There's A Riot Going On: Steve Mason Interviewed
, March 14th, 2013 04:45
Colm McAuliffe talks to Steve Mason about his new album and civil unrest
Steve Mason fixes me with a wry grin as he begins to intone the details of his role in the London riots of 2011. “Well, I was loading cartridges into my shotgun…” The one-time Beta Band mainman is joking but perhaps only in a literal sense. His new album Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time – the title purloined from a Buddhist term referring to the agitated, easily distracted human brain, incessantly in flux – is the sound of a city at war with itself, teeming with calls to arms and old-fashioned protest songs and is an iconoclastic conflagration of slick, seductive dub, and righteous angst. Fire is an insistent motif, the album opens with a quote from Dante’s Inferno, the incandescence ignited through guest appearances from MC Mystro and the inclusion of eleven home-recorded vignettes, peppering the album with disturbance and disorder.
The miscellaneous make-up of Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time may resemble vintage Beta Band yet Mason appears to have shaken off the spectre of his erstwhile comrades. While that band were arguably more famous for repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Mason’s subsequent solo career has seen him release albums and EPs under a bewildering array of monikers, reaching an apex with 2010’s Boys Outside. Produced by Richard X fresh from his work with Sugababes, the album was an exquisite exercise in lasciviously electronic confessional pop; it sounded like Mason found redemption from his personal woes while the recording studio was busy having an orgasm.
Three years on and while the political may have usurped the personal, Mason is in engaging, loquacious form as we meet ostensibly to chat about the new songs in a Soho eatery. I say ostensibly because what resulted was a wide-ranging discussion on the themes that inform Mason’s thinking; the Fifer is certainly at war with the world but the man has declared ceasefire on himself.
Steve, the images of the London riots permeate the album. Where were you when all this was going on?
Steve Mason: Well, I was in Hackney the day of the riots. I was ill, I had a cold, I was lying in bed, my girlfriend had gone out to get some food and while she was out, I started hearing things form the street, around the corner from Mare Street and Hackney Central station. All of a sudden, I heard this enormous smashing noise and my girlfriend came back and said, 'Somebody put a paving slab through the window of a bus when I was crossing the street!' It was really mad out there, a really mad atmosphere. So we put some clothes on and went out and saw the bus and walked down under the bridge and [the protestors] were turning a police car on to its roof. At that point, there weren't many police, maybe four or five at the bridge, and they weren't doing anything at all and a huge crowd had gathered around the bus, people were trying to set fire to Boots and they failed there so they tried to set fire to the place next door which is a locally owned business. They were trying to set fire to everything but it was only really two or three people, not like a rampaging mob.
Did you actually participate in any of the protesting?
SM: No, I was just standing there watching it unfold… [pauses] …I'd been in situations like that before where they can get really out of control and the police are doing nothing at all. My girlfriend was very excited about the whole thing but I was quite worried. She's a writer and maybe wanted to absorb as much as humanly possibly but I was like, 'Let's get the fuck out…' and after a while, I went down and shouted at the police, because it was only two or three people, they could have stopped it instantly. Then we went back to the house, we could still hear stuff going on, on the television we saw the whole thing unfold, I talked to various people and realised and what had happened in Tottenham at the police station. So my girlfriend's dad was due over that day to do some DIY so we told him it's not a good idea to come to Hackney at the moment, but he was determined to get there. But the furthest he could get was the bottom of London Fields and obviously in the interim, some people had looted the JD Sports just close to the bridge. The two accessories you needed that day were a mountain bike and a bin bag, and there were kids riding down with bags of stuff, kids in the park just changing into new clothes which they had just taken. And it all seemed… not light-hearted, but there was no air of menace. So we walked down to the park but as we came back, it was a completely different atmosphere. People were being attacked and robbed all over the place. We very, very nearly got attacked and I don't know why it didn't happen to us.
What instigated the change?
SM: It was always going to happen. If you create an underclass and you don't educate them, you take away all the resources in their communities, giving them no chances at all, it's a pressure cooker waiting to happen. A lot of these kids don't have a stable home environment, don't have a dad or a mum or whatever it might be, they're fucked off, and especially coming out of the MP expenses scandal and them getting away with that, the bank bailout and all those things, it was always gonna happen and I think it will happen again with the Tories attacking the middle classes - not just the traditional Tory attack on smashing the working class to pieces - it's the middle class, they are really setting the whole thing up for some civil unrest.
But how far would you personally be willing to go in terms of this civil unrest?
SM: I personally came to a conclusion probably about six or seven months ago that protesting and rioting are both a waste of time, because you are confronting them on their terms. And all it provides is television footage for the evening, for the media to be able to deliver the government's line on what is happening. So with that in mind, I'm totally opposed. Not only can the press swing those images any way they want but the press actively have instigators within the protest causing problems and kicking things off and what have you. And with the whole kettling thing that the police have begun, this Orwellian tactic, it's very disturbing. The image of a typical protestor - a young man, possibly a disaffected student who would smash up McDonalds in a heartbeat - is bollocks and it will [bear even less resemblance to reality] as [the coalition] increasingly attack the middle class. I was on the protest against the war in Iraq and there were families on that protest, and middle England were on that protest. So, yeah, I've come to a decision that protesting is in fact playing into their hands.
So, what’s your alternative?
SM: I think, I’ve achieved far more with a five minute conversation that with an hour of violence. We all have very similar problems whether you are on the dole, or [a] working middle class person who's about to have their tax break taken away. Everyone has similar basic problems. Conversations need to take place between people that wouldn’t normally take place.
The overt political content of Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time must be an attempt to open up similar forms of dialogue…
SM: Yes, that’s my aim. Actually, I’m just gonna come out and say it… [whispers]… it’s a concept album.
Don’t worry, it’s no longer a dirty word!
SM: Laughs! I know, I've been told everyone's doing that nowadays and I was a bit been deflated to be honest! But I wanted it to tell my own story from the age of 12 until now and [that of] human beings. So, yeah, that is the key because people know there is something wrong, or they know certain things are needlessly unfair but they don't know why. And if you get those people to talk to other people, the idea is a pattern emerges, if they can link all these dots together and realise that not only is this happening now but it's been happening for many hundreds of years.
Do you think there is a general lack of musicians taking such a blatant political stance, or even addressing political issues in this manner?
SM: I might be wrong, but I can't think of anyone else. A lot of people are afraid of it, it's drummed into you as a musician that politics and music don't mix. It was alright in the sixties, it was cool then but it something you should now steer clear of. But that’s partly because things like Red Wedge failed quite miserably. That was trying to sell a political idea, a political dogma - I'm not. I'm have no allegiance to any political body or movement, [in fact] I agree with elements of most of them. I've nothing to sell here. By now, the government are so adept at infiltrating these movements [like Red Wedge], they are fucking useless before they get off the ground. I think it's more important to look at the bigger picture and see the pattern that has been emerging over the past couple of hundred years where we have essentially become wage slaves, born and branded with that consumer stamp. You work, work, work, work, spend, spend, work, work and I don't believe that is the purpose of human beings. God wasn't a bank manager. I'm not religious in any way, shape or form. But as I see more structure to the universe it does become quite odd, the more science teaches you, you would think that would take you further away from the idea of a God, or a power. Obviously I don't know but certainly, I think that as a species, we've lost something that was initially intrinsic to us, a connection to the planet we live on: the animals, the tides, the moon. In no way am I some kind of new age tie dye wearing…
SM: [laughs] Okay! Maybe ask me again in a year! But I think that there has been a deliberate separation from what made us human to what has now made us intrinsically capitalist consumers. It’s not healthy, it's wrong and we are living entirely the wrong way. It makes us very susceptible to being persuaded to do things which are very bad, very wrong. I was talking to friends at the weekend and we were discussing strange things that happened to us as children, and I know other people had the same experiences, that's because when you are born, you still have the original human genetic DNA in there. But then slowly you’re put through the meat grinder, it’s squeezed out of you, and you are lead to believe that its somehow strange or weird or not to be trusted and anyone who believes that is close to being sectioned. I've been reading a fair amount of Christopher Hitchens over the last few years and there's a really good debate he did with Rev. Alf Sharpton, because Sharpton really wrong-foots him by saying that organised religion is not necessarily a good thing and has bad elements to but it doesn't disprove the fact there may be a God. It's not a stance you'd expect Sharpton to take and Hitchens is wrong footed. But then, y'know, it was a bit weird that Sharpton would come from that angle, it seems a little disingenuous.
The new album isn’t entirely negative and continues in the same, almost redemptive vein, as evinced on Boys Outside.
SM: It's supposed to be a journey in that classic way where you start off as a kid and that line in [opening track proper] ‘Lie Awake’: "On Christmas Day, I switched on the light, I looked at my hand" and you think of all the terrible, appalling things that that hand is capable of but all the incredible, majestic, beautiful things you can do. And I just had this sudden feeling of responsibility: you've been given this gift as being born as a human being and what are you gonna do with it? It's that kinda feeling that is then drummed out of you. In my family, my dad was very money orientated. Very classically middle class, trying to get on the next rung, all these things. We used to go stay with my family in Leeds, my uncle had a new car every year, a caravan, a conservatory, and one year you'd go down the street and they'd all have a new conservatory, next time, everyone has a caravan. Even at that young age, I thought this is very fucking strange. It's an insanity. I did really badly at school, I was not academic at all, I couldn't retain any information, I wasn't interested. Any artistic leanings that I talked about, they were ridiculed in my family, you had to start talking about getting a job, this appalling cliché, but I suppose in the classic young person tradition, that made me dig my heels in even further, I didn't want that, I didn't want to become money obsessed, I didn't it want to be the final goal. I don't want to live in the street, everyone wants a standard of living but I wasn't prepared to give up all my valuable free time.
You must have had some temptation, especially with the Beta Band, to give in to the lure of filthy lucre?
SM: Oh yeah, all the time. We turned down well over a million pounds in advertising.
And you never wavered, or even thought about wavering?
SM: No. This was one reason why I decided to stop the band because around 2004, we owed the label around £1.2 million and we were on a very low wage ourselves. When we started it was like £1,500 per month which, at that time, after being on the dole, was fantastic. We bought all the instruments we needed but then slowly, over the years, the wage would come down and by the end it was about £900 a month. Which was still okay but it was certainly a sign of problems! So, when you're in that situation, and the record company are not gonna give you any more money to support them because you owe them this huge figure but then Gap are calling you up, offering a considerable amount of money to use something in their ads, being able to say no is a luxury of a rich man. These decisions become increasingly more difficult as you sink into debt. And while there were other contributing decisions, I just felt if we were to preserve this dream, it had to end now. It was becoming tempting.
And is the reunion treadmill another source of dreaded temptation?
SM: I can't see it happening. I mean, there's no bad blood between us at all, John [Maclean] is busy, he won a BAFTA for his short film and is now writing a full length feature, so he is really wanting to get on with that. But reuniting would be almost as bad as doing an advert, because it's so tragic. One of my pet hates is revivalism which Britain has always been horribly adept at ever since the sixties. It's like the Sixties are the biggest thing to ever happen to this fucking country. And I believe it's incredibly unhealthy. the most unhealthy thing is that people think everything good has happened which is a horrendously sad way to look at life. Maybe there won’t be a musical or fashion revolution - maybe it will be political.
Monkey Minds… sounds a lot more organic than Boys Outside. How much of an influence did producer Dan Carey have on the overall sound of the album, especially in light of Richard X’s glossy sheen on the predecessor?
SM: It’s a completely different approach to Boys Outside. They were both complete albums when I took them to each producer. With Richard, it was all re-doing things but with Dan, we got a band together and it was a case of jamming through the songs, getting the best elements and sticking them together. So it's got a completely live feel because it was mainly recorded live. I didn’t seek out Dan specifically to work with – it was Lawrence from Domino who was really into Dan’s production so I went down and met him. But, me being me, I didn't really trust him straight away because I still have that old school mentality which says if the record company suggests somebody, then you should never use them. I keep forgetting that the label is Domino and is to be fully trusted. But he's a fantastic guy. He's probably got the best kitted out studio I've ever seen. I mean, Richard has got a great sound but I've never wanted to repeat myself ever so it wasn't a hard decision to do something more organic. There are electronic elements on the record, but I wanted to make a patchwork, like we used to do in the Beta Band, a collage of never really settling into one sound.
This patchwork is exemplified by the eleven snippets of dialogue and sound punctuating each song on the album.
SM: Yeah, the initial dialogue [on opening track ‘The Old Problem’] comes from Dante's Inferno, which is about usurers and he decided there was a special place in Hell reserved for those people. And I read that and thought it was fantastic…later on, Tony Blair is also sampled, although he was more of a mass murderer for profit, working for the banks and oil companies, sacrificing not only British people but millions of Iraqis for his cause.
These political outbursts have gotten you into trouble in the past.
SM: Well, I did tell 30,000 Americans in Texas to shoot the president. But that was a long time ago, when Bush was first elected, before 9/11. If only they had listened to me!
Around the time of Boys Outside, you had this image in the media as the mercurial depressive type – was this something you felt a burden?
SM: I've wanted to move on from it for a while. I was hoping it wouldn't come up during Boys Outside. I think… I'm certainly bored of talking about it as I don't think that's the most interesting thing about me. But having said that, I still get people coming up to me to ask about depression because either they have suffered from it or someone they know was having problems. And I'm very lucky - I've never had a problem talking about it, it's not something I'm embarrassed about but, for a lot of people, its a complete social no-no. When you realise that for most people that's what it's like, you realise it's quite an important thing to address as it's a very lonely place to be if you can't tell anyone. It's a very difficult situation to extricate yourself from. So I think even people reading about it can open up dialogue. So, I don't have a problem talking about it but…
…it’s also a convenient hook. Mad Fife musician loses the plot!
SM: Well, British journalists love to put people in a box.
Was there a dichotomy between this image of you as the depressive artist and your day-to-day dealings with your friends and family?
SM: Yeah. That’s always the case. And it’s taken me a really long time to deal with interviews…
You’re not doing too badly today…
SM: This is my A-Game! But you need to know how to get your point across. Otherwise all kinds of misinterpretations are wide open. The Beta Band were portrayed as some kind of dope smoking, Pink Floyd listening hippies and that was very, very far from the truth. But it's all a learning process. That’s the beautiful thing about life - as you get older, you mature and you slow down, your thinking becomes more clear and less driven by extremes. And I was a person very driven by extremes and not able to think clearly, just being cerebral - its not an ideal place to be. It's another problem with Western culture - why is youth so highly prized? It's about looking young, staying young. The charts are full of puppets for the regime. No worth or attachment is put on age or experience. That would be very good to readdress. If no worth is put on age and experience, how are our young people going to learn anything? Once the Establishment becomes the source of all knowledge, then you really are in trouble.
Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time is out now on Double Six/Domino