Steve Mason has decidedly come out of the dark, and into the light. After years of cult acclaim with The Beta Band, and then years of debt, depression, and isolation, whilst living in Fife, Scotland, he’s found a new home in Brighton. He’s even got a three-year-old child to contend with, born and bred here, and he’s still making extraordinarily powerful, moving, and simply brilliant music. With the recent re-release of much of The Beta Band’s back catalogue last year, Mason’s already sizeable following continues to expand, in awe and/or in love with one of the best songwriters of recent times.
Reflecting the group nature of The Beta Band’s output, Mason has belatedly tried to re-capture those heady days with About the Light, his fourth solo album. Produced by Stephen Street, who has helped steer everything from Black Uhuru to Blur to the Ordinary Boys, over the years, About the Light represents Mason’s best album yet: a record that combines an upward shift in his personal positivity and confidence, along with a strong band vibe; recalling those The Beta Band recordings, but also his reignited confidence and positivity.
Why the new direction? “It’s about shedding the past, and wanting to be less of a control freak, and everything that entails,” he says. “I wanted the making of the record to be a more communal experience, and maybe have some more fun on the way, rather than just being me, on my own in a room, patrolling the darker recesses of my mind. I still wanted to make an important and legitimate record, but that doesn’t have to be a miserable experience to make. Maybe not a miserable experience, but a hard experience.”
While Mason’s music can never be described as miserable, his solo work has often had a less than soulful edge. Allied to strong political views, and working in isolation in the past, he could sound a little cold and unforgiving at times, despite his never ending ability to write great songs. About the Light, however, has a communal feel, with backing vocals, brass, and a sound that is a mesh of late 60s/early 70s gospel-soul-psychedelia-rock, Manchester baggy, new wave, and a sprinkling of Screamadelica and Give Out But Don’t Give Up-era Primal Scream.
“They’re a great band, and I wanted to catch that thing, you know? There’s Darren Morris on keyboards, he lives in Hastings. He’s done a lot of things over the years. He’s an absolutely brilliant keyboard player, and helps to bring an atmosphere to all the songs as well. There’s my old friend Steve Duffield on bass, who I’ve been playing with since 1994. And on guitar I’ve got Barrie Cadogan, who is Little Barrie.”
In 2017, Mason hooked up with old friend, and long-time Primal Scream keyboardist Martin Duffy, to make an album called Livin’ in Elizabethan Times, under the Alien Stadium moniker, which unfortunately never saw the live stage. “We never got around to it. After all the stuff with this record has finished, we might try something else together. We both want to, it’s just finding the time.”
For now, it’s all About the Light, with Mason already rehearsing a band up for their upcoming dates, including a long sold out show at St. Bartholomew’s Church, in Brighton. “It’s sounding immense,” he says of the run-throughs so far, rehearsing up songs such as the intriguingly entitled, and the album’s lead track, ‘America is Your Boyfriend’. “It’s about watching the whole Grenfell thing unfold. There’s a line in that song that goes: ‘It doesn’t tax the memory, a bouncing baby’. And that’s from that terrible scene. I think a mother had to throw her baby from a burning building, and luckily someone caught the baby, but the Mother burnt to death. It’s the most brutal face of capitalism. It’s horrific. I remember we driving back into London on the Westway, and seeing this black building, this burnt out building. It just looked like a monument to capitalism to me, this horrible rotten tooth sitting there. And the way people were treated was appalling.” Why is the song called ‘America Is Your Boyfriend’, then? “When I think of capitalism in its most extreme form, I don’t know why, but I always think of America. There you had a capitalist democracy, but from the ground up, via genocide on the indigenous population. That always adds a whole new twist to the idea, when they are marching around the globe, imposing freedom on different countries, just as we did, back in the day. Don’t get me wrong, if I was back in the Empire day, I would be writing about that. This is my lifetime now, this is what I feel. There are few countries in Europe who aren’t guilty of these crimes. My generation literally grew up with this idea of America being this fairyland, where only great things happen, where everything was big and everything was wonderful. And then you eventually realise it is literally a massive PR campaign that happened in the 70s and 80s. The reality is that it is brutal to its own people, as much as it is to everyone else. The poverty that happens in America, that you don’t see on the television, is horrific.” I’m guessing you don’t really need to tell me your views on Trump, then!? “Yeah, that has been done to death. He’s just another madman at the wheel. Anyone with an ego that is that fragile should be under quite intensive observation. They certainly shouldn’t be allowed to run a country!”
Still political then, and still with strong opinions. However, Mason has mellowed out considerably over the years, particularly since moving to Brighton. This was immediately reflected in his last album, Meet the Humans, and this more confident and positive path has continued with About the Light. Why is your songwriting less politically-orientated these days? “You can literally tie yourself in knots thinking about all that stuff, and it can drive you to the point of complete despair. The thing is, when it takes you to that point, then they’ve won. And, I don’t want them to win. I want us to win. And what you have to do, or at least what I have to do, is to just keep it local. Concentrate on yourself, concentrate on your friends and family, and the people you interact with on a daily basis, and make those interactions special, make them count, and make them compassionate. That can help win the day. ‘Cos when you’re wandering around in this cloud, wondering how you can fix the world, it’s never going to happen. You have to change your own little world, that’s how you can do it. Change your own world, don’t worry about the world as a whole.”
So, moving down here was all about trying to get away from that? “Definitely. It’s too much to take in everything. I was thinking about it all the time, and studying, and reading, and you’re just sitting thinking ‘what can I do, what can I do?’ And it drives you mad. That’s not helpful, you end up not thinking clearly, and developing this negative energy. So keep it local.
“I came to Brighton four years ago. I was desperate to get out of Fife, and just change my life and move somewhere that had a decent social scene. I had friends here; Martin Duffy was here, Pete Wiggs (St. Etienne), and a very good friend of mine from school. It’s a place I always loved to come and play and visit, and it’s always had a little bit of a spark of magic about it. For me, that has not changed. I’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future.”
There are some wonderfully soulful and uplifting songs dotted throughout About the Light. Such as the paean to love, ‘Walking Away From Love’, and the story-like ‘Fox on the Rooftop’. “The idea came from a friend of mine whose daughter – who is about three – said to her that this fox would come to see her in the night. She couldn’t get a lot out of her, whether it was a dream, or she was imagining it, or something she had seen in a book or on television. It was the summer in London, and hot, and she was sleeping with the window open. One evening as she was about to go to bed, and she went to check in on her daughter, and the whole room was bathed in moonlight. And curled up at the bottom of this girl’s bed was a fox. I just imagined before the terror sets in, and you kick into protection mode, that it must have been an incredible scene to witness. I imagined it to be this beautiful black and white scene, with the moonlight shining in on the fox, and the little girl fast asleep. There is something very beautiful about that.”
Why did you call the album About the Light? “I was going to call it America Is your Boyfriend, but I didn’t want to give people the wrong impression, as it is not a particularly political record. I decided to make it more positive, as it is a more positive record, and wanted to get that idea over straight away. “It’s a beautiful, confident, positive, angry, loving and gentle album which once again moves, what I do, forward.”