With the release of his new studio album Meet the Humans drawing close this February 26th, Scottish art pop veteran Steve Mason kindly took the time to talk us through his ever shifting style, fond reflections on The Beta Band and the diarrhoea of modern 'culture'.
Once known as a cranky interviewee, today he claims “those who were all cunts are now lovely as we're all skint and need the attention”. A fair summary of what turned out to be a delightful chat...
So how has the year been treating you so far then?
Good, we finished the album in June last year so I've just been waiting like seven months to get the thing off the ground and moving. So yeah, it's just been a very good month so far as after you sit on something for so long, it can be quite hard.
Congratulations on the album, I've had a chance to listen to it a handful of times and it's really, really good. Structurally though, it seems a lot more concise than Monkey Minds was even though your still batting between musical styles – what happened over the last three years to influence this more concise tone?
Well I think it was Monkey Minds that happened really. I try and kind of do... not the opposite of what I've done each time, but I try and give each album it's own identity and obviously Monkey Minds was a big sprawling concept album, so it seems kind of obvious to me that this one should be more focused and a collection of songs rather than something with an overall concept. So really, that was kind of it really, it's not anything 'deep' – it's just making it different for me really.
You've just released the single 'Planet Sizes' and that seems to have got quite a bit of airplay already on even Radio 2 and 6 Music, and people on social media seem to be really buzzing about it. How do you approach finding your audience these days compared to back with The Beta Band and King Biscuit Time – is it any different?
Yeah, well obviously with The Beta Band we didn't – I don't think we even had a website – we used to joke that our publicity campaign in The Beta Band was a Morris Minor driving around the highlands with a bumper sticker on it. Laughs We didn't really, we weren't really into publicity at all – we used to actively try and hamper any efforts the record company would make when they tried to promote us. We just really did that for a laugh, but now I guess, nobodies laughing any more and you're all kind of skint, in your 40s and you thinking 'fuck I better start treating this a little more seriously'. Ah, but really it's a lot easier now with things like Twitter and all your different social media things to galvanise and let people know something's happening. But really what I found with Monkey Minds was that, that and the singles got the most airplay on radio of any record I've ever released. It was released and there was 3 tracks that Radio 6 really played a lot and really supported a hell of a lot. I'd never had that before, we never got any radio play in The Beta Band, never had any in King Biscuit Time, never had any Black Affair. The boys outside, I think they wanted to play bits of it but a lot of it was just a bit slow, the tempo was just a bit down.
Squares, off Hot Shots II – did that not get any?
I Monster did a cover of the track that I sampled. I sampled a song in that, a little chunk of a track in that song, then I Monster did a cover of that song and Radio 1 chose to play the cover rather than ours work. So the record company at that point dropped their load, umm and just shat it, and stopped promoting it which I thought was particularly fucking lame. But yeah that was our only shot, that was our gold run... but it was turned into a sort of brown run. Laughs so unfortunately that was our shot at glory and in true Beta Band style it got completely fucked up.
Well you'll be pleased to know the Cornish pub I used to work in, Squares was on the company playlist and seemed to get hammered nearly every day.
[Laughs] Well that's what I like to hear, we were always the people's choice and especially with the people of Cornwall, it was like Fife and Cornwall, they all loved us! But you know the support I got on Monkey Minds from the radio was really great and now, you know 6 Music have been super supportive and I'm playing the 6 Music festival and so it's looking good – I feel confident about this album, I'm really really happy with it. I think it's going to be an album that people talk about it just grows kind of organically.
This may not be any of my business, or anybody else’s business really but do you make a living off your music now, or is it just a labour of love? I'm fascinated by how many seemingly popular musicians have to balance two careers.
I know, yeah there's a lot of people doing that. No, I'm still lucky enough that I can make a living – I mean, it's not easy but the only place musicians really make any money these days is from gigs. You know, so, it's such a balancing act; especially at my level as you want to put on and have the best show you possibly can but at the same time you have to make as much money as you possibly can from the gig as its the only place you make any money. As I've got a band now, you have to pay the band so... and you've got a crew and all that, it costs me a lot of money just to even play a gig. It is very tricky, it's tricky for everyone at the moment that's the thing; you know everyone in Europe is struggling like hell because the governments are out of control and the banks are plunging everyone into recessions and all this kind of bullshit. It's difficult but I am lucky enough that I don't have to have a job, I do this for a living so it's up to me to work like a motherfucker because I can.
With the 6 Music festival, what does it mean for you personally to be apart of that line-up – do you have anything special prepared for it?
Umm, well originally we had big plans for that but we realised that the stage we'd be playing on wouldn't be big enough for what we had planned. I guess really, it's going to be the first time that the new stuff is played live – we're doing a couple of warm up gigs but we won't be playing the new stuff, we're saving that for the festival. So really that's going to be it, it'll be the first time we've played the new stuff live. Yeah, it's important to me and 6 music is - me and my manager were talking about this the day; if 6music didn't exist it would be really hard for a lot of bands or musicians at my level to have much of a chance to get nationally heard on radio.
It does seem like they maintain a lot of careers for cult bands from the last 15, 20 years.
Completely, completely. I totally agree, they really do you know and they are really important. So anything that I can do to get involved with them and be a part of that is good for me, it's hopefully good for them and closer relationship radio status like 6 Music has with all the artists that it's playing is good because we kind of need each other. The audience needs to hear this music that's being made by people and by people that wouldn't get played on Radio 1 or whatever or Radio 2. You know I'm trying to get on to Radio 2 now and that's the next kind of leap that you want to try and make, so you have to just keep pushing. 6 Music is just a total life line for people like me you know.
With Meet the Humans, you've spoken in the past about your battles with depression and reluctance to use medication for fear it would blunt creativity. Are these still a concern for you as an artist cause' this new album seems to be quite personal in the lyrics but quietly optimistic in a way?
Yeah, no to be totally honest I've kind of dealt with all that. I'm not really massively keen to talk about that as I spoke about it almost incessantly with every album I've ever made and this is my ninth album – I’ve dealt with all that, I really felt I put it to bed with the last album. But just to round it all up once more for you; I'm off antidepressants now, I've been off them for about 3 years and I'm absolutely fine. I mean I battled, I battled like hell for about 7 years when I was living in Scotland and I managed to finally crush all the demons and now I feel a hell of a lot better. For me that part of my life is kind of done and you know I feel, I put a lot of work in and it wasn't easy but I feel very grateful to be one of the ones that break through the other side into the light and that's where I'm at.
With songs like 'Another Day' as well and 'The Words in my Head' – “told you about the message that I buried in a sack / like a bad dream it won't come back” - what where you trying to achieve with the songwriting on this album, is this personal or are you just playing with sounds and words?
It's all personal, every single thing that I write is completely personal – all of it. There's not one, really one thing that isn't about me; it's all little entries to a diary. It's all about me laughs
Last time the press caught up with you it seemed like the UK was kind of in a different mindset as we've since had the Scottish referendum and the re-election of the Tories. I think you've already touched on this but the response to Monkey Minds political tone; did that cause you to move away from that on Meet the Humans? Though I may be reading it completely wrong!
There's actually a direct reference to the Scottish election on a song called 'Alive', in the second verse it says “Well did you vote it all out/ or did you have your wee shout”. For me, voting, I'm with that little ginger guy, I'm with him on the whole voting thing. If voting changed anything they'd fucking ban it. I don't believe in the system we currently live in, capitalist democracy – it's completely weighted in a very small group of people's favour. I think the longer the charade goes on, the worse and worse its going to get for the majority of people in Europe. So, no, there's plenty of little political, snipey little things like that on the album. 'Alive', the song is about sleep walking through your life and never really pulling back and joining all the dots up to see that there's a much bigger picture. I guess for me, I said really, I really pressed home the point on Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time – I don't really wanna keep banging on about it – I'm not crass, I'm just one man.
Well It's done pretty gracefully! I doesn't come across like browbeating.
[Laughs] well I'd like to think so but thanks for saying.
This record, is it Elbow's pianist that product it – Craig Potter?
Craig, yeah and he also produced the last two Elbow albums. Yeah.
Meet the Humans seems to have a very vibrant and rich sound, how did you come about collaborating with one another?
I was kind of keen to have a much bigger sound on this record and me and a friend of mind were talking one night, and he said to me 'oh, who produced the last couple of Elbow albums cause they're pretty big sounding, you know?' I said I had no idea and we had a look and it said Craig Potter. I didn't know, I mean knew Elbow's stuff but I didn't know too much about them personally so I didn't know who Craig Potter was. We did a little bit of Wikipedia business and found out he's the piano player and I thought that was really interesting, so called him up! And he was really interested, so sent him some stuff and he was really into it. So yeah we just ended up having a load of conversations on the phone and I realised pretty quickly that he was taking it very seriously. I mean he told me then that he hadn't produced anything else so I wasn't 100% sure if he'd be interested in stepping outside of Elbow and tackling something else. They were having a little break so he was really up for it, he's quite an intense, he's quite intense when it comes to the work kind of thing. We could sit in the pub and laugh our heads off but when it comes to being in the studio he's a lot like me, he's just completely focused as hell. We just keep moving forward until it's done. He was picking out little melodies and I realised he was listening to it really carefully and that really impressed me, so it was a really good experience. You know everyone in Elbow is really welcoming, they're a really generous bunch of people. I felt it was a really good experience to be honest, they were a great bunch of people to meet.
How do you feel about a lot of cult bands reforming and have you discussed, or even considered it with The Beta Band guys or is that a chapter you've completely put to rest?
Ah, I'm not a big fan of nostalgia I have to say. I think it's lazy, I think it's, there's something just a bit sad about it. I do understand why bands do it and I understand why bands who sort of had their time but didn't make a lot of money at the time and then their older and kind of skint and want some money – I understand that. But I think culturally it feels a bit weird, you know, culturally it's weird but culturally its really in keeping with what's happening. You know artists in this country, there's no more, there will never be – take bands like The Stone Roses as a wild example; there will never another band like that. There will never be another band that starts at grass roots level like that, that's not put together by someone else, or even The Beta Band, completely organically. We managed to get a big deal with a label, they put a load of money into us and allowed us to spunk a load of money in this beautiful artistic way, completely unhindered and it never ever happened again, ever. The Beta Band were, we were a brilliant band and we were like a shot of colour across the landscape but we weren't really rock stars so, like The Stone Roses; they were much bigger but there will never be another band like that. There will only be things like Adele and these kind of, people that come from a TV show – that's what your rock star is going to be. The days of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, Queen, The Who – all gone, that's history.
Well it feels like there's two different worlds in music: there's cult artists and there's little crossover.
Well there's culture and there's diarrhoea, and we exist in the world of culture and everything else is to be laughed at, and to not be taken seriously – it's a fucking joke. It's psuedo-culture and it's bullshit, and it's fucking dangerous because it's being passed off as real. It has been for years, from the Bay City Rollers and all these bands that were put together; they're all a fucking joke – but at least the Bay City Rollers were ugly, they had one thing on their side that was kind of cool. You know they were famous but they were also fucking ugly. At least that's kind of cool, you know? With these kind of, they look like they're built in a factory some of these people you see now. It's just really destructive and it's being passed off as culture and it's not. It's just a vicious virus. Yeah it's disgusting. As for your question, ahhh.
[Laughs] No, no I mean, what worries me about the nostalgia trip is that, it's sort of filling the void where void where real bands should be filling it. Young people who put bands together on a council estate and write amazing songs, and are given the time to nurture their talent and all this kind of stuff – they should be filling these stadiums but they're not. They should be filling Man United stadium or whatever it is three nights in a row but these new bands don't really exist any more, the whole time of rock stars is done. What the internet has done to the music industry and what's happening culturally in terms of the government, everyone's being completely drained of money; nobodies got any money any more and people are fucking hungry and everything that's happening – it's killing culture. Venues closing all over, closing in every city and every town and the ones that stay open are, a lot of them are just full of tribute bands. The fake Buzzcocks or whatever.
I'm not saying its all bad news, though it does sound like it. I'm sure something positive is happening, at least I'm still alive and I have a good album, I'll do my best.
As for the rest of the year, what can we expect from you? Any more big shows or festivals booked?
I am, I can't exactly tell you when yet; there's going to be some shows before the summer and there will probably be an Edinburgh, a Glasgow, a Manchester and a London show. Then hopefully we're going to do some festivals and come back later in the year and come back and do a full UK tour. So that's kind of the plan at the moment and there will be another track out before, oh the album's out on the 26th so there'll be another single around then them.
Well, thank you very much for talking. I was kinda nervous!
Oh it's a pleasure, been a pleasure! Domino paid for a lobotomy and I'm all fine now!
Meet the Humans is out February 26th on Double Six Records.