“Just for once, we couldn’t find an anniversary,” Nick Mason says with a laugh, explaining the imminent arrival of Unattended Luggage, a new box set of the Pink Floyd drummer’s solo work, on August 31st. The three-disc reissue, in vinyl and CD editions, collates Mason’s eclectic releases under his own name in the early and mid-1980s, as Pink Floyd hit their theatrical peak with The Wall, then ruptured over creative control and direction. Nick Mason’s Fictitious Sports, made in 1979 but not issued until 1981, was the drummer’s holiday in the jazz avant-garde, recorded with a large corps of American musicians performing compositions by the pianist Carla Bley. The synth-heavy prog-pop of Profiles, from 1985, and the 1987 film score White of the Eye came out of an extended period of collaboration with 10cc guitarist Rick Fenn that included creating music for advertisements and documentary soundtracks.
“It was a very dead time,” Mason says, referring to the four years between The Final Cut, the Floyd’s last album with bassist Roger Waters in 1983, and the group’s late-Eighties rebirth with Mason, guitarist David Gilmour and keyboard player Richard Wright. And, the drummer insists, “I found this other work absolutely fulfilling,” including the commercials. “‘Jingle’ is such a derogatory word. But if you get it right, there is a great sense of satisfaction.”
Mason is also on the phone from London to enthuse about his return to live performance – 13 years after the classic Floyd lineup’s last concert appearance in 2005, at the Live 8 concert in London’s Hyde Park – with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, his first band as a leader. The quintet features Mason, now 74, and bassist Guy Pratt, who played with the post-Waters Floyd and Gilmour’s solo band, with an unlikely pair of deep-cut fans – guitarists Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet and Lee Harris from Ian Dury’s Blockheads – specializing in the Floyd’s psychedelic and space-rock canons prior to 1973’s The Dark Side of the Moon, with an emphasis on the compositions of founding guitarist Syd Barrett.
The set lists at Saucerful of Secrets’ four London club shows in May included the Floyd’s early, improvising signature “Interstellar Overdrive”; the galactic title piece from Gilmour’s 1968 debut, A Saucerful of Secrets; rare outings of songs from the ’69 and ’72 soundtracks, More and Obscured by Clouds; and, in the encore, “Point Me at the Sky,” a 1968 single that Mason can’t remember ever playing live with the Floyd. He tours England and Europe with his Saucerful of Secrets in September and expects to bring the group to America in 2019.
“Both of them have different areas that they like or don’t like,” Mason explains when asked how his shows differ from the Floyd material that Waters and Gilmour have featured with their solo bands. “David was adamant that he didn’t want to do ‘The Nile Song’ [from More] whereas Guy was mad keen to do it with us.”
Mason admits that he checked in with Waters and Gilmour before launching Saucerful of Secrets. “I thought it would be good manners, and they were both supportive,” the drummer says. “Roger even said he would come down and sing one of the songs one night.”
You once described Fictitious Sports as an “exercise.” What did you mean by that?
It was slightly off-the-wall music – and quite difficult. A lot of the music is relatively sophisticated for a four-on-the-floor rock drummer. I saw it as something that was good for me as well as enjoyable – a bit like going to the gym.
What was the impetus to make a solo record? The main sessions – in upstate New York in October 1979 – took place right as Pink Floyd were preparing to release The Wall.
Contractually, the record company had agreed that we could all make solo albums. Secondly, we were on tax exile from England. It made much better sense – I’ve only just remembered this now – to do it then [in America] rather than wait until we were back home.
I actually didn’t have enough material for a complete record – a mix of bits and pieces that I thought might be pushed into shape. But I heard Carla’s songs and thought, “This is a God-given opportunity. Let’s just do the Carla thing.” People were confused by the idea that this was a solo album, which it wasn’t at all. It was an opportunity for me to use what should have been a solo album to make a Carla Bley album.
In the early and mid-Seventies, you had a sideline producing records for other artists. What did you bring as a producer to albums as different as Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt (1974) and Music for Pleasure (1977) by the punk group the Damned? According to legend, the Damned originally wanted Barrett to produce that LP.
Funnily enough, someone else was talking about the Damned yesterday. They had asked [bassist] Captain Sensible about this idea of bringing Syd in, and he denied it: “No, no, we never really wanted Syd.” That could be the Captain lying through his teeth, which he is perfectly capable of doing [laughs].
What I might have brought to the Damned would have been different from what I brought to, say, Gong [Shamal, 1967]. Mostly, it was the organization of recording, particularly in the old days, when you only had eight tracks [on tape] – the organization of getting everything that was wanted on the record, down on the relevant tracks at the right time, in the right order.
Is that the architecture student in you – able to see things in a very precise manner, building something that has structural integrity?
I think so. I don’t have the ability to write brass parts or write the next middle-eight section for the song. But after 10 years of Pink Floyd, I’d learned quite a lot about the technical side of how to get things on tape, how to drop in and out with instruments in different places.
Profiles could not be more different from Fictitious Sports – very Eighties pop, heavy on the keyboards and made with a guitarist from 10cc.
The connection was [10cc’s] Eric Stewart. I knew Eric quite well. He had a car accident which put him out of business for a long time. So Rick had very little to do. Rick probably instigated it: “Well, let’s do something.” I’m like that. Someone else needs to start it – “Oh, alright” – rather than me going, “Why don’t we?”
You are co-credited as a composer on most of the tracks. Were you writing drum ideas that Fenn could work from?
It was a funny combination. A lot of it was not keyboards at all. It was Rick on guitar saying, “What about this?” I’m not really a composer at all. But I can give an opinion. We’d accumulated a lot of ideas – bits and pieces, part of it through doing commercials and documentaries. It was sort of “Let’s try and use these in a better way,” rather than leaving them on the floor.
How did you get Gilmour to sing on the song “Lie for a Lie”? There was no Floyd at that point. It would be two years before you and he restarted the band.
It was a very dead time, which is why I was even more committed to working with Rick. Roger was grumbling about on his own. He was already sidelined – or sidelining himself – and David was considering his options. I just went to David and said, “We’ve got this song, would you consider singing on it?” He said sure. And it was so easy for him.
Did it feel like a step back from the Floyd’s progressive-music ideals to do music for commercials? And was any of it for products that I might know, like breakfast cereals?
We did one or two quite grand advertisements – one for Timex that I think ran during the Super Bowl. And we did a whole bunch of average ones. But the guy who was doing far more jingles than we were was [organist] Mike Ratledge from [the jazz-rock band] Soft Machine. So we were in great company.
Before you announced the release of the new box set, I’d never even heard of that film, White of the Eye. Then I remembered where I heard the name of the director, Donald Cammell. He directed the 1970 film Performance, with Mick Jagger.
He co-directed it with Nicholas Roeg. Everyone remembers Nick Roeg and not Donald sadly. I think he never recovered from that.
White of the Eye came and went. It was a pretty grisly film, but well made. The record company brought Donald in to make a video of “Lie for a Lie.” He was in production for White of the Eye at the time, and he’d heard some of the things Rick and I were doing. It wouldn’t have been my number-one film to work on. I’m more of a Sound of Music man myself [laughs].
What was Cammell like as a director? He was interested in some dark ideas, like the works of Aleister Crowley.
He was a dark character. There was a sense that he was not a happy person. He was quite a gifted director but headed in a gloomy way. He ended up committing suicide some years later. But he was easy to work with. He was clear about what he wanted, what he liked and didn’t like. It wasn’t like working with Michaelangelo Antonioni. [The Floyd contributed music to the mercurial Italian director’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point.] Frankly after working with Antonioni, anything was preferable.
You and Fenn did music for two more films, Body Contact (1987) and Tank Malling (1988), but those scores are not in the box set.
No. They’re not very good. And that’s a kind way of putting it. Also, once the Mark II Floyd was up and running, that was it. It’s about opportunity, what’s on offer. I always still consider anything that anyone wants me to do. There is a lot to be said for never turning things down. You might feel you’ve made a mistake afterwards, but it’s better to have a go. It’s important, that feeling that you’re still in there doing it. Otherwise, you could easily find yourself becoming a used-car salesman and never going back.
Is that impulse to stay involved, connected to the music, what inspired your Saucerful of Secrets band?
Yes, but it’s a much stronger one, because it’s about revisiting the feelings I had in 1967 – the rekindling of that enthusiasm. One of the drivers was the exhibit at the V&A [“Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains,” first staged at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2017, now in Rome]. I really enjoyed working on it. But at the end, I felt like a national monument, that it was all about ancient history. I thought, “I like this, but not as much as what I remember,” which was playing drums with like-minded people on stage.
And playing the early Pink Floyd stuff doesn’t impinge on what Roger or David do or what [the tribute band] the Australian Pink Floyd do. I could find myself a comfortable niche and do it for the sheer joy.
How do you put the shows together? The set lists I’ve seen open with a lot of the Barrett era but also represent other, distinct phases as the Floyd evolved out of psychedelia and space rock into something more conceptually ambitious.
We did what you might call “the easy ones” first. We started with “Interstellar Overdrive,” played it and thought, “This could work.” Then there was, “Can we do ‘Bike’ [the last track on the U.K. pressing of 1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn]?” Well, yes, we could. But it took a while to sort it out.
What was interesting was how quite often the song was more complex than you remember. I’m reminded of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” where you think it’s just straight fours bashing through, and Ringo Starr smooths it off. But the reality is more complex. Some of the songs we’re playing need to be learned. “Point Me at the Sky” is still a bit of a struggle. That can benefit from more rehearsal.
Are there any songs you are thinking of adding in the next shows? I was going to suggest “Scream Thy Last Scream” [a Barrett song and the A side of an unreleased 1967 single, sung by Mason].
[Laughs] Oh, I think that’s unlikely. The prospect of dealing with that is tricky. But I would certainly like to have a crack at [the B side] “Vegetable Man.”
Both songs finally appeared, officially, in the massive 2016 archival set The Early Years 1965-1972. Is there anything left in the cupboard for a follow-up?
Not that I know of. The only thing we’ll probably do is a release of [1977’s] Animals, with new remastering.
Are there any live shows from that tour to go with it?
Not that we can think of [laughs]. But we’ll keep looking.