Mark Ronson is, at his core, a DJ and a producer for other artists — he considers his four solo albums side projects. But for his latest, the high-concept Uptown Special, he and Bruno Mars have a Number One hit, “Uptown Funk” — a Morris Day and the Time-like throwback that only hints at the album’s diversity, with guests from Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker to Mystikal to Stevie Wonder. Ronson, 39, is pleased with the song’s success, but after its agonizing months-long genesis, he’s even happier just to have finished it. “The thing that I’m really proud of,” he says, “is there were so many times when I would leave the studio and be like, ‘Fuck, man, I guess it wasn’t meant to be.’ But we’d get back together and try and save it.”
There’s a Steely Dan vibe to some of this album, especially in the lyrics novelist Michael Chabon wrote for you. How much did you have that band in mind?
They’re always the gold standard that you shoot for if you’re trying to make lyrics about interesting characters and weird antiheroes. I feel like Steely Dan’s presence has never been more felt in music that’s considered hip and vital – you’ve got the Daft Punk records, and I hear it in stuff like Ariel Pink.
Did you have a second choice for a famous writer? Like, do you think Jonathan Franzen would have killed it?
[Laughs] Michael was the only person I thought of. In my mind, it was an experiment to see if it worked. With a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, it’s like, “When is it OK to ask him if he’s down to rewrite something?” But he was definitely cool with it. I was thinking of records like “Automatic,” by the Pointer Sisters, where it’s a pop-R&B record that has lyrics in the verse like, “All I can manage to push from my lips is a stream of absurdities.” I wanted to inject some turns of phrase every now and then.
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This is your third hit with Bruno Mars, after “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Gorilla.” There’s obviously some magic there.
There’s something just spookily great about Bruno. He taps into everybody’s fucking thing — there’s artists that have moments when they’re in the zone, and their music touches everybody. Same way as Michael Jackson. How come toward the end of his career, there were kids screaming outside of his hotel who weren’t even born when his last massive record came out?
How autobiographical is “Leaving Los Feliz,” the song about an aging dude feeling out of place at clubs?
I do go out to clubs in New York and see the friends of my little brother and sister, who are, like, 15 years younger than me, and I basically feel like Uncle Mark. I’m like, “What the hell am I doing here?” But it’s not like I’m going in there falling-over drunk and trying to pick up 20-year-old girls. As a DJ, I like going out to hear whatever the new dude is spinning. But the song is also about how lonely a giant nightclub can be.
“I Can’t Lose” so specifically evokes Eighties Jam and Lewis. Were you drawing on particular songs they produced?
No, but I really do love that sound of black radio from ’79 to ’84. With “Uptown Funk,” too, everybody’s like, “What song were you referencing?” Nothing! It’s just that when me and Jeff [Bhasker] start jamming with Bruno on the drums, we’re not gonna play, like, Mahler.
What era do you think was the peak of record production?
For hip-hop, I think of The Chronic, Midnight Marauders and Fear of a Black Planet — which are all stylistically different. For pure solid-gold crispness, it’s between ’74 and ’79, when multitrack recording was at its peak and records got expensive: Off the Wall, Aja, Songs in the Key of Life.
What about the sound of pop now?
In the past, people used technology to push music forward, like Nile Rodgers and Duran Duran messing around with vocal sampling, or Bowie and Eno using the first harmonizer to create strange sounds. Now, people use technology to make records faster and easier, to cover up shitty performances. I still record stuff to tape, and take all this time to get performances, because I think that it makes a difference. There’s something in the subconscious brain that knows that’s a living, breathing thing.
Do you ever ponder what Amy Winehouse might be doing musically if she had lived?
She could’ve made a country-blues record, she could’ve gotten into making straight jazz records. I really don’t know. I mean, her heart was always in jazz and those chords. I’m sure, whether it was me producing the record or somebody else, she would’ve ended up pushing somebody to create something new.
On an extremely different note, did you know that the Internet is convinced that you — as a small child — wrote the theme music to the cartoon ThunderCats?
I know, that’s such a weird thing! I think someone got in and messed with my Wikipedia page. I was just reading that out loud and I thought it was so funny. I was like, “I’m just gonna leave it.”