Skip to content

Mark Ronson Pulls Back the Studio Curtain

When Mark Ronson was working on his namesake AppleTV+ documentary, Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson, there was no shortage of not just internationally acclaimed artists he had access to, but genre sonic pioneers willing to sit down with the super-producer and expose secrets behind some of their biggest songs.

Calm, yet exceedingly curious in his interviews, Ronson got legends — like Paul McCartney, Beastie Boys’ Mike D and Ad-Rock, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Questlove of The Roots, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Santigold, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee, Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and so many, many, many more — to not just go behind the music, but inside it, explaining not only the tricks of their trade, but how they’ve been able to communicate their emotions, not in language, but through pedals, loops, synths, tapes, samplers, and unique sonic experimentation.

And Ronson gave SPIN a little insight into making the series happen.

Tell me about putting together this amazing collection of people that you interviewed.

A lot of the people [were] people I have working relationships with, so, I think people trusted that I wasn’t going to reveal all the secrets. Think of somebody like Kevin Parker of Tame Impala. There’s such a mystique around Tame Impala — around the sound. It’s not like he’s going on tour, blankets over all the amps of the speakers — like, ‘Nobody knows how I do this.’ I realize that’s very private. I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m going to spill the beans. 

But at the same time, there were people that like Dave Grohl, who I’ve never worked with. Dave is such an important part — Nirvana, as a drummer, as a guitar player, and songwriter in Foo Fighters — of course, I wanted to get him. Also, he’s just so amazing when he’s in these interviews. So, the Foo Fighters album was coming out, we were really getting down to the wire when we had to hand in the show and we weren’t able to make it happen. I went on the Internet and I found some really goofy “Make Your Own Gift Certificate” printout, and I wrote, “Good for one remix for the Foo Fighters.” I got someone to send it to him and he thought that was funny, so he came on our show.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the iconic pieces of music that you got people to reveal their secrets to — like Duran Duran and “Save a Prayer.” Did you know how they did those things?

There were some things. I remember when I worked with Paul McCartney on his album NEW, there was a little tape reel-to-reel thing in the corner of the studio, and I was like, “Oh, what’s that?” And he’s like, “That’s how I made ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.” I came in with this whole bag of loops, this little shopping bag to the studio that day that I had made at home in my attic.” So, when we were doing the show I asked Paul if he would talk about all the technological progressions that he made in the Beatles like the Mellotron keyboard, which is the flutes on “Strawberry Fields,” and also that tape loop. He actually brought in that machine! And even if you’ve heard that story, just to see Paul running his guitar to it, playing with the tape speed that’s showing how it is, is still kind of mind-blowing. 

And then, “Save a Prayer” — I’ve worked with Duran Duran — everything I know about synthesizers [I] probably learned from Nick Rhodes. To watch him still recreate the iconic riff from “Save a Prayer” is so wow! I’ve never seen him do that before.

A lot of technology is involved in this. Not everyone who watches the show is going to be well versed in all that. From a television series producer perspective, when do you decide this might be too complicated for the masses?

That was where the good people at AppleTV+ really came in because Morgan [Neville], our director — he’s made amazing documentaries that appeal to everybody from 20 Feet from Stardom to the new Bourdain doc — is a huge music buff and has a big tech knowledge. 

I can talk fast and trail off my words. Then some of the first feedback we were getting from Apple was a bit like, “We have no idea what you’re talking about. You know that, right?” That course correct was very helpful because I want this to be for the people that live this stuff every day of their lives, and I want people who just love music, or whoever watches, to be like, “Oh, that’s what that is. Oh, that’s what reverb is. OK, I get it.” 

Whenever we throw around words like “technology,” it scares me. I don’t want people thinking this is a techy show because it’s not. It’s about how these machines came about, and with the help of very soulful people — like Prince and whoever else — became the thing that makes the songs that we love what they are.

When you talk to Kathleen Hanna, there’s that bit where she says, “You’re the first person to ask me about this stuff.” (Writer’s note: she’s referring to some of the technical details of her sound) That must have blown your mind that no one had that kind of a conversation with somebody like her.

I loved Kathleen’s music; I loved her doc [The Punk Singer]. I didn’t honestly know if she was even going to say yes because she seems like she does whatever the fuck she wants, which is what makes her amazing. So, I was thrilled that she agreed to come talk about it because — of course, the importance culturally of the riot grrrl movement is insane — but for my dumb, rote music fan knowledge, when I think of Le Tigre and Bikini Kill and stuff, I just think of her voice. Just that explosive force and the distorted sound of the music. So, for me, it was yeah, we’re doing something about distortion, we had to talk to [Kathleen]. She says some of the best stuff in the whole series, and especially in the distortion episode. 

That was one of the episodes where I didn’t expect this show to also have this very human element and everyone who is in that episode is saying like, “I didn’t know that there was a way for me to express all this wellspring of emotion, these feelings inside until I discovered distortion.” Kathleen says it’s the sound of birth, it’s the sound of abundance. 

Josh Homme, when he’s talking, he’s like, “Then there’s that moment in the song [I’m creating] that I just need to express this thing, I can’t think of any word that’s better than going Waaaahhhh.” 

Vernon Reid from Living Color — he’s talking about Jimi Hendrix “Machine Gun” and he says, ”Machine Gun” is a howl from 1619 through a Marshall and fuzz face. I was like, he should be a professor. 

The synthesizer and distortion episodes really felt like talking to people who felt like they were on the outskirts of a kind of mainstream society and until this thing came along, I didn’t know how to express myself. And I was kind of moved by a lot of people’s stories when they were sharing that.

All episodes of Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson premiere Friday, July 30 on AppleTV+