Mark Ronson is – at heart – a music fan. Need an example? Clash linked him up with Daryll Hall – from Hall and Oates – for a conversation, a one-time thing. Within minutes, it transpired that Mark Ronson knew virtually every single detail about every single classic recording session Daryll hall had undertaken, from his doo wop roots right through to his super-stardom.
So when we heard Mark Ronson had been picked up for a full six-part Apple series, it made perfect sense. Available to stream now, Watch The Sound With Mark Ronson is a riveting watch, with each episode focussing on a studio innovation, dissecting these technologies with a pan-generational cast. As it turns out, it was actually the tech giant that approached him – following a viral TED Talk he gave on the art of sampling.
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The elevator pitch is a series that hones in on “the technologies that have really influenced modern music the most over the past sixty years” and – even across Zoom – his knowledge and passionate is evident. It’s a series that allows Mark Ronson to assume a different role, a more academic treatise on sound. “It was never guaranteed that I was gonna make music,” he tells Clash. “I knew I was fanatical about it… but I just interned at Rolling Stone when I was, like, 12, and then at 13, 14 I wrote for some hip-hop zines like On The Go or Ego Trip. Then as a kid I made heavy metal fanzines to make some weekend money.”
He explains: “This show is a really good format in a way because I get to both be the fan and the musicologist, but I also come at it from the place of somebody who makes music as well.”
With one of the most glittering contact books in modern music, Mark Ronson was able to rope in some absolute legends. Take the involvement of Sir Paul McCartney, who the producer previously worked with on Macca’s album ‘New’.
“I am obsessed with the tape loops on and the sound of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. And when we were working on Paul’s album - I was producing a few tracks - he just came in with these little cassettes of these loops one day that were like the original loops from ‘Revolver’… things that could easily be in the Smithsonian or some kind of museum!”
“It’s just amazing when you can talk to somebody like Paul McCartney who is basically the oracle at this point and learn a new thing or have him tell a new story that he hasn’t told before.”
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Yet it’s not reliant on classic names. Mark Ronson also chats to hip-hop greats such as DJ Premier and the Beastie Boys, and modern artists such as Angel Olsen, Charli XCX, and King Princess. The latter proved to be particularly memorable, “because she grew up in recording studios, she understands so much about gear. She has showed me stuff about plugins and digital stuff I didn’t even know. She just knows her shit. But she’s also hilarious!”
What the series aims to do is to show the humanity in these recordings. “Even the word technology sounds so kind of cold and devoid of heart and soul,” he says, “but then you realise that these technologies are incredibly soulful when soulful people are using them.”
To prove his point, Mark hones in on the scene with Dave Grohl. The two discuss Nirvana’s work, as well as looking at Grohl’s own career. First, though, they look back to their formative experiences. “Dave Grohl was this anxious kid - jittery, too much energy - until he heard distortion for the first time. He said, I didn’t really know that there was a sound there for me that I could express myself through.”
For Mark – both as a fan and a broadcaster – it helped peel back the veneer of fame that covers Dave Gorhl. “You forget that at one time these artists did something no one had ever done before. Nirvana and the Foo Fighters are now so in the public consciousness but when they first came out they were like nothing that ever came before. So speaking to Dave, he is also an incredibly soulful, groovy drummer… when you think of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to me that is almost a classic funk break but it is just heavy as hell. That is a funky fucking beat!”
“Nirvana would never really write out the song arrangements,” Mark explains. “Technically he would just have to look at Kurt’s foot and if his foot was getting closer to the distortion pedal he knew that it was time to start playing heavier, heavier, heavier and then when that foot went down, oh we are in the chorus, and start playing super heavy. Just the way to hear him tell that story gave me goosebumps.”
In a way, the series is a one-man act of fan service. Take his thoughts on the Beastie Boys, artists who helped shape his adolescence. “Oh the Beasties I worshipped growing up,” he gushes. “I can plot their different musical evolution at different points of my life.”
Ultimately, though, what Watch The Sound With Mark Ronson achieves is demystifying the recording process, while retaining the magic. For the producer, sound – and all its textures, tones, and nuances – is the cutting edge of pop culture, the place where innovation resides. “At this point we know there’s only twelve notes in the scale, we have written every single combination of every possible melodic thing that can happen. So, really the only way for music to continue to evolve is through technology and how sound changes, whether it’s things like auto tune or synths or software. I guess sound is really the only frontier that we can really use to push music forward at this point.”
Having built this passion project from the ground up, Mark Ronson is leaving the door open on broadcasting – much was left on the cutting room floor, and he’s already hinting at a potential second season. It’s left him inspired and refreshed – although he’s keen to keep the role of music observer and music maker distinct. “There’s a part of my brain that still loves that kind of academic challenge. In a way it makes me realise how lucky I am in the rest of my job, too, because while there might be pressure when I go in to the studio I don’t have to really study I just have to show up and be inspired… and not be hungover!”
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Watch The Sound With Mark Ronson is streaming now on Apple TV+.
Words: Robin Murray
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