A Chat with Pink Floyd's Nick Mason


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By Dennis Cook

Pink Floyd's music is WAY beyond mere entertainment or distraction. It's a skeleton key to unlocking things that are hard to put into words, and thus something fans keep close to the breast, cherished for its real world value and depth of understanding of the human condition. To call the band influential sells short the massive cultural ripples they've generated.

Unlike many groups that emerged in the late 1960s, even the best ones, Pink Floyd's music doesn't feel dated, its sustained relevance humming in every aspect. Which makes the new catalog reissue program, Why Pink Floyd?, a welcome thing even in this atmosphere of money grabbing reissue mania. The band's catalogue has never been wholly well represented on CD, and this new program will encompass CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, SACD, an array of digital formats, iPhone apps, and a brand-new single-album “Best Of" collection. The series began on September 26th with expanded deluxe and special edition versions of The Dark Side Of The Moon, in a 6-disc 'Immersion' box set and 'Experience' 2-disc version, as well as a collectors' Vinyl LP and various digital formats. Plus 14 digitally remastered studio albums are available separately or as a box set, with further 'Experience' and 'Immersion' sets scheduled for Wish You Were Here and The Wall in the coming months.

We had the great honor of sitting down with Pink Floyd's drummer Nick Mason, who holds the distinction of being the only band member to play in every incarnation of the group.

JamBase: You don't always get the credit you deserve in Pink Floyd. It's not an exaggeration to say that your playing is the heartbeat within the body you built together. How did you approach drumming in this band? You really take a very different tact towards percussion, especially compared to your peers in the era when Pink Floyd began.

Nick Mason: I think that's true, and it's quite an interesting question. I've been thinking about it a little bit, and I think the answer is we did quite early on become a studio band, and I think it was the studio that affected that particularly. When I look at the people I really admired, which were the sort of wild men of the period—Ginger Baker, Keith Moon—what they did was so much about live performance, whereas what we did, even early on, found ourselves in the studio, which is not suited to wild man drum performances [laughs]. Particularly our music, which tends to need to be layered up quite carefully, especially in an era that was four-tracks. The drums and bass would be set in stone very early on, and for that reason it became absolutely necessary to keep the drumming as sparse as possible. There are odd moments where you hear me clattering around in a wilder way, but in general, the thing that worked—and one does want to go into the control room and hear things working within the overall track—and the way forward was to pare things down rather than fill them up.

JamBase: Is it a challenge to translate that style of drumming to the live setting?

Nick Mason: Funnily enough, that transition isn't as difficult as you might think. Dark Side is a particularly good example. That's a record made with a LOT of layering, a LOT of overdubs and guitar parts and so on, but we could take it out and just find other ways of playing music so it has the same style as the record but it just isn't played with the same level of overlays. It was done with bass, drums, keyboards and guitar even before we took on an extra guitarist.

I've always been impressed with Pink Floyd's ability to get this really intimate music across to such massive audiences, to fill and unite a stadium crowd with music. How do you make this stuff work with 75,000 people?

[Laughs] I suppose you utilize whatever you possibly can to engage them. We kicked off with the business of using light shows and continued with that. But there's no doubt that when you have films, explosions and big puppets onstage it does help keep people's attention [laughs]. It's either that or get security to threaten them.

One distinctive trait for Pink Floyd—especially for a band as well known and popular worldwide—is how patient this music can be. There's not a lot of ditties in the Pink Floyd catalog.

Yes, there's not a lot of ditties. We must get some more [laughs]. I'll pop down to Ditties-R-Us. Sometimes one of the reasons the music works is when music is broad brushed and abstract it allows people to build their own thoughts on it. There was a lot of discussion when MTV first started that once you have imagery attached to a piece of music it's very difficult to overlay anything else on it.

That's true, and Pink Floyd's music is highly evocative and cinematic behind your eyelids.

I think so, and that is one of its strengths. People come up to us and say, “I've got it!" and they paint a picture of how they imagine what they music means. Of course, it's whatever one makes of it.

It must be interesting to have a lifetime of people bring these visions and lay them at your feet. Is that gratifying?

It has to be really. The one thing any musician would want is to feel their music made a difference and had actually affected people. It's one of the rewards, if you like.

People are still interested in this music. There's an excitement about the reissue program. I don't think Pink Floyd was well served by the initial wave of CD releases.

I agree. The fascinating thing about CDs is—and what everyone is saying now—is that they prefer vinyl. In some ways, it's a bit demoralizing having gone through all the processes of devising these ultra-clean tracks without a blip or hiss and then hear people say, “Well, we liked it the old way" [laughs]. Having said that, that's going to be one of the changes in the future; if the human ear particularly likes certain sounds like the vinyl style—which is sort of a compressed sound—then I'm sure that's what we'll be downloading—a sound we all find absolutely perfect for ourselves. It is interesting at the end of the day to see the CD failed in that respect.

It's odd that people have an affection for the cracks and hiss of vinyl, though I have some fondness for the experience of turning over an album, the way that blocked off the experience into chapters.

I think people may have forgotten about the hiss and pop [laughs]. What's happening with this [reissue campaign] is we're doing an ultra-high-quality vinyl release, so we'll see how that works out. But you're absolutely right about the chapter thing. I liken it to the Japanese Tea Ceremony. That was part of the pleasure of an album—unwrapping it, taking it out, wiping it free of dust, and placing it carefully on the turntable. We sound about a hundred years old now [laughs].

Artwork also carries through with much more impact on a nearly 13-inch by 13-inch surface instead of a 5-inch by 5-inch card.

The CD booklet was a disaster. We all tried to make it work by miniaturizing things, but anyone over the age of 14 couldn't read a single thing! I suspect there's a future in downloading. Someone showed me the new Bjork downloading package and it's truly stunning. I can see where this is going and people will just be downloading things right to their screens.

Since I have your ear, I want to discuss a few things outside of Pink Floyd in our final minutes. Let's start with your first solo album, Fictitious Sports (1981). I love that album but you haven't made a real sequel.

I have sort of revisited it but one has to accept that it's a relatively minority audience. That all brewed up from working with Robert Wyatt.

Rock Bottom [which Mason produced] remains my favorite Wyatt album all these years on.

Oh, that's wonderful. I'm still quite proud of it. I think it's lasted really well. Funnily enough, they are all sort of interwoven, Robert and Rock Bottom, which was my introduction to what was really an underground music scene. That carried over into Carla [Bley], Mike Mantler, Steve Swallow and a whole bunch of them. For me, I learned so much working with all of them, and I still learn from Mike, who I continue to work with now. That music is still there chugging along in the background.

It shows a side of you as a musician that Pink Floyd just doesn't allow.

It is a bit different [laughs].

As a young punk fan, I was surprised to see your name as the producer on The Damned's Music For Pleasure (1977).

I'd have to say that was one of my less successful ventures. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot but The Damned, at the time, were just in the process of splitting up. It was like working with a schizophrenic. The Captain and Rat Scabies had one idea of what this record was and Brian [James] and Dave Vanian had a completely different idea—it was fairly painful. The story behind it was when they approached our management company they wanted Syd Barrett to produce their record. I was the sort of substitute.

I'm glad you brought up Syd because in many ways there's a renaissance of interest amongst younger bands today for Pink Floyd's early sides with Syd. What you did on Dark Side, Wish You Were Here, etc. has clearly influenced a host of bands, but it's exciting to see musicians in their teens and twenties really sparking off your early work.

I think that's very cool, and it seems sensible—not to take off with elaborate concept albums but to draw from Syd's stillness, his sort of pastoral light songs, and the sometimes real invention of “Interstellar Overdrive." I'm very happy with the concept of people finding Syd as an influence. And there's this slightly tragic character there that can act as a catalyst of how music can tell stories and affect your feelings.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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