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Nick Mason Q&A: Unearthing Early-Era Pink Floyd with His Saucerful of Secrets, Meeting the Beatles in 1967 & More
Dark Side of The Moon is the album that ushered Pink Floyd into superstardom in America and their early work, with songs recorded by the first incarnation of the band led by troubled genius Syd Barrett is often overlooked by fans most familiar with Floyd Dark Side onward. Drummer and founding member Nick Mason recently released a new a live album/Blu-ray, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets: Live at the Roundhouse, which finds the artist and his talented band (Gary Kemp, Guy Pratt, Lee Harris and Dom Beken) doing a deep dive into the early-era Pink Floyd catalog, drawing heavily from the magical Syd Barrett era.
Join us for a conversation with Nick Mason.
Rock Cellar: The Roundhouse in London is the venue where the new live album was recorded and — that venue figures prominently in your history with Pink Floyd. What are your memories of first playing the Roundhouse in 1966?
Nick Mason: Sort of fairly clear in a way, because I guess in some ways it was the first real gig Pink Floyd ever really had. It was long before we actually signed a record deal or got an agent or manager. We just about got a manager. But it turned into perfect launch for us because it was the launch of a newspaper called The International Times, which I guess was the American equivalent would have been something like the East Village Other, if you remember that.
Rock Cellar: Was it like The Village Voice?
Nick Mason: Well, it was a bit more radical than The Village Voice but it’s that sort of thing. In fact, some months later they were prosecuted for indecency or something like that, which puts them in a slightly different category. But it was a big event and there were a lot of celebrities there, which, of course, for a totally unknown band is the perfect way of getting music papers and getting press coverage. So it was a big deal for us.
Rock Cellar: Wasn’t John Lennon one of the people who attended that show?
Nick Mason: I believe so, yeah. And (Michelangelo) Antonioni was there, who we worked with four years later on Zabriskie Point.
Rock Cellar: What was the impetus for you to look back and present this material, which has not been played live in decades? Were you thinking about this for some time?
Nick Mason: No, it was a new idea for me as well. It was Lee Harris who pushed for this and he talked to Guy Pratt about it. I was not particularly interested in the idea until they pushed it a bit further and I started thinking about it and I realized that they were right. This was really sort of interesting. It was a great opportunity because it didn’t require a sort of full Pink Floyd stadium-type set up to do it and the music, because it’s not so well known, we could work harder on the ideas of it rather than the actuality.
The problem with playing any Pink Floyd stuff, particularly later material, is what people really want is to hear it more or less exactly as it was played in period. They don’t want a totally new guitar solo. They want to hear the sort of licks that David (Gilmour) played on the album. So the great thing with this early material is people know it less well and also will accept more readily that it’s there to be manipulated. I suppose that’s the right word, that we can improvise around it or we can rearrange it as long as we stay true to the style of it.
Rock Cellar: “See Emily Play” is part of the new live album and the best-known early Pink Floyd track. What were your memories of first hearing that song and cutting the song in the studio?
Nick Mason: Well, it was a song we recorded quite early on, and in fact, we recorded it originally in a different studio. We recorded it at Sound Techniques in Chelsea and the song sounded great. The studio engineer, John Wood was really good so we very quickly loved the sound of it. But the interesting thing was that Joe Boyd actually modified; once we’d gone home, he then went and did that sort of double speed piano thing in the middle of it.
And so, funnily enough, in a way, we were slightly outside having total control of it. I mean, I’ve no complaints about it. I think Joe did a great job, but it was a curious song because it had a genesis from Sound Techniques and then coming into Abbey Road and being almost reproduced in a different, slightly different way.
Rock Cellar: How long did it take for you and the band to connect with this material and bring it to life in a vivid way?
Nick Mason: Well, the answer really is about six hours, because we all set up in a pretty basic rehearsal room. I’m glad to say that most of the others, sadly not including me, had done some homework. So they remember it and they actually had a rough arrangement of two or three songs and we just sort of had a go at playing them and almost immediately I realized, yeah, this works, this is great!
I don’t think there was a moment’s hesitation once we actually picked up the instruments and started playing.
Rock Cellar: What was the first track that the band tried to master?
Nick Mason: I think it was “Interstellar Overdrive” just because that was sort of the kick off from that first album. But I think I don’t actually remember which song was the first track we started with. But thinking about it, what we’d got were probably five or six tracks that all of us agreed would be must have’s for a set list. So I know “Astronomy Domine” was on it, “Arnold Layne” too. “Interstellar Overdrive” for sure as well. After that, once we’d done four or five songs, it was easier to pull in the rest of them.
Rock Cellar: You’re probably not someone that goes back and listens to your past work often, but having to listen to it again, what were the memories that would be elicited when you would be listening to “See Emily Play”?
Nick Mason: I suppose it really varied so much song to song because something like “See Emily Play,” inevitably you sort of hear it now and again over the years and it sort of gets sort of picked up. But it’s more of the songs that you haven’t heard for years like “Scarecrow” or “Let There Be More Light,” which I literally hadn’t heard for 40 years, really. It makes quite a big difference whether they were on an original Pink Floyd set list and we used to play them a lot or whether they was something that was an album track that didn’t get played that much.
I mean, the interesting thing was playing some of the tracks from “More” or “Obscured by Clouds,” the sort of movie tracks that really had never been very much part of any of our live shows and you tend to sort of remember working on the films actually and hanging out with Barbet Schroeder. The actual techniques we used to put the music to the film was pretty crude. It was done with stop watches rather than with all the sort of normal digital technology that we would use today.
Rock Cellar: What were Pink Floyd live shows like back in the late ’60s when Syd Barrett was a part of the band?
Nick Mason: The thing I was really conscious of was when we did the first shows with the Saucers how incredibly close it felt to what we did 50 years ago with Syd and the rest of the band. It’s partly to do with the music, but it’s also partly to do with the size of the venue, you know, after years of playing in rather large arenas and stadiums and so on, when you’re in a small venue, you forget how intense it becomes because the entire audience is hopefully with you.
I always say that the trouble with a stadium is you’ve got 60,000 people who are into it and 20,000 people who are doing drugs or playing Frisbee.
So you have a rather different dynamic, and what was so great about doing this again was the sense of being in a band, because again, with the big shows, the stage gets bigger. And to be on a smaller stage where you’ve got eye contact with the entire band. It’s a great way of playing music.
Rock Cellar: Perhaps in that milieu the music is the soundtrack for the spectacle. And with what you’re doing today, the music itself is the showcase.
Nick Mason: Yeah. I think that’s a fair comment. It’s interesting. You know, the first couple of gigs we did really didn’t have any light. But you quite quickly think, well, we’d just like to augment it with a bit of film or a bit of light, effects or whatever. But you’re right, it is far less important than maybe the spectacle. I mean, it’s inevitable because when you’re in the large arena, people at the back really are going to need something more than ant like figures on the front of the stage.
Rock Cellar: These are not conventional songs. If you’re a musician and you’re wanting to learn how to play these songs and you’re starting out, it’s best to start out with things that are a bit more straightforward because these take many left and right turns and many zigzags, which I think certainly adds to the appeal of it. Given that, what do you think were some of the more challenging or problematic songs for the band to capture?
Nick Mason: Well, hard to think, really, because fairly quickly we got used to the idea that if there was an element that was a problem, there was quite often more than one way through it. Syd would perhaps throw in something that was a 14-bar rather than a 12-bar solo, not the normal sort of 12-bar, middle eight verse-chorus thing; the lengths would sometimes be different and it took a little bit of time to unravel some of that. And sometimes you could just go, do you know what? We’ll do it as a 20-bar. There is a certain amount of freedom to rethink it and not dumb it down at all but maybe take that opportunity to make something more out of it.
Rock Cellar: What were the greatest surprises or maybe the greatest rewards in doing these shows for you?
Nick Mason: I think that returning to something that I particularly liked about being in a band, which is the enthusiasm and the sort of camaraderie of being in a band where you’re all playing music together and you have a common goal.
You know, it’s the early days before everyone got into musical differences or arguing about royalty rates or whatever, that extraordinary ambience of working together is a really special thing. And it’s a reminder that it’s actually one of the great benefits of being a musician or being in a band.
Rock Cellar: Innocence?
Nick Mason: Innocence is probably not quite the right word, given the sort of age of this band. But I suppose perhaps the ability to embrace the concept of innocence. It’s not that one wants to sort of tangle things up and make them more intellectual; you stick to the concept of it being relatively simple, but it is a bit more than that.
Rock Cellar: It was over 50 years ago that Pink Floyd first visited America. What are your memories of that first American trip?
Nick Mason: Chaotic. (laughs) Like all bands, we had the problem that the Musician’s Union had negotiated a situation whereby we could go and work in America but there had to be an exchange. It was one of the very good things funnily enough that the Musician’s Union did do because there was a point at which no British acts could get into America but the Americans could come to the UK.
And so there was this new arrangement where we had to have an exchange band and setting that up always took a little while. I remember it was Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs, they were the fellows who we swapped with. But of course, by the time the paperwork was done, we were late to the first show, so in fact, we missed our first night. We went to Winterland and arrived late — much to the fury of Bill Graham, who of course, was not very sympathetic.
But what was great about it was that they had to find someone to fill in and they got Richie Havens. And I think it was one of Richie’s big sort of breaks was playing at the Winterland, playing to a big audience. But for us, we suddenly felt very junior. We were on the bill with a band called H.P. Lovecraft and Janis Joplin, it was Big Brother and The Holding Company then and the light show was fantastic. We’d brought our own light show, which was so small and hopeless that it was so slightly humiliating. It was tiny, you know, it was just a couple of very small projectors, whereas the Winterland was running full 35 mm projectors and the whole thing was a bit of an ordeal by far.
But it was great; the whole thing of just being in a band and going to America, it was the great breakthrough.
Rock Cellar: When do you think Pink Floyd’s commercial breakthrough happened in America?
Nick Mason: I’ll tell you, for America, it was very, very different than in Europe. We really only broke through in America in ’72 with Dark Side Of The Moon. I mean, within three months or so, we transformed from being a theater band to being an arena band. And now I still think a lot of Americans see Pink Floyd as something that kicked off with Dark Side because the transition was enormous, from small venues to big venues, whereas in Europe maybe for four or five years we were building a reputation or building a fan base spread over. You know, we’d had number one albums in France and England, for instance, from Atom Heart Mother or albums that were made three years earlier.
Rock Cellar: Well, that’s what makes this this record so refreshing is for those fans that came along later with Animals or The Wall, this early Pink Floyd material will be a welcome surprise for the uninitiated.
Nick Mason: Yeah. I mean, that’s certainly the feeling we’ve got sometimes with people. there are people who do know the material that say “I never thought I’d hear this material live,” and there’s some interesting stuff because I think perhaps outside the Syd Barrett catalog, some of the material from Obscured By Clouds or something like that is quite often an indicator of where we headed afterwards.
Rock Cellar: In 1967, Pink Floyd visited a Beatles recording session. What are your recollections?
Nick Mason: We were recording. We’d got a record contract from EMI and part of the record contract was we got to use Abbey Road to record it. And so we were in Studio Three, which is the studio near the front door and had been for a number of sessions. But we were we were doing proper sessions as in EMI had very strict rules where you had a session from nine ‘til 12 and another from two ‘til five and an evening session sometimes, whereas the Beatles would go right into this whole business of lockouts so that they had Studio Two for absolutely as long as they wanted — and all credit to them, because within a year or so we enjoyed the same privileges.
They sort of more or less reinvented how people used recording studios. And because Norman Smith had been an engineer on some of their records, and so there was a connection there and the invitation was sort of issued would we like to go along to Studio Two.
And I have to say, it felt like the first day of school for the new boys and it was a bit like being invited in to meet the gods — it was terrific.
It’s a tiny control room and they were working on “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Pepper at the time and it was it just sounded so professional. It was quite extraordinary.
I think we sort of went back feeling somewhat chastened, I think that’s the word.
But having said that, without the Beatles, we wouldn’t be here today because Sgt. Pepper became the first album to outsell singles. And from that, it gave a springboard for all those artists from our generation who made albums rather than constantly trying to make hit singles.
Rock Cellar: Right, this was a time when the album was now considered as the artistic statement rather a two or three-minute pop single.
Nick Mason: Absolutely. And the record companies bought into it quite quickly. I mean, it was to their financial advantage, of course, but they quite quickly realized that this was not going to work with these sort of short sessions and within two years people made albums. They just would have access to the studio on a 24-hour basis.
Rock Cellar: Did you feel that freedom when the edict came down and you had the studio without any time restrictions?
Nick Mason: Yeah, but it was slow. It was a slow process. Two things happened because, first of all, the other commercial studios were forced to grasp this sort of concept, whereas with EMI, it took a bit longer. I remember being kicked off after being found editing tape by one of the engineers who said, “Yeah, that’s our job. You’re not really meant to be touching the tape and the razor blades,” and so on. Every now and again, you’d got someone who’d feel it was their duty to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing. But that had gone within two years. But it wasn’t overnight that it changed. There were certain people still fighting against it.
EMI still had a lot of people who were used to working in sessions, you know, they still had a big music market.
Rock Cellar: When you visited the Beatles recording session, did the band get to chat with the gods briefly?
Nick Mason: No, not really. I mean, we must have politely said “thank you.” But I think we were probably a bit too impressed to really start chatting away. And also, frankly, both outfits were working so we would have probably chatted had we then headed to the canteen for a cup of tea. But the fact that we were actually in the studio and in the control room, I think probably sort of precluded being able to do that.