Having released albums as The Beta Band, King Biscuit Time and Black Affair, in 2010 Steve Mason released Boys Outside under his own name. He returns with his second ‘solo’ album, Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time, on 18 March and this time it’s personal… very personal indeed. Covering the breadth of his life so far, the singer-songwriter not only takes stock at his own existence but reflects it against the human condition and Western society in general. The result is a deeply political record, though not one that rants about ideologies or polices but one which smoothly stresses humanity’s warmth through Mason’s trademark harmonies and grooves. Fittingly, in person the artist is just like his creation. His arguments maybe be raw and politically charged, but they are delivered with a warm charm and gentle Scottish brogue. The revolution will be tuneful…
How the devil are you?
“Very well, thank you.”
For this album you were trying to bring together everything you’d learned about life and music, that sounds quite an undertaking?
“Yes! Well, you’d like to think a lot of it came automatically, just through age and experience. The idea was to make an album that was a story of me and a story of the human race in a way. The story we all go through. So the album is me from 12 years-old until now. I love Boys Outside but it was a very traditional album in the sense that it was ten songs and there was a uniform sound, so I wanted to do something different. Something that was a bit more patchwork, like how we used to make records in The Beta Band – the sound was constantly changing and there were bits and bobs going on.”
You’ve also declared it’s a purposely political record, but you’re not talking about party politics?
“It’s human politics. It’s the story of human beings: what it means to be a human being now, what it meant a long time ago and how that’s changed. I’m of the opinion that as a race we need to take a step back, reassess where we are and where we’re going. We’re heading down a thoroughly disturbing path. Time is of the essence, we need to take stock and begin communicating again in a real and realistic way. People tend to think because of things like smart phones and the internet we’re this incredibly connected generation, but I think certain levels of communications have been lost. Everyone is walking around with their head in a phone all the time. The connection with the people around you has been systematically drummed out of you. The West is fed on a diet of fear, 24 hours a day. There’s always something to be afraid of, whether it’s terrorism, swine flu or the environment. I’m of the opinion that whoever it is telling you to be afraid of these things that’s the enemy. That’s my opinion. So the album is an attempt to reconnect with what it means to be a human being. We’re all interconnected, everyone in this room has been given an incredible gift to be a human being and with that comes with a great responsibility. There are many things you can do as a human being: you can do beautiful, amazing things, incredible acts of heroism and love; and terrible, terrible things. So in my opinion, it’s time to take a step back, join some dots up and take a long look at that picture.”
Currently there does seem to be a feeling that politics is something politicians do, not something that everyone is involved in.
“Yes, exactly. As much as we’ve been disconnected from what makes us human beings, we’ve been systematically disconnected from politics as well. I’ve never voted in my life, that was a deliberate decision I made because I always knew there was something wrong there. But if you speak to kids now they don’t even think that, they just think politics is something other people do. They feel those people don’t care about them, they’re making decisions that they can never change, decisions that effect them almost always in a negative way and there’s nothing they can do about it. And they’re right. They’re absolutely right. People need to reconnected with politics, but not the traditional politics that goes on at the House Of Commons, that’s bollocks!”
Do you think then the existence of a so-called political class is absurd then?
“Yeah, absolutely! I remember at school doing all the stuff about serfdom. You think it’s gone but it really hasn’t. It’s much more clever and sophisticated now, that’s for sure, but it hasn’t gone away. People do need to get politicised but in human politics rather than voting. The idea of voting to change anything is frankly farcical. Decisions aren’t even made in the House Of Commons, they’re made by civil servants, energy companies and banks who lobby MPs. Unrestricted capitalism is a very unhealthy thing and there’s only ever one outcome: the slavery of the population and the existence of an elite political class who are earning all the money. That’s what we’ve got in this country essentially and things are only going to get worse. So it’s a very pertinent time to think, not to blame. Along with the culture of fear, there’s a culture of blame. Again, the people who are telling you who to blame, they’re generally the people who are to blame. It’s not illegal immigrants or minorities; any of the isms are not natural states for human beings to be in. No one is born a sexist, it’s something that’s learnt. I don’t believe people are born racist either. None of that will change until we topple this plutocratic regime that is in place all over the world. Once that network or system is dislodged – let’s enter the realm of fantasy for a moment – I don’t believe any of those ism will exist any more. I’m not saying there won’t be frictions between human beings, but ways to hate are taught… People need to get together and start talking to each other. I’ve come to realise over the last six, seven months that protesting and rioting as a means to changing anything is completely flawed. In my opinion, you’re playing them at their own game and they’re very good at that game… So the time is at hand. Start talking to each other or lose what it means to be a human being forever.”
How hard is it to get a sense of that onto the record?
“That’s a really difficult question to answer because it’s about so many different factors… It comes down to not knowing but having a feeling of what you want to achieve with the album. You have these feelings and thoughts in your head but you don’t know which direction each song will take. It’s best not to think about it, see where it all goes. It’s a difficult question to answer.”
While it’s political, you’ve not made a protest album…
“No, it’s an album that’s designed to provoke a thought or two. People are terrified of politics and music combining. They thing they combine to make this lump of brown soup that nobody wants to get involved with, and I can see their point. But I’m not coming at this with any political idealism or dogma. There’s nothing to sell except humanity and we’re all involved in that. I have no agenda in terms of left wing, right wing, centre, whatever it maybe and I think that’s important, otherwise you might as well put on a suit and a rosette and ask people to vote for you and that’s not what this is about at all. Without sounding like a prick, it’s much deeper than that.”
So rather than a protest album it’s a provocation album?
“I certainly hope so.”
Yet you also have a song like A Lot Of Love on the record which is very loving, beautiful and tender. Was that an attempt to present the different sides of the human condition and show how they’re linked?
“The point I was trying to make with that is that human beings run an enormous amount of emotions throughout a day. You can be many, many different things. And as much as you can be angry and what to change things, you have to deal with your life and all the nuances that go on within that at the same time. You have to go to the doctors, you have an argument with your girlfriend… you have to deal with all that. A track like A Lot Of Love is in there to remind people. It’s almost re-enforcing the point that we’re human beings and we should be feeling these things. People aren’t black and white, I don’t believe you’re either political or you’re not. You can be a mass of different things and to me love is the most important thing.”
It’s a bit of a tearjerker than one…
You use a lot of musical interludes on the album, was that to create a sense of journey?
“I imagined people sitting on a beanbag with a big pair of 70s headphones with a chord plugged into the stereo! [laughs] I really wanted to make a proper album… The interlude parts on this album made telling the story a bit easier. It’s supposed to be a journey from that first line, At 15 years-old I had to know…, to the very last part which sums up my situation now: I’m afraid of what’s happening in the West, I want to change it, but also this idea of being lucky enough to have someone to go home to at night who can tell you not worry about it all. We all need that… except Tony Blair!”
As it’s about your life you sneaked some Formula 1 in there too, sampling some vintage Prost/Senna commentary on one of the interludes. I’ve always been surprised you’re such a fan, it’s a real rich man’s sport…
“That was my nod to the destruction of sport by capitalism. For me the death of Senna was the ushering in of the Schumacher era. I’m not saying there wasn’t money or sponsorship before that, but there was a change in the way things were carried out after that. Now drivers are essentially muzzled by sponsors. The sponsors tape their interviews to make sure they say the right thing, that’s an oppressive regime to work under and the outcome of that is you have incredibly uninspiring sporting people. It’s ruined football too. Formula 1 drivers used to be heroes, now it’s just this sanitised parade. It’s still exciting and I still love it but something is missing.”
Talking about the album might create a false sense that it’s quite a preachy record, yet you seem to take a humble, self-critical approach in the songs. Were you conscious of not shouting at the listener for 70 minutes?
“I think a lot of people are frightened about that! I’m getting a lot of messages on the various social networks with panicking people saying: Is it really a political album?! because they’re imagining everything that entails. I would never have made an album like a traditional political record because of the type of politics I’m talking about. I’m sure in your experience you’ve had someone shouting in your face and you’ve had someone talk to you, and I know which one I take more information from. I’ve never made a record that was shouty, as far as I know, so there would be no point betraying everything I’ve done up to this point. It would be ridiculous, a 40 year-old man jumping around on stage saying Everything’s shit! That would just have been rubbish!”
The album chimes in with the sort of sound you’ve made throughout your career, was that conscious decision or just what happens when Steve Mason makes music?
“It was very conscious. This album is a lot more live than Boys Outside, which was more of an electronic record, so going along with all the themes of the album I wanted it to be played by human beings. We put together a little band and off we went. It was a really fun way to make a record. I hadn’t really played with a band in the studio since The Beta Band. We’d just find a tempo and go… like how they used to make records! It was really good fun.”
Talking of The Beta Band, you’re musical godfathers now. Django Django have certainly taken your lead…
“Dave [Maclean, DD’s drummer/producer] I’ve know since he was 17 because he’s John’s [Maclean, Beta Band keyboard player] brother. Sometimes I look at what they’re doing and think, You know that we… Then I realise it doesn’t really matter. I think as they look towards their second album they’re going to go way away from what we were ever doing. It’s an incredible compliment too, especially as they’re getting so much attention. People seem to be really loving it. Dave’s a really talented, good guy. I’ve got a lot of time for him. I think it’s good, you can see the art flowing through their band and that’s always been very important to me. They have original ideas and the means to carry them out, that’s a good thing.”
Finally, based on what you’ve said about humanity and the need to change, are you broadly optimistic or pessimistic about our future?
“As a race? I think if I was optimistic I probably wouldn’t have made this record!” [laughs]