The ageless glam gods of Duran Duran descend to Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, not long before wrapping their North American tour in support of All You Need Is Now, the band’s 13th studio album. The record, which they made with Mark Ronson, might more accurately have been titled All You Need Is Then; it has a sound haven’t seemed interested in pursuing for some time. Frontman Simon Le Bon called from Florida recently to discuss working with Ronson, looking at fighter jets and returning—once again—to New York City.
What does it mean at this point in the band’s life for Duran Duran to play Madison Square Garden?
The Garden always means a lot to Duran Duran. It’s the pinnacle of achievement to be able to play at the Garden; there’s no more prestigious venue in New York City to play. And to be able to do it 30 years after we first did it makes us feel very good about ourselves.
You’ve played cities well beyond the cultural capitals on this tour. Mobile, Alabama comes to mind.
The thing is, you’ve got shows you look forward to and then you’ve got shows you know you’re going to play. They’re on the touring schedule and you don’t particularly look forward to them. But then you get to the venue that night and you start getting the buzz. You hear the people coming in, and the music comes on. You get your clothes on and you get your face on, and you sort of pick up on the excitement of it. And then you hear the Neon Trees go onstage, and they start playing their set, and they’re pretty bloody good—that starts to make you feel competitive. And as you get closer to showtime, the excitement builds inside you. We all get our ear monitors in and suddenly you turn the sound up and the aura’s crackling in your ears. Then somebody hands you a microphone. You’re standing at the back of the stage, the band’s out there, and suddenly it’s the most important thing in the world.
What’s your recollection of Duran Duran’s early days in the United States?
Fantastic memories. Our first tour of America was amazing. It’s quite funny, actually: We arrived at JFK and our manager had hired a couple of vehicles. We came out of the airport, as I remember, and if you turned left you went to New York City. But we turned right and went out to Long Island. I remember the feeling of Here we are—but we’re going away from the city! We went and played in a place called the Spit Club. You can imagine what that was like.
A bit of an anticlimax.
It seemed like it at the time. But we blew the roof off that place. And then we still didn’t go to New York. We went and played Boston; we played in Detroit. And finally we got back to New York and we played Webster Hall, which at that time was the Ritz. And that was an amazing show—incredible. We had a fantastic time.
New York seems always to have loomed large in Duran Duran’s world. In 2007 you even did a run on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
It was always something we aspired to, even before we’d arrived. And when we got to New York in 1981, we had the most amazing time. It was so rocking. You’d go to a club like Danceteria or the Peppermint Lounge, and Johnny Thunders would walk in; Debbie Harry would come in. Then Billy Idol would come in the club and you’d all be sitting around getting off your faces on whatever there was to get off your face on. And there was just such a vibe about the city. It was happening. And it was really the center of the musical world at that time, to be honest with you.
In a funny way, I go back there, I still feel it. To me it’s still got that edge. It’s under the surface now—it’s not quite as in your face. But it’s all about this kind of I can do it. That’s the attitude of New York, and I love it.
Where do you live these days?
I’m in London. As a writer—and particularly as a writer in the vernacular—I think it’s important to be around the language I grew up speaking. It’s important to be in England. I get so much lyrical inspiration from the way English people talk.
You chose Mark Ronson to produce the latest album, which at first blush makes you think, “Ooh, Duran Duran are working with a representative of the next wave.” But you’ve already done that: Red Carpet Massacre, from 2007, included collaborations with Justin Timberlake. What besides Mark’s age appealed to you?
We’ve known Mark for a long time; he declared his allegiance to Duran Duran a long time ago. We did a show with him in Paris in 2008, and we really got on so well with him. He had a really great way of looking at old Duran Duran material and segueing one song into another, almost like a DJ mix, really. And we realized that he took our music very seriously, that he’d made an in-depth effort to add something of himself to the music. So when it came to making the next album, we just knew we wanted him to be the producer. He was very excited to do it. He said, “I’ve got a real vision of what I want to do with the new album, which is return the band to a more avant-garde style—the style of the first two albums.”
I sometimes hear records he’s produced and wonder if his sound comes at the expense of his clients’.
You mean that he might produce a band but it sounds like a Mark Ronson record.
I don’t get that from listening to his records, but I understand what you’re saying.
That didn’t happen here, though. All You Need Is Now feels Duran Duran-ier than your last several albums.
That was very much the idea. Mark had listened to Red Carpet Massacre and said, “It’s really great—it really works as an urban album—but that’s not what Duran Duran fans want to hear from you guys.” Which is fair enough, I think. He said, “There’s a certain Duran Duran sound and a certain Duran Duran attitude that I think you need to return to—otherwise you’re gonna lose your following.” And he said, “I’ve got a practical approach. I know exactly how to do it.” And we did it with the way we wrote the album, a kind of freedom that we applied when writing the songs. And also with the kind of sounds we used—the drum kits he chose for Roger [Taylor] to play on and the synthesizers he got Nick [Rhodes] to use.
Last thing: There are some great pictures on your blog recently of you sitting in what appears to be some kind of fighter jet, which got me thinking that a substantial portion of your life every day is probably spent in situations you couldn’t possibly have predicted when you woke up that morning. Am I right about that?
Absolutely. And you’ve got to take these opportunities when they arrive. It’d be so easy for us to just sit in our own plane and look at it through the window: Oh, that looks good, doesn’t it? But we went over and spent such a long time photographing it and being by the plane that we attracted the attention of the pilot and the copilot. They came out and introduced themselves to us. And they said, “Do you wanna sit in it?” I wanted to take it for a spin! That’s one of the things that’s great about being us: People are very willing to open themselves up to you and to let you have a little glimpse of what it’s like to be them. I’m very grateful for that.
Duran Duran and Neon Trees play at Madison Square Garden tonight.