Monday, December 12, 2011
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
The Quietus | Features | A Quietus Interview | Breaking Free From The Past: An Interview With Claudia Brucken
Former futurists in the UK in the mid 1980s, let down by the likes of Ultravox on one hand and electronic music being hijacked by Stock, Aitken and Waterman on the other, turned their attentions to Germany. Kraftwerk's chart success with 'Tour De France' hinted that there were unplumbed and purer sources of synthetic construction to be found over the Channel. Even previously dismissed froth-puppets Depceche Mode threw away their pop sensibilities, decamped to Berlin, and borrowed Blixa Bargeld's scaffolding and concrete blocks for their rhythmic inspiration.
It was in the light of this Teutonic sea-change that Claudia Brucken, the singer of the German anti-Abba construction Propaganda, first fell into the UK music scene.
Propaganda's entree was courtesy of the ever confrontation-hungry people at the helm of Zang Tuum Tumb Records, whose media savvy manipulation had already garnered a UK number one with Frankie Goes To Hollywood's 'Relax'. As ZTT Minister of Information at the time, Paul Morely recently had the following to say about the signing of Propaganda: “Chris [Bohn, NME writer] played me their version - almost an original new piece, almost absurdist - of Throbbing Gristle's ‘Discipline’.
"And having made my mind up very early on that I wanted Zang Tuum Tumb to be more European than American, and arbitrarily fancying the idea of a group from the home city of Kraftwerk, and the idea of connecting the label to a then relatively new but already deep and fascinating history of techno/electro/industrial music, and thinking their name was perfect, in all sorts of ways, for a group, and a group on a label that I was planning to be like the label was for a short while, they were the first group I wanted to sign.”
The role ZTT played in introducing the art of marketing to the British pop charts - not to mention inflating standards and methods of production far beyond that reserved for throwaway chart releases in Britain prior - cannot be underestimated. It can be argued, in fact, that the introduction of the likes of Frankie and Propaganda were part of a philosophy towards pop that assisted in breaking boundaries and creating a wide new field of visual and format experimentation in popular music, perfect for the emergent MTV generation.
Propaganda produced a fistful of compelling singles, combining motorik iciness with Horn’s signature bombast, and then a remarkable and odd album in A Secret Wish. As the story so often goes, especially when relating the insanity of hyper inflated egos and budgets, the band collapsed in an angry convoluted heap of politicking, label machinations and conspiracy theories. Brucken married Minster Morley and stayed with ZTT, while the rest of Propaganda left. A Secret Wish, however, has never been forgotten by fans, and has just had its 25 year re-release. Brucken’s career continued, but has always been shadowed by her time in Propaganda, with attempts to reunite the original line up still sporadically ongoing until even last year.
Now, over 25 years later, Claudia celebrates her musical life with a retrospective compilation. Charismatic and surprisingly approachable, she speaks with The Quietus about Combined and what really happened to the Propaganda reunion.
Why did you decide to put out this compilation?
Claudia Brucken: It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My work has been quite scattered because I’ve done so may little projects, and I was just thinking that if someone hasn’t heard of my work, something like this would be the best way to introduce them to it.
If there’s a young kid out there that has listened to some of my stuff but hasn’t got any idea of what else I am about... a lot of people think that there’s just Propaganda and always go on about that, but actually there’s so much more. So, for me, it was important for someone to be able to get a taste of everything that I’ve done, including my cover versions and albums with Andrew Poppy, with just piano or one instrument and one voice. I just wanted to get all the flavours on there.
How did you choose which tracks to put on there?
CB: I chose songs for how the music fits together. I wanted to start with Propaganda because that was my first band, and the first seven songs are in chronological order, because I didn’t want to split them up too much. The next seven songs are in accordance with what goes together nicely, really. A lot of people don’t listen to albums in their entirety any more, but for me that’s very important - how things sound together.
Do you still believe in the album as a relevant format?
CB: I do! [laughs] Maybe it’s a bit old school, I don’t know, but for me it’s important. The best albums for me have a beginning and an end. I think that’s just the way I’ve grown up with music and I don’t want to let it go. I don’t really believe in cherry-picking songs, because I think sometimes you need to listen to a song in its context... listen again and again and then you get to know and love it. But this has all changed - you have to be so instant these days, but that’s not the way I feel.
So what are your favourite albums?
CB: I go back to the past quite a bit now, so it would be something like "Heroes" by David Bowie or Horses by Patti Smith. Especially old Bowie records - I was very much a Bowie fan in my youth. These kinds of albums mean a lot to me. My musical spectrum is quite broad, really, and there are lots of records that really say a lot: the Velvet Underground, you know the Andy Warhol one. Oh what was that called?
The Velvet Underground And Nico...
CB: Was it? I was very fond of them.
People often focus on the Propaganda years - is that something that you resent?
CB: No, I never do. I’m absolutely fond of having been part of ZTT and Propaganda. It was a journey that I would never have missed, because it was so exciting. I’m not resentful at all, it’s just that people focus on that thing only, and I’ve done so many other things.
So why do you think Propaganda is such a focus for so many people after all this time?
CB: You know, I think it’s because we only made one album with that line-up, so I think it captured a lot of people’s imaginations at that time. I think they were disappointed that we only did one record. Because that album was just so different, and because it had such a filmic quality, I think it allowed people to dream - we caught something in people’s imaginations. We were quite different, the four of us, and we had a dark and arty side. Obviously it was so well produced, too.
If you were asked to examine you own career history, do you have a particular period of your work that you are most excited about?
CB: I think it would be my album Love and a Million Other Things. I feel like I became my own boss, really, with that album. I think I liberated myself from the weight that I’d carried around from A Secret Wish. On Love and a Million Other Things I made most of the decisions: I had a budget and could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have any limitations. No-one tried to say 'You can’t do it like that'.
I had to free myself from A Secret Wish was, so that time was very important. Obviously A Secret Wish is very, very important, and then Love and a Million Other Things is, and then after that I just got very playful. I was meeting people like Martin Gore or Andy Bell, and we just said 'Shall we do some work together?' and did it.
So how did you meet Martin Gore?
CB: Martin used to live close by in London. At that time there were ‘the Depeche people’, the Depeche and Mute family. It was like a small community and we all just hung out. I hung out at Mute parties and Depeche concerts and that’s how Martin and I got to know each other. I love their music very much. I think Martin is an amazing songwriter, and he’s got so much integrity.
So did he approach you, or you him?
CB: No, I approached him because I was stuck on a song: it was quite silly really. I had an idea - a lyric and the verse melody and a bit of a bridge - but I couldn’t think of a chorus. Because Martin was literally only 10 minutes away from my house, I just called him up and I said 'Can I play you something and can you help me out?'. First of all he said 'No I can’t do this, I’ve never written with someone before, I can’t do it', and then a day later he called back and he said 'Look, I’ve done it, it was so easy.'
I like that kind of collaboration, when there’s no pressure, and you can try things out, and it either works or it doesn’t.
Of all the people you have collaborated with over the years, who do you think you’ve learned the most from?
CB: Oh that’s kind of an unfair question!
CB: [laughs] Everybody has their own qualities, you see, and...
But did anyone kind of mentor you particularly or collaborate very closely with you?
CB: Well, I loved working with Steven Lipson [musician and producer at ZTT]. I have to say, that was just such an amazing experience. He was just so good in directing us, and bringing out parts that I would never have dared to do before. But that’s such a long time ago, I might have remembered something entirely different to how it really was. [Laughs] I was so young then.
I’ve learned so much since then, I think, and now I’ve been working with another producer who I’ve often wanted to work with, and that’s Stephen Hague.
How did you end up working with Stephen?
CB: That’s actually really funny, because I met him at another Mute party. [Laughs] I think it was actually the last Mute party, before they demolished the building. There was a party at their offices, and they actually demolished the whole place brick by brick at the party, which was quite ‘happening’ actually. It was quite funny.
So you helped demolish the Mute office?
CB: Yes, I’ve just got a little piece of the wall. You know like the Berlin Wall? Well I’ve got a little bit of the Mute wall. It’s a great idea, I thought. Really clever.
I met Stephen at that party, and I just said 'Look Stephen, since the 80s I always have wanted to work with you' and he said “Let’s try something.” It has been a great experience because he pushed me into doing something that I hadn’t done before, but not in a kind of negative way. I really like doing things that I haven’t done before.
So what did Stephen encourage you to do that you hadn’t done?
CB: Singing in a certain style, definitely. Also I think these songs come from a slightly different direction, and have a different kind of groove - they’re more sultry and moody. Stephen and I discovered that we both have a passion for Motown, so we tried to capture a little bit of that feeling, and I would have never thought of doing that.
Was it a difficult thing to try and do?
CB: It took me ages to write those two songs, you know. It doesn’t come easily to me. It’s a really difficult long process, and lyrically I want to tell a story. I don’t want to just fill the melody line. [Laughs] I want to say something that has a little bit of substance, I hope.
What was it like for you growing up in Dusseldorf, and what was the music scene like there? And did you want to be in a band from the start?
CB: Well, I got really interested in music from about the age of 13. Everybody seemed to be in bands, so when I was 13 or 14 I formed a band, but it wasn’t really about the music. It was more about dressing up and being part of a gang, I guess. We were just expressing ourselves - or trying to express ourselves - musically. It would never have occurred to me at that point that I would make music seriously as a career, because at that time really I wanted to become a painter.
Dusseldorf is really quite small. The music scene was already there and I joined it more when I was 16 or 17, when there was a lot of synthesiser music going on. There was one street in particular where everybody hung out called the Ratinger street, and there was one particular club, called Ratinger Hof. All the musicians hung out there, and also a lot of artists from the Academy of Arts which was just around the corner. So it was a real melting pot of interesting people - or what I thought were interesting people.
Because it was quite small, you knew a lot of people: you’d just see each other, and that’s how someone asked me 'Do you want to join a band?'. We had a covers band for a while; I was on backing vocals. Then I joined The Tripolinas, with Susanne [Freytag, Propaganda percussionist/vocalist], when I was 16 and again it was all about dressing up, but also synthesisers and analogue sounds. Susanne was asked to join Propaganda while she was still in the Tripolinas, and then after a while they recruited me because they needed a singer. Next we ended up in London, and then ZTT wanted to sign us to record which was the most incredible experience. It all fell into my lap a bit.
So when you were approached to be part of Propaganda, did you like the band?
CB: Oh yes - I liked their sound. It was a really heavy dance rhythm, and kind of electronic, which was a Dusseldorf sound at the time - like DAF, for example. At the time there was just disco, and then, all of a sudden, it changed and we were right in it. We still liked dance music, but also these really hard analogue sounds. Susanne, Andreas [Thein) and Ralf (Dorper, formerly of Die Krupps] had written a couple of songs: one called 'Disziplin' was a cover of a Throbbing Gristle song. I really liked sound of that.
And did you want to move to London?
CB: London was an incredible place. Dusselfdorf is just such a small town in comparison, so I was like 'Wow! Where am I now?'. I was still in school when ‘Dr Mabuse’ came out, and it was number seven in Germany while I was still finishing high school. After I had successfully finished my exams it was like 'Oh, ok, what now?' And 'now' was go to London because I was in Propaganda.
Given Ralf’s background in Die Krupps and the interests that you had in harder and more hypnotic music, how did you feel about having your songs transformed into pop by ZTT?
CB: Well, I don’t think it was entirely pop: I had a love and hate relationship with pop but I don’t really see A Secret Wish as pop. I see it more as its own thing. It stands out; I think it’s more filmic.
I mean, we had our pop moments; there was ‘Jewel’, for instance, which was intentionally a pop song. It was brilliant to work with Trevor [Horn] on ‘Jewel’, to see an expert at work. He had a lot to do with distilling it, [and] making it a pop song. He removed a lot of chords and narrowed it down until it was a little pop number.
What made Propaganda interesting was that we were four individuals, and we each had our own ideas. I feel that I was my own person and I had my own vision and so had the other three. So, we all had our own influences and we all came together to make the album with the other people. I don’t feel I was pushed into anything. For me it was just an incredible work experience. Maybe it was because I was quite young, but I didn’t kind of question things too much. I just threw myself into it.
Ralf was quoted that the band were trying to be a more sort of dark and edgy kind of Abba... How did you feel about all of that, particularly as a woman? Did you feel you had to push back against any kind of pigeonholing?
CB: I think within the band, Susanne and I were perceived at the time as easily replaceable and we were only ‘on hire’, so to speak. Which obviously made me and Susanne angry, because we were actually the faces - the front figures - of the band. So that was a sore point. Women in the media industry... the way they are treated is horrendous because it is a man’s world - or it was at that point. I think it has probably changed a bit more now, but I’m not sure. At that time women were there to just look good, and not have an opinion. Susanne and I were quite rebellious spirits, so we wouldn’t put up with any of that. But we were always fighting, you know? Fighting to be heard, and to be respected. Women in the industry just were not taken seriously.
Do you feel it is different today?
CB: I feel quite removed from it, now. After I did Propaganda I did Act and I did incur quite a lot of sexism then. But now I’ve got my own record company and I’m my own boss, so I feel I’ve removed myself from it.
But do you think that it’s still as much of a problem?
CB: Yeah it still is, it hasn’t changed. Women are not allowed to age. It’s not a problem for men to age and grow old, but we can’t. People tend to focus on how we look. [Laughs]I could find that all kinds of depressing but I’m just trying to ignore it as much as I can - because of course, we all get older...
Well it certainly doesn’t affect your ability to write a song...
CB: Exactly. I’m standing my ground here. I love singing and I’m not going to give it up because I’m getting a bit older.
Well in the blues, the older a person was the more likely they were that they were going to be accomplished...
CB: I think people, especially in the last 15 years, focus on youth. It has been taken all out of proportion now, and it seems there is hardly any space for my generation. But I feel also that a lot of people are just not putting up with those limitations any more. The media portray a certain side of what is happening out there, but very often there’s a lot more going on that the media doesn’t portray. People are standing up and saying 'Hello!?', you know? 'Hello, we are here, and we know what we are doing'. Just because we were here at a certain time doesn’t mean we still have our bands.
For example, I love Heaven 17 very much: they're true friends of mine, and I’ve encouraged them for years, saying that they have to write another album, and now I think they are doing it. Now they are thinking with a better... a different vision, which is a good thing. A very good thing.
So these days what gives you inspiration and motivation for new creativity?
CB: Oh, there are so many things. Stories that I read, backing tracks that I receive, they kind of stimulate me to find a certain feeling.
Do you still find inspiration flows quite easily?
CB: If I allow it... I think it’s a question of mind over matter. I do feel like I need to express myself in some way, and so if I’m not inspired to write songs I sing other people’s songs, and I find inspiration in that again. It was difficult a few years ago when my Dad died, I couldn’t write anything for a couple of years after that, and now I feel like I’m getting into it again somehow.
I love expressing myself through music, and I love the whole process of finding melodies and getting the song right. And once you’ve got them, it’s like when a writer finishes the end of his essay or short story or book. It’s really thrilling once you’ve got it. It’s like a gigantic puzzle and you’re putting the pieces all together, and that's really satisfying.
I also love going out on tour again with One Two. In the 80s I missed out on doing live work: I did a very small tour for three weeks with Propaganda, and a couple of years ago I did 30 days, I think, with the Human League and 30 days with Erasure, and that was just brilliant. That kind of really got me into the mood again for doing live shows and presenting new work. I wouldn’t want to go on the road doing old stuff; I think that’s how you undervalue yourself as a musician. That’s just talking for myself, though.
You are in the middle of writing a new album, is that correct?
CB: Yes that’s right, I’m doing another album with One Two. Especially [for] when we go out live, Paul and I think we’ve found a really good way of doing our old songs: songs from OMD, from Propaganda, and also new songs. We felt it was a good way of introducing our band to people, and to having our past together represented, but also our music that we’re doing now.
How do you function as a recording partnership and a relationship partnership? Is it a difficult balance?
CB: [Laughs] Yes, it is, but I met Paul through music, so because we have that in common I couldn’t imagine it any other way either. We have huge arguments - for example, when he likes a drum pattern that I really don’t like, we can argue about it for days. But I stand my ground on things that I don’t want. I think, in bands, you have to learn to create something that everyone is happy with. That’s another learning process. After we’ve been in the studio, though, I can come home and just switch on the television and let it go.
We had a studio in our home for the first One Two album and it was something we both weren’t happy with, so we actually got ourselves a studio and we’re loving that. And at the studio it’s just work, and at home it’s just home. So that was a very good thing.
Did you set up any creative relationship rules?
CB: It’s a talking process. The important thing is that if you feel like something is unsatisfactory to you, you have to acknowledge it. I think a lot of people don’t do that, [but] I verbalise things over and over until I’m heard. If you’re unhappy with something you have to keep stating it. I think we, as humans, need to hear things a lot of times before stuff sinks in so you just have to keep going.
Back to Propaganda: I did read that there was some more recent material written last year, but that it all kind of fell apart. What happened there?
CB: (sighs) You see Michael, me and Susanne have been trying to work together for so many years - we’ve collected quite a lot of material, and I would love to make another record. About a year and a half ago, Ralf joined the band temporarily, and we did a song which I think is really brilliant and I just want to put it out. I’d love to work on another Propaganda album - but it fell apart again because Michael does seem to have difficulties working with me, which is a shame.
Is it possible that what you’ve done can come out anyway?
CB: Well I don’t really see how to if one of members of the band isn’t behind it.
CB: I mean, I have a really lovely relationship with Susanne and I have a great relationship with Ralf again which I’m very happy with. We’re good mates now, which means a lot. But Michael... we were approached a while ago to do some live work and I really wanted to push that, but Michael decided he didn’t want to work with me any longer - and that was his decision - there’s nothing I can do.
What about you and Susanne, would you work together again?
CB: Well, it’s starting with the the Scala gig and she’s excited about that - she’ll do ‘Dream Within A Dream’. We’re programming that at the moment which is a really big job, so I’m hoping that one thing leads to another. That’s all you can do, throw out something there and see what happens from there.
Do you put a lot of effort into the visual side of being an artist? Is that something still really important to you?
CB: Ha ha ha! If you could see me now! I love dressing up for formal occasions and in the 80s it was all about dressing up all the time you know. You would never leave your house without spending an hour on your makeup, but, now I like it for going out, and social occasions and also doing things like the Scala gig, but I also like just taking my coat and taking my dog out to the park you know? And walking in the rain with wet hair and stuff! The current Claudia Brucken is just the way I am. What I am now, today, I’m quite comfortable with that. I’m quite happy with the place where I am at the moment.
I’m quite a private person also, and it probably is strange for people to hear but I’m quite a shy person too, which doesn’t come across on some covers I’ve done! For me I always see myself like an actress in a way, I slip from one part into another part and I like that...
I love Claudia Brucken. I've been a follower of her career since the early days. A big influence. Catch her on the Back To The Phuture show with Mark Jones on BBC6 Music (broadcast Sun 8th May): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01101sg
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Thursday, March 17, 2011
There's a fizz and crackle around The London Studios. In ITV's headquarters on the South Bank, where even the likes of Justin Lee Collins and Vernon Kay are considered a big enough deal to have their hand-prints rendered in brass on the wall of fame - we live in second class times - the arrival of bona fide pop legends has caused palpable excitement.
Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor are here to record an hour-long primetime special, Duran Duran: One Night Only (first broadcast: 8.30pm, Sunday 20th March, ITV1).
Outside the building, a queue of colourfully-clad Durannies, some old enough to have bought 'Planet Earth' on its release day but many too young even to remember 'Ordinary World', snakes its way along the wall hours before doors. Inside, black-clad TV runners with clipboards and headsets scurry about trying to remain professional, but even they can't resist proffering copies of 'The Reflex' to Duran's PR man in the hope of an autograph or two.
There's something about Duran Duran that still reverberates in the folk memory, even for people who weren't around for their Imperial Phase. Between 1981-1985, with their blusher and cheekbones, lush lipgloss and perfect pouts, swaggering shoulderpads and big bouffant hair, freako sci-fi videos and effervescent disco-rock tunes, Duran epitomised the bulletproof battleship confidence of British pop in the first half of the 80s as they effortlessly conquered America and the rest of the earth. Even now, after countless comebacks and full or partial reunions, they retain something of the regal.
On the studio stage, bedecked with LED logos from all eras of the band's career, Le Bon prowls his practiced, alpha-male, lead-singer prowl on a run-through of 'Hungry Like The Wolf', delivering the lyrics in spoken word form to preserve his larynx for the real recording. It actually works brilliantly, the champagne-bubble exuberance of Rhodes' synths contrasting with the suavely sotto voce monologue from the main man. (They ought to release it like that some day.)
Later on, everyone's excitement at being in the presence of rock & roll royalty will slowly simmer down to tedium as classic songs - thrilling at first - are re-recorded several times over a period of four hours, along with fluffed autocued links from Christine Bleakley, while a warm-up guy gamely toils to raise flagging spirits and clap-sore palms. Just when the end appears nigh, a shower of glitter-rain having surely presented a continuity obstacle to any more re-records, a team of cleaners appears, unbelievably, to sweep it away with V-shaped mops. Don't let anyone fool you that television is glamorous.
In the break between rehearsal and showtime, I'm led through labyrinthine corridors to meet four sickeningly well-preserved men, their ages dotted around the 50-mark, in their individual dressing rooms, munching on baked potatoes, half-watching the football on a flat-screen monitor, and fending off the door-knocks and demands of their anxious entourage.
Away from the spotlight, Simon Le Bon is thoughtful, more intelligent than Duran's detractors would ever imagine, magnanimous and self-deprecating. He can afford to be. The graciousness of victors.
John Taylor is garrulousness personified onstage, winking and grinning and gurning and sharing off-mic banter with the studio audience. One on one, the razor-cheekboned bassist - who has been on the 12 Step programme since seeking help for alcoholism and drug addiction in 1994 - is a different, diffident creature, wary and slightly ill at ease, curling his gangly frame defensively into a leather armchair and putting down the portcullis if the conversation takes a turn with which he's uncomfortable (for example, the subject of 'Nigel', his teenage self who he killed off to create the pop persona of 'John', but later resurrected to write a column on his personal website). Throughout our chat, a solitary piece of stray tinsel is glinting in his hair. It's as though, when you're one of Duran Duran, you're so stellar that even your dandruff is made of glitter.
Roger Taylor, who seldom gives interviews, is the most immediately affable and friendly of the band, thanking me for all the nice reviews I've written (I'm frankly blown away that a member of Duran Duran has even noticed my existence), asking about my faint Welsh accent, and chatting tangentially about Cardiff cocktail-funkers Blue Rondo A La Turk before we've even begun.
Nick Rhodes, Duran's keyboardist and, at 48, the baby of the band, is something of a personal hero. Impossibly stylish, insouciantly effeminate and unashamedly arty (in 1984, for example, he put out a book of manipulated Polaroid photos called Interference), he's the one who's always exuded the slightly aloof air of someone who only suffers the other members because he's obliged to, but who secretly knows he's their superior. The only previous time I met him, on the staircase at the aftershow of a gig at Birmingham City FC, I was so overwhelmed I could only blurt out "HELLONICKRHODES!!!" (He just laughed at me.) I handle things a little more calmly this time. Wildean and actorly of intonation, he speaks as though all the world's a stage and he's merely giving his latest performance. He already has make-up on, but assistants keep trying to drag him away to apply even more.
Veteran bands inevitably hit a Mid-Career Crisis during which, lacking confidence in their own ideas, they look around and try too hard to chase the prevailing zeitgeist…
Roger Taylor: …and bring in Timbaland?! [who produced much of Duran's R&B-flavoured 2007 album Red Carpet Massacre]
Nick Rhodes: Embarrassing! Awful! [laughs]
John Taylor: That whole project was a fucking nightmare. We delivered an album to Sony that was a natural-sounding, almost >rock album, and they were like 'We need something a bit pop, do you fancy doing a couple of tracks with Timbaland?' And around the same time we fell out with Andy [Taylor, Duran's guitarist on-and-off since 1980, currently 'off'], so the Timbaland stuff sounded hugely different from what we'd done before.
NR: The thing was, we got an opportunity to work with Timbaland, so we thought 'Great, let's go for it'. We knew it was a risk in terms of what the fans would like, if you're working with someone who is ostensibly an electro/hip hop producer. When Timbaland saw the guitar and the bass and the drums come in to the studio, I think he was mortified, because everything's in a box for those guys. But I'm really glad we made that album, because in time I think it will stand up.
JT: It was the most electro, sample-based album of our lives. It could have been a Simon Le Bon solo album in parts. You weren't hearing Roger and I, you weren't really hearing Nick, and there wasn't a lot of guitar on it.
Simon Le Bon: When you compare it to where we're at now, I do think Red Carpet Massacre was a bit of a personality issue. We thought we could make an urban album and our fans would like it… but our fans left us in noooo doubt about their response to that album.
So, for All You Need Is Now, you've worked with Mark Ronson, a producer most closely associated in most people's minds with a vintage/retro soul sound. What convinced you that he could make a Duran Duran record?
SLB: We knew that there was more to his game than that vintage/retro thing. He clearly had the right ear for melodies, he knows what makes a song work. He understands the emotional impact of musical movement. And he's able to put that into words as well. And if you're going to work with Duran Duran, you've got to understand those kind of things. He's trained, he understands music theory, all that stuff. And we did a thing with him in Paris, a couple of years previously, where he took his favourite Duran Duran songs, made a megamix out of them, and we performed it live, with him. From the songs he chose, and the way he put it together, and the references outside of Duran Duran that he brought in, we knew it would work.
RT: The moment that we heard that mix, and it was so cool and he understood the catalogue so well, that was the moment.
SLB: He impressed us so much that we were desperate for him to come and work on the next album. And when he said 'We need to work together properly', we were like 'Woo-hoo!'
RT: Mark got us to kind of look at ourselves a bit, not anybody else. He said 'Everybody else is in your ground, that you occupied in the early 80s, doing your thing! You should go back and own that territory again!' His analytical drive is so intelligent, it was almost like a scientific experiment: 'Get the old drum kits out you used on 'Rio', get John's old bass guitar there', he wanted to know exactly how the keyboards were set up, it was a real vision he had.
SLB: He said 'Look, this is not what Duran Duran fans want to hear'. His point of view was that of a fan, and it really helped us.
JT: It seemed to me that he had a magic touch, and I like him a lot. You mention the retro soul thing, and we did go for a retro sound on this record, but it was different: he moved his microscope from 60s soul to 80s electro-pop, and he applied the same kind of detail. He's a master forger. But I was OK with that, because I felt we'd gone so far out with Timbaland and we lost our way. So Mark's idea was to go back and reference the early 80s. The approach was 'OK, hip hop hasn't happened yet, and neither have the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and neither have Radiohead.' We wrote the best songs we could write, and Mark acted like a referee, if things got a bit too… straight. He wasn't interested in an 'Ordinary World' type song on there.
He wanted to have that quirky, dark pop thing the first few Duran albums had. It definitely helps to have a direction and a concept when you start out. He wrote these rules out and stuck them on the studio wall. There was this undercurrent of attitude. It helps that he's such a huge fan, and even the way he looks. He's this walking, talking advertisement for early 80s cool. It made us think 'Yeah, we can do that'.
Duran Duran have been perennially misrepresented as gormless Tory playboys by serious critics, living on yachts and laughing at the poor. For example, I prepared for this interview by reading a classic piece by Paul Morley from 1982 which contrasts Duran's supposed apolitical hedonism with the riots going on outside in the streets of Birmingham…
SLB: The 'Let them eat cake?' one? Yeah, it's funny, I was thinking about that recently. I think my head was in a funny place. I can see where he was coming from. The thing was this. We were so intent on our career, and making something happen. We were so focussed, and we were kind of blind on everything that was going on around us. And now I can really see that. And I think he was right. We were in this theatre, talking, and we could hear the riots going on outside. And we thought if they could harness that energy into doing something useful, there wouldn't be a fucking problem. Which sounds like a very callous statement, but that was very much our attitude: don't wait for somebody else to change your life, don't sit there complaining 'Why isn't my life better?', do it yourself. And that was very much part of the core of 80s thinking, and possibly Thatcherism as well. And in some ways it's very good, but it had a real downside as well. And I can see what Morley meant.
NR: That was a gross distortion. It's very easy to paint a picture like that. If ever I do an interview with anyone, I'm perfectly happy if they're filming it and everything goes out, or if they're writing everything down, and I get the same copy. But when you get someone like a Paul Morley at that time - I mean I rather hope he's become a little more sensible in his old age - but he knew what he was writing before he came to write that piece. It's absolutely apocryphal to suggest that we didn't care what was going on. Of course you do! Birmingham was our home town, and there were riots going on in the street, I mean, God's sake…
JT: I guess perhaps we disappointed people, in that we weren't more rebellious. We gave in, we surrendered too easily. We are a product of our own experience, and at the time everything felt natural to me. I dunno, we could have said 'No! We won't do Jackie magazine…'
Well, you could have been like The Clash and refused to do Top Of The Pops, but what does that achieve?
JT: The Clash were rare in that they really didn't need to do Top Of The Pops, and you wouldn't have wanted them to. I wouldn't, anyway. I saw them live all the time… I appreciate what you're saying, but just bringing it up puts one on the defensive.
Another way in which rock historians have unfairly treated Duran is by placing them in a boy band lineage, merely a stepping stone between the Bay City Rollers a decade earlier and Take That a decade later, an 80s equivalent of JLS or The Wanted…
JT: How dare they?!
SLB: Those [The Wanted etc] are commercial bands put together by other people, and the members are just performers.
NR: That's only by testosterone-fuelled ROCK critics anyway. I don't begrudge them their little moment of spilling a bit of ink on us. It doesn't matter, they can rant all they want. If you look at musicians, we've always been very respected for what we created, whereas a certain breed of music journalist were never gonna like us. But girls liked us. And one thing a lot of music journalists are never able to get is girls! When people properly look back in retrospect on what we've done, our records, and experiments we've carried out - some more successful than others - then it'll speak for itself. I'm not worried about that.
In fact, what's rarely recognised is that Duran were a deeply arty band. A quintet of androgynous men in make-up who made futuristic, forward-looking records influenced by the same roll-call of cool predecessors as all the hipper 80s acts [see Nick and John's superb 2006 compilation Only After Dark, based on their DJ sets from Birmingham's Rum Runner club, for evidence], packed with unusual noises, abstract, cryptic lyrics and bizarre imagery, and somehow snuck all that into the bedrooms of millions of teenagers worldwide.
SLB: We were an avant-garde outfit when we began, but we were also very ambitious. But when the media came into contact with us, particularly journalists who had a grounding in what came after punk, which was very austere, political, industrial, and had no colour to it. And I think they felt what we were doing was a betrayal. But we wanted colour, flamboyance, romanticism, aspiration, and optimism after all that pessimism. Punk to me was fucking bright colours. It had black as well, but the one thing punk wasn't was grey. It went grey after punk. But we wanted to bring the spiky hair, the dye, the make-up, and the fun. And we had a sexual tension and threat. Boy George said we were 'like milk', which I just thought was stupid. 'Girls On Film' was actually political in a way. It was a feminist statement, for sure. It's about the exploitation of women. And you had all these little girls singing along with it in their bedrooms…
JT: We thought we were an art band. We thought we'd slot in somewhere between [early] Simple Minds and [early] The Human League. But it never really went according to plan, we fell into a different bag, and the pop thing kind of happened. We got jumped on. Smash Hits was in the ascendancy. And the serious music papers hated that, so they positioned themselves against us and we never really got it back. We could have taken a million different routes, but we chose that one. The one thing you can't control is how you connect with an audience, when millions of people fall in love with you. We had no idea. That was the unknown quantity, the… what's it called?
Don't say the X-factor…
JT: The X-factor! That's exactly what it was. None of us saw it coming. And when that started happening, all bets were off. You really couldn't control anything. But as you say, our music was very dark. Those first three albums, there was a dark side that was as interesting, if not more interesting than the pop hits. We didn't consciously try to write hit songs. Certainly no more so than Siouxsie And The Banshees did when they wrote 'Hong Kong Garden', you know. I think we felt there was a place for us within the culture, but we never thought we were 'pop'. But hits are quite addictive. Athough in actual fact, doing Top Of The Pops a couple of years into your career isn't that much fun…
RT: It's down to Smash Hits. Japan were in Smash Hits, but if you listen to their albums, they were really arty, weren't they? If you went to Japan concerts there would be girls screaming, but they also had this artistic vibe going on. And The Beatles had an amazing catalogue of music, but they also got screamed at. Which is how we justified the whole thing: if it was good enough for The Beatles…
NR: I think we had a unique vision, we knew what it was somehow, and we just forged ahead. And we were lucky that a lot of things worked out. We never thought we were gonna be an internationall act in that way. We always thought we'd be an art-school band that found a bit of an audience.
Sometimes you can pinpoint the exact moment that a band blows its perceived credibility, and for Duran it was arguably 53 seconds into the "Rio" video, when Roger's toe gets bitten by a crab. (Heaven forbid that humour and art should co-exist…)
RT: Haha! I think there were a few moments before that.
You're the first person anyone sees in a Duran video, of course. Opening frames of 'Planet Earth'…
RT: Well remembered! In the blue lasers, with my head back… I think [director] Russell Mulcahy had a bit of a crush on me. 'OK, get your shirt off, you're the first one, lie back…'
Let's talk about those videos. Shot on proper film stock, high-budget and high production-value for the time, and often very, very strange. Aside from the overplayed MTV hits, there were oddities like the clips for album tracks like 'The Chauffeur', which employed heavy Helmut Newton-style S&M imagery and Dali/Bunuel surrealism. Or 'Night Boat', a Caribbean zombie apocalypse which has Le Bon reciting Shakespeare…
SLB: There's the Mercutio speech from Romeo & Juliet, and I think Roger does a bit of Hamlet… This was a band with serious ambition. I wanted to get to the idea of ghosts. I wanted to do it by using archaic language. And the only bit of archaic language that I could remember - this is pre the internet, we were filming in Antigua - was by reciting some Shakespeare. I could have used Chaucer, which would be a little bit more archaic, but nobody would understand a fucking word cos it would be in Middle English.
You beat Jacko to the zombies-in-pop motif by two years.
RT: We did, actually! I haven't watched that for years… The weird thing is, we put out a compilation of our videos, which had the [soft-porn] long version of 'Girls On Film', and 'The Chauffeur', and people were buying it for their 8-year-old kids! The parents would rush into the bedroom and see them watching a man having an ice cube rubbed on his nipple… That sums up the whole situation we were in.
In 1984-85, Duran split into two factions for the side projects Arcadia (Simon, Nick, Roger) and The Power Station (John, Andy, sometimes Roger). The former was arcane and esoteric, with impenetrable cameo appearances from Grace Jones. The latter featured Robert Palmer and Chic's Tony Thompson, and was defined by an impossibly excessive over-the-top, clattering rock-funk production. Le Bon himself has since described Arcadia's So Red The Rose as "the most pretentious album ever made", while The Power Station's self-titled debut has been described my many (including myself) as "the most cocainey album ever made". So which album involved the biggest pile of white powders in its creation?
SLB: Did I say that about pretension?! Maybe I was pre-empting, thinking that it was better for me to say it than anybody else. I think there's a very fine line, a blurring, between 'pretension' and 'aspiration'. It's about trying to reach for something. About the cocainey thing? I would agree! [Laughs] I don't think even John Taylor would disagree with that. In a cocaine battle, they would win that. Halfway through the making of the Arcadia album I met Yasmin for the second time, and nothing else mattered. I'm surprised we finished it, to be honest, cos all I could think about was Yasmin.
JT: Cocainey? Yeah, maybe. [Blows air through lips, horse-like.] I don't think that's a compliment. You can't resist the lure of these… it was an opportunity to do something different to Seven And The Ragged Tiger, which was a really difficult album to make, and I wanted to make something more primal, Andy felt the same way, and we just concocted this plan to 'play away'. Cocainey? Yeah, it's definitely one way to describe it.
RT: I had a foot in both camps, haha. I did a lot in Arcadia, and a little bit in The Power Station. Cocaine-fuelled? Yeah. It was the two ends of the band really, wasn't it? You had the arty end and the rock end. A kind of parting of the waves. I think Arcadia has stood the test of time better, maybe. The feeling was that The Power Station was more successful at the time. It was a bigger commercial success. Arcadia was probably cooler.
NR: I wouldn't know, because I wasn't there for those sessions, but The Power Station certainly felt like it was boiling over. There were some really good songs on their album. I remember hearing it at the time and not loving it, because I was so engrossed in what we were doing, but I think history's been kind to it, and they invented a sound for Robert Palmer to continue with, that's for sure. Was Arcadia's the most pretentious album ever made? Yes, we've struggled with that one, but I always like to retain that title. [smiles]
A little bit of pretension in pop goes a long way…
NR: I quite agree.
One early song, a fan favourite that still gets performed today, is 'Friends Of Mine'. It's a track which, it is said, took on an unexpected second life in America's gay clubs where many, unaware that the subject of the euphoric refrain "Georgie Davis is coming out" was actually an incarcerated armed robber from London, assumed it was an anthem of homosexual liberation…
RT: Oh, like that Rod Stewart song, 'The Killing Of Georgie'?
SLB: Oh really! Well, that's really cool! I hadn't heard about that. I like that! I think to some extent Duran Duran is a gay icon. Obviously not in the same way as, say, ABBA… In America they never knew who George Davis was. He's dead now. He's not alive any more. [He's not dead. He's alive, and was in the Court Of Appeal a few weeks ago seeking to overturn his original conviction and claim compensation] The reference was a kind of a sign-of-the-times thing. By saying 'Georgie Davis is coming out', we were placing it in the future. When we wrote it, he'd just gone back in again.
I wonder what the band make of the alarming amount of Duran fan fiction out there, sexual in nature, written by grown women. John shakes his head and doesn't wish to comment. Simon, however...
SLB: I'm not aware of it. Should I be? About five years ago, when I got into the internet thing, I thought 'Stop! I don't wanna know'. It's weird, it changes the relationship between myself, as an artist and a performer, and the audience.
I can stop right there…
SLB: [somewhat intrigued] No, carry on!
The most common pairing - Google with great caution - is 'Jo-Si' (John & Simon, also a favourite of Youtube montage-makers). The plots are typically about how Simon and John have been lovers forever, Yasmin knows and is cool about it, but John struggles with Catholic guilt over being gay…
SLB: Yeah, yeah! I've heard about that. That's one of the things I do remember, that pairing of me and John.
Maybe it's encouraged by the slightly homoerotic way you two share a microphone onstage sometimes.
SLB: Yeah, we get really close. We look at each other, as well. We're not trying to turn anybody on! We're very close friends, and we're not uncomfortable being in close proximity, which a lot of guys are. But I think the fact we're in a band, and we use microphones… The relationship between people in bands is beyond friendship, and beyond brotherhood, and beyond family. What I find fascinating is how the concept of me and John being lovers is such a turn-on for women. I don't get that at all! I remember a long long long time ago, being with a girl who said 'If you wanna do something to really turn me on, find a guy and snog him'. I find that really interesting.
There's a track on the new album, 'Being Followed', which has the lines "Paranoia the only valid point of view" and "Someone always watching what we do". Nowadays, with camera phones and Youtube, that's literally true: stars can't go anywhere without their behaviour being documented, and the line between public space and private space is blurred. If that technology had been available in the 80s, what would the most scandalous Duran photo have been?
SLB: You're asking me to tell you?! I had some pretty amazing sex-and-drugs combined occasions. Which, ultimately, were very rock'n'roll. Just thinking back to the Rum Runner, what a place that was for five guys… it was probably illegal. In fact, a lot of it was definitely illegal.
Of all the many strange things that have happened to Duran, one of the strangest was when your former guitarist, Warren Cuccurullo (1986-2001), started doing fully-erect nude photo shoots in gay mags, making hardcore porn films, and selling his own personalised dildo, the 'Rock Rod'…
SLB: Umm… well, he kind of started when he was still in the group. He did hardcore?! Right. Well, he's a very impressively-built physique. I'm very much a live-and-let-live person. I haven't always been like that, but I've learned. I'm very tolerant.
He also believes the planes that hit the towers on 9/11 were a computer-generated hoax.
SLB: Riiight. Well, it was when he started doing the nude shoots that I kind of realised he wasn't right for the band.
Say what you like about [early Duran member] Stephen Duffy, you can't imagine him bringing out Tin Tin dildos.
SLB: No, no! But he's a lovely guy, Tin Tin Duffy. So's Warren though. Actually I wouldn't say he's a lovely guy. No, yes he is. But him leaving was more to do with, he was very overbearing when it came to the artistic side. 'I'm right, we should do it like this, this is the only way it should be, all you have to do is go and write the lyrics'. That, ultimately, is what made me say to Nick one day, 'This isn't gonna work'.
RT: I wasn't in the band at the time, but I read a piece about him the other day. Yeah, he made a sex toy in the shape of his own penis, which, er…
It would make interesting Duran merchandise idea. A change from T-shirts and hats.
RT: It would!
While we're talking penises… Andy Warhol once said of Nick Rhodes: "I love him. I worship him. I masturbate to Duran Duran videos" (The Face magazine) So, Nick, what's it like knowing that Warhol, possibly the most famous artist of the 20th century, used to wank off over you?
NR: Ummm… he was mischievous all the time. He was just causing trouble. I remember him asking me 'Did you see what I said in The Face?' and I said 'No…', but he knew damn well I'd seen it. He was funny as hell. I loved Andy. I often think about him. Now he's become so much larger than life, even more so than he was then. And it's amazing how prophetic his personal vision was. He pretty much invented the 21st century, with his imagery and his obsession with fame. He would have loved these reality TV things.
How aware are you of The Cult Of Nick Rhodes?
NR: [smiling diplomatically] I'm very conscious that we all have our individual fans. It's always been that way, from the very beginning.
Yes, but when I let a few of my friends know I was going to be interviewing Duran Duran, two women, one aged 21, the other 41, both said "Lick Nick Rhodes for me". [Don't worry, I'm not going to.] It's a thing…
NR: Haha! I suppose in an odd way we all represent different things, from within the same band. I'm… curious. I like to find out different stuff, and try something new and that's what drives me within the band. And we've been able to do most things, because we collaborate with photographers, modern artists, film-makers, I mean we've just done this thing with David Lynch…
OK, tell me about that.
NR: American Express approached us. They're doing a series where film directors direct a band's live performances. They asked us who we'd like to work with. Terry Gilliam had already done Arcade Fire, and I really like Terry Gilliam too… Anyway, I said 'David Lynch!' Funnily enough, he'd just done a remix for us of [upcoming single] 'Girl Panic', very strange, very cool. So he was up for it, as long as we could assure him we'd have complete control and we could do something that had never been done before. He does sort of think in the same way that we do. Obviously, different art, different style and everything, but he does love to operate in a little vacuum without really looking at all the things going on around him. He's super-excited about it. And the little trailers he's made for it are fantastic.
Are there any plans to release the shelved 2006 album Reportage?
SLB: Yes. There's no actual plan, but I would be failing in my duty if I didn't get at least… the song '48 Hours Later', which is sublime. It's one of the best Duran Duran songs I've ever heard. And it would work well with what we're doing now. You could easily have it on All You Need Is Now. There's another one called 'Transcendental Mental' which sounds great. There's another called 'Traumatised' which lyrically isn't as strong, but the melody is great.
What about the actual song 'Seven And The Ragged Tiger'?
SLB: Mmm. I dunno. I think it's on the internet, isn't it? Some things are not worth waiting for.
Of all the records you've released since your initial burst of fame in the 80s, which one most deserves to be listened to? You're not allowed to say "the new one".
SLB: The Wedding Album  is really good, but that did well. I find Pop Trash  really difficult because it's the album with the least of me on it. Medazzaland  has some really interesting sounds on it, but it's so hard on your ears. It's not lush. They say that women don't like the sound of cymbals. It's one of the reasons you get more guys at heavy rock concerts. And that album was one of the least appreciated by women.
RT: I was really proud of the Astronaut album , when we all got back together. It tends to get forgotten about. People talk about Red Carpet Massacre and the new one, but Astronaut itself was overshadowed by the story of the five of us getting back together.
You mentioned that Mark Ronson has spoken of other bands moving into 'your ground', and I've certainly noticed many Duran-influenced bands over the last decade. Who have you heard and thought 'They wouldn't be doing what they're doing if it wasn't for Duran Duran'?
SLB: The Killers. Bloc Party. Franz Ferdinand. The one that sounds the most like Duran Duran is a song by Reverend And The Makers called 'Heavyweight Champion Of The World'. I really thought it was us!
RT: The Bravery. That's the one where I thought 'Wow, that's a bit close…' And Reverend And The Makers, like Simon said. Actually The Dandy Warhols [who would later be produced by Nick Rhodes], first time I saw them on Top Of The Pops I thought 'Wow, very Duran-ish'. It was after we'd been out of fashion for a long time, then the Duran sound kind of took off a bit: four-to-the-floor drums, badly-played disco, haha.
Lastly, from the outside, being in Duran Duran - of any band on earth - looks like the most fun in the world. The model girlfriends, the A-list lifestyle, the movie cameos, the parties, the drugs, the fashions, the glamour. Please don't disillusion us. That's correct, right?
RT: A lot of it's hard work. We're about to go to America for six weeks. Just the travelling would kill most people. And we're still banging out tunes we wrote 30 years ago…
You don't mind that, do you?
RT: We're very aware of what the audience wants. And I hate going to see bands and coming away having only heard the new album. I heard Beady Eye don't do any Oasis songs…
Passing tour manager: Beady Eye aren't Oasis! Did Arcadia ever do any Duran songs?
RT: Hah! Arcadia never played live. I think The Power Station played a few Duran songs, though…
SLB: The most fun in the world? Nah. I always thought that was The Rolling Stones…
Duran Duran will play the following live show on their UK tour:
May 18 Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle
May 19 SECC, Glasgow
May 21 LG Arena, Birmingham
May 22 Capital FM Arena, Nottingham
May 23 Echo Arena, Liverpool
May 28 O2 Arena, London
May 30 Brighton Centre
May 31 International Centre, Brighton
June 1 International Arena, Cardiff
June 3 MEN Arena, Manchester
June 4 Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield