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Interview: Mark Ronson

9th October 2008

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 Producer of hit records by Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse, uber-cool fashionista DJ, and maker of that Radiohead cover, Mark Ronson was in London to chat about his new album Versions. 

Phil Dixon was there to listen...

Mark RonsonMark Ronson stands in near zombie-like amazement, enthralled by a foot-high figure of recently deceased soul icon James Brown as it jerks its fully-articulated hips and emits a distorted rendition of 'I Feel Good' from its tinny speaker.

"I swear to God I am so tired I think this James Brown has just come alive and started singing to me."

It's the last interview at the end of a long day of press for Ronson. His fatigue is especially evident as he disaffects himself from the mesmerizing idol on the shelf and turns to show bags under his eyes that he could have checked as hold luggage before his early flight from New York that morning.

Dressed in a vintage Run DMC t-shirt and battered Nikes, he assuages the platoon of red wine and Evian bottles lined out for him to sip sporadically from a Coke bottle by his side. Not what one would expect from one of the world's most sought-after producer/DJs - having in the last year produced tracks on albums from Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse and pop-moppet-du-jour, Lily Allen, and a track record of presiding over the fashion elite at soirees for Tommy Hilfiger and P. Diddy from his current home of New York to his birthplace of London to Milan and beyond. But then Ronson never was one to deliver the expected.

His first album, 2003's Here Comes The Fuzz, was an eclectic mixtape of party tracks across the gamut of genres featuring artists as diverse as Ghostface Killah and MOP to Weezer's Rivers Cuomo, from which hip-hop floor-filler 'Ooh Wee' was the runaway success. A success that was not to be capitalised upon, unfortunately, due to the subsequent collapse of Mark's then label, Elektra.

"Even for that record not to do well, the things that it's lead to I'm definitely grateful for… I mean it was fun - we were going out, opening for Justin Timberlake with just a song on the radio, and ten thousand kids were singing along and that was sort of enough, you know? Like my grandmother had no concept of what I did until I could actually say 'Oh, I'm on Top Of The Pops.' And then she was like, 'Oh I understand, so you're not wasting your life away?'

"I saw it as like, "Holy shit, Elektra Records want to give me an unlimited chequebook to work with every rapper that I've ever loved since I was fifteen!" It was just a fun record to make and it's hard to imagine if the record had been successful how I would have felt differently."

Four years later Ronson dares to put his name back on the front of the CD case with Version: this time a collection of re-imagined indie hits in the same vein as his most recent runaway success - a funked-up, horn-addled version of Radiohead's 'Just' - encompassing such revered acts as The Smiths, The Jam and, yes, Britney Spears. So after the sting of the first record not doing as well as it would/could/should have, was he hedging his bets with a cover album?

"No, I don't think so. Someone asked me to do the 'Just' cover for this BBE compilation. And at first I was like, well how the hell am I going to do a cover of a Radiohead song? I mean yes, I loved them, but does that warrant the fact that I need to do a version of it? And then we did it, and just the experiment of doing it, replacing guitars with the horn and that thing was just really fun and I would sit at the clav keyboard or the guitar and bring up a drumbeat on the MPE and just start fucking around with chords and fucking around with my favourite songs and it was just a sort of labour of love, like a fun project. And then when the 'Just' one blew up here and was so embraced I was like, well fuck it, I've got a version of like six of these songs."

Ronson has set himself quite a demanding task in facing the trials involved in putting out an album of cover versions. A music lover first and foremost, however, he is fully aware of the possibilities of being critically branded as a novelty and adverse fan reaction - deliberately courting controversy and risking attack from a legion of gladioli-wielding vegans by covering The Smiths' 'Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One'.

"The thing about making a covers record, it's an easy argument: you could say what's the point? We already have those songs recorded and they've done quite well… and maybe if the Radiohead one hadn't been embraced I probably wouldn't have the balls to do a Smiths thing. But the fact that Ed O'Brian from Radiohead and Morrisey and all these people actually loved the covers, that's just an additional bonus, that's not worth it enough to make it work."

" If they didn't like it I probably wouldn't want to put it out, it's like if you don't have the blessing of 'Dad' what's the point? But I think that there are also some people who are going to discover 'Stop Me…' for the first time because of this record as well: people who might not listen to indie-ish type of music and more like their hip-hop and funk and that kind of stuff. Like people who might instantly hear the heavy guitars in Radiohead's 'Just' and - it'd be a crime but I'm sure there are people that hear it and go "This isn't my type of music," and switch off instantly. And I'm not saying that I'm on some kind of mission to expose people to the great songs of all time, but there's a validity in both, you know?"

So is there anything that Ronson wouldn't touch, himself, out of respect, as a music-lover? Is there anything that he'd keep away from because it has been done and can never be done better?

"No, I don't think 'Stop Me' can ever be done better, I just thought there was something that I wanted to bring to that song. I wouldn't touch any songs that were already kind of heavy with the beats and stuff? Because that's what I'm doing, essentially, like my addition is more on the rhythmic side of it rather than enhancing the melody, because the melody's there. But there are songs like 'Fool's Gold' already with that break, like you're not going to get any better than that. Songs like 'Unfinished Sympathy' by Massive Attack - anything from the modern beat era I wouldn't touch because that's my sensibility, that's what I imagine that I'm probably adding to it."

Version marks a new phase for Ronson, having evolved further in the studio and had the chance to dabble in more diverse musical influences on other artists' albums. So if Here Comes The Fuzz was a party mixtape, is this album more of a cohesive unit?

"I think that it's obviously cohesive because it's got a unifying theme. But that's kind of cheating, the covers being a theme isn't enough to make it. I think the cohesive element is it's a bit more musically three-dimensional? You know, there's more things moving around? It's just like as you go on as a producer - I think that producing Amy Winehouse's record I learnt a lot of things, like not being afraid to go and bring in a sixteen-piece string orchestra just because I don't know the classical terms, like I'd be too embarrassed in a room with people like that, you know?"

This wasn't the only factor opposing that decision, as Amy herself said no to the strings, "because to her strings automatically make her think of sappy ballads." Undeterred, Ronson even offered to finance the orchestra out of his own pocket if she wasn't swayed.

"Even when I said that she was like 'What's the point? You're going to have to end up paying for it.' And then I played her 'Love Is A Losing Game', the first one with the strings, and she was like this for the whole three minutes of the song (Bent over in chair, arms folded on knees, head bowed in deep concentration). And then she just looks up and goes, 'I love it… Just take that fucking harp out, it sounds like some Mariah Carey shit.'"

In the past Ronson has kept out of the spotlight, content to let the music speak for itself. But now having worked with the likes of Robbie Williams, Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen - not only three of the biggest artists but three of the biggest media-baiters from the UK (the latter two due in no small part to his contribution on their critically and publicly acclaimed albums) - how does garnering press attention and the unavoidable tabloid headlines sit with the laid back producer?

"I hope all three might help the record sales, I don't know! It's really random, I started Version with no deal, just paying out of my own pocket and just decided to get my friends on it as a favour and doing it for fun. And also I'd be doing the songs I wanted to do. And now, Amy and Lily have had a stellar year, and it looks like accidentally - well not accidentally, but I sort of look like some genius for having two of the biggest female pop stars on this record and for working on their records. I laugh, I mean I've seen maybe two things in the paper where it says like, ‘Ronson Dates Lily Allen’ or ‘Amy Winehouse Denies Rift With Producer Boyfriend Ronson’ and it just makes you realise that people maybe on a slow news day obviously just make up whatever they want. I think literally an editor goes 'Listen, we have eight pages to fill today, I wanna see some nonsense.'"

It's an attitude that bucks the current trend of 'The Producer As Star'. With acts like Timbaland and The Neptunes firmly stamping their presence all over other artists' tunes and showing their face in the videos, isn't Mark keen to capitalise on his notoriety and help push his own album sales?

"I think that's cool, 'cause Timbaland's actually a rapper, so you know probably [has] more merit for putting his name on the cover than probably even I do. I know as a music nerd I always wanted to know who produced this record or that record, but it's just not my thing to have a sound. Amy would come to me with a guitar and play a song and it's like okay, well how do I make this song the best? Does it need this kind of beat? Does it not need a beat? Does it need strings? It's not like, 'How am I gonna put that Mark Ronson shit on this song,' you know?"

Such a nonchalant attitude to fame comes easily to Ronson. He's spent his life surrounded by celebrities - growing up a few doors down from the McCartneys, he was taught drums by Keith Moon when he was two, he taught Sean Lennon to play guitar - and his name had appeared regularly on Page Six, the society gossip column of The New York Post. Still, given these high-profile surroundings he manages to maintain a normal Joe's capacity for self-humiliation:

"Yeah I get starstruck all the time, like I get starstruck if I see Ghostface Killah on the street and I've done three songs with him at this point, because I still have "the fan" or whatever in me with some of those artists, you know? But I'm kinda glad to get that, I never want to get so jaded that you can't be impressed by somebody, somebody who was that influential and I don't think that ever will change, you know?"

But that doesn't extend to everyone. On his self-penned Myspace biog he mentions a shouting match he once had with Oscar Winner™ Charlize Theron…

"Oh she was just being really obnoxious at a party in Milan and she came up to the booth and was like (affects nasal voice and self-important attitude), 'Can you play some dancehall reggae?' And it was like some fashionista bullshit in Italy in the middle of Fashion Week and it was like that thing when someone comes up to ask a song to impress you with how cool they are that they know what dancehall reggae is. Not that they really care if you play it. I'm like look at me, come on, as if I'm going to play dancehall reggae right now in front of like Fernando and Ricardo and Enrique?"

Quite a change from the less-self-important 'gangsta' hip-hop clubs he started off DJ-ing in in New York. So how do the two crowds compare?

"I don't mind either one, as long as you're having fun dancing I'll play for you. As long as I feel like I'm staying true to what I play and playing shit that I like and doing that it's cool, I can play for either one."

And what's the bigger rush then: the crowd reaction you get from a DJ gig or getting a final result in the studio and seeing that music come to life?
"I think the ultimate is the combination of the two, when I make a record and I get to play it out loud and see a crowd in a club and I'm like 'Wow, I can't believe I made this and I'm playing it and these people like it,' that's the coolest feeling."

And on that golden nugget of a soundbite I wrap things up. In the course of the interview his speech has become degraded to a mumble, eye-contact is virtually non-existant now and I've already doubled the "five more minutes" I asked of the interrupting PR guy. For Ronson, it's the price he pays for being in demand, and there's only more to come for him once Version is released. The light is out and he's curled up on the sofa of the PR's offices before I'm even out of the room, watched over by that James Brown figure…

Version is released in the UK on April 16

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