Steve Mason

The loved and much missed The Beta Band left a big hole for many when they called it a day in 2004 after three albums, the last of which Heroes to Zeroes was their third consecutive top twenty effort. This much loved and deeply admired group left on a high it seems, and with a virtually untarnished record, a band that always turned down the big money for commercials, further endearing them to their fanbase. "I don't really regret turning these things down because it left the Beta Band intact as a beautiful psychedelic, punk rock art thing, which is untouched by anyone other than us," says Steve Mason, the singer and guitarist with the Scottish group. "When I was in The Beta Band the attitude towards doing any advert was seen as selling out. But now it's completely different. It's seen now as a legitimate way of promoting your album. The music industry is so different now, nobody sells product anymore; you have to think of alternative ways of pushing what you do… there's not that much money in adverts anymore. The money we used to get offered in the Beta Band was huge. Nobody wanted to do it back then. Let's say I did an IKEA advert; the money won't change your life, but the promotion of it being on television… Or maybe I am just telling you this, and i'm just trying to kid myself that it's not selling out," he laughs. "A lot of people don't really realise what is going on the music industry. Don't understand how fucked it is. They think it's still all champagne, caviar and bubblebath, but it hasn't been like that for a long time, believe me," he laughs again. "Well, maybe a little bit of Matey every now and then…"

Mason is chipper and a great talker. I'm not sure if he has always been a great talker, but he certainly hasn't been chipper for much of his adult life. However, his well documented battle with depression seems to be over. A move to Brighton in May 2014 helped clear the air, as it were. He seems to be enjoying what Brighton has to offer, "I was living in the woods in Fife. I don't know if you have ever lived on your own in the woods in Fife," he asks me even though he knows the answer. "It's great for a bit, but then it gets a bit much. I had enough. The album title says it: I wanted to meet the humans, re-introduce myself into polite society," he laughs.

That album, Meet The Humans, is another triumph for this superb songwriter. Following the demise of The Beta Band, and despite debilitating depression, he has released a stream of consistently great albums, in the course shifting from the Beta Band's leftfield psychedelic pastoralism to more electronic based music. Firstly, via his alter ego King Biscuit Time, then as Black Affair, before deciding to revert back to his birth name. Signing to Double Six, an offshoot of Domino, he released the Boys Outside (2010), (which was subsequently re-worked by dub producer Denis Bovell, as Ghosts Outside (2011), and Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time (2013) albums, his most successful post-Beta Band album, reaching number 34 in the album charts. That album documented Mason’s transformation from a man too insecure to leave his room, to one who can no longer ignore the injustices transpiring outside his window. When I spoke to him a couple of years ago about the album's themes, he was pretty angry and forthright with all things politics, commercialisation and democracy in general. ‘Monkey mind’ is an expression a Buddhist would use, a mind that finds it difficult to concentrate and gets easily distracted, which he saw as a big part of the problem; a lack of engagement. At the time he also said, "‘The devil’s time' alludes to the grip that the worldwide establishment is throttling all of us with, things like television, consumer capitalism, advertising, all these objects we are distracted by: Saturday night TV, war, fear. Fear is sold to us on a daily basis, distracting us from the real enemy which is, in this country, what I would call the establishment, which is primarily made up of banks, the energy companies, the arms industry…”

However, for the sake of his sanity he has decided to strategically withdraw from political engagement, although not completely. "On Twitter I follow Russia Today and a bit of the Guardian and what have you, so I'm not not completely unaware of what is going on," he says. "I'm certainly not less angry. I think I have maybe come to a point where I realise. talking about it is very important, but sometimes it can be very difficult because you feel – and I think this is the establishment's plan all along – you feel so overwhelmed by the psychotic behaviour that it is very easy to be prone to a feeling of powerlessness. And I suppose I've tried to regain some of that power that we all have. I try and live my life how I think life should be. I'm just sick of the fear that they are peddling on an hourly basis. I just thought, 'fuck you, I'm not going to let you turn my life into some fear factor, I'm going to live how I want to live'.

"Because I've come out of depression, I'm not prepared to let the government make me feel crap about everything all the time, or the media. I'm not completely blinkered about the extreme misery that's going on around the world at the moment, and the terrible things our government is doing to its own people. But I think it's very important to maintain a positive attitude as much as you can. I understand people are in horrific situations and it is very difficult for them, but if you can remain positive it's your duty to be so. Somebody has to attempt to remain positive, otherwise we are all screwed, and then they have won. So, I think I'm trying to walk a very fine line between burying my head in the sand," he laughs, "and taking positive action towards my life. I'm just trying to be powerful in my own way, and do my own thing and try not to live how they want us to live. It's not easy, you have to live, and buy food. You know what I mean?"

For Mason, revolution is really the only way. He doesn't believe in the kind of democracy we have here in the UK, where there is growing electoral inequality and ingrained political inequality in our political system, an inequality that is seriously threatening the integrity of the democratic process. "Democracy in this country is falling apart. More and more people are realising that now, that democracy is not working. It's a busted flush. I don't believe in democracy. To me, it's pointless. I understand why people get excited about it because it's easy (with reference the the recent Corbynmania), they don't have to think about alternatives to democracy. The idea that any real change will come about through democracy is, to me personally, laughable," he laughs.

"With Monkey Minds I set out my political stall. That's an album drenched in the politics of being a human, and not just party politics. The message of that whole album, in a nutshell, is compassion and love and how these are the most important things for us humans to feel and practice on a daily basis towards everything on the planet. These are the things that the government and the establishment in general are trying to drum out of us, they are trying to make us fearful of each other, fearful of other countries, fearful of other cultures. I'm not prepared to live like that. They want you to go to work, to come back, and sit down, eat your supermarket bought food and shut your face. That's what they want. Life should not be about that. It should be about everything the exact opposite, an open conversation."

Justifiably or not, I fear that I could be sending Steve back on a downward spiral with all this talk of politics, which clearly angers and upsets him. But, it's actually very refreshing in an age where it is too easy to be apathetic and all 'c'est la vie'. There's obviously plenty of fire in the belly, and while Where The Humans Meet is more relaxed and uplifting than previous work, there are still plenty of acute observations about himself and others. So, i turn the attention to the new album, his first as a Brighton resident. "About four or five of the songs were written here, the rest had been written when I was still in Fife," he says. "This time, I wanted to involve people a bit more in the making of it. I got my drummer, Greg Nielsen, and my bass player, Steve Duffield, down to rehearse so that we had the core of the songs locked down; drums, bass, guitar, and to hear what they sound like in a room when you are playing and singing them. It makes a hell of a difference, to hear if they are working or not. And it's fun to do that. It's not something I have done for a long time, because I've been stuck in the woods and its just been me."

"Also, another friend of mine who has moved down to Brighton recently, a songwriter called Ian Archer (Snow Patrol, Jake Bugg et al), he and I co-wrote two songs on the album and that was quite a big thing for me too. I haven't written with anyone for about 20 years. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and something that I will be repeating. With Craig (Potter, of the band Elbow, who produced the album) I had a lot of in-depth chats. We finally went up to Blueprint Studios in Manchester, which had this huge live room with natural daylight which is something you don't get very often, and had a six week intensive and mixing recording session."

Where The Humans Meet is perhaps his best post-Beta Band album yet. You can hear it is very much a band effort, Mason's singing as beguiling as ever, his idiosyncratic songs mostly warm, uplifting and enveloping. Although there are exceptions, such as the dark and gloomy Through My Window, which does sound like it was written in utter isolation, perhaps in the woods of Fife… "It deliberately wasn't a concept this time. I just wanted to get a reasonably eclectic collection of songs together. Just make an album of really good songs, that didn't have to connect. I mean they do connect in a way; I generally write about me, my life and my experiences. There's a little bit of politics here and there, a smattering of anti-democracy type stuff," he laughs. "But really it's about human emotions, that we all go through every day."

There's more than a passing whiff of Screamadelica-era vibes here and there, which used to permeate some of the Beta Band stuff of yore, such as on their early classic Dry the Rain song. It lends Meet the Humans some extra colour. and warmth. Funnily enough, Mason is teaming up with the Scream's keyboardist, and fellow Brighton resident, Martin Duffy, for a little side project… "if we do ever manage to get it finished we'll put it out. We won't be able to play it live because it's way too complicated," says Steve.

So, Brighton. Why here? "It was the only place I thought about really. I've got a few friends down here, and always liked it when I played down here. I like the atmosphere, the sea and all that. I thought I would give it a go and see what it was like, and it's exactly how I imagined it. I'm really enjoying it, I feel lucky to be here."

He seems to be getting around, too, with a monthly local pub DJ gig and local radio work now part of his life. "I run a monthly night at Coopers Cask, with a guest every month, play records and have a good time. It's really nice, it's whatever the hell you feel like playing at any given time. At Coopers, midnight to one is the mad hour, when everyone goes mental. Dancing, screaming… There isn't really a dance floor.

"Being in Brighton, it's things that people who live in towns and cities take for granted, things I haven't experienced for a long time; walking to a pub, or walking to a record shop, or walking to see a mate. Little things like that. For me, it's a bit like coming out of jail, you take the time to do the simple things again. Brighton has been a very welcoming place, very relaxed. There's a lot of people doing fuck all here, but there's a lot of people doing some great stuff. A lot of interesting characters, and I like that. I certainly feel a hell of a lot more positive than I have done for many many years. I enjoy being able to say I feel happy."
Jeff Hemmings

 

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