Mark Ronson: ‘Watch the Sound’

Hosted by

Mark Ronson in “Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson,” now streaming on Apple TV+. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes music producer and Oscar winner Mark Ronson. Ronson hosts the new Apple TV+ series “Watch The Sound,” which explores how changing technology has led to musical innovation. Ronson won an Academy Award for co-writing ”Shallow” and is known for producing Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black” as well as for his collaborations with Bruno Mars and Adele. Ronson tells The Treatment about Paul McCartney’s progressive musical tastes, and how McCartney and the Beatles often experimented with their music. Ronson says while he was an early hater of autotune, he eventually saw how it could innovate music. And he talks about the difference a room makes to a recording. 

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm a fan of my guest today, Mark Ronson, in so many different venues: as a podcaster, as a producer, as a DJ, and now as the host of a show on Apple "Watch The Sound." I can't think of another show that goes from Hank Shocklee to King Princess, and what's really interesting about the show to me is that each episode is kind of like another piece of the origin story of Mark Ronson. But also, it's about what pop really is about, which is technology, and how each new wave of technology furthers the wave of pop.

Mark Ronson: Yeah, it's so weird, because going back to the Beatles, they occupy such a warm and fuzzy place in our collective consciousness because they're the songs that we grew up with. And we think of them as being, like I said, warm and fuzzy, but actually what they were doing at that time was so progressive technologically and pushing it forward. Talking to Paul McCartney about how he made the drum loop, probably one of the first awesome drum loops in pop music on "Tomorrow Never Knows," and they would constantly want to push things forward. They were in their sort of musical arms race with the Beach Boys and Hendrix, constantly trying to outdo each other. And then like you said, threading through to Hank Shocklee. 

Sorry to name drop and brag, but I mean, that's the nature of this show. Paul McCartney called me not that long ago, and my first instinct was to go into a panic like, Oh, God, he saw the scenes in the show, and he hates it; he's gonna ask us to cut them out. And he was like, Hey, I just thought it was so cool, how you threaded me and into what I did with the Mellotron into Public Enemy because I like Public Enemy. And I was just like, Wow, that's amazing. A: that Oh my God, he digs the show, but of course, someone who's progressive and progressive in the way they look at music is gonna think about things in that style. 

KCRW: It's almost kind of a family lineage for you because I think about the kind of stuff that Foreigner used to do, like bringing in Junior Walker, and basically saying, Hey, don't play that disco crap; be Junior Walker. And he blows off that solo for "Urgent" in just one take, which takes me to you and Teenie Hodges, and just this idea of music as this constant exploration but also anthropology.

Ronson: I love the story because I asked my stepdad: how did Junior Walker end up playing on "Urgent?" He was like, I don't know. I think we were all at 'The Blue Note. This is like '82; I'm sure they were just trashed and just like, Hey, Junior Walker's the best. We're recording around the street at Electric Lady. Do you want to just bring your sax? They just let him blow, and it was incredible. 

When we were down at Royal Studios in Memphis, Willie Mitchell's place where Al Green and all this amazing music was made, Teenie Hodges is just hanging out there every day, because he just comes through because he's family. You'd have to be crazy not to ask that guy who's such an amazing guitar player--he's not with us anymore--not to come in and touch whatever music you're working on. 

KCRW: What was really great to me and the thing I think marks you as being a really interesting producer, is what a room means, and you're in that great room at Capitol. 

Ronson: One of the most revelatory things that ever happened in my career was the first time that I went to Daptone Records when, on day one of tracking “Back to Black,” Amy [Winehouse] and I already had five or six demos. I never met those guys before, and I walk in there getting drum sounds and Homer Steinweiss, the drummer from the Dap-Kings, is in this tiny, tiny glass room. There's barely enough room for his drum kit and he's playing the sound and Gabe Roth, the engineer and the kind of head of Daptone, is EQ-ing it on the board. And I'm like, wait. I actually felt like I started to float out of my body because it sounded like every drum break I'd ever loved. 

Here they were in 2006 making this sound and because they were actually running the tape machine to check the sound coming back, it was slightly delayed from what I was watching, so it was even more disorienting. Like, am I having a stroke? This is the greatest drum sound I've ever heard. This is my life now because I'd spent the whole 10 or 15 years up into that moment scouring record bins and searching for the perfect break, so to speak. But here's this guy who's gonna play and bring these songs live, and he's gonna be able to play drum fills and, and nuance and add to it. We're not just married to a two bar loop that's going to be Amy's voice over it. So the reason that those drums sounded so amazing, back to your point, is because it was this tiny room and how they mic-ed it and the way that rooms and the size and the depth of them have so much influence on the music.

KCRW: What I thought was interesting, rather than each part of the series being about a musician, each episode being about basically part of what makes the music. Spending that much time on echo and the spiritual quality of echo, and to connect, in effect, churches to what you ended up doing in your career, and how that echo and that reverb and that delay, really changes our spiritual orientation to music.

Ronson: This show sort of came about, because Kim Rozenfeld from Apple TV+ came to me in the beginning, and he liked this TED talk that I'd done on sampling. One of the books that I read that was sort of ground zero for my TED talk was the David Byrne book, which had just come out at the time: "How Music Works." One of the most fascinating things in there is when he talks about music and churches and how the music of the time was really influenced completely by the spaces it was in, so in the era of the big churches and cathedrals, the music had to really all be quite tonal and fit because if you introduced a new passage of the song in a different key, it would be discordant because the reverb was still carrying of the last part of the song. Then he talks about in The Talking Heads how he envisioned himself almost like a mood board. The Talking Heads’ music for each album was based on what kind of spaces he envisioned himself playing. With the first album, it's CBGBs, and it's very tight and kind of wiry, and then it gets more expansive as they get to playing these bigger venues. 

Echo and reverb: my introduction to them was once again with Amy when I first met her, and she told me she wanted to make a record that sounded like 60s girl pop, and I was like, Okay, well, I've never made anything like that before, but I really liked this person, and I get a good feeling from her, so I'd like to try. I was like, Okay, maybe what I can do in my tiny studio here is put a crapload of digital reverb on a tambourine and that seems to maybe do what she's talking about. 

Paul McCartney and Mark Ronson in “Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson,” now streaming on Apple TV+. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+.

KCRW: I feel like every person you worked with, and so many of them are on the show, are each step in your musical evolution and your education. 

Ronson: For distortion, we have Dave Grohl and Thurston Moore and Kathleen Hanna: obvious people you might think of, but my favorite heavy metal riff or hard rock riff was, like a lot of people, Vernon Reid from Living Colour "Cult of Personality." Getting to talk to Vernon Reid, whom I'd actually never met before, he said some of the most soulful and insightful things in the entire show. Especially with the distortion episode, it was really a lot of people saying, I didn't know how to express this giant wellspring of emotion inside me until I discovered this little pedal. Kathleen Hanna talked about how distortion is the sound of birth for her, like hearing her vocals for it is what gave her the kind of courage to be like, okay, I can sing.

KCRW: Like the drum sound, people are so often trying to figure out new ways to, I don't want to say, imitate distortion, but emulate it and what you're finding so often, and the show seems to be about again, technology, but also that schism between the organic and the electronic.

Ronson: Definitely one of the underlying threads of this show seems to be that when all of these great breakthrough technologies come out, everybody hates them at the beginning, or everybody thinks it's gonna ruin music, or they're machines, and it's good to remove the human feel. And you have the musicians' union, protesting against Moog and saying it's gonna rob the jobs from string players. And then somebody does something kind of genius with it and essentially uses it in the way that it really wasn't intended to: the way that Prince tuned down the the sound on the Linn Drum to get the sounds of "Purple Rain" or the way that Stevie Wonder approached the synthesizers in the Moog to make "Talking Book" and to weave this musical world. 

KCRW: We can really take this back to the beginning of pop, which is to say, when music was recorded and people said it would be the end of music, with no longer having people play music in their parlors.  That brings us to the Linn Drum and that same kind of complaint being made against those things, too. I mean, it carries over to this very day.

Ronson: It does even in the autotune episode.  I'm not afraid to admit that yes, I was a little bit of a hater. I mean, everybody loves Cher, and everybody loves a comeback. So of course, I love "Believe" because it was just this anomaly. But for the most part, I thought, okay, this is kind of like making everybody sound the same, and I don't know if I'm thrilled with this kind of music. And then I think "808s & Heartbreak" came about, and that was the first thing when I was really just like, okay, it's obvious that Kanye West has these brilliant melodies in him, and if he needs a little bit of extra help to sort of get them to the end zone, then I'm fine with that. "Paranoid" and songs like that. Simon Reynolds is a great writer and thinker about music. He says, when we look back at music of the 21st century, autotune, as of now, is the most dominant thing that's changed it the most.

KCRW: So much of the fear of pop is a fear of the future, isn't it?

Ronson: Yes, it's either the fear of the future which is essentially the same thing as a fear of breaking with norms, or what we're used to. Questlove talks about it when he first heard, I think, Public Enemy, and he was saying, he realized the moment he always knows there's a paradigm shift happening is when he has to go like, Wait, is that supposed to happen? Are we allowed to do that, then somebody does something super genius with the thing that makes everybody like it, and then something inches suddenly from being very avant garde or left field into being the norm. And then you have autotune or drum machines, or the things that all now dominate pop music because they came at one point from the fringes of other genres and hip hop. We've seen time and time again, whatever is happening in hip hop 15 years before will probably end up dominating the sound of pop music at some point.

KCRW: You think about everything that Prince was doing, part of which was to obfuscate the fact that he was a musical innovator and didn't want people paying attention to that. A bit of it was sleight of hand on his behalf but just being aware of the precision, and just how pleased he was when he got the sound he wanted in a different auditorium. It's thrilling for me to hear you say that Paul McCartney was a Public Enemy fan because so often there's this division between older musicians and younger musicians.

Ronson: When I was working with Paul McCartney on his album eight years ago, he brought in a CD of what he was listening to at the time. And his favorite song at the time was "Climax" by Usher. And that was this really progressive awesome Diplo, Ariel Rechtshaid, Redd Stylez production with strings by Nico Muhly, and I was a bit shocked, because I was like, wait, I hope he doesn't think that I know how to do that. Like I said, the Beatles were always pushing things forward with technology, and it makes sense that he would be doing it now. 

Back to what you said about Prince and what you're saying about the sound in specific rooms. The Sunset Sound, the room where he did all those incredible records in 1983 and 1984, I think he recreated the exact dimensions of that room when he built Paisley Park, because he had this kind of superstition, or rather, was just like, I've done all this amazing stuff here. I need to carry this.

 I used to have this little studio in the East Village in a basement back in the mid 2000s. I found out after I'd been there for a while that it's where The Strokes recorded their first album, and at one point, I think when they were maybe struggling through that second album, they were saying that they might want to come back to their old studio.  I was a big Strokes fan, so I was like, yeah, I'll get out of this room for six months if it means The Strokes are going to be able to make a second record.

KCRW: One of the things that's so great about watching this show is we get a real idea of your sense of pleasure watching people who are curious. 

Ronson: There are some really amazing moments that happened like when we were at DJ Premier's studio. And that's somebody whom I've hero worshipped, even when I started out, very much ripped off his style. And then to watch him for the first time program a beat, standing over his shoulder and realizing that he doesn't use the metronome when he makes a beat, which is absolutely crazy. I mean, it's like the equivalent of going up on a trapeze wire with a blindfold on. He just starts programming and it makes sense because he's the drummer and now, knowing that, it makes so much sense about why his beats feel the way that they do. 

Then being in the studio with Kim Princess, while she's teaching herself to use an old original analog 808 drum machine and watching her face light up, that's the best thing to get to be a part of. I think that's why I love working with new artists maybe more than I do established ones because you get to see their faces constantly light up, like they're on their maiden voyage to make this record and everything is new, and everything is exciting. The idea of being a part of that, it's like drinking from the fountain of youth.

KCRW: We realize that what unites all these people is they have a way of seeing things differently than anybody else. Again, you're vibing with that path each of these people set for themselves. Your wonderment, in fact, is one of the pluses of the show. You're not jaded about this stuff at all.

Ronson: I guess the two main things that really push forward, both technology and music, is this curiosity. So it's somewhat related because this show is talking about the influence of technology on music, but if you think about what pushes forward innovation, it's somebody's curiosity to see if they can do something that hasn't come before. If that's Roger Linn making the Linn Drum or designing the MPC or Andy Hildebrand designing autotune, and then from a musical aspect, it's Paul McCartney trying to conjure a sound or a chord progression that's never been played before, at least, not in that same way. So I guess that's the big thing in common with these technological innovators and the musicians that we really love.



Rebecca Mooney