It’s safe to say that fans of psychedelic pioneers Pink Floyd and their cofounder Nick Mason weren’t expecting the sonic riches that have been bestowed upon them this year. It’s also safe to say that neither was Nick himself, at least not until fairly recently.
“Yeah, I decided to go back to work,” Mason tells Modern Drummer with a laugh, “though I didn’t really mean to take it this seriously.” On August 31, Warner Bros. Records released the three albums the drummer has recorded as a leader, both individually and collected in the box set Unattended Luggage. Comprising 1981’s Fictitious Sports, a blowout featuring Carla Bley, Steve Swallow, Robert Wyatt, and other stylistically slippery musical heavies; 1985’s Profiles, a collaboration with 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn; and 1987’s White of the Eye, the long-unavailable soundtrack to Donald Cammell’s desert mystery of the same name, the box set makes a case for Mason being the Floyd’s least predictable member, after the band’s iconic original singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Syd Barrett. Whether within the boundaries of Profiles’ proggy new wave, Sports’ jaunty modern jazz-with-vocals, or White of the Eye’s Americana-tinged mood music, Mason the solo artist compels less as a stylist than as a good-natured musical explorer, embracing the strengths of his playmates and allowing each unique musical environment to nudge him where it may. Whatever aural locale Mason and his cohorts end up in, it’s usually not where we’d expect.
Arguably even more unanticipated, 2018 has found the drummer leading his own live band, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, featuring guitarist and singer Lee Harris, Pink Floyd live bassist Guy Pratt, and Spandau Ballet singer Gary Kemp. Named after Pink Floyd’s 1968 sophomore album—or perhaps its title track, a Mason favorite that features an early example of looped drums—the new band will be, as you’re reading this, wrapping up a month of European performances featuring interpretations of early Floyd material. We spoke to Mason soon after the group played a handful of introductory shows in London.
MD: How did the album reissues and your new band dovetail?
Nick: I have to say there was an element of luck in that, because I actually started on the idea of rereleasing Profiles two or three years ago. Rick Fenn, who copiloted on that, was very keen to see it out again, and Warner Bros. took a long time to even find the tapes. Then they came up with the idea of doing something with all the solo stuff in one package, which I thought was great.
The band concept has been much more fast-track. That kicked off earlier this year with Lee Harris suggesting it to Guy Pratt, and Guy suggesting it to me. Then Gary Kemp said he’d love to do it, and more or less within weeks we set up some rehearsal time, played a bit, and thought, “Yeah, this is fun—let’s do it.”
MD: Looking at the set list you’ve been playing, it would seem that you haven’t done some of this material in quite a while.
Nick: You’re right. Some of it has never been performed before. There are singles and B-sides that were never actually played live, or if they were, it was very rarely, or done in the early Syd days. That’s a great bonus for us, because it gives us what amounts to fresh music to develop.
MD: How do you approach songs that go back to the very beginning of the band? Pink Floyd evolved so much over time.
Nick: It’s interesting, they still have qualities that make them fairly easy to get to grips with; curiously they have an element of Pink Floyd that has sort of run through the band for fifty years. I think it’s partly that Syd’s writing probably influenced everything else we ever did. So it hangs together. Perhaps some songs are less likely to work for us. “Bike” I think does work, whereas I’m not sure that “The Gnome” would. I think “Arnold Layne” still fits. Some of the songs really need to be played more or less as they were originally played, while others are really a vehicle for playing slightly differently every night.
MD: Do you feel that there are definitive versions of these songs?
Nick: I actually think it’s quite an important element that there shouldn’t be definitive versions. Every time you play there should be a sort of freshness to it and the opportunity to try and find something else in the songs. We wanted very much not to be a tribute band, and not to try to recreate every detail of some specific recording or attempt to sing it exactly like Syd did. The singing should be done as Gary sings. So there’s inevitably a reinterpretation.
MD: What about revisiting songs that you haven’t done in a while, from a drumming standpoint?
Nick: Well, the obvious challenge is: elderly drummer, loss of memory, can’t remember how the song went let alone what the drum part was. [laughs] But that of course makes it more fun. Some of it comes back and some of it…you just sort of fall into it. But the interesting thing is how, quite often, there are little bits and pieces that are quite special. Either I’ve forgotten them, or Syd wrote them in a way that’s more complex than I’d remembered. One verse might be a slightly different length to another, that sort of thing. It’s quite a memory test when things like that come up.
MD: Some fans will be unfamiliar with the soundtrack to the film White of the Eye. How did that project come along, and did you approach it differently from the way you’d approached the soundtracks that Pink Floyd had previously done, like The Valley and More?
Nick: It was different mainly because the technology had moved on a lot. The gestation of the soundtrack was that Donald Cammell was brought in by the record company to make a music video for the track “Lie for a Lie” from Profiles. I think he’d just finished shooting White of the Eye, and he said, “Do you want to come and have a look at doing music for this movie?” I don’t think it had much of a lifespan as a movie. It’s quite a dark piece. But I was happy to put music on it.
By the time we were doing that project, we could actually do it in a home studio. When Pink Floyd was doing the Barbet Schroeder films twenty years before that, it was a very different operation. They had to be done in a studio with time code and stopwatches and [the] rest of it. White of the Eye was the beginning of hard drives and floppy disks. So it could be done in a much more contained environment.
MD: What state were the visuals in when you started to work on the music?
Nick: The film was pretty well finished.
MD: So you had an exact idea of the scene you were trying to illustrate.
Nick: And Donald would steer us pretty well. What the director thinks tends to be the best way to go.
MD: Do you find soundtrack work as enjoyable as making albums?
Nick: Definitely. What’s great about a movie soundtrack is that maybe it’s just thirty seconds of atmosphere that you’re creating, or you have to do crossfades of quite often very short sections. That’s fun to try to get right. It’s so different from establishing the structure of a song.
MD: It’s sometimes hard to tell whether we’re hearing acoustic or programmed drums on the music.
Nick: It’s a real odd mix of acoustic drums and drum machines. As a drummer I felt it was my duty to at least press the start and stop buttons on the drum machine rather than let someone else do it. [laughs] I think that we’ve fortunately rather moved on from that.
MD: The Fictitious Sports record is very different. That was recorded in the States, correct?
Nick: Yes, it was recorded at Carla Bley and Mike Mantler’s Grog Kill Studio in Woodstock, New York.
MD: And was it more of a live recording?
Nick: There was overdubbing but not an enormous amount. The brass sections were done on another pass. Chris Spedding came in later to do the guitar parts. And Robert [Wyatt] recorded his vocals in the U.K.
MD: It’s such an interesting group of songs. They’re very different from one another, and there’s an element of fun to some of them.
Nick: It’s almost a comedy record! It was good fun to do.
MD: Pink Floyd is often cited as being influential on subsequent bands. As you were making these records, were you listening to any music that may have influenced your approach?
Nick: I think you’re influenced by almost everything you hear. I’m not at all sure how much influence we had on other people, though. We’ve done a lot of stuff, but in some ways I think we found a peculiar niche. I’m not quite sure how much of that spread out elsewhere.
MD: Perhaps it’s beyond the music itself; even to younger bands, Pink Floyd seems to represent a certain level of creativity that can be achieved within rock music.
Nick: I suppose it’s the freedom to do more or less exactly what you want without the sense that the record company or any other outside forces are going to guide you in any way.
Nick Mason plays DW drums, Paiste cymbals, and Promark sticks.