Earlier this year, after waiting nearly a quarter century in vain for Pink Floyd to reunite, drummer Nick Mason decided to start a Floyd of his own: Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. The group features Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp, longtime Pink Floyd touring bassist Guy Pratt, guitarist Lee Harris, and keyboardist Dom Beken. From the get-go, Mason knew the band needed to differentiate themselves from the Floyd-heavy tours that Roger Waters and David Gilmour have staged in recent years. “I knew I couldn’t play ‘Comfortably Numb’ better than David or Roger, or indeed even the Australian Pink Floyd [tribute band],” he says. “It became a matter of finding something else that engaged us.”
That turned out to be the band’s trippy pre–Dark Side of the Moon catalog, including classics such as “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” and “Astronomy Domine.” The only song in their rotation that receives airplay on classic rock radio is the 1971 instrumental “One of These Days.” They toured Europe in September and are heading to North America in March for an extensive run of theater shows. We spoke with Mason about the formation of the band, what it’s like returning to the road after a 25-year gap, the possibility of playing later material and the likelihood of an Animals box set.
We spoke four years ago and you made a joke about going out and doing Dark Side of the Moon yourself, just the drum parts. The very idea of you touring was a joke to you. What changed?
[Laughs] It’s really odd. This is something I’d definitely thought about, but I’d always dismissed it. It’s rather retro in a way. This is not Nick Mason determined to do something. This is Nick Mason being drawn into something by friends. Lee Harris wrote to Guy [Pratt] and was like, “Can we get Nick to do something?” And I think because Guy thought it was a good idea, I felt much more comfortable about having a go at something.
How did the idea of doing just the pre-Dark Side stuff come to you?
I think really just looking through the catalog and thinking, “There’s some great songs here and there’s some sort of heritage.” I wanted to get away from having to do the perfect rendition of old songs while very politically steering myself way from becoming the ultimate tribute band. A tribute to myself felt very uncomfortable. It needed something … It was a bit of “Let’s try and get the sort of feel of some of that early music without slavishly trying to learn every detail of it or indeed match the tempo of it specifically,” or whatever.
These are songs that largely haven’t been played live by a member of the band in over 40 years. It was all just sitting there.
Yeah! And it’s great fun to do. The other big thing for me was that I really just really wanted to do it. I wanted to enjoy it. And as you say, it’s material that hasn’t been heard that often, so there’s something a bit fresh about it.
Tell me how Gary Kemp entered the picture.
I’d say again that it’s a rather retro idea. This was a band that very much formed itself. There were no auditions. It was very much, “Yeah, we’d like to have a go at this.” I’ve known Gary for 15 years. And it’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to work with him, but that it wouldn’t have occurred to me that he would be interested in doing this. But of course, so many people do have an interest and affection for Syd Barrett and that era. I think I mentioned to Gary that I was thinking about it and he absolutely leapt at it. He said, “Yeah, I’d love to have a go at that!”
Spandau Ballet is a very different kind of band, but he obviously really gets the material and understands how to sing it.
Yeah. You can get a bit locked into this idea that if you do one sort of rock music, it’s hard to break out of it or you’re unlikely to do something else. But it appears, actually, that the genres might be different, but the basics are really the same. I love the idea that something who played with Ian Dury, someone else who’s a New Romantic, someone else who was in the Transit Kings and had done stuff in the Orb … and then Guy has played with everyone.
Tell me about the early rehearsals. Did you all click immediately?
I think it was immediate. Given my lack of affection for very hard work, I think if it had been anything other than just sifting straight into place, it would have been difficult. The interesting thing was that it all sort of began to sound good straight away. That was mainly, I think, driven by their enthusiasm. If you want to make things work, you can. The interesting thing was how, in some ways, we’ve found that the simplest songs are actually remarkably complicated or have slightly strange bar lengths or whatever.
You last played many of these songs in your twenties. Did you have to re-learn some of them to do them again nearly 50 years later?
I had to learn some of the detail. Songs tend to stay in your memory for a long time, but you start rethinking exactly how it all comes together. But the great thing was that when we actually played in front of an audience for the first time, it was absolutely like a time machine for me. Suddenly, that feeling of looking around and seeing friends encouraging you on reminded me of Pink Floyd ’67, really, where you’re just so thrilled at being able to play to an audience.
Right. And after Dark Side, you were always playing in massive arenas or stadiums. This is your first time being in places that small since those days.
Stadiums are very flawed in terms of being able to engage the entire audience. But in a theater, you can absolutely do it. It feels like an occasion and the occasion is entirely about the music that is going on at the stage. The trouble with a stadium is that you’ve got about 50,000 fans and another lot of people doing drugs and playing frisbee at the back.
Did you worry at first that there might not be an audience for this? It’s sort of an untested concept.
Yeah. Inevitably, you’re very conscious of the fact that Roger is going out there with a huge show and there’s a lot of other people out there doing good things. But I have to tell you, I was surprised at the enthusiasm with which I was met. I was delighted. I can’t overemphasize just how much I’m enjoying this.
You sold out the Beacon Theater in New York. That’s pretty spectacular.
I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s an appalling sort of throwback to the young man who was thrilled when he first appeared on television.
How has it been physically to play drums like this again? Your body hadn’t gone through a two-hour concert in a long, long time.
I’ve practiced staying up late and went from there [laughs]. No, the interesting thing is that actually once you start rehearsing, you get back into the swing of it. There’s also quite a lot of technique that comes with it. You don’t have to use your arm when you can use your wrist. Stuff like that. Also, the adrenaline is more than sufficient to make it happen. I’ve not had any point where I’ve been like, “I’m tired. I can’t do this.”
Tell me about putting together this set list. How did you settle on these particular songs?
Everyone made a list of what they liked off the records and then it was a consensus thing. There’s a lot of material. For the initial pub gig, we probably just had 10 or 12 songs. Gary was the one who really pushed for the business of combining “If” with “Atom Heart Mother.” I think that was an inspired choice. I think we might do a bit more of that.
You open up with “Interstellar Overdrive.” That really sets the tone for the rest of the night.
[Laughs] Actually, there was a bit of disagreement over that. At one point I thought “Astronomy Domine” should be the opener, but I think it was absolutely right to switch it to “Interstellar.” It puts us on the right path.
Are there any songs from that period that are just too damn weird to even attempt? I mean, you obviously wouldn’t do something like “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.“
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that anything is out of bounds, but I couldn’t get my head around doing “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” That would require a kettle and a number of other things that we don’t have at the moment. It would be a shame to put them on with a sound sample. I think you’d have to do the thing properly to do it live. And as I say, you never dilute.
How about “Echoes?” That’s pre–Dark Side.
Well, the problem with “Echoes” is there was a feeling like it has so much to do with Rick [Wright] that we wanted to steer clear of it. I think that in the long term, we might look at that because it’s a wonderful piece, an homage to Rick. It’s something that we’ve talked about, but not personally addressed.
I read that you told David and Roger about this before starting.
Yeah. I thought that would be good manners. I don’t think it was a matter of getting permission or anything, but what was great was that they were really encouraging.
Did Roger say he might come out and guest at some point?
Yeah. He said that he might come and guest for a song or two, but I’m not holding my breath on that. We can worry about guest stars when we are a bit further down the line.
So this band is an ongoing concern? You’re going to keep adding shows?
Yeah. I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm from the band, which is the main driver. As long as someone thinks we could sell some tickets, we’ll absolutely go there. I think from my point of view, it is also the opportunity to go to places we never played as Pink Floyd, in particular South America. There’s such a fan base there and I’d really love to go there and do some shows.
I’m sure at some point a promoter will come to you and be like, “How about a tour where you do the post–Dark Side songs?” Is that ever possible?
Well, I’m close to saying it’s not possible. But to some extent, I’m sticking with what I feel, which is to do something a little bit different. I think it could be possible to do something later, but only if we put a completely different spin and modified it in some way. As I was saying, I can’t get enormously enthusiastic about doing a definitive version of “Comfortably Numb” or a definitive version of “Money” or whatever.
And there are so many tribute bands trying to do that, along with Roger himself.
I don’t want some grading system where someone goes “here are the five best versions of ‘Comfortably Numb’” and we don’t even make it onto the chart.
Right. And that song has been played 10 zillion time, but that’s just not the case with “Green Is the Colour.”
It’s interesting because there’s an element of niche to this because so many people discovered Pink Floyd with Dark Side and are really unaware of what we were doing previously.
It really was almost like a different band, especially the Syd stuff.
Yeah. In a way, it is. You can look historically at other bands. The perfect example would be something like Fleetwood Mac or Genesis where there are personnel changes, writers change and then the band changes in enormous ways.
To wrap up here, are you guys ever going to release an Animals box set?
Yes. I think it will eventually happen. It’s just sort of slow because of differences of opinion about how to do it or what to put on it, but I’m sure it will eventually happen. Of all our albums that have been re-released, that’s the one that would benefit the most from a sort of reworking.
You guys were such an amazing live band, but yet there are so few live albums. I’m sure the fans would love some sort of series of archival live releases.
If we have it, I think we would release it. The problem was we just hit a period where everyone was paranoid about bootleggers and we didn’t tape shows. It’s great we did the Pink Floyd at Pompeii thing, but I’m sorry we never filmed and recorded a Dark Side, Animals or Wish You Were Here show, really.
There’s really nothing from the entire Animals tour you could put out?
No, there’s nothing. There’s certainly nothing really good, just sort of monitor mixes and so on. We really should have done the whole thing, filmed and recorded it properly.
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