As the only musician to have played in all the iterations of Pink Floyd, drummer Nick Mason is uniquely placed to look back on the 50-year history of one of Britain’s most successful rock bands.
With the group seemingly “done”, according to guitarist and vocalist David Gilmour following the death of keyboard player Rick Wright, Mason is maintaining the legacy of their early psychedelic phase through a new band, Saucerful of Secrets.
A supergroup of sorts, its line-up includes Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet, longtime Pink Floyd collaborator Guy Pratt, guitarist Lee Harris and keyboardist Dom Beken.
Seventy-six-year-old Mason says the band’s formation was “in many ways identical” to the formation of Pink Floyd back in 1965. “It was a group of like-minded individuals forming a band, not on a whim exactly, but without a very clear idea of direction. Pink Floyd was formed in rather the same way.”
For much of the past decade his own musical activity had been confined to overseeing reissues of Pink Floyd’s back catalogue and an audio-visual exhibition, Their Mortal Remains, which ran at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2017 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their first single, Arnold Layne.
Gradually he realised he didn’t want to become a “museum piece” himself. “That’s how it felt and really why (Saucerful of Secrets) all kicked off,” he says. “The problem is instead of playing drums you end up sitting being interviewed and basically you begin to feel that you belong to English Heritage as a guidebook. You sort of run over history, which is quite often entertaining, but you’re missing one of the primary good bits, really, which is the actual playing live and the inter-reaction not only with an audience but with your fellow musicians.”
The suggestion that Saucerful of Secrets focus their attention on material that Mason’s former band recorded before their multi-million selling 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon came from Harris. “It was a very smart move,” the drummer recognises, “because the problem with the later material is that you end up getting too hung up on trying to do it exactly as it was on the record. You more or less become your own tribute band.
“Also Roger (Waters) and David (Gilmour) both go out and play Comfortably Numb and Money and so on, and do a fantastic job on it. One of the things that I really like about the early music, and like what we do, is it gives us a bit more freedom. The audience are not anxious to hear the song played exactly as it was on the record; it’s the spirit of it that’s more important.”
As to whether the seven albums’ worth of material that Pink Floyd released between 1967 and 1972 is in some ways more interesting to perform live without all the bells and whistles that accompanied their later stadium tours, Mason says: “Yes and no. The fact of the matter is, even later on, most of the songs were put together in the studio with the four of us; it’s not as though they have to have ten musicians onstage to make it work, but there’s a general feeling that if you can have a saxophone player and you can have three backing vocals you should probably do it because it’s going to make a better show, particularly if you’re performing to 50,000 people. If you’re playing just the four or five of you it’s much more intimate and a very different musical opportunity.”
Much of Saucerful of Secrets’ set list stems from the music Pink Floyd made with Syd Barrett, the band’s maverick singer and guitarist who had a brief solo career after leaving the group in 1968 before living out the rest of his life as a recluse. He died in 2006, aged 60. For Mason, performing songs such as Arnold Layne and Bike offers a chance to pay homage to his old bandmate.
“I don’t think there was any deliberate attempt to run him out of our history because I think we absolutely accept that without him we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he says. “But there’s no doubt that the songs were a little bit lost.
“Inevitably when you’ve got other albums that have been more successful you’re playing to an audience who are wanting that. When we play in America, the Americans to a large extent think our first album was The Dark Side of the Moon. Europe’s very different but to Americans we were quite underground for four or five years, really.”
Although Kemp and Pratt share vocal duties, the Spandau Ballet songwriter has said that Mason is effectively centre stage in their concerts. The drummer himself remains a modest figure but concedes it’s nice to be acknowledged by his fellow band members. “I don’t particularly want to be centre stage. I like that sense of it being a band. I think that’s an important part of the whole ethos. I don’t care either how many mistakes or how much improvising goes on between us as long as the spirit and the good humour of the event is captured.”
Mason once jokingly said he took up the drums because he was “b*****ed if I was going to be the bass player” when he co-formed his first band. “It was a group of kids in the neighbourhood and one of them said, ‘we should start a rock ’n’ roll band’,” he recalls. “We’re talking in the 1950s, and he said, ‘I’ve already bought a guitar so that’s gone’, that’s when I thought, ‘well, what else is there, really?’ I certainly didn’t want to start doing something difficult like the saxophone.
“I had actually got a pair of wire brushes and messed around a little bit with drums so that seemed to be the obvious way to go. I went down to Denman Street [in Soho] to a shop called Footes and bought a kit. They put together a really appalling kit, but it worked, for £7 10s. A bass drum, pair of bongos, a snare drum, a bit of a hi-hat and a cymbal that well, I’m not sure it was a cymbal or just a piece of cheap metal, but it worked.”
He says his playing style was influenced by “everything”, including jazz. “My mum was musical and played the piano, so I got that, and then we got kids’ records like The Laughing Policeman, which was an early memory, but then there was trad jazz and be-bop. I’ve always had a great affection for all the great be-bop players like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey, that school of music. But then we discovered rock ’n’ roll, Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, and that more or less eclipsed everything else.”
Despite having been a key part of Pink Floyd, who are estimated to have sold more than 250 million records, Mason remains modest about his achievements. For him, drumming has always been more about feel than technical proficiency.
“My advice to anyone now would be get drum lessons,” he says. “I really wish I’d done it. That gives you a sort of grounding that is really useful. But having said that, I ended up playing with people who also didn’t have lessons, so we were all sort of more or less playing in the same place together.”
While Pink Floyd might have performed in some of the world’s biggest venues, these days Mason is content to play in much more intimate places where he can see the whites of the audience’s eyes. “I think for us it’s really quite important,” he says. “I really like that theatrical side. I’d rather do a week in a theatre than a night in an arena.”
Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets’ album Live at the Roundhouse is due out on September 18. Their UK tour has been postponed due to the Covid-19 lockdown. They will now play at York Barbican on October 4 and Sheffield City Hall on October 14. www.thesaucerfulofsecrets.com. Tickets are still on sale and the album can be pre-ordered via https://smarturl.it/NMSOS