Steve Mason on his new album and finding contentment
Steve Mason is known for speaking his mind on the big issues of the day. But as the mercurial songwriter from Fife prepares to release his tenth studio album, he tells The Skinny why he's stopped worrying about the big picture
Once seen, never forgotten. The blackened ruin of Grenfell Tower in London has become the UK's most unwanted landmark. Until its eventual demolition, whenever legal enquiries are concluded, the building stands as a grim reminder of 72 lost lives, and the many more survivors left to deal with losing their homes. The fire that swept through the tower in June 2017 was one of those rare moments that seemed to stop society in its tracks.
Steve Mason was driving along the Westway three days after the event when he first saw the tower. He'd just come off tour with his band and was heading home to Brighton. People react to seeing Grenfell in different ways. Being a musician, Mason channelled his feelings into a song that opens his latest solo album, About the Light.
"The tower looked like this huge rotten tooth – a monument to capitalism at its very worst," Mason recalls. "Capitalism at its worst is gruesome, painful, and frightening. All this because of the type of cladding that was fitted. We all know about the horrors of capitalism, but when you see it like that, you know?"
The song in question is called America Is Your Boyfriend. It's a typically Mason title – provocative and pithy, with a dash of dark humour. It expands on the issues he wrote about on Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time, his 2013 album and most overtly political work to date. The so-called special relationship between the UK and US governments is a subject he has spoken out against regularly. "It is going over themes from Monkey Minds," he confirms. "But unfortunately they are no less relevant."
It would be wrong to call About the Light a political album. Its opening song is more a straightener – a stiff drink that sets you up for what's to come. This album is an upbeat collection of soulful songs that Mason believes is his best to date. It reflects both a change in personal circumstances and his determined new mindset. The songwriter is now married, and father to a young daughter. He's happily based on England's south coast but still travels back to his native Fife when he can.
If Mason, no stranger to the pages of The Skinny, sounds content then it's reflected in some glorious pop music. Stars Around My Heart, one of two singles released in late 2018 to promote the album, ranks among his best. It also reflects a new way of working. "I wanted to get my band involved in the writing more," he explains. "The record's energy has come from spending quite a bit of time on the songs – getting them sounding like the band had played them for a year. When I listen to this record it just sounds head and shoulders above anything else I've ever done. It's partly the energy, but it's also the fact the brass players we brought in were top quality, and the backing singers, they were just fantastic."
About the Light was also helped to life by Stephen Street, the producer who famously helped both The Smiths and Blur find their sound. "Stephen is the first producer I've ever worked with [where] I own records that he's previously worked on," says Mason. "I think I avoided world-class producers in the past, as I was maybe worried they would overwhelm my ideas and what I wanted to do. But I felt ready this time. It's about having the confidence to work with someone like Stephen – to feel like what I had written was strong enough to take to him."
With a young family to consider, Mason wanted to work with a producer who could take control of the recording: "I really needed someone who would allow me to concentrate on the performances and not think too much about the sonics and all of that. I knew what I wanted and Stephen got it. It was a process of capturing the band, getting the right brass players and creating that sound. Without the brass and the backing singers, it's kind of a guitar album, but once you put in those two other elements, it really makes it something different – it adds a depth and soul that is often missing from guitar records."
This is a stand-out release for Mason in other ways. When you include LPs by King Biscuit Time, Black Affair and The Beta Band, this is his tenth studio album. He even briefly considered naming it 10 as a result. But as an artist that's always looking forward, not back, he believes it's more a sign of even better things to come as a solo performer. "I don't consider it a landmark," he stresses. "It almost feels like my first proper solo album. I can't wait to see what comes next. When I was younger, I really wanted to be in a band, and being in a band was really great for a long time but eventually you want to move on. I don't think I could go back to it. It's like when you're younger, you live with your mates in a flat or whatever, but the older you get you want your own space – so you can pick your toenails."
It was by no means guaranteed Mason would successfully carve himself out a niche as a solo artist. There was never any denying his abilities as a songwriter, but The Beta Band's implosion in 2004 came at a time when the music industry was looking to aggressively cut costs as the internet smashed its business model to pieces. Plenty of Mason's contemporaries in the rich alternative scene of the early 2000s fell by the wayside. While labels have been saved in part by digital streaming, he scoffs at the suggestion things have improved for artists.
"From a practical point of view, it would be really fucking hard for me to start out now," he explains. "Let's say me and you started a band today: you're on bass, I'm on guitar and someone else is on drums. We need time to rehearse, but there's not really a dole anymore so we need jobs, so we're rehearsing in the evenings. Then you're trying to get a gig – really you're going to have to pay to play. You'll be on sometime between Monday and Thursday as the venues all book some tribute act – The Complete Stone Roses or whatever – at the weekend. So you're not making any money and you're playing to three or four people as no one really goes out to see new bands anymore. It's really fucking hard."
He sighs. "If you do that for three or four years you'll probably give up. The music industry is full of very wealthy people looking to legitimise themselves. It's fake; it's just posing for entertainment. Where are we artistically in this country? Where is society being reflected back in art?"
As a further example, he mentions The Girobabies. The hip-hop-inspired punk group have been a regular fixture at small venues in and around Glasgow for several years, led by their mercurial frontman Mark McG. Mason is a long-term fan – he's adamant this is the kind of artist that London labels should be taking a chance on. "I tried to get three or four people down here to listen to them, but they wouldn't really do anything and I couldn't understand why," he reveals. "I think it's so much easier for record labels, even indie labels, to sign kids from money as they'll need less support. I think The Girobabies are the real thing. Mark is so full of energy. It's rare to find people who really will get off their arse and do things."
Mason has watched the music industry change beyond recognition since The Beta Band released their first EP, the legendary Champion Versions, back in July 1997. He's spoken out on human rights and society throughout his career, but his new record is intended as a positive statement at a time when the UK is convulsed by Brexit and a grim sense of foreboding.
"I spent 20 years worrying about the big picture, the massive picture, and it drives you mad," he admits. "I don't want to feel like that anymore, so everything needs to be localised for me. And that comes down to about within three feet of yourself – how can you be positive around people? I wanted this to be a positive record as it is all doom and gloom at the moment, and quite rightly so – but I don't want to be overwhelmed by it. Because as soon as you are overwhelmed by it, you stop thinking critically, you start getting angry and despondent, and they've won. And I don't want them to win."
About the Light is released on 18 Jan via Domino
Steve Mason plays SWG3, Glasgow, 31 Jan