Steve Mason is not a man who messes around. Three albums and three EPs in around six years for The Beta Band may not seem like an extraordinarily large amount of work, but when you consider the quality of tracks contained within then, well...you get the picture. But since disbanding the aforementioned band the work ethic has continued and has maybe even been upped, releasing albums under the pseudonyms of King Biscuit Time and The Black Affair.
For his latest trick - and record Boys Outside - he teams up with pop production supremo Richard X and ditches the alternative monikers to become simply Steve Mason. We caught up with the affable Mr Mason in the East London sunshine last week to have a natter about his new record, nostalgia and the dreaded Digital Economy Bill...
DiS: The title – I heard you give an interesting description of it on 6Music yesterday. Where did it come from and was it floating around before?
Steve Mason: Obviously it's the title of the song on an album, but I suppose I just...I don't know, I sort of think that some women have gone a bit crazy with feminism and decided that certain things are acceptable to do and that it's open season on men. I think that the sexes need to come together as opposed to constantly working against each other, whether it's like it was before feminism, before women got the vote. My girlfriend doesn't feel like that, but there are certain sections sections of the feminist community that have taken the thing a bit too far and that it's dangerous if men start to feel completely useless, you know what I mean?
I have a good idea, yeah. Was there any one thing as an inspiration for Boys Outside?
SM: Not really, no. I'm not the type of person who decides 'right, I'm gonna do this sort of record...', I just get a collection of songs and then try and make them sound 'together'. Then I decide how I want the overall sound of the album to be, and for this I wanted acoustic songs with pianos and acoustic songs with RnB backing tracks and RnB rhythms and then to put them together so it sounded seamless.
Yeah, it's definitely something that you can hear, now you mention it...What was the recording process like for it?
SM: Yeah, because I recorded the album in Scotland and had it fully demoed and when I started work with Richard in December 2008 we worked right the way through til December 2009. That was mainly because I didn't have a deal at the time so we were just working in his downtime, and he was going to put the record out on his own label to save a bit of money. So we'd do one week a month or three days a month and I just kept coming down throughout the whole year.
Did it feel a bit disjointed for doing that?
SM: You think it would be, but in a lot of ways it was actually great because you had constant perspective on a lot of things, on all the tracks. You'd take away what we'd done and listen to it. So you would think that, but I actually liked working like that...
I guess there's a certain degree of cabin fever and you can get tunnel vision from being in a studio for a prolonged length of time...
SM: You do, and I lose perspective on things very quickly and I think that being able to work on something for such a long time...I've never felt so sure that an album was actually finished as I have with this one.
How did it come about working with Richard X? Did he approach you?
SM: Yeah, he was into the Black Affair thing and came to a couple of our shows and I started talking to him. Originally I was going to do another Black Affair album and I kind of started work on it, but I just wasn't really feeling it. I had some good tracks but I wasn't feeling it. So I said to him that I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do and he said 'give me a call when you're ready'. So I gave him a call after I got some tracks together and I told him it was probably going to be a King Biscuit Time album. He really liked it and we worked on it for the first six months as a KBT album and then it became the Steve Mason album.
What made you change the name? Was it simply that you fancied doing something under your own name?
SM: Hmmmm. Yeah, I think it might be something as simple as that. I get asked that question about five times a day at the moment for various interviews for press but I think it might be something as simple as growing up a bit and feeling comfortable about myself and not wanting to hide in the shadows any more.
So nothing really changed when it became a Steve Mason album?
SM: No, not really. I think this could have quite easily have been a KBT album but then maybe not...I dunno, it's a hard question...
Well, it's not now and that's all that matters...
What was working with Richard like, had you done any stuff with him before? Had he heard much of your work?
SM: I think he'd heard some of my stuff, yeah. I was looking through his record collection and he had every Beta Band record that we'd ever made, which surprised me. He was really into it, and he liked the KBT stuff as well. Working with him was a really great experience, and it was nice to hand over the production controls to someone that you really trust and felt confident with. He subtly brought so much to the album, massive amounts.
Was he the sole driving force behind the production then?
SM: Nah, I wouldn't say that because the album was demoed in Scotland, fully formed and pretty much to how it sounds on the record but not nearly as good quality. We just worked from the demos re-recording bits here and there, re-recording my vocals and stuff.
One of the things I've noticed about the record is just how free of fat it is and how well it flows. Very compact. Was there any material that was discarded in the recording process at all?
SM: There might have been at the demo stage but if there was I don't remember. At the time we'd started working on the album it was all pretty much there. 'All Come Down' was a fairly late addition, I wrote that as I was working on other tracks. Actually there was a couple of things that didn't quite make it but we were pretty certain...
I know it's a bit of a cop out to ask this question, but how well do you think Boys Outside stands up against the Black Affair record and King Biscuit Time and Beta Band stuff?
SM: I think this is the best record that I've ever made, to be honest.
How much of this have you played live?
SM: Not at all...
What have you got coming up, live-wise? There's some festivals planned, right?
SM: Yeah, at the moment from what I can remember, there's Glastonbury, Green Man, Bestival, Electric Picnic, Summer Sundae, and I think The Big Chill and then there's warm-up gigs in between all of those. Then I think we're going to do a tour in October or something like that after the festivals.
Will that be with a full band, like?
Do you know who you've got in mind to play with for that, is it already sorted?
SM: Yeah, I'm going to meet them after I finish doing the interviews here, obviously I've met them but they haven't all met each other.
Have you worked with them before?
SM: No. Well, Stevie the drummer was a Beta Band drum tech for a long time, so I know him fairly well.
Is it something you're looking forward to, getting out on the road again?
SM: Yeah, absolutely. It's always worrying when you haven't started rehearsing yet. You just think 'is this actually possible?' but then when you do start rehearsing then things slot into place and it becomes its own thing that you become confident about.
You've talked about being an 'artist' rather than a musician and always wanting to challenge yourself – do you feel there will ever come a point when you won't feel that you can do this any more, that you'll be unable to do it?
SM: Yeah, possibly. I think the older that you get that the idea of challenging yourself, I suppose it's possible to slip into some kind of rut. That's why I stopped King Biscuit Time and why I stopped The Beta Band, because I thought that you could plough a little furrow for yourself and the rest of your life. But that's not really what I was interested in, because I was constantly trying to do things that I hadn't done before and move forward. Obviously it's possible but I think that I'm probably the least likely person making music to do it.
I guess you don't want to get ten years down the line and look back and think...
SM:...that you've made the same record over and over again.
Yeah. Roughly still on this issue, what do you think of the bands who have re-formed in the last little while, bands like Pixies, Pavement and more recently Blur, playing material that's twenty years old...
SM: I'm not a great fan of nostalgia at all, it doesn't do anything for me. I like to be moving forward and to listen to new things and always be fresh. I suppose that Blur's fanbase are all getting towards their 40s now and for a lot of people that work a 9-5 job and have kids and stuff - I guess they see Blur are reforming and can go out and relive their youth and jump up and down. I don't know, I mean I've never been a fan of Blur and I'm not a fan of Damon Albarn and anything he's done but for someone like him it's almost alright to do it because it's not like he's ever sat down and rested on his laurels and he's always made music that has sold by the bucketload, so I think Blur are probably allowed to get away with it because it seemed fairly obvious that they were getting back together for themselves. So they could play together as friends and let whatever had happened lie. Maybe all the bands do it because of that reason. It's all a bit buttons really, isn't it?
I guess you can also relate it to listening habits too, how easy it is to get stuck in a rut and listen to new things...
SM: Yeah, exactly, though maybe it means that a lot of the music being made today isn't that good.
You've recently scored for Marc Wootton's La La Land, that seems a pretty bold thing to do...
SM: Yeah, Marc Wootton came to me - he actually looked exactly like you at the time – massive beard, similar hair...looked a lot like you right now. I was sat in an office with him and the production team that were working on the show. They hadn't started filming at that point and like I was saying on Lauren Laverne's show yesterday, you assume that they want something similar to what you're known for but it just turned out the exact opposite of that. It was an unbelievably terrifying and challenging experience but I did love every minute of it. When it finally starts to come together and you think 'god, actually I might be able to pull this off' it's quite exciting.
There must have been a point when you thought...
SM: Yeah, I phoned them up and said 'you've got the wrong fucking guy! I can't do this' and then they said 'No, listen again, try this'...and I was like 'oh Christ!'...
Would it count as one of the most satisfying things you've done?
SM: It was, for two reasons. Firstly because it was writing, producing and playing an entire album in two months but_ also getting paid for it. Then when you see it slotted into the show there's something really good about that, because obviously it's something I've never really done before. Then to see it...y'know I'm writing a piece of music but to be punctuating bits of live action in film, it's fascinating. You just have to think on a totally different level to doing your own stuff.
You've got to be completely focused – not that writing other stuff doesn't require focus...but when there's a brief...
SM: Yeah, they were pretty reasonable. When I said to Richard – because I took this on when we were working on the album – he said 'you're a fucking madman and it'll be a nightmare', as he'd done bits and bobs like that before but he swore he'd never do it again. But these guys were great, they were really good and they loved everything I was doing. But at certain points they were saying 'try and push that a bit there and develop that melody' and things like that. They did really push me and I liked that.
Is it something that you can see yourself going down again in the future?
SM: Yeah, it is. I'd love to, because it's such a different experience because every director wants a different thing from a piece of music. I don't know if it is a dying art but it feels like one, the way that so much music in film now is released music. I suppose you could 'blame' Quentin Tarantino and a lot of people have really gone down that road in the past 20 years or so.
It's almost product placement in a way...
SM: Yeah, I'd love to get back and reinvigorate the whole soundtrack thing. I've always loved soundtracks and I've got a big collection, so I'd love to do more stuff like that, yeah.
What do you make of the Digital Economy Bill, speaking as an artist who has released music both in the pre and post-digital ages...
SM: Well, I make of it pretty much that everything else is happening in this country and has been happening in the past ten years, we're just losing all of these civil liberties one by one. I just hope that one day the people of this country will wake up and say 'hang on a fucking minute' and whether that happens when there's a curfew on the street and you're only allowed out of your house between 8AM and 6PM and if you're caught out yet get shot. I don't know. The sooner or later the people of this country need to wake up and realise that their civil liberties have been destroyed.
It perhaps seems symptomatic of a larger problem and rushed. I think it's a tough issue because the government feel that something needs to be done, or perhaps needs to be seen to be done...
SM: I don't know, I don't think anything is ever what it seems and what they're telling you the reasons for this bill and the actual reasons behind it are two completely different things. They always are. I mean, I remember the criminal justice bill, and these ridiculous anti-terrorist bills, people are pulled up on bits of that all the time. It's just these draconian measures that are masquerading as 'we need to do something about this...' and if you look at the laws they're just all encompassing. The Criminal Justice Bill and all this anti-terrorist legislation and the digital bill, they've all got everyone in this country by the balls.
I don't think things will change whoever gets in...
SM: Yeah, it's true – whoever gets in you end up with the government, and the government, in my view, aren't running the country – it's the banks that are running the country.
Going back to the digital music issue, is it something that you're particularly concerned with whether people are going to download your music illegally...
SM: The only thing that worries me about it is...the genie's out of the bottle now - although maybe it isn't with this bill. Maybe there'll be a huge holding pen in the Brecon Beacons where everyone that's ever downloaded anything illegally will go. I mean, I don't ever illegally download anything, I always pay for things because I'm an artist and I understand that if you want these people to make music of a certain standard they are gonna have to make some money out of it, they are gonna have to, y'know? It does worry me a bit that if people constantly want things for free – people want to have any film for free, people want any piece of music that's been made for free.
It does worry me, it worries me about the film industry and whether there's going to be enough money floating around the industry that people can keep making these films. I'm not talking about this Hollywood pish, I'm talking about the independent film companies that rely on the DVD releases and that rely on certain independent cinema releases, stuff like that. It's worrying that people still want quality, but they just don't want to pay for it now. It's had massive repercussions for the music industry, that much is obvious, but at the moment I don't think it's had any massive repercussions for the drop in quality but that will come. Obviously now there's thousands of artists making music at a certain level and I think that's good.
I think mostly it's brought in good things but people at my level struggle because we're massively affected by the fact that record companies aren't giving such decent advances – the money you get now is enough to live on for half a year and you're constantly scrabbling around. When I say 'live on for half a year' I don't mean I've managed to put down a deposit on a Porsche and that I'm on £4000 a month – I'm on £1500 a month which is what I've been on for the last 15 years since we got signed. It's not a lot of money and it's enough to put food on your table, pay your rent and get pissed once in a while. It is worrying, but I think everyone in the industry is just hopeful that it's going to work out somehow. Nobody's got any great ideas on how to make it work for everyone and the people that don't necessarily want to pay for stuff. But anything's better than nothing.
I think part of the problem was that the large part of the industry pretty much ignored it, when you look at Napster for example...
SM: Yeah, they just thought it'd go away...
I mean one thing that annoys me is the related issues with the embedding of videos from companies like EMI, who only get revenue from actual visits to their YouTube, not embedded anywhere else...it just seems completely backwards.
SM: But that's EMI, they just don't get it. But I've seen documentaries and stuff about when music used to be bought in written music form. If you liked a song you'd go and buy the sheet music and you'd go home and play it, but when records started being made everyone said 'this is the death of music' and of course it wasn't, it was just a change. But for some people I think this change has happened over a long period of time and for other people, like record companies, it seems to have come overnight.
Is there anything outside of music that influences your music...
SM: I'm not influenced by music really, I'm far more influenced by relationships, by people I see, people I know and don't really speak to and imagine what their lives are like and imagine conversations. So it's constantly taking in things...I'm not really influenced by music.
I guess there's an infinite mine for things like that...
SM: Yeah, there's always some weirdo knocking around that you can speak to!
What music have you been listening to at the moment?
SM: I was just saying to the guys there that I don't really listen to a lot now. I do bits and bobs but I do mostly listen to audiobooks now. I'm currently ploughing through the Howard Hughes audiobook and a bit of comedy here and there. I'm a bit burned out on music at the moment, because I made so much music last year myself I'm just having a bit of time off now. I quite like the XX album or elements of it.
[One more question, as noted by the PR]
Was there a point that came where you stopped immersing yourself in it as much or was it gradual?
SM: I think it's gradual because when I moved to Scotland, obviously, I was living in the middle of nowhere so that access to record stores is cut off – but because I live close to Brick Lane now, close to Rough Trade, I do go up there every now and then. I bought quite a good compilation...a studio compilation from this particular studio from the late '70s early '80s New York, where Arthur Russell did some of his stuff. But yeah, I might get back into buying vinyl a bit more...
Steve Mason's Boys Outside was released on May 3 through Double Six records. Click here to listen to it.