Guess you can credit Madonna. If it weren’t for her, John Mellencamp probably wouldn’t be sitting in New York City’s Hit Factory, tapping his Converse hightops on the floor and pumping his fist in the air while mixing a new album in which heartland rock riffs meet tribal dance grooves.
After all, it was the Material Girl who assured Mellencamp that it might not be a bad thing to get people dancing to his music. And it was she who turned him on to her onetime producer and DJ pal Junior Vasquez, whose thumping dance beats join Mellencamp and band on Mr. Happy Go Lucky, due in August.
Today, Mellencamp, pulling on a Marlboro, hips swaying from side to side, is standing several feet behind Vasquez and an engineer. They’re mixing a new track, ”Circling ‘Round the Moon,” and Mellencamp is a stickler for details. ”Not the verse, goddamn it, the chorus,” he barks impatiently. ”Turn the bass up!” Then he springs over to the soundboard and hits a switch himself, kicking the bass up so high the floor starts rumbling. The New York stint will last for two weeks, but the band — and Vasquez — have been working on Mr. Happy for close to a year and a half.
Since the 1985 release of his 4 million-selling Scarecrow, Mellencamp’s sales have steadily tailed off. His last effort, 1994’s Dance Naked, barely went platinum. Naked‘s lone hit was Mellencamp’s first-ever duet, a cover of Van Morrison’s ”Wild Nights,” featuring another Madonna protege, the soulful Me’Shell NdegeOcello. That uncharacteristically funky single proved that the right spin on Mellencamp’s roots-rock style could take off. ”I try to reinvent myself from record to record,” says the Hoosier singer-songwriter. ”I have a thousand million people telling me ‘You know, John, you need to make Scarecrow II.’ But I already made that record, and now Garth Brooks is doing it, so why would I want to do it again?”
Instead, he enlisted acclaimed cult DJ and producer Vasquez, a mixer of hits for Janet Jackson and k.d. lang, to transform his down-home rockers with drum loops and funky mid-tempo beats. ”My thing is soul,” explains the tattooed Vasquez, ”which cuts through the standard rock way of thinking. One of the ingenious tracks is called ‘Jerry,’ where we did the jungle thing [up-tempo British hip-hop] — it’s a fusion of straight drums with a hip-hop beat.” In fact, Mellencamp says his original vision for the album was that every song should play like ”Jerry,” with its slow-groove dance undertones — even though, he notes, ”it’s not a dance record.” Other influences, like the lush, layered vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel, also shaped the album’s direction.
Musical innovations aside, Mellencamp, 44, dismisses the notion that he’s updating his image. ”I’m a f—ing pair of blue jeans, man. No matter what I do, people are still going to be wearing blue jeans,” he says, dragging on another cigarette in apparent disregard of the heart attack that felled him in 1994. ”They may be baggier than they were back in the f—ing ’80s, but they’re still blue jeans.”