Music Interviews

Mark Ronson: “For me music is always first and foremost about the beat” – Interview

Mark Ronson

Mark Ronson

The name Mark Ronson is synonymous with a string of endless accolades. He is the producer du jour, having worked with the hottest names in the industry such as Christina Aguilera, Lily Allen, Robbie Williams and Amy Winehouse.

In fact, his magic touch recently earned Winehouse’s Back To Black a Mercury Prize nod. As an artist in his own right, he had the guts to metamorphose classics by Radiohead and The Smiths into funky dancefloor fillers.

His album Version was a UK Top 10 fixture during the spring, peaking at Number 2. His scruffy good looks and penchant for Dior Homme have made him somewhat of a tabloid darling. As one of the most prominent DJs in the US for the past 10 years, he recently spun at TomKat’s wedding (file under ‘Might be considered an accolade in certain circles’).

But as an interviewee, Ronson is almost a little bookish. He would rather talk about the homogenous and uninspiring state of hip hop than his mainstream popularity. musicOMH grants Ronson his wish, stopping by to pick his brain on his working relationships with Lily and Amy, why he’s no Timbaland, and tracks which one should never cover for fear of eternal damnation….


Ronson’s ability to reconcile the irreconcilable provided the basis for Version, where he recasts modern classics by The Smiths, Ryan Adams and Kaiser Chiefs into soulful jams. Sharing the stage with Ronson are his many vocalist pals, including Winehouse, Allen and Australian newcomer Daniel Merriweather. How did he go about deciding which tracks to cover and who to enlist on vocal duties’

“Basically it was as simple as taking a bunch of my favourite songs and getting whoever I was working with at the time to perform them. It really was that random, but with Amy and Lily having such successful albums it appears more deliberate than it actually was. I did have a pretty good idea of who would sound good on what. That’s part of what makes a good producer – using your ears to match things together.”

In 2006, Ronson was approached to contribute to Songs With Radio Heads, a compilation of Radiohead covers. With Phantom Planet’s Alex Greenwald on vocals, Mark’s soulful interpretation of Just (which also appears on Version) drew the ire of many Radiohead fans, but was met with much greater reaction in other circles. Was it always his intention to release a covers album, or did everything fall into place after Just?

“I had a whole bunch of covers I’d been working on, so it wasn’t like I suddenly changed my mind,” he explains. “At one point I thought I would do six covers and six originals, but the release of the Radiohead cover somehow inspired me to come up with more covers I wanted to do, so I just said ‘Fuck it’. But I’m pretty sure the next album won’t be a covers album…”

“I think if you’re going to cover a song, you might as well cover your favourites. There’s no point doing Jessica Simpson covers just for the purpose of not pissing anyone off!” – Mark Ronson defends covering The Smiths

Speaking of incurring the wrath of rabid fans, Ronson’s refix of The Smiths‘ Stop Me into a funky number managed to do just that. Angry Smiths fans were galled by Ronson’s audacity to tread on holy ground, a sentiment well documented on message boards around the world. What’s the scariest thing a Smiths’ fan has ever threatened to do to Mark’ Also, are there any tracks which someone with the testicular fortitude to merge a Smiths classic with a Supremes track would deem ‘untouchable’?

“I once said something about a 13-year-old Smiths fan wanting to stab me in the eye. It was actually more of a joke, but rather predictably it got turned into this big thing on the internet,” he reveals. “As far as ‘untouchable’ tracks go, there are things I wouldn’t touch, but not because it would be ‘sacrilegious’ or anything. A track like Fools Gold by The Stone Roses is not only amazing, but it already has that great percussion which is probably what I would’ve added to it, so I probably wouldn’t touch that. But I think if you’re going to cover a song, you might as well cover your favourites. There’s no point doing Jessica Simpson covers just for the purpose of not pissing anyone off!”

Ronson’s ingenious ability to reconcile seemingly incompatible elements is demonstrative of the incredible diversity of his musical palate. After all, it’s not every day one sees Britney Spears Toxic (recast as a fiery track featuring ODB‘s dirty rhymes) side by side on an album with indie gems such as Oh My God and Valerie. Did he deliberately strive for this eclecticism in order to reflect his musical range?

“Not really. I just think that Toxic is such a great pop song. I had this long discussion with Danger Mouse about how Toxic was one of the best pop songs produced in the past 10 years. You’re right to the extent that I was tempted to put it on just to show that I’m not just like an indie guitar snob. Most of the songs are guitar-driven just because tracks like that work better with what I want to do with them.”

What do the original artists whose tracks have been metamorphosed by Ronson make of the album? “I talked to Ed O’Brien from Radiohead once at a Radiohead show. He was quizzically amused and mentioned how I took a song of theirs and turned it into a party. Kaiser Chiefs also came down for the video shoot of Oh My God and they were into the track. We’re actually doing a show in October where some of the original artists who wrote the songs are going to be performing.”

“I’m probably more comparable to the producer arrangers of the ’60s and ’70s like Quincy Jones…” – Mark Ronson, establishing his reputation

Ronson’s working relationships with other artists extends far beyond Version. His Midas touch is certainly evident in Lily Allen’s Alright, Still, and his masterful production skills recently earned Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black a much-coveted Mercury Music Prize nomination. Does he envision these collaborations to be long-term musical partnerships? Does working with such close friends present any additional challenges?

“I really hope these working relationships will last. With Lily for example we already talked about working on the next album together. She is an incredibly talented melodic writer. Amy is of course amazing as well and I’ll definitely be working with her again,” he gushes. “And as far as working with friends go, I think it’s actually quite easy as long as you know how to be honest in the studio. Daniel Merriweather (whose emotive vocals are featured on Stop Me) is one of my closest friends and we work really well together. I think that some of the best working relationships come from people who have been friends since they were 12 or whatever, whether it’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

With Back To Black being as much a ‘Mark Ronson produced album’ as it is an ‘Amy Winehouse album’, do producers now occupy a position of prominence equalling that of artists’ Does the immense success of Version, coupled with the ascension of other producer/artists such as Timbaland and The Neptunes, are producer-driven records the wave of the future?

“I think I’m just really lucky to be able to produce 14 songs off of 14 other people’s albums, put it all together, and call it my own. But it’s different than say a Timbaland album. He also raps on his own stuff so he’s more of a conventional artist. I think his album is probably made for a different reason and comes from a different sensibility than mine. I’m probably more comparable to the producer arrangers of the ’60s and ’70s like Quincy Jones, so I think the artists you mentioned are probably recognised for different reasons than me, you know?”

Born in London, Ronson moved to New York City at the age of eight. He acknowledges that the duality in terms of his upbringing has definitely influenced him as an artist, but he considers himself to be more English than American.

“I’m finally breaking away from the ‘celebrity DJ’ type of attention. Less DJing at parties from now on…” – Mark Ronson

“By the time I moved to New York, I had already been raised on eight years of Radio 1. The radio and music culture in England is not so racially segregated between rap, reggae, alternative or whatever. My dad (Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones) also listened to a lot of funk and soul around the house so when I moved to New York I started listening to a lot of Def Jam and Seattle music. And whenever I came back to visit my dad, I would listen to a lot of Manchester music. That’s why my tastes are so wide-ranging.”

Despite his wandering eye in terms of his musical inclinations, Ronson’s loyalty will always lie with hip hop. “The drums were my first instrument, so for me music is always first and foremost about the beat. Like the layered production used by Public Enemy and The Bomb Squad to create a groove for instance. That really inspired me. I love my lyricists as well, but it’s always been about the beat first.”

Ronson’s musical dexterity got a workout at Glastonbury, where he not only DJ’d at the dance tent, but also hit the stage with his band. Was his first Glasto muddy enough for his liking’ How does the scrutiny involved in playing such high profile live shows compare to being tucked away in dark corners of clubs where crowds are usually too drunk to care?

“Glastonbury was amazing! There was so much energy when we played our set. Tim Burgess (from The Charlatans) came on stage to do The Only One I Know, and Alex Greenwald was scaling the scaffolding. It was one of those experiences you never wanted to end! Of course, playing live is a pretty new experience for me, and it’s only the past few gigs where I’ve loosened up to the point where I can play guitar and not fuck up. But Alex will still turn to me and say that I don’t look like I’m having fun out there, but I love it. I guess I just don’t really like being the focal point of attention, and when I’m playing with a band as opposed to DJing I can just go out and play my little bit of guitar and everyone can have their moment.”

An obvious question for this musical wunderkind was who he wanted to work with, and whether there were any tracks he was dying to cover. “I just did a remix of Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine) for Bob Dylan‘s Greatest Hits album. Dylan has never allowed anyone to remix one of his songs before, so getting to do that was kinda cool. A while back I wanted to cover Head Like A Hole by Nine Inch Nails, but I just forgot for some reason.”

I remind him that we were all eagerly awaiting his Pussycat Dolls covers (he had previously dismissed the oversexed pop tarts as ‘not genuine’). “Um… I don’t think you can make that any better than what it is, so why ruin a good thing.”

While on the topic of offensive music, what does he consider as the worst cover ever? Any favourites? “There are some really terrible ones on MySpace and YouTube, but as far as stuff which is commercially released, I guess Celine Dion‘s cover of You Shook Me All Night Long takes the cake. As far as favourites go, I’ve always loved Stevie Wonder‘s interpretation of We Can Work It Out, and Travis‘ cover of Baby One More Time.”

When asked what was next on the agenda for music’s most valuable commodity, he makes it clear that he had no intentions of slowing down.

“I’m recording with this new girl Adele right now…” – Mark Ronson, again on the money

“I’m recording with this new girl Adele right now. And of course I’m working on Daniel Merriweather’s album which is going to be brilliant. We’ve only cut a couple of songs at this point, but it’s going to sound incredibly soulful without categorically being Soul or R&B. It’s as much Stevie Wonder as it is Radiohead. I’m just really enjoying myself right now, since I’m finally breaking away from the ‘celebrity DJ’ type of attention. Less DJing at parties from now on. I’m just happy to be recognised for my own music at this point.” I guess that means he won’t be DJing at my birthday party? “I’ll think about it, but only if it’s celebrity-free.

Now an unwitting celebrity in his own right, Mark Ronson has finally emerged from behind the scenes and assumed centre stage. While there’s no turning back, his adherence to keeping it strictly about the music means that even DJing for TomKat should pose no threat to his underground credibility.

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Mark Ronson: “For me music is always first and foremost about the beat” – Interview