Simon Le Bon: Why Duran Duran Never Complains
Only Duran Duran can get away with a seven-minute title track that offers electro grooves, hand-waving harmonies, and upbeat lyrics about the world going to hell in a handbasket. Welcome to the party that is Paper Gods. The Brit band that gave us its eponymous first album in 1981 now gives us not only the always-excellent combination of lead singer Simon Le Bon, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor, and drummer Roger Taylor, but also stellar collaborations on their new album, including a moving ballad, “What Are the Chances?” with a wiry solo by former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, and the synth-happy “Change the Skyline,” featuring singer Jonas Bjerre of Danish rock band Mew. Paper Gods also features Janelle Monáe, Nile Rodgers, Kiesza, and Lindsay Lohan, but its relevance lies more in its optimistic mood than its star power. ORIGIN caught up with Simon Le Bon to find out more.
Kristi York Wooten: What was it like working on Paper Gods with producer Mr. Hudson, a Kanye West and Jay-Z collaborator who hails from your home turf of Birmingham, England? He was in diapers when you recorded “Girls on Film” thirty-four years ago.
Simon Le Bon: Ben Hudson gave us a huge amount of confidence. When I listen to Paper Gods, what I hear is space. He gave us the confidence to use quiet as a sound.
KYW: Speaking of sound, Roger said that Paper Gods harks back to an earlier sound in your career and that your funky, Nile Rodgers-produced 1986 album, Notorious, was used as a starting point for the new songs.
SLB: I don’t tend to think of Paper Gods as looking back to another album. We wanted to make a sexy dance record. We wanted this album to have danceability, because there’s nothing better than having girls dancing to your music. I think it’s the most satisfying, wonderful feedback that there will ever be for us in this world. It’s always great when Roger and John get a beat really locked in; everything seems to fall in place. It’s fun making dance records.
KYW: You’re one of the only bands who never complained about the transition of the music industry from the old ways to the new digital world.
SLB: Complaining doesn’t make a difference; it’s useless and it’s wasted energy. We’re very pragmatic. Our time is best spent figuring out how to work within the new framework. That’s just our basic philosophy. And also, I think Duran Duran has always tried to exploit change. When we started, we learned how important video was, and we really exploited the new technology. Throughout our career we’ve used that kind of approach to everything.
“Ambition is a funny thing. You can completely screw yourself with it if you’re not careful.”
KYW: You and Nick Rhodes are the only members of Duran Duran who have not left the band at some point. Original guitarist Andy Taylor left in 1986, returned in 2001, and left again in 2006. Roger and John have had spells outside the band as well. The group has weathered several lineup changes, but four of the five original members are playing together on Paper Gods, your fourteenth album. You’ve known each other for more than three decades. You must have a strong bond.
SLB: The years we spent apart have made us really appreciate each other, not just as players and as people to work with, but as friends. It was so wonderful when we all got back together in 2001. And it’s really a shame that Andy is not [in the band], but it just wasn’t working. Apart from that, we do trust each other and we trust each other musically. I think it’s important when you make a record that you know you’re working with the people who are going to get the best out of you. I think that’s how I feel about them. Nobody pushes me like Nick does—nobody. He really, really pushes me hard. But then John does, too. Roger is different; Roger gives me solace. [Laughs]
KYW: Paper Gods in some ways feels like a modern record by a solo artist—everybody’s playing as one entity. And then you’ve got collaborators like Janelle Monáe, Lindsay Lohan, and Jonas Bjerre, who sings on “Change the Skyline.”
SLB: Yes, Jonas is such a lovely singer. His voice sounds like the cream on top of a cup of coffee. We’ve never done an album of collaborations before. It’s the first time for us. It may be the only time. I think we’ve got good timing as a band. We timed this record well in many ways—not just by putting it out now, when there’s a bit of a hunger for Duran Duran… but also because we made the decision when we started that we weren’t going to put a deadline on it. We basically made the record and then took it to a record company to see if we could get ourselves a deal. The timing just worked perfectly. There’s a rhythm going on in the background of this band. There’s a solid kind of tick that’s happening—a heartbeat.
KYW: Where do you go from here, with your personal goals or your goals as a band?
SLB: Ambition is a funny thing. You can completely screw yourself with it if you’re not careful. You can set unachievable goals, and you can end up missing out on your life because, in some ways, ambition is kind of living in the future. You’ve got to make sure that you make the best of the day that you’re in. You don’t really want to be always thinking about the future, always thinking about where you’re heading for. You’ve got to think about how you’re getting there. For us, it’s simple: we make an album, we want to get it into people’s minds, into their homes, into their ears, into their heads, and we want to go out and play it. The fact that we’ve done it for thirty years doesn’t make it any less interesting and exciting. We’re very happy with where we are, who we are, and what we do.
PHOTO BY STEPHANIE PISTEL