In the decade or so since the break-up of The Beta Band, Steve Mason has enjoyed critical kudos with a string of projects under names such as King Biscuit Time and Black Affair.
Commercial success, however, proved elusive until, last month, he released Meet The Humans, which soared to No28 in the UK album charts, on the back of airplay from BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music.
Mason says he wasn’t surprised by his newfound success. “I think when you put an album out I always expect it to go to No1,” he chuckles before adding: “Not really.”
Nevertheless he does admit that he thought that there were the right ingredients for the record to reach a wider audience. “I suppose getting Craig [Potter, bass player with Elbow] on board – I loved his production and he’s had a lot of success and sold a lot of records – I thought combining him with what I do would be potentially an ideal situation, but it comes down to the strength of the songs really more than anything. I knew that it was a strong collection so yes, we were very lucky to have pulled that out of the bag, I don’t know where it came from.”
The upbeat, engaging tone of Meet The Humans is reflective of a number of changes that have gone on in Mason’s life since he released the highly political Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time three years ago.
“Moving out of the woods in reality and metaphorically was a big thing,” he concedes. “Moving to Brighton [from a cottage near Fife] and I guess generally having a more positive outlook on my life after 20 years in a sort of social prison of depression [made a difference]. I take advantage of the simple things. It’s like I’ve done 20 years for armed robbery or something.”
I always wanted big success but I’ve always wanted it on my own terms which often puts a spanner in the works if you’re not prepared to bend over for every Tom, Dick and Harry.
The political references on this album are subtle, rather than overt. “There are a lot,” he says. “People talk about Alive and stuff like that saying it’s jaunty, happy, pretty, but really it’s about the consistent failings of democracy and how we keep going down the same road over and over again and don’t you want to break out of that? Don’t you want to be truly free individuals making your own society rather than having rules forced upon you every step of the way. It is a jaunty pop song but it also has a relatively serious message.
“I guess I didn’t want to repeat myself. On Monkey Minds I’d pretty much said everything I wanted to say, even the content of Alive I’d already said that on Monkey Minds probably at least once, but I guess that when you feel better about yourself you want to make a record that reflects that because you don’t necessarily want to be on stage playing these very sad songs.
“I think I have a lot of sad songs but I don’t think my songs are depressing, I always try to achieve the opposite of that, some sort of cathartic, cleansing type of thing and try to find the beauty in the sadness. But really I’m trying to find my place within a happier frame of mind. Not skipping around with a smile on my face like one of the Moonies or something, but when you’re genuinely happy and you’re able to approach every person and very situation with a positive, confident frame of mind makes a huge difference to your interactions and I’ve really seen that over the last couple of years. I’ve seen what happens when you’re actually a nice, happy person, it does make a difference.”
It seems Craig Potter was the ideal foil for Mason. “Craig really surprised me,” he says. “He’s much more up for experimentation than I expected him to be, and if you needed any ideas he was there straight away. It was a really great experience. The first time we met was when I walked into the studio on the first day. We’d talked a lot of the phone but I’d never actually met him. I think it was a relief for both of us that we found common ground and got into a working relationship really quickly.
“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Craig, he’s a really great guy, he’s humble, he’s very talented and he’s exactly what you want in a producer, he’s hands off when you want him to be and he’s right there in the mix if you need an idea or you’re struggling a bit with something.”
For the first time in years, Mason also used a co-writer on a couple of songs – in this case Iain Archer, best known for writing the international hit Run for Snow Patrol. He describes the experience as “brilliant”.
“When it comes to song writing you can tell really quickly when you sit down with someone whether anything’s going to come out of it,” he says. “I hadn’t really sat down and co-wrote a song with anyone for 20 years, before The Beta Band, so it was quite a big thing for me. I’d been looking for someone.
“Another thing about me feeling better and more confident is not feeling I have to do every single thing myself. I’d just been looking to get out of my routine of writings songs, which was me sitting in a room by myself thinking about the saddest aspects of my life; after 20 years of doing that it had become pretty draining. I was kind of looking to focus more on the communal aspect of music, which is what I’ve always wanted to do, and sitting in a room with someone and just having fun and bash around on guitars, just jamming and letting ideas come out of the ether while you’re chatting and mucking around. It’s something I hadn’t done for a very long time but with me and Iain it was just very easy.
“I had the bare bones of Planet Sizes but it’s just getting those key elements which go into turning it into something really special, like a good set of chords for the chorus, that was a really enjoyable experience and we’ve already started trying to do some bits and bobs again already because I want to try to keep writing this time rather than it being two years before I write anything then just trying to sit down and write a whole album in a oner.”
The album’s distinctive artwork was designed by Olivia Bullock. “She was one of the first people I met when I moved to Brighton,” Mason explains. “We have a mutual friend and we all just happened to start going to the pub together. It was a while before I saw any of her work but when I did I just thought it was stunning. I had a few other people in mind [to design the sleeve] but when I looked at her work again I just thought this is perfect and I knew she would take it really seriously, it would not just be another thing for her to do, she would really put everything into it and that’s what you always want so I asked her and luckily she said yes.
“We had a few meetings about what the album was about, what some of the songs were about, and I gave her the album to listen to and I just left her alone. I answered any questions that she wanted to know about what the record was about then she went off and did that. I was totally blown away by it, it’s beautiful.”
While BBC 6 Music might have become a big supporter of Mason’s music he doesn’t regret that it wasn’t around when he was in The Beta Band. “I don’t really look back like that,” he says. “Me and a hell of a lot of other artists at my level are incredibly lucky to live in a time when 6 Music exists because if it didn’t exist it would be very tough. I’m managing to make some inroads into Radio 2 now which is pretty amazing, and that’s very exciting because you want to keep building on what you’re doing and reaching as many people as you possibly can, that’s what I’ve always wanted.
“I always wanted big success but I’ve always wanted it on my own terms which often puts a spanner in the works if you’re not prepared to bend over for every Tom, Dick and Harry. The fact that we’ve managed to make these inroads into Radio 2 now is fantastic but we couldn’t have done that without 6 Music.”
Steve Mason plays at the Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds on Monday April 25 and at Deer Shed Festival, which runs at Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire between July 22 and 24. For details visit http://stevemasontheartist.com/ or http://deershedfestival.com/