Think of all the bands you know from the ’80s. Now whittle that list down to bands that are still around and performing with most of their original lineup. Trim that list down to the acts that are still recording new music, and then cut that list down to groups that are making new music that’s also good—records that feel fresh and modern but not gimmicky. What are you left with? Even one of the decade’s most iconic bands, Duran Duran, isn’t totally sure.
“We often talk as a band, ‘Who are our contemporaries who are doing anything in the same spectrum as we are?’” says keyboardist Nick Rhodes, whose eyeliner and swooping blond bangs adhere most faithfully to the style of the band’s hey-day. “We actually look at modern artists more than we look at music. People like Ed Ruscha or Richard Prince, people who have had long careers that are still inventing new things for themselves and doing beautiful work.”
The New Romantic stars aren’t so new these days—they’re all over 50—but on their fourteenth studio album, Paper Gods, out Friday, the adventurous spirit and willingness to evolve that defined the band’s career is as palpable as ever. Blending flashy synth-pop, funk influences and touches of modern EDM, the band recorded the album over the span of two years without the involvement of a record label, signing a new deal only a few months before its release. Several times throughout its creation, the band threw out their material and started from scratch in search of songs that met their standards. “You can’t really stay around for this long and still be crap,” says singer Simon Le Bon, seated in the living room of an elegant Upper East Side apartment he compares to a setting in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. “Making another record is not necessarily the easy route to take. It has a lot to do with not being intimidated by past success and not looking down.”
Duran Duran never would have made Paper Gods, its members says, if it hadn’t been for their last two LPs, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre and 2010’s All You Need Is Now. For Massacre, the band teamed up with hip-hop producer Timbaland following the departure of guitarist Andy Taylor, a move that wasn’t nearly as bad as some horrified Duran Duran die-hards remember. (“It’s a great sounding record,” Le Bon admits now, “but I’m not sure that the song-writing is up to the standard.”) For the follow-up, a pre-“Uptown Funk” Mark Ronson, then best known for his work with Amy Winehouse, pitched the band on an imaginary sequel to their landmark 1982 album Rio. Ronson’s role in the studio was that of an investigator, probing the band about the drum synthesizer sounds they used that younger acts have since emulated. “He said, ‘All these young bands are out there right now doing what you did, but you know how to do it better—why don’t we go in that direction?’” Rhodes remembers. “We had a lot of fun.”
Paper Gods, out Friday, splits the difference between its two predecessors. While Ronson and longtime Duran Duran collaborator Nile Rodgers help the band play to their strengths, new voices like British producer Mr. Hudson, best known for his work with Kanye West and Jay Z, push the band out of its comfort zone. “We had to dig and dig until we found something that sounded like the Duran Duran we think of as the experimental, cutting edge band,” says Le Bon. Adds Rhodes, “We’re the first to say the new one’s the best thing we’ve done in a long time, because you have to, but there’s something a little deeper inside that tells you when you’ve made something that has transcended the previous few things. I’d stick my neck out as far to say with this one we have, for a lot of different reasons.”
Rhodes credits Paper Gods‘ collaborators in particular. At this point in the band’s 37-year history, other writers and performers come to Duran Duran, not the other way around. It was Lorde’s idea, for example, to have Le Bon duet with Charli XCX on the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 soundtrack she curated last fall. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, one of a slew of guests that includes Janelle Monáe and Kiesza, was the first to reach out about contributing to what become Paper Gods. But the band says the album didn’t really take shape until Mr. Hudson suggested they, too, get in the studio together.
“We’re a tough room—we’ve known each other for three and a half decades,” Rhodes says. “You walk in and we think, ‘Alright, what are you going to do? Impress us!’ And he actually did.” On the first day, Hudson and the band came up with “You Kill Me With Silence,” which opens with a menacing trap beat that will catch longtime listeners off guard. Two more tracks quickly followed, including the title track, which might be the slickest pop song to ever take on sweatshop labor. Hudson went on to co-produce more than half the record.
“It’s like trying out some new sex act,” says bassist John Taylor, looking like the most grizzled rock star of the bunch, of the sounds Hudson encouraged them to try out. “[At first] we’re like, ‘Oooh, I don’t know.” But the band has grown to welcome the input of outside parties. “I hate the power games and the arguments that we have within the group without a producer,” Le Bon says. “I don’t want to have to champion parts in songs, I just want to get on the creative side. I want somebody else to be making those kinds of decisions.”
The sultry spoken-word cameo from Lindsay Lohan on “Danceophobia,” another Mr. Hudson co-production, was also of the actress’ own initiative. “Lindsay’s an old pal,” Le Bon says with a smirk that suggests he knows how unlikely that sounds. The two met around 2004 as guests on Live with Regis and Kelly, where Lohan told Le Bon that she had dressed up as him at her birthday party the week before, and they’ve kept in touch over the years. Lohan texted Le Bon about contributing guest vocals when she learned Duran Duran was recording in London during her West End stint in Speed-the-Plow. “She was thinking more of a singing part, but this is something only she could do,” Le Bon says. “She’s got this really naughty sound to her voice. The actual monologue is full of innuendo, but she pitches it just right, really straight-faced. She really comes and gives it a thrill.”
As larger-than-life as Lohan’s costume suggests the band is, they aren’t immune to recent changes in the music industry. Budgets that once felt infinite are no longer. Rhodes points out that their 2011 video for “Girl Panic!” wouldn’t have been possible without brand partnerships that helped foot the bill. They follow today’s debates about music-streaming services and, though their music is currently available on Spotify, say they support Taylor Swift’s stance on the company and Apple Music. “I love her,” Rhodes gushes. “I personally very much agree with Taylor Swift’s point of view that people should be paid what’s fair.” (When I break the news to all four members that Swift has a song called “New Romantics” on her 1989 album, they seem genuinely surprised and immensely flattered.) They’re also aware that, as current as they aim to be, reaching a mainstream audience beyond their core fanbase is the biggest challenge of Paper Gods. “If it does that,” Le Bon says, “it will be a success.”
But even if they don’t succeed on those terms, the band says the thrill of making a new record has yet to grow old. “It’s exciting when [the album] is actually finished and you can lie in bed and listen to it on your little ear things,” says soft-spoken drummer Roger Taylor. “It’s a pleasure that’s not changed at all since we made our second record,” 1982’s Rio, which came came out around the time Taylor acquired his first-ever Sony Walkman. He recalls the very first time he listened to cassette mixes of the album in Sri Lanka, where the band filmed the “Hungry Like the Wolf” video, and the exhilaration of thinking, “That’s us!”
“That experience is wonderful,” he says. “You get it with every record you make. It’s absolutely priceless. It’s almost good enough a reason to be in a band all by itself.”