Money Mark's 20th-century repair

Mike Higgins meets the carpenter-turned-keyboard wizard who refuses to go along with techno-hype
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Indy Lifestyle Online
A few hours after our interview, Money Mark is due to support a band he confesses barely to have heard of: Massive Attack. The fact that Mark Ramos-Nishita appears entirely unaware of the kudos attached to his support slot seems to be neither ignorance nor arrogance, however. The circumspect half-Mexican, half-Japanese (but thoroughly Californian) songwriter gives the impression that he has had hipness thrust upon him.

The Nineties have brought ongoing collaborations with the Beastie Boys and Beck, and a record deal with Mo' Wax, whose faith in him he returned with their first Top 40 album in the shape of his 1995 debut collection, Mark's Keyboard Repair. There was also a Top 40 entry for "Hand In Your Head", the first single off Push the Button, his recently released second album, yet "nice timing" is the most he'll comment on this irreproachable CV.

The former carpenter had only let James Lavelle release the album on the condition that he wouldn't have to do the customary round of promotional work. "But then the phone kept ringing: 'They're playing this on the radio, they want you to come over and do some shows.' I was really in trouble then."

The cause of Mark's "troubles" was his guileless distillation of the past 30 years of soul, jazz, funk, blues and hip hop into a disarming 40 minutes of killer grooves and irresistible hooks, 19 songs long. "I had my bedroom-recorded music like so many people at the time. I sent him [James Lavelle] some of my tapes and he said, 'Let's just put it out like this.' "

It was the Beastie Boys' 38-year-old keyboardist who let the Mo' Wax impresario make the first move at a Brixton Academy show in the early Nineties - as laid-back an approach to a pop career as you might expect from the man the Beasties "discovered" in 1989 repairing their gate. Realising his obvious ability with a whole range of keyboard classics - clavinets, moogs, the Fender Rhodes - and other instruments, the New York hip-hop trio quickly absorbed Mark (who also built their LA studio) into their loose collective and gave him his nickname.

"I wasn't overwhelmed by the idea of the Beastie Boys," he reflects of his first sighting of the group in the mid-Eighties, "I was overwhelmed with their technique of making loops and sampling."

The decision to leave his then occupation for a touring spot wasn't easy. "I had other carpentry jobs going on and I had to palm those off on another carpenter," he smiles. "It was going to be a very good year of carpentry."

He is the son of an electronic engineer, and says that his father taught him "about the insides of things". "I bought a four-track and a microphone at age 15 or 16 and started recording things: my voice, drums made out of boxes. Then maybe a month later my father bought me a Fender Rhodes. I was recording and trying to learn to play at the same time. And it's essentially what I do now."

This interest in recording pockets of sound rather than writing songs partly explains why a Money Mark track rarely lasts longer than two-and- a-half minutes. A precise sense of scale is also important to him. "I bought this book on haiku and there's these lo-o-ong chapters trying to explain this 5-7-5 thing."

Perhaps it's simply the birth-right of a Detroit-born musician to favour Motown brevity: "Chuck Berry once said, I think, 'If you don't like this one, another one will come along in a couple of minutes.' "

If his first album was, in his words, an exercise, Push the Button was made with an audience in mind. For every slice of high-jinks funk, like the title track or "Monkey Dot", there's a more carefully prepared serving of pop. So, while the Beck comparisons still stand, traces of Elvis Costello surface on efforts like "Tomorrow Will Be Like Today" or a Prozac'ed Steely Dan on "All the People".

"I really had made two records before I turned in 'Push the Button'. One had like all synthesizers on it and one was kind of folky. I thought neither of these were right and the idea of 'Push the Button' should be the old school marrying into the new school. I took some songwriting and combined it with a hip-hop way to make music."

Wherever Money Mark is going, the Beastie Boys are in tow. On "Check Your Head" and "Ill Communication" (Mark played keyboards on both), the cut 'n' paste exploration of their Sixties and Seventies roots was broadened with a more traditionally instrumented approach.

His famous keyboard collection isn't just the work of an analogue fetishist, however. Our technological culture, according to Mark, is blighted by the notion of obsolescence. "Everything in this century is new - electricity is new, you know. In music there isn't going to be a new breakthrough, just different permutations of what we've got now. People are looking back and saying 'What did we step over so quickly?'"

He can't figure out what the British see in that self-styled music of the future, techno. "When I was making 'Push the Button', I was often in London and I'd hear this really fast music. - 'techno muzak' is maybe what it is. But it is so sterile and so serious," he says, shaking his head.

The result was the cod hardcore of the new album's penultimate track, "Powerhouse". "I had this image of a guy - you guys would say 'bloke' - this bloke in his flat. All of a sudden these people with a DJ coffin bust his door down. They tie him in a chair and the DJ sets his shit up real quick - I'm the DJ - and I shout, 'Flip on the switch! Lock the doors!' Other people come in with vacuum cleaners and industrial drapery cleaners, and they totally clean this guy's house - 'cos he's kind of a messy person. At the end we all leave and he's tied up in his chair with a perfectly clean house."

'Push the Button' (Mo' Wax) was released on Monday.

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