We’ve Got A File On You: Simon Le Bon

John Swannell

We’ve Got A File On You: Simon Le Bon

John Swannell

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Now over four decades into their career, the new wave greats Duran Duran are still going strong. It’s been a while between albums — their last, Paper Gods, arrived in 2015. But now the group is back with Future Past, and like Paper Gods before it, the album not only finds Duran Duran managing to blend trademark elements of their classic sound with more contemporary dispositions, it also features a host of impressive and interesting collaborations.

At the helm of Duran Duran has always, of course, been Simon Le Bon. On the occasion of Duran Duran’s new album, we called up Le Bon to talk about odds and ends and chapters from across the last 40 years. Throughout, Le Bon was funny and animated — and also remarkably candid about certain high and low points in Duran Duran’s trajectory. The conversation spanned Bond themes and Pavarotti and side projects and many other twists and turns. Read it below.

Future Past (2021)

There have been some interesting collaborations on other Duran Duran albums, and that was no different with Future Past — a major one being that you had CHAI on “More Joy!” You also did a song with Charli XCX in 2014, and you’ve worked with Mark Ronson. What is it about these younger artists that you gravitate towards to the point where you want to bring them into your world or be a part of their world?

SIMON LE BON: Nobody likes rejection. If I called up Elton John, “Hey do you fancy a collaboration with Duran Duran?” and he said, “No,” I’d feel very rejected. I think with a lot of younger artists, we have some currency. I think the chance of rejection is less. You know, not everybody says yes — but let’s talk about CHAI. That’s a very good one. I’ve got a radio show on SiriusXM once a week. I gravitated towards new alternative indie or alternative R&B generally. It’s not the only music I play, but it’s what I like. I particularly like the kind of — well, it’s called post-punk, but I got really into the Irish scene. Fontaines D.C., Clockworks, Sinead O’Brien, who I think is amazing. Sprints. There’s a very strong scene coming out of there. Somehow in my musical meanderings on Spotify, Bandcamp, and SoundCloud, I came across this all-girl Japanese band called CHAI. There’s a track I played on one of my shows, “N.E.O.” I think it’s just fantastic. There’s some kind of energy and fun that’s going on with all of that.

Anyway, we had this track on the new album called “More Joy!” I think it was in the danger pile, and by that I mean in danger of not making it on the album. Nick [Rhodes] said to me, “I really want us to get this song on the album,” and I said, “I’ve been listening to this incredible all-girl Japanese punk band called CHAI, and maybe they’d be up for it.” I got in contact with my partner in an initiative called SYN based in Tokyo, and he said he’d get in touch with them. He made the connection, and they were really up for it. We just took it from there. In Japan, what do you do with collaboration? You have to pay the artists. It’s very important. It’s considered the proper thing to do. So we paid them. They came down from Nagoya, where they’re based, and recorded in the SYN studio in Tokyo. The result is on the record. We’re all really happy with it.

Duran Duran Writing The Bond Theme For A View To A Kill (1985)

Obviously there’s a new Bond movie out. Have you been thinking about the themes from the recent movies?

LE BON: I’ve not seen the new movie. I’m looking forward to seeing it. Now, the first thing I’ve got to say is I love the Billie Eilish song. I think it’s one of the best Bond themes I’ve ever heard. I particularly like the way the major chord comes in and there’s a little hint of a minor note underneath it, and at times you’re not sure if it’s meant to be a major or a minor. I would say it’s not meant to be either. It’s meant to be both. It’s a very unsettling discord. It addressed the very foundation of the harmonic structure: Is this in a major key, or is it in a minor key? You rarely find that kind of ambiguity in music, because it is so unsettling. I think it’s used very bravely and wisely and wonderfully in that song.

The way the story goes about your theme was that John Taylor approached Albert Broccoli at a party and said, “Why don’t you get someone decent to do one of your theme songs?”

LE BON: Then a couple days later we got an invitation. That’s exactly what happened. You’ve got it. You’ve told the story. That really is the story, yeah.

What was the difference between sitting down to write a Duran Duran track and sitting down to do that, but for a Bond movie?

LE BON: Well, for one thing, it started with the title. That doesn’t often happen with Duran Duran writing. It has done with a few songs, but on the whole it tends to be music first, then melody, then phrase. It can be in the chorus, it can be in the verse. But with “A View To A Kill,” we had the title and very much wanted to include in the chorus as well. But I actually managed to get it in the first line. Nick started playing these chords. I started humming around. We were in some dressing room. I just came up with the line, [sings] “Meeting you/ With a view/ To a kill.” We kind of looked at each other like, “Oh, I think we’re on to something there.” We wrote the rest of the song and John Barry came along and said, “Well I don’t like that,” and “I don’t like that,” and we said “Tough, you’re going to have to live with it.”

“Notorious” Getting Sampled In Notorious B.I.G.’s Posthumous Song “Notorious B.I.G.” (2000)

LE BON: I remember very much that it was sampled. I remember very much we didn’t get paid for it for a long time until we took out a lawsuit. We had to do that in order to get paid for it. I thought it was very interesting, ours was “No-no-notorious, notorious,” and on that record it went, “No-no-notorious, notorious, notorious.” One extra “notorious.” That’s not worth the publishing!

Were you a fan of where rap was going through the second half of the ’90s, like was it cool to hear your song used in this context?

LE BON: Oh, fuck yeah! Absolutely! There’s nothing cooler for a bunch of middle-class white boys to hear you’ve been sampled on a seriously hardcore rap song by a seriously hardcore rap artist. No, that was amazing. Really amazing.

“Notorious” Appearing In Donnie Darko (2001)

The next year, the song was also used in Donnie Darko, which famously has this very ’80s soundtrack. That soundtrack turned 20 this year, and you can now look at it as a turning point in the ’00s, where the ’80s became a hip touchstone again — and it hasn’t really gone away ever since.

LE BON: You mean the ‘80s? The ’80s haven’t gone away?

Right, well cycles of nostalgia in general, but yes particularly the ’80s.

LE BON: Oh my god, shoulder pads are so much fun!

[Laughs] Maybe not that.

LE BON: Well, there’s a bit of that.

Do you remember seeing Donnie Darko back then?

LE BON: Oh, yeah. It was such a strange film. The rabbit. I do remember at the time… I was so excited to be included on that film. That was at a time when Duran Duran seemed to have very, very low currency. We seemed to be quite uncool at that time. It was the very beginning of that decade. We’d ended the ’90s at a bit of a low point I think. I think [Donnie Darko] happened just as we were getting together the reunion of the original five members. I think it added to the feeling that our time was coming ’round again. A feeling that was very much added to when we heard Franz Ferdinand and bands like that, who suddenly, suddenly found the ’80s very cool and very inspiring. We thought, “Yeah, we’re part of that, and we’d like some of the attention as well.”

So you could feel a sea change happening there around that time?

LE BON: When you say “sea change,” it sounds like it happened quite fast. I think it was a very gradual awareness that this stuff was becoming cool again. And then really weird as well — Donnie Darko picked on that song, and not “Girls On Film,” “Hungry Like The Wolf” type stuff, which had always sort of been there, popular, even when it was dead uncool.

The Wedding Album (1993) And Singing “Ordinary World” With Pavarotti (1996)

This idea you ended the ’90s at a low ebb… That’s always a very interesting decade to me for new wave bands. There’s other eras where bands could move with the times in a way, like a band from the late ’60s could grow into glam rock or hard rock in the early ’70s. But there’s a thing from new wave to grunge or Britpop where there’s more of a hard stop, right?

LE BON: Yeah, I think so.

The thing about Duran Duran, though, is you put out The Wedding Album in 1993. As much as something like “Rio” or “Hungry Like The Wolf” are these definitive ’80s songs, I feel like you guys had also adapted to the early ’90s. Songs like “Ordinary World” or “Come Undone” also feel very of their time — the melodic sensibility, the production sensibility. They were in tune with new sounds.

LE BON: We were slightly in denial about what had happened to the band, about the decline of the band. I think in the back of our minds we all knew it was going on. You don’t really go into the studio thinking, “Oh, I’ve got to make something that fits into the music now.” I think a good song, like the actual songwriting — you said you thought the melody was quite ’90s, which I find interesting. More “Come Undone,” I think. It’s got something, yes it is, I know what you mean by that actually — it’s quite different from our earlier stuff.

But “Ordinary World,” that had something different from music generally. In the chorus, there’s this phrase that joins two chords together. That second phrase that bridges two parts — normally you finish the line and take a breath and start again, but for some reason I just thought I could join the two bits together. That, I think, is one of the little things about that song which is quite unique, or certainly you don’t hear very much. I think it’s one of the things that made people’s ears prick up when they heard it, and I think it’s one of the things that helped make it popular.

You sang that with Pavarotti a few years later.

LE BON: Oh yes, in 1996. I went onstage in Modena to do Pavarotti & Friends. I sang a duet with the lovely Dolores O’Riordan, I sang “Linger.” I also did a duet with Luciano Pavarotti. We got this bit in “Ordinary World,” “Papers in the roadside tell of suffering and greed.” I sang that, and after I finished “suffering and greed,” he goes, “SUUU-FFERING AND GREEEEED.” And I go, “Oh, fuck! And that was my idea!” I thought, “That sounded terrible, and it was my idea.” I felt completely responsible and guilty about that. To this day I still sometimes hear him singing that in my dreams. “SUUU-FFERING AND GREEEED.” He had that kind of pitching that goes all over the place but the wave depth of his vibrato is so great, it doesn’t really matter. It was fucking amazing.

Duran Duran’s Covers Album Thank You (1995) And Medazzaland (1997)

So obviously you have The Wedding Album and then later in the ’90s you have the covers album Thank You and Medazzaland, which was is kind of part of that electronica moment. How do you look back on that general arc through the decade?

LE BON: It was very much our nadir. How did we start? We did Liberty at the beginning of the decade. It felt like, “Ohhh god, that was a bit of a lead balloon.” Then we went in and did The Wedding Album under completely different circumstances. That’s a strong album. The songs had a life. They were strong enough and concentrated enough in their energy and passion to create a musical gravity, and that made the other songs around them stronger as well. That never happened on Liberty. We were struggling. All the good ideas got smoothed out — what was it, “All Along The Water”? There were things I thought were cool and different and John would come in and normalize it, by taking away half the verse or something. But you find something to love about these things, even if they’re not your favorites. Always, always.

Let’s think. Then we did The Wedding Album and that was like, “Wow, really? That came out of us at this time?” I think it’s because we were very un-self-conscious about the whole thing. We just let the music take over, which is really the best way for any album. You should really let the music win. Never try and constrain it, control it, or force it into any direction you think is a good direction. Let the music win. Then after that we did Thank You. I think we were so cocky with the success of The Wedding Album, we thought, “Oh we can do anything now!”

I honestly think we weren’t very smart about doing cover versions. Instead of doing what people usually do with cover versions, which is find obscure songs in people’s catalogues and do versions of them that bring attention to those songs, we picked the fans’ favorites of all those artists! We picked “Success” by Iggy Pop. We picked “Thank You” by Led Zeppelin. We picked “Watching The Detectives.” We were basically opening ourselves up to huge criticism and ridicule. I think it was just a bit of a mistake. However, I also think there’s some really beautiful moments on there. I do love our version of “Perfect Day.” I’ve heard so many versions of that song and I still think ours is one of the best. As did… Lou Reed. Part of the other problem with that album was we were so faithful to the originals. We were in awe of them. Warren [Cuccurullo] would have almost done facsimiles. He’d be like, “But that’s the way it’s supposed to sound!” Which in a way is right. But that kind of defeats the object of doing a covers album.

Wait, now you have to tell me what Lou Reed told you.

LE BON: As part of the EPK, the promotion, we interviewed all the artists who we covered. Even Jimmy Page, he was like, “Who would’ve believed it? Duran Duran doing a decent version of a Zeppelin song, I really like it!” Lou Reed was the most complimentary of all. He said, “I think it’s the best cover by anybody of a Lou Reed song, ever.” We’ll take that. We’ll frame it and we’ll stick it up on the wall.

Then we did Medazzaland. I think you can tell what sort of record it is when you look at the cover. Andrew Day, a lovely guy and an artist who does graphics and things, he basically got very iconic Duran Duran images and scribbled on them, drew mustaches and funny mouths on them. He made us look ugly — uglier. It’s a noisy album. I find it quite difficult to listen to. That was the reign of Nick and Warren, really. It was when they were coming into their power as a duo. Which kind of ended up in me being excluded, to be honest with you. I don’t think it was a conscious thing of theirs. I mean, it had some really good stuff on it. What’s on that record that’s good?

I like “Electric Barbarella.”

LE BON: “Electric Barbarella,” see I thought that was a great piece of music but I thought it was a crap lyric, to be honest with you. [Whispers conspiratorially] That’s one I didn’t write, you see. “So Long Suicide,” that’s a good song. But I think it was mangled and butchered in the mix. Let’s move on.

Arcadia’s So Red The Rose (1985)

This happened when the band split into two and started other projects, with you and Nick forming Arcadia. There’s this quote floating around the internet I can’t find a source for, where you supposedly called this the “most pretentious” album ever made.

LE BON: I called it? Me?

Well I saw the quote a few places but I don’t know where it supposedly originated.

LE BON: No, I wouldn’t. Definitely the most expensive. Maybe somebody misheard somebody saying “the most expensive.” We went up sticks and moved to Paris. We were in a studio which I guarantee was, at the time, the most expensive studio in the world, and we were there for six months on a writing and recording session. Phil Thornalley, he was the engineer — he just bailed out after a week of me and Nick going, “Hmm, that sounds good, OK, let’s try that, hmm, sounds quite good.” It was quite slow-going in the beginning. Phil left a message, he’d gone and he wasn’t coming back.

You know, it was a different pace. I think we really enjoyed being in Paris. I remember Nick’s wife coming round to my apartment and going, “Goddamnit Simon! Get the fucking lyrics finished, I gotta get out of this town!” [Laughs] “You’re making my husband crazy!” I said, “Oh, God, shut up.” It was a trip. And I was very slow with the lyrics. But, you know, it’s very hard when you’re on your own. I wasn’t getting any help from anybody. Then amazing things happened — like the people on it.

I was going to bring that up next: Herbie Hancock, Grace Jones, Sting. Were these just people passing through Paris?

LE BON: Yeah, some were. Carlos Alomar, Steve Jordan. Sting! God, when I think about it, it was extraordinary. Funny enough, we noticed how good Sting and I sounded together when we did Band-Aid. That was what drove that. I mean, we got anybody. Herbie Hancock came to play a concert, we got a message to him, “Would you fancy being on a record?” and he was like, “Yeah! Abso-fucking-lutely!” It was a fantastic time. The funny thing was the actual record itself was never going to quite match the experience of making it. Whatever we made. But it had some wonderful things on it.

Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (1984)

LE BON: I was the first or second person Bob [Geldof] called up to see if I’d do it. I went along to the writing session, when him and Midge [Ure] were writing the thing. I sang loads of it, laid loads of it down as a demo. I thought I was going to sing most of the verses. I thought, “All these rockstars turned up at the studio, I wonder what they’re going to do. Because I’m singing the verses.” [Laughs]

We all sat around a piano and Trevor Horn gave us our lines, and I was quite mortified to begin with. We sang around the piano, and Bono sang that line [sings dramatically] “Well thank God tonight it’s them instead of you!” Right? He sang that line, and everything just stopped. Trevor stopped playing the piano and said, “Jesus, what a voice.” It was amazing. Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt from Status Quo, they couldn’t fucking stop giggling when they were recording. They got a fit of the substance-induced giggles, it was so funny. Stuff went on. There were some really weird situations in there between rockers. It wouldn’t be right of me to name names, so I won’t! None of us really had any idea of what the ramifications would be for the whole of the music industry and whole subject of fundraising going forward. I’m very proud to be part of that, I have to say.

Working With Nile Rodgers, From “The Reflex” Remix (1983) To Paper Gods (2015)

LE BON: We heard INXS’ single “Original Sin,” and we just played it again and again and again. We just loved the production on it. It wasn’t particularly identifiably Nile Rodgers. We decided to send “The Reflex” over for a remix. The album version is quite different from the version that’s renowned. We got back this thing that went “fle-fle-fle-fle-flex!” Wow. This is amazing. It sounds like somebody scratching.

We got to work with Nile again on Notorious, when he stepped in as guitar player when Andy Taylor stepped away. He’s such a great guy to work with. So nice and funny, and has stories and loves music and he loves your music when he’s working on your music. He gets in there and he plays guitar and you hear this and you think, “Oh, God, yes, I’ve got a melody for that!” He makes it happen quickly. Don’t fuck around. That was a relatively quick record for us, Notorious. We’d been in litigation meeting in one room talking about Andy Taylor and stuff and what was happening on that level, and then Nile would be in the other room coming in like, “Come on boys, time to get in the studio and make some music!” And we did.

Duran Duran’s 40th Anniversary

The new album has a song called “Anniversary,” with the band having technically hit the your 40-year mark last year.

LE BON: We’re going to stick at 40, we’ve decided. We thought: Forty years, this is amazing! We need to celebrate this! We need to get out there and party and have a good time and let everybody know… and let everybody know… and, oh my god, we’re 40 years old. Fuck, that sounds old for a band. Don’t tell anybody! Don’t tell anybody! Don’t remind everybody. Too late, you’ve already done it.

I tried to find the earliest Duran Duran interview on YouTube, and there’s one that claims to be the oldest known interview, where you’re all standing on a street in London—

LE BON: I know the interview you’re talking about.

You can see the band still formulating its identity. There was an interesting thing, you guys were defining yourselves as a group that was about entertainment, escapism, having a good time — against the idea that punk and rock had been so political for several years. You were saying, people were bored of it.

LE BON: Well, since punk ended. We were talking about the post-punk movement.

You were saying earlier, you now have some currency with younger artists. I’m curious what you think about looking back to an early interview like that, what you were saying, and then knowing what the band’s reputation became in the following years.

LE BON: I don’t think any of us expected to be embraced by teenage females quite as much as we were. That was a surprise. That was a shock. I think that really effected the way that guys looked at the band as well. Nothing is more unpopular in the UK than a guy who’s popular with women. [Laughs]

Honestly. I don’t know. You don’t spend a lot of your time trying to figure out what other people think of you. You’ve got so much to do. So much to get on with. It’s kind of irrelevant. The last thing you want to do as a performer is end up standing outside of yourself looking in. Because that’s the fastest route to being self-conscious there is. It’s always better to be inside of yourself throwing something out to the crowd and see what they come back with. Whatever the people write about the band… they still write about us. Whether it’s good or bad. There was a time when it was horrible. But there was actually a satisfaction [to that], that nobody could say anything without citing Duran Duran, even if it was in a negative way. We were in almost every article that was written about almost any artist at the time. That, in itself, was a success.

We carry on, you know. Not just because we’ve got a point to make with the band. We’ve made great music. We love the music that we make together. We get the same thrill, when we discover that new bassline or that melody or that beat or those keyboards. We get the same thrill of creation that we got 40 years ago.

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