Steve Mason: "Protest needs to be rethought completely"
With righteous new album Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time setting the world to rights, we sit down with Steve Mason to discuss his politics of dissent
A foretaste of Steve Mason’s sharply politicised concept album Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time came at the tail end of last year, with the online release of vanguard track Fight Them Back. A catalytic call-to-arms with a blunt, mantric message (“You get up and fight them back; a fist, a boot, and a baseball bat”), it came coupled to an incendiary promo; a collage in which global protest footage met fragmented symbols of the targeted power systems: scheming politicians, manipulative media, unfettered capitalist greed.
A real-life variation on Peter Finch’s beleaguered Network anchorman – mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore – the song’s narrator addresses the listener directly, asking “at what point do you think it’s time to act?” After spending a few hours in Mason’s company, it’s clear this is no idle enquiry. From bank bailouts to David Cameron’s “mission to turn this country into some sort of wasteland,” the Fife-based songwriter holds forth on a number of topics, freewheeling from trade unions to tax dodgers and emphasising throughout the importance of individual responsibility.
“I knew that I wanted do something political," he explains of the album’s origins, “but a human politics, not necessarily party politics." He sighs. "We’ve all just been stamped through this mincing machine to become little capitalist consumers, as if that’s the be all and end all. And personally, I think it’s time for us as a species to change our priorities… What happened to spirituality, and love for fellow human beings? Instead [we have] this idea of living to work, which is a very odd concept. But it’s been sold to us, and we’ve bought it, and it’s terrifying. Capitalism can only ever end in a bad fucking way.”
For Mason, signs of endgame exploitation are everywhere: in reports of office workers made to wear wristbands that monitor their movements; in the on-going horsemeat scandal (“that didn’t surprise me at all – you’re a fool if you think that putting food production and capitalism together isn’t going to end up that way”); and in the recent allegations that online retailer Amazon hired neo-Nazi heavies to police the immigrant workforce of a distribution centre in Germany. “These are the kind of things that I think are very important,” he stresses. “I think as a race we’ve been smashed into submission by a very small group of people, and we need to start fighting back and changing the way we live and think about things. There is another way.”
Despite Fight Them Back’s confrontational polemic, Mason is keen to downplay smash-the-system belligerence as the only valid response. “We have all the power, we just don’t know we’ve got it,” he emphasises, “but there’s plenty we can do. I used to be, I guess, a little bit naïve, and think that one massive act would overthrow the whole system, but the more you look at it the more you realise how global and interlinked it all is. So for me, as I say on the album, it’s more about small conversations, open rebellion and generally not falling into the trap of having an argument when you meet someone who doesn’t agree with you. Have a conversation, because they can learn something from you and you can almost certainly learn something from them.”
He describes a pay-it-forward car mechanic in Portsmouth who’s apparently been cutting the bills of hard-up customers on the proviso they subsequently give the money to a homeless person. “Things like that I find more inspiring than anything else,” he explains. “I think something like that would achieve far more than, you know, 10,000 people protesting on the streets of London. I’ve got to the point now where I don’t even know if there’s any point in protesting... It feels like when you protest, you’re meeting the system head on – you’re playing it at its own game, and it can manipulate that situation however it wants. It’s got people within the protest group kicking things off, and then you’ve got your horrible fucking bully boys within the police, people with no fucking numbers on their uniforms just battering people… I just think protest needs to be rethought completely. Someone like that mechanic is going to achieve far more in the space of a year than a year of protests.”
The album’s narrative, then, is one of gradual political awakening – both his personal journey from his mid-teens to now, and an anticipated public rejection of “false goals” such as extreme wealth or fame-at-all-costs. Whether censuring stage schools (“enormous shit pumps filling our culture with meaningless garbage”) or questioning the acute consumption of bling-laden pop idols (“I think that people will look back at those people and think ‘fuck me, you squandered that didn’t you – you had all that and you were just spunking it all over the place’”), Mason’s social diagnoses are as astute as they are fervidly phrased.
Politics have long informed Mason’s music – from the Gulf War undertones of The Beta Band’s Hot Shots II to the Bush and Blair call-outs in King Biscuit Time cut C I AM 15 – but Monkey Minds… is their most overt airing yet. Does this reflect a shift in personal priorities? “I guess I was never particularly what I would call ‘A Political Person’” he replies. “I knew that the right wing was bad and that the left never seemed to achieve a whole lot, but my political opinions have more been formed by realising that there’s just something intrinsically wrong with society.”
He motions to the street outside. “You’ve only got to look out this window. We’re sitting in this nice, independently-run café in Edinburgh, and you look outside and see these horrible fucking bins, scruffy buildings, horrible pavements – everything’s cheap and throwaway. And it doesn’t need to be like that, not with the amount of revenue that comes in from all our various taxes. People think ‘oh, well Leith is a deprived area,’ but it doesn’t need to be, it really doesn’t. I just think that we’ve fallen into this trap of believing what governments and authority tell us. But what they’re telling you is an enormous lie, in order for the Military-Industrial Complex, the energy companies, and the banks to profit.”
This reference to a pan-institutional plot is neither the first or last time during our conversation that Mason alludes darkly to clandestine networks of power – the sort of talk that’s prone to attracting all sorts of dismissive labels, ‘conspiracy theorist’ chief amongst them. But Mason is nothing if not self-aware. He understands how such grandiose rhetoric could sound to those who don’t share his anti-authoritarian zeal, and is realistic about where his album fits in amongst it all. When I ask whether he has any hopes that Monkey Minds… could help spark an epiphany in even just a single listener, he dismisses the notion. “No, I think that’s an insane idea,” he smiles. “I think that the idea is to start a dialogue – a dialogue like this, a dialogue that somebody might have after they read this interview, whatever. Even if people think that what I’m saying is crazy or naïve or whatever it might be, it’s still some sort of conversation.”
"Cameron’s mission is to turn this country into some sort of wasteland” - SteVE MASON
Would it disappoint him if people were enthusiastic about the music without engaging with its politics? “Absolutely not, because you can…” he stops and laughs. “I was about to say ‘you can lead a horse to water,’ but that would be an incredibly stupid thing to say... But really I wanted [the album] to be full of melody, emotion and beauty, and I like to think that people can listen to it two different ways – in terms of the things that we’re talking about, or just as an album of recorded music. It’s totally up to you and I really don’t mind. I don’t want to be ramming things down people’s throats – people are having things rammed down their throats 24 hours a day already. And I’m not here to sell any kind of ideology – I’m not coming with any left-wing/right-wing manifesto. So with that in mind,” he smiles, “they can do what they want.”
Next month, Mason plays a trio of UK gigs – an abridged tour that he hopes to expand on later in the year. “Gigs are difficult because ideally you want to…” he clears his throat. “Er, make some money from what you do.” He laughs, evidently aware of the irony. “So it’s very hard. You’ve just got to be so careful how you spend the money you have. The dream at the moment is just being able to finance it and make it break even.”
Considering his anti-corporate stance, do financial pressures put his personal convictions under strain? “Well that’s why I quit the Beta Band,” he replies. “All through the Beta Band we’d been offered a lot of money – and when I say a lot, I mean over a million in licensing deals – and I had to turn them down. And that’s fine, but what I realised – and it sounds very obvious but it took me a while to realise – is that turning down adverts is a luxury. It’s very easy to do when you’ve got money in your bank account, it’s a fucking doddle. Unless you’re a greedy fuck – unless you’re Ant or Dec or somebody like that – it’s a relatively easy decision to make. But it becomes increasingly difficult… I mean, I’m 40 now, and obviously you start thinking about the future. You think, ‘fuck, I’m living hand-to-mouth and I don’t know if in 5 years’ time I’m going to have a record deal, or if anyone’s going to want to buy my music.’ So you do start to worry; you don’t really think like an 18-year-old anymore...” He breaks off. “The thing is, you get these companies phoning you up and they’re like, ‘oh, we’re a clothing brand and we’re cool and we’d like to be associated with you,’ and when you do a bit of investigating you find out they’re owned by JD Sports.”
The example isn’t plucked from thin air, but relates to a genuine recent request. “They wanted to licence Fight Them Back,” Mason recounts, his disbelief still clear. “They wanted to have posters of me in the changing rooms: ‘We’re JD Sports, and we support the fight against the power system, and this guy’s with us all the way!’”
So a subsidiary of a company amongst the most looted during the 2011 riots wanted to use related imagery to flog stock? “Exactly!” he exclaims. “It’s like, don’t you understand? But I suppose the frightening thing is maybe, because they’ve been able to buy everything before, it would never cross their mind that someone would turn them down. It would never cross their mind that somebody meant what they were saying, and that they weren’t just going for the protest dollar, as Bill Hicks might say. That’s a frightening concept – that they’re so used to everything being for sale. But it’s not.”