Mason says that he’s grateful that he spent his early years training in all styles of music as opposed to joining a band, for it is that background that has made him the in-demand player he is. “A good studio player,” he insists, “is someone who goes on the date and feels at ease playing anything called for to make the artist happy, and is fully capable of doing that.” Still, Mason has dealt with difficult situations, citing particularly stressful Steely Dan and Seals & Crofts dates. “At this point in my career, though, artists generally give me creative freedom,” Mason says. “Sometimes I feel that people are intimidated and don’t want to tell me what to play, which is too bad, because they don’t want to give me an idea of where they want to come from. I want everything; I want it both ways. I want the people to be able to take me in and trust me totally to give what I think is best for the situation, and then I want other people to tell me. The only way you get new ideas and get to new points in music is by listening to other ideas. So I want it all.”
In addition to the on-the-job hardships, Mason has also encountered the normal difficulty a session player has in keeping his work fresh, exciting, and stimulating. Production, playing live, his own solo career, and consistently expanding his musical avenues, in addition to maintaining a balance between his music and outside interests, have been the keys to his lack of stagnation and personal enthusiasm and growth.
“You can get burned out after a while,” Harvey says, “and sometimes it gets hard to really stay up and always be cooperative, always be smiling, always look forward to going to the next date. For five years, I did three sessions every day and I really kept that attitude up. But after awhile I burned out. So at that point, I knew it was time for me to pursue the artist end of it a little more. So I did that and started to move into another area so my attitude wouldn’t get bad. If I were to go on a date with a bad attitude, it would hurt me more in the long run, so I started not taking as many dates. I hadn’t really predetermined to have my own artist career, but in 1972 some record companies expressed interest in my doing so. My notoriety at the time was unbelievable, working with Herbie Hancock, and when they approached me again in 1975, I decided to do it.”
He says he has enjoyed that aspect of his career tremendously, simply for the additional musical expression it affords him. When asked how it felt to be the focal point of a project as opposed to the background player, he says, “The success I’ve had has come from how I’ve played, which is being sympathetic and really laying down good pockets of interesting colors. When I did my album, I felt the focal point would be on the songs, the production, and the way everything was laid out—the whole musical environment, as opposed to just my drumming. A drum album is boring. I never even played a solo on the first record, and I had one song where I didn’t even play at all. I didn’t play on that song because it wasn’t necessary, and I was trying to say, ‘Look, I’m man enough, even on my own record, not to do that because it’s not what’s called for.’ So as far as my being the focal point, it wasn’t really like that. I was lucky enough to be able to produce all my records right from the beginning, so I was getting a really good experience of being in control and having the say in everything. It was a good experience that was leading towards another area, also in my own musical experience, and I began cultivating the interest of moving into production.”
While few realized Mason had been writing since high school, his audience became even more surprised when on his third album, Funk in a Mason Jar, he performed his own vocals. “When I was in church, I used to sing in the choir, and I used to do a lot of things with them. When my voice changed, I stopped singing, but with the way music had been going, for records to get airplay, there’s been a greater call for vocals. If you’re not going to get airplay, you’re not going to survive. My albums went from selling 50,000 to 250,000 when I added vocals. I sang on some of that and started taking some vocal coaching up until about six or seven months ago. I just couldn’t make a record and have someone else doing all the singing. I really felt I wanted to participate, although I wouldn’t say I’m a singer, per se.”
After his third album, Mason went on a limited solo concert tour, which he says he’d like to do again soon. Aside from a few appearances with George Benson and Bob James, it’s the only live performing he has done in recent years. “I really enjoy seeing the public reaction to things, Mason says. “It’s good for you to see some appreciation. You hear it on the radio and see that everybody is into it, and that’s nice, but to see it right there immediately is really great. It really takes you to a different place, and it puts your playing on a different level. All the years I was doing studio work, though, I didn’t really feel that my live playing was suffering because I was playing so much, and in real challenging situations, which called for me not to always play the same way. A lot of people say if you play studios, you get stale. You have to listen to yourself, and if you’re playing the same things, it’s not going to be too pleasant to hear. You just have to keep going for different things and not be afraid to try stuff. I think the style a lot of people know me for is probably a jazz-rock situation, which received a lot of notoriety, but there are a lot of records I’ve played where people wouldn’t know it was me, unless they were really heavy listeners. I’m so aware of the fact of sounding like myself, that in some situations I’ll purposely try not to sound like myself, because it doesn’t call for that sound. So maybe I’ll play the ride cymbal with the left hand instead of the right, or play the backbeat differently, or use a different set of drums. I’m always trying to come up with something different, and all the different musical situations keep you stimulated.”
At the close of last year, however, Mason felt he’d overextended himself, working on his fifth album, MVP, while producing projects for Midnight Star, Locksmith, Casiopea, and Lee Ritenour. “For two months I was working every day, including weekends, and I don’t really want to be in that situation again. It was amazing, but the pressure wasn’t too much fun. I stopped running for two months and gained sixteen pounds. I wasn’t eating a lot, but I was just grabbing food on the run and sitting a lot, and I got into real bad physical shape. As soon as I finished all that stuff, I went on a ten-day fast and lost all the weight, and I began running again and got back down to 160. So I’m running every day, I play golf, I play basketball and baseball, and in any given week I may do two or three different activities. So right now I’m just doing dates and nothing else. This week I’m only doing four sessions, which is real nice and very comfortable, so I have time for other things.
“I’m glad I didn’t play in one band initially. I probably would have been bored. I enjoy so many different kinds of music. It was more fun to do all kinds of different things. Now I’ll produce a record, I’ll play on a record, I’ll write a song, I’ll go hear some music, I’ll go play some music, I’ll go run in a track meet, or play some golf. Two weeks ago I went hunting. I’ll go skiing, I’ll travel a little, I’ll go to New York and do some record dates and be there for a week or two. Then I’ll go coach baseball and basketball with my kids, or go watch my daughter ride in a horse show. There are so many different things to do.”
Mason’s son, Harvey Jr., seems to be following in his father’s footsteps, a prospect about which Harvey Sr. does not seem to be worried. “As far as the possibility of my son going into the business, I just hope he prepares himself as well as he can. Right now, at twelve, he’s a good drummer. He can work in a lot of bands because he understands the function of a drummer from the standpoint of playing in a band, playing good time, good grooves, good fills, and not getting in the way. But as far as studio work, and the aspect of getting to the technical level where things might come up and not surprise him, he needs to work on things and expand his musical vocabulary. As far as being in bands, though, he’s ready to do that right now. He also plays piano, he sings, and he’s really ready for that already. If he wants to get into it on that other level…we’ve talked a lot, and he knows what needs to be done.
“To a lot of young drummers, I say to do all the listening you can, to everyone who is on record, or live. Try to evaluate what really makes them function in the setting they’re in. Try to add it to your arsenal or repertoire so that when you’re in a situation, you have more things to call on. Listen to the music and try to figure out what your instrument does in various situations. Don’t be intimidated by anyone musically, and just do what you do best and feel good about doing. All you can do is what you do. You can’t do what anyone else does. If you’ve prepared enough, have listened enough, and are musically sympathetic to a situation, you usually end up doing okay.”
This story first ran in the July 1981 issue of Modern Drummer. Original interview by Robyn Flans.