Money Mark Talks Creative Processes


As someone whose production skills are a little lacking to say the least, I was more than interested in the release of Ableton's new book designed to give electronic music producers some cues to kick off the creative process.

To support the release of the book, Ableton have tapped up some of their finest advocates to talk through their own production techniques – this gave us a chance to talk to the one and only Money Mark –  Beastie Boy's keyboard player of 20 years plus, solo artist responsible for timeless jams like this, and current member of the Atomic Bomb Band – he's got his style down to a tee. We asked Mark if he could enlighten us a little more about the production process…

So what are your thoughts about Ableton's new book 'Making Music – 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers'? How helpful do you think it will be for upcoming music-makers?

It's a cool, pragmatic approach to solving, what is a universal problem: The starting of a idea and its follow through. 

It fits into one end of the spectrum of the possibilities of finding inspiration. Personally, my 'go-to' problem solver techniques tend to be through emotive forces, sensing and feeling my way through a problem, but sometimes I exhaust those and start to play with chance elements or thirdly, and where the DeSantis book fits, is investigating a specific technique that could then inspire and kickstart the idea toward its completion. Though lots of the suggestions are common to seasoned music makers, having them cataloged in one handheld book is keen. 

Which part of the creative process do you think is most important?

I love to think that the starting points are the most important because in some way every moment is a new starting point. In practical terms, if you start with a rich beginning, reach for gold, then what comes after is robust. So, having said that, even before you start 'laying in down on tape' there is even a beginning to the beginning. An Illumination period when lots of playful thoughts can happen. Its always from my head first then sometimes I need some things outside of me to support it and keep me going. 

What areas of production do you think people should be focusing on more? Do you have any personal bugbears?

I would love to see room acoustics applied more often to recordings. Digital records have so many chances for 'whisper-to-a-scream' qualities. When compared to the analog process, especially vinyl records, there is lots of room for highs and lows. And, hand in hand, a consideration for sound reproduction. Better sound systems that match the type of music. 

In your eyes, what makes for the 'perfect' production?

A perfect production is one that fits the emotion and the genre. Speaking very generally, that could be super clean and open sounds when speaking about classical music/opera or super tight and compressed when its a club track or big low end when its a dub track or lo-fi when its punky. 

Are there any creative strategies that you absolutely swear by? (That you're willing to share with us, of course!)

I'm an old guy and I have lots of creative and technical strategies! One that worked for me early on is the '20 minute' exercise. Work for 20 minutes highly focused and without any distractions. Use a timer. After 20 minutes is up then decide if you will continue for another 20. Keep doing this. No distractions is key! I tend to average about two hours doing this and its fun and I gain lots. 

How do you generally approach the creative process? Do you work through a set of procedures every time or is each track tackled in its own way?

At this point in my life I am working on multiple projects at once. Juggling between them keep it all fresh. Its a spatial approach to completing/accomplishing work. The projects, no matter how diverse they are, feed on each other. Like i said before, Its all in your head. 

Has the way that you approach the production process changed over time? Do you feel like you're much wiser now than when you were first starting out?

Wiser for sure! Wise enough to take calculated risks. Wise enough to challenge myself with the perfect pressure. And wise enough to know that I am always a student (and teacher) and ignorant and naïve. That every time I turn the knobs or lay my hand on a musical instrument that It is a gift of time and space. 

Having had a pretty lengthy career in the music industry you must have worked with some people with some "different" approaches to making music – what are the strangest creative processes you've encountered?

I cut my teeth in the theatre. I worked several jobs in that arena. There was a basic ethos of problem solving that was mostly about inhibitions. Anything could be solved! There existed only solutions! Theatre, was to me, a whole world that included music and sound. I worked with actors and dancers (mostly modern) and learned some incredible techniques that I applied to music making and the idea of 'making a world'. To me, thats what songs are. Little worlds that get exploded in your head. Actors would make funny sounds to loosen up their lips. That taught my about inhibitions on my instrument Some music schools believe that repetoire (no experimentation), is the single approach so seeing other kinds of artists inspired me. Dancers used their bodies for their art so they were uninhibited in the shapes they could make with their bodies. Its unlimited. But speaking specifically about music making, the French band, AIR, once told me that they were inspired by my early recordings and wanted to emulate, what they thought MY process was. On a cold day they opened all the windows in the studio and taxed themselves with lower than normal room temperature and started recording. Ha! There is a YouTube video about it and I never did that. I will try it. 

How did you learn your musical skills? Did you have anyone that helped guide you as you found your way or did you simply learn through trial and error?

I learned by some fantastic ear training teachers. I was moved out of traditional studies because i would cheat on my recitals and just memorize the pieces by ear. I was caught when I played the wrong piece of music that what was put in front of me. I was taught songs and taught how to play and sing together. I was taught on piano mostly. In my ear training A flat replaced the traditional middle C. It is the visual middle of the piano. Later I switched to guitar and did some time with Robert Fripp through CraftyGuitar. I did GuitarCraft, KitchenCraft, PianoCraft. I still read his monographs from time to time. I learned lots about sound and sound design from being in theater. I am self-taught in orchestra and conducting. 

Your performance as part of the Atomic Bomb! Band at Latitude last year was one of the best I've ever seen at a festival, you just seemed so in tune with the music. Is the live performance aspect of music something that you particularly relish or are you just generally excited about making music?

Performance is always happening. I mean literally, on and off stage its always a performance. Acting is believing! Same with music. Creating is a performance. 

What would be your advice to young electronic music producers hoping to get their music heard?

There is no end to learning. Dare to try anything in art. There are no mistakes but as in the Ableton book, you will put your name on your work. Make it the very best!!

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I love the work of…

Charles Mingus! Stockhausen! Hedy Lamarr! Limor Fried! Andy Kaufman!  Pina Bausch!(those are on the top of my head right now) You dont have to print this…

Ableton's new book 'Making Music – 74 Creative Strategies for Electronic Music Producers' is out now – grab your copy here.