Duran Duran — the seminal 1980s music outfit that emerged from Birmingham, England, to dominate the global pop scene with cinematic music videos for a catalog of catchy, guitar-inflected, groove-laden synth pop hit singles — has endured.
It’s a fact that’s come as something of a pleasant surprise to the members of the band’s current lineup, vocalist Simon Le Bon, bass player John Taylor, keyboardist Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor, four of the group’s five founders. The group performs at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio on Sunday.
“It’s something nobody really anticipated, but then we didn’t really anticipate anything,” Le Bon concedes. “We didn’t think two weeks ahead, let alone 30 years ahead.”
These days, the musicians seem to be going out of their way to surprise fans, to upend conventional wisdom about what happens to pop stars when they near (or pass) age 50. In mid-March, Duran Duran for the first time in its career played Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest, the week-long music festival where new acts are routinely anointed as the next big thing by an elite coterie of tastemakers.
They followed that with an intimate show at the Mayan in Los Angeles that was streamed live on YouTube, featured guest turns from performers such as My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way, Gossip’s Beth Ditto and R&B singer Kelis and was directed by outré auteur David Lynch.
The band then co-headlined with Tiësto the opening night of the world’s biggest electronic music showcase, Miami’s Ultra Music Festival, and, after playing the Fox Theater Pomona on Thursday, will perform three nights later at Coachella.
But unlike many of the artists on the road right now that made it big during the Reagan-era heyday of MTV and John Hughes, Duran Duran isn’t just endeavoring to profit from nostalgia. More than 30 years after its formation, the group has reinvented itself as an indie operation.
Its latest 14-song studio effort, “All You Need Is Now,” has a comely independent pedigree, produced as it is by Mark Ronson, best known for his work with Amy Winehouse and Adele, and featuring guest vocals from the Scissor Sisters’ Ana Matronic, among others.
Seated across from Le Bon in a green room at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live just prior to a private acoustic performance for a local radio station, John Taylor says the renaissance the band is enjoying owes entirely to the strength of the new material: “We made a good record, and that’s not an easy thing for anybody to do.”
The last time Duran Duran released an album, the reception was more muted. Produced by Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, 2007’s “Red Carpet Massacre” marked a departure into the realm of programmed beats for the group, a tangent that Roger Taylor, 50, said “didn’t really go down very well with the fans.”
But the experience of making that record primed the musicians to be especially receptive to Ronson’s suggestions that they reclaim some of their heritage from modern acts that were utilizing some of the sonic concepts the band pioneered.
“How he explained it to me,” says Le Bon, 52, “was … he saw that in our striving to achieve craftsmanship and musical perfection we’d become a little more orthodox and he preferred the slightly naïve but avant-garde style of our first two albums. That’s really what he wanted to return us to.”
That meant stacking up Le Bon’s vocal harmonies and having Rhodes play analog synthesizers, locking the two Taylors (who are not related) into what Rhodes, 48, describes as “funky grooves” and taking up the tempo of the songs. “It really helps makes things more exciting,” he says.
“All You Need Is Now” was written and recorded over the span of about 18 months in London; when the album was released on iTunes on Dec. 21, it hit the top spot on the iTunes albums chart in 15 countries.
The reaction from the band, though, was one of cautious optimism. “We never expect anything,” Le Bon says. “We’ve had some big disappointments in our time with the way that albums have gone.”
Such pragmatic pronouncements sound strange coming from the frontman of a group that after releasing its self-titled debut in 1981 dominated the pop culture conversation with sexy music videos that exploited the form to savvy effect. Until, that is, one considers the ups and downs Duran Duran has encountered.
At perhaps the peak of its success, the group temporarily disbanded to pursue side projects, and when it came time to reform, only Le Bon, Rhodes and John Taylor returned. Albums were recorded and released; critical acclaim, which largely had eluded the band, continued, as a rule, to be difficult to come by.
In 1993, the single “Ordinary World” became a breakout smash, returning the band to regular radio rotation. After that, the lineup fluctuated still more until the initial “Fab Five” — as they were dubbed in the ‘80s — reunited in 2001, eventually working up the album “Astronaut,” only to have to once more grapple with the departure of guitarist Andy Taylor (again, no relation).
The group’s current guitar player, Dom Brown, was backstage at the Grammy Museum, warming up as a parade of record label and radio executives and publicists filed back and forth through the green room. But neither Le Bon nor Taylor seemed distracted. Instead, the musicians focused on their current musical momentum, which, if all goes well, will be carried forward with a stellar turn on the Coachella stages in Indio, Calif.
“Commercial success is so seductive and before you know it, it becomes all you’re trying to do is write those four-minute hit songs,” offers Taylor, 50, reflecting back to the early days when he and his childhood friend Rhodes were first choosing to follow in the footsteps of the musicians that inspired them, artists such as David Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk and Chic. “We were an art school band; we became a pop group because of the way we looked.”
“In a way, [our success] happened so quickly, we were quite ambitious. We were very ambitious. And we achieved our goals. I certainly achieved my goals. I didn’t realize how limited the idea of wanting to play Madison Square Garden was, because we achieved it within four years, and then I didn’t know what to do for years after that. What I thought what it was all about had to change, it had to not be so goal-oriented.”
“We’ve had a lot of time to ponder the question of what our job is, what we do in the world,” Le Bon says. “I feel that we do something which brings people together, makes people feel good about themselves, makes people feel that they’re not alone. Making people feel not alone, I feel we’re providing a very useful service.”