As far as music-industry origin stories go, Los Angeles native Mark Ramos‐Nishita (a.k.a. Money Mark) may have one of the best. A life-long musical adventurer (with a taste for a wide spectrum of musical genres and an enthusiasm for all types of hardware synthesizers and real-world instruments), Nishita had initially made his living as a professional carpenter before one day taking a job to fix a gate at a LA home, which happened to be that of recent West Coast transplants the Beastie Boys. As the story goes, the group eventually became aware of Nishita's musical interests and exceptional talents, enlisting him to help build the Beastie Boys' G-Son Studio and bringing him into the fold as an essential musical collaborator to the group, earning him the nickname "Money Mark" in the process. A key component of the Beastie Boys' legacy, Nishita was instrumental in the recording and production of 1992's Check Your Head LP as well as the subsequent albums Ill Communication and Hello Nasty.
From that starting point, Money Mark has gone on to be a unique musical force for over two decades, finding success as a solo artist first with the homespun, 30-track Mark's Keyboard Repair album (initially released as a series of three separate 10" records) and then 1998's Push the Button, which saw him return to James Lavelle's esteemed Mo Wax label. In addition, Nishita has also built a reputation as a creative collaborator, working with a diverse group of artists over the years including Yoko Ono, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Beck (that's Money Mark on the keyboard riff for the Odelay mega-hit "Where It's At").
Ahead of his appearance at the upcoming Loop summit in Berlin, we wanted to see what possible gems of wisdom we could dig out from this veteran artist's depth of musical knowledge, and so on a recent afternoon gave Nishita a ring at his LA workspace. With a thirst for creative endeavours and an ability to absorb new techniques and influences as alive today as it ever was, Money Mark was eager to guide us through a bit of his musical history, give us some keen insight into his working methods, and help explain why he thinks the key to overcoming writer's block is simply not believing it exists at all.
How have your working methods evolved over the years? Are you still writing songs much in the same way you were on albums like Mark's Keyboard Repair and Push the Button, or do you approach music in a much different way currently?
Basically, there are more tools to work with now and lots of different ways to spark an idea. Originally, my ideas came from trying to build the song architecture itself. Then production was a consideration, then sampling, sequencing, and the use of found sounds (I tend to use anything I can). The Mark's Keyboard Repair album came about as an experimental concept loosely based on [filmmaker] Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 idea. I thought I'd try to "take back the music" by giving myself some rules, such as:
1. Use a simple loop of percussion.
2. Use only four tracks.
3. Do not overdub.
4. Never repeat a song style
5. Use only one microphone (a Shure SM57) for everything.
6. No compression.
7. Only make a collection of 10 pieces to call an album. Print only on vinyl, five per side. (I ended up making three records to equal 30 pieces).
There were other rules, but I can't remember them. I was influenced by the Dogme 95 idea because that was a very [Steven] Spielberg-influenced time, everything was really slick – so many records were using 68 tracks to record a song, so Mark's Keyboard Repair was made to be a little defiant of that too.
Do you still approach albums like this, with some sort of concrete idea in mind or with a certain set of rules in place?
Well, for me, it really goes back to when I started collecting instruments. Though it very well could have been a guitar or anything that made some sounds or noise, the first instrument I got was a Fender Rhodes [electric piano]. Then I saved up my money, and the second thing I bought was a [Shure] SM57 microphone and a TEAC 3440 four-track recorder that I saw on a Lee Perry album cover, I think it was.
So I started with that, and then in a couple of years I had gathered up some more gear: a Fender Rhodes, a Clavinet, an organ, and a monophonic synthesizer. That was my basic set-up, but those four things can do an unlimited amount if you combine them in certain ways. I made so much music just with that set-up. At some point, I started acquiring a bunch more gear until it got to the point where I was thinking, "What am I going to do with all this stuff?" Then, In 1994, when I was between [working on the Beastie Boys'] Check Your Head and Ill Communication albums, I was still not sure how to return to making my own music, so I decided to go all the way back to the four-track idea. I kind of felt like I should return to it, to sort of continue from where I had left off.
Were you still also doing carpentry at that point, or were you fully dedicated to music by then?
No, I had retired from that. I started working on the record when we returned from the Check Your Head tour, and before that tour I was at a crossroad where I had to decide [between pursuing a music career and continuing to be a professional carpenter]. After the Check Your Head album had been recorded, [The Beastie Boys] had called me and said, "Hey Mark, we're thinking about going on tour with the record, and since you played all the parts, we want you to come with us." And I was like "Well, I just got this $30,000 offer to redo a kitchen," so I had to turn that [carpentry gig] down, and I was a bit upset about it at the time, but I think I made the right choice. [laughs]
In between that tour and [working on] Ill Communication, I was working on this album, and I was just trying to stay home and figure out what I was going to do [as an artist], and what came out of that turned into my first album. I was poor then too, so I couldn't go out and have the same [capabilities] as someone working with non-destructive digital recording; I had just one small reel of tape and I had to make the best of it, so I decided to impose some of these dogmatic ideas, really just as an experiment, and it kind of worked for me. [The limitations] made me exercise my brain, and that's what it's all about for me, basically.
I've said it before in other interviews, but when I work on my own music, I feel like a painter, in that a painter is by himself - there aren't groups of painters in a room working together – and I like working alone and having the power of having everything in front of me. The problem with that is that you have to know everything – you have to know all your gear, how to wrap a guitar cable, how to replace a speaker, and so on; there's a lot to know.
"...there are so many ways to seed an idea, so your choices should always be in front of you. Your collection of movies, books, paintings, whatever..."
Do you have a certain workflow or process when deciding where to start writing a song?
I still can't lose this idea of song architecture, how to make a song, and that lives completely in my head, but then I have all these other ways to actually promote that idea with all the tools I have in front of me: Ableton Live, an eight-track reel-to-reel, and all these other kinds of things that can record and fixate a sound into a medium. Now, I have all these choices, but I still need to know how to use all these things, so I'm always learning.
I think I made a list once and there are basically over 30 different starting points for me, one of which is just writing out some notes on sheet music, because I feel like when I have a musical idea, I don't always want to be married to a tone right away. We're only human, so when we hear something that works right away we usually think, "Oh that's it!" What's it called, Demo-itus? You hear it then you just can't get out of it. So sometimes I like to see how it looks on paper first.
Another way I like to start – which is one of the most fun ways, though it may never go anywhere until way later – is to sit behind my drum kit and have a headset microphone thing on (like what Britney Spears would use or whatever [laughs]) and I'll bang out a beat and sing a melody or bassline, and then I'll go back and mine for a good part and actually replace the initial idea with real instruments. That's really fun, but it's not necessarily really going anywhere; but I'm making a little groove or a little part, and maybe that's good enough to start, you never know.
How do you approach sampling? Are you usually sampling yourself or other pieces of music?
On the Check Your Head record, we sampled ourselves, and that's how I sampled then. When it comes to sampling other people's music, I guess I consider those to be found sounds. I found it on a record. I see it like, I found this thing that I really like: I found this seashell on the beach, and now I'm going to bring it home and polish it up and create something from it.
Do samples ever serve as the spark of a song, or do you more often fit samples into existing song architectures?
I like to think of each song as a "building," and in that building, there are a lot of emotive things going on. But when you just have a sound, there is not really emotion there, there is color and texture. And then, when I get this song building going, I'll go, "Oh shit, I've got this other texture thing, if I put that next to it, it can help tell the story." I think songs are these little stories, and you want things to happen to help that story move along.
When I get to the point where I think that a song needs a special sound or that it could use some sort of ambience, then I go and seek it out. Once I make the piece of music, then I know what sort of sounds will fit in there.
Throughout your career, what techniques have you developed for overcoming creative blocks?
Truthfully, I never have a creative block. I don't think it exists and I think that is part of the reason I've never had one. Believing and knowing that there is always a way to accomplish an idea is key, and it really is about the process and how much time is needed to get "there." It's only about time and how long something takes. For me, it's not about fixating on the idea of writer's block, it's only about how long it's going take to achieve [a creative goal].
It helps to master your studio. You should know how to operate all of your gear. Keep things organized – organization is power. Back to what I was saying before, there are so many ways to seed an idea, so your choices should always be in front of you. Your collection of movies, books, paintings, whatever, should always be easily accessible and ready to inspire you. Also, you should keep positive and focused. That may have more to do with personality traits and your own self-awareness, but keeping a good outlook is great for creating and being productive.
Do you think there is also a problem with having too much time in the studio, so you're not forced to make a decision but can always kick it down the road?
Absolutely, that is really, really true. But I'm an old guy, so I learned how to not fall into that trap. It really is a trap, that you can always delay this more and more and more. There's a difference between delaying it – not actually working on it – and being proactive [without arriving at your goal]. It still might take you a week of thinking about it to make something happen, but you have to always be proactive. You can't just ignore it and turn away from it. I think I took this from [Allen] Ginsberg or something, but I think that the original idea that you have is the idea: it has all the elements of being the idea and delaying it can only make it go away. I think everybody who makes things has that experience, especially musicians who can have this great melody, but if they don't put it down on tape or fit it into what they are working on, it will be lost. In the end, time is on your side, but you have to use it.
I've given this suggestion before, but I like this idea where you can set a timer and work for 20 minutes on a certain aspect or towards a certain goal and then "Bing!" the time goes off and you take a moment to decide if you want to work on that for another 20 minutes, or move onto something else. But you have to turn the phone off and really just go dive into that work for those 20 minutes.
Keep up with Money Mark on Soundcloud and Twitter. Download the album Mark’s Keyboard Repair for free from Money Mark’s website.
Photographs by Benito Barco and Autumn de Wilde.