Interview: Roger Taylor, Duran Duran
I notice from your tour schedule that you’re on a bit of a break. Are you enjoying having a few days off?
Absolutely, yeah. We’ve just done Australia, the Far East and Central America, then we’re off to Vancouver next week. We’ve had an exhausting travel experience over the last few weeks, so it’s good to get a few days at home, pat the dog, kiss the wife…
Are we all basically getting the same tour, or do you make any significant changes as you go along?
You tend to find that the show develops. You start recognising what’s not working in the set, and maybe introduce a few different numbers to refresh it. We’ve got a huge catalogue of work to pull from, so we like to change it a little bit. We get quite a lot of repeat members of the audience, that travel with us – so we like to juggle up the set, so they get to see something different.
You played a storming show at Nottingham Arena back in April 2004. It was one of your first UK dates with the full original line-up, so there was a sense of not quite knowing quite what to expect. For all we knew, it might have been awful! Did it feel at the time that you were on a mission to reclaim your heritage, and to remind people of who you were?
I think we had to prove ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything worse than going back to see your childhood heroes, and having them not quite live up to how you remembered them. So I think we were on a mission to prove we could still do it.
When we originally got the band back together, we started by playing very small theatres. From the energy of those small performances, it grew into a huge scene, where we got to play five nights at Wembley Arena, and Madison Square Gardens in New York. So it suddenly felt like a new band again, and not something that had been trodden into the ground. We had left the original line-up on a real high, and so it actually felt very fresh.
Something that surprised me about that show was your audience. During your “imperial phase”, you were almost seen as a boy band by certain people, and so I had assumed that I’d be one of the very few men in that audience. But actually, it was a fairly equal 50:50 split. So either your audience has changed over the years, or else it was never really about the screaming girls in the first place. What’s your perspective on that?
Maybe the girls dragged their husbands along, I don’t know! But there’s definitely more of a crossing over now – especially in America, where we get a lot of guys coming to see us – whereas in the Eighties, it was 95% female.
Because we had a real teenage audience, that maybe scared off the guys. If you get a band that has a teenage girl following, then the guys will probably go to another band. But we’ve come out of that now. I think the guys have come back and said: actually, I always liked Duran Duran, but I was afraid to admit it. So it’s cool.
You’ve had an interesting journey in terms of going in and out of fashion. It’s completely OK now for bands such as The Killers or Franz Ferdinand to name-check you, so that must be extremely gratifying to witness.
It is, because music journalists – particularly those in the UK – would constantly try to write us out of history. They’d have preferred it if we didn’t exist during the Eighties, and if it was just The Smiths and New Order and U2. So it’s been really cool that the new bands are saying: actually, they were a cool band, and we are influenced by them. It’s great to feel that we are leaving some sort of legacy, which bands are now being influenced by.
When you first emerged, you were part of what some people called the New Romantic scene, although in Nottingham we liked to call ourselves Futurists. Very early on, you played at Rock City to a deeply fashionable crowd, and it became quite a legendary gig. But then of course, there was a moment when you went very pop. When Is There Something I Should Know came out, the DJ at the same venue actually denounced you down the microphone, as everyone thought you were turning into the Bay City Rollers. Did you care? Was it a conscious decision?
I don’t think so. As you become very successful, you become very uncool, and unfortunately it’s very hard to run those two things together. We were breaking America at the time, so we didn’t give two hoots about the criticism. But you’re right: it has taken a long time for people to recognise the significance of the early work. Our success was probably our worst enemy.
In terms of the creative dynamics within the band, it always seemed as if there was an “arty” faction led by Nick, and a “rock” faction led by Andy. We particularly saw it during the period when you split into Arcadia and The Power Station. But it also seemed that you were the guy who floated between those two factions.
I think you’re probably right. It was like being in a gang at school. You had the kids who liked football at one end, and you had the kids who liked softball at the other end. There was a big gap there, and I fell in the middle.
But that’s what made it so creative. It wasn’t like you had five Nick Rhodes, all wanting to be like Depeche Mode. You also had Andy in there, who wanted to be like AC/DC. When we went to America, they were ready to accept us because we had a guitar player that could play heavy riffs – particularly live, which at that point was very important over there. And then of course you had John, who was into the disco bass lines. So you had this real clash of musical cultures, this whole juxtaposition of styles going into the bucket, and I think something very interesting and very successful came out of it.
When I think of Duran as a rock band, with all the rock and roll excess which goes with it, you strike me as the sensible, grounded, non-starry one. If Duran were the Rolling Stones, you’d be Charlie Watts. Fair comment?
You could say that. I’ll take that a compliment, because I do love Charlie Watts. I think drummers tend to play that role in the band. Musically, you have to be an anchor when things are maybe going a little bit haywire. So I guess that could possibly be my role.
When you left the band in the mid-1980s, did you have any thoughts of returning to music in the future?
I just wanted to get as far away from music, and from rock star culture, as I possibly could. I bought a farm in the Midlands, and I retreated there. The pressure surrounding the band had become so intense. You have no idea what it was like. In those few years, we lost all of our freedom. We’d get to a hotel and you couldn’t actually leave your room. You couldn’t go into the lobby, and you couldn’t walk down the street, because you’d get harassed by a thousand teenage girls. People were camping outside our houses, and it was all very intense.
I got to the point where I’d just had enough. I had no idea what I was going to do, and no idea if I was going to go back to music, or reject it for the rest of my life. All I knew was I needed to get away from it for a while, and that turned into a number of years. I slowly started getting back into music, and then the chance of a reunion came up.
Did it require any persuasion to get you back into the band, or were you eager as soon as the suggestion was made?
It was a real surprise. By the year 2000, I thought: that’s it, it’s never going to happen again. Then I got a call out of the blue from John. It took me a little while to think about it, but I think I was ready.
I don’t think anybody needed persuading, as it was one of those things that almost had to happen. I don’t know how many times people have said to me over the years: when’s the band going to reform, when are you all getting back together. It was a constant nagging question, I suppose.
Are you back in the band for the long haul? Making that Rolling Stones comparison again, can you see yourself still doing this in twenty years time?
I don’t know. We don’t even talk about that, to be honest with you. We don’t even talk about a five year plan. All we talk about is this tour. We’re kind of thinking about another album after the tour, but that’s as far as we go.
Of course, it all depends on whether you’ve still got your audience. We’re not going to be playing in a little pub in Shepherd’s Bush, or whatever. We’d never do that. If we still have our audience, and if we still feel creative, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t keep doing it for a number of years.
But I don’t think it’s something you can plan. I’m sure the Rolling Stones didn’t sit down when they were forty and say: oh yeah, we’re still going to be doing this when we’re seventy. They’d go mad. It has to be a progressive thing.
But they do set an example of that being a perfectly good, viable option to take.
That’s the thing about the Rolling Stones: they have opened that option. There are only a handful of bands who are still going: U2, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Depeche Mode, and not many others. But the Stones have said: actually, you don’t have be done when you’re forty, or fifty, or sixty. You can keep doing it.
I’m intrigued to see you worked closely with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on the current album (Red Carpet Massacre). What were you looking for them to bring to the table?
Timbaland has been one of the world’s biggest producers over the last few years, and Justin has been one of the biggest male artists. So if you get those two guys saying that they want to work you – of course! It was a no-brainer. We didn’t go chasing them; they wanted to work with us. It was a great opportunity to keep the band moving in a contemporary direction.
It must have been a departure for all concerned. I’m not aware of Timbaland having worked with any bands before. Was it a two-way learning process?
I think we were the first band that he’s worked with, and it was the first production project that Justin has been involved in. It was very much an experiment. We had no idea what to expect. We all just turned up to this little studio in New York on a Sunday evening. Timbaland was there with his beat box, Justin was there with some lyrics and melodies, and we just jammed. It could have gone completely wrong, but luckily it worked.
A lot of the tracks have a late night, funky feel, as if you’re finding the groove again. Was that part of the intention?
That was one of the manifestos for this album: that we would somehow get back in the clubs, and find our groove again in a very contemporary way. We thought Tim would be the ideal guy to do that for us.
Timbaland is known for using electronics to generate beat patterns. As a drummer, do you find that today’s technology can take some of the challenge away? Is there a danger that it can dull your edge?
Well, I’ve never been a down-the-line rock drummer. I’ve always used electronic drums and I’ve programmed, so that makes it a lot easier. If I was a rock drummer with no interest in electronics, it would have been difficult, but that’s always been very much part of the Duran sound. If they’d tried to do it with the Chilli Peppers, who just plug in their instruments and play, I’m not sure it would have worked. But we grew up with Kraftwerk and the Human League, and we formed the band in a club, so that made us much more open-minded.
I heard that there’s a section in this tour where you explicitly pay homage to Kraftwerk. All four of you take to the keyboards, is that right?
Yeah, I play a little electronic kit à la Kraftwerk, and the other guys play keyboards. Our management suggested that we should do a bit in the show where we come to the front of the stage with acoustic guitars and bongos, or whatever. Fuck, we’re not doing that! Our roots were electronic, which is to say Kraftwerk. So we thought that a great way to do our “acoustic moment”, if you like, would be to get out the electronic instruments and pay homage to our roots.
It really gets us in contact with the audience, because we’re all right at the front. It only lasts for fifteen or twenty minutes, so it’s a nice contrast to the live band thing.
One of the great things about your 2004 show at the Arena was the sound quality. The Arena is a difficult venue acoustically, and you do have to put more work in with it. So I salute you for doing that.
We’ve got great sound guys, so hopefully it should work for us!