5 July 2016


Steve Mason discusses Meet the Humans, success and the current state of the music industry 

Photography by Eleonora C. Collini

Steve Mason is a musician of many reincarnations, and one that hates categorisations of any kind.“I hate nationalisms. I don’t like any crying about being from a town or a country. To me that is just part of the indoctrination of our society and that is ridiculous.” He tells me while talking about being born and raised in Scotland from English parents. We are backstage at London’s Field Day Festival. It’s a relatively early and definitely wet start of an almost-summer Sunday morning. We are both soaked, waterproof poncho and willies on, struggling to hear each other between the sound of the pouring rain and the music DJ’ed on one of the stages nearby. 

Although best known as the lead singer and founding member of folktronica champions The Beta Band, after their break up in 2004 Mason concentrated on his solo career, first as King Biscuit Time, then under the Black Affair’s moniker, and since 2009 finally as himself. 

The music of this talented British songwriter has always been a tricky one to pigeonhole. Only considering his recent career as Steve Mason, he has gone from the low-tempo, electro-pop meditations of his debut Boys Outside, to the sprawling psyched-out sonorities of the sophomore concept album Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time, to then return to the poignant, visceral catchiness of his late ‘90s material with his new full length Meet the Humans.

Usually, before starting to write a new record Mason has an idea for an overall sound he wants to achieve, but things were different this time, as he deliberately wanted to work in a more spontaneous way.“It was a lot of work going into Monkey Minds, and after that I needed to do something almost frivolous, just a simple collections of songs, each with its own identity, and not necessarily related to one another”, he explains. “So Meet the Humans ended up sounding almost like a collage album, with songs very different from each other.”

Producer Craig Potter certainly helped influence the sound. “I knew what I wanted and I knew he would be the guy helping catch that, so I trusted him completely”, Mason says. The pair didn’t even know each other before starting working on the record, and despite having lots of conversations on the phone, they only met face to face for the first time when they went into the studio. “That might seem a bit crazy, but it is usually the way I do”, the British musician admits. “There always has to be a certain amount of fear for me, as it just helps me increase the challenge and makes me feel more focused and stronger in terms of sticking to what I want to achieve.” 

Mason's lyrics have always been very confessional, sometimes to the point that you wonder whether he has ever regretted singing about something so private publically. “I am aware that I sometimes say things others wouldn’t say or would say through a metaphor, but honesty is probably one of my favourite things.” He is just in love with the idea of opening up his mind and heart about a subject without being afraid to say the most out-ranching things. “I love it when there is no filter and nobody is trying to dilute what you are saying. All my favourite records are the ones with emotional honesty. I love frivolous pop songs as well, but that wouldn’t work for what I am doing. “

With the new album, he has probably got the most attention since the Beta Band. Now, older, wiser and completely recovered from the manic depression and anxiety he was struggling with back then, he is finally able to appreciate success. “I was a total mess”, he confesses. “Not that I wasn’t confident about what I was doing musically, but when it came to dealing with media or record labels or anyone involved in the industry, I just didn’t trust anyone and thought they were trying to destroy what I was doing. Now that I finally put lots of my demons to bed, I can really appreciate all this and realise it doesn’t have to be a battle, because you can actually get on with the people in the industry and not everyone is an asshole and vacuous. “

But Mason isn't all smiles with the current situation of the music industry. "The days of the big bands like Led Zeppelin are over and maybe in five, ten years the record labels will cease to exist.” With almost no record sales, today the only way to make money is from gigs, which is very challenging especially for young bands trying to break through. “Nowadays musicians have to make the best possible live shows they can, because that costs money and that takes away from their profit”, Mason continues. “Trying to get a gig locally is very difficult, because on Friday and Saturday nights the only bands that venues put on are tribute bands, so bands have to play on Monday and Wednesday nights, when nobody is there as nobody wants to go see new bands anymore.” 

According to him, the music world is like a little club now where the only artists who succeed are the ones coming from a rich family and whose friends are running the labels. “They have hijacked the industry. If you are not part of that club and if you come from a council estate or a little town somewhere, the odds are much more against you than even what they were when I started.“ What also worries Mason is the nostalgia phenomenon, which seems to have invaded the country. “Everybody is constantly nostalgic for the ‘70s, the ‘60s, whatever. It is so boring when music is always looking back. Where is the forward movement?”

Despite all this, Mason is convinced that great music will always prevail if you have belief and confidence in what you are doing, especially with the help of British radio. “I think for instance BBC6Music is great for people like me and for younger bands coming up. It is definitely playing a vital role for British music, which can’t be underestimated. Now I am getting a little bit of Radio 2 play as well and that is where you start making a jump up.”

I conclude my chat with Mason talking about what is in his rider. “Water, Nurofen, honey, lemon, a kettle, nice red wine and maybe some cigarettes. And that hasn’t changed much over the years.” For him it is has always just been about the gig and making people have an experience they won’t forget.

Meet the Humans is out now via Double Six Records

Originally published on London In Stereo

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