Interview: John Jones
Interview with Duran Duran
Producer John Jones
As part of The Wedding Album’s 25th Birthday celebrations on the 11th February 2018, Duran Duran Rocks are ecstatic and as pleased as punch to be able to bring to you all a brand new exclusive interview with the legendary John Jones.
JJ was the producer behind the helm, the fifth unsung band member of Duran Duran if you like. Together, with Simon, Nick, John and Warren, they put their creative heads together and recorded the follow up album to 1990’s Liberty.
Feeling inspired, they spent approximately 18 months in ‘Octavia’, Privacy, London and between them were able to write, record and eventually release one of the most incredible come back albums from any artist, ever.
JJ agreed to take questions from DDRocks Editor John Archbell and from members from The Duran Duran Message Board, an unofficial Duran Duran forum. We did ask if Warren would be able to pitch in but he was otherwise unavailable. We are hoping perhaps he may do something for us at a later date. So John has done his best to answer a few questions that were intended for Warren.
So lets rock then!
John Archbell: One thought that always has been at the top of my mind about this period centres on the song “Falling Angel” and the apparent lack of faith in its potential. From first listen, I thought it should have been a single and at least made it onto the main album. How did you and the band arrive at the decision to cut this song when it came time to submitting the final album track list?
John Jones: We spent a lot of time working on Falling Angel, and it was on our favourite list for a long time, but eventually it was dropped. I took it home and tried to resurrect it. I thought it worked, but Warren didn’t like it. I was surprised to see that they released it later on.
JA: I’d like to learn more about all those early unreleased mixes… who mixed what and where and at what stage and why were they scrapped?
JJ: I’m not sure what scope you are looking at, but, we mixed everything the way we wanted to hear it ourselves, and we did it at the end of most work days, only if on that day, we moved the song forward, or changed it drastically. We were very savvy. Thomas Nordegg had five DAT machines connected together, so we could all have a copy of the day’s work, on our way out the door! Some of those mixes have survived, and they are great! Everything is in the ear of the beholder!
As far as other people’s mixes, once Duran Duran were happy with Dave Richards’ mixes of TWA, Nick Gatfield (EMI UK) wanted to hear some different mixes, and some “re-mixes”. So I prepared copies of our tracks for the re-mixers to “not use”. I remember a couple of incredible re-mixes, that I have never heard since. UMF comes to mind. Maybe Nick can help us there?
JA: I’d be interested in the band dynamics through making the Wedding Album and a bit more on why didn’t you finish songs like Dreamnation and Worth Waiting For- both of which sounded better songs in demo form than most of the actual album?
JJ: I don’t remember Dreamnation and Worth Waiting for, as finished songs. Play me a version of them? Maybe they had different titles or someone else finished them later on?
JA: I’d love to hear a bit about 1) Sterling Campbell’s influence on Liberty and 2) the approach to using samples, especially on Liberty, where Nick really seemed to take a deep dive into them (e.g., “Yo Bad Azizi”).
JJ: I think Liberty was mostly written by the band when they were rehearsing, and on the road. Sterling was the groove meister! Although we started working on Liberty as a live drums album, the programming we did at Wandsworth, which Sterling helped massively with, stole the show when we started recording in the studio at Olympic with Chris Kimsey and Chris Potter.
As far as Nick diving into samples, it started when we made the samples of the Duran Duran “song hooks” for the live tour. The drums from Wild Boys. The Save a Prayer synth. The camera from Girls On Film, etc. They all became “Burning the Ground.” Once Nick realized what we could do with “sampling”, we were off to the races! But that is a story in itself!
JA: I’d be interested to know if you’re aware, or know, of any unreleased songs – which I’m sure you must! I mean, we all know about “A Matter of Fact” – then there’s the song “Sister” which we know of through the outside recordings.
JJ: I don’t think there was anything that hasn’t appeared on a bootleg somewhere. However, I must add that the recording dates of most of the bootlegs I have seen are not accurate. Sometimes rehearsal tapes are confused for recordings. And of course there were many song title changes along the way.
JA: Please tell us about your work on Burning the Ground/Decadance! Ahead of its time…
JJ: Burning the Ground was really the culmination of all that sampling for the live shows, and the experience of sampling everything under the Sun for Liberty! We even had a friend of Nick’s go to New York to record CNN off the hotel room TV! And then there was the day of Rubber Band recording. That was Liberty!
Most of the samples for Burning the Ground were recorded directly from the 2” master tapes by Dee Long at AIR Studios, where we both operated the Midi room for Sir George Martin. (Dee had a huge hand in Shelter as well)
During Liberty, when the record company was putting together the Greatest album, Nick suggested that we make a promo “sting” track, using the samples. I started the basic idea at home, and brought it in to Olympic, where Nick, John and Simon dug in, and we ended up finishing it up pretty quickly, with only one really important newly recorded bass part added to the samples, by John, which brought the whole thing together. We then stopped the session downstairs and had Chris Potter come up to put down a mix for us. Magic!
JA: How were the feelings within the band during the recording of the wedding album? Did they consider it one last shot before disbanding?
JJ: Absolutely not. They had two albums to complete to finish their contract with EMI. There was some negativity about the music business, but never when we were working on music. They knew that they were pertinent, and that the problem was with the messenger!
Warren drove the band to write together at his house. It was a very nice atmosphere to work. Not pretentious in any way. Originally, the house belonged to Yasmin.
JA: TWA was a pivotal moment and they were in a delicate situation. Handled badly by anyone, including the label, could have spelled the demise of everything that had gone before. I’d be fascinated to get any insights into the band members mental state especially prior to constructing OW (I can only presume they were convinced it would be massive) when the stakes were high and budgets/expectations low.
JJ: We went through a rough patch during Liberty, while the band re-organized their business, and when they were selling things, including their “office” in Wandsworth (to Mick Jagger). We could have had a wicked studio on Church Row!
During TWA, things were much more manageable financially, with only me and Thomas Nordegg to worry about paying, and the rest of the budget able to support and operate the band. The music was allowed to be music. There was no £100 an hour studio clock running. The pressure was off. There is a point where doing things for reward only gets in the way of creativity. Could we have come up with the good songs if we hadn’t recorded the not so good ones? I don’t think so. It all works together to make the whole, and expectations have to be high.
JA: How did the mechanics of going from a 3 piece to a 5 and then back to a 4 effect the dynamics and did Sterling just walk? (I appreciate SC wasn’t short of work opportunities at the time – or since!)
JJ: I believe that the market failure of Liberty, which meant no touring, caused Sterling to leave the band. There wasn’t anything to do, and he wanted to be playing. After that, we were a five-piece, plus Thomas.
JA: How did you become involved in the Wedding Album project?
JJ: It was a gradual involvement. And I had to work very hard! I first worked for Duran Duran at AIR Studios in 1987, on “This is How A Road Gets Made.” Rocks found me in Studio 5 of Sir George Martin’s studio.
Then I set up samples for Nick and Sterling for The Big Live Thing Tour at Stanbridge. Then John asked me to program a song at his flat in Kensington, which is when I really started working with Duran Duran.
Next we set up a studio in the middle of their Wandsworth warehouse, and we did pre-production programming of 21 songs, many of which they had worked out and recorded with the live band at Stanbridge, that were intended for the upcoming Liberty recordings. Then we went in to Olympic studio in Barnes and recorded the computer version of the album with producer Chris Kimsey, and engineer Chris Potter.
After Liberty, we decided to start “The White Album” ourselves. At Warren’s urging, the four of them spent a couple of months writing in his living room studio, which went very well. Soon after, I brought in my gear, and we started recording demos, always knowing that anything we did could be a keeper, because of our computer control of everything. In fact, the acoustic rhythm guitars of Ordinary World and a lot of the lead vocal survived from the 12-track analogue demo.
The demos were good enough for EMI to let us make the record ourselves. Miracles do happen!
JA: Do you still listen to The Wedding Album?
JJ: Yes! I especially love hearing Ordinary World and Sin of the City!
JA: What is your favourite song on the Wedding Album, and why?
JJ: Ordinary World, because we all worked very hard and used all of our faculties to make it the great piece of music that it is!
JA: Do you remember if there were any additional tracks left from the session which remain unreleased? (Any chance of a listen?!! Ha!!… JA)
JJ: I don’t think so. However, Simon and I did do a short live piano and voice version of Too Much Information for Canadian Music TV, while we were working at Maison Rouge. They filmed the whole thing and interviewed us. Boy do I wish someone could find the video footage! Fortunately, we recorded the piano and voice ourselves. If Canadians ever find out I worked on the Wedding album, they might come up with the footage!
JA: Do you continue to follow Duran Duran and if so what do you think of their subsequent work?
JJ: Of course I follow them. I go to all their shows! And I have loved having Roger back! And all of their albums have great moments! I’m sorry Warren left, and I hope to work with them again some day!
JA: Who’s idea was it to add the Soul Searchers sample as the rhythm track to Come Undone and at what point in the writing/recording process was it added?
JJ: I have never heard of the Soul Searchers sample. We did Come Undone when we were doing the covers album. It was going to be a cover of First Impressions. I had already used that particular drum loop in one of my own songs, and Warren suggested we try it with his F.I. riff. So, it was the second track. The bass part was the third. Then Nick came over, and then Simon, and then in two days, voila!
JA: How much of the Thank You project were you involved in?
JJ: All of it at one point or another. Warren and I started the album after we finished our June 1992 updates of TWA. We demoed about half the song ideas with Nick and Simon, and then one day Warren and I started Come Undone while covering First Impressions from Liberty. That ended our initial work on the covers album, as we went into high gear to finish Come Undone. I had a falling out with Warren after Come Undone, and the whole band were all super busy getting it together for the promotion tour, as TWA was taking off fast. I did fill in on drums when the actor/drummer was late for the Top of the Pops taping. I did the run throughs, because I knew the fills, which was magical! I wore my best shirt! Photos or video anyone?
I then left London, and worked with Ny Donsk in Iceland, and then in Boston, and then went to Los Angeles to meet record companies with my manager, Grant Black. The band were on the road selling TWA. I went back to Los Angeles in July and met up with the band in Hollywood, when they got their star on the Walk of Fame in August.
While they were on the road, they recorded other songs for Thank You. In May of 1994, Nick asked me to come back and help finish the album. We rented equipment and set up a studio in a villa in the south of France, where we worked on all of the songs with Simon. Warren added some new guitar parts and sent them to us from London. I then went to Los Angeles and recorded Lay Lady Lay, and I Wanna Take You Higher Again, with Simon, while Warren and Nick worked with Anthony J Resta, and others, in London. Alanis Morissette hung out with us at the Record Plant, when she was making Jagged Little Pill. Eventually we had things relatively organized and the album was finished and released. I’m proud of it. Everyone did a fantastic job!
JA: Was INXS’s Not Enough Time an influence on the composition of Come Undone? The two songs have a very similar vibe.
JJ: Not that I know of…
JA: Do you have any personal favourites from Liberty, TWA and Thank You that didn’t make the final cut?
JJ: I think we chose the right songs on Liberty and Thank You. We left good ones off of TWA, but they all come out anyway! Thank You could have had a few more songs on it. We did start a Bowie, and an Alice Cooper song, and I always tried to get a Beatle song in there!
JA: How much of the band’s confidence was shaken after the failure of Liberty?
JJ: Liberty’s non-success was a bummer, but only in that they were forced to rethink their business. I don’t think it effected their faith. It made us all stronger.
JA: TWA was recorded and produced at Privacy, Warren’s home studio. How difficult is the process to make an album recorded in a living room sound so “big” in the mixing and mastering phases afterwards?
JJ: I brought my recording equipment into Warren’s, and we added it to his guitar rig, plus some extra gear that the band had, as well as other bits that we we bought, borrowed, or were given. We called it Octavia or Warrens’.
Recording in a living room is not a problem, as long as you have good equipment and someone who knows how to operate it. Technically, as long as you have a good “signal path”, like good microphones and pre-amplifiers, and good digital converters in our case, because it was mostly digital (except the recording of the real drums, which was recorded on 2” analogue tape), it isn’t a problem. The idea is to record everything as well as you can, under whatever situation you have to deal with. The one weapon we had was time to do it right, mostly!
JA: What hardware musical gear was brought in for The Wedding Album, and what software could be a replacement in this present day?
JJ: We had pretty well everything we have today, except we had hardware controlled digital recorders, rather than todays software controlled digital recorders. We started recording on the AKAI 12-12 analogue 12-track machine and then we upgraded to the 12-track ADAM by AKAI digital recorders..
We used Notator on an Atari 1040ST, and the AKAI DD-1000 and S1000, and other samplers and recorders, that were all as capable as anything we use today. The difference is that today’s machines and software come with mountains of sounds and samples and grooves and everything a person needs to make music using other peoples ideas! 😉 We had to make our own sounds, mostly from scratch.
JA: On Breath after Breath I know that Milton Nascimento’s involvement came about through his friendship with Warren. Was the song always intended to have another vocalist or is there a version with only Simon? Were Milton’s lyrics improvised in the studio or did he arrive ready to lay down his vocals? Did Milton make any other contributions to the final version of the song (e.g., structure, instrumentation, etc.)? How difficult was it working with an artist whose native tongue is not English?
JJ: Warren had the idea for the song and the collaboration with Milton. We recorded the basic track for Simon to work on, and sent a cassette to Milton. Milton had great ideas, and so did Simon. It turned out that they both chose different sections of the song. Brilliant! Milton then came to London and we spent a day recording vocals with both of them. They figured it all out in person! It was a fantastic day! And that was it, other than tidying up the tracks and finishing the keyboards with Nick, before sending it to David to mix.
JA: What is your take on “To Whom It May Concern” ? That seems to be the 1st Duran track I can think of that has an actual meaning that can be discerned by the first listening. Most, if not all, previous songs have always been based on a Simon Secret, but this one is aimed right down the barrel at an individual. Also, damn fine work!
JJ: I can’t really talk about that song. It will remain a secret! It did cause problems with the record company, and we did have to change it after we mixed it, which wasn’t easy!
JA: Who is the easiest to work with from Duran…and the most difficult?
JJ: That’s not really an issue when you are working with people of their character and professionalism. You have to get along or go home! I am fortunate in that I did, and still do, get along with all of them. I had to work one on one with each of them, countless times. There had to be no favours. It certainly was a lot of work at times, but nobody was too difficult. Nick is always the most fun to work with, because anything goes!
JA: Does a longer version of Shotgun exist? If so, are you willing to share? And whose idea was to incorporate the gunshot sounds in the track?
JJ: John came up with Shotgun from three bars he noticed in the outro of Sin of the City, where Warren plays a killer guitar riff. We sampled it, and added the vocals! I love that one!
JA: The sound of the wedding album was IMO very ‘bright’. Was this intentionally done?
JJ: I believe the mixes were that way because Dave Richards heard them that way. There is a mix of Ordinary World by Dave Leonard that is really fat, but not as cool! We can’t explain it, we loved the way the bright mixes work musically, even though they could have been more “hi-fi” and less bright. I do not think it had anything to do with the way we recorded it. When we heard our individually recorded tracks at Maison Rouge, we were amazed at how fat they all were!
JA: With Liberty, there seemed to be something of an identity crisis going on with the band, it really seemed (from this fan’s perspective), that perhaps this was resolved with TWA. Can John speak to us a little about the band’s ‘sense of self’ at the start of recording the album?
JJ: I would say that when we started Liberty they were thinking of themselves as a live touring band, which is why they asked Warren and Sterling to join them. With the non-success of Liberty, and the loss of Sterling, it all changed, and it took Warren’s drive, musicianship and creativity, to keep them working, when they could otherwise have taken some time off.
JA: I’ve always loved the intro to “Sin of the City” – can he tell us a little about the recording/mixing of that?
JJ: Sin of the City is another of John’s babies. It was important to have the angst and the fear of the horrible fire. There was always a lot of creativity coming from Nick when it came to atmosphere, and that is why we used so many samples. It is a heavily layered track that is full of little moments that were really fun for us to craft. An epic piece of music!
JA: Was there ever talk of an Extended Mix of “Ordinary World”?
I think the album version is the extended version, with the electric and acoustic solo. I don’t remember letting anyone else touch that one!
JA: I’d love to know if you have any instances of ‘magical moments’ while recording?
JJ: I worked with DD from 1988 to 1995, and yes there were many moments that made us laugh and cry!
JA: I remember the band (especially John Taylor) being quite obsessed with the idea of them being a “5 piece band” again when entering the Liberty sessions. Later it would become clear that it was the newly shaped DD as a foursome (SLB, NR, JT, WC) which would be hugely successful again post ’93 era. As a first person close to this evolving thing called a band, what are JJ’s reflections on this?
JJ: I think John was just a bit ahead of his time on that one. They needed the songs to allow them to be the touring band that they have now become! TWA, Thank You, and many of their albums of the past 25 years have added to their current position as the legendary group that they are!
JA: Every work of art initially starts off a blank canvas. Does JJ/WC remember the moments (be it ideas or demos of a specific song) that would ultimately define the character of both albums (LIB/TWA)?
JJ: Downtown and My Antartica on Liberty, and Ordinary World and Come Undone on TWA.
JA: 1990 is gone, enter the real 90’s: guitars are back in, rock driven music such as grunge would conquer the world. In the 94-95 era, DD all of a sudden got “rock credibility” from the serious press and alternative radio stations. I cannot help but wonder if WC even regretted the band could not keep that momentum and what possible causes he thinks why they lost it? (eg. the very bad idea of the Thank You album as follow up to TWA? Or did the rest of the band prefer a less important role of the guitar?)
JJ: Keyboards had mostly ruled Duran Duran, up to that point, in my opinion. Andy played some great guitars. Warren played some great guitars. None of us were worried about competing with other bands based on what instruments we were using. We knew the most important thing was the song. Ordinary World set the tone for Duran Duran to be able to record anything they wanted to. They are the style!
Thank You was not meant to be an original music DD album. It was a way to meet the band’s contract requirements. It turned into something quite a bit more expensive! Thankfully it gave us Come Undone! And with them on the road promoting TWA, how were we to make another original album in the short time period the record company wanted? We couldn’t, so we finished Thank You. I personally think it has more than passed the test of time, and it is a great album!
JA: DD and remixes: history tells us this was not always the best combination. Luckily enough, both LIB and TWA did not feature terrible mixes as happened with Big Thing (“Drug”, anyone?). What LIB/TWA remixes does JJ think do the songs justice? (personal opinion: the D-REAM remix of Drowning Man is one of the best DD remixes ever).
JJ: If the song has a danceable beat, then it is a good candidate for a re-mix. However, some of the re-mixes of real songs don’t work, because they kill the song for the sake of a beat or a hook. That is what music in 2018 is like!
JA: This was the time of MTV unplugged and DD doing semi-acoustic rock shows. WC rearranged several DD classics to fit the present. A song like “Too much information” for me is the perfect example of this same method doing it the other way around: a modern rock song with classic DD vibe. Did the band, including producer, do this intentionally? (either way: job well done).
JJ: Warren is a fantastic musician, arranger and composer! The Unplugged arrangements were stellar! Warren sees music in a unique way, and we were continually amazed at what he came up with.
JA: TWA to me is almost like 4x different albums in one. How hard was it to blend in so many very different types of music styles (Shotgun, Love Voodoo, UMF to name a few) and yet succeed in delivering a finished album that sounds great as a one piece?
JJ: Just like on the Beatles “White Album”, by taking each song on its own merit, and loving what they are playing, and remembering that each of them has their own sound, which comes together in their music, no matter what the style of the song, the Wedding Album arose!
JA: What involvement ( if any) did EMI have during the recording process, have read somewhere that they only released further funding upon hearing the new songs.
JJ: EMI Uk,’s Nick Gatfield was our biggest supporter. Don’t believe anything you read about money. Contracts with a band like DD don’t work like that. Of course they tried to make it difficult, because they wanted a name producer, but we just kept moving forward. There was a moment when they wanted us to stop “demoing”, and give the record to Trevor Horn to produce! Yikes! And although Capitol USA didn’t “get” OW, they did have a party when they heard Come Undone! And that is what got the album out! Then they discovered Ordinary World!
JA: Duran covered Femme Fatale for TWA, which led them to Thank You, did JJ have any input into that??
No. Femme Fatal was recorded as part of the Thank You album. Someone wanted it on TWA, not me. I don’t think I heard the final version until the day I added it to the album, when we mastered TWA for the second time, in September 1992.
JA: I was wondering how the acoustic guitars for Too Much Information were recorded? They sound incredible!
JJ: I’m pretty sure we recorded with the Calrec microphone. So much of the sound is the attack that Warren knows how to get! I sampled his parts and relaid them where we wanted and added the extra punch!
Which draws us to a close on our John Jones Interview. I very much hope you all enjoyed reading as much I did! I would like to take this opportunity to say how appreciative I am for JJ to take time out from his round of golf to take the trouble of thinking back 27 odd years and putting his memories and recollections into a print format. It’s truly wonderful that he has shared his experiences with us all. Thanks for reading and cheers John. You’re a (Rock ‘n’ Roll) Star’ (First Impression lyric). I couldn’t resist that!!
© John Archbell for Duran Duran Rocks 2018