When Mark Ramos-Nishita, aka Money Mark, first heard “You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party,” he most likely chuckled quietly to himself and changed the channel. But years later, a chance meeting with the very goofs who performed that anthem to overindulgence, the Beastie Boys, would send him on an adventure around the globe and deep into his inner self.
The story is now somewhat of a legend. Mark, then working days as a carpenter, was called in to fix a gate that somehow kept getting driven into by one of the Beasties. They then called him back to build some record shelves and later the band’s studio. “During that process we all learned about each other’s musical tastes and backgrounds,” says Ramos-Nishita from his L.A. home. “We were friends before anything else. Before I met them I was making records too, but I hadn’t had the platform to get the music out there. I wasn’t really interested in being a professional musician at that time and I still don’t know if I want to be a professional musician.”
It appears that it’s too late for that. With three solo releases under his belt, Mark is still exploring. “During the Paul’s Boutique era, I had started doing some recordings, and during Check Your Head, I compiled some of my eight-track and four-track recordings and that became Mark’s Keyboard Repair,” he says. “James Lavelle from ‘Mo Wax said, ‘You should put this out,’ and he released it in England. I had just been in my own little bubble doing my own thing and I’m still kind of there right now.”
Push the Button was Ramos-Nishita’s second solo foray and really brought his immense talent to light. The fourth Beastie proved that his own sound had very little to do with that of his famous collaborators. Ballads like “Rock In The Rain” and “All The People” blew minds with their simple-yet-eloquent message and delivery, highlighting his truly sublime voice.
“[My voice] really gets overlooked because of the history of my music,” he says. In fact, his most recent album, Change Is Coming, is entirely instrumental, but by no means does it suffer due to lack of vocals. Recruiting horn players from Los Angeles salsa-funk act Ozomatli, Change Is Coming veers all over the place, from quirky synth vibes to ’70s-style lowrider anthems. Unfortunately, the album was released the week before Sept. 11 and, like everything else, was immediately overshadowed by the disturbing events of that day. Mark and company had just finished a gig at the Knitting Factory in Manhattan mere hours before the attacks began.
“It’s really strange, because it’s [Change is Coming] a record about New York. All the song titles reflect that time,” he says. “I’ve talked to others about that idea and I think we all were feeling some pressure at that moment.” But, after a 10-day respite, the band decided to push on with the tour, bringing the emotions they experienced to bear in their live shows.
While Ramos-Nishit might be considered a fringe artist here in the states, abroad he’s considered on par with his Beasties counterparts. When asked how he reconciles this disparate attention, he responds, “I think it’s the corporate vibe here and, to be honest, I’m not to sure about the musical IQ of the masses in the U.S. I think there’s a disconnection to music here, and I have an idea why: Artists, not just musicians, but artists as a whole are revered more outside the U.S. I think it’s [America] a corporate machine that’s lost a handle on its quality.”
One need look no further than the hit show American Idol to validate Mark’s point. In a time when prefab groups are the rule, not the exception, it’s refreshing to find someone in the music industry that really isn’t concerned with becoming a big star, though in many ways he already is. In fact, James Lavelle commissioned a Money Mark action figure, extremely rare and worth a fortune on eBay.
“That’s a bizarre thing,” he says. “It wasn’t my idea. I have a bunch of them in my garage. I’m going to bring a few of them in the van–maybe they can help me drive,” he deadpans.
Perhaps it’s Ramos-Nishita’s background that’s set him on such an even keel. Raised by a Japanese-Hawaiian father who worked as an electronics engineer and a Latina mother whose family members were all involved with music in some way, Mark got it good from both sides. When posed with the question of whether his music is influenced more by his multi-ethnic background or by the music he listened to growing up, the classic “nature vs. nurture” query, he demurs. “I couldn’t discount anything at all: my environment, my upbringing, my parents’ ethnicity,” he says. “I think I’m the sum of all that. Probably my parents’ personalities are underneath everything. I got kind of the best of both worlds in that sense.”
Asked about his relationship with technology, Mark tends to lean toward the old school, despite the fact that he has worked with and had success recording with digital equipment. But you must realize that this is a man who, as a kid, tore his first keyboard (a classic Fender Rhodes) apart and put it back together again.
“The electro-mechanical thing is the shit for me. That’s what I like to use–where things are actually moving and striking things,” he says. “I’ve been able to extract some cool sounds out of digital keyboards, and I think it’s getting better. But there’s something about it. It’s cold. Tubes make things hot, warm, just like we are.”
In perhaps his most revealing moment, Mark closes the interview with a hint to where he’s heading. “I think I’m becoming more immature,” he admits. “I’m devolving, just like DEVO said. I didn’t ask to be in the music business; I was fixing a gate. I still don’t know if I want to be in it. Whatever I do I’m going to still keep making records. I’m not a slave to any corporation and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I’m not trying to make hit songs. My records are a document of my life. I want to survive it, not live and die by it. I’m more like a slow nickel than a fast dollar.”