NAME: Duran Duran
PROGRESS REPORT: Pop icons chat up the release of new Mark Ronson-produced record, All You Need Is Now.
Even if you were born in the 80’s (rather than having lived through it while wearing neon tank tops and jelly bracelets, like some of us geezers did) chances are that you still know at least one or two Duran Duran songs by heart. Any pop band that manages to sell over 80 million records around the globe will inevitably have a long cultural reach, even to those who couldn’t care less about what a bunch of middle-aged English fops four decades deep into their career might happen to be doing in 2011. So, you might have heard that Duran Duran have a new record out this spring called All You Need Is Now AND you might also have heard that it was produced by Mark Ronson, a man with a knack for reinvigorating familiar pop tropes and making them seem awesome all over again. (Please revisit his stellar Boy George reinvention single, “Somebody to Love” to be reminded of what a deft touch he has in this arena). Since this new Duran Duran record is being pushed hard as a return to the band’s pop-tastic glory days (a.k.a. the Rio days), the band has been everywhere in the past two weeks talking about it. (Just prior to the writing of this paragraph, I watched the band suffer through a litany brainless questions at the hands of Kathy Lee Gifford on the Today show, in this week’s issue of New York the band hang out at the New Museum discussing the “anussy” work of Clunie Reid, the young artist who designed the artwork for their new record.) Still, regardless of what you think of Duran Duran or how you feel about the group’s ever-shifting lineup or sometimes spotty musical output over the past two decades, there is no denying that they are true icons of pop music. Not only have they made some of the most influential and popular pop music of all time, they also basically turned music videos into their own, stand-alone art form. All of this — along with the fact that they are smart, charming guys—make them fun to sit down and share cookies and tea with on a random weekday afternoon.
Duran Duran have described their new album as a kind of psychic follow up to 1982’s Rio (and pretending that the intervening 29 years never happened), and it is without a doubt the freshest sounding record the band has released in over a decade. According to band members Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes, the experience of working with Mark Ronson — and finally playing up to their obvious strengths as a pop band — proved to be a career-defining experience.
“Originally we were only going to have Mark produce a couple of songs for the record,” explains Le Bon, “But he really wanted to do the whole album, which ultimately worked out well for everybody. He’s as good as anybody we’ve ever worked with and he has a vast musical knowledge. He turned us on to all sorts of new things, which was very exciting. It was a tough record to make, though. Writing the lyrics was quite hard for me this time. It couldn’t just be any old gobbledygook. We also allowed certain little mistakes to stay on the record, which makes it sound more human and alive.”
“Mark wanted everything to be organic,” says Rhodes, “Everything was basically recorded onto tape. All analog synths. He sat in on every session, every second of recording. We talked at great length about what the record was going to be before we ever started and he had a vision for what he wanted things to sound like. Our last record was produced by Timbaland–which was a great experience–but Mark’s way of working was completely the opposite. I’d say this is the most meticulous album we’ve ever made, but it was also somehow the most natural. It felt very much like the early days of Duran Duran where it would just be all of us in a room slaving away for hours until it was done. It felt very intimate.”
The new Duran Duran album might be musical return to form, but it’s also a literal return to form as well. For the first time in years, the band is playing with all four of its original members. For superfans, this is a moment long in the making. For the band, it was simply a matter of timing and what appears to be a general movement to shrug off some past baggage.
“At the moment, the dynamic between all of us is as good as it’s ever been,” says Rhodes. “Mostly it’s because we’re all so excited about the new material. We’re a good live band, mostly because we’ve been doing it for so long. From our point of view, things have really come into focus more. The shows we play now are much better than the shows we were playing 20 years ago, even though people might not always remember it that way.”
“It was surprisingly easy to get us all back together,” says Le Bon, “It was simply a matter of everyone being ready and able. It was a couple of phone calls, basically.”
It would be easy to talk to Simon and Nick for hours about Duran Duran’s history. And it’s interesting to note that the band members have never quite seen themselves in the same way as the public might choose to. Before the band became the lust object of every teen girl (and some boys) in the known universe back in the early ’80s, they were a struggling new wave band with mostly artistic aspirations.
“It’s the principal dichotomy of Duran Duran,” says Le Bon, “When we started out, I remember that John would say things like ‘I really want us to be #1,’ which I thought was just impossible. I thought our songs were too out there, too odd. Ultimately, I guess the people who really liked our image — mostly young women, at the time — also had very open minds about music. People that got into us, even if they originally got into us for our looks, often really went deep into the band. The connection people felt with the music was really profound, which was amazing and surprising, even to us.”
“Once the teen hysteria started to happen, people got a really strange idea about us,” says Rhodes, “Male rock critics hated us. They felt like what we were doing clearly wasn’t for them. You know, I had grown up listening to John Peel’s radio show and following all of these bands that were really pushing music in all these weird directions. We blew up so big so fast that we were really separated from that world, in a way. I would have loved to do a Peel Session, but we were already too far down the line by that point. We were already being chased by crowds of kids.”
It’s hard for bands to grow old gracefully, which is a fact that the members of Duran Duran are more than aware of because, as Le Bon points out, they are reminded of it constantly. Most of the band’s ’80s contemporaries no longer exist and the ones who are still around and playing shows have largely been relegated to the ranks of nostalgia acts. It’s a fate that both Le Bon and Rhodes have spent considerable effort hoping to avoid. Still, despite the hyped-up new album and their seemingly ever-renewable fanbase, the boys have no qualms about going out and playing the hits on their forthcoming 2011 world tour.
“Frank Sinatra said that if you make at least one great song, there will always be people who want to come out and see you,” says Rhodes, “And if you could make more than one great song, or a few of them, you’ll always have a career. I actually feel that having the amount of popular songs that we do — that people really love — is amazing. It’s great to know that when you play those certain songs — when the first notes start and people realize what the song is — that you can generate this instantaneous happiness in them. I feel very blessed to still be making new music with people I enjoy and admire, but I’ll always be happy to play those old songs. Our fans have supplied us with a very good life, they deserve to hear the songs that they love.”
All You Need is Now is available now on iTunes. An extended physical version of the album will be available in February.