The Producers: Mark Ronson interview
“The music I make is not a nostalgia trip down memory lane… I want to make music for now.” Rudy Bolly chats to Mark Ronson.
Super-producer, DJ, pop star and all-round tastemaker, Mark Ronson has sprinkled fairy dust over some of the biggest hits of the 21st century. He created one of the all-time-great party songs with Uptown Funk, and helped catapult Amy Winehouse and Adele to superstardom; but he’s just as adept at coaxing great new material out of veterans such as Duran Duran and Paul McCartney. Now Ronson has teamed up with equally prolific whippersnapper Thomas Wes ‘Diplo’ Pentz for his latest project, Silk City. It’s a celebration of dance music both old and new, paying homage to the cities that inspired so many DJ classics over the decades.
The name Silk City conjures up images of house music from a very specific time in history…
“What we make is ‘night music’. You think of cities and you think of Detroit, Chicago, London, New York, Paris, Manchester and then the Silk part, of course, makes you think of Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, for sure. There’s this really iconic diner in Philadelphia called Silk City – at night, they would have parties and DJs. It’s where a lot of the Philly neo-soul movement started, people like King Britt. I also met Wes there. 15 years later, when we were working on our first music, we were going back and forth with all these names. I went: ‘What was the name of that diner where we met?’ He replied: ‘Silk City’. I was like: ‘Why are we still talking about what our name should be? That’s the best name ever’.”
Are there any specific records that you reference?
“Artists like Kenny Dope and Louis Vega and that first Nuyorican Soul record, I loved that. Masters At Work’s I Can’t Get No Sleep, all the Strictly Rhythm records along with the Professional Widow remix, those things were so important. They all had the same primal energy as the hip-hop records that I liked in the late 80s and early 90s.”
You and Diplo have so many projects on the go, how did you find the time to get together?
“We had two weeks together and just lived in the studio, throwing everything at the wall and coming up with five or six different ideas that we liked every day. Then it’s about taking those things and developing them into proper songs, we did a little bit by satellite. But I prefer making music when we are in the room together, because that’s where a certain alchemy takes place. That’s not always the way that it works now, so we mixed the two.”
You’re a collaborative guy, but was working with another producer tough?
“At the very beginning, we had some stupid fights because I’d never really been in a band situation before. I’ve made records with people where I’m willing to take a back seat, because you know it’s their thing. But the thing about being in a group is, it’s a democracy. I was like: ‘We need to be in the studio 28 hours a day and nine days a week’, because that’s what I love and how I thrive. But it didn’t mean that I needed to enforce those principles on this. I wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say his stuff is always more future-leaning. We can sometimes be in a territory where I feel a little less comfortable and then I go: ‘Well, I trust Wes’, then sometimes, it’s the other way round.”
You’ve always had a great ear for referencing the past…
“I never try to do a specific sound, but I’m never going to change the fact that I prefer the sound of a drum kit the way it was recorded in 1968 or 1977 to the way that people record things now. The music I make is not a nostalgia trip down memory lane. I don’t long to be from a different era. I want to make music for now, for dancefloors and laptops, whoever it is.”
Do you feel more at home being the producer rather than the artistic focus?
“I’m like a studio-producer/musician who accidentally became a pop star. The thing that happened with the Version album was a surprise and like, ‘oh, people want to come and see me play now’, so I put a band together. I love doing shows, I don’t do it begrudgingly. It’s amazing making shit in your bedroom and have it get to a point where you can play Glastonbury. But for the most part, as it’s progressed, I’ve grown to understand where the division lies and play to my strengths.”
You spend an equal amount of time in the UK and States. What’s the big difference, musically?
“I love that people get so excited about music and the charts here [in the UK] that you can bet on shit… it’s so crazy. They treat music like an election. Being a part of that, especially at Christmas, is exciting when you release new music.”
You teamed up with Stevie Wonder on your last album. How did you persuade him?
“I wrote a letter to his manager and said: ‘He’s my musical hero’ and four months later, it happened. It just shows that you only have to ask, no matter how crazy or far-fetched it might seem.”
Nile Rodgers gave you your first Walkman as a kid, how much have you learned from him?
“I’d never worked with him until we spent a good five days together working on the last Duran record. I thought he was a great arranger, but actually, it’s his melodies, the hooks and lyrics that were just spouting out of him. He’s like an endless source of brilliant ideas. I played him Uptown Funk very early on and when that guitar part came on, there were no words, but just a thumbs-up with a big Nile grin. It was one of the nicest compliments I’ve received.”
So he rates you as a guitarist?
“I never thought of myself as a guitar player. I always felt a bit of a fraud. You’re at a festival alongside some really good guitar players. But then you find that one thing you are good at.”
Any tips for budding producers?
“Sometimes, it’s good just to leave really talented people alone and let the magic happen.”
You played a new song, Keep Reachin’, at Quincy Jones’ birthday gig in London recently…
“One of my dearest friends Rashida [Jones] called me and told me she’d made this documentary about her dad and wanted me to make a song for it. We watched the film, laughed and cried and cried some more. It’s an amazing film for Netflix. The one thing you’re struck by is, despite every accolade that he achieves, he’s still like: ‘Man, I can’t believe we got here’. Even after the first one, he would’ve been happy to retire. He’s like: ‘Man, you gotta keep reachin’. That became the song and I got to record it with the wonderful Chaka Khan.”
And besides Silk City, you have a new Mark Ronson LP coming?
“Yeah, Miley Cyrus did something for my record which we wrote that’s one of my favourites. She has an incredible voice; she’s a great all-round fucking artist. My record is going to bring the Kleenex.”