Duran Duran: Celebration, Sadness and Paper Gods

Music Features Duran Duran
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As people, outgoing, peacock-showy vocalist Simon Le Bon and retiring, soft-spoken keyboardist Nick Rhodes could not be more different. In fact, after talking separately to these founding members of the long-lived British outfit Duran Duran—which formed in 1978 and outlasted both the New Romantic and New Wave movements to win Grammys, Brits, an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award, even a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—they seem like such polar opposites, it’s hard to believe that they’re in the same band and returning for a revitalized new Mark Ronson/Josh Blair-assisted release called Paper Gods, their 14th. But when they come together musically, as on one exemplary album track, “Last Night in the City,” it’s pure visceral magic—a seamless, singular vision that’s as thumping as it is thoughtful.

The majestic number opens with the sleek stylings of Canadian dance-pop diva Kiesza, intoning, “I’m not gonna sleep tonight/ Till the morning fills the sky/ No one’s getting left behind/ This is our time.” Then the undulating, serpentine synthesizers of Rhodes create a textural, stratospheric haze, from which Le Bon looks down to almost operatically observe, “We’re gonna live this night live it like it’s our last night/ ‘Cause nobody cares and there’s no tomorrow…we’re gonna live this night like it’s our last night in the city.” It’s a rare feat—the song manages to capture, both sonically and lyrically, the mixture of celebration and sadness a tourist might experience on their final evening in some exotic locale and that party-till-dawn, one-last-hurrah urgency such feelings entail.

Naturally, the two musicians approached “Last Night in the City” from different aesthetic angles, before finding themselves—as always—on the same panoramic page. “That’s one of Nick’s great ideas, that song,” enthuses Le Bon, 56. “The way we work is, a lot of the times I won’t have an idea in my head at all, and they [Rhodes, bassist John Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor] will throw titles at me, and something will click. And that’s one that clicked when Nick threw the title at me, and it’s a very universal thing, isn’t it? That thing that people do on their last night. Although,” he admits, “I was thinking more in terms of ‘It’s our last show in the city’—it’s got a strong stage element in the lyric. But really, it could be anything.”

Rhodes, 53, has his own view of the cut’s genesis. But, for his part, he thinks he nailed it. “I’m really pleased with that one, because it was just a title that I had written down,” he explains. “I have a little notebook, and if I ever think of a title, I scribble it down. And now I sometimes put them into my phone, too, but I always transfer them into writing for fear of my phone crashing. But ‘Last Night’ had been there for several months, and I throw these things at Simon to see if it gets any reaction.” Le Bon took immediate notice of this one. “Because anyone who’s ever traveled knows what that feeling is—you want that energy and that excitement, but equally, it’s often very sad to leave. So trying to get that into the song was the key.”

The song morphed through several versions, but finally gelled with the addition of Kiesza; Duran Duran’s attitude this time around was anything goes, and they invited as many guest artists as they wanted, like Mr. Hudson (on the monastic title track), Mew’s Jonas Bjerre (for the bubbly “Change the Skyline,” another title suggested by Rhodes), and the Chic-funky ‘80s throwback “Pressure Off,” featuring Janelle Monae and, of course, Chic’s Nile Rodgers). “Kiesza has such brilliant energy,” Rhodes notes. “And I think her voice has given ‘Last Night’ a completely different color against Simon’s.” Or, as Le Bon bluntly puts it, “Kiesza is a bloody good singer. What she can do with her voice is fantastic, and we were so excited when she said that she would make an appearance on our album. God, the talent! We’ve got some really good talent on this album.”

While Le Bon—ever since definitive early anthems like “Girls on Film” and “Hungry Like the Wolf”—loves focusing on the intricate poetic details of Duran Duran material, Rhodes enjoys seeing the bigger picture. “What we always go for is a balance of light and dark,” he says. “And sometimes we get it better than others. But this album is pretty good like that.” He points to the closing Paper Gods dirge “The Universe Alone” for proof, which starts on his simple piano chords but quickly segues into a jittery, swamp-dense arrangement, with Le Bon essentially reading his own obituary: “It’s beautiful, the dying sun/ The end of everything and everyone.”

“That song, for me, is like our ‘My Way,’ and I think it’s the thought about, ‘Well, yeah—we all come to an end, eventually,’” he says. And he goes on to discuss his theory that artificial intelligence, as seen in the futuristic film Ex Machina, will—a la Kurzweil’s Singularity theory—one day match, then outpace humanity’s. “I don’t know how long it will realistically take before we do live amongst cyborgs,” he says, with an Orwellian authority. “But there’s no question now that robotics is so advanced, and if you think what’s probably deep inside the secret labs in Tokyo and I’m sure at MIT, it’s moved a lot faster than we could have ever imagined, just recently.”

And Rhodes is well-acquainted with science. Not too long ago, he was seated on a plane next to a Regis professor from the Imperial College in London, who began telling him about a microchip technology he had invented that could read single or multiple human genes in a brief 30 minutes. He wanted to apply it to the beauty and fashion world, he said, but he didn’t know how. His fellow passenger did. Rhodes helped him create an anti-aging product dubbed Gene U, which now has a posh store on London’s Bond Street, overseeing the design of the logo, the product packaging, the shop itself, and even the hip uniforms its cosmeticians wear to work. His theory about our Botox/facelift-obsessed society? “The less invasive, the better,” he says. “Wouldn’t you rather have a little DNA test that will tell you precisely what’s going on with your genes? I think we’ve created a fantastic product, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops over the next few years.”

Conversely, the less-bookish Le Bon is more interested in the rugged outdoors. For years, he’s been an avid sailor, often competing in races on his yacht Drum—one of which nearly ended in tragedy in 1985, when the boat capsized during a Fastnet competition, trapping the crew underwater for 40-some minutes. Which were not as agonizing as you would think, the vocalist reveals. “The time went extraordinarily fast, it went by in a flash. Because your mind goes into a different kind of mode, it goes into survival mode, and you don’t panic—you become very rational and very calm and very practical and pragmatic. So that’s what we did. We pulled a guy out who was drowning at the back and then communicated with the guys outside, and it seemed like only minutes later that a diver just popped his head up through the hatch, the main companionway.”

Le Bon, who also enjoys riding his several motorcycles, did race Drum again, but later sold her. Now he rents various-sized crafts instead and hits the ocean whenever possible. “It’s just immensely satisfying when you use the elements to propel yourself,” he purrs. “It really is an amazing feeling and, as all sailors will tell you, you don’t get the wind to move the boat—you get the sails to pull the world towards you. And sailing is so different from what I do in the band that I really enjoy it, because I get to exercise a very different skill. A physical skill that you learn. But I like trying different things out, so the next thing would be to try and fly helicopters or something like that.” He considers the concept for a minute, and the high mortality rate, then thinks better of it. “It’s a bit scary, though, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll just leave it as a little fantasy, then.”

After his near-death experience, Le Bon felt transformed. Almost fearless. Nothing really rattles him anymore, he swears, not even the recording of a new Duran Duran album. And he’s acutely aware of audience expectation. In 2006, after the departure of on-again, off-again guitarist Andy Taylor, the group scrapped an album they’d finished with him called Reportage and cut an entire new disc instead, Red Carpet Massacre, which the fans hated, he admits. So they took great care perfecting their next one—2010’s Mark Ronson-produced All You Need is Now—and topped the charts again, at home and in the States. They followed the same prime directive for Paper Gods, their first for Warner Brothers. “It’s funny though, isn’t it?” he says. “You go in to make an album and you’re at a stage in your career where you cannot just come up with any old shit—it’s pretty much got to be the best album you ever made, for anybody to pay attention, for your fans to even like it. And you can’t make the same album twice—you’ve got to move on. And we weren’t really sure where we were going to go.”

Again, Le Bon and Rhodes found themselves in cohesive cahoots. “We got to the studio, and Nick said, ‘I fancy being a bit more dance,’” the frontman recalls. “And that’s a very attractive proposition to us, doing dance music, because there’s nothing more fun if you’re in a band than having sexy chicks move their bodies to your music. That’s about the pinnacle. So I just thought, ‘Yeah! Let’s make that kind of album! Let’s make the kind of album that’s going to get people dancing!’ I mean, I love guys who get into the band, as well, but the girls are the ones who always get everybody dancing. Not the guys.”

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