The craft of songwriting, for so long revered in pop music before being replaced by carefully constructed image, has always been the key to a long career in music. True artistry shines through in the end, even if it takes a while for everyone to catch up, which is certainly true for former Beta Band main man STEVE MASON. The softly spoken Scotsman has added another compelling chapter to his oeuvre in latest album Meet The Humans, marking him out as one of Britain’s best living songwriters. His third solo album continues in a similar vein to previous LPs Boys Outside and Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time, but when you can craft music as effortlessly listenable as Mason can, what’s the need for change?
Since teaming up with Jimmy Edgar to form Black Affair and dropping his King Biscuit Time moniker, Mason made his mark in his own right. His modern balladry sees him appealing to both fans of his former bands and newcomers who stumble across him. On Meet The Humans, Mason worked with producer Craig Potter (Elbow) to craft a lush-sounding record that bristles with anger, and Mick Chrysalid was keen to peer a little closer under its hood. So, he picked up the phone and spoke to Mason, ahead of his headline show at FestEVOL on 1st May.
Bido Lito!: Congratulations on your new album Steve. To get right down to it, after several listens there appears to be a defiance to it that reaches out to people – as on the line from Water Bored “don’t think that this pain is forever… break the grip of a terror”.
Steve Mason: Really, that line is trying to condense my last album into one line. The last album was a political kind of album with a message running through it to start valuing love and compassion above capital gain. What I’m learning about now is the endgame of capitalism; people say to me a lot, “You’re always going on about capitalism, what is the alternative, what are we supposed to do?” People are really afraid of change, really afraid of seriously thinking about any alternative. That line is supposed to say, “Until you are mentally ready to take a leap and mentally ready to break the grip that [capitalism] has on us all, then you’ll be the person saying ‘Tell me what to do’.”
BL!: Another lyric in that song states “there’s not one human amongst us that thinks this is right”. There is a section of society that does demean the poor as undeserving, etc., so there is a section of people that do see it as right.
SM: Well, I don’t see those people as human. I don’t know what they are. Being human to me is feeling empathy. Especially if you’re in a privileged position. You would think that empathy would go by degrees, people with the least in society would feel the least in empathy and people with the most would have the most empathy, but in fact it is completely in reverse. The game of capitalism rewards people who are generally unhinged. Capitalism doesn’t reward empathy and love and good deeds. It is a system that rewards the reverse of that. People with a lot generally are psychopaths.
BL!: Over the last few years some people have moaned about the lack of protest music. I see a lot of politics in music, almost innately. You just don’t need to hit people over the head with a banjo to get a message across.
SM: To me violence as a tool is totally overrated. Violence is the tool of the oppressor. That’s what is used against us. You only need to use violence when you’re really afraid that you can’t be understood or get your point across. I would much prefer to take a kicking than deal one out. I refuse to communicate on that level.
BL!: Onto another song, To A Door: how do you get claps to sound that good? I’ve been recording claps for years and they’re always shit.
SM: Ha ha! Really, really gentle. I love those claps. I think from memory I have a drum machine called Sequential Circuits from the early eighties, maybe. I think it’s from that.
BL!: The production on this album is lush. I believe it’s Craig Potter.
SM: Yes. Also, the string work makes a big difference. We were pretty careful with the strings. They’re not all over every track, so when they come in it’s quite a moment that adds to the richness of the sound. Producer and strings did a great job.
BL!: Hardly Go Through is another standout track and, dare I say it, there are a good few songs that I can already hear playing at festivals. I can hear multiple influences on this album, from John Cale to Warren Zevon, but that’s all probably in my head.
SM: Ha ha! It’s all about what the listener brings to the table. With the Beta Band, the amount of things that people said we were like was probably because we threw everything into the pot.
BL!: You share an inclusiveness and honesty with another artist in that you’re putting your personal trials and tribulations into your work, and that’s John Grant. I’m not saying that you sound like him, but there is a similarity in approach.
SM: Yes. That’s really important. I don’t really see the importance of not being honest. Unless you’re a pop artist, where it’s not really required, I think you have to be like that.
BL!: I heard a rumour that Adele has to get her tweets signed off by a number of people.
SM: Yes, but anyone at that level is highly controlled; they are not in any way artists. I put stuff like that into fake culture. It is not real on any level.
BL!: I notice you moved to Brighton around the time of making Meet The Humans: does that mean the period of self-imposed isolation is over?
SM: There’s a lot to be said about it. It depends if you’re someone who can handle your own company. I am, but I didn’t want to become a weirdo in the woods subscribing to army magazines who could strip and reassemble a Kalashnikov blindfolded. It’s good, man; I feel totally different these days. I feel very lucky I’ve come through the dark passage.
Steve Mason plays FestEVOL at Camp and Furnace on 1st May. Meet The Humans is out now on Double Six Records.