Duran Duran singer Simon LeBon and guitarist Andy Taylor are settling into a comfy corner of their Soho Hotel suite on a sunny August morning in Toronto, readying themselves for another in a string of interviews, when LeBon notices an enameled pin on a journalist's lapel.
"I like your manga badge," he says, and the journo identifies it as a character from Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku. LeBon shakes his head. "I don't know that one."
Well, it was really big in the eighties, he's told. There's a laugh, and Taylor pipes up. "We've heard that expression before. . . ."
Boy, have they.
Duran Duran were, in many ways, the quintessential eighties band. With their moussed hair, fab clothes and deft use of mascara, they personified the glamour and novelty that marked the dawn of the music-video era, while their sound -- a catchy amalgam of disco, new wave and arch Roxy Music posturing -- offered a near-perfect balance between hip and accessible.
They ruled the charts, dominating the mid-eighties airwaves with such singles as Hungry Like the Wolf, Rio, The Reflex and A View to a Kill. Their pictures wallpapered girls' bedrooms around the globe, and their concert performances regularly whipped 13-year-old fans into a shrieking, hormone-driven frenzy.
These days, needless to say, Duran Duran is more likely to get a reaction from the mothers of 13-year-olds, but that hasn't stopped the quintet from beating the drums loudly for their big comeback album, Astronaut, which landed in stores yesterday.
Recorded with the lineup responsible for all those early hits -- along with LeBon and Taylor, there's keyboardist Nick Rhodes, bassist John Taylor (no relation) and drummer Roger Taylor (also no relation) -- it's easily the best thing the band has done since its heyday. Between the infectious retro-disco of ( Reach Out for the) Sunrise and the mildly anthemic rock of What Happens Tomorrow, the album effectively updates the appeal of the oldies without coming off like a throwback.
Even better, it retains the classic Duran sound even when moving into new rhythmic territory, as on the swampy Chains.
Whether the listening public is hungry like the wolf for such a sound remains to be seen, but the band has no doubts.
"We believe that we're going to play two nights in an arena here next year," says Taylor, confidently. "Someone might say, 'Don't you think that's a little naive?' No. You have to go for it . . . be the dreamer."
Certainly the five have lost none of their star power. The night before their interview binge, Sony Canada hosted a meet-and-greet to preview the album at Toronto's trendy C-Lounge. Even though their entrance wasn't announced, it was as if a magnetic force pulled everyone's gaze to the front of the club when the five sauntered in. And while they were happy to chat and pose for pics and press the flesh with approachable ease, they nonetheless radiated the confidence and poise of men long used to the limelight.
It helped, of course, that they were perfectly coiffed and dressed to the nines. But even the next morning, with LeBon having traded his dove-grey suit for slacks and a shirt and Taylor's all-black outfit looking more rumpled than rakish, it's hard to believe that two decades have passed since The Wild Boys was in the Top Five. Where did the time go -- and why didn't it give them wrinkles and flab like everybody else?
"God knows," says Taylor, laughing. "All of us, probably, are quite lucky."
"But to be in a band where style is so important, it gets through to you," adds LeBon. "Looking after yourself and making sure you look good in photographs -- even if it's just snaps your family take -- becomes so ingrained in you that you just maintain."
"Also, you meet fans," says Taylor. "Often, they say, 'We didn't know what you'd look like, and we're so glad you didn't just let go.' "
"Well, they want us to look good, don't they?" agrees LeBon. "Because you stand for something -- you stand for their youth. And if you start to look a little ropey, they're going to start feeling ropey about themselves."
Besides, it's not as if these guys have forgotten what it's like to have idols. "If I ever run into David Bowie, which I do from time to time, I can't speak," confesses LeBon. "I still can't speak. I have to go, 'C'mon Simon -- time to say hello now.' Because he still means so much to me."
Despite their own status as eighties icons, Duran Duran believes that the seventies was the greatest decade for pop music, and each member happily admits to drawing from the era. In addition to LeBon's Bowie fixation, there's Taylor's adoration of AC/DC ("Everything you need to know about guitar you can get off those guys," he says), bassist Taylor's immersion in the disco/funk of Chic, and Rhodes's genuflection to Genesis.
Perhaps the most surprising bit of seventies influence evident in Astronaut is its upbeat optimism. Never mind the clouds of fear and anxiety that were supposed to have enveloped our post-9/11 pop culture; Duran Duran is looking to the sunrise, the brighter tomorrow, the happier ending. As the chorus to What Happens Tomorrow puts it, "you've got to believe."
"Nick had been watching CNN, and they were asking kids what they thought of the bombing of Iraq," says LeBon, explaining the inspiration behind the song. "And one child said, 'Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow.' " "That's what the child was frightened of," says Taylor. "They didn't know what life they had ahead of them."
"We've all lived through the last three years, and know how frightening that's been, and how fear has been used to galvanize nations," says LeBon. "But we believe, in our naive way, that this world can be a great place, and that people can be happy.
"And the worst thing is, people are made to feel impotent, that their optimism and the positivism doesn't matter," he adds, as a publicist urges him along to his next interview. "That's what the song is about. It says: Don't give up."
Special to The Globe and Mail