Mark Ronson

A Change is Gonna Come

Oct 12, 2010 Issue #33 - Fall 2010 - Interpol Photography by Tommy Kearns Bookmark and Share

Going into the follow-up to his 2007 smash album Version, Mark Ronson knew he needed to do something different. Although Ronson's previous production work with Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen catapulted him to the forefront of prestigious DJs/producers worldwide, Version established him as an artist in his own right, with its danceable, horn-filled reinterpretations of seminal British songs from the likes of Radiohead, The Jam, and The Smiths. The album was cutting edge, but with its success came a backlash, especially from those who took offense to his genre-hopping covers of what Ronson refers to as beloved sacred cows.

"There was no master plan to make that record," says Ronson, who at the time was DJing and without a record deal. "I thought, let me take these songs that I really love and reconstruct them in a way that I can play them for my dancefloor. I remember doing [Radiohead's] 'Just' first and seeing how indie kids and hip-hop heads really reacted to it.... In fact, I met [Radiohead guitarist] Ed O'Brien. I had seen a clip from when he was on Radio 1. The guy threw on my song for him, and he was like, 'Wow, that's great. I'm really honored,' or something like that. So [when I met him] I thought, well at least he doesn't hate it; I can go and say hi. And he was like, 'Yeah, you took our song and turned it into a party?,' with this quizzical look on his face. I couldn't tell if he liked it or not, but maybe that was the reason for some of the outrage.    

For his new album, Record Collection, Ronson wanted to move away from what some may have viewed as the theme of his last album: funky, horn-inflected covers. So he took his core collaborators, Tommy Brenneck and Homer Steinweiss from The Dap-Kings, Victor Axelrod and Nick Movshon from Antibalas, and Alex Greenwald (Phantom Planet), and holed up in Brooklyn with a bunch of vintage synths, an idea inspired by his work with Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes on a new Duran Duran album. The musicians wrote and recorded 14 hours a day, then went back to further flesh out the good ideas. Once tracks were laid down, Ronson brought in additional musicians to continue shaping them, including Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow, Jonathan Pierce from The Drums, and ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall. He's dubbed his grand collective The Business Intl. The result is a new type of futuristic, dancefloor pop, still centered around a beat, but this time one entirely of Ronson's creation.

Dougall spent three weeks in Brooklyn writing with Ronson, sings on three tracks, and also has become part of his live band. "There's nothing flashy about it," she says of Record Collection. "It's just got beautiful instruments, and the people who played on that record are in it for the right reasons, some of the best musicians I've ever had the pleasure of working with. That combined with a sort of '80s, synthy aesthetic, and I think it's really bold. I don't feel that it's pandering to any preconceived ideas of what he should be releasing as Mark Ronson."

Record Collection wouldn't be a Mark Ronson album, however, without its high-profile guests. Whereas Version featured Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse, and Robbie Williams, this album includes contributions from such artists as Q-Tip, Boy George, Ghostface Killah, Duran Duran's Simon Le Bon, and, in perhaps the greatest coup of all, reclusive neo-soul godfather D'Angelo.    

"Tommy and Homer and Victor and Nick [Movshon] are pretty unfazed by everythingthey're great musicians and they've played with some big artistsbut D'Angelo was the only time we were like running around adjusting the lights," says Ronson. "It was like, 'No wait, this looks weird. Turn that lamp off, turn that one on, and put the crackers out.' The guy is pretty untouchable."      

D'Angelo's track, "Glass Mountain Trust," is the album's centerpiece and focal point, with its hazy vocals and psychedelic soul crush. But Record Collection remains very much Ronson's creation, born from his band directing, whether it was switching instruments when people become too comfortable, nixing initial directions as too much like "a live version of The Chemical Brothers," or bringing in more of an Afrobeat texture to what had become too staid. Ronson even lends his own vocals to two tracks on the album, a first for him. Yet, despite it all, Ronson sees himself as much a facilitator as a frontman.     

"For me to be running around in the front, parading like it's my show just because it's my name on the front of the record, first of all it's a bit disingenuous," says Ronson. "And second of all, I'm not going out there and playing Joe Satriani or even like Jack White kind of solos. I'm holding it down on the keyboards. It is about other people's performance, and that's why they're on the record.      

"For the last album, we were on the road for about a year and a half, and by the end of it, I think I was a bit too comfortable," he continues. "I saw some footage from the Hammersmith Apollo where I'm climbing up a speaker stack in some shiny orange glitter suit, and it was like, 'What the fuck did I think I was doing?' I think I definitely bought into it for a bit. I watched the earlier shows and I'm kind of in the back, sort of the gracious MC/bandleader. Which is probably a bit more my comfort zone."


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