With the release of his new album, “Unorthodox Jukebox,” late last year, Bruno Mars marked his ascension into the ranks of pop superstars. Having recruited a dream team of producers that includes Mark Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, and Paul Epworth, Mars created a unique mix of stylistic riffs that recalls the best works of groups like The Police and Daft Punk. But it’s much more than that. Not only does the Filipino-American say “Unorthodox Jukebox” represents the kind of work the talented singer/songwriter/producer feels he was destined to deliver, but most excitingly for those of you going to watch him perform in Dubai on Friday, he says his music is written with stage shows in mind.
“I wanted to have the luxury to experiment and to push myself lyrically and sonically,” says the 27-year-old Mars, who has had 11 top ten singles in his career. A frantic stage performer, Mar credits nearly two years of touring for helping him define his style and inspire him to write a variety of songs that reflect his deep musical roots. Now, he’s showcasing that stage presence at Media City Amphitheatre, supported by British singer Paloma Faith.
Born Peter Gene Hernandez in Honolulu, Hawaii, Mars practically grew up on stage, singing with his well-known rocker father Pete and his family revue of child performers. The name “Bruno” resulted from his father’s love of a famous wrestler of the 60s, Bruno San Martino, and the nickname stuck.
Mars starting learning about different musical styles from an early age and was well on his way to becoming a producer when he started picking up every instrument he could find. “I’ve always had a drum set, a piano, a guitar... and never got trained to play. It was just always there. That’s just how I learned, just being surrounded by it my whole life.”
He was only 4 years old when he was made part of his family’s Hawaiian stage show and began doing Elvis impersonations which soon made him one of the star attractions. By the time he was ten, Bruno began doing a near-perfect Michael Jackson impersonation, something he put to use in his recent Saturday Night Live appearance on American TV in November.
Now touring in support of “Unorthodox Jukebox”, he took special care that the refinements and elaborate sound mix that went into the studio can be reproduced in his live stage show which he considers as his true calling as a musician.
Q: Bruno, what was your inspiration for your new album?
MARS: To be as creative as I could. I wanted to mix things up and not be trapped in any one genre or stay in one lane. I wanted to do R&B, rock, soul, love songs, whatever. I don’t think as an artist you need to lock yourself into one thing. On this album I was able to express myself exactly the way I wanted. I don’t know what the public will think, but if you don’t take risks, you’re not going to evolve.
Q: Was this also a reaction to your reported dissatisfaction with your debut album, Doo-Wops & Hooligans?
MARS: I didn’t have the kind of creative control over that album the way I would have liked. I was forced to make some changes that really disgusted me and left me with a bad feeling.
I swore to myself that for the next album everything would change and I would call the shots. I’m a producer, so I know what elements you have to put in place to do good work. So I brought in my dream team to help me out. But if this album fails, it’s my failure alone, because I was the guy calling the shots.
Q: Is it true that you felt pressured to put out your first album too fast?
MARS: I understand why the label wanted to put out the first album as fast as possible. They wanted to capitalize on the success of “Nothing on You” and “Billionaire” which were kind of unexpected hit singles. That meant going into the studio and not being able to try things out and experiment the way I would have liked.
I was also still under the infleunce to some extent from having spent a lot of the year prior working as a producer and creating more pop and radio-friendly music for other people. But now it’s all good.
Q: Your desire to reflect different musical styles - is that the result of your being a very keen observer of music history?
MARS: I think so. As a kid I probably broke my father’s record player a couple of times listening to all his vinyl collection. I’ve played in bands where we covered Nirvana, Elvis, Rage Against the Machine and blues artists. I’ve had as full a musical education as you could ever want. That’s the kind of thing that informs everything you do. I like to think that it helps me stay ahead of the curve.
Q: Does your background as a producer help you achieve the kind of results that you are after?
MARS: It helps to understand the mechanics and technology of the process. I understand as much about chord changes and sonic effects as anyone and I know the kinds of things you can do with music to create a very particular sound and feel.
I know how to break down a song to its different components and appreciate this and that aspect which makes me appreciate it. I like being able to keep pushing myself creatively and developing very original material. That’s the kick I get from it all.
Q: How would you describe “Unorthodox Jukebox?”
MARS: (Laughs) I wanted some of the songs to have a little diabolical feel to them. A little dangerous, very sexy, the way you feel when you watch performers get up on stage and grind their guitar or grab their crotch the way Michael Jackson would do. I didn’t want to hold back.
Q: The world seems to be going your way these days..?
MARS: It’s kind of scary to be in this position and know that the music is finding a big audience and that I didn’t try to pander to any particular trend. That’s the best kind of result you can hope for. A lot of people might think that my success kind of came overnight, but it took me a long time before anyone would even let me in their office to listen to some tracks. My head was exploding with ideas. I couldn’t wait to show the world what I was capable of. So to be able to finally have people hear your music and go out on tour and make that connection with an audience screaming in front of you is the best feeling in the world.
Q: Getting to host Saturday Night Live and do some wild musical impressions must have been quite an experience for you?
MARS: Oh, I was so nervous about that. (Laughs) But I loved doing it and it was the most fun I’ve had in a while.
Q: “Gorilla” is one of your big tracks. You even put a Gorilla on the cover of the (“Unorthodox Jukebox”) album?
MARS: I wanted “Gorilla” to be the kind of song that blows peoples’ faces off. It was the first song we wrote for the album and it kind of set the tone for how I want the stage shows to look and feel when I start touring for the album.
Q: So you were very conscious of performing these songs live while you were writing and conceiving the album?
MARS: Yes. Having spent a lot of time touring the last few years I had a much clearer idea of what things work best on stage. At heart, I’m a performer. Performing live with my band is the thing I live for. I want to be able to really go for it on stage and so that played into my head when I was coming up with ideas for the songs.
Q: Do you worry about some of the critics who have accused you of being overly commercial with some of your past music?
MARS: (Laughs) Look, I love great pop songs with big hooks and catchy lyrics. You want to remember the rhythm and have the melody running in your head. I’m not interested in catering to the radio or making self-indulgent records. I’m not writing song to impress girls. I’m not letting any of that infiltrate my creative process. I want to come up with great songs that people will remember five, ten, or twenty year from now.
Q: What getting dropped by Motown Records when you were 18 a tough blow for you to absorb just when you thought you were getting your foot in the door?
MARS: It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, as far as being a reality check and understanding what it really takes to break into this business. I was so young at the time that, at 18, I probably thought being signed to Motown was it for me. But you don’t know what the hell you’re doing at 18. And when I got dropped, that’s when I thought: “I’ll do everything on my own - I’ll write my own music and produce it.” I was very frustrated there anyway because I was in recording studios with producers, trying to explain to them how I wanted these songs to sound. And how can you explain something you haven’t done yet?
Q: What’s been the best part of success?
MARS: I always wanted to buy my mom a house and that was the first thing I did with my first big cheque. That was the most beautiful moment ever. I bought my mom a nice house in Hawaii and that was before I got anything for myself. I had to take care of mom. It was an emotional moment. I still remember when I had moved to L.A. (when he was 17) and I was struggling, especially afterMotown dropped me, and she was always helping me out with money even though she didn’t have that much and you never forget that.
Q: What are your recollections of performing when you were a kid and getting up on stage with your father’s family revue act?
MARS: (Laughs) That was so great. I was 5 years old and my dad had this show in Waikiki and miday through he would get me to come up on stage and I would do my thing. People loved it so much that he made me a regular part of the show. Singing and performing has been my entire life.
Q: You’ve been busier than ever the last few years. What about women in your life?
MARS: Because you work so much and you’re constantly on the road, working on songs, shooting videos, then going into the studio, it’s a lot to ask for any woman. That’s the hardest part of having a steady relationship.
Q: So how does it feel to be where you are now?
MARS: (Laughs) How does it feel? That reminds me of Hendrix! (Laughs) The best thing is getting to do what I’m doing. You dream about it all your life an then you get your shot at doing it. That’s all I care about.