John Taylor of Duran Duran: 'In an arena you really own the room'
The year or so since the release of the band’s 14th album Future Past has been something of a whirlwind, yet Taylor finds at 62 that he is more appreciative of the numerous events they’ve been involved in, including the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee concert and the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, than he would have in his younger days.
“Things happened very quickly for us out of the box when the band first got going,” the bassist says. “We achieved a lot in a very short time, and I think you always have that imposter syndrome thinking ‘we don’t deserve this, it’s going to get taken away’, and of course it kind of did get taken away for a little while, and that reinforced that idea that I never deserved it in the first place.
“(So) I think this year has been quite satisfying to us, really, because we’ve worked hard at getting to this place. This wasn’t just a bit of luck and a pretty face. It’s taken a lot of tenacity and passion to claw ourselves back into the game, if you like, and it’s been great.”
Future Past’s worldwide success seems to have re-energised the band, who began in Birmingham in 1978. Taylor says that there is “an enormous amount of analysis” that goes into the making of each Duran Duran album, comparing the process to Jean-Luc Goddard’s film about The Rolling Stones creating Sympathy For The Devil which he had been “lying awake in bed thinking about” the night before. “They’re trying all sorts, they’re working on the tempo and the conga part, all these little elements to get the mood of the song right, to find what the song is,” he says. “You have got to go at it from so many different angles, and that in turn reminded me of The Beatles’ Get Back movie, which I had just watched for the first time. I was really surprised how similar to our process it is.
“It’s not really like you’re writing songs, you’re building songs and the first brick could be a hi-hat part and that is a journey of discovery. And you’ve got four equally weighted writing partners and whoever’s in the room. It’s quite a lot of self-examination and finding out what the song is. It’s mentally exhausting, I find.
“Whereas being on the road, it’s entirely different, it’s all physical, and you really get to celebrate who you are because the fans want to hear Planet Earth and Girls on Film and all this stuff that you did years and years ago, and it’s nice to be reminded that you had a clue back then. Whereas in the studio you can very easily slip into ‘I’ve got nothing left to say, I’ve got nothing left to give’.”
Thoughts have yet to turn to where Duran Duran might go next musically, but Taylor says: “The first step would be who are we going into the room with.
“We’ve had a couple of conversations,” he adds. “Nick and I had a conversation and we both came to the same thought. We’re not quite there yet, we’re still really laying out the touring, getting into that and exploring the best ways to present the live show.”
The days of writing on the road are clearly a distant memory. “It’s a different brain,” he says. “And touring takes it out of you. There have been times when we tried (to write on tour). You remember when Prince was at the peak of his powers and you’d hear about him doing a mega show somewhere and going in and doing an all-night session in the studio and you’d be like, ‘Maybe we’d better try that’, but it’s rare, I think.
“As you get older you’ve got to take care of your energy and prioritise what you need your energy for, and once you’re on tour you’re in the business of entertaining, you’re not there to work on new music.”
Looking back on a spectacular summer of outdoor shows in 2022, that included Hyde Park, the Platinum Jubilee concert and the Commonwealth Games, as well as two in Yorkshire, at Castle Howard and The Piece Hall in Halifax, Taylor says: “We’ve worked really hard on our outdoor presentation. When we put the original band back together for the Astronauts project, the industry, the business, the landscape had changed a lot and one of the ways it had changed was festivals had just become massive.
“In the 80s festivals were not a thing, so we came back and were looking at festivals and thinking how can our music work in that environment? It’s been something that we’ve worked at and I think this summer was one of the first times where it felt very satisfying to be able to play some of those shows and feel like we’ve got it figured out, because it’s a different thing. Then coming back to arenas, like what we’re going to be doing in the UK (in May) and what we’ve just been doing in the US, was just wow, it was like going back to doing the clubs.The outdoor thing is a different mindset. I feel like I almost have to approach the audience a little bit differently, particularly at festivals where you’re almost like part of the buffet, but in an arena you really own the room.
“I’ll say it’s easier for me, it’s probably easier for all of us in a way, but it’s all part of the deal. I wouldn’t want to sacrifice one for the other, I think it’s good to do them all. And if I don’t sound like somebody that’s been doing it for 40 years, I think that’s part of it.
“The worst that can happen to any of us is we get to a place where we think that we know it all, ‘ah, I’ve got this’. Where’s the growth in that? There’s got to be growth. You’re going to get complacent and you’re going to rot ultimately, so you almost have to invent (challenges), like what I said about taking music to the outdoor crowds. Maybe even then I was overthinking it, but then again it felt like this is an interesting task to consider and take on in this phase of our career, and it’s that kind of thinking, because we all have it, that brings freshness to the stage.
“Because the worst thing the audience needs to see is a band that look like they’ve been doing it for 40 years. You’re almost trying to pull off a trick of the mind, people go, ‘wow, wait a minute, they can’t have been doing this for 40 years’ and then the audience members are like, ‘No, that means I’m not in my fifties, I must be in my thirties’. For two hours only, you will feel younger,” he chuckles.
The day we speak, Birmingham Civic Society is due to unveil a blue plaque at the former site of the Rum Runner club where a then up-and-coming Duran Duran had a residency in 1980. Taylor says he is “definitely” filled with memories of the city but rues the fact that the building itself, on Broad Street, was flattened in 1987.
“It’s a shame they knocked (the Rum Runner) down in the first place – never mind a blue plaque, they should’ve been thinking about that when they (did that),” he says.
On their recent North American tour, the band performed at Madison Square Gardens and the Hollywood Bowl, two venues steeped in musical history. Taylor says they were both “fantastic places to play”.
“Madison Square Gardens is probably the number one indoor arena in the world, it’s the kind of venue that we’ve only just got hip to,” he says.
“Probably by the late 80s they were starting to build venues that could fit 10,000 people in. America has these indoor arenas that are built for basketball, we never had that over here. You could put bands into theatres here and then if you were going to find anywhere else it had to be a cattle shed or something. I was trying to think of that venue in Leeds – Queens Hall – it was never a worthy venue for live music. Actually I shouldn’t say that because a load of people will be saying ‘I had a great time there’, people in the right band can turn a venue like that, but it’s far from being an ideal situation.
“It took us a while to develop those arena venues and probably rightly so. I remember as a teenager the idea of having to go and see bands in these big 10,000-seaters, I was thinking ‘what the f***’ but I think everybody’s used to it now.
“The Hollywood Bowl is one of a kind. It’s a beautiful outdoor venue right in the middle of the city, where everybody has a good view. I think it was the WEPA that wanted to put money into public venues. It’s got a whole Art Deco thing going and it’s a really beautiful venue to play, and I can walk there from my house; not that I did, but it’s a beauty, I love going there.”
In November Duran Duran were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Taylor pauses for thought when asked if it was a bittersweet moment that they attended the ceremony without original guitarist Andy Taylor, who, it was subsequently revealed, has incurable metastatic prostate cancer.
“To be honest, I wasn’t 100 per cent certain that Andy was going to go anyway,” he says eventually. “It was very touch and go. He said he was going to go but we were like, ‘we’ll believe that when we see it’.
“Two weeks before it was due to happen I got back in touch with him by text and we had some really fun back and forths, and I was really excited to play with him again. It was literally two days before that we found out that he wasn’t going to be coming (to Los Angeles) and maybe a day or two before that I found out that he was sick.
“It’s horrible, it’s awful, I’m so sorry for him. We had an incredible time together, he’s a powerhouse, he’s dynamite. I was glad he made the decision not to come, though, because when you have a diagnosis like that you’ve got to choose your battles. I think the most important thing for him right now is that he’s reasonably comfortable and he can enjoy what time is left to him.”
This March will mark the 40th anniversary of Duran Duran’s first number one single in the UK, Is There Something I Should Know? For Taylor, it marked one of the band’s greatest achievements. “I was talking to somebody recently about this,” he says. “I grew up in a house obsessed with the charts. When it came on Radio 1 we’d sit around – my mum, dad, my auntie, my nan – and we’d listen to the chart rundown. It was like a point of interest so it’s maybe no surprise that that’s the business I went into.
“How can you forget a moment like that (reaching number one)? A lot had happened between the first single and this single so we knew it was growing, but that’s one for the animals, the fact that we’re still talking about it. The fact that we did it with a very definitely Beatles-influenced track...I think we were channelling those guys and the kind of success that they had in the early years.”
Duran Duran play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on May 4. https://duranduran.com/