Despite the doo-wop sound of his ditties, his silky old-soul croon, and the fact that he hails from the state that birthed Motown, Mayer Hawthorne swears he's not retro.
The voice of Hawthorne may be golden, but it's untrained. In fact, the man born Andrew Cohen in Ann Arbor stumbled onto a career as a singer accidentally. He was a hip-hop DJ who decided to make soul records because he had easy access to them. Peanut Butter Wolf of the label Stones Throw heard a couple of songs, and signed him as a singer.
Even though everybody keeps trying to peg him as a soul revivalist, he insists he's all about progression. His new album How Do You Do just dropped on Universal Republic, and we talked to him ahead of his headlining show at the Roxy on Saturday and opening slot for Empire of the Sun at Club Nokia on Sunday.
Where did you shoot the video for your new song “The Walk”?
We shot that at Big Sky ranch, which is George Lucas' place. That was a real highlight of the whole thing for me. There have been so many incredible films that have been shot there.
Was he there?
Naw, he wasn't there.
Were you guys really shooting those guns?
I had to do some weapons' training for that. We trained for hours. I had to go learn how to shoot all these different kinds of real guns. We had professional armourers on set at all times. And explosive guys. It was real intense, real Hollywood. Official shit. We're actually gonna drop a behind-the-scenes video.
I'm assuming you're not a stuntman or anything.
No, no, but I did do all my own stunts. I had hella bruises the next day. We went through it. It was so much fun, though! I got to be Bruce Willis for a day.
I had to check the liner notes when I listened to the new album to make sure that was Snoop on “Can't Stop.”
Yeah. He killed it. Anytime I'm working with another artist, especially someone as well known as Snoop, I'm always trying to get them to do something they've never done before. That was one of the greatest examples of that. It was Snoop in a way that nobody's ever heard him before.
Was he at all hesitant to sing without being Auto-Tuned?
No, not at all! He asked me, “What do I gotta do to get on a Mayer Hawthorne track?” I was like well, I don't really have rapping on it, so you'd have to sing. He was down! I was on set with him and DJ Quik filming that movie he put me in, Malice in Wonderland. All Snoop was doing all day was singing old soul music. So I knew he'd be able to do it.
Weirdest collaboration you want to do?
Gary Numan. I would love to do a track with Gary Numan. He's one of my favorite artists. I love doing things that people don't expect. Which is a big reason we did that video for “The Walk.” I just don't think anybody hears that song and would imagine doing that sort of video.
Speaking of '80s singers, I found the Daryl's House of you. I didn't even know that show existed.
I always loved Hall and Oates. My mom actually found out about Live at Daryl's House before I did! [laughs] I didn't know about it. She's been watching it since they first started it. I had never even heard of it, and they contacted us. I don't think I've ever had more fun doing anything in my life than trading verses with Daryl Hall on “Private Eyes.” That's as fun as it gets.
You actually sound like him.
[laughs] He's one of the greatest singers ever. So to be in the same room trying to trade bars with Daryl Hall was like a little nerve wracking.
I read somewhere you had a Fisher-Price record player when you were a kid.
That was all I ever wanted as a kid. Yeah, I had GI Joes, but what I really wanted was records. I've been DJ'ing since before I could read the labels on the records.
Which records did you have back then?
Earth, Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, Blondie, The Cars–used to love The Cars–, Beach Boys. Whatever was hot, and was on 45s. I used to fuck my parents records up. They would get so mad at me.
I'm assuming, because of your influences, you put a lot of work into your live shows. Is there anyone in particular you've fashioned yours after?
Motown groups. The Dramatics. One of my favorite live shows I've ever seen is Roger and Zapp. We don't do concerts; we do shows. On our days off, we're working on our live show. I'm trying to have the best live show in the world.
Why do you think there's an attraction today to that soul sound? Maybe not just aurally, but on a cultural or political level.
I think everything goes in cycles. I think we went through a period where really disposable music was the same. Now we're on to the next thing. Everything comes back around. We're back to an era where people care more about songwriting and quality over quantity.
I definitely don't think that the atmosphere of the '60s could ever really be recreated, but you know, it's not about that. It's about doing something new. I'm not trying to take it back to the '60s. I don't even know what it was like back then. I grew up in the '80s and '90s.
I saw on your Twitter that you're fascinated with R. Kelly's “Trapped in the Closet.”
Fascinating is definitely the word. I would never say it's the best nor the worst video of all time. [But] it's definitely the most fascinating. It's captivating and intriguing. [laughs]
Have you ever met R. Kelly?
I never have, but I would love to pick R. Kelly's brain.
You could do a song together.
I was supposed to maybe work with him on this movie soundtrack but it fell through. I would love to do a joint with R. Kelly.
Would it be something crazy like “Trapped”?
I hope so.