Bruno Mars is very, very good at being a pop star. And at 27 he has the stats to prove it: His soulful, playfully retro albums, 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans and last year’s Unorthodox Jukebox, have sold some 9 million copies worldwide and yielded four No. 1 smashes between them (not counting the myriad hits he’s co-written and guested on for other artists). Collectively, his videos have been viewed a staggering 1.5 billion times, and his Moonshine Jungle Tour, slated to kick off June 22 in Washington, D.C., just added dozens more dates to sate global demand.
Which is great news — because right now it doesn’t look like a super-lucrative backup career as a dog whisperer is in the cards. ”No! Geronimo!” Mars scolds as a young rottweiler skids across the floor of his midcentury-modern Hollywood home and begins to gnaw industriously on the knees of this reporter’s jeans as if the seams are secretly lined with bacon. ”I’m sorry,” he sighs. ”I’ll buy you a new pair of pants. I swear he’s usually better than that.”
More doggy-appropriate treats are quickly produced — ”They should call them ‘shut-up snacks,’ ” Mars says wryly — and he moves to pour a glass of champagne from a living-room wet bar that overlooks a sweeping view of nighttime Los Angeles. The house, with its brass leopards and vintage movie posters, is a triumph of Swinging Bachelor Pad decor; you can practically hear the ring-a-ding ghosts of Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. chasing girls and cocktails around the backyard’s cobalt blue swimming pool.
It’s been just three short years since Mars went from near total obscurity to the kind of stardom that earns you both the main host gig and the musical-guest spot on Saturday Night Live — which he did last fall, very well. Still, most people with an eardrum and an Internet connection are probably familiar with his basic biography by now: the childhood spent in Hawaii in a Puerto Rican/Jewish/Filipino family full of performers; the tiny-Elvis cameo in 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas; the years spent struggling behind the scenes before he landed his first solo success with 2010’s silky überballad ”Just the Way You Are.” He’s happy to talk about all that; in fact, he’s voluble and charming on nearly every subject, one of those rare stars whose face reflects actual emotions, not the blank slate of a media-training manual. With Geronimo contentedly snacking at his feet, Mars settles in for a wide-ranging conversation on everything from his upcoming single, ”Treasure” (”I love it! Seriously, I can’t wait”), to why he’s totally excited to get fat.
There’s a lot about your music that’s very modern, but it does feel like you’ve helped bring a certain kind of retro back. You’ve made it okay to sweat and really perform, and maybe even wear a sparkly blazer.
Well, a lot of my style is because of my father, who put this Motown [idea] of ”You don’t go up on stage unless you’re looking sharp” in me. And I think there was a time when that didn’t become cool anymore — like, the patent-leather shoes and the tight pants, the perfectly fitted suit. And it toes the line of being maybe a little bit too cabaret, but that’s just kind of the school that I was brought up in.
Your work ethic might be old-school, but some of your lyrics are pretty…racy.
Last night I sang [recent six-week Hot 100 chart-topper] ”Locked Out of Heaven” at a benefit, and it’s a little weird when little kids are singing along [in a high-pitched voice] ”Your sex takes me to paradise,” and you’re just like, ”Aaahhh!” That gets awkward. [Laughs]
It’s probably good you didn’t do ”Gorilla,” which is definitely not for kids. What’s up with you and primates? First you had the video for ”The Lazy Song,” with everyone wearing ape masks, and then a song about ”makin’ love like gorillas.”
[Laughs] What do you want me to do? I love monkeys! Ever since I was a little kid.
Stories about you tend to focus on how you’ve been doing this your whole life — that you grew up doing live revues with your family in Honolulu, and that you were singing Elvis songs before you could say the alphabet, essentially. Did your career always feel sort of preordained?
I do remember liking that first time on stage. I was an infant, and I remember being like, ”Ooh, my voice is loud now, I can hear it! It’s in the speakers!” And then I grew out of that, the impersonation stuff you see on YouTube, and I remember singing in a talent show at my high school and I was like, ”Okay, this is what I want to do.”
Did girls look at you differently after that?
Sure! Because they do. What’s wrong with you, you sick women? [Laughs, shaking his finger] But that’s the way it works.
You moved to L.A. and got signed to Motown, but then got dropped. You were still really young, but it must have been hard.
Man, I didn’t feel young. Everybody made me feel like I was out of the game, you know? And that’s when all the doubt came in. I tell everyone this story and no one prints it, I don’t know why, but this will show you. I’m struggling as a songwriter, I’m trying to create an album and basically trying to have people believe in me. So finally me and my partners, Phil and Ari [a.k.a. his counterparts in the Grammy-nominated production trio known as the Smeezingtons], we write this song ”Nothin’ on You,” and I feel so happy with it. It’s so cool, with the Motown feel and the live instruments, and I love this hook. And we’re shopping it around and the guy we played it for — I’m not going to say who it was, but he goes, ”Oh man, oh man, what a song. You know what kind of white artist we could break with this? Blond hair, blue eyes, we could make this kid the next thing!”
Wow. Seriously? That’s like a scene straight out of Cadillac Records.
Yeah, and this is 2009, 2010!
Do you think he realized how offensive that was?
Maybe he didn’t realize, but it was just kinda sad, because it was like, ”Man, what about the kid that played you the song and wrote it and produced it, what about that guy?” So it made me feel like, ”Jeez, I must be a mutant.” I think that was the bottom, because even with the song that I thought I had in my back pocket to seal the deal, things like that are coming out of people’s mouths. It made me feel like I wasn’t even in the room.
Have you seen that guy since then?
[Cocks eyebrow] I’ve seen him.
Okay, I won’t make you say his name.
Well, look, there’s a lot of those guys out there…. I’ve seen that go down now that I’m on the other side. It’s not like the old days, where you hear about artist development and somebody believing in you and helping you put this sound together. And I think that’s why I became a producer.
Let’s talk about your upcoming tour. With Doo-Wops & Hooligans, it was sort of your first time at the rodeo. Would you ever do the stuff that so many pop stars’ arena shows have now? Maybe some aerial stunts?
I don’t think I would feel too comfortable, like, wearing a harness. [Laughs] Sometimes when we’re doing a TV show, I cringe when they turn the smoke machines on. I want the music and the sound to be rockin’, more important than the visual effects and tricks or whatnot. I don’t want to get lost in that. I’ve definitely seen bands before they made money kind of change their thing on the next tour, and I prefer it when it’s a little more raw. We always change it up, you know? It’s live, and that’s a big element of the show.
You tend to move a lot on stage. Do you typically get reinforced seams for your performance clothes?
I did for the Grammys, ’cause I told Dolce and Gabbana — they made us these suits and I said, ”Listen, I’m gonna try to do the splits on live TV; can you throw, like, elastic in there?” But yeah, we got stuff made for the tour. I wanna look sharp.
Do you feel like you have a stage persona, like Sasha Fierce?
I am Sasha Fierce! She took that s—from me. [Laughs]
That means you have to put the leotard on.
Deal. No, seriously. It’s weird with me, because that’s the most complicated part. I love doing normal s—, and when it’s game time, it’s like an athlete or a boxer — when it’s time to perform, it’s time to perform. And I’ve been doing it for so long, you know? It’s been my job since I was 4 years old. It sucks to call it a job, but that’s what I’ve been doing.
Are there any songs in your catalog that you have a tough time with on stage?
”It Will Rain” [from 2011’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1 soundtrack]. I remember I was like, ”What was I thinking? Why can’t I just sing it two keys down?” All my songs are so damn high! I don’t know why I keep writing these songs to the max.
It seems like the hardest thing would be to write a song that sounds effortless. It’s only when you hear bad ones that you realize how much work it takes to make good ones.
Well, I have a few of those in the old arsenal. [Laughs] There’s a lot on YouTube right now, songs that leaked.
Is writing like a muscle?
It’s not a muscle but… It sounds cheesy, but it is a piece of your soul. The ”F— You” session with Cee Lo [which Mars co-wrote and co-produced] was one of those moments where it just snowballed, like, Who could top whose line? ”I love it, watch this!” ”I love it! Check this out.” ”This is great! This feels so good, let’s do this with the drums and this with the guitar!” And then there are songs like ”Grenade” that take four months and you hate the song; you’re just like, ”Yo, this sucks, what the hell am I singing about?” And then you finally finish it.
But both those songs were huge. Do you know when you’ve nailed it?
I don’t know if it’s a hit. I know when I like it. I’m never like, ”Oh, radio is going to eat this up.” It’s like a movie — what makes a good movie? It’s a great beginning, a great middle, and a great end.
Now that you’ve had a chance to get used to it a little, what do you think has surprised you the most about fame?
Fame. I’m not even comfortable with that word. Am I really famous? But I’d say the camera phones, man. You’ve got one, right? You know, when I was a kid and why I’m doing this, my dream was… I love the feeling I get when I’m on stage and I can see people dancing to the music we’re playing and I can see smiles and I can see someone’s eyes and I can let them know, ”I see you.” And of course, you know, even saying this, I’d rather play for a thousand camera phones than play for [just] my uncle and my aunt in a restaurant in Hawaii. But I want to feel the audience, see the people, and it’s difficult when there’s a phone in between. I don’t want to sing to an iPhone!
Even in your videos, you usually seem to avoid crazy high concepts.
I’m a musician, not an actor, you know what I mean? I don’t want to fight crime in my videos.
In the clip for ”Grenade,” you dragged a piano all across L.A., and you were good at making that look like hard work. Was it actually hollow inside?
Yeah, but it didn’t matter! It was heavy as hell. I was like, ”Where’s the Styrofoam piano? I thought this was Hollywood!” And you know I’ve got [naturally] curly hair, so I’m trying to keep this pompadour in shape… [Laughs]
It does seem like acting, or at least a high-profile cameo, is a prerequisite for musicians now.
I’ve been pitched some weird things. Look, the SNL stuff is fun. I love movies like Purple Rain, and I love The Five Heartbeats and I love City of God. If there’s something that I really feel like, ”Man, no one could do this but me; this is a challenge that I could sink my teeth into,” then I’d give it a shot, definitely. But that’s not what the goal is.
So you don’t want an EGOT?
What is that again? Emmy, Grammy…?
Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony.
Whoopi Goldberg has one.
And Mel Brooks. And Adele’s on her way. [Laughs] I think she’s [even] gonna win the playoffs this year. But I love her, because she’s like, ”I do music.” And I feel like that mentality got lost in, like, ”Look what I’m wearing, look how crazy I can be!” She plays her cards perfectly, I think. That’s what music is, right? Just write a song. Write the world’s favorite song. There’s a piano, give me the microphone, thank you, good night.
So maybe more acting isn’t going to be part of your 10-year plan, then?
Well, now that you said eaglet — what is it called again?
No, I want an eaglet! A baby eaglet. Adele can have the EGOT, I just want some eaglets. [Cracks up] Seriously, though, I would love to go away for a while and then be able to write a song that I feel just as strongly about as I did with ”Locked Out of Heaven” or ”When I Was Your Man.” I can’t wait for the reunion tour when I’m just huge and bloated, singin’ my songs seven keys down in Palm Springs. And it’s gonna happen. [Laughs]
Bruno’s Tour Playlist
”He’s kind of got an Arctic Monkeys thing, which I love, but there are also some parts that remind me of Elvis. I think ‘Lightning Bolt’ has a very rockabilly, ’50s-like Elvis [vibe], and I like ‘Slide.’ ”
WAKA FLOCKA FLAME
”We’ll put on the most ratchet music you can think of backstage. ‘O Let’s Do It’ by Waka Flocka was kind of our anthem for the last tour — every night before the show it’d be that one, so we’ll probably do it again, just for comfort reasons. We’ll jump around, taking shots — ‘All right, let’s go!’ and then the curtain opens on a bunch of 14-year-old girls. [Laughs]”
THE JACKSON 5
”There’s a lot of that backstage, too. My favorite? That’s, like, the hardest question. ‘I Wanna Be Where You Are’ is a good one. Or something from Michael’s Off the Wall album: ‘Burn This Disco Out,’ you know that one? I play that a lot at rehearsal, just jam that.”
”For ballads, it has to be something special. I listen to a lot of Smokey, especially ’60s Smokey. So let’s go with ‘Being With You.’ That one makes me feel extra smooth.”
”I love them — ‘Hang Loose’ is my favorite. I’m from Hawaii, and that’s a term I grew up with; it’s, like, the state motto. And I really like [frontwoman Brittany Howard]’s voice and her delivery.”
BOOKER T & THE MG’S
”Earlier, I played ‘Green Onions’ three times in a row because I wanted to feel cool. I want that to be the soundtrack whenever I walk into a room. I want that to come on…and then immediately get into a fight by the pool table. [Laughs]”
On The Cover
Bruno may be the headliner on his Moonshine Jungle Tour, but it was his big-cat cover costar, Whoopi, who got bottle service on our set. Luckily, he was working with a pro; at 17, she’s hardly a cub when it comes to showbiz (she’s appeared everywhere from a Geico ad to True Blood). Says Mars of prepping for the shoot, helmed by photographer Jill Greenberg: ”The trainers [Chris Pollard and owner Eric Weld] told us the safety things: No fast movements, and you have to pet her very firmly, because they can feel if you’re timid. Luckily,” he jokes, ”we were listening to Def Leppard. She had her own entrance, with pyrotechnics and smoke. It was great. She definitely stole the show.”