When Duran Duran asked superproducer Timbaland to come up with some hit-worthy songs for their new album, they knew they’d have to give up a fair amount of creative control.
After all, while Timbaland has worked with artists as diverse as Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent and Missy Elliott, he’s not really a collaborator: He’s more of a musical director, infusing those artists with his unique brand of hypnotic pop, and his musical imprint permeates every aspect of any song he touches.
To that end, the veteran rock group was willing to follow his artistic lead — to the extent that they scrapped an album that was almost completed, relying more on electronic sounds in hopes that Timbaland’s contemporary dance vibe could push the British pop band beyond a nostalgia act.
“I remember ... (when) we were kind of coming to the decision that we were going to let go of all of this music, and we were going to let go of songs that we had been working on for months and months,” says bassist John Taylor. “But there was such a thing that we were moving forward, that we were creating this new identity.”
But while Taylor says they were “prepared to let go a lot of our ideas on how we write songs and how me make records,” they weren’t willing to be completely malleable. More importantly, they didn’t want to lose what had made Duran Duran into pop mainstays for over two decades.
“We were just prepared to do however Timbaland wanted to do it in the beginning,” says frontman Simon LeBon, sitting with the rest of his bandmates during a recent interview. “(But) by the third song, we said, ’OK, we know how you like to work. But we’d love it if you would try working the way we usually work, which is as a band, all together ... and seeing what comes out of it. Because we’re sure something is going to come out of it.”’
Taylor recalls telling Timbaland, who produced the album along with protege Nate “Danja” Hills and Timberlake himself, about the expectations surrounding the record: “You gotta understand that we have an audience that not only hears Simon’s voice, but they hear my voice, they hear Nick’s voice and Roger’s voice in the way that we play and that is worth something.”
In the end, the group believes that they were able to retain their ethos, yet blend it perfectly with the new sound, with “Red Carpet Massacre.” They also feel the ambitious, club-centric CD’s bewitching dance grooves that recall their ’80 heyday may give them pop success (their last record, 2004’s “Astronaut,” sold less than 500,000 copies).
“If it is going to cross over to radio, this would be the right one to make it happen,” says keyboardist Nick Rhodes in his deep voice. “It’s a very modern sound, and although it’s Duran Duran, it also fits in with a lot of the other music that Timbaland has made.”
“It wasn’t one person directing another, we were all directing each other,” says Hills, who worked on the bulk of the record. “I think their music hits a lot harder than it used to, and that also puts them in the flow of radio ... just doing what they do melodically on harder beats — that was pretty much the whole structure.”
Initially, Duran Duran had only intended for Timbaland to work on only a few tracks for their planned (and almost finished) album “Reportage,” a much darker, politically charged record that reflected the band’s frustrations with the world’s disorder.
“It was right at the time when you couldn’t get away (from) what was happening with the war in Iraq, the war with Afghanistan,” says Rhodes. “Clearly, the war had not been won as had been proclaimed a little earlier, and it was really unpleasant.”
That album was brooding and decidedly slanted toward their harder rock roots.
“It would have sat nice in the same section that had the Kaiser Chiefs, and Bloc Party and the Killers in it,” says LeBon.
He then adds that it was “a bit safe.”
“So much has been said about how (those bands) hark back to us and how they cite us as their references, and I think we’d kind of been seduced by that idea quite a lot,” he says, as the rest of the band nods in agreement.
Their record label seemed to agree. Worried that the record didn’t have a clear potential hit, executives urged the group to go back into the studio to create one. To that end, they sought out Timbaland — and the musical partnership ended up being so successful, they abandoned “Reportage” altogether for a completely new album (though they say they hope to someday release that CD.)
But just before they settled on Timbaland as a producer, guitarist Andy Taylor — one of the band’s original members, along with LeBon, Rhodes, John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor (none of them related) — decided to split.
It had been six years since the original members had regrouped, and though the timing couldn’t have been worse, members said it was not a surprising departure.
“I think we were just drifting apart,” says Rhodes. “It’s like one of those relationships where you don’t know exactly which thing it is that’s driving you further apart but communication breaks down, it drags down for a while, and then it suddenly just isn’t there anymore.”
LeBon also said Andy Taylor was growing more distant from the rest of his bandmates, who appear to still get along very well after all these years: kidding one another, finishing each other’s sentences. That’s clear at one point in the interview when serious looking Rhodes talks about their now-departed guitarist: “Whilst no one can diminish Andy’s great contribution to the band and the time he spent with us ... “
“I’m going to proceed to do just that!” interjects John Taylor, sending the band into uncontrollable laughter.
Jokes aside, the group said Andy Taylor’s departure gave them an opportunity to explore a new opportunity with Timbaland. They found that abandoning “Reportage” was not so much a blow as it was liberating.
And after 26 years of putting out albums, it’s not a feeling that comes with every project.
“Us getting back together and deciding that weren’t going to go the greatest-hits route, and just go out there and play the hits and things, the decision to go and make new music — that was a risk, and I’m glad we took it,” says LeBon.