Yesterday, we showed you Mark Ronson's brilliant fashion spread from our October/November issue. Despite the hectic pace on set, we were able to sit with the super-successful British producer to share a few words. Whether it was about how Lady Gaga coaxed him to sing on his new album, Record Collection, why he feels comfortable sharing the stage with Theophilus London, or why smashing a bunch of groupies is "clichéd," Ronson had plenty to talk about. Keep reading and check out our exclusive extended interview after the jump...
Interview by Ernest Baker
Complex: When did you decide that Record Collection would have such a different vibe from your last album, Version?
Mark Ronson: Between Version and Amy Winehouse's record and Daniel Merriweather and a few other things I'd been working on, I got a bit over-comfortable in a certain sound. And having the Dap Kings play on everything—they're such brilliant musicians—I know that I can bring a song to them, even if it wasn't the best, and their playing would bring it life. I was relying on them too much.
Then, when I began production on a new album for Duran Duran last summer, I started getting into those old keyboards and synths because that's what they're really good at. When I came back to Brooklyn to start working on my album, I thought I should just try fucking around and combine the sound of the old Roland and moods with what I'd done before.
Complex: So it wasn't a calculated decision at all.
Mark Ronson: No, I was lucky because I didn't know what I was doing, to be honest. I was kind of afraid of starting my new record. All I knew is that it would not be cover songs. It was a bit of luck that I started working with Duran when I did.
Complex: You've gone on record to say this is their best album in 25 years, why is that?
Mark Ronson: I think so, I think it's the best thing [they've done] in a very long time. It sounds new but has all the things about them you've always liked. I think that the record they made with Justin Timberlake and Timbaland was something that looked very good on paper. I have the utmost respect for Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, and I think they are both great at what they do, but for some reason that project played to nobody's strengths. It was random and not very good, and I don't think they would disagree that most of their recent records haven't been nearly up to the same quality as their classics. So yeah, we're making new classics, in a way.
Complex: After working with pop legends, you worked with a lot of new artists like Theophilus London and MNDR. What do they bring to the table?
Mark Ronson: They're all completely inspiring. I heard Theophilus's mixtape, This Charming Mixtape, and got into it, then started playing his stuff on my radio show. Then we met and he eventually came down to the studio. Same thing with MNDR. "Bang Bang Bang" is a great track, but wasn't until she did that kind of weird nursery rhyme over it that really made it special. All the young and upcoming artists on the record are people that I am just genuinely a fan of. They've done as much as others like Boy George, Ghostface, or any of the more seasoned veterans on the album. They're just as important to me.
Complex: Why did you decide to sing on this album?
Mark Ronson: The singing started because there was a song I wrote with Jonathan from The Drums. He was singing it and it sounded really great, and then his band started to blow up and he was like, "Listen, I love this song but my band is blowing up and I don't want to be known as the guy on the Mark Ronson song before my band has an identity." I was like, "Cool." So I tried a few different people singing it, but it didn't work. Nothing sounded good. Everyone's voice could not get quite high enough. I played the song when I was recording the Lady Gaga and Wale record and she just said, "Have you ever tried just singing it?" I was like, "No, I'm not really interested. That would take practice." So, I got a vocal coach and went to him for about six months.
This past December, when I was finishing the album, I just decided to take a go at it. It took a good 30 or 40 takes to get a good performance, but I didn't Auto-Tune it or anything. I was adamant about that. I was like, "Let it sound fucked up." I didn't want anyone to think that I was trying to sound perfect. After singing the first time, the second one became a bit easier because I was writing these lyrics, and they're quite like that Eminem 8 Mile spirit of making as much fun of yourself as possible, so no one else can make fun of you. Say all of your own flaws and no one else can say them. Lyrics like, "I drive around cities on a chariot/I get preferential treatment at the Marriott." Just ridiculous little snapshots and exaggerated things.
Complex: Do you ever worry that people might not catch the sarcasm?
Mark Ronson: That's what the record company guys said when they heard it. Like: "I made a million overnight in 1987, now I'm living in my parking space." In 1987, I was 12 years old. Hopefully, it's obvious that it's a joke.
Complex: Do you have any plans to do an entire project of you singing and writing all the songs?
Mark Ronson: I don't think so. I don't think I'm good enough to write all of the songs anyway. I need the help of collaborations and people. Lyrics don't really come to me like that. I'm good at heaping out lyrics when somebody comes with a storyline. I don't know, this is my first record singing. Maybe the next one will have three or four songs with me singing or maybe there will be none. It depends. But it's not like I have a burning desire to be the front person. I don't feel that comfortable when I'm up and singing it through.
Complex: You're not cool with the term "celebrity DJ." Tell us why you've got so much disdain for the title?
Mark Ronson: The thing is, I came up DJing clubs in New York, and there was no such term as "celebrity DJ." I still think it's all about Stretch Armstrong and Funkmaster Flex and just playing songs that are good. For six years I was playing these little bars in the Lower East Side with 300 people or opening for Flex at Planet Rock for 5,000 people. All of a sudden, Jay-Z started coming in to our little joints. We're psyched and amused like, "How did they hear about our shit?" Then about one or two years later, I started DJing at this club Liv and that's when the fashion world became a [factor], and all of sudden they tagged me with "celebrity DJ." I wasn't a celebrity, so I wondered maybe if it meant I DJed for celebrities. I just found it annoying and trivial. Then, it seemed like every DJ didn't know what they were doing. It's just some kid with two iPods. I kind of hated it after that.
Complex: And what are your thoughts regarding your sister getting the same "celebrity DJ" label?
Mark Ronson: Well, surely it's because in L.A. everything is so celebrity-oriented, so even if you're playing at parties there's always going to be famous and sometimes annoying people. I haven't done a party like that in so long and I'm not saying that they're all bad—some of the parties that Puffy used to throw were amazing—but those weren't "celebrity parties." I did those parties because I like those people as musicians. It was like the late '90s, early 2000s, and there were dot coms opening up all the time and all of this money and then two years later they're all fucking broke. Like Jay-Z said, "Grand opening. grand closing."
Complex: Did you ever fall into the excesses of that lifestyle?
Mark Ronson: I think the good thing is that I didn't have my first real success, at least as a producer or somebody running around onstage, until I was 30, 31. Maybe if it had happened at 22 I would've been that kid in a candy store like, "I'm going to buy everything." But I didn't. I think there were moments where I might have gotten caught up for, like, two weeks. I think I was in England one time, staying at the Ritz, and I was slutting it up for a bit, and I went to a pub one night and I saw 10 girls that I had slept with in the same pub and I thought, "Ugh, this is so disgusting." It's such a cliché and I don't want to be that guy.
Complex: How important is the union of music and fashion?
Mark Ronson: I won't necessarily consider myself someone with an inherent or defined sense of style. I look at how I've dressed through the years and I can always tell what music I was listening to at that time. When I was going to raves at 15, I was wearing giant platform sneakers. And then I wanted to dress like a Beastie Boy, and then, I guess it was three or four years ago, I feel like my style grew up a bit the same way my music did. Now, the records are a bit '80s, so now I'm doing bright colors. Duran Duran-influenced stuff. I don't mind being a bit of a chameleon. I also love when people are stylish without trying. It's like, Meg, the drummer from The White Stripes, is always seen in the jean jacket. I've always wanted to have one individual thing like that, but I don't. I tend to approach fashion, not intentionally, but the same way I approach music. You take pieces of everything and form your influences. A little bit here and a little bit there, and then you use all of that stuff to forge something new and original. Smart people borrow, but geniuses steal.
Complex: Do the newer guys like Theophilus inspire your style in the same way they do your music?
Mark Ronson: Yeah, Theophilus is always immaculately cool wherever he goes. He's just a fucking really good-looking kid. He's wire-thin, he's always going to look cool. I wouldn't say that we inspire each other's fashion, but it's nice to stand onstage and he's making you look good, you know? With the band now, we have Spank Rock, MNDR, Alex Greenwald and a couple of other people, and everyone's pretty cool. It's nice to look around and see a bunch of people that look better than you do.
Complex: Are you going to do any more work with Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse?
Mark Ronson: I don't know about Lily. We haven't spoken about it. I think she's great and I would work with her. It's really just an unknown quantity. Amy, we worked together quite recently. We did a song for this Quincy Jones collaboration. We did a cover of "It's My Party."
Complex: What about this third album that she's talking about?
Mark Ronson: That I don't know about. We haven't talked about that.
Complex: The press makes it seem like you two have a strained relationship.
Mark Ronson: No, we're very close now and we're really good friends to each other. Sometimes you hang out with your friends and sometimes you're all about music and business and it can definitely get in the way of friendships, but I imagine when she is ready to make that record, she'll hopefully call me. And if not, we'll still be friends.
Complex: Amy has Blake tattooed on her. Have you ever done the same with a girlfriend?
Mark Ronson: Yeah, I made some jokes about how it's a terrible decision, but I just got a tattoo of my girlfriend's name.
Complex: And who would that be?
Mark Ronson: Her name is Joséphine. We've been together for about a year and a half. She's in a band called Sing Tank with her brother. She's French. But yeah, I got her name tattooed. I got her to draw her name into a tree and I took a picture and then traced it and got that as the tattoo, but then it looked a little bit stupid by itself so I got a heart around it.
Complex: You're hopeful this works out, obviously.
Mark Ronson: I mean, yeah. Definitely. If things don't work out then I'd be fucked. Also, I've never had a tattoo in my life and I'm Jewish and I've always liked the fact that I never had them—and then I just thought of something that I really wanted. My sister has like 15 tattoos.
Complex: Getting back to the music, you've said that Duran Duran has sold more than everyone on your album combined. Do you feel like you've missed out on that boat? Like, your legacy is compromised because the numbers will never match up because the music industry as a whole has suffered?
Mark Ronson: I guess so, but you know Amy hit the 10 million mark and everybody said that's going to be last record to do that—and then Lady Gaga came along and did the same. Obviously, it's not like it used to be. Those examples are fewer and farther between. I did go to Nellee Hooper's house in London. He's someone I've always looked up to and he's got this beautiful townhouse with Basquiats everywhere, and a part of me was like, "Fuck, I was born 10 years too late." But it's more depressing if you dwell on it and think, "If Back To Black came out in '92, it would've sold 25 million" or whatever. It didn't. It came out now, and I'm lucky that I'm making any kind of living from something that I love doing. It would be great to fucking make mansion-in-New York money, but I'm not, and neither is anyone. I'm just lucky to make something that's good, that I can put out and still feel good about.