he was going to get. [laughter]

SIMON: The first single [“Planet Earth”] was a hit in our home country and Australia. And nobody wanted to go to Australia to promote this single, so somebody said, “Maybe you should make a video.” And we were like, “What’s that?” And we rolled up to a studio in North London one day really having no idea what we were going to do. Russell McKay, the director, was one of the four guys who invented the visual language of that time.

JOHN: And the next time around with him, we filmed the “Rio” video in Sri Lanka.

NICK: We were like an SAS SWAT team: We could almost parachute into somewhere, get in, do our thing, get out—

JOHN: It was hugely significant, though: I think before Sri Lanka we were still kind of a club band: We looked like a club band, we thought like a club band, and people sort of thought of us like that. But we came out of that and got to Australia, where people had seen the video, and we were stars.

SIMON: It was the plastic pants.

Is there any way to quantify how famous you were at the height of Duran Duran?

SIMON: On our second trip to New York, there was a place near Times Square where you used to buy videos, called Video Shack, where we did an in-store appearance. Thousands of people showed up—they had to block the streets, and they had to get police on horseback to control the crowds. That’s how crazy it was.

NICK: I suppose in a way, after having seen Beatlemania and what happened with the Rolling Stones in the early 60s, people thought that sort of thing had gone away for rock music. But after “Hungry Like the Wolf,” when we performed live, the noise from the audience when we walked onstage was so loud that we literally couldn’t hear each other. I remember being quite panicked about it.

SIMON: Again, it’s just the coincidence of timing: We hit a time when people were ready for that all over again.

NICK: I felt bad for the other guests in the hotels we stayed in, truly, because we’d sometimes have a few hundred fans surrounding our hotel, singing, until 2 or 3 in the morning.

Most of you have been playing together in some form for the better part of 43 years. There’s obviously something about what you do that works. Is it a calling, a vocation—or is there simply a demand for what you do that you want to satisfy?

NICK: This particular lineup has been together since 2002 or so. And I think we’ve realized what a good unit we are creatively—in the studio, writing songs, live shows—

JOHN: I think there’s kind of a fallacy in our society about the solo artist and what the individual can achieve. It’s like being married for a while and thinking, You know, I can do so much better out there. I think we’re a testament to achieving things collectively. It’s what drives us.

SIMON: And you can hear it on the new record.

NICK: Bizarrely, our sort of internal democracy actually works pretty well—moreso than any political democracy I can think of. [laughter]

SIMON: Crucially, we all earn the same amount of money from the band. That’s really important.

You’ve also got a kind of murderer’s row of guest musicians on the new record.

NICK: Yes—we worked with Graham Coxon from Blur, who’s just a monster musician—

SIMON: He’s the first really creative guitarist we’ve had from the very beginning of a project in the studio since Andy Taylor, and he’s got such a strong style.

NICK: And we worked with Mark Ronson—and Giorgio Moroder, who we’ve wanted to work with since the beginning of the band. “I Feel Love” is the track that changed how I thought about music. And so that was pure joy working with him.

I’ve heard the singles that you’ve put out from the record so far, but my favorite is the title track, “Future Past”—I hear Scott Walker singing “Montague Terrace In Blue,” I hear the first big drop in ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”—

SIMON: Wow. Wow! Yeah… “Dancing Queen”! I know what you mean!

NICK: I’m glad you mentioned Scott Walker, because he is one of my favorites.

ROGER: I think the whole album is really autobiographical—maybe not lyrically, but aesthetically: The architecture of the sound is quite autobiographical. Nick says, “One foot in the future, one foot in the past”—that’s where we are.

SIMON: Yes. But you know what I think also about Future Past? Every moment that you experience is a future past: In the future, it will be the past. So in a way, it’s just saying “the present, the present”...

What’s the most un-Duran Duran thing that any of you do? You each seem almost preternaturally cultured, fashionable, well-read—am I missing any reality-TV binging? Fast food aficionados? Ultimate fighting enthusiasts, that kind of thing?

SIMON: I mean: I like to sail.

Come on—that’s exquisitely Duran Duran.

NICK: I honestly don’t know. I spend my time going to art shows, fashion shows, cinema, all of those things.

SIMON: We’re enthusiasts. We get interested in all kinds of different stuff—and when we do get interested, we like to get stuck in.

JOHN: Think of it this way: It’s a very broad church.

Courtesy Corey Seymour/VOGUE