I haven’t even sat down and Bruno Mars, quiff now replaced by curls under a baseball cap, is already quizzing me about what I think of his third album. He wants to know where I listened to it, what kind of sound system it was played through, which songs I liked best, if the mixes were sounding good and so on.
This is partly because, at this point, very few people have heard ‘24K Magic’. There’s one copy in the world, on an iPod touch that was whisked straight back to a safe in the head of his record company’s office as soon as I’d finished with it. But it’s mainly because Mars is a both a perfectionist and a consummate people pleaser. He’s excited that the album is finally out there in the world and really wants people to love it, having spent weeks obsessing over every last detail on it.
“It’s stupid things I obsess over, like, ‘Are people going to get off the dancefloor because I said something stupid about a dragon?’” he says.
“For me, this album, I can’t do better. Right now, sitting here talking in 2016, I can’t do better. Do I hope that we’re sitting here in a year and saying that my next album is the best ever? Yeah! But for now, this is it – this is the best I got.”
There is of course an added weight of expectation with this particular record, due to the fact that it arrives in the wake of a song featuring Bruno Mars that still will not die. Although it’s been four years since his second album ‘Unorthodox Jukebox’ came out, it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s been away that long – or even at all. ‘Uptown Funk’ arrived in November 2014, did what it did, and consequently its guest singer has been everywhere. There were the Grammys in January last year. There was a second Super Bowl appearance this summer, where he stole the show from both headliners Coldplay and Beyoncé.
Most recently, there’ve been news stories about a court case brought by ’80s band Collage alleging plagiarism on ‘Uptown Funk’ (which, for obvious reasons, he’s not allowed to talk about). Inevitably, all of this has to a certain extent coloured his own music.
“We wrote ‘24K Magic’ [the title track and lead single] when Uptown Funk was Number One,” he notes. “So if you hear the same spirit in that song, that’s why. I’d say that it was always in the back of my mind when we were doing it. It was to get me to this record. It’s a bridge.”
It’s true that the spirit of ‘Uptown Funk’ has definitely been carried forward into ‘24k Magic’. A couple of ballads aside (‘Versace On The Floor’, which you will have heard, and ‘Too Good To Say Goodbye’), it’s a full-on party album. At just 35 minutes and nine songs long (“If I can’t pull you in with nine songs, I’m not gonna pull you in with 19!” reasons its creator), it’s also an album that’s quite clearly influenced by the music that soundtracked Mars’ youth – namely ’90s R&B.
And in keeping with this influence, all of its songs are about… sex, sex and sex. It’s everywhere, on ‘Chunky’ (“Looking for them girls with the big old hoops”), on ‘That’s What I Like’ (“Sex by the fire at night”, apparently), on ‘Straight Up And Down’ (“Your booty deserves a celebration”), on ‘Calling All My Ladies’ (obviously) and on ‘Finesse’ (ditto).
“Damn right!” he smiles, when I bring this up. “For me, 95 per cent of music is about love. That’s why cavemen were hitting stones to get everybody around the fire and get them feeling sexy. It’s exactly the same principle, the same thing: just get people on the dancefloor, get the girls smiling.
“That was my childhood; that’s why I fell in love with music,” he continues. “Those ’90s songs are what I was singing to get the girls in school, the songs that the girls like, what we were dancing to as children. New Edition. Boys II Men. Blackstreet. Mint Condition. Babyface. Jimmy Jam. Terry Lewis. Teddy Riley. I think that the reason why that music resonates so much for me is that it made it OK to dance – it was cool to dance. It was cool to be joyous, to have fun and wear some flashy s**t. It was cool to fall in love and smile and flirt on the dancefloor.”
He talks, too, about a story collaborator James Fauntleroy told him. “He said he was at an after-party – it was the Grammys or something – and everybody’s hugged up against the wall, everyone’s being too cool, everyone’s being tough. The girls are taking pictures of themselves and posting them up. The vibe is a little, you know, tight. But the DJ drops The Gap Band’s ‘Outstanding’, and James says all of sudden he’d never seen anything like it: everybody’s just rushed to the dancefloor, guys are holding girls’ hands, singing to them…. And that story just kind of inspired me and reminded me of what I want to do and the kind of music I want to write.”
Mars is, it has to be said, not your average kind of pop star. In a manner not dissimilar to Kanye West, he had to work hard on other people’s music to get his start (among many, many others, he co-wrote Cee-Lo Green’s ‘F**k You’).
By 2010, he’d appeared as a guest vocalist on a couple of gigantic hit singles – B.O.B’s ‘Nothin’ On You’, Travie McCoy’s ‘Billionaire’ – and in their slipstream immediately launched his solo career with ‘Just The Way You Are’, then ‘Grenade’, then debut album ‘Doo-Wops & Hooligans’. Since then, he’s been pretty much unstoppable, with ‘Uptown Funk’ merely the latest in a long line of mega hits.
But what’s unique about him in comparison to other modern-day pop phenomena is both his Prince-style multi-instrument musicianship (“That’s me playing guitar on ‘Locked Out Of Heaven’; that’s me playing the piano on ‘When I Was Your Man’; that’s me on drums on ‘Uptown Funk”) and his old-school, James Brown-inspired perfectionist streak (“He’s the reason I’m sitting here now”).
He was badly hurt, for example, by accusations levelled at him after his recent performance on The X Factor. “I was reading something about us miming,” he says. “Which is… well, you can say anything you want about me or my music, or make any kind of joke you want, but that to me is like, well, I’m going to get extremely insulted. Because you have no idea how hard we rehearse. Just seeing that, it blew me away. Like, ‘What are they seeing? What do you mean!?’ Never! I’ve never lip-synced. I could have a 150-degree fever and I’ll still be up there, singing live. That’s our profession. That’s what we do.”
It’s maybe why the new album is, Mars says, “all me”. There was talk of Skrillex helping out on some songs (“I do want to do a record with Skrillex, because I think that he’s got the sounds of doom in his computer,”) and then a picture Missy Elliott posted up from his studio (“She just came to hang out: we were just kicking it,”), but in the end it had to be just him and his band (“The guys I’ve been working with for 10 years”). This is also why it takes longer for his songs to come to fruition.
“I don’t even know how to work a f**king computer!” he laughs of his own laborious process. “There are producers who can just create fire. But for me there’s a process that I have to go through with each song. I have to touch an instrument or it won’t come out. If I’m not touching the guitar or touching the drum machine or playing the piano, the song just won’t come out. I have to be in it, all the way.”
This organic-rather-than electronic approach is most evident on one of the album’s best songs, ‘Perm’, which is as good an appropriation of a James Brown revue that you’ll hear in 2016. It sounds very much like a band – a great band – live in the room. But Mars insists that all the songs on the album – even the most electronic, R&B-indebted ones, had to pass ‘the test’.
“I made sure that there was a whole set-up where we could pick up the instruments and make sure that it was gripping and locking,” he says. “Every single song went through the test. ‘24k Magic’, that was the hardest one, but it’s gotta pass the live room test. And it did. Me and the guys, as soon as we hit that one, you know what’s gonna happen.”
Another line, on ‘Perm’ – which commands you to “forget your Instagram and your Twitter”– again marks Mars out as almost an old-world entertainer operating against a tide of low attention spans. There’s that attitude to recording and having a well-drilled live band. There’s the fact that, in a world that’s often only interested in singles, he “wanted to make this album like a movie”.
There is also, rather brilliantly, the printing on the actual CD of his album (remember CDs?) which, as he proudly shows me on his iPhone, has been designed to look like a ’90s album, with just the track titles in a basic font. “I worked hard on those titles, and that’s what you’re gonna get!” It’s hard to imagine, say, Justin Bieber or Rihanna giving much of a toss about such minor details.
And yes, he’d very much like for people to forget about their Instagram and their Twitter in his company. “I say it in my shows after the first song,” he says. “I try to tell people, like, ‘Put your cameras down!’ It’s just, why I wanted to do music my whole life is because I fell in love with holding a microphone and being the Master of Ceremonies. And with that, seeing the reaction… that’s the art! That is the art – to feel the room. That’s what we get addicted to, this unexplainable feeling where you have the power to give people a night that they’ll never forget.
“But the phone thing created this wall, where I’m going, ‘Man, I can’t see no faces. I don’t know if you’re smiling, and you can’t dance because you’re worried about the shot so you’re not moving.’ And it’s a weird battle because you can’t complain about it because you have people at your show. But I promise you that if you put your phone down, then I’m gonna give you something.”
Still, while these may all be old-school principles, it would be hard to argue that they’re not working out for Mars in the modern world.
As we come to the end of our interview together, he starts to get ready for a TV show of some kind and I ask him whether he minds doing this sort of thing: the talking about himself and his music, all the attention, the cameras – and his answer pretty sums him up.
“For me it’s just… play the record!” he says with a smile. “Don’t get me wrong, the fact that people want to talk about me or my music is incredible. But to me it’s just, ‘Play the record and you’ll get everything!’ That’s me. That’s where I’m at in life right now. And I don’t know if I can explain it any better than that.”
The story behind THAT sleeve Bruno on the most striking album cover of 2016
“You like that, huh? That was inspired by a lot of things. I wanted it to feel like a cologne ad. But like a musky cologne ad, you know? Also there’s a car that I drove in the video for ‘24k Magic’ and it’s a 1995 Cadillac Alantté convertible. And in the ’90s, it was as if Cadillac was trying to figure out how to compete with foreign cars – Lamborghini, Ferrari, whatever, – so they started to change the shape a little bit. And I don’t wanna say it but they didn’t quite figure it out, they didn’t crack the code. But it did give it this vibe, there’s some kind of vibe. It’s
like bootleg luxury. And there’s something about that I find beautiful. So coming up with the packaging, it was like, ‘What’s the guy who drives this wearing? He’s wearing the best silk s**t he owns! And he thinks he’s doing something extra-fancy in shorts!’ That’s who’s driving it. I bought that car, by the way. I had to have it.”