Interview: Steve Mason
Published on May 27th, 2010 | Jonny Abrams
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Genius. Flawed genius. Idiosyncratic genius. Whatever phrase you can muster to sum up the music of Steve Mason, it’s got to have the word ‘genius’ in there somewhere. Formerly the front man of seminal folktronica beatmasters The Beta Band, he has also released material under the guises of King Biscuit Time and more recently Black Affair. He is now back as, simply, Steve Mason.
It’s been three weeks or so since the release of his new album Boys Outside, a stripped down yet sharply melodic affair set to a masterclass in contemporary R&B, so the album’s two-week bedding in period – a time frame suggested to me by the man himself – should have borne fruit for his devoted fan base by now. Rocksucker caught up with him to discuss his work both old and new…
Your new album sounds great. Who had a bigger say in the arrangements – you or producer Richard X?
Me. Most of the arrangements were done because I demoed the album fully at home before I even started the album with Richard so it was all pretty much there. But I did ask his advice about a couple of things to do with arrangements because he’s obviously pretty good at that. With Richard, what we mostly did was a lot of re-recording, really.
Is this more pared down production a sign of things to come or do you think you’ll change things completely for your next album?
I don’t know. I haven’t been thinking about the next one at all because this one only came out two or three weeks ago and we’re in the middle of rehearsing it for live shows and stuff. I’ll be spending a good year and a half or so promoting this record because it’s got a lot of life in it. I’m not thinking about the next one at all right now.
Am I right in thinking this began life as a King Biscuit Time record?
To be honest, it started as a Black Affair record and then I thought “I can’t be arsed with this any more”. Then it was going to be a KBT record but I was humming and hawing a little bit so my manager asked me what I was going to put this out under. I’d been thinking about ‘Steve Mason’ but I didn’t want to be lumped in with any of the other solo men around my age…you know, like the guy with the wobbly head (my retrospective guess on this one is David Gray) …and the guy who was a soldier…you know, the guy who’s always getting on with the royal family…I can’t remember what he’s called…
Yeah. You just don’t want to be in the same bracket as those people because that’s not a good look. So it was a hard decision but I’m glad I’ve gone with that, really, because it gets to the point where you run out of names to call yourself and you just want to call yourself by your god-given name!
Has your stance on The Beta Band’s first and eponymous studio album mellowed over time?
No, I still feel that it was a wasted opportunity. There are some amazing moments on it and there are some truly dreadful moments on it. There’s always something kind of sexy about flawed genius but ultimately I think it wasn’t quite what it could have been.
The song ‘Round the Bend’ contains the splendid lyric “I listened to The Beach Boys just a minute ago/Wild Honey/ it’s not their best album but it’s still pretty good”. What’s your favourite Beach Boys album?
Do you know what, it’s been so long since I listened to The Beach Boys that I honestly can’t remember. Wild Honey is a really good one, I think. It probably is Wild Honey but I haven’t listened to The Beach Boys in such a long time. I do remember really liking Surf’s Up.
Do you see much of Gordon [Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon and now of The Aliens] these days and is there any chance of you two collaborating again?
I haven’t made music with Gordon for probably fifteen years. Probably not right now because I’m living in London and he’s still in Fife so it’s kind of off the cards at the moment. And I don’t know what’s happening with The Aliens. The last time me and Gordon thought about making music together, the rest of The Aliens had a f***ing panic attack and threw their toys out the pram. So I don’t know what’s happening with his band and I’m pretty busy with this but I definitely would at some point like to do something else with Gordon because when we sing together and write songs together it is pretty amazing. But who knows? I’m not closed to any possibilities. I’m up for anything, really.
Do you like The Aliens’ stuff?
It’s not really my thing, no, but good luck to them and all who sail in them.
How did The Beta Band manage to spend so much of Regal/Parlophone/EMI’s money without anyone asking any questions?
It was mainly tour support. Because we weren’t really that into releasing singles and stuff and we weren’t very good at doing press, the record company thought that the best way to promote what we did was to play live. So they pumped loads and loads of money into helping us get the best live show that we could and then taking that all over the world for the next four or five years, which cost a lot of f***ing money.
Was there a noticeable increase in your fanbase after you were featured in the film High Fidelity?
I definitely noticed it in America because, just when that came out, we did two tours of the States supporting Radiohead and they were pretty enormous shows. So that combined with the Radiohead support shows had a massive effect, yeah.
Were you pissed off when Noel Gallagher nicked the riff from ‘Dry the Rain’ for Oasis single ‘Go Let it Out’?
No, not at all. You’re talking about things that happened a f***ing lifetime ago. I’m sitting here with this amazing new album that whitewashes the British music scene as we know it and you’re asking me if I was f***ed off with Noel Gallagher! I couldn’t give a sh*t about that, you know? He knows in his heart what he’s doing and we’re not the only people that he borrowed things from. I honestly don’t care.
Back to Boys Outside, then. I was struck by how much more immediate it is than other stuff you’ve done. Have you always been – for the want of a better phrase – a pop song writer at heart?
Yeah, I kind of have. Quite how The Beta Band ended up the sprawling kind of mess that it did, I really don’t know. I think it was a reaction to the sort of Britpop thing that was happening at the time we came out. I just thought, well, let’s just do the thing that’s least fashionable right now, which is making really long songs that don’t have much of a chorus and dressing like hip hop geography teachers. So yeah, it was kind of a reaction to what was happening at the time, I suppose.
You’ve said that you wanted a kind of R&B sound for this album. I take it you were referring to contemporary R&B? A Timbaland sort of sound, perhaps?
Yeah. Not sixties stuff at all, no. Modern R&B backing tracks with piano, acoustic guitar and obviously my vocals over the top. But not like Timbaland – for me, he’s gone a bit too commercial and severely lost his edge. He did make some great records a while ago but he hasn’t done anything that’s floated my boat for quite a while. I really like a producer called Rodney Jerkins who goes under the name Darkchild – he’s been around for a long time, producing Brandy and stuff like that, and I really love his layered vocals and all that. I really like Jermaine Dupri as well. There’s a lot of these R&B producers about and a lot of them are really, really good and just as much of an inspiration as any reggae or dancehall producer is.
Do you get much time to listen to new music?
Not really, no. And I can’t be arsed a lot of the time as well. I mostly listen to audio books. Right now I’m about three quarters of the way through The Howard Hughes Story. It’s pretty fascinating.
Can you see things ever getting to the stage whereby you forego any record company and just release an album online?
I don’t know. The thing about the music industry right now is that nobody really knows what’s going on. And nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s not a time to be wondering around with a closed mind at all so it’s quite possible, yeah. If I was 20 or 25 now then I probably wouldn’t be on a label – I’d probably want to do it all myself and just put out my own music – but because I grew up with record labels I suppose I feel more comfortable on a label. A lot of people would probably think it’s not a good idea but I think that Domino especially is just a great label to be involved with – they’re just so supportive and every single person that’s worked on my record really loves it and is one hundred per cent behind it. There’s a real will there to make it work. So there’s no point in throwing that away at the moment but if Domino folded then I think it would be difficult for me to find another label that I’d be happy on, really.
Are you going to be paying any attention to the World Cup?
Erm…I might do. We’re actually playing in Manchester the day of the England game against USA so I’m sure the guys in the band are going to want to watch that. I’m sure I’ll catch some games. I usually end up following an African team or someone like that, until they get knocked out and then I usually switch to Brazil. Scotland’s dead in the water as far as football goes!
One day…one day…
That’s the dream, man!