Countering the current conservatism of mainstream music, Steve Mason is putting politics front and centre in his new album
At a time when grassroots political activism is on the rise, there is cause to wonder: where are all the musicians? The independence referendum galvanised participation from some of the bigger names in Scottish rock and pop, and inspired a handful of tracks from up-and-coming contenders, but where are the Top Ten hits addressing, or even just hinting at, our turbulent times? Sadly, thanks to the current conservatism of the mainstream music industry, they are only to be heard on BBC4’s Top Of The Pops 1981 repeats.
Angry old men Neil Young and Ry Cooder and conscious soul veteran Mavis Staples, with her softer, more inspiring touch, are still dedicated campaigners, but where are the kids? Even Jeremy Corbyn’s energised supporters can only muster former voice-of-an-angel Charlotte Church to join the JC4PM Red Wedge-inspired rolling revue, which hits Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre at the start of next month.
For angry middle-aged man Steve Mason, the problem here is disillusionment with party politics and a suspicion of political culture in general, which he finds reflected by the audiences who come to his gigs.
“People are wanting to have that political discussion,” he says. “They’re angry because they are starting to realise that politics is just a façade and no change is ever going to come from voting. It’s a bit of an epiphany to realise that, but it’s not an empowering thing to think. You feel even more stripped of power when you realise your vote is a waste of time.”
Despite this cynicism, Mason has been chipping away at the coalface ever since his days as frontman of The Beta Band, the gloriously inventive Edinburgh-bred quartet who specialised in pre-millennial psychedelia with oblique political undertones. “When you’re singing over someone playing what sounds like the theme from Noddy on a glockenspiel, it puts people on the back foot so they don’t tend to really listen to what’s actually being said,” Mason says. “But there’s politics in everything I’ve ever done. There’s still politics in this.”
This being Meet The Humans, the third solo album bearing his name – he has also recorded as King Biscuit Time and Black Affair – which musically recalls more innocent indie pop times with its gentle shuffling rhythms, sweet melodies and deeply felt lyrics, delivered in Mason’s deceptively mellow, almost horizontal tones.
“I quite like that, because it’s more menacing,” he says of his impassive voice. “Not that I’m trying to make a menacing album, I’m trying to make an album that’s really beautiful.”
The menace was more overt on Mason’s previous album, the SAY Award-nominated Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time, a bold meditation on personal and political responsibility set against the backdrop of the 2011 London riots, which Mason personally witnessed.
Although Meet The Humans is not conceived on such an audacious scale, Mason is still wrestling with his place in the world, which may or may not be a reaction to his years of depression, now happily behind him. “I like to encapsulate the whole spectrum of what it is to be a human being in my music,” he says. “Sadness, hopefulness, anger, heartbreak – I think it’s important to let people know that everybody feels these things. Nobody should be isolated in their sadness and nobody should be isolated in their happiness either.”
Mason prefers to keep his lyrics open and impressionistic; to do otherwise would be “like pulling the curtain back on the Wizard of Oz – you don’t necessarily want to know all the actual facts. Sometimes it’s much more interesting to develop a relationship with the album yourself, unhindered by what the writer intended.”
However, he is prepared to be drawn on the anger which fuels the album’s opening track Water Bored, which was partly inspired by the rigidly controlled working conditions in call centres – and by friends’ stories of their credulous kids.
“Back when you were a kid you were taught that things like the army and the police and the government and Blue Peter, these are the things that make up Britain, you can trust these institutions, ask a policeman the time and all that, and then you grow up and you realise that these things are not to be trusted, that they are dangerous institutions.”
Careful, Mason, you’re messing with one particular childhood institution cherished above all others…
“Okay, I’m not saying Blue Peter is a dangerous institution, that’s a political hot potato!”
Refreshingly, in the current say-nothing commercial music climate, everything is political to Mason on one level or another. “I think it’s time to look for a total alternative to party politics, this soap opera that we are all fed, masquerading as real politics,” he says. “The frightening thing is how much people lap it up every time. There’s a generational amnesia that seems to happen.
“But I think all these things start with a conversation and with people realising that the enemies that are provided for them by the government are not their real enemies. For me, the problem is capitalism. It’s searching and destroying everything. The end game of capitalism for me is a terrifying prospect and it feels like we are heading towards that.
“When you spend a lot of time looking at the bigger picture you feel like a drop in the Atlantic Ocean and it’s quite disheartening so I think now I’m trying to live my life the best I can and treat everyone I meet with respect, love and compassion and all these things which are of value.”
Mason is also enjoying a stimulating change of scenery following ten years of chilling out in his native Fife.
“It was what I needed at the time,” he says. “I bought a little cottage near St Andrews out in the middle of these woods, literally in the middle of nowhere.
“It was great because I could record all the time, but the amenities consisted of a turnip field and a phone box and I don’t really need either of those things. I came back off tour a few years ago and thought ‘What the hell are you doing here, there’s nothing here, I’m going to leave’.”
Mason had previously lived in London for many years and its intensity no longer appealed, so instead he moved to Brighton, the unique seaside town that never shuts down, and is home to fellow creatives from Nick Cave to Primal Scream. “It’s the sort of place you never know who you are going to bump into and I really like that about it. There’s always some strange character you can chat to and it just makes life a hell of a lot more interesting.”
In fact, when I speak to Mason, he has just celebrated a hearty Burns night with Primal Scream keyboard player Martin Duffy. “I got a really good recipe for whisky sauce off a mate of mine in Prestonpans, had the full haggis, bit of Jimmy Shand on the jukebox.” Any poetry recitations? “No, we couldn’t be arsed with any of that.”
Meet The Humans is released by Domino on Friday. Steve Mason plays the Liquid Room, Edinburgh, on 26 April. www.stevemasontheartist.com