Ex-Beta Band frontman Steve Mason for CQAF
Former Beta Band frontman Steve Mason spent 10 years living in a forest after the influential 'folktronica' outfit broke up. With a new album out and a gig in the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast coming up, he tells Andy Welsh about his return to civilisation
BEFORE an artist releases a new album, first comes the backstory. This primes first the media writing and talking about said album; they then disseminate the history to the wider world, giving the music a context, so anyone who eventually listens to it knows what they're getting into before pressing play.
It's a strategy that can be executed with varying degrees of cynicism. Dressing up the fact that a professional musician is merely releasing another collection of music, without playing fast and loose with the truth – adding in a little struggle here, a little heartbreak there – can be a challenge.
Steve Mason isn't a man to go along with such games.
When the carefully constructed narrative accompanying his latest album – that he has found happiness since moving to the Brighton seaside – is brought up, he roars with laughter.
"That's what the press are meant to think," he says.
Probe a little deeper though, and it seems the publicists were bang on.
Formerly leader of The Beta Band – safely Scotland's best ever experimental folktronica collective, with a large cult following – Mason went to live in what he describes as the "middle of a forest" on the outskirts of Fife after the band split around 2004, before moving to Brighton about two years ago.
He'd already written four or five songs for Meet The Humans, his new album – the third released under his own name – but whether he likes to admit it or not, the record is most definitely informed by that switch, and he sounds much happier for it.
"For 10 years, my only human interaction was when I went on tour, or when I went to buy carrots at the supermarket," he admits.
"You want to know the weirdest thing about living in the woods? When you do see someone walk past your living room window, and you think, 'Human – there's a human. What are they doing?', and you don't know whether to go out to introduce yourself, or run out with your shotgun and tell them to keep away from your apples.
"But that is what the title of the album is all about, me reintroducing myself to civilisation."
It sounds like moving to Brighton was a bigger deal than he makes out?
"Yes, it probably did have an impact. Perhaps it's being over-egged by people at my record label and PR company, but that's their job."
In addition to the change of location, Mason's changed the way he works. This latest offering is far more collaborative than his past solo albums, Boys Outside and Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time. For starters, there are two songs on Meet The Humans that were co-written with Iain Archer, famed for once being part of Snow Patrol and for writing most of Jake Bugg's songs.
"I haven't co-written with anyone for 20-odd years," says Mason. "I really enjoyed it. We wrote Planet Sizes and To A Door, and he [Archer] has no ego. I felt myself being pushed along to come up with something that's a hell of a lot better than what I'd already got.
"It's been years since I've been pushed like that, but I loved it."
He talks about how he involved his drummer and bass player in writing too, working out problems with songs before recording them. In all honesty, these are rudimentary processes, but seem new and fresh for Mason.
"For so long, songwriting became being locked in the studio on my own for months on end, patrolling the darkest recesses of my mind," he recalls of his old approach. "It's not a healthy place to be all the time; it can become too much, especially when you're starting to become a more positive person and you've put your demons behind you, as I have.
"I don't necessarily want to be in that place any more, and I think I'm going to involve more and more people in the future, and that's something I'm really looking forward to."
This shift, he says, comes from the feeling that he had to prove himself, after parting ways with The Beta Band. He put himself under tremendous pressure to show he could go it alone, first under his King Biscuit Time moniker, later as Black Affair, and finally under his own name.
"I feel that I have proved myself now, and I've relaxed," he adds. "I don't feel the need to push home the fact I've created something alone."
Meet The Humans also differs from his past two albums due to its lack of central theme.
With Boys Outside, Mason wanted to create a clean, clinical album – similar to electronic music but played on instruments. With Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time, he was railing against society, politics, and the fact the two things he values most – love and compassion – are the two things he believes are being eroded by the current government.
"When you've made a record as intense as Monkey Minds, you want to make something less intense. Not frivolous – there's no frivolity here – but you want to do something that's just a more random selection of songs. I was just more interested in focusing on the songs individually, with a blind faith that it was going to hold together as an album.
"I've stepped back from politics, too. I felt I had to make that last record – if you're an artist, and you're living in the time you're living in, and you're not mentioning what's happening around us, or what's happening politically, then I think you've failed. But you also reach a point where, if international politics is all you think about, you end up just feeling like a mouth floating in the ocean, bobbing around, achieving nothing."
For now, he is busying himself with cycling around Brighton, catching up with friends and bumping into various creative people he sees around his new home town, trying to make a difference in any small way he can.
"I've learned that's the key to it all," Mason says finally. "Any change has to come from within.
"If I can live my life how I want to be, and how I'd like others to live theirs, then that has to have some sort of positive effect."
Steve Mason plays The Black Box in Belfast on Saturday April 30 as part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (www.cqaf.com). The album Meet The Humans is out now