“What song you wanna hear?” Bruno Mars asks, his question doubling as both a flex — any song I name, he most definitely can play — and a friendly challenge. “I need to know you heard this album,” he adds with a grin.
Mars, the smooth and versatile pop superstar, is hanging out in a Burbank rehearsal studio, smoking American Spirit cigarettes and sipping an iced brown-sugar, oat-milk shaken espresso — “It’s a fancy milkshake,” he says — before starting up a recent practice with the 10-man live edition of Silk Sonic, the 1970s-style soul duo he shares with Oxnard-born singer and rapper Anderson .Paak.
Actually, the musicians are in the studio next door. Mars, 36, rented this second space just to go over wardrobe options for the months-long residency Silk Sonic will open Friday night at Las Vegas’ Park MGM. Dozens of brightly patterned shirts hang on racks; a long folding table is arrayed with fedoras and bedazzled eyewear. In the middle of the room, a small mountain of shoes awaits careful inspection: Gucci loafers, Florsheim boots, Vans slip-ons the color of banana Laffy Taffy.
Mars is famously attentive to detail, which partly explains how he’s topped Billboard’s Hot 100 eight times, played the Super Bowl halftime show twice and won 11 Grammy Awards. With .Paak, who’s also 36 and turned up during this month’s halftime, playing drums for Eminem and Dr. Dre, he’s up for another four Grammys, including record of the year and song of the year, for Silk Sonic’s sumptuous “Leave the Door Open,” the lead single from the duo’s debut LP “An Evening With Silk Sonic.”
Should Mars and .Paak take the record prize at April’s 64th Grammys, Mars will tie Paul Simon’s three wins in that category, following earlier awards for “24K Magic” and “Uptown Funk.”
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Just as crucial as that rigor, though, is the instinctive showman’s flair, which he exhibits after he and .Paak strut over to the other studio, where Mars straps on an electric guitar to lead their expert players through a scorching take on my request, “After Last Night.” Eyeing himself in a giant mirror set up along one wall, a lit cigarette poking out from his guitar’s headstock, Mars croons, belts and finally wails the slinky sex jam, which sounds harder and funkier in here than on the album; .Paak, stationed behind a kit, blends vocal harmonies with his partner before taking a wild drum solo that pushes the music toward psychedelic rock.
The song goes on for six or seven minutes until the band stops on a dime at Mars’ command and he looks over at me from behind a pair of aviator shades. “That’s no warm-up,” he says. “Coming in cold.” Eager to keep the rest of his show under wraps, he smiles again, then adds, “Now scram.”
For Mars, Silk Sonic’s Las Vegas engagement represents something of a return to his childhood. He was born in Honolulu and grew up performing for tourists in a family band with his parents and siblings. “Like Vegas, it was a melting pot,” he says of their regular gig at the Sheraton Waikiki. “That curtain opens up and you have people from all over the world that it’s your responsibility to entertain.”
But the new production is also a happy embrace of a future that Mars and .Paak weren’t always certain they’d see. The duo, who met six years ago on the road yet joke around like they’ve been pals for decades, started work on the Silk Sonic album in 2020 as a way to keep busy during the early days of the pandemic.
“Andy had been performing and I’d been performing, and then it all went away,” Mars recalls. “It felt like the world was gonna end — like, man, I don’t know if we’re ever gonna play again. So we said, ‘Let’s put together an imaginary show — this set list of doom.’” The circumstances were bleak but the music was joyous: plush falsetto ballads and sophisticated dance cuts with echoes of the Spinners, the Chi-Lites and Earth, Wind & Fire. They played live instruments and took turns singing, aiming for “crazy notes,” as Mars puts it, without concern for whether they’d be able to hit them onstage night after night.
“We were like, ‘We’re never gonna play this live, so don’t worry about it!’” .Paak says.
As usual, both men brought an impeccable sense of history to the project. Asked what they think distinguished soul music in the ’60s from soul music in the ’70s, .Paak replies, “Different drugs. And the racism was a little different.” He laughs. “In the ’70s, people were breaking free of the suit-and-tie Motown thing, tripping out and trying to expand Black music.”
“The grit was different,” Mars chimes in. “You had the David Ruffin/Temptations grit in the ’60s and then you get the O’Jays grit in the ’70s. Both insane, but the chord progressions are getting a little —”
“Greasier,” .Paak says, finishing his bandmate’s sentence.
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Don’t mistake greasiness for a lack of precision; every groove and texture on the album is arranged just so. “If you really listen to what Andy’s playing in ‘Leave the Door Open,’ that s— is not easy,” Mars says. “He’s not just playing the drums — he’s playing the microphones.” For extra verisimilitude, the duo brought in Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic to lend his one-of-a-kind voice to several tracks; other guests in the studio included Thundercat and the veteran R&B artist and producer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who says he’s “never seen anyone put more time than Bruno into making sure a song feels as good as it can possibly feel.”
“Sometimes he maybe overworks it,” Edmonds adds. “But it’s that dedication to getting it right that makes him Bruno.”
.Paak says he’s had fellow musicians — “people like us who play” — reach out to thank him for getting handmade sounds back on the radio at a time when nearly all R&B and hip-hop is programmed. Yet Mars is uncomfortable with the idea of Silk Sonic being viewed strictly as a retro act — one reason, perhaps, the duo recently lent their likenesses to the online video game “Fortnite.”
“Is this good or not? That’s the meter,” Mars says. “‘Leave the Door Open’ could have electronic drums on it. The only goal is that the song is great.”
Even so, there’s no denying that Silk Sonic’s live approach — the horn section, the light choreography, the matching suits — evokes a bygone era.
“We’re really out there performing, really out there singing,” .Paak says of the Vegas show, which combines the duo’s songs with material from each man’s solo career. “We’re not relying on lasers and smoke.”
Lowering his voice, Mars puts his phone to his ear. “Cancel the lasers and smoke,” he says, cracking both of them up.
The idea, Mars says after he recovers, is to put the audience “inside a world that we created and that we want you to be a part of.” To that end, they’re requiring audience members to put their phones in locked pouches for the duration of the concert — a means of getting folks to live in the moment and of allowing Silk Sonic to feel free to try things, Mars says.
When everyone’s pointing a camera toward the stage, he continues, “you’re like, I don’t know if I want to try out this dance move tonight. Or you’re afraid this joke might go on the internet.” Minus phones, “There’s no fear involved. There’s no second-guessing.”
.Paak says the dancing has been a learning curve for him in particular. “It’s not some 19-year-old kid trying to teach us how to do a TikTok dance,” he clarifies of the moves in the show. “But compared to Bruno — he’s so little and slick, with all his feets moving around — I’m like, OK, do it slow so I can wrap my head around it.”
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Who are Mars’ dancing inspirations? “Anybody that was natural,” he replies. “I love watching Tina Turner. She was just: ‘This is what I feel right now, so this is what I’m gonna do.’ Obviously Michael Jackson was such a killer. Prince. Jackie Wilson. With all of them, it’s like they understood their shape. There was a confidence born of the assurance of knowing what they look like onstage.”
As those names make clear, the legacy Silk Sonic is tending is an old one. “We’re trying to make Earth, Wind & Fire proud,” Mars admits. Yet .Paak sees value — aesthetic, emotional, financial — in offering something that can’t be accessed in the cloud.
“What we’re doing, it’s becoming rare, but I think it’s something everybody wants to see,” he says. “They might not pay to stream your music, but they’ll pay to go see a good show.”
And does Silk Sonic plan to gamble with its earnings while in Las Vegas?
“Absolutely,” Mars says. “We gamble with each other. The whole time we were recording we were going back and forth on basketball games. One night it got so bad we were betting on rock, paper, scissors.”
“That’s the thing with him,” .Paak adds. “I’m ready to walk away — ‘Cool, I won’ — and he’s like, ‘Roshambo, let’s go.’”
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