What do you get when you cross a top producer and recording artist, with a leading tastemaker, Radio DJ and godfather to much of the best new music around? Er, A-YO. Following some one off parties, Mark Ronson and Zane Lowe cemented their DJ alliance - or should that be musical battle - over the summer playing an Ibiza residency and are now set for their biggest date in British soil at the Freeze Festival at London's Battersea Power Station (26-27 October). To mark the occasion, the pair got on the phone with Q their first ever joint interview.
How the devil are you, both? Mark Ronson: "[the pair are on the line before Q, to Zane]... we'll finish the conversation afterwards, but I want my money [laughs... Hey! I'm Good!" Zane Lowe: "Pretty well, thank you."
So you're both billed to play a festival this month as A-YO, what is this joint project then? ZL: "Mark..." MR: "Ok, you go first." ZL: "Well basically me and Mark used to find any excuse to DJ together, doing back-to-back sessions because it was just fun. Traditionally these would always happen in Ibiza because it was the only place where we could meet in the middle, somewhere Mark would come to play and I could get to. We'd only ever do one at a time due to schedule reasons, then last year we got a chance to two because it was spread out at two different locations. Just doubling our excessive work rate of one a year to two a year gave us the idea that actually it's fun when you do it more than once. The regularity of doing, er, two gave it more foundation. So we thought, Why don't we do some more? Ibiza Rocks came on board and said: We're doing this new night we'd like you guys to be the residents across the season. It gave us a base, a home and a reason to get our act together and make it more official."
Why do you like about playing records with one another? You do get your own gigs... MR: "I think we both came to DJing because of a love of hip-hop music. So whatever music we play - and obviously Zane in a good way has dragged me kicking and screaming into the 2010s - if you come from hip-hop DJing there's a certain way you play records. An energy. You could be playing a dubstep record, a house record, an old school hip-hop record - at Ibiza Rocks it ran the range from Slayer to Schoolly D to Knife Party to whatever - it's just good music. It's whatever we feel fits the bill. We have very similar tastes. I remember doing mixes for Zane's New Year's Eve show in 2000 and making mash-ups of Nirvana and Mobb Deep, and the spirit of that is still very much what we do."
So how does it work then? Do you take it in turns, do different sets, play at the same time? ZL: "There's two separate DJ rigs side by side. I used CD decks - MR: "I use turntables because I'm a real man!" [laughs] ZL: "It's because he's old. Sometimes it works and some times it doesn't. And once you realise that, either way, it works, it's good. We have some combinations we know that go together, but primarily the idea is for us to surprise each other. That creates an energy on stage that hopefully follows out into the audience. The most positive feedback we get about these shows isn't, You guys were tight, or, That was a flawless display of turntablism, because we're not turntabists, we're music enthusiasts who like to play records to people and - MR: "We can be honest. I would say we have more skills than 80 per-cent of the big name DJs out there, I think. It's Ok to say that. ZL: "You never know..." MR: "You make it sound like we roll up with a bunch of iPods! [both laughs] You can do scratches!"
Ok, we accept you're technically proficient, so what is it that sets you apart? ZL: "I think people really like the fact that we really enjoy ourselves on that stage. There's a spontaneity as to what we're going to play and the audience enjoy that energy. I've tried to put my finger on it because when we first got together and started rehearsing these shows I came in from the wrong angle. I was like: We need to bottle it, work out what the formula, get it really tight, and the first show we did like that wasn't great." MR: "To be fair I wasn't drinking, which might have had something to do with it." ZL: "Once we said, Sod it! We know each other well enough let it happen, it's been fun. We'll know if it's not working because people will start leaving!" MR: "It's like when I go and see a DJ I like and go, wow I love that record I can't believe they played it. Except now I have to follow it! We're pushing each other, but it's really about playing the music we love. There are a lot of shows in this reborn era of the DJ superstar where there's a lot of choreographed lights, the set is exactly the same each time because it works with the visuals and that's the antithesis of what we do. It's about dropping records that kids don't expect. At the first show of the summer we dropped this Dimitri re-edit of Prince, I Wanna Be Your Lover, which came out before most of the people who were there were born. We ended-up having to play it as our last song all summer because the energy was great! It's great to turn people on to stuff they haven't heard before. That was half of the reason I used to go and see DJs when I was growing up." ZL: "It's a really good point. It's a human exercise. It's not on a clever bit of software. I'm not taking anything away from that, some people spend eight months on their music and when they play it live they want it to look and sound incredible, but our thing is different. I've got my head around it now, at first I was like [shouts] Oh God! We need to tidy this up! Now I realise this is what's cool about it." MR: "Our own sets are probably more meticulous. A-YO is fun!"
How far do you see your collaboration going? Could you see yourselves doing A-YO remixes together? Original music? ZL: "Mark?" MR: "Yes, definitely. Zane is being funny because he's pretending I'm the one who is holding the thing up. Zane has also got a flourishing production career and I have my own and I feel like because we're - I don't want to use the word snobs, but we know what we like. So when do put out a record, I'm not saying the world is waiting for it, but our shit has to be as good as any of the records we play at the climax of the set. We're spending some time in the studio, we're rehearsing for these up coming dates and I think there's something to be done here past the set. There will be something next year, for sure."
You're playing Freeze Festival at the end of the month, which has a snowboarding theme. Do you guys often hit the slopes? ZL: "Actually the first time I met Mark was long before I saw him DJ, he had a mullet, stonewash clothes and you were holding a snowboard weren't you?" MR: "I had a snow shovel, I hadn't worked out the board bit yet..." ZL: "I can't speak for Mark, but snowboarding is something I've always liked the idea of but have never got around to. That's almost sacrilegious when you come from New Zealand, everyone expects you to snowboard - MR: "In the famous Alps of New Zealand?" [laughs] ZL: [mock indignation] "There are incredible slopes in New Zealand!" MR: "My mother was in Auckland, she never talked about snowboarding." ZL: "[even more mock indignation] "That's your mum's fault, not New Zealand's! Outrageous! [normal voice] I've never snowboarded, no, that's the short answer to that question."
Probably best to just stick to the music for the gig anyway, it will be one of your biggest crowds so far, after all. MR: "I played there with the band two years ago and headlined, it's an incredible crowd. It was Halloween and people do go that little bit loopy. It is amazing because you're playing in the middle of London but they have a ski slope. Even though I'm not very coordinated at things that involve going fast, I did watch a lot of it."
Clearly there's a fun rivalry here. Do you chaps have any house rules? Ways to make sure you don't play your big tunes early? ZL: "No. We've never discussed any." MR: "There's an unsaid DJ etiquette about what you do and don't do. I knew when I was playing in clubs opening for Funkmaster Flex you don't play Crazy In Love and 17 other massive hits before they go on. We're not trying to one-up each other, we drive each other in a really great way that keeps things up in the air. There is no winner. The winner is you!" [laughs] ZL: "Yeah we let the audience know what's going on because we're very liberal on the mics, they're in on the joke. We make it very inclusive, if we're having a playful argument onstage about who is going to play what we'll just air it. I loved that about the Beastie Boys. I loved that they had no problem stopping a show and having a band conversation onstage, it was no issue for them to have it out in public. When it happens you look out in the crowd and see people smiling." MR: "And we don't see each other a lot so sometime we have to stop a record and catch up."
Finally, with the spontaneity, how many You bastard, I was going to play that! moments are there in an average set? ZL: "I had one the other night! He calls me up from some airport lounge - what you have to understand about him is that he's constantly moving - and goes, I've got five hours can you email me some stuff that's good? I sent him this Wolfgang Gartner tune which is amazing, then Mark dropped the record at the next gig! It's a brutal track, it would scare armies, it's so intense and serious but he just dropped it! We always fight over the same records. It's always a race to cue up ...Paris from Watch The Throne." MR: "To be fair to Zane, he could have said Life On Mars by Barbra Streisand and I would have dropped it." [both laugh] Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more on the pair's set at the Relentless Energy Drink Freeze Festival, (26-27 October) including ticket details, head to Freezefestival.com.