The Soothing Sounds of Silk Sonic

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RS_SilkSonic_Spread_FlorentDechard_2 - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone
RS_SilkSonic_Spread_FlorentDechard_2 - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak are enjoying the sun-dappled courtyard of a recording studio — lighting up American Spirits with a Gucci-monogrammed lighter, appreciating the gentle birdsong wafting down from the trees overhead, admiring some orange hibiscus flowers growing up a nearby wall — when a studio assistant named Alex walks over with a surprise to complete the laid-back scene: “Rumritas!” he announces, setting down three frothing salt-rimmed glasses.

“We hide the stress well,” .Paak says, sitting back, taking a sip. It’s late June in Los Angeles, and work is nearly done on An Evening With Silk Sonic, the debut LP from Mars and .Paak’s superduo of the same name, which began life five years ago as a joke the two friends hatched on the road, then got real enough to spawn a Number One hit in the Seventies-soul-indebted ballad “Leave the Door Open.” About 20 seconds into that track, .Paak (with Mars serving background ad-libs) coos that he’s “sippin’ wine (sip sip) in a robe (drip drip),” and those nine words crystallize the song’s appeal: It’s extravagant, soft, slightly woozy, and just the right amount of winningly, winkingly ridiculous. “That song was like our mission statement,” .Paak says. “It’s the intro to the book, to set the tone and let you know the sound. There’s different kinds of waves, but the whole album is wrapped around that.”

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An Evening With Silk Sonic was originally slated for the fall, but the band pushed it to January 2022. Mars and .Paak decided they’d rather put out more songs, Mars explains, letting each one breathe a bit, before dropping the LP in full: “I don’t want to be binge-watched.”

Production by John Esparza. Production design by Elizabet Puksto. Hair by Lucy Lipps. Grooming by Adrienne Sanchez. Styling by Astrid Gallegos. Bruno Mars’ pants by CMMN SWDN and Sunglasses by Dior. Anderson .Paak’s shirt by Levi’s (vintage), shoes by Vans, hat by Kangol, and sunglasses by Gucci. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone
Production by John Esparza. Production design by Elizabet Puksto. Hair by Lucy Lipps. Grooming by Adrienne Sanchez. Styling by Astrid Gallegos. Bruno Mars’ pants by CMMN SWDN and Sunglasses by Dior. Anderson .Paak’s shirt by Levi’s (vintage), shoes by Vans, hat by Kangol, and sunglasses by Gucci. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

To hear these guys tell it as they knock back the rumritas, things are going great. “We’re really in touch-up mode now,” Mars says. “We’ve got the bones of most of the album, so it’s really about touching up parts that need a little more.…” He thinks for the right word: “Grease.”

“Which could mean redoing the song from scratch!” .Paak says. Mars laughs and nods his head: “Being here for another three years!” he says. A decade into his career as a hitmaker, Mars has built a reputation for reworking and then re-re-re-reworking infinitesimal musical details that most listeners probably couldn’t detect (not consciously anyway). “But no,” he goes on. “We’re not there. We were there. We had some moments in the danger zone! I think we put the pressure on ourselves by putting out ‘Leave the Door Open’ — but a deadline is important, because at some point, you gotta say, ‘This is it.’ Otherwise you’re gonna work it till you hate it.” He mulls this. “But there’s a beauty in that — you do have to get sick of it, because that means you put the love and the time and the passion in it, and it’s taxing.” Of “Leave the Door Open,” he adds, “That bridge almost broke the band up. But it wasn’t right, and we all felt it.”

Spend any amount of time with Mars — in conversation, or listening to his chasm-deep catalog of hits, from the 12-times-platinum 2010 breakthrough “Just the Way You Are” to the 11-times-platinum 2014 smash “Uptown Funk” (with Mark Ronson) to “Leave the Door Open” — and it’s clear he approaches pop like a technician. .Paak calls him “the math professor. He’s thinking about every aspect of the song, the math of it all. It’s deeper than just talking slick, or good drums, or anything like that — it’s ‘What are we talking about, what are we trying to say, what does this look like, and how are we gonna kill ’em on the hook?’”

.Paak, by contrast, says his process involves “none of those things.” Like Mars, he’s a multi-hyphenate talent (he sings, raps, writes, and has been drumming since he was a teenager in a church band in his native Oxnard, California). Like Mars, he came up in show business as an L.A. bar-band performer, eventually putting out genre-jumbling records on indie labels like the prestige alt-rap imprint Stones Throw. And all that work paid off when Dr. Dre caught wind of .Paak and put him all over 2015’s Compton, soon signing him to Aftermath. But unlike Mars, .Paak says, he approaches tracks in a more fluid, intuitive, worm’s-eye-view kind of way: “I’m more free-form — ‘What’s the vibe?’ — so I was dying to get in with Bruno and study how he does things.” Mars breaks in, smiling — “He stole from me!” — and the two crack up.

Mars and .Paak have an easygoing chemistry, lapsing into in-jokes, building on each other’s bits, affectionately mocking each other and themselves — not to mention magazine writers who show up for interviews wearing vests with lots of pockets, prompting a playful barrage of fisherman-themed jokes over the next several hours. One of the results of their chemistry is that, whether you’re listening to a Silk Sonic track about walking around your mansion in a robe with a glass of wine or sitting with Mars and .Paak in a courtyard enjoying cocktails, you can almost forget that the album was born during the pandemic, in all its despair and chaos.

That was by design. “I hope you don’t flip the shit I’m about to say around and say, ‘These dudes are deep as a puddle,’” Mars says. “It’s not that. It’s just that we feel our purpose is this. We need to light up a stage, put the fear of God in anyone performing before us or after us, and bring so much joy to the people we’re in front of and the people listening. Especially in times like the time we’re in right now. For me? I know I wasn’t listening to any depressing music. We’re already in a weird spot — so to try to get in there? No!” He shakes his head. “I want the escape!”

There’s a decade-plus-old Cadillac CTS parked in an alley next to the studio. “I got it washed four days ago,” Mars says proudly. In a way, it’s become one of his closest musical confidants — he’s mixed every album he’s put out since 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans by listening to it inside the Caddy, getting a sense for it in the sort of real-world scenario he deems optimal: A pimped-out American luxury sedan so old it has a CD player.

For Silk Sonic, one of the things the Caddy helped reveal, .Paak says, was “Oh, we’re playing too hard.” In order to re-create the Sixties and Seventies soul and funk atmosphere they were aiming for, Mars explains, they and Mars’ longtime engineer, Charles Moniz, “did the research” to “get the right things, down to the skins on Andy’s drums. I’ve never realized till this album how much the right guitar pick matters. The right gauged strings. All this science kinda stuff.”

After figuring out what gear to amass (by consulting old session guys and reading old drumming magazines), they focused on emulating old-school playing styles and then recording them in a period-accurate way — just one or two mics on a bunch of musicians playing at once in the same room. .Paak says, “Those players back then were playing with such patience. The music we grew up with is heavy drums, bass smacking, so we got all the instruments but were still like, ‘Why doesn’t it sound right?’ Because we were fucking bashing!”

When it came to the bridge on “Leave the Door Open,” Mars says, “Andy played this thing, and he knew where the groove had to go, but for some reason I kept screaming, ‘Man it sounds like books falling!’ I was like, ‘We gotta turn it down,’ and it was the math where all those old guys were jazz players.” “They were tiptoeing,” .Paak says.

Mars and .Paak trace Silk Sonic’s origins to a lark back in 2016, when they met while touring in Europe. “I was opening for the 24K Magic tour,” .Paak recalls, “and a week in, we were in the studio.” “Real quick!” Mars says. They went in with no specific reason beyond their admiration and fondness for each other. One of their main MO’s when it came to collaborating was to take cherished backstage in-jokes — as they call it, “jibb talk” — and see if they could turn those jokes into songs. Jibb talk, .Paak explains, is “bullshit with a smile — we just talk all day and do bits. But it’s all from the heart, because we’re writing from our experiences, from our relationships — it’s rare that two men can come together and talk about love.”

“We’re not gonna pretend we’re something we’re not,” Mars adds, “and we come from a background of talking shit.”

For instance: Early on in that European tour, either .Paak or Mars started saying the phrase “Smoking out the window,” as part of a comical picture of some imaginary stressed-out dude blasting cigs while trying to escape anxious circumstances. The four words became a recurring bit, and when they got to the studio, it became a hook. “That was the first thing we ever wrote together,” Mars says.

They re-create the process for me:

Mars [singing]: “Musta spent 35, 45,000 up in Tiffanyyyy’s.

[Both in unison]: “Oh! No!”

Mars: “Got her badass kids running ’round my whole crib like it’s Chuck E. Cheese.”

[Both in unison]: “Oh! No!”

Mars: “Put me in a jam with her ex-man in the UFC — I can’t believe it.”

.Paak: “Damn!”

“I’m in disbelief!” Mars says. “And the hook goes, ‘Smoking out the window,’ saying, ‘How could you do this to me? I thought that girl belonged to only meeee.… ”

When the tour ended, life moved on, and those sessions went on ice — until last February, that is, right before the pandemic hit the U.S., when Mars was listening back through the files. “It hit the right chord, so I called Andy and said, ‘Come to the studio’ — he said, ‘I’m drunk!’” “It was my birthday!” .Paak explains. “But I’m there.” “He shows up, and he was on fire!” Mars continues. “We start writing a song, right here, just going back and forth.” There was “a competitive spirit, and a camaraderie,” he explains, “where he’d drop a bomb, and I’d say, ‘Oh shit, I gotta step it up!’”

They both laugh. “We had so much fun in that session,” Mars says. “It turned into, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’”

top by anderson x vans. hat by kangol. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone
top by anderson x vans. hat by kangol. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

Silk Sonic became a quarantine passion project. “I’m not sure we would have done it if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” .Paak says. “It was tragic for so many people, but Bruno would have probably been on the road, me too — but we had to be here.” (They allude to “strict” studio safety protocols, and tell me neither of them got infected.) To hash out a sound, they turned to what .Paak calls their “foundation — the Sixties, Seventies, the old school.” Mars tells me, “I don’t know what year it is. I’m not looking at the charts. So we’d just come here every night, have a drink, and we play what we love.”

I ask them to name some touchstone influences, and .Paak lifts up his T-shirt, revealing a wildly detailed tattoo across his chest depicting Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. “This is the Avengers,” he says. “I got this over quarantine, bored as hell.” “That’s James Brown?” Mars asks, pointing at .Paak’s chest and frowning. “Stevie Wonder must have done that tattoo.”

As the year progressed, they bonded over their love of classic soul, playing each other deep cuts they’d grown up loving. .Paak would tell Mars things about the drum tracks that he didn’t know. “And even beyond percussion,” Mars says, “Andy was just blessed with this God-given tone, this natural stank and funk in his voice, where as a songwriter, it’s like an instrument you hear and start to imagine different things: ‘If I had that super-power, this is the kind of song I’d make.’”

Outside of the studio, the world was in tumult. .Paak is a more explicitly political artist than Mars, and he released a track in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests called “Lockdown,” tapping the frenetic and unsettled energy of the moment. Politics and pain are inextricable, of course, from the history of soul, so I ask whether they felt tempted to address police killings, or the pandemic, as Silk Sonic. .Paak drops into a comically hushed voice: “I got in here, and Bruno said, ‘Look, Andy, I know you’ve done a lot of things, a lot of songs — it’s all cute, but we’re gonna do this my way and I need you to rock with me and trust me. I need you to bring your A game every night, and we’re making music to make women feel good and make people dance, and that’s it. It’s not gonna make people sad.’”

Mars says, “A good song can bring people together — you don’t have to actually sing the words ‘Everybody come together.’ Sometimes the hard thing is to actually do it. You don’t have to say, ‘Everybody raise your hands’ — sometimes you just hit the right chord and it happens. So that was our mindset with the whole album. If it makes us feel good, and resonates with us, that’s gonna be infectious and make other people feel good — and that’s our jobs as entertainers.”

No one close to Mars or .Paak died from Covid-19. But they’ve both lived lives marked by profound sadness and turmoil. Both have been homeless for stretches, and both lost a parent young: .Paak’s father died while in prison, after assaulting his mother, and Mars’ mother died unexpectedly in 2013, while he was preparing for a tour — he rushed back to his native Hawaii to be with her, but she died before he could see her.

“We both make feel-good music,” .Paak explains, “and I think it’s because we’ve been through pain and tragedy.” “It all stems from pain and survival,” Mars agrees. “Never wanting to go back. Move forward, knowing how bad it can get.” A project like Silk Sonic, .Paak says, “is our way to cope with it, that’s why we put so much in it. We know it’s life or death for us, and we know what life and death means — we know what it’s like to be broke and to lose parents and to have parents that supported us and that battled addiction. We know what we’re up against, and this is all we have.”

Mars tells me a story: “We had a record that was, I guess the word is ‘heavier’ content, as far as subject matter,” he says. “Me and him were harmonizing and singing the shit out of it, but I remember having a conversation, saying, ‘Man, I don’t know if we want to take this turn on this album.’ We’re producing a feeling, and an emotion, so let’s sleep on this. After the session, Andy went to his house, and I’m playing the record, and I go to this song and I say, ‘I gotta stop by Andy’s.’ I drive over there and tell him, ‘Come outside.’ He gets in the car, I press play, and immediately he says, ‘Turn. That. Shit. Off.’” The track went in the trash that night. “We’ve been working on this song for weeks, but hearing it outside the walls of the studio, it was that quick,” Mars says. “‘I don’t wanna feel like this! Why are you guys making me feel like this?’”

top and sunglasses by ricky regal. pants by gucci. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone
top and sunglasses by ricky regal. pants by gucci. - Credit: Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

Florent Déchard for Rolling Stone

When the rumritas are done, it’s time for some detective work. “There’s this song that’s not completely done yet — we still gotta put it through the car wash,” Mars says. “But the biggest problem is, before we go to the chorus, we punched in a part that feels like a punch” — a performance sutured in after the fact — “so that’s basically what I wanna fix: It feels robotic, right when I start singing, ’cause we locked in the drums and bass and piano a little too much, and it’s not floating.”

We head inside. There’s a large open space cluttered with instruments arrayed on overlapping rugs, among them Ludwig vintage drums with Remo Ambassador heads and the Silk Sonic logo on the kick (“This is just a practice kit,” Bruno notes); Giovanni Hidalgo congas; a Hohner Clavinet D6 keyboard; a Danelectro sitar; and a Trophy Music mini-Glockenspiel that Mars says provided “a little bit of candy” on every song. There’s a large poster on a far wall depicting a mushroom cloud below the words “Operation World Domination.” “That’s the sound you hear in your brain when they play your song on the radio,” Mars says. “That’s the mood board to get your mind right,” .Paak adds. “This ain’t for Soundcloud, jack!”

They enter a control room, where Moniz, the engineer, is manning a 72-channel Solid State Logic mixing board and wearing a steel-and-gold Rolex Submariner that Mars bought him as a thank-you gift after they finished work on 24K Magic. Mars has hung up more posters in here, all with an Eighties theme — “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”-era Whitney Houston, Diamonds and Pearls-era Prince; Captain EO, K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. Seated beside Moniz is producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dernst “D’Mile” Emile, one of .Paak and Mars’ core collaborators. Others in the Silk Sonic universe included Bootsy Collins, who gave the duo their name and who they regard as the project’s spiritual godfather; Dr. Dre, who listened and gave feedback along the way; and Homer Steinweiss of the Dap-Kings, who contributed drums to one song.

Moniz plays the little stretch that’s bugging Mars. The track is an opulent homage to Philly soul, with dramatic lyrics about trying to hold it together after a devastating heartbreak, set to a string section and a sampled rainstorm. “Let’s mute the vocals and just hear what happens,” Mars says to Moniz.

“Maybe we need the bass to be laid-back — move it back a little bit,” D’Mile says, listening. “It might be too on.”

Mars instructs Moniz to isolate each instrument, hunting for the offending performance throwing things off. “Is the guitar too stiff?” he asks. “Ay, Chuck, solo the rhythm guitar.” He listens. “Now play the bass with that.… Now the piano.… Now the drums — let me find out it was Andy!”

“It might be those accents on the snare,” D’Mile says. “And I would nudge the piano and the bass back. The guitar wasn’t an issue for me.”

A few minutes later, they’ve realized the drums aren’t landing the way they want them to. “Maybe with those ghost notes I’m doing in-between the backbeat — I’m hitting them too hard,” .Paak offers.

“Is it a replay?” Mars asks him.

“Yeah, probably,” .Paak says, standing up and walking out toward the kit to give the passage another go. Learning to drum “in the gospel church,” he tells me, “the fundamentals are ‘being in the pocket’ — it has to be about the feel, the groove, not rushing, not slowing down, and that’s really what this is, too. You want the drums to be singing, too.”

For 20 minutes, .Paak replays the same nine-second stretch over and over and over, fielding minutely detailed notes from Mars and D’Mile. “That sounds like a punch — another one,” Mars says. I’ve been able to detect only the slightest differences between the recording and where we’ve wound up, but it finally seems like Mars has gotten things where he wants them. “Shit, that one was great, but I think you missed the last brrrrp!” He listens again. “Oh, my bad, you had it — I fucked up! That’s it! We got it.”

Mars waits a beat, brow furrowed, then turns to D’Mile: “What about the piano?”

Ten minutes and a bunch of piano replays later, the nine seconds are finally floating to everyone’s satisfaction. I ask Mars if, this many years and this many smash hits into his career, he still feels pressure — if that’s why he’s just worked so hard tweaking such a tiny transition. “The pressure’s always there,” he says. “But it’s pressure from within. For me, it’s not even public perception — I just don’t wanna do it anymore if it’s no longer fun. If it no longer excites me.” Working with .Paak, he says, “it’s like, ‘Man, I’m in the garage with my buddy!’ It’s finding the joy in that, and why you fell in love with music in the first place.”

Spending day after day in the studio, though, blessed and cursed with such finicky ears, Mars concedes, there are times when you flirt with something resembling madness: “How many times can you hear the same song? How many times can you say, ‘Andy, the hi-hat ain’t right?’ — ’cause that can get deeper, to the point where you say, ‘Maybe the song sucks. Maybe we suck. Maybe that was it.’”

“The domino effect,” .Paak says.

“One little thing can spiral,” Mars continues. “But you gotta shake that shit off and just say, ‘Yo, get behind the drums.’” He smiles. “And let’s figure this shit out.”

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