Roger Taylor of Duran Duran on writing new music rather than resting on one's laurels

During the 1980s and into the '90s, Duran Duran (due tonight at the 1STBANK Center with Neon Trees) was one of the most popular and successful rock bands of that time. It was the kind of band for whom people would camp out outside hotel rooms to get autographs. Its music and its music videos are iconic cultural landmarks of the Reagan era.

Nostalgia aside, though, Duran Duran wrote great pop songs with a skill in musicianship and songwriting that takes you by surprise upon close listen. With an energy and swing, Duran Duran combined elements of R&B and rock and roll in a way that no other band of that time did so well except for Roxy Music. We spoke with drummer Roger Taylor about his influences and the importance of staying current by writing new music.

Westword: In a 2007 Modern Drummer interview, you said that you were a big fan of dance music. Would you consider Tony Thompson of Chic a drummer in that realm of music? In what ways has dance music informed your own playing?

Roger Taylor: Oh, yeah, Tony's been hugely influential, I think. Chic was one of the first bands that took that music that was happening in New York discos, that were just production projects, I think, and turned it into a really great band with a great drummer and an amazing bass player, and they could go out there and play this shit live. He's certainly one of my biggest influences.

In fact, I remember going 'round to John [Taylor's] house when we were eighteen years old, when were just kind of thinking of getting Duran Duran going, and one night, we were listening to these records. And he put a Sex Pistols record on, which, of course, I was very familiar with, because I went through the whole punk thing. Then he put on "Good Times," by Chic; obviously that was Tony Thompson playing on that record. It was a bit of a Eureka! moment, because that was our whole thing -- to combine the funky disco rhythms with rock. So, yeah, very influential.

You were involved in the punk scene from a relatively young age. How did you learn about it and become involved, and is there anything from that time that you bring to what you do today and maybe your attitude toward life and music in general?

Just through school friends, I think. I think the media was pretty saturated with it. You know, the kind of media I was reading in those days -- I used to read the NME, Melody Maker. The magazines that were promoting rock and progressive rock certainly kind of changed to punk in the U.K. I had "Anarchy in the UK" when I was seventeen years old, and that kind of transformed my life, really, because suddenly, I believed I could play this stuff. I'd been listening to Yes and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. These were like gods of rock, and you could never quite imagine yourself being able to do that.

But then punk came along, and it was like anybody could pick up a guitar or a pair of drumsticks and be in a band. So that was a very important moment for me. I think a lot of the Duran songs are driven by that punk energy, things like "Rio," and "Careless Memories" and "Planet Earth" -- there's a punky, funky thing about them. So I think punk's been a big influence on the Duran sound, for sure.

What were your impressions of the early Duran Duran songs, before you properly started playing with the band, and what did you talk about in terms of the kind of music you were all into, and what you wanted to do as you were becoming friends and learning to play together?

Great! I saw Duran Duran when I was seventeen. They were just opening for a local band, and they didn't have a drummer. They were just using a rhythm-machine thing, and John was playing guitar. I thought they were amazing. I kind of thought they were going to be the next big thing; all they needed was a good drummer. Funnily enough, about a month later, I get a call from John saying, "Hey, we heard you're a good drummer and you've got a drum kit. Do you want to come down and play with us?" John then decided to change to bass, and we kind of instantly jelled as a rhythm section, and I was in the band.

Several years ago it struck me how Duran Duran reminded me just a bit of Roxy Music in terms of the tight songwriting and excellent musicianship. So I was curious if it's true that Paul Thompson was an influence on your own playing. If so, how so? Did you ever get to see Roxy Music live, and what were your impressions of them?

Again, Paul's a big influence on me. I tended to like drummers that were in great bands and bands that were writing great songs. Performers that were kind of quite stylized. I liked Roxy Music, and I loved Paul Thompson off the back of the band. You get drummers that can do super fast paradiddles and all that stuff, and they're the most technically gifted drummers in the world. But I never kind of went for that. I went for drummers who were in great bands. Charlie Watts is another big influence.

I like drummers who really serve the song in a band rather than just show off their technically ability. I sit down at my kit today and think, "How would Paul Thompson approach this song?" Or Charlie Watts or Tony Thompson. They live with me very much every day, these guys.

I was blown away by [Roxy Music]. As you say, they're amazingly gifted musicians. Great songs, look great, their styling was fantastic. They had this glamour about them. David Bowie, as well. He also seemed to use great drummers as well. I've loved the drummers Bowie has used over the years.

I read an interview, also from Modern Drummer, but from 1985, and you said something very interesting about you feel like you're becoming a full-time pop star and part-time musician on the road in a big band like that. Is there anything you guys do now differently to strike the balance better?

Oh, yeah. We're very much in control now. The show is the most important thing that we do in the 24 hours when we're in a city. It used to be we'd get to a city and we'd have six hours of promotion. We'd have to go to the local TV station, and we'd have to go to six radio stations, then we'd have to sign autographs for the hundred kids that were waiting outside the hotel. Then get to the gig ten minutes before we go on, then you get this instrument kind of thrown in front of you, with hardly any preparation, and you'd have to play a show. Then we'd go on partying until the early hours after the show; then the whole cycle would start again. So we're very careful now; 90 percent of our energy is stored up and used for the show. I think it works much better like that, actually.

The other night I saw a comment on a video for "The Man Who Stole a Leopard" saying that some of your best drumming to date was on that song, and they compared it to Japan's "Methods of Dance." How was Japan an influence on your own music?

Oh, wow. There's two other drummers that were really influential on me as well. One was Steve Jansen, of course, of Japan. The other one's Yukihiro Takahashi of the Yellow Magic Orchestra. When I played on "The Man Who Stole a Leopard," those drummers kind of came to mind when I played the groove to it. Interestingly, nobody else has spotted that until I spoke to you today. If you listen to the early Japan records, they had all the ingredients that the Duran Duran records eventually had. They were a huge influence on us with the way they combined the sequences and the atmospheric synths and the kind of disco rhythms and a little bit of edgy guitar.

Did you get to talk to and hang out with Japan when, appropriately enough, you were both recording at AIR studio?

You know what? We were so in awe of them, I think we were kind of scared of them. We'd pass them in the corridor, and we'd be frightened to say hello. We were so in awe of these guys. It seems silly to think that now, but that's how important they were to us.

You've incorporated electronic elements with your drumming since pretty much the beginning. What do you think that fusion of electronic and organic allowed you to do as a drummer that being a conventional drummer alone may not?

I just like the juxtaposition between the two, to be honest with you. Duran Duran was never going to be like an early Depeche Mode, where it was all electronic rhythms. We always had this idea that Duran should be an organic band with the addition of the electronica. I think that's one of the reasons why we broke through to America when a lot of other bands from the U.K. didn't -- because we were still using proper drums, we were using proper guitars and basses, and I think America understood us a little more because of that. It was always one of the manifestos that we had: Be a real band. We still stand by that today, I think.

All You Need Is Now is one of your best albums. When you got back together, what kind of conscious decisions did you discuss and make about writing new material rather than resting on your back catalogue?

It was very important for us to keep writing material. It was the main thing, really. I mean, it would have been really easy to regroup the original five members, go out there and play all the early material, take the money and run. It was always very important for us that we have to still be moving forward. We have to feel vital and contemporary and to keep working with contemporary producers. The live shows are almost like a secondary thing to us. I mean, they're great, but the reunion was all about picking up where we left off and writing new material, for sure.

Duran Duran, with Neon Trees 7 p.m. Tuesday, October 4, 1STBANK Center, 303-410-8497, $39.50-$125, 21+

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.