Steve Mason: 'My brain had an MOT'
The Beta Band's Steve Mason has a new alter ego. He tells Chris Mugan how it came about
Friday 25 July 2008
It's a late Friday afternoon in June and we are sat in a cobbled backwater of London's trendy Shoreditch, awaiting the after-work hordes. Unsurprisingly, rain is in the air, though dark clouds of a different nature haunt Steve Mason's thoughts.
The Beta Band's former singer has returned from a self-imposed break on an unexpected tack: an album of salacious electropop under the pseudonym Black Affair. Pleasure Pressure Point's danceable raunch finally puts clear water between him and his old band's free-range genre-mangling. Today, though, he is more concerned with society's decrepitude.
"When I hang around down here, it's like the last days of Pompeii. Let's just get banjoed every night. Everyone's thinking everything's messed up – the environment, the Government, going into Iraq, not caring what we think. It's the same in every city." I point out that for many binge-drinkers this isn't headline news. "But it's different now; more nihilistic. I've been to this club in Edinburgh where a mate was DJ-ing and people were staggering in drunk. It didn't feel to me like it was fun."
The artist is well placed to point out this generation's woes, having long suffered from his own manic depression. His ailment came to a head in 2006 when Mason pulled out of a tour days before he was due to promote his solo project King Biscuit Time. Trouble was, he had not had time to process the demise of his former band, which he instigated, and the concurrent end of a relationship.
"That had lasted all the time I was in The Beta Band; they made up my life 100 per cent," he explains. "After that, I'd gone off to Brazil for six weeks then came back and finished the album, but I'd done it too soon. Everything caved in on me." Mason suffered a mental breakdown and was forced to take time out with a hypnotist to get his life in order.
"My brain had needed an MOT for quite some time," he admits. "I'd been to various people I didn't click with and the problem with that is you think you are nuts and no one can help, but when you do find someone, you realise it is possible."
An ex-girlfriend had already introduced him to the work of New York producer and Warp signing Jimmy Edgar, who has mixed the Black Affair record. Mason already knew his next direction. "I heard how he had been influenced by things I used to love, but made it all seem modern. That had me digging in my collection, rediscovering stuff, and it sounded so fresh again."
Hearing him chat earlier to his PR person in depth about Fred Perry shirts, it is no surprise to learn Mason has been a scooter-boy Mod, but his first musical love growing up in Fife was Eighties electro, an obvious inspiration on this record. "It was the first thing I was heavily into, when I was a tiny little boy. In 1982, 1983, we had a B-boy crew and got records from a friend in London."
Record-label takeover has delayed the release of Pleasure Pressure Point, in which time we have had New Yorkers Hercules and Love Affair mining house music's roots and Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys's De Lorean-inspired side project Neon Neon. I wonder if there is something in the air that caused them to look back at a particular era at the same time.
"I just think that after The Libertines there have been too many bands with tight jeans and pointy shoes. If they get a heroin habit and wear a hat, they think everything's going to be all right, and I think people are bored of that. People are searching for a cleaner sound – something you can dance to."
While The Beta Band were always out to surprise the listener with bizarre samples, instruments and raps, Black Affair has been constrained by the nature of electropop. "I'm a lot clearer in my mind these days than I have been for at least 15 years, and that has affected the music. Now I'm spending more time on individual sounds, trying to make a point." His pride in Black Affair is in contrast to his Beta Band days, when he famously criticised their first album just as it came out.
"I'll never be happy with that album, but it was a mess because of my mental state at the time, and that's the reason I slagged it off. I didn't have the mental tools at the time to fix it." Lyrically, too, Mason has gone off on a tangent. Known for surreal wordplay, here he has a more earthy style.
"I think that's an age thing, it's become more direct. I've done the abstract style, so I'm not interested in that any more." It helps that he wants the songs to have emotional punch.
"As a scooter boy, I used to go to a lot of Northern soul all-nighters and all those records were really sad, all heartbreakers, so you feel a mix of emotions." Listening to the album that starts with orgasmic groans and features love songs and break-up ditties, you get the impression there was at the time a particular woman in Mason's life. He is happy to admit that the album covers the story of one relationship. "I'm very much a person that writes about what's happening to them there and then, so this is the diary of a relationship, not in chronological order, but it goes from the joy of meeting someone great, through having a great time, then thinking something's not quite right, then the bitter aftermath."
Black Affair is an alter ego, as opposed to King Biscuit Time, solo material he started putting out during his Beta Band years. With unreleased tracks still incomplete, that that incarnation may well make a comeback. For now, though, Black Affair's tight fit suits him just as well.
'Pleasure Pressure Point' is out on Monday on V2/ Cooperative Music
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