Duran Duran have been part of the pop music scene for thirty years. Recently they recorded their latest album Paper Gods in London with producers Nile Rodgers, Mark Ronson, Josh Blair, and Mr Hudson. Visceral and daring, the album mixes hard-edged, contemporary pop with the band’s darker more experimental side to create a body of work that is epic in its scope. Founding member and bass player, John Taylor spoke at length with John Goodridge of the AU review about the album.
Hi John, you must be pretty pleased with how Paper Gods has been received.
Yeah, I am actually. Have you listened to it?
I listened to a few tracks last night and I really enjoyed it. It was really getting back to the roots of Duran Duran.
Every time we make an album it’s a bit like redesigning the sound. You have to refresh the sound and we’re looking to what’s happening out there. So what do we have to keep that’s part of the classic sound and what’s out there that we can nick. For me as a bass player, that’s a big question and I’m always starting off with this very purist approach to bass guitar, that it’s got to be played and it’s got to be played live. Halfway through the album I said to Nick that I’d been looking at the top ten i-tunes tracks and there’s no bass guitar on any of them. It’s all sub-bass, it’s all synth-bass, so that was a bit of a journey, looking at the sound design of the bass. Even with the lyrics, a lyric from 1981 isn’t gonna cut it today, a lyric from 1971 isn’t gonna cut it, people are thinking slightly differently.
Everything has to be refreshed in a way but we have a pretty broad remit, we always have, without over-simplifying it, it’s sort of a rock / techno vibe…pop-rock / techno vibe if you like, and in that keyword, ‘techno’, it allows us to do anything on a synthesiser and obviously the synthesiser really controls the sound. In previous albums we learned these lessons. We did an album with Timberland that had hardly any real instruments on it at all, and then we did an album with Mark Ronson and Mark wanted all real instruments and he wanted it to sound just like they were recorded in 1982 and that led us to this album. So we thought what do we have to keep to keep our classic sound and we just sort of ploughed through our entire history but at the same time being very much with an ear to what’s out there.
I think it’s achieved just that – homage to the classic Duran Duran sound, yet it’s fresh and new.
I think we were really blessed with the participation of some extraordinary people on the album that really came from left field. I mean I’ve been a fan of Janelle Monáe since she came out and really did not expect her to want to play, but she did and she really liked “Pressure Off” and that was amazing. Kiesza, she’s like amazing! We were introduced to her as we were mixing the album and we had this song “Last Night in the City” and it was just begging for a techno diva, and who the hell was this Kiesza, but I really liked her logo and heard a couple of songs, okay, still a bit skeptical, but she came to the studio and she just completely blew us away. John Frusciante, the guitar player from the Chilli Peppers was so generous in what he gave us too, so yeah.
It’s made for a broader story, it feels very grandiose because you’re doing interviews and you’re talking about the album and you’re making it sound like it was all planned but it wasn’t. It’s like making a movie without a script, completely ad-libbing it. Our office got a call out of the blue from this guy, Mr Hudson. He’s an independent producer, he’s in London and he’d love to come and work with us for a day. We were thinking we knew him and we Googled him and oh yeah he had that hit with Jay-Z. He was from Birmingham, but I didn’t know the hell where he was from. He could have been from the deep south as far as I knew.
I didn’t go as far as You-tubing the video, so when he walked in we had no clue. But we really connected and the day he arrived we wrote a song called “You Kill Me with Silence” which kind of raised the bar on the project in a lot of ways because we almost started again after that because “duh, this is a really good song,” we thought. “It’s got some depth to it.” Sometimes you just get into chasing hooks and you forget that you can combine hooks and meaning. So we started all over again with him.
In the early days of Duran Duran, someone described you as Sex Pistols meets Chic, so it’s interesting that you worked with Nile Rodgers from Chic.
We’ve actually got Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) playing on the Deluxe Album, on one of the bonus tracks, which is even crazier. We’d worked with Nile in the eighties and it was amazing to see his renaissance. Daft Punk re-launched Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers’ career with “Get Lucky”. That song was ubiquitous and put them into everybody’s living room in a major way. I think lots of people were really happy to see that happen to Nile because he’s been perhaps a little bit under-appreciated as a producer and I think people were happy to see him come back in a big way.
Having said that, we didn’t jump to call him. It was actually Mark Ronson. Mark wanted to be involved in the album but he wasn’t going to do the whole thing and with our previous album he was the one who suggested we call Nile and I liked the idea. I’d never worked with him. I think Nile was equally interested and intrigued with working with Mark. So we got the benefit of the two of them strutting their stuff. It was like you show me yours and I’ll show you mine. You’ve got to sit back and the child of that session was “Pressure Off”. It was kind of amazing and the more I talk about the record, the more I’m grateful to the players outside the core band that came in and really helped us bring this album home.
Looking at the liner notes, you have definitely collaborated with a wide range of people.
We start out usually with this sense that we can do it all. Technology makes anything possible. It’s what you achieve. Anybody can put up a funky beat, play a guitar part. We had a great programmer, engineer, Josh Blair working with us. We’d come up with the dumbest ideas, he’d turn this shit around, turn it upside down but then you kind of hit a wall and you almost need outsiders that come in with some sort of objectivity to tell you what’s good and what’s bad. Dan Hudson really had a sense of “you can do this”. Why can’t you use Kendrick Lamar hi-hat patterns? He was more ambitious with our sound in a way they we weren’t. We thought we were open but you can get very self-conscious after thirty years of doing this. You also get to want to play it safe but you’ve got to continue to be teachable. As you get older it gets harder. I’m sure with you, your editor will say change this around or do that. All these guys bought something and they all made us play harder and better than we would have, left to our own devices.
You’ve won various awards over the years, what would you say is an important driver to you, be it awards or recognition or what?
Awards are tricky. The moment that you acknowledge them and give them significance, they can really mess with you. I don’t really think of us as a band that got a lot of awards, and I certainly as a kid didn’t get any awards and I think that’s part of what drives me. I think if this album got a boatload of awards then I might use that as an excuse to retire. Maybe it’s not on the cards because that drive, that thing that keeps you going, gets the four of us in the studio for two years. It keeps driving us to want to make better records than we made before.
It’s something that you’ve got to be chasing, that pot of gold and in our case it’s not lifestyle, it’s not gold, it’s something indefinable, and it’s probably different to Nick than what it is for me, Simon and Roger, but there’s something in the air that we’re reaching for. I think the thing about awards is that by the time that you’re getting them, they cease to have meaning. I guess for me it’s all about relationships and it’s all about getting through the day and making sure that my friendships and partnerships are as square as I can make them throughout the course of the day. I’m not sure that getting awards has too much to do with that. I also have a tendency that I can be an egomaniac and you can’t give us too much rope.
When you released your autobiography back in 2012, how did it feel to lay your life out bare like that?
Well I only laid out what I was comfortable laying out. You give enough that people think wow, it’s a tell-all, but I’m not gonna tell all. Nobody would speak to me again. You just give enough. Actually writing the book enabled me to put more into this album. It sort of put some ghosts to rest. You have thirty years of history and you carry that every day, every session. You’ve got all that baggage and it’s quite heavy baggage in a way. The book helped me feel like I was able to control some of that and it kind of enabled me to surrender. I know I’m using all this therapy-speak, but it kind of is.
Like we talked about when you show up at work each day you have to be open to be teachable, but you have to be open to collaboration and open to compromise and you have to feel good about who you are, but at the same time it’s not all about you. You have to have a really healthy ego to participate; it’s a real democratic process that we work in and it’s not just about the four of us. There’s these new guys coming in and you’ve got to give them power and let them have a say. You’ve got to adapt to these situations. Now I’m a complex kind of dude so I need a lot of therapy-speak to process all of that. Not everybody in the band’s like that. Some of the guys take it on a day-by day basis and they process it without the need of complex psychological processes but actually I have to simplify it. Even as I’m having this conversation and talking to you I realize that I’m tying myself in knots so you can imagine what I’m like in the studio.
So what about your guitars, do you have a favorite or do you swap them around a bit?
The bass guitar on this project was like a sub unit of the process. We dealt with bass on the album and each song posed a bass problem. It was the first time in thirty years that I really threw myself into synthesizer bass and we really worked hard to balance the bass guitar, which has this sound and style which is evocative of the John Taylor style and Duran Duran style but then looking to contemporary music and the way that Kanye West uses bass and the way that most contemporary pop uses bass. So many pop tracks are out there that don’t use bass guitar and really finding that ebb and flow between the two and again Ben was really helpful with that and I would work with Nick a lot on synthesizers, so when it comes to bass guitars I’m not that precious really. I’ve got a few basses in the studio and when an idea comes I pick the bass that’s nearest me and I’ve got an old Fender Precision bass, I’ve got an Aria Pro which was my signature instrument in the early eighties, then in Nile’s sessions I used a Peavey which is my stage bass and probably the bass that I’m most comfortable using, like a familiar pair of pants that you put on to relax in.
But I must say that the session with Nile was a real turn-on because you take it for granted man. I was really close to Nile in the eighties and after he came in and worked on “Reflex”, we worked on the Notorious album with him and I got to know him really well and I didn’t realize at the time (well I did and I didn’t) what an extraordinary talent he is and all these years later to be able to step back in the studio with him and have that opportunity to play with him and I kind of just glued myself to him for three days and just like trapped him as a musician. At the end of the three days my fingers were covered in band aids, but my playing had gone up. I left those sessions thinking that I’m not going back down again, I’m gonna keep my fucking game up at this level. Again, you’re never too old to be taught. I remember working with those guys, Bernard and Chic and Bernard always used to harp on about don’t ever stop playing. That simple kind of platitude and parental guidance, what do you mean, “don’t ever stop playing?” That’s advice? But of course it is.
The thing about technology, if you look too much about what’s happening, you do forget to play because you think it’s all about programming, it’s all about the way you wear your hair and it’s all about all this, but if you’re a musician it’s not. It’s all about playing. He completely turned my game around. You talk about awards, when we were working on the album; some site somewhere voted me the greatest bass player of all time. I was thinking what a fucking joke. We were laughing about that in the studio. Ronson was sort of saying to me, “Come on man. You’re the greatest living bass player. Impress us!” That’s not a nice way to start the day. That’s not putting me under any pressure or anything. You’ve got to wear this shit like a light fitting cloak. You can’t take it seriously. But what we do take seriously is this collaborative process because that’s what it’s all about. I know what I can do as an individual and that ain’t much. My work is going to be defined by my work with Nick, my work with Ronson, my work with Simon, my work with Nile and vice versa. We’re musicians interacting and that’s what’s great about being in the studio. It becomes all about that and all that hype disappears.
Last question, are you planning a trip to Australia anytime soon?
We’re hoping to come down next year. Yeah, we’re coming; let’s leave it at that.
Paper Gods is out today on Warner Music Australia