The former drummer of Pink Floyd is sitting in the catering area backstage at the Beacon Theatre eating from a tiny bowl of pea soup about three hours before his new band, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, make their New York debut. The last time the 75-year-old played a venue in the city anywhere near this small, it was 1972 and Pink Floyd were road-testing songs from their in-progress LP Dark Side of the Moon. That was just before his life became a blur of private airplanes, sold-out football stadiums and Machiavellian power struggles so intense that the group disbanded 25 years ago with a reunion remaining little more than an impossible dream.
The void they left has been filled with massively successful solo tours by Roger Waters and David Gilmour along with countless tribute acts. But for years Mason felt there was no room for him on that circuit even though he’s one of Pink Floyd’s three living members and the only one that lasted through every single incarnation of the band. “I didn’t think I could do it,” he says. “ I just thought, ‘Do I really want to go out there and get involved with punching it out with Roger, David, the Australian Pink Floyd Show and all the rest of it?’”
And so for the past 25 years he didn’t do much. And with the money from Pink Floyd pouring in from all directions, he didn’t really need to. “I was home a lot, really,” he says. “I got my helicopter license and did a lot of motor racing because I missed the playing and I missed the adrenaline of it. I also worked on the [Pink Floyd] re-releases and compilations because I tended to be the one prepared to go and talk about them on radio or whatever.”
He also guested on a handful of shows on Roger Waters’ 2006 Dark Side of the Moon tour and played with Gilmour on the 2014 Pink Floyd instrumental album The Endless River, which was designed as their final statement and wasn’t supported with any live activity. “After the big [Division Bell] tour in 1994, David really had had enough of doing big tours,” says Mason. ”I can see why, but I didn’t entirely agree with that. But then it was slightly different for David because he carried most of it on his shoulders. It’s also really hard work and he had young kids and a family at home.”
Any sort of Mason solo tour seemed extremely unlikely until he was approached a little more than a year ago by former Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris and the bassist Guy Pratt, who replaced Roger Waters in Pink Floyd back in 1987 and has been one of David Gilmour’s main collaborators ever since. They had the wonderfully simple idea of forming a new band devoted exclusively to the surreal, psychedelic music Pink Floyd created before they broke through to the mainstream with Dark Side of the Moon. “I don’t mean to sound rude,” says Harris. “But Nick was a lot more experimental as a drummer before David Gilmour truly learned to play guitar and he was left to basically just keep rhythm while [Gilmour] was playing those amazing solos. I wanted to go back to that early stuff.”
Mason was cautiously optimistic about the idea, especially after they recruited keyboardist Dom Beken, best known for his work in the Nineties electronic group the Orb, and Spandau Ballet guitarist-songwriter Gary Kemp. The five men came from wildly different backgrounds, but they’d all spent their careers standing in the shadows of bandleaders with significantly more name recognition and natural charisma. Kemp may have the sole writing credit on Spandau Ballet’s era-defining classic “True” and nearly all their other songs, but it was lead singer Tony Hadley that made the women scream the loudest in the Eighties. Lee Harris spent years trying to fill the enormous gap that British pub-rock icon Ian Dury left in the Blockheads when he died in 2000, and only true Pink Floyd fanatics know that Guy Pratt even exists despite his many years re-creating Roger Waters’ bass and vocal parts with the group and at Gilmour solo shows.
But when they all came together at a rehearsal space in London to try and resurrect the career of one of rock’s most overshadowed figures, they discovered an immediate musical chemistry. “Given my lack of affection for very hard work, I think if it had been anything other than just sifting straight into place, it would have been difficult,” Mason says. “The interesting thing was that it all sort of began to sound good straight away. That was mainly, I think, driven by their enthusiasm.”
Very quietly, the group booked a test show at Dingwalls in London, a tiny club that seats just about 500 people at its absolute capacity. “It was rammed,” says Kemp. “I’m used to playing to 70 percent women when I play with Spandau. This was like 90 percent men. They were noisy and raucous. We began the show with ‘Interstellar Overdrive,’ which breaks down right in the middle and has a kind of freeform, atonal section. How many bands are doing that? Especially guys that are 75 years old and he hasn’t toured for 25 years? We lay our cards out right at the beginning, what kind of night we’re going to have.”
For Mason — who hadn’t played anywhere that small in about 50 years — the night was a revelation. “I felt 25 again,” he says. “I could finally see the other musicians and we all made eye contact. I could see the back of the auditorium and everyone listening. Big stadiums are an extraordinary thing to do and it gives you the opportunity to do all the pyrotechnics and all the rest of it, but it’s not as engaging as an audience that you can see.”
Saucerful of Secrets booked a tour of Europe in September 2018 and in March they headed to North America for a six-week tour that took them to theaters all over the continent. It’s the first time that Mason has ever travelled on a tour bus, and he didn’t even get his own since the whole band shared one. “Normally [on Pink Floyd tours] there was a charter jet and a limo and all the rest of it,” he says. “I have to say that I don’t miss any of that. Unfortunately, I slipped on the washroom floor on the first day of traveling and hit my shoulder. But it’s gotten better and I’m having fun. I mean, I have sat in the bus thinking, you know what else I could be doing at the moment? And it always comes back to this is where I’d like to be now.”
Vocal duties in Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets are shared between Guy Pratt and Gary Kemp, but nobody stands in the center of the stage. “We wanted to put the focus back onto Nick,” says Kemp. “There’s nobody standing in front of him. It’s really the sense that it’s his legacy we’re all here to honor. He could never have been substituted in Floyd with any other drummer. He had such a style of his own and I think he needs his own applause and he’s finally getting it.”
And despite some concerns that audiences in America would be baffled by a show that featured almost no famous songs ever heard on classic-rock radio, they’ve received a rapturous reception everywhere they’ve gone. At the Beacon Theatre, there wasn’t even a single request for a hit song. “Frankly,” says Mason, “if you want to hear ‘Money’ and ‘Comfortably Numb,’ you’re better off with Roger, David and the Australian Pink Floyd Show.”
What you can’t get seeing any of those other acts are Saucerful of Secrets set highlights like the hard-rock aggression of “The Nile Song,” a long jam on the trippy “Atom Heart Mother” and the surreal journey of “Set the Controls of the Heart of the Sun.” During the latter song at the Beacon Theatre, a figure in black walked on from the side of the stage to tackle lead vocals. Once the crowd realized it was Roger Waters — playing with Mason for the first time since 2013 — they went completely insane. “We’re very, very close and old friends,” Waters told the stunned audience. “Loving the show, by the way, Nick. My considered opinion is that you sounded a lot better than we did back in the day.”
Future plans for the group are unclear, but Mason is already talking about bringing the show all over the world and possibly making a live album. Nobody is happier about all this than the drummer’s wife, Nettie, who has had a long career as an actress in England. She ducks in to say hello shortly before the show at the Beacon begins. “I’m thrilled he’s finally done this,” she says. “Should I tell you why? For the first time he’s a celebrity in his own right.”
For Mason, that is a very strange thought. “I originally thought when we put this together that we were just a band,” he says. “What I now realize is much more that I end up — I don’t mean carrying it, because it’s not that at all — but there is a sort of importance to my position in it that I hadn’t quite expected.”
At the Beacon Theatre after party, as Waters huddles in a corner for a long chat with Bruce Willis, Mason greets a steady stream of well-wishers like former Pink Floyd touring keyboardist Jon Carin and their former concert promoter Michael Cohl. His button-down white shirt is still dripping with sweat from the show and he’s beaming with joy. ”I thought Roger was joking when he asked if he could play a song with us,” he says. “I feel elated right now, but that’s generally how I feel after most of the shows. What’s not to like about this?”