Thirteen could be Duran Duran’s lucky number. The music video pioneers and pop icons, who are one of the few bands to transition from 80s pinups to legitimate, chart-topping artists, have seen success in every decade since their monumental 1981 album was released. Their latest (and thirteenth album), All You Need Is Now (released on iTunes Dec. 21), looks poised to do the same. Produced by longtime Duran devotee Mark Ronson, it’s already being hailed as a return to form and promises to be the closest today’s fans can get to that “New Romantic” sound they fell in love with all those years ago.
Helping the band execute their musical vision are several guests, including Kelis, Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic and Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett, but in embracing the sounds of the future for All You Need Is Now, they also reference bits of their past -- a “Chauffeur”-like synth, the instantly recognizable bass-line -- to great effect. If you like that sort of thing, of course, and the four original members, singer Simon LeBon, bassist John Taylor, keyboard whiz and programmer Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor, are counting on a least a few million people who do. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Duran’s frontman on the eve of the album’s release and just as the single and title track, available for free, shot to No. 1 on iTunes’ pop download chart.
THR: All You Need is Now is your first iTunes exclusive release and it’s a nine-track “LP,” can you explain the methodology behind this roll-out?
Simon LeBon: We’ll be releasing physical product at the end of February, which will be in CD form and vinyl and will have 14 tracks, but we felt that we wanted to put something out very essential on iTunes. Rather than doing the traditional deal with a record label, we went to the company who was most excited about Duran Duran, and that was iTunes -- they had the best ideas, a campaign in mind, and the best thrust. As far as the nine tracks, Mark [Ronson] thought it was a very good number because Rio only has nine tracks on it.
THR: The Rio comparison, originally made by Mark, seems to be getting a lot of traction…
LeBon: People have said this is the follow up to Rio, but it’s important to stress that it’s not supposed to sound like that. This is not an album that sounds like it came from the 80s, but it does, to some extent, have the spirit of Duran Duran from that period. I think that’s what we were trying to recapture with Mark.
THR: When people do say that it’s reminiscent of old Duran Duran, does that in a way negate everything you’ve done post-Rio?
LeBon: You do say to yourself, did we only ever make two decent albums? Of course, we all know that’s not the case, however, for people who did really get into us in the beginning -- and Mark was one of them -- Seven and the Ragged Tiger did not fulfill the promise that had been made in the first two albums. So that’s what Mark means when he says to go back to that Duran. Also, now you have a lot of bands playing electronic music and writing music that’s not R&B based, and he said, “This is Duran Duran’s territory, you have to own this.”
THR: Are you surprised by the resurgence of vinyl?
LeBon: Not really. Digital music boils down the actual musical experience. The digital industry had really distilled music to its essential form, which is a signal. Because you’ve got this, if you’re going to buy something physical, you want the most beautiful product you can get. There’s no question that a vinyl record is a lot nicer than a CD. It’s nicer to hold in your hands, you can do more with it. My kids love vinyl, I had to teach them how to put the needle on the records. Now they’re worried about scratching the records, but it’s incredible!
THR: Looking back at the years you spent releasing albums on major labels, how would you describe Duran’s experience?
LeBon: We were part of the demise of the old-fashioned record industry. We witnessed it first-hand, and it was very interesting, but it wasn’t a great experience. To go from the days when people used to get grand pianos delivered to their doorstep to a time when label executives are being laid off left, right, and center is quite extreme.
THR: Duran Duran was signed to Capitol first, which is owned by EMI, then had a stint at Sony/Epic, was there any substantial difference between the two majors or are they all the same?
LeBon: They’re pretty much the same, to be honest. Mainly because you’ve worked with one chief executive at one company, and a couple years later, he’s an executive at another company. One of the things that keeps the majors down is an old school attitude that likes the big expense accounts and isn’t able to economize or pare down. You’re starting to see new record companies and business models taking shape, but it takes time.
THR: With All You Need is Now, what would quantify as success for you?
LeBon: I’m not sure we’re thinking in [sales] numbers, because of the way music is downloaded and shared, I don’t know. Really, it’s more about getting the music to people’s lives. That’s why “All You Need is Now’ is a free download, because we want to spread the word. We’re quite prepared to sacrifice the financial gain from selling it; we want to get this song heard. I’d rather five million people hear it for free than have one million who pay for it. We want to do a tour. We have to get back into mainstream musical culture.
THR: Mark Ronson has had an amazing run the last five years, what’s his secret?
LeBon: He’s the first producer who sat down with us and discussed musical direction of before we recorded anything. He put so much time into the album. Sometimes, the lyrics just weren’t coming to me, and he’d be asleep on the sofa but we would go out to get fresh air and some new perspective. Once we went to an art gallery and there was a Venus De Milo figure with her arms around a big mound of secondhand clothing, and I said, “Write down ‘other peoples’ lives,’ " and he did and when we got back to the studio, it became a song. He’s a fan of the band and he cares very much about what it sounds like and he has a blueprint to turn those ideas and concepts into actual sounds. Mark fits in with Duran Duran the way we fit with each other. It’s like having another member in the band, really.
THR: Mark Ronson as the fifth member of Duran Duran, he would probably be stoked.
LeBon: He wouldn’t want to be a permanent member. The thing about Mark is that he’s so independent, but we’ll do live shows together, no doubt about that. He’s going to go on tour with us.
THR: Roger Taylor said in an interview that this could be Duran’s last record. Is that the case?
LeBon: We hope it’s not going to be that, but we didn’t have a good experience after we made the last album, Red Carpet Massacre. It was disappointing. We loved that record and thought we made some really great music, but it didn’t succeed in the way we hoped. If you have two of those in a row, at this stage in our career, I don’t know how long it can last… But for me, this is the year when we completed one of the most major important projects of Duran Duran’s career. I’ve had my head down as have the other boys and we’ve really been working hard on this. We’ve got a nice Christmas present for everybody.