[22 min read + 12 min media]
As you might have already figured, an editorial project such as beats per image has been in the works for quite a few years now. Things started to take shape in 2010 with the launch of MUSIKKI, an music platform with a relational search algorithm that associates scattered content from across the web in order to offer updated content (bios, discography, news, reviews, links and gigs) and services (streaming, purchases and curated recommendations) for online music lovers. This year we also launched EXCLUSIPH, a platform that aims to be the official place for high-quality music images meticulously indexed and associated with press releases, available through embed, download and public API. In the interim, we nurtured an on-going dialogue with musicians, fans and key-players of the music business in order to get their paramount input and calibrate our online services. Some very interesting editorial content was produced during these contacts and we thought that it would definitely make sense to share it with our readers in a section we named THE VAULT.
The first installment of this trip through our memory lane is a interview conducted in April 2013 to Steve Mason, the former leader of The Beta Band, who had at the time released his stellar sophomore solo album. Obviously, many things happened in the last three years, but some of them (Brexit and Trump) make us acknowledge how prescient were his concerns regarding music business and neoliberalism, particularly in an era in which populism and demagogy threatens cast their shadow upon the Western world.
The man who once defined his life as “lying in bed in the sunlight” when he was, at the same time, showing that there were still new and stimulating musical paths to be explored in a Great Britain dominated by Britpop, sounds nowadays definitely happy with his life, alert to the world around him and focused on his work. There are no signs in both Steve Mason’s voice and answers of the depression that once menaced his post-Beta Band career and his new record, Monkey’s Minds in the Devil’s Time, is here to prove that the exploratory approach and sense of groove of his former band haven’t abandoned him. In fact, his songs have become broader and more universal than ever, portraying how politics have become an inevitable subject in everyone’s highly mediated lives. As he says, we are all children under the sun and, after all, music and other art forms have always been an efficient way to remind us of this sheer brotherhood.
How did you digest the death of Margaret Thatcher? The reactions have been quite polarizing. Do you have any memories of Thatcherism?
Well, I was very young. Though I do remember some things, like the miners strike, they didn’t really affect me so much. I do remember people being politically active and telling me how horrible she was. My information about her and what she’s done was gathered afterwards and I spent some time, a few years ago, reading about her and her government, plus I saw many movies and documentaries and the whole thing seemed to me very brutal, frightening, callous and heartless.
But I have to say that she was one of the many prime ministers that we had in the United Kingdom who have been what you might call a “safe pair of hands” for the establishment. She’d been carrying out orders from a higher power, for the people who are really in charge of the world: military industrial complexes, energy companies and international banks. These are the real people who call the shots on politicians. And Tony Blair was a great example of Thatcherism. He was not really a Labour politician in the traditional sense: he was just another safe pair of hands that would do whatever was asked of him in order to get the job done.
That’s what you meant when you tweeted recently that Thatcherism isn’t dead?
Exactly. It’s not dead at all. Now, we have David Cameron who’s a fucking bastard. He’s punishing the poor, attacking the middle-class, taking what little we have away from us and allowing large business companies to do whatever they want in our country. There are no real unions anymore, working conditions and wages are terrible and the banks are out of control. Honestly, it’s quite terrifying.
Both press and fans seemed quite surprised with the alleged political content of your new record. Even those who were aware of your 2001 beef with Bush, while supporting Radiohead in the States with The Beta Band, seem to have been caught off-guard with the unapologetic political content of «Fight Them Back». Do you think the “political” tag does justice to the content of your new record?
Yes, but only if you realize that it’s not a political record in the sense of left wing or right wing or liberal. What I mean is: forget about traditional politics, it simply doesn’t work. Traditional politics has been bought and sold by the people who are really in control of the world. And that’s nonsense. Politics for me is about what does it mean to be a human being in 2013. We are all on the edge of having to make some very serious decisions about where we go as a species. Do we want to live under extreme oppression? Do we want to live in a place where things like love, compassion and beauty are not valued? Do we want to work and work and work and work and then die? Is that what we want? Well, I certainly don’t want that for me and I don’t want that for my fellow human beings. This is not what life is about. Life should be a fantastic experience. As a human being, you are given a great responsibility to do either incredible or bad things. And I think we are all right now being shaped in a terrible way from birth. The values we are given are wrong. Life is not about accumulating money and working all the time to pay the mortgage or the electricity bills.
And then there’s this fear everywhere: fear of terrorism, fear of illness, fear of North Korea. These things are just fantasies, inventions. What we really need to be afraid is of the people who are telling us who we should be afraid of. These are the dangerous people in our society. And we let them get control, because we didn’t realize that people could be so bad and manipulative. But they can. Because capitalism values things like lack of empathy and heartlessness, while compassion, taking care of people and not being greedy are cast aside as if they were worthless.
So, yes: it is a political album, but I would never say I am left or right wing. This whole system is out-dated; it feels like it’s a game to me. It has no real substance.
Though the title of your album, Monkey’s Minds in the Devil’s Time, can be understood as a rather direct reference to the Internet age, in which we are bombarded by a constant flux of information, your record seems to be quite a fascinating response to the way music is being consumed nowadays. To begin with, it does sound like a concept album…
You’re right, it is a concept album.
And is there a concept in it other than it being a “real” album in an age where people rather listen to individual tracks than to an aligned set of songs?
Well, I did want to make a record that when you saw it on iTunes, you didn’t just buy two or three tracks, but you wanted to sit down and give an hour of your time in order to experience it wholly the way full albums used to be enjoyed. Albums are something that I really miss. Great records from the 70s like Tommy, Quadrophenia or The Wall are albums that are still worth giving up your time for. And that’s what I wanted to try to create. I mean, that’s what everybody should be doing actually: to put your maximum effort on every track.
Politics for me is about what does it mean to be a human being. We are all on the edge of having to make some very serious decisions about where we go as a species. Do we want to live under extreme oppression? Do we want to live in a place where things like love, compassion and beauty are not valued? Well, I certainly don’t want that for me and I don’t want that for my fellow human beings.
Were the eleven self-produced links (that give, I must say, a tremendous cohesion to the record) recorded before or after the London sessions with Dan Carey?
They were recorded before the London sessions. In fact, I had the whole album already recorded when I started to work with Dan Carey. But we decided to re-record sort of nine “main” tracks.
And how was it to record with Dan Carey? I’m asking that because your self-produced snippets sound, at least to my ears, quite well integrated in the overall sound production and design…
Well, the whole thing in London was a co-production between Dan and me. The idea of re-working those nine track was to make them sound perhaps a bit bigger and a bit more polished than the other ones in between in order to give the record some kind of texture, to make it less linear and more like a journey. You know, like looking at many different pictures instead of just one.
One thing that really stroke me while listening to your new record, was that it filled me with an urge to dance. Was that your intention when you were working on it? I mean, even the political content of some songs seemed frankly secondary compared to the overall groove.
Yes, absolutely. The album I did before, Boys Outside, was quite slow and there weren’t really any danceable tracks on it. And because I knew the subject matter was quite heavy on this new record, I wanted to somehow balance it with more upbeat and danceable music. If you want to get a message across, you want the people to come together, to move, to feel connected and excited about the fact we are all human beings. Actually, every great protest song is like that. I mean, think of James Brown or Curtis Mayfield: you can really dance to their tracks. And they are way more powerful because of that.
In the peak of his popularity as a political singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan famously said that he considered himself a “song and dance man”. Would you define yourself as one as well?
[Laughs] I think I always thought of myself as an artist. It just happened that music and songs are the format I chose to express my art to the world. I know that some people don’t like that word – they think it’s pretentious or that you’re just trying to make yourself more important than you are. But I think art is essential, even though it is, at least nowadays, quite undervalued. Music doesn’t really feel particularly artistic anymore, especially popular music. It doesn’t feel like there’s any art in it anymore at all, but more like a marketing campaign or product, as if money could write a song by itself. Well, that’s not art; it’s just a marketing exercise. So, for people like me, it’s very important to try to maintain the standards and recognize that what we are trying to do is art and that it’s a very important form of human expression.
My listening habits have changed so much that I don’t really listen to very much music these days. Now you have the Internet, which is like the biggest record shop in the world, where everything is mixed up together. And it’s way too much information for me to process.
As a Portuguese and French native speaker, I couldn’t help to be fascinated with the “Last of the Heroes” track in which you sample a race-commentary of a Senna/Prost race. Was Senna really your last hero? And why?
Senna represents a lot of things to me. First of all, he was a man who was extremely focused on reaching his goals. And though there is a beauty to that kind of commitment, it is also frightening because it can make you selfish and self-centred.
And do you think he sometimes crossed that line?
I think at times he did, but I also think he was always aware of it and that it hurt him. But I also think he would do it all over again if he could go back. It’s very interesting thing that, when Prost retired, Senna would call him on the phone to tell how he missed him and that he wanted to race against him again. I think that Senna realized that almost from the moment he jumped into a Formula 1 car his goal was to beat Prost, because Prost was the best. And then, when he almost fully achieved that, Prost left Formula 1. When Senna died, Schumacher was coming in and Schumacher represented to me the first generation of drivers that seemed very cold, as if he represented all the bad parts about Senna and none of the good ones. Senna had this amazing personality: he was very intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate – but also frighteningly competitive. And then you had Schumacher, who was just like a machine and he really introduced a new generation that was unable to express their personality because of all the sponsors and financial aspects that dominate Formula 1 to this date. So, for me, Senna was in fact the last of the real heroes, the last of the men who were prepared to put their lives on the line every weekend for something that they believed in and something that they loved more than life itself.
The most popular social tags on the Web about your work are: “indie”, “electronic”, “Scottish”, “dance” and “acoustic”. Do you identify with those labels? If you could, what would you add?
[Laughs] I think I would have “genius”…
With a capital G, right?
[Laughs] Exactly! So: “Genius”, “hip-hop”, “dub”, “acoustic”…
What about “Scottish”?
[Pause] Well, no, because I don’t feel patriotic. I think that labelling yourself like that is just another layer that separates human beings from themselves. I believe we are all children under the sun.
Have your listening habits changed in the last few years? Do you still buy vinyl and CDs? Do you use YouTube or online streaming services to discover new music?
My listening habits have changed so much that I don’t really listen to very much music these days. I tend to read more books or to listen to their audio version. The days where you used to walk to a record shop to discover what was new are gone. Now you have the Internet, which is like the biggest record shop in the world, where everything is mixed up together. And it’s way too much information for me to process.
What’s your take on the status quo of the music industry? I mean, even when money was flowing, back in the nineties, you never seemed to have a healthy, let alone wealthy, relationship with the music business.
I think it’s all very interesting. First of all, the people that were making money with music are gone, because there is no real money to be made in music nowadays. Everyone who was in it for the money went to do other things. So what you have left in the music industry are all people who love music, the people who want to make it happen and would do everything to make it happen. And that’s a much healthier environment for things to grow and for exciting things to happen.
The negative aspect is that it is more difficult to make things happen. The online streaming companies, for instance, don’t really pay the artists. That really needs to change because, at the moment, it’s all a complete rip-off.
During the nineties, there was a time where the full spectrum of pop artists, from Thom Yorke to Noel Gallagher, seemed anxious to produce a “Beta Band” type of record. Nowadays, we have popular bands like Django Django that really sound as Beta Band followers. Is this all non-sense to you or are you aware of your tremendous influence on the musical landscape?
[Long pause] The idea of The Beta Band was to try to be original and to try to take things from different places, put them together and then turn them into something new. The Beta Band was always about to never stand still and to move forward. So, to hear that other bands sound like The Beta Band is a little bit disappointing, because that wasn’t really the idea for us. It’s all very strange. The press always struggled to define the sound of The Beta Band. So, now, to hear someone say “oh this band sounds like The Beta Band” makes me think that they must really sound like The Beta Band, because back in the day we didn’t really sound like anything else. [Laughs]
Do you have an iPod or any other portable listening device?
Yes, I do have an iPod.
And would you mind telling us what is your last purchased and the most played song in it?
Actually, my iPod is in London at the moment, but I can check it out on my iTunes. [Pause] Oh, actually this is quite embarrassing [Laughs]. The last song I bought is Judy Garland’s “(Ding Dong) The Witch Is Dead”, because I had to help the campaign [A Facebook campaign tried to get the track to No. 1 in the week of Margaret Thatcher passing. Though it came close, reaching No. 2, the full The Wizard Of Oz soundtrack did reach the top of iTunes album chart in the UK]. Currently, the most played one is Slim Harpo’s “I Got Love If You Want It”, because I’ve been listening to a lot of blues lately [Funnily enough, this was the first recording, back in 1950, to ever use the “echo effect”. The third floor of the Excello Recording Studios in Nashville was known as the “echo chamber”: a microphone was placed at one end of the open floor and a speaker was at the other end, causing a delay in the music and thus the “echo effect”. A very suiting choice for an artist that chose “dub” as one of the defining tags of his work].