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No monkeying around for mason
6:00am Saturday 26th October 2013 in Music
From cult fame with The Beta Band to an unlikely solo career, Steve Mason's hard work is paying off. As he prepares to tour the UK, he tells Andy Welch why he's not stopping to look back.
Steve Mason's getting ready to go to Australia. Just for the day.
"Apparently I was the only man for the job," he says, with a shake of the head, fully aware how ridiculous it is to fly Down Under for one show.
"It's been weighing on my mind, but I've never been there before, so maybe it'll be great," he adds.
It's strange he never made it over to Australia before. Mason was, if you're not up on your late 90s cult folktronica, part of The Beta Band. They were the kind of band that elicited rapturous praise from fellow musicians and serious music fans, yet never quite crossed over to the mainstream, although their three albums did chart at numbers 18, 13 and 18 respectively.
The nearest they got was perhaps the scene in High Fidelity when John Cusack's record shop owner Rob leans to his colleague Dick and says, 'I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band', and starts playing lead track Dry The Rain, prompting all customers in the shop to start bobbing their heads. As predicted, he does sell the five copies.
Since the band broke up in 2004 after expressing their unhappiness with final album Heroes To Zeros, Mason has busied himself with other projects. There was the continuation of his work under the moniker King Biscuit Time, which started between gaps in The Beta Band's schedule, and then electronic album Pleasure Pressure Point under the name Black Affair.
"It's been a weird few years for me since The Beta Band finished," he says. "There have been different projects and then a monumental mental breakdown that led me to not want to make any music for a while. The first thing I did when I was better was Black Affair, which is a good album, I think, but was universally hated by my fans."
He says his first solo album as Steve Mason, 2010's Boys Outside, was like starting over, and that he was lucky he managed to write it. There was a time after The Beta Band when he was working on a building site, so he doesn't seem to take anything for granted.
"In my head at least, there was a lot of pressure to follow up Boys Outside with something very good," he adds. "That was hard, because I think Boys Outside is a really good album, but eventually I managed it. It was also a bit of a gamble, because traditionally political concept albums don't go down very well."
He's talking about Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time, released earlier this year. Taking its name from a Buddhist proverb pertaining to easily distracted brains, it is, like he says, a political concept album, partly inspired by the riots of 2011. Tracks include Fight Them Back, on which Mason is all for taking on the Government with "a fist, a boot and a baseball bat".
"The album's about the way this Government is picking on poor people and attempting to destroy those living on benefits or below the poverty line," he says. "They're relentless and it's horrific. Make no mistake, they'll be coming after me and you soon enough. I can already feel the pinch.
"They're really going for it now, and that's the overall message of the record. The conversation about what we can do to change this needs to happen immediately."
Mason's aware of how he can sound when railing against the Government, but aside from a bit of a rant about British apathy when it comes to saying enough is enough, he's in very good spirits.
It's been a good year for him, one in which he finally feels like he's stepping out from the shadow cast by The Beta Band. He played a handful of live shows around the time of Monkey Minds' release and it was clear from his beaming smile on stage that the crowd's reaction, singing along to songs released just a few weeks previously, moved him.
"I am very grateful that people still want to hear my music, so yes, I have been enjoying it a lot more this time than when I was in The Beta Band. I'm in the headspace where that's possible.
"The singing really got me, too. It was at Glastonbury and Green Man festival over the summer where the crowd were singing along to Oh My Lord. I got a real lump in my throat.
"For any artist who has had some well-known songs, and then the band ends, you always feel you're being measured against what you've done in the past. Hearing people singing to my new songs makes it feel as if I'm being judged outside of the past, which on a personal, possibly egotistical level, is quite important.
"It's hard though. The Beta Band were never a big band, we had a strong cult following - for the people who liked the music, we meant everything to them - so I can only imagine what it's like for people in really successful bands trying to move on with their lives and careers."
For anyone who would like to hear The Beta Band, however, there's a career-spanning boxset, The Regal Years, out now. It features their first three EPs as well as their three albums: The Beta Band, Hot Shots II and Heroes To Zeros.
Mason won't be buying it, however. And he's not entirely sure anyone else will either.
"Will it attract a new audience? Or will it just cause all the people who have those CDs already to moan about being made to buy them again? For me, there will be a time for looking back at what I've done in the past, reminiscing and getting misty-eyed, but that time isn't now.
"I don't spend a lot of time looking back, there's too much excitement ahead of me."
Extra time - Steve Mason
:: Steve Mason was born in Fife, Scotland. He is 40 years old.
:: The Beta Band were formed in 1996 in Edinburgh, and at various times consisted of Mason, John Maclean, Richard Greentree, Robin Jones, Gordon Anderson and Steve Duffield.
:: By the time they split in 2004, they owed record label EMI around £1.2 million.
:: Mason studied kung fu with Shaolin monks for several years.
24 - Inverness Ironworks
25 - Aberdeen Garage
26 - Edinburgh Liquid Rooms
27 - Glasgow ABC
29 - Brighton Concorde 2
31 - London Electric Ballroom
1 - Sheffield Leadmill
2 - Manchester Ritz
4 - Norwich Waterfront
5 - Birmingham Library
6 - Bristol Fleece
8 - Leeds Cockpit
9 - Newcastle Warehouse
:: Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time is out now
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