Duran Duran: Future Past interview
By John Earls | December 23, 2021
As their recent single Anniversary hinted, it’s 40 years since Duran Duran first beamed on to planet Earth. Rather than celebrate with a hits tour, they’ve released a stunning new album, where all four wild boys – and new guest Graham Coxon – are at their peak. In the complete inside story of Future Past, the band tell Classic Pop how they’ve been inspired by their old 12″ singles, Dr Disco… and a telling-off from Simon Le Bon’s daughter.
When Duran Duran last spoke to Classic Pop in July 2019, just before a unique show for NASA to mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, Simon Le Bon teased us with one lyric from the new studio album the band were making: “A voiceless crowd isn’t backing down.” Sure enough, the line features in Invisible, Duran Duran’s comeback single six years after the futuristic reboot of Paper Gods.
With typical Duran foresight, one of the first songs they wrote for their 15th album has taken on extra resonance as life reasserts itself after COVID.
“Invisible was written way before the pandemic,” Nick Rhodes explains, backstage in his dressing room before a TV show in Hamburg. “When we’ve been locked away inside for 10 months, we’re all feeling somewhat more invisible at this point. Invisible has become much more poignant.”
Simon is happy people feel the track has gained new meaning, but with typical pragmatism, he downplays any notion he was able to foresee a global crisis.
“The experience the whole world has been through sheds Invisible in a very different light to the one it was first illuminated by in 2019,” he considers. “But I’ve always been a very firm believer that it’s how audiences interpret your songs that is important, not what the songwriter first intended.
“We probably wouldn’t have picked Invisible as this record’s first single. But when it was suggested to us, we looked at Invisible again and went, ‘They’ve got a point!’ The song acknowledges where we are in life, which is important. The first release from any album has to say, ‘Here we are, we’re back! And this is what we’re like now!’”
What Duran Duran are like in 2021 is, generally, confident and relaxed. Quite right, too. As you may have heard by now, Future Past is an absolute classic – the mighty rhythm section of John and Roger Taylor more to the fore than at any point since Duran’s 2001 reunion, on a record where all four members do their thing with a power and belief in pop music you rarely get from bands of their vintage.
Recording the album at the tiny Assault & Battery studios – owned by veteran producers Alan Moulder and Flood – in Willesden Green, North London, proved key. “That place is old-school,” laughs John, over a yoghurt and fruit breakfast at home via Zoom. “It’s basically a small room with nothing. It’s the type of studio we started out in.”
Returning to Duran’s roots is key to the sound of Future Past. Their new producer Erol Alkan – a Londoner who has produced The Killers and Ride, as well as an acclaimed DJ – set out to capture the spirit of Duran’s earliest dance music.
Roger reveals: “As a DJ, Erol loves playing Duran’s original 12″ singles. They were very organically produced, as me and John had to go in to record those extended versions from start to finish. You couldn’t edit drums then, so I’d have to play for 10 minutes straight. That gave you a very cool and natural sound, which was also slightly imperfect. Erol wanted to go back to that.”
The drummer admits Duran needed Erol to have a vision the band could get behind. “A producer has to be really strong working with Duran Duran,” laughs Roger. “We all think we know how to do this. Everybody has their own idea of how the music should sound. We always need a captain at the helm to guide the ship.
“If someone from the outside doesn’t have an overall concept for the sound, we can get diverted into all kinds of different directions. That might still be a good album, but it wouldn’t have the direction we’ve achieved on Future Past.”
Returning to a more classic Duran sound, it helps that the 80s are back in fashion, as Nick explains: “This album is 80s in parts, while also sounding contemporary. It feels like certain 80s elements are back again. There’s a definite 80s influence in The Weeknd, and you can hear it in pop like Taylor Swift or Dua Lipa.
It felt right to have those elements for us. As in fashion, these things go around. Sometimes a certain neckline or outfit length feels better, but nobody is quite sure who’s decided that or why.”
The other obvious outside influence on Future Past is Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, who co-writes as well as plays on the whole album.
“We’ve tended to neuter guitar players recently,” admits John. “Every guitar part was cut to the grid, but you just can’t do that with Graham. On this album, the guitar isn’t hemmed in, as Graham’s playing really roars.”
Nick adds: “On Paper Gods, John Frusciante was amazing, but he did everything remotely. It was time we had a guitarist writing in the room with us again, which hadn’t really happened since Warren Cuccurullo was in the band.”
How was Graham able to cope with 40 years of Duran Duran in-jokes in the studio? “Amazingly,” smiles Roger. “We’ve played together for decades, so it must be a tough room to walk into.
“Graham has been a pop star himself for 30 years, so we didn’t know how much ego he’d bring with him. But he was humble and funny, a lovely guy. He’s the perfect Duran Duran guitarist, because as well as his own talent he can morph into playing like all of David Bowie’s different guitarists. Graham can give us a bit of Robert Fripp, Mick Ronson, Nile Rodgers…”
The 40 years since Duran Duran’s self-titled debut album are most explicit on Future Past’s third single, the riotous Anniversary. “That song came about instantly,” recalls Simon. “John said we should write a song about our anniversary, and I thought, ‘OK then, here are the words!’ The melody was staring me in the face. It was obviously out of my vocal range, but so was The Wild Boys and that did OK. Anniversary is such a simple, honest song.”
John adds: “The original first line of Anniversary was: ‘Celebrate this ragged reign’. As we got closer to our 40th, everybody lost the appetite to celebrate it. The feeling was, ‘Is the fact we’ve been together this long something we want to rub in people’s faces? Doesn’t it go against the eternal youth we’re presenting to people?’ But the idea
of an anniversary song stayed, and there are a lot of sonic references: The Wild Boys here, The Reflex there. If you know your Duran, you’ll get them.”
Anniversary is such an ultimate Duran Duran song, it was mooted as the album’s first single. But Simon admits: “That would have been disingenuous. It’d be saying, ‘Time to party!’, which would ignore what everyone has been through in the pandemic. It’s a great celebration song – not just about the band, but for anyone celebrating any kind of anniversary.”
Speaking of COVID-related issues, Future Past was originally due for release last summer. John recalls: “In March last year, before the pandemic, we were on course to finish for a June release. But we were hanging on by then, ready to kill each other.”
What followed was dramatic both personally and professionally for Duran. John fell ill with COVID soon after lockdown. “I was really fortunate,” John believes. “Everybody was talking about Coronavirus and the airports were being closed, so it was obviously big. But the death toll numbers hadn’t started and I almost didn’t know what it was when I got it.”
John was cared for by his wife, Juicy Couture founder Gela Nash. “For me, COVID felt like a few days of the worst flu I’ve ever had. I just couldn’t get off the bed. Once it was behind me, it was strangely energising, like any near miss. I hadn’t taken into account how lucky I was and that I’m pretty robust. I was getting very cavalier, telling any friends fearing COVID, ‘Listen, you’ll be fine. It’ll just be a rough week.’”
The aftermath of the virus has made John realise how narrow his escape was. He’s able to joke about it, and John is more relaxed than Classic Pop has seen him in interviews before. He looks great, too, slim and trim even if a baseball cap covers that flowing John Taylor hair.
“You have to be really careful after, because of the long-term effects,” he emphasises. “Every day, there’s a moment I’ll do something stupid, like trying to plug a bowl of fruit in or putting milk in the oven. I stop and think, ‘No, that’s wrong. Fuck, is this Long COVID?’ I’m thinking about too many things at once.”
For Nick, the worst personal effect of the pandemic was that the man who hates relaxing had to relax. “Sitting in the garden with a book is the dream for most people, but it’s my ultimate nightmare,” he smiles. “I need to do things. I get bored on holiday. I don’t mind sitting under a tree for half an hour, but then I think, ‘Right, I’ve done that’ and I need to do something else.
“I’d rather look at architecture, be in a gallery, photograph something. That’s what excites me. Some people are excited by going on a boat on holiday. That’s fine, it’s just not for me.”
Ever the calm one in Duran, Roger accepted that the world was telling him to slow down, noting, “I got into a close huddle with my family and life became very simple. I quite enjoyed the simplicity of life. Everything being slowly given back to us after so many months became about gratitude for the small things that had been taken away.”
Roger and his wife Gisella home-schooled their son Julian, now 10. “I’m afraid I allocated home-schooling to my lovely wife, who did an amazing job,” demurs Roger. “She’s much more academic than me. My wife has a masters’ degree, whereas I went to a comprehensive with 40 children to a class. I tried to help where I could, but I was basically a substitute sports teacher.”
The most long-lasting professional impact of the pandemic came from Simon. Early on in lockdown, he came downstairs and switched the radio from 6 Music, which his 26-year-old daughter Tallulah was listening to, to his regular morning choice of Radio 4’s political show Today.
He blushingly admits: “Tallulah told me, ‘Dad, call yourself a musician? You don’t even like music – especially any new music.’ I thought, ‘Oh God, she’s right.’ I was only listening to music the band was working on and the stuff that got me into the band in the first place.”
The result was that Simon now has a weekly podcast, WHOOSH!. It doesn’t only feature hyped new artists, but many extremely underground bands who delightedly share Simon’s playlists, generally adding: “How has Simon Le Bon even heard of us?”
This delights Duran’s singer, who smiles: “That show has changed my life. I’ve listened to more new music in the past year than I had in the previous 10. It’s made me so happy to realise how much incredible new talent there is out there. There’s a lot of retro influences, but also some really new ideas going on; new riffs and chord progressions you just don’t expect. I love going down rabbit holes on genres for days and days.”
It’s typical of Simon’s enthusiasm for life, and he laughs: “I did some of the clichéd lockdown things, too: I learned how to make sourdough bread. In any situation, I try to make the best of things. I don’t like to sit around thinking, ‘God, this is awful. I can’t wait until this is over.’ You end up wishing your life down the drain if you do that. Getting back into new music was massive for me.”
Duran resumed work on Future Past last December, nine months after what John describes as, “Having a Pause button pressed from above.” Going back over the songs, Simon remembers: “We’d got to the stage of thinking, ‘We need some fairy dust and little sparkles on this record.’”
Guest vocalists were suggested. With his fresh passion for new music, Simon could make inspired choices for the cartoon pop of More Joy! and the loose groove of Hammerhead. The latter song was the most contentious track on Future Past. Roger reveals “another 10-song record” could be released from the tunes which didn’t make Future Past’s final 12 tracks, but he and John were particularly keen that Hammerhead be included.
Nick wasn’t convinced of its merits, and John admits: “Hammerhead is such a killer bass track, when it looked like it wasn’t going to make it, I thought ‘Aw, fuck!’ When I played my bass part on Hammerhead, Erol was pushing and pushing me in the studio.”
The key to rescuing Hammerhead was getting drill rapper Ivorian Doll to the studio for a verse. “We’d never done a collaboration with a rapper,” Simon explains. “Hammerhead has a slow groove that a rapper would work on, but once we’d decided that, the question is: what kind of rapper? I thought a London female voice would be best, and Ivorian Doll or Ms Banks would be great. Ivorian Doll was just fantastic. She arrived with a vocal producer and lyricist, so the four of us got together and hammered her verse out in 45 minutes.“
John adds: “Ivorian Doll knew the legend of Duran Duran, but naturally she wasn’t terribly familiar with us as people. She didn’t know who we were from Adam. But it was so great seeing her respond to the music. It’s killer when a kid comes into the room and goes for it.”
While John remembers euphoric second single More Joy! as being inspired by Generation X’s Kiss Me Deadly and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, Nick recalls: “It started out from a Casio rhythm box, thinking there was something so kitsch, plastic and Japanese about it. It feels like an 80s 8-bit video game, only with a Siouxsie And The Banshees drum pattern. It’s so bonkers, that song. From the beginning, I wanted Asian female voices on it.”
Simon takes up the story: “I told Nick, ‘I know exactly who we should have. There’s an amazing Japanese punk band, Chai.’ Once I played Chai to the rest of the band, they were, ‘Wow! If we can make this work…’ and Chai came through.”
Simon’s skills on Future Past extend way beyond talent-spotting, of course. All his bandmates separately rave about Simon’s lyrics on the album which are among the singer’s most personal.
“I don’t like explaining my lyrics,“ Simon says. “Those lyrics are my autobiography – or my confession. However oblique they may be at times, they’re the truth.”
But Simon is willing to disclose that he found the lengthy Paper Gods tour tough, adding: “I felt changed by the end of it. Those lyrics aren’t a grand review of my life, but they are about growing up and realising the mistakes I’ve made. It’s about living life, seeing that it’s not perfect, but trying to make the best of what you’ve got.”
That attitude particularly informs Nothing Less. Simon and Yasmin Le Bon have been married for 35 years, and Nothing Less is a beautiful celebration of a long-term relationship.
“There are times in a relationship where there is ambivalence,” Simon explains. “And that’s OK. Sometimes you don’t have to work at it, you can just live in it. You can’t do that forever, because relationships need input and commitment. But when you’re at the top of the curve, before going into a downswing, there’s a moment of equilibrium that’s really nice.
“It’s saying, ‘Well, we’re here’ and ‘I want to thank you for all the nothings’ – the things that didn’t happen as well as the things that did. Nothing Less is quite tender, in that way.”
The anthemic Tonight United, already a live favourite, was inspired by trying to forget what John calls “the divisiveness of Trump and Brexit” and coming together, but the bassist then laughs and claims, “Le Bon loved the idea of a song with ‘United’ in the title, as he was thinking of Manchester United. His dream is to get a song played at Old Trafford.”
Simon laughs for about two minutes when told of John’s theory, admitting, “It sort-of is Old Trafford, yeah. But Tonight City would be a rubbish title. We might have alienated half of Manchester with that song but, hey, the other half might embrace it.”
Having worked with Mark Ronson since 2010’s All You Need Is Now, the producer only co-writes epic ballad Wing on Future Past. Simon explains: “Mark is almost a comfort zone for us now. It was great to be with Mark in Hollywood, but he felt he didn’t do enough on Wing to warrant a production credit – the song wasn’t very developed when we left the studio.”
The track itself is about “admitting some home truths. A song about jealousy is never easy to write, getting that feeling across of what it’s like to be chewing yourself up. It’s not necessarily referring to an experience I’ve had recently.”
If Ronson’s input was minimal this time, Wing and Tonight United are produced by Giorgio Moroder.
A friend of Nick’s partner, stylist Nefer Suvio, arranged for the couple to have lunch with Giorgio for Nick’s birthday five years ago at LA restaurant Chateau Marmont.
The keyboardist’s eyes light up at the memory: “We talked for hours and said, ‘How is it possible we haven’t worked together? We’ve got to figure this out.’ Duran have wanted to work with Giorgio since we began. Had it not been for I Feel Love, I’d probably never have picked up a synthesizer.”
The producer eventually came to London for a few days, where Roger describes: “Giorgio arrived with his little keyboard in a black case, like Dr Disco coming into the room. As soon as he put his hands on the keyboard, the sound was unmistakably Giorgio Moroder. I knew then, ‘Yeah, this is going to work!’”
Working with their idol seems to summarise the full circle mood of Future Past, as Roger insists it doesn’t seem plausible that the Duran Duran album was released 40 years ago.
“Time seems to go quickly for other people with Duran Duran, too,” he points out. “People still say to me, ‘How does it feel to be back in the band again? Is it OK?’ and I go, ‘Yeah… It’s been 20 years now!’ People seem to think I only rejoined last week, not 2001.”
What would the Roger Taylor of 1981 make of his 2021 existence? “He’d be amazed I’m still playing drums,” he laughs. “At 21, thinking I’d still be playing with the same people would be beyond my imagination. I think he’d think it was pretty cool.”
Nick believes Duran were fortunate to lay out their manifesto so perfectly on their debut, explaining: “We set our parameters wide straight away. You’ve got Girls On Film and Planet Earth next to Night Boat – psychedelic synths and a six-minute orchestral piece among pop songs.” Was that deliberate? “Not really, no! We took every idea we could jumble together from glam, punk, disco and funk and made our own sound. But we always liked a bit of everything – we simply couldn’t have been a band that sticks to one sound once it’s found an audience. There’s nothing wrong with bands who do that, but we just get bored if we make the same thing.”
It took six years after Paper Gods for Future Past to arrive. Roger reveals the band have spoken before about making a new album based on songs that didn’t make previous records saying, “When we go in the studio, we’re all about what we can write next. We’ve never trawled back to find material, but a collection of the songs from the cutting room floor could be a great album…”
Generally, though, the various Durans are cautious about the idea of rushing back to the studio. Nick says: “It takes a couple of years to gather enough new ideas for a Duran album, particularly lyrically. If I said to Simon, ‘We’re going to do another album in three months,’ he’d lock himself in a cupboard and throw away the key.”
Simon’s response? “There’s a part of me that’s quite drained, that’s true. But writing lyrics is something that
I just do anyway. I’m always writing down phrases which interest me. If we came up with inspiring new music, I’m sure it’d inspire new lyrics. A whole album of lyrics right now? No, Nick is wrong. I wouldn’t lock myself in a cupboard. But I might jump on a boat and sail away.”
For now, Duran should be left to enjoy the present Future Past has brought. To paraphrase Anniversary, celebrate: it’s their time again.