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Baker's Dozen

Champion Versions: Steve Mason's Favourite Albums
Joe Clay , March 2nd, 2016 11:04

With his new solo album, Meet The Humans, just released, the prolific musician and former Beta Band man gives Joe Clay a tour of his record collection, meandering through electro, hip-hop, punk and more

Photograph courtesy of Brian David Stevens

The best description of The Beta Band's career came to me via their former A&R man, Miles Leonard. I think it was Steve Mason himself who came up with this metaphor: imagine a shop selling bog-standard orange juice made from concentrate – shelf upon shelf of cheap, foul-tasting, watery juice. Hidden away at the back of the shop are the Beta Band, beavering away squeezing oranges by hand to make the most delicious, fresh orange juice you've ever tasted. Problem is, nobody can see them. No one knows they're there, so no one's buying their superior OJ. Instead, the paying public just keep on buying the inferior, additive-packed orangey shite...

I first clambered aboard the good ship Steve Mason when I came across a 12" of Champion Versions, the debut EP from The Beta Band, at the bottom of a cardboard box at the record distributor where I worked. Just looking at the King Tubby pastiche cover I knew it was going to be good. How good, I could never have guessed... One listen blew my mind and the love affair began, strengthened beyond doubt when I attended an early Bristol gig where they all came on stage in anoraks and backpacks and shuffled about, falling over the various bongo drums that littered the stage, to the strains of Public Enemy's 'Countdown To Armageddon'. The Beta Band made exactly the sort of music I wanted to listen to, an unlikely hybrid of all my favourite sounds – folk, dub, hip-hop, electronica, indie rock – with a percussion obsession that meant that most of their performances ended with all of the band either behind a drum kit or bashing away on a bongo.

Anyone who's followed Mason's career since the Beta Band called it a day in 2004 will know that it's not been the smoothest of rides. He quit music completely in 2006 ("The mountain beat me," he said in a short statement), just before the release of his (excellent, underrated) first solo album, Black Gold, recorded under the King Biscuit Time moniker. He resurfaced as Black Affair in 2008 for an album of dark electro-pop produced by the Warp-signed New York wunderkind Jimmy Edgar. It divided his fan base, but I thought it was ace. And it wasn't that much of a curveball if you'd read interviews with Mason, where he would often reference his love for old-school electro and the early '90s rave scene.

Being a Steve Mason fan hasn't always be easy, but those who have stuck with him have been increasingly rewarded in recent years. Mason is in a better place and has been for a while. A recent move to Brighton with a new partner has been the cherry on the cake, and the resulting album, Meet The Humans, reflects his generally positive outlook, although "50 to 60 per cent" of it was already written before he relocated. (The impact of the move will be felt on the next record. "Dunno what that will be," Mason laughs over the phone, when we convene to talk through his Baker's Dozen. "Hi-NRG disco, probably.")

The uplifting mood prevalent on Meet The Humans is in stark contrast to his previous solo album, 2013's Monkey Minds In The Devil Time, which was, in his own words, a "political concept double album". A sprawling, confrontational, eclectic record that was broken up by cryptic interludes, but contained a handful of tracks that would comfortably make a Mason best of. It was rightly acclaimed, though it's not necessarily the easiest record to sit down and consume in one sitting.

"Monkey Minds was a big thing for me, in terms of having the balls to release it," he explains. "I'm not saying I'm a brave person, but internally it caused me quite a lot of inner strife as to whether it was the right thing to do, and how people might react to it. I destroyed my career once before with the Black Affair electro album. It really sunk me. So I was keen not to do that again. It was a lot of work and I'm really proud of it."

There is no unifying theme for Meet The Humans, it's just a collection of songs that Mason hopes is "something that could almost become part of the fabric of someone's life. I felt that I wanted to do something that you could... just pop on. I'm not saying it's throwaway. It's not throwaway to me – there's as much passion and heartfelt honesty as I put on all my stuff. But I wanted it to be a little bit lighter and for each song to have its own emotion, rather than there being an overriding theme. If you think about the first Stone Roses album, John Leckie's production holds it all together, but each song is quite different. The pace is different, the rhythms are different. I like that – each song, within the context of the album, is different from the previous one. It keeps the whole thing moving."

Meet The Humans is the best thing Mason has done under his own steam, and while it lacks the freewheeling experimentation of the Beta Band in their pomp, it's his most consistent, coherent record. There's not a duff song on it. Mason has an uncanny knack of tapping deep into the line between beauty and sadness, with an almost weightless, sonic expansiveness. It's bittersweet and melancholic, yet gloriously life-affirming. If there's any justice, Mason will be given the sun-going-down Pyramid Stage slot at Glastonbury this year, where he can win over all those people that buy Elbow records (Meet The Humans is produced by Elbow's Craig Potter) and start selling albums in the sort of quantities that his immense talent deserves. Mason has the ability to unify a crowd, especially if he plays 'Dry The Rain', the one universal anthem in his arsenal – although when folk get familiar with Meet The Humans, that will soon change. Mason is still making glorious freshly squeezed orange juice and it's time more people started drinking it.

Like many musicians, the process of choosing the records for his Baker's Dozen was frustrating. "There's whole genres I've missed out, which I now feel quite angry about, but that's life!" he chuckles. "I thought I'd be as honest as I could and just choose the ones that have been important in my life. It's really difficult. You're tempted to lift a whole load of obscure things and try and be really cool, but I can't be arsed."

"In my head I divide up my musical education into chunks," he continues. "I could choose 13 albums from each chunk, no problem at all. Growing up I had to find music myself. There wasn't much music in my house. When I reached a certain age I started going through my mum and dad's record collection and my mum had been really into Elvis as a kid. She was also into Steely Dan. There wasn't a lot there, but there was a fair amount. My dad seems to have brought three records in his entire life. One was Billy Haley and the Comets' Rock Around The Clock EP. The next was the Bill Haley album! Then there was a Lonnie Donegan album – a bit of skiffle! So there wasn't a lot of scope there. When I was four or five I asked my mum to buy me 'Money, Money, Money' by ᗅᗺᗷᗅ. That was the first bit of music that I expressed an interest in. After that I was buying my own records. I started with Adam and the Ants, then I got into the Sex Pistols and a lot of punk after that. It quickly spiralled out of control from there."

Meet The Humans is out now on Double Six Recordings. Steve Mason begins a European tour on April 7 at Botanique – Witloof Bar in Brussels, Belgium, before a run of UK dates starting on April 24 at Manchester Academy 2; for full details and tickets, head here. Click on his image below to begin scrolling through Steve's choices, which run in no particular order