A whiteboard hangs on the wall of the tiny Hollywood studio used by the Smeezingtons, Bruno Mars’ production and songwriting team. It’s filled with doodles, including a picture of Alf and a joking note that producer-engineer Ari Levine “hangs out with Jamaican drug lords on the reg.”
Mars, just back from a tour, plinks away at a newly-purchased Korg keyboard while Levine and singer-songwriter Philip Lawrence perch on couches. Levine’s dog Rambo snores noisily on the floor.
This is the Smeezingtons’ moment of calm after storming up pop charts for the past two years.
“What I just went through the past year, I’ve never done before in my life. Everything: Interviews, on television, we’ve toured everywhere,” Mars says, shaking his head. “I’m excited for round two.”
The first round was a doozy: Mars has six nominations at this Sunday’s Grammy Awards, including one for album of the year for the worldwide best-seller “Doo-Wops and Hooligans.” The Smeezingtons were behind not just Mars'”It Will Rain” and “Grenade” but also some of the last two years’ catchiest hits, from “Billionaire” to “Nothin’ on You” to “(Expletive) You” to “Lighters.”
While Mars, also nominated for multiple Grammys last year for his hitmaking contributions, is in the spotlight, it’s also the Smeezingtons time to shine. The trio is nominated in the producer of the year category for their hits with Mars, but also Lil Wayne and the Far East Movement.
Mars, who has been performing music since he was a toddler, approaches success with a disarming blend of flippancy and exacting, perfectionist craftsmanship. The 26-year-old jokes with a wide smile that he and Lawrence will walk the Grammys red carpet in matching ruffled pale blue suits, a la “Dumb and Dumber”: “I’ll be the belle of the ball,” he exclaims.
In response, Levine earnestly pulls out his phone with an image of a male fashion model in a well-tailored ensemble, saying he hopes to don something similar for the awards show. This prompts loud laughter from Lawrence and Mars. “You’re serious?!” Mars howls.
The trio was brought together by Lawrence, a 27-year-old who plays some keyboards and now backs up Mars at performances. He had been working with Mars and Levine separately without success before they all joined together at Levine’s unassuming studio. Levine, 26, contributed his equipment and expertise in drum programming, sampling and other electronic sounds that dominate airwaves.
“Ari turned out to be the secret ingredient to what me and Phil were doing,” Mars said. “I’m used to live stuff. So you give me a studio with a bunch of live instruments, I can do it. But radio’s not playing that stuff.”
The Smeezingtons clicked and began by churning out songs for other artists. They produced 11 top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, funneling lessons learned through label meetings and early hits into Mars’ solo work, which took off in 2010 with the sweet, driving No. 1 single “Just The Way You Are.”
Mars was suddenly in the pop spotlight, with well-received performances at last year’s Grammy Awards and MTV Video Music Awards and even a “Sesame Street” appearance. Levine says he isn’t recognized in public but is happy to see Mars lose his anonymity.
“It’s like watching my good friend become amazingly famous and people chase him,” he said. “And that’s what he wanted.”
The three share a love for both the hip-pop song makers of their youth — the Neptunes, Timbaland — and for throwback sounds (As part of a family band in Honolulu, Mars was famously an Elvis impersonator at age 4). Their song creations can begin with a Levine beat, a Mars guitar melody or a lyric snippet from Lawrence. They shoot down each other’s bad ideas and encourage the good ones in “a melting pot of trial and error,” Lawrence said.
The original version of “Grenade,” for example, coasted along an uptempo 1960s surf-style sound. Mars slowed and stripped it down just before a key live show in New York and the reworked tune became the last track added to “Doo-Wops.”
“It Will Rain,” Mars’ latest single, is featured in the end credits of “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1.” Mars said the tune was halfway done before he viewed an early cut of the film and, inspired by its characters, put together the finishing touches.
Alexandra Patsavas, music supervisor for the “Twilight” films, said she picked Mars because the latest film centered on a wedding and, “Who more appropriate than Bruno Mars to write a timeless, classic wedding song?”
Patsavas praised Mars’ ability to veer between “a beautifully crafted pop song exquisitely sung” and the likes of Cee-Lo’s “(Expletive) You.”
“How sublime that an artist can travel so fluidly between humor and earnestness,” she said.
Mars’ joshing demeanor and easy-sounding singing voice hides an obsessively detail-oriented musician. Lawrence notes that “we all have a little bit of OCD” and Mars acknowledges he sometimes has trouble letting his songs go.
“Every day we hear a song that we produced on the radio, me and Ari call each other up at 2 o’clock in the morning: `We should have left that snare in.’ `We should’ve took that snare out,'” Mars said. “It’s just a sickness that we have.”
As for that “round two”: The songmaking team says they hope to eventually move from for-hire work to development of new artists. Meanwhile, their Levcon Studios is open to all, from country musicians to rappers. “I don’t think you can name an artist that we don’t want to work with,” Mars said.
Along the way, Mars will take his time creating and polishing his second full-length album.
“It’s going to come when it comes,” he said. “I think we felt a little bit of a rush for the last album. It was a little bit of a deadline. We definitely don’t want to feel that again. … We just want it to be perfect,” he said.