Over the last decade, Steve Mason has performed under many guises. He’s been the deep-voiced frontman of the underappreciated Scottish astro-folk crew the Beta Band and the brains behind the melodic King Biscuit Time and dark electro project Black Affair. On his new album Boys Outside, however, Mason appears with a new moniker: Steve Mason. “There was a period when I literally had six or seven MySpaces, all with different kinds of names, all with different kinds of music, all with only four or five friends, and I thought, ‘This is crazy, it’s time to just consolidate everything,’ ” Mason tells Rolling Stone. “It felt like I should just stand up and be counted this time as opposed to just hiding behind another pseudonym.” That wasn’t Mason’s only motivation for finally releasing music under his own name. “Personally, Boys Outside is such a good album, I want to take the glory for it,” he says.
Mason’s confidence reflects a bend he’s rounded both musically and personally since the Beta Band split in 2004 — he infamously branded the group’s self-titled major label debut as “a crock of shit” to the press prior to its release — but Boys Outside, which is out now in the States, more than backs up his exuberance. Over the album’s 10 tracks, Mason’s ear for off-kilter yet infectious melodies merges with his most striking and personal lyricism to date. The abstract poetry that was a trademark of the Beta Band has been replaced by heartfelt lyrics that detail Mason’s dark battle with depression. “I don’t know if it’s getting older and being less interested in metaphor and trying to hide behind certain things, but it was much more important for me on this record to make it much less open to interpretation, so you can just hear the lyrics once and sort of understand what I was talking about rather than disguising everything,” Mason says.
The Beta Band were saddled with high expectations following the release of The Three EPs, thanks largely to their anthem “Dry the Rain,” a brilliant track packed with a hook so sharp, John Cusack could simply play a few bars of the chorus and instantly sell five copies of it in High Fidelity. The band was an instant critical darling in the final years of the 1990s, scoring major endorsements from Oasis and Radiohead, who took the Beta Band on the road in 2001 after Mason and Co. inked a massive, and ultimately ill-advised, million-pound record contract with EMI in the months before Napster first lit the fuse to the dynamite that would devastate the music industry. Despite three acclaimed albums, the Beta Band never came close to earning back EMI’s million-pound advance — “That’s a debt to leave the grandkids. That’s not going away in a hurry,” Mason jokes — and the group disbanded following the release of 2004’s Heroes to Zeros. Still, the band enjoys a cult following, and its fans are now devoted to the Aliens, featuring the Beta’s Robin Jones, John Maclean and onetime member Gordon “Lone Pigeon” Anderson, and Mason’s many projects.
However, many of the personal demons Mason suppressed during his EMI tenure came to the forefront following the dissolve of the Beta Band. “After I finished the Beta Band, I finished with my girlfriend at the same time. I’m not really sure what happened, but I just had a massive mental breakdown. It was pretty horrendous,” Mason says. For two rock-bottom weeks, Mason literally disappeared. “I was just driving around, trying to find a tree to crash into at high speed,” Mason reveals. With the help of a new relationship and a new doctor, Mason managed to dig himself out of his trough. “It was one of many dark periods in my life, but they’re behind me now,” he says.
Mason’s journey out of the darkness is the backbone of Boys Outside. “When I was depressed, it took me years before I decided to actually go on anti-depressants because I was worried it’d take away my muse, the thing I wrote about. But it didn’t, and that was quite a relief to find that out,” Mason says. The album mixes songs of suicide pacts (“Lost and Found”) and passionate lovelorn ballads (“I Let Her In”) with tracks about redemption (“Boys Outside”). On the striking closer “Hound on My Heels,” inspired by blues legend Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” Mason, at his most raw, expresses his fear that while he escaped his depression for now, the ominous and unshakable emotion might return. It’s not the type of honesty a listener would expect in pop music, and for Beta fans, it’s miles away from the Beach Boys bounce of “Round the Bend.” But making listening to Mason’s personal turmoil enjoyable is a layer of glean provided by Boys Outside producer Richard X, a veteran of pop acts like the Sugababes, Annie and Kelis.
“I always wanted to work with a pop producer; on the Betas’ Hot Shots II, I wanted to work with Stephen Street, who did a lot of the Smiths stuff and Blur,” Mason says, adding he found unlikely inspiration in Janet Jackson’s Discipline during recording. “Someone like Richard X, he’s best known for pop music, but he’s also done tracks on the first M.I.A. album, he’s working on the new Human League album, so his musical taste is very varied. We just really wanted to try and as best as we could make something that sounded not crazily experimental but original.”
Life away from the major label cushion can be difficult for an artist, which Mason has learned firsthand in his post-Beta career. “I’ve never really earned money from music. There’s just no money in the industry at all,” Mason says. “I understand that people don’t want to pay for music anymore, but what I don’t understand how they expect quality products to be available to them if they’re not prepared to pay for it. I think some sort of happy medium has to happen. It’s exciting times, but it’s just really hard to keep going and to keep afloat. I do think ultimately it’s a good thing that major labels are on their knees crippled, but we’ve still got a long way to go in the music industry before anything is sorted out.”
Mason has also returned to the live stage with a series of dates in the U.K., including a slot at Glastonbury, and hopes to make his long-awaited return to the U.S. in the coming months. While festivals around the world have come down with reunion fever and are willing to open their wallets to make it happen, Mason says he hasn’t yet received any “serious” offers to reunite the Beta Band, adding he was satisfied with the band’s final concerts in 2004 as a proper sendoff.
“It’s not something that’s in my periphery vision,” Mason said of a reunion. Still, six years after their split, fans and critics alike to support Mason’s post-Beta endeavors, and the critical response to Boys Outside in Europe has enlivened Mason as an artist. “It’s filled me with a lot of confidence that there’s such good will out there for me, people wanted me to make a good album, it make you feel good and warms your heart that people are behind, and just as much as they want you to make a good record, you want to make one as well.”
Watch the video for Mason’s “Lost and Found”: