Beta Band founder Steve Mason’s new album is a call for people to take stock of what’s going on in the world. By David Pollock
Any new record by Steve Mason is a cause for celebration among those who follow his career. Yet when the lead track of his new album Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time debuted online earlier this year, the effect was to cause a sharp intake of breath amongst his followers.
Set to an Adam Curtis-style video of dystopian found footage and clips from last year’s London riots, the former Beta Band singer had composed a dense, moody urban soundtrack comprising stabbing strings and a lean bassline reminiscent of the ghetto funk of the 1960s and 70s. If the record is a suitably glowering soundtrack, however, the lyrics are like nothing else in contemporary music – or certainly nothing else created by a white male who at one time had a foot in the door of the mainstream.
“At what point do you think it’s time to act?” intones Mason in his signature half-sung, half-rapped whisper. And then, as the strings spiral and rise, and tear gas canisters explode amid Metropolitan Police sentinels in faceless black, the chorus becomes a mantra: “You get up and fight them back / a fist, a boot and a baseball bat.”
It was a brave, provocative piece of work, particularly in a climate where popular music artists don’t speak of such things either because they’re too ill-informed to comment or because they’re too career-minded to risk rocking the boat.
Contrary to what Fight Them Back suggests, though, Mason doesn’t advocate open insurrection on the streets. He believes that protest – peaceful and non-peaceful – helps feed an unhelpful narrative that voicing dissent means causing trouble, particularly where tactics like kettling are used.
“I was in Hackney during the riots,” he says, “and I felt like crying when I saw these kids, the first thing they did was break into the JD Sports shop at Hackney Central. I watched them do that and I found it so incredibly sad, to watch this group of youths who were obviously angry about the situation they were in in their lives deciding, ‘What we have to do right now is nick all the trainers we can’t afford.’ It’s like the brain of a f***ing consumer. It’s absolutely tragic, but it’s a beautiful example of where the youth of this country are at at the moment.”
The album itself isn’t a feast of polemic, but rather a rich and tune-filled exhortation to live our lives as human beings instead of consumers.
“It’s always my intention to better myself,” says Mason from his home near St Andrews, “and I mean that genuinely, it’s not just some sales pitch. I think it’s really important if you’re any kind of artist to constantly be pushing yourself, to constantly be trying to do better. This was one of the hardest records I’ve ever made because Boys Outside, my last record, was one of the best I’d ever made and I felt quite intimidated by it.”
Yet the difference between the two is marked, not so much musically, but within the structure and purpose of Monkey Minds.
“It’s meant to be two stories running parallel to one another,” says Mason, who jokes that he doesn’t object to the terms “concept album” for this suite of nine songs and various other instrumental and spoken-word interludes. “It’s my own story, from about 14 or 15 years old until now, and also loosely the story of mankind. It’s trying to get across the sense that you’re born into a battle that you didn’t know was taking place and that you have to figure it out for yourself.”
The opening spoken word excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy – castigating usurers and lenders of money – sets the tone, and establishes the targets of Mason’s anger. “Who am I fighting?” he rejoins. “Essentially I’m fighting the plutocratic establishment that’s in place pretty much all over the world: the banks, the energy companies and the military-industrial complex, elements which are causing huge amounts of pain, destruction and death in their pursuit of unrestricted capitalism. We’ve stopped living the way we should be living. All we are now as human beings is little consumers, we’ve been stamped with a brand as we come out of our mothers’ wombs.
“It’s an album about human politics, the very intrinsic things that we’re losing as human beings, the connections that we’re losing between each other, which are being systematically drummed out of us over the course of our lives.”
The record touches upon what Mason calls “the Great Fear” – “There’s always somebody else to blame: the asylum seekers, the people on income support, Muslims. What you find in situations like this is, the people who are telling you who to blame are the ones you should be afraid of.” He say his role as a musician is to protest in the most potent way possible – to start a dialogue between people.
“Me and my friends talk about this, but there’s no point in sitting in a room with your friends patting each other’s backs. It’s the people who don’t necessarily think like us, who think it’s insane to think that we don’t live in a democracy, these are the people that you need to attempt to convince.
“There are terrifying beasts rampaging around and they don’t care about anyone but themselves.
“That’s the whole idea of the album title – the monkey mind, the mind that’s never restful and that never contemplates what has been and what might be. Take some time. Stop. Read some books. Learn about some of the things the album’s talking about. See if you agree, see if you don’t agree. Start putting the dots together. Because there’s a much, much bigger picture here and it’s something we all need to be made aware of very quickly. We cannot let the dark forces win.”
• Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time is released on 11 March by Double Six. Steve Mason plays King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow, 9 April. stevemasontheartist.com