Singer Simon Le Bon talks about how the band approached the spooky Billie Eilish and Rolling Stones covers on 'Danse Macabre,' as well as reuniting with former guitarist Andy Taylor and the band's future plans
BY KORY GROW
DO NOT ASK Simon Le Bon — a man whose name literally translates to “Simon, the Good” — why Duran Duran‘s latest album revels in the bad, the gothic, and the macabre. “I’ve got no fucking idea, mate — it wasn’t mine,” he jokes on a Zoom from his home in England. “I’m not a fan of Halloween at all,” he continues. “It comes too close to my birthday; my birthday is on the 27th of October. That’s a much more important celebration than Halloween.” He then indulges a Duran Duran trademark by pausing dramatically.
“I’m being ironic,” he says. “I know how important Halloween is.”
Of course he does. That’s the reason why, when keyboardist Nick Rhodes and bassist John Taylor suggested the band record a Halloween album, Le Bon was into it. Danse Macabre, which comes out Friday (yes, on Le Bon’s 65th birthday), contains three new songs, three reworkings of Duran deep cuts, and some covers of spooky songs originally by Billie Eilish, the Rolling Stones, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, among others.
Whether Danse Macabre was Le Bon’s idea or not, the singer tells Rolling Stone he quickly found his footing.
I’ve been trying to think of what could possibly be gothy about Simon Le Bon, and I can’t really think of anything.
I’m not in any disagreement with you, to be honest. Nick fancies himself as a bit of a goth, and he loves Halloween. It’s his favorite holiday. If he could rebrand himself, it would be Nick “The Antichrist” Rhodes. Your fans would love that.
He doesn’t really care what anybody thinks about it. That’s just what he’s like.
What appealed to you about the Billie Eilish song?
John was the one who presented that song. I listened to it, and it is extraordinary. It is so perfect. My first thought was, “I’m never going to be able to do anything that even approaches the brilliance of this.” But then I listened to the way that our version was developing, and it was a little more instrumental — obviously — and it wasn’t going to be such a vocal-centric song.
I’d been listening to a band called King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. You know how they use this kind of eastern tonality. I researched that a little bit and there’s this scale called hijaz kar where you drop the second note and the sixth note, you flatten them, and it gives a special kind of tonality to what you’re doing. I was singing along with the main melody of “Bury a Friend,” and it occurred to me to try and use that tonality. I did that and I found it suddenly changed the entire flavor of the song. At that point, I felt we could make it ours.
Did you pick any of the covers?
Umm … no. I did want to do a cover of the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman.”
Was it vetoed?
Yeah, it didn’t really take flight. Maybe I’ll just have to put that on my solo album.
Wait, you’re working on a solo album?
No. But you know how guys in bands are. We’re all working on solo albums all the time.
How did you approach “Paint It, Black”? I’ve never seen you as a Mick Jagger–type singer.
Well, I’m not a Mick Jagger-type singer, am I? I listened to the original version, and I thought that Mick was copying the riff. [Sings sitar melody.] And it works because it’s so repetitive, and it’s that morose, teenage “everything’s awful, everything’s black” thing. Obviously, I couldn’t do this teenage thing, because my teenage years are way behind me, so I thought, “Maybe I could make it a little bit more manic.” I thought I could do a little more of a restrained hysteria version. I felt that some of the melody and lyrics could do with a little variation.
First of all, I changed the melody and the meter of the words, and then I found I had to change some of the words. You often run into trouble if you do that because you have to run it past the original artist to see if you can have their permission to update the lyrics. And we got permission.
Did Mick send you a letter signing off on your new lyrics?
I think we got permission from the office. I don’t know who signed off on it, but we got it.
But it would be awful if I ran into Mick on holiday someday in Mustique or something and Mick goes, “Oh, my God. You did an awful version of my song, ‘Paint It, Black.’ Why did you do that to it?” [Laughs a long time.]
I think it’s very magnanimous of them as a band to allow other people to develop their ideas. Not for one minute would I say it’s a better version than the original. It’s just different. When you do something different with a song, then you bring new life to it. That was the point for every cover that we did.
I’ll tell you what I do think I brought to “Paint It, Black,” I think I brought a little Patti Smith attitude to it.
I can hear that. She’s also a huge Mick Jagger fan.
I am the biggest fan of Patti Smith ever. Of all the people who have influenced me, Patti Smith is the greatest.
You’ll have to cover her on your solo album.
Yes. Oooh yeah. It’ll be “Barefoot Dancing.” That’s the one.
Did you try to perform any of the covers faithfully?
The one that was most like the original is probably “Spellbound.” That’s kind of sacred territory for us.
Why is covering Siouxsie Sioux “sacred territory”?
In my opinion, she’s close to heaven. [Pauses and laughs.] I don’t mean she’s nearly dead; she’s just a heavenly person. Punk was a very big influence on my life. She’s right up there with the best there was and the best there is still. She’s still working, and I’m so pleased about that. And “Spellbound” is such a great song: “We are entranced, entranced, dance, dance, dance.”
Another song you changed a bit like “Paint It, Black” was “Super Freak,” which the band melded with “Lonely in Your Nightmare,” off your Rio album.
We always felt there was a connection with those bass lines to the songs. [Sings descending bass line.] That thing is in both “Lonely in Your Nightmare” and “Super Freak.” It’s one of those things we messed around with for many, many years before we actually did it. John would see if he could segue the two songs. We managed to achieve it a little bit, never live; it was just something we’d do in soundcheck or when we’re in the studio. This time, we made a concerted effort to see if we could segue the songs in and out of each other.
Speaking of funky bass, how did Victoria De Angelis wind up on “Psycho Killer”?
Well, that was very much John’s idea, as a bass player. He says, “I think we should approach Victoria to see if she’s willing to play bass on this.” And she was. She plays great bass but, [singing] “Ay ay ay ay,” is what you really get from her.
Both Andy Taylor and Warren Cuccurullo play guitar on this record. How did you end up getting them back for this?
We had a lot of songs to begin with that were Andy Taylor songs; we originally recorded them with Andy. It would be wrong not to offer him the opportunity to play on them. Since his announcement of his medical condition last year, all of us wanted to reconnect with him and to have him re-take his place in Duran Duran for at least some of the songs we’re doing, or at least some of the new stuff.
So I called him up and chatted with him about it. I was the person that took his award that you get for being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to him in Ibiza. Rather than just send it to him, I thought it would be nice if one of us put it in his hands. So I did that, and we talked about doing some stuff together. We weren’t sure what it would be, whether it would be just me and him or the band and him. When this came up, I said, “I think Andy would really be up for playing on this.”
How was it recording with him again?
He is the most extraordinary guitarist. I think he may be very overlooked. He is so versatile, he’s so creative, and he’s so quick. We spent two days in Ibiza, and we recorded guitar on seven different songs. We did it all in two days. It was absolutely incredible. He’s so inspiring to work with. I got the idea about the approach I ought to take for “Paint It, Black” when we were working with him.
How did you reconnect with Warren again?
When we decided to do “Love Voodoo,” it would not have been right for us to put anybody else on that track but Warren. We chatted on the phone and sent the track over. Unfortunately, we were not in the same room as Warren [when he recorded]. Nobody was; he did his stuff remotely. And we got back what we got back, which is extraordinary. I love that track. Of the old Duran Duran tracks that we’ve redone, that one and “Night Boat” would be my favorites.
Why “Night Boat”?
It was always a great opening track. When we first recorded it for our first album, that was the song that we always used to open our shows with. When we did the Halloween show, that’s what we opened with. So that was definitely one of the old Duran Duran tunes we wanted to re-record, and Nick came up with this absolutely incredible new chord scheme for it that just made it so different from the original. It was very, very exciting.
The other reunion we haven’t talked about yet is with Nile Rodgers.
It’s never really a reunion with Nile, it’s a continuation.
What is it about Nile and Duran Duran that always clicked?
Whatever he does, Nile has a big impact, even if it’s coming in for one song. It affects the whole album because he brings so much energy, enthusiasm, and confidence as well. It really took off when we were working with Nile. He often says that “Duran Duran is my second band.” We are family.
Getting back to talking about Andy Taylor, do you see him rejoining the band for concerts?
The space is there if he wants to do it. Obviously, he’s got his health to take care of. Nobody’s going to put any pressure on him. I would love to be onstage with him again.
He told Rolling Stone that it was up to the band.
Yeah. We’ll have to work that one out.
Another thing he said is that he’d love to play Rio all the way straight through. Is that something that would appeal to you?
The whole album? Yeah, that does appeal to me, actually. That’s a great idea.
Have you thought about what you want to do next, after Halloween? Would you want to revisit the album Reportage that the band abandoned after Andy left in 2006 — with Andy?
This one has definitely come back into the forefront since Danse Macabre was finished. It’s like, “What are we going to do next? Are we going to go back and do another studio album like we usually do? Or is there anything else we could pull out?” And on that album, there are some extraordinary songs, really extraordinary material. I think it would only be right for us to do that next. There’s already a plan in place for us to see if we can bring that one back to life.