Interview: Money Mark on Atomic Bomb!

Money Mark by Chris Cooper for the Red Bull Music Academy (2)

Nigerian synth pioneer William Onyeabor is the master of Space Age Afro Funk. Following eight albums, Onyeabor became a Born Again Christian and refused to ever speak about himself or his music again. Joyfully, following the recent release of Onyeabor’s rare recordings via David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label, his music will be brought to life at the upcoming Sydney Festival for two exclusive shows by a 18-strong ensemble. A lynchpin of this group is the legendary Money Mark. Courtney Dabb catches up with Mr Mark to find out more:

Hi Mark. Firstly thank you for taking the time out to speak with us here at Something You Said. You are coming to town for the Sydney Festival, playing Atomic Bomb, the music of William Onyeabor, how did this opportunity present itself to you?
Well I think the short story of my whole life is just being in the right place at the right time. It was luck but I was prepared for the opportunity. When I was younger I had a Hammond organ and a Fender Rhode, a big synthenziser, a Minimoog and D6 Clavinet, so I had all these heavy keyboards and one of the pre-requestists to being in a band is that you have all that gear and you are willing to move it. So it didn’t hardly matter if you didn’t know how to play, just so long as you were willing to move it, lug it upstairs or travel with it. So it goes, I happened to have all the old keyboards William Onyeabor used on his recordings and I was kind of a natural choice for the whole band.

Knowing David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Ahmend Gallab (Sinkane) were at the helm of this project must have given you a lot of faith in the concept and joining the very talented mix of artists taking on Onyeabor’s work…
Well I think to the contrary, it was not as easy as it sounded. We were going into it trying to be as pure as possible, trying to get the right tones, trying to do the arrangements that were on the recordings, try to do them exact. Those jams are just so long that there are not a lot of landmarks, a lot of long stretches. It took a while before it really sunk into our souls. The actual music technically is harder than you think it is. It sounds really nice and smooth but when you break it down there is a lot going on so we really busted our butts to get it together.

Onyeabor’s work spanned two decades, in that time releasing eight albums. When you began to tease through his work were there any standout tracks or styles that made you ears prick up as a player and producer?
I remember hearing Body & Soul and of course Fantastic Man with Atomic Bomb. Those were playing a lot. They weren’t playing a lot in the early 90’s, they were playing them later when people were discovering them. It’s an odd story, a cool story but an odd one and his music… although he made all those records… wasn’t very accessible. There wasn’t really any good marketing for it and it was really collectors finding it and not many people playing it. You had to be really into it to know about it.

Even harder now that he has dropped off the musical face of the Earth. It has been difficult for everyone to come across his recordings.
Well, yeah David [Byrne] has a lot of the other stuff now because he has had this relationship with him. It’s all an odd story, I think we are all the right people to do this music. I think David has put together a great band.

In England at the premier we had Damon Albarn with us. Damon sung with us a few times on some of the European festivals. That was pretty fun and we had David Byrne singing some of those pieces and Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip). It’s a cool band to be in. The original Lijadu Sisters were doing the backups. The band, if we counted everybody, is up to 30 band members. You know, honouree Atomic Bomb band members.

Luke Jenner by Chris Cooper at the Red Bull Music Academy (8)And before the Atomic Bomb concept came about, have you had the pleasure of working with any of the guys (LCD Soundsystem’s Pat Mahoney, The Rapture’s Luke Jenner – pictured, left – and Australia’s own Gotye) before?
Well normally when we go to a place we try to find people to sing the songs, we are not a tribute band. William Onyeabor endorsed this band himself and we know the script better than anyone. Probably at this point we know it better than William Onyeabor himself but we do try and find a lead singer wherever we are at.

What uniquely Money Mark touches have you brought to the reworking’s of Onyeabor’s music?
Well partly one of the reasons why I got the job was because not only do I own those keyboards but I kind of have the right muscles and right touch for those unique melodies and I really feel like that I was made to be a part of this band, so outside of my solo stuff and the stuff I do with the Beastie Boys, this to me is like getting back to my roots. It’s music from the 70’s, music I was growing up with, I was a part of it. The keyboards that were coming out at that time, it was great to be a part of it, get that old stuff and bring it back out.

You have always been pretty inventive with instruments you use and redesign, have you brought any crazy devices with you for the Sydney Festival?
No. I am going to kind of stick to the script and just rock the Onyeabor pieces really just how they are. The music is infectious, it is really good, it’s dance music but it has a cool message and I don’t want to veer off too far from it. I am bringing with me the keyboards/the sounds that are on the records.

So far, Atomic Bomb has taken in Brooklyn, Copenhagen and San Francisco. Have you found wildly different reactions from crowds in these cities or is the funk factor so universal that it tends to draw the same crowds the world over?
Yeah, I think the crowds are getting it and they are all getting it in the same way and Onyeabor himself has said that he wants to make universal music. You can tell it’s not regional. It’s very international and everywhere we go seems to have the same enthusiastic reactions to the music. We never felt that there was going to be a crowd that didn’t like it, and we go in with extra confidence because it is someone else’s music and we know how to kick arse with that music. We know people are going to like it. It’s almost impossible not to like this music. It’s one of the few times I have been in a band where I have said that to myself, wow, everybody is going to like this. It spans R&B, funk, pop, dance. It’s all in one, all just smashed together in one kind of sound.

Money Mark by Chris Cooper for the Red Bull Music Academy (4)You have said in the past that your albums are the soundtrack to your life, which I think is fair to say for most artists and where they are at in their lives. What is the soundtrack to your life at the moment and how has this charged from your previous work and station in life?
Personally, we have had a great loss, losing Adam Yauch (MCA from Beastie Boys) and having this great band Beastie Boys retire. It is sad and that is the least of it. At that this point we are all celebrating Adam’s life and all the great stuff he did outside of his music and with his music. Since then I have worked with Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and I felt like ‘wow, these are my New York friends’ and I am kind of coming back with something. At this point, playing with this other New York band (David Byrne and Sinkane), I feel like I am with this other New York group but it is also connecting me to Africa, it is connecting me to music that was being made at the time I was forming my ideas as a teenager and there is a full circle aspect to it for me.

Personally for me I dig it because I get to explore my past while getting to launch into the future. It is expanding my vision as a creator and as an artist and as a musician and right now I feel like the luckiest person as a musician working with all these things. The ride that I have had is still continuing, it couldn’t be a better situation for me right now.

Fantastic, and I guess that would be something of a testament to Adam that from such tragedy comes triumph where now this music is getting a voice and Adam was always a voice for so many good causes
Yeah that’s right. Last time we were playing in Sydney was with Karen O during the opera. Adam passed on May 4 2012 and a couple of weeks later I was on a plane going to Sydney, so we had just lost Adam and I was playing with Karen in Sydney and not enough time had gone by. I was kind of in a mournful mood while playing with Karen in Sydney, so now I am going to go back returning with a different feeling. The Karen show wasn’t a dance music piece, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs make amazing dance music, the opera was theatrical and the music/design of the show and the themes were darker. The tone wasn’t necessarily a celebration. It was very unique, very cool, but now we are going back to shake our booties and play kick-arse music. We are in a mode of happiness and celebration and it is going to be wonderful to be in Australia in your summer time.

You have made soundtracks and scores for many different films (Kids, Blow, Napoleon Dynamite, The Devil Wears Prada) are there any upcoming films we can expect to hear your work on?
Early on I started to work with Randy Poster and he thought my music was really good for comedy so I started working on a bunch of comedies. Actually my first stint at it full-on was Ted Demme’s Blow. Ted called me and I really started to get interested in soundtracks. I was doing a couple of records and playing in Beastie Boys so I didn’t really focus on it 100%, but recently I did the first Horrible Bosses and I am on the second Horrible Bosses soundtrack. I scored a movie called Loitering with Intent with Marisa Tomei and Sam Rockwell that’s coming out soon. I scored an animation, The Halloween Kid, which is really cool and finishing my own records.

The soundtrack thing, I’ve been slowly trying to make it a full-time thing. I am still doing baby steps with that idea but I seem to be good at it and seem to be able to work fast. A lot of people have said my instrumental music is very cinematic and will fit well with picture. So I will give it a shot and focus on it a little over the next few years.

So can we expect to see tracks from Push the Button to accompany films in the near future?
Maybe so. What happened was, back in the day when I was making my record deals, I was making enough money with the Beastie Boys that I didn’t need to take huge advances on my record deals, so part of the deals were that I would get my records back at some point. It is one of the few times you’ll hear of an artist owning their masters again and I own all the masters to my records. I am finishing a new album to help promote the whole box set and maybe there is a Best Of or something that is coming out, so I am pretty excited about that.

Sydney Festival always brings an eclectic mix of artists, are there be any particular shows/artists you are keen to see?
Actually I don’t know what the whole line up is, I’ll just be excited to take it all in. Maybe I should ask you, who are you excited to see? We might have something in common there…

Well if I could make a suggestion it would be Dan Deacon, a phenomenal artist who is at one with the crowd. Literally immersed in the crowd and gets crowd participation to whole new levels.
Wow, awesome, I’ll catch that.

It has been great chatting with you Mark and we all look forward to seeing you Down Under.
Sure. Right on. I will be there.

You can book tickets to Atomic Bomb on the Sydney Festival website.



Interview by Courtney Dabb. Photos by Chris Cooper.