Duran Duran Discuss ‘Paper Gods’ Collaborators, From Mark Ronson To Nile Rodgers To Lindsay Lohan: Idolator Interview
It wasn’t enough for Duran Duran to simply release their 14th studio album and have that, in and of itself, be an impressive personal milestone they could be content with. No, pop icons Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor had to go and craft Paper Gods (available now on iTunes), arguably the best damn thing they’ve done since their self-titled 1993 LP — and that’s saying a lot, considering their previous release, 2011’s All You Need Is Now, was a marked return to musical glory and proper form that was made with the deft touch of hit-maker Mark Ronson, now a global household name thanks to “Uptown Funk.”
Ronson was initially back on board for Paper Gods, but his own album, Uptown Special, took him away for the bulk of the project. “He kind of left us cooking in the kitchen and said, ‘I’ll be back later’,” explains Roger, while sitting next to Simon on a humid day in late July in New York’s Upper East Side.
The two are in town, along with Nick and John, to do early promotion for their highly collaborative album that saw them enter a studio with musicians like their old pal Nile Rodgers (producer of Duran Duran’s 1987 album Notorious), “Hideaway” songbird Kiesza, Janelle Monae, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Mew frontman Jonas Bjerre and Mr Hudson, who helped shape much of the synthy soundscape of Paper Gods once Ronson stepped away. And then there’s that whole Lindsay Lohan pair-up.
Continue on to read, in Simon and Roger’s words, how the scope of Duran Duran’s new album — their first in a label deal with Warner Bros. — evolved over the course of two years to become the all-star effort that was released today.
When did you start recording Paper Gods? SIMON LE BON: We started in March of 2013 at a studio in Wandsworth with Mark Ronson. It was the four of us, plus Don Brown and our engineer, Josh Blair. We only spent about two weeks there, but we got like 40 [songs]. We’d work on something, get a groove going and then move on to something else. It was all about just really broad brush strokes — we’d get a minute of one thing then a minute of another. We went through it all and made the first whittling-down process. Then Mark went off and made his own record, and it was just the four of us, really, for a long time.
How did Mr Hudson come to produce half the tracks on the album? ROGER TAYLOR: We’d been working on the album — maybe about six months? SIMON: I thought it was a bit longer than that. I seem to remember he came along in 2014. Was it the beginning of the year? Oh, crikey. [All laugh] ROGER: Anyway, we were quite a way into the album and we got a call from our management. Mark had done a little bit in the beginning then he had to go off and make his solo record. He kind of left us cooking in the kitchen and said, “I’ll be back later.” Funny enough, we’d been talking like, “Maybe we need someone else while Mark’s away to come and help us a bit.” And our management came up with the idea of having Ben Hudson. SIMON: I thought Ben got in touch with us, actually? Maybe I misunderstood it, but I thought he made the overtures. I’ve got it wrong, probably. ROGER: You’re talking to the wrong two people here! SIMON: You want Fact-Checker [John] Taylor! ROGER: The end result was, “There’s a guy that wants to work with you called Ben Hudson. He’s worked with Kanye West and Jay Z, he’s had a successful solo career and he’s from Birmingham.” Alright, let him come in for a day and see how we get on. It felt so good, and he ended up seeing the whole project through to the end. He became one of the main collaborators [on the album] because it worked so well — his energy; he was un-self-conscious; he was supportive; he was creative. He was amazing and really helped us to deliver a great album.
Mark Ronson did work on lead single “Pressure Off.” Was that song done early on, before he departed to work on Uptown Special? SIMON: No, “Pressure Off” was one of the last things we did, actually. It was right toward the last quarter of the album. Mark came back, and when he listened to the collaboration we had with John Frusciante — who definitely had approached Duran Duran and said, “I’d love to be on your album” — he thought, wouldn’t it be great if you got a whole bunch of different guitarists? The first name that came up was Nile Rodgers. Mark said, “That’s great, because one of the things I’ve never done is work with Nile.” So we put the message out to Nile and he came in. First day he came in, he’d been stuck in a taxi trying to get across London for five hours to get to the studio because they’d closed some of the bridges or something. But he still got into the room and started playing, and it was fantastic. Nile brings a very special kind of energy; there’s a certain joy when he plays guitar, which is completely unique. ROGER: And it was a “pressure-off” track, really. We’d had a bulk of the album [done], and we always do these songs at the end, kind of like pressure-off songs where you just open your mind and whatever happens, happens. It ended up being one of the most commercial cuts of the record, so it became the first single. It all started just from Nile jamming on the guitar.
When did Janelle Monae come aboard as a featured vocalist on the song? SIMON: I’d finally come to accept the idea that we’d have collaborations on this record. Her name was at the top of our list, but I was quite prepared to be heading for somebody further down the list. But she said yes straight away. I think she heard something in the song she really liked. It was so easy to work with her. Me and John went over to L.A. and we managed to get her into a studio. She arrived at about 10 at night and sang till about 2 in the morning, and she’d done everything.
I take it, then, that you were reluctant to have collaborations? SIMON: I was. I really held off on it for years and years. I always felt it was compromising the nature and the personality of Duran Duran. I just really didn’t wanna go there before. But John Frusciante’s guitar opened up my mind and kind of made me relax a little bit. Right from the word go, [each collaborator was] fantastic — John Frusciante, Janelle Monae, obviously Nile Rodgers. And then Kiesza, Lindsay and Jonas Bjerre from Mew on “Change The Skyline.” He was important, because it’s one thing to have a guy and a girl sing a duet, but it’s quite another to have two guys who sing in different styles work together. You know, I’ve done it before, but not really on a Duran Duran record. I’ve done it with Sting on an Arcadia song. I was really attracted to the idea of having a twin male voice collaboration.
Many people familiar with your work might think this is the first time you’ve worked with Nile Rodgers since the ’80s, but he did some early work on your 2004 album Astronaut, correct? SIMON: Absolutely. He did. ROGER: He put a lot of work into that record. SIMON: We spent a lot of time in the studio with him for that. ROGER: But it was very cool to be playing with him again. We’d all kind of admired the way he reinvented his sound with Daft Punk. I remember sitting in the studio and saying, “Shit, have you heard this fucking thing? Nile Rodgers and Daft Punk — it’s amazing! It’s exactly where they should both be right now.” So we listened to that and then somehow Nile arrived in our studio. It’s one of those, how did it get from that, from listening to “Get Lucky” one day and a few months later Nile’s [with us] doing his thing? Paper Gods was all a bit like that. It all kind of led from one thing to another, like a journey that was meant to happen, the way it unfolded.
Kiesza appears on the track “Last Night In The City.” What’s the story behind this pair-up? SIMON: I’m a massive fan of that song, “Hideaway.” There’s something really special about it. Funny enough, I spent about six months looking at the video in silence when I was going down to the gym, because I don’t have headphones on when I go to the gym. So I’m watching this amazing video, and finally when I heard it, I went, “Wow!” I love the way she sings. And it was quite a surprise when she said yes [to working with us]. I mean, it’s always a surprise when they say yes, really, isn’t it? We don’t have a particularly overblown opinion of ourselves. We always think that probably people are going to say no. Maybe it’s just our defense mechanism; if you don’t have any expectations, then you can’t get disappointed.
I can’t skip by asking about Lindsay Lohan, who sings on the track “Danceophobia.” SIMON: I’ve been mates with Lindsay for years. I introduced myself to her here in New York in a makeup room in a TV studio when we were both appearing on Regis And Kelly. ROGER: Of all paces! [Laughs] SIMON: Of all TV shows to do! Oh, I’ve tried to tell this story without mentioning Regis And Kelly, but it’s impossible. [Laughs] No, no — they were very good to us, I have to say. Anyway, I’d run into [Lindsay] from time to time. She was in London doing her play, Speed The Plow, and she’d heard that we were in the studio with Mark Ronson and sent me a text saying, “I’ve got a great idea here: Duran Duran do the music, Mark Ronson produces and I do some singing.” I said, “Well, maybe. Let’s figure out the right thing.” So we were listening to all the tracks, and we had “Danceophobia,” which really needed something special. Different names were being thrown around and I said, “One person I think definitely would be good for this would be Lindsay,” and the guys said, “Actually, it’s kind of a different idea.” You know, you’re talking about someone who has the reputation of a trainwreck, and yet she’s a fascinating person. Her public persona is fascinating. She seems to be so out of kilter, but that really is not how she is at all. She’s incredibly in control. Her professionalism when it comes to doing things like this is amazing. So we got her into the studio, and in two or three takes we had what we wanted. It was brilliant. I think we’re all really proud of this Duran Duran/Lindsay Lohan collaboration, because it’s quite unexpected.
The last guest on the album I’ll ask you about its Hollie Cook, who we at Idolator love. We had in for an interview last fall. SIMON: Hollie! ROGER: You’re the first person who’s mentioned her to us. Congratulations! SIMON: She came through John. He was familiar with her and suggested her. “Sunset Garage” has got a real reggae vibe. I wanted to get a bit of Bob Marley in it. That bass line really inspired me and I wanted to get a Wailers sound for the vocal. So we got Hollie. She doesn’t sound like the Wailers, she sounds like Hollie Cook. But she’s just as good and she was perfect for us.
Duran Duran’s Paper Gods album is available now for purchase on iTunes.