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Nick Mason is Having a Blast Revisiting Early Pink Floyd with His Saucerful of Secrets (The Interview)
“For once we’re not catching up about Pink Floyd,” Nick Mason says with a laugh, when he calls from London to tell Rock Cellar about Unattended Luggage, a box set due at the end of August that collects the drummer’s solo work.
The three-disc reissue, released in both CD and fantastic sounding vinyl versions, collects Mason’s diverse releases in the early and mid-1980s, as Pink Floyd crashed and burned in the aftermath of the success of The Wall, fractured during the making of 1983’s The Final Cut, and found rebirth, with guitarist David Gilmour at the helm, with A Momentary Lapse of Reason in 1987.
Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports is a remarkable, jazz-tinged avant-garde work, recorded in Upstate New York with a talented hodge podge of American musicians in 1979 but not issued until 1981. Built around songs written by pianist Carla Bley, it’s definitely the best – and most timeless — of the bunch.
Full of synthy, proggy experimentations, Profiles, from 1985, and the 1987 film score White of the Eye grew out of collaborations with 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn, originally intended as music for advertisements and documentary soundtracks.
But Pink Floyd’s legend looms large, and any time I’ve spoken with Mason, he’s always been eager to talk about the past, and his favorite band. Like Jimmy Page, he wears his abiding love for his former band as a badge of honor.
“I really want more people to discover our early music, and appreciate how unique and special it was,” Mason told me in 2011. “But it’s always about Dark Side and Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Rightly so, but if I can find a way to get all the great video and audio we have out there, I think it will find an audience.”
That project came to fruition in 2016 as The Early Years, an amazing, ground-breaking, 38-disc audio/video extravaganza of a box set, and no doubt paved the way for Mason’s latest project, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, his band with bassist Guy Pratt, who played with the post-Waters Floyd and Gilmour’s solo band, and an unlikely pair of deep-cut fans, guitarists Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet and Lee Harris from Ian Dury’s Blockheads and keyboardist Dom Beken.
The Mason-led group specializes in the Floyd’s psychedelic pre-1973 output, and especially the compositions of founding guitarist Syd Barrett, and recently did some small warm-up shows in London, and will hit the road in Europe this fall, and will reach the States in 2019.
“That’s the plan,” Mason says. “But it’s early days, so I can’t say much more, because I don’t know much more!”
Rock Cellar: So you joked before we started that you’re not here to talk about Pink Floyd, for once, and yet I’m not letting you get away without talking about your new band.
Nick Mason: Well, I think it’s a curious thing. The time is right, which is kind of extraordinary, because the box set we’re going to discuss goes so well with this band I’ve put together in the U.K., playing very early Pink Floyd songs. It has been really well-received here, as we said before we started the interview, so it’s the perfect moment to show people some other stuff that I’ve done in the past, as well.
It was partly driven by Rick Fenn, who I hadn’t seen in a while, who said it, “Wouldn’t it be great to re-release Profiles?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” And started talking to record company guys. And I think they were the ones who came back and said, “Well, what about sort of putting it together with the Carla Bley record Fictitious Sports?” I hadn’t listen to it in about twenty-five years, so I was thinking, “I’m not sure about that.” But I listened to it and I thought, actually, it’s really lasted well. It held up well. The arrangements just felt really quite sort of modern, really. So I’m thrilled to have that out.
Rock Cellar: It was funny. I remember when we talked about those records about eight years ago, I had long-since ditched a bunch of my vinyl from the ‘80s and so I went out and bought used copies. I don’t think I got all of them, but I did get Fictitious Sports around the time we talked about them, but I never got a chance to talk to you about them subsequently because every time we talked it was about one Pink Floyd project or another.
Nick Mason: Yeah. Yet another Pink Floyd anniversary…
Rock Cellar: Yeah, yeah. Yet another reissue project that Nick has been trotted out to talk about, you know?
Nick Mason: Exactly!
Rock Cellar: It’s was funny what you just said, because I remember thinking the same thing and wanting to talk to you about it, because it was surprising to me how well they had held up and how, when a lot of recordings from that time, they sound very dated. Or they sound, you know, they have a sheen to them or something. They’re very clever recordings. And, of course, Robert Wyatt is really great.
Nick Mason: Yeah.
Rock Cellar: What do you remember about sort of the genesis of them and the sessions themselves?
Nick Mason: Well, I remember them relatively clearly because they were such a great antidote to “The Wall” because it happened more or less at the same time. So, I’d just come back. I arrived in America having done some seminary monks recording in France. And it was just such a sort of relaxed situation because I know it’s sort of put down as being a “Nick Mason solo album,” but, of course, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a Carla Bley album, with Nick Mason guesting.
But I was in the fortunate position of having the opportunity to get a record released by Sony. So it was sort of the perfect arrangement, really. But what I remember is just the whole thing about being wonderful — it was in Woodstock, where the studio was – and just working with all happy, sort of primarily jazz musicians. It was just a very relaxed and enjoyable experience.
Rock Cellar: And so, it was a much more collaborative process. And what were Carla and Robert’s key contributions to the sessions, in your mind?
Nick Mason: Well, I think it was so much Carla in her prime, you know, as the primary writer of all of this. She did the arrangements and she is an extraordinary person to work with, and her lyrics are just so funny. And Robert, really, was my connection to all of these people. Because I’d known Robert, and worked with Robert, well, since I was 19. I guess since 1969. But I’ve actually worked on records with him from the early ‘70s. So he was the conduit that got me to Carla and to (avant-garde trumpeter) Mike Mantler. And in fact, the friendship with Mike led to all sorts of other projects over the years, including a set up with Jack Bruce in Germany, and another one in Germany with Stockhausen’s daughter, I think it was. Really remarkable pieces of really complex music.
Rock Cellar: Profiles and White of the Eye with Rick Fenn were, it sounds like, sort of the genesis for the boxset. But, they’re very different from Fictitious Sports.
Nick Mason: Oh, completely. And I mean, well, we have to admit that they are very dated. You can almost date them to the month by the actual musical equipment used. But they’re charming, in that way, too. It’s very much a sort of synthesizer and keyboard record from that period. And the weirdest thing I came across in listening to it was thinking, “It’s a drum machine!” And I can remember programming a drum machine thinking, “This is the future!” And, of course, now I look back on it and think, “Well, that was a bit off, wasn’t it?”
Rock Cellar: The drummer programming the drum machine.
Nick Mason: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. And I thought, “Well, I’m not gonna do myself out of a job. If anyone’s gonna do it, I will.”
Rock Cellar: [laughs] But it’s funny that you said that, because in listening back to them yesterday, you know, Fictitious Sports did not sound dated and yet, the other two… you’re right. They sound very of the moment; of those times, don’t they?
Nick Mason: Yeah, I think there’s no getting away from that. It is interesting that the Fictitious Sports stuff just sounds it could have been recorded yesterday.
Rock Cellar: Yeah, it does. It does. And for those involved in the later records, did you present it as, “We’re doing some soundtrack work,” or, “I’m making a solo album,” or something else? What was the brief for them?
Nick Mason: The brief for them was definitely that we were making a record. It wasn’t material for the film, or for anything else. It was very clear, and with David, the proposal was that it would be released as a single.
Rock Cellar: I want to talk about the new band, but let’s talk a bit about who you called on to help out on these records. Maggie Reilly is on there, and, also, David Gilmour’s on there, of course, as you mentioned. And UFO’s keyboardist. So, talk to me about how you enlisted people. You know, what were you trying to achieve? Because I guess it was a bit of a break from the Floyd, in that moment.
Nick Mason: I think the short answer is that they were friends. You know, rather than sort of casting about saying, “We need this sort of particular sound or person.” Funny enough, it does relate to the Saucerful of Secrets band. You go for people you like or people who’d like to work with you. Maggie was great friends with Rick. I knew her, but she was great friends with Rick. And the same with Danny Peyronel. And David was, you know, I thought, “I’ll ask David if…” [laughter] He went, “Absolutely. Yeah, sure!” So with Saucer – the new band – it was a matter of taking that same easy option.
Rock Cellar: Sure, sure. Obviously it’s people in your circle. Well, so let’s talk a little about Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. I think what was interesting to me is that pretty much every time you and I have talked in the past, that period of the Floyd has come up. And I was glad when the big black box came out because I knew it was important to you. You’d told me, I think, ten years ago that you really wanted to get that out there, and that you had been going through the video and trying to sync things up and find the best versions or whatever. You clearly have a love for that period. What was interesting to me is in listening to the solo albums, which are from the ‘80s, there’s still that element of, you know, anarchic, wild searching. Of avant-crazy music to it.
Nick Mason: [laughs]
Rock Cellar: I hear a direct connection, much more than the 70s Floyd stuff.
Nick Mason: Yeah.
Rock Cellar: Do you, as the artist, do you hear that? Or is that just me being an overzealous fan?
Nick Mason: I think it’s a little of each. It’s funny, I’ve not really thought of it quite like that. But actually, thinking, now you say it, I absolutely get what you’re saying, because it feels, I don’t really know, the whole sort of Dark Side, the structural way it was put together, was completely different to the earlier stuff with the opportunities to improvise and so on. So, I think, yeah, I think you’re right to some extent on that.
Rock Cellar: Well I think that comes from the jazzy element, you know, certainly.
Nick Mason: Yeah, its influences rather than a specific desire to do something like that.
Rock Cellar: Now I’m wondering, how do these relate? How did reissuing these albums come up relative to the band project? How long has the Saucerful of Secrets project been in gestation, relative to this reissue?
Nick Mason: Right. Well the box set has been in the works for quite some time, and the band is something that just came up this year, so there’s very little connection between the two. The drive to release the albums was probably started two years ago. Or something like that. Whereas the whole Saucer thing sort of came from nowhere, almost, earlier this year.
Rock Cellar: Wow. Really?
Nick Mason: Yeah, it was one of these things where it sort of moved quite swiftly from an idea that Lee (Harris) had, of doing something, which he passed on to Guy (Pratt). And then Guy talked to me, and I went, “Uh… yeah, maybe.”
Rock Cellar: [laughs]
Nick Mason: And then Gary (Kemp) said that he would be really keen to do something. So suddenly it was just sort of go! [laughs] Naturally we realized, “Well, we need a keyboard player.” And the others found Dom, who I didn’t know. But was really good. And it was sort of, “Well, what do we do now?” And the answer was, “We’ll book two days rehearsal and see how it feels.” And two days led to four, and then another four. You know, it all sort of came together really quite quickly. I mean, it was almost scary, really, that it went suddenly from four days of rehearsal to booking the actual gigs.
Rock Cellar: It’s fascinating. The response has been great. There are some YouTube videos, and I think the Half Moon Putney show is available in a pretty complete recording.
Nick Mason: Yeah. [laughs]
Rock Cellar: It’s amazing – well, it’s a great recording too – but it’s amazingly tight. So, if you’ve only had, sort of, relatively little rehearsal, it’s amazingly tight. What’s amazing to me is that the Half Moon Putney is a very small place! I don’t know how you fit in there with all those guys.
Nick Mason: With great difficulty! [laughs] That’s the answer. But, it’s like all these things, you know. If you really want to do something, you definitely make it fit. [laughs] There was a good moment at the Half Moon — ‘cause we’d already played at Dingwalls — on our first night at the Half Moon. As soon as Dom walked on stage and sort of managed to shuffle his way up to the keyboard, he managed to disconnect the computer. [laughs] We were awful, stuck on stage for a while. But it was interesting, because no one went, “This is a disaster!” [laughs] In the end, it was just one of those things. We just hung around for a bit.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot of life in those performances. It’s fascinating to me how, having heard them on record for so long, hearing them played live really does them justice in a way that was kind of unimaginable before hearing them played live. Gary is an all-star.
Nick Mason: Yeah. Absolutely!
Rock Cellar: He surprised me. And so, I wonder, sitting at the back, being able to observe this all going on around you, it must be very fulfilling to have this music come to life again.
Nick Mason: It is. I mean, I can’t tell you how much just sheer joy there is in it. Playing it, listening to it. And actually, the icing on the cake is the way it’s been so well received. I was hoping people would like it, but I had no idea people would really like it.
Rock Cellar: But really, there’s no mystery in it. But go ahead. [laughter] You know, I’d been searching for a mono Piper for probably about fifteen years, to no avail, so I can attest that there’s a lot people out there who have a real, deep affection for that music. It was interesting to me, because you said something in the press release that I noticed about it sounding like the future, or, you know, very current. There’s a great line – Paul McCartney did a book with Barry Miles about twenty years ago now, where he talks about that period of the 60s, Hendrix and you guys and the UFO Club and all that as being “many years from now.” That was the title of the book.
Nick Mason: Oh, yeah. I get that. Absolutely.
Rock Cellar: That it hadn’t happened yet. That those times were something from the future that he was only imagining. I thought that was a great way to describe those days. And it came back to me when I was watching some of the YouTube clips, that this music, that was created fifty years ago, sounds as fresh and wild and anarchic and all those other things as the day it was written, and of this moment, as much as that moment. I think that’s fascinating.
Nick Mason: Yeah. It is really because there’s always that feeling that rock music is meant to be ephemeral and, you know, moves on, and gets lost and so on. And I come from a generation where that’s exactly what it was thought to be: fairly short-lived. And we’re now living in a world where [laughs] it’s almost like in the same way we used to go and find all those early R&B artists. But people are discovering early Pink Floyd music, and that there’s still something to be learned from it.
Rock Cellar: What fascinates me, too, is you guys were just kids at the time. And now you’ve had this whole arc of a career, and are coming back to it full-circle. You know, what do you recall when you’re on stage playing these songs? Obviously, you’ve gotta be in the moment, ‘cause there’s a lot going on all the time with the arrangements. But you have to have a few moments where you’re able to kind of reflect. What do you remember from those days relative to this music?
Nick Mason: Well, there are moments when you think, “I’ve been here before.” [laughter] Usually, one where I’m in the middle of “Interstellar Overdrive,” where the drums drop out, and I’m sitting there, you know, clutching my sticks, leaning on them, thinking, “God, I was here fifty years ago, and it’s just the same.”
Rock Cellar: Yeah. Are they fond memories? I mean, they all have to be good memories now, of Syd in those days. But so much has happened since.
Nick Mason: Yeah! No, absolutely. I think, you know, I look back at them, sort of, and most of the time spent was fun, enjoyable. Yes, of course, there have been moments where we’ve been in the middle of some sort of punch-up between band members, or things not going so well. But in general, compared to having a proper job, it’s been fantastic!
Rock Cellar: I’m hoping that you’re going to bring Saucerful of Secrets to the States. Is there anything you can talk about with regard to that?
Nick Mason: Only to say that we absolutely are thinking about it, and talking about it, and it’s very much one of the things we’d like to do. It’d probably be next year rather than this year. But absolutely, we’d like to do that.
Rock Cellar: Nick, I really appreciate the time. It’s always good to catch up with you.
Nick Mason: I’ll talk to you soon. See you next year! And hope to see your readers, too!
September 2, 2021
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