Nick Mason - Pink Floyd's Time Machine
By Team HC |
Nick Mason - Pink Floyd's Time Machine
An iconic rock career born out of jamming with friends
by David Phillips
Nick Mason is a founding member of Pink Floyd. That’s pretty much all that needs to be said. However, in the interest of doing such an important career retrospective justice and underscoring just how influential the band has been in the scheme of Rock culture, please allow us to elaborate. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Mr. Mason lamented, “From ‘65 to the beginning of ‘67, we were a really amateur band. It’s funny because if I could add up the hours of actual drum playing I did between birth and 1966, it’d be, I don’t know, 100, 150 hours. I didn’t practice. I didn’t study. I just had a drum kit and played with my friends for fun. A year later, I ’d probably put in 700 hours.” For a drummer that admittedly fell into an iconic Rock career by simply jamming with friends, there is no denying what he has brought to the world of music in terms of ‘less-is-more’ drumming and the value of a well-placed ride cymbal. Then there are the long, flam-infused drum fills that are often imitated, but seldom duplicated. There is a stylistic approach present on every Pink Floyd recording that is memorable and, indeed, timeless. Our UK man on the street, David Phillips, met up with Nick to talk about his place in the British drumming culture and look back on his storied and celebrated livelihood.
David Phillips: Ginger (Baker) was a great inspiration to you. What was it about his playing that so moved you?
Nick Mason: I think it was a couple of things; it was the first time I’d seen a Rock band where the drummer had equal billing rather than the usual ‘placed on the riser somewhere behind the band.’ It was such a big thing at Regent Street Polytechnic in 1966, the whole thing with the double bass drums, the weight and the power. There weren’t that many three-piece Rock bands at the time anyway. It was all about virtuosity.
DP: Ginger greatly admired Phil Seamen. Were you also inspired by him?
NM: Not particularly by Phil Seamen, although I was inspired by a lot of the Bebop drummers of the period. I was more into the American drummers. When I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s, which I used to do a lot, Phil was not the drummer I would normally see. It was more Bobby Orr and, in particular, Allan Ganley. There were also the Americans like Art Blakey and Chico Hamilton. Chico was a huge influence due to one particular piece, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” where he plays with mallets.
DP: I read that you bought your first drum kit from Footes in London in 1958 for £7.50. What was this kit?
NM: It was a Gigster bass drum, Olympic snare, a pair of bongos (I don’t think there was money for tom toms), pedal, hi-hat, and maybe a 50p cymbal.
DP: You saved Footes from closing in 2012. Are you very involved with the shop now?
NM: I certainly am. I really want to see it survive and flourish.
DP: I know you feel that this is a great meeting place for drummers.
NM: Well, I think that acoustic instruments shouldn’t be something that one buys online. It’s a silly thing; you really need to hear them! It’s been interesting. One of the things I did was to take a beginner’s kit, a proper kit not a toy kit, and I customised it so that I could I take it into a studio myself, if I needed to. It doesn’t cost much to upgrade an introductory kit to something you can do that with. It’s mainly a matter of upgrading the heads, damping down the bass drum, and possibly replacing the snare. You end up with something that is really quite good.
DP: This month Pink Floyd will release The Early Years Box Set 65-72. Can you talk us through putting this together and your involvement?
NM: Well, it’s been grinding on for a very long time. About ten years ago now, I started archiving as much as possible, mainly video and film. The music was not so much of a problem as nearly everything was archived by the record company, so that was far easier to access. It was then a case of having a very good researcher, Lana Topham, who had been a producer on a lot of our film stuff and who did a fantastic job of tracking down footage. This was because some of it was with American TV stations.
DP: You mentioned that some of the TV footage contained some very embarrassing miming. Can you elaborate on this?
NM: Well, I can’t remember which station it was. At the time that’s what you did. You went to America, not dissimilar to what happens here, and you’d end up miming to your song. In some cases it was a song that Syd had sung, but David was miming it. It was so far away from any sense of how it was actually played. In one instance, I’m playing the drums with just my hands!
DP: It must have been a trip down memory lane pulling the box set together?
NM: Yes, absolutely. Interestingly, there are some things you remember, some things you go out and look for, and other things, you think, “I don’t remember anything about this, it’s a complete mystery!”
DP: I read in your book that the band experimented with pyrotechnics over many years. Was it pretty dangerous to be on stage sometimes?
NM: Yes, the biggest problem was the Cobo Hall in America. It was partly bad luck but one of the stage weights that was used to hold the bin that contained the pyro had an air bubble in the middle of it, so when it super-heated, the bubble expanded. Basically, what we had was shrapnel.
DP: It was a miracle nobody was hurt.
NM: Someone was hurt, but not badly. They came back for the second set.
DP: Pink Floyd was the first band to play at The Roundhouse in 1966. Do you recall that first concert?
NM: The Roundhouse at the time was so different. The shape is the same, but that’s about all. There was no light and no power. The power was brought in from a 13 amp plug from next door. The floor was packed-down earth. Being a railway turntable originally, it was then used as a bonded warehouse by Gilby’s Gin for years. There was the smell of gin around. Actually, there probably still is!
DP: You’re closely involved now with the Roundhouse Trust. Tell us about your work with that charity.
NM: That’s the great thing about The Roundhouse, there is the performance space, but not everyone realizes that underneath it there is this whole under-croft. Torquil Norman, who bought the Roundhouse, made it a charitable foundation partly funded by what’s going on upstairs. Downstairs, there’s a myriad small rehearsal rooms, TV and radio studios, and the local kids all have access. They can borrow instruments and they can then get some mentoring for their band or if they’re a DJ, or whatever, they can learn or rehearse there. It’s a fantastic facility; I think they get about 3,000 kids a year.
DP: If you remember, DW/Gretsch donated some kits to The Roundhouse.
NM: Yes, I remember, a proper night out as well. Great event!
DP: In fact, when we met there earlier this year, I remember you saying that you wished you had taken drum lessons. Have you managed to make this happen yet?
NM: Not yet. In fact, I’m very well-connected now, so when I do decide to do it I know some very good players that can help me.
DP: In 2014, DW created the Collector’s Series Icon Prism snare drum in your honor. I understand that you donated the royalties from this project to the Roundhouse Trust?
NM: Yes, that’s right. I just think it’s a really worthy thing. It’s about doing things that you really enjoy and I loved that whole thing. I’d said to The Roundhouse some years ago that I’d been a bit bored going to black tie fundraisers and that I’d rather mess around downstairs, which they let me do.
DP: Pink Floyd had a long history of working at Abbey Road. What is it about Abbey Road that is so special?
NM: There are a whole bunch of things. Firstly, it’s one of the few remaining studios from the old days. Olympic has gone, along with so many other iconic facilities. When we were there, The Beatles were recording Sgt. Pepper down the hall. And they kept that room, The Beatles’ studio, more or less, as it was. It’s still fairly tight in that control room. It’s a combination of history and great technology. They had very high standards. It’s really interesting going back to the early recordings because really, even without Dolby, Aphex, and all the digital technology, they’re still high-standard.
DP: The band then built Britannia Row studios. How did that change the recording experience?
NM: There’s something really nice about working in your own environment. We were never time-limited at Abbey Road, to be honest, but the idea behind Britannia Row was that any one of us could operate it without any outside help. I think being wise after the event, the quality wasn’t as good as Abbey Road, who always went for the finest of everything. We didn’t have that level of equipment, but it was still a great place to work. Over the years, Britannia Row ended up with a roster of some very good people.
DP: Dark Side of the Moon was recorded at Abbey Road, wasn’t it?
NM: Yes, Studio 3.
DP: That record is widely recognized as one of the greatest albums of all time. Why do you think it has endured for so long?
NM: I always maintain that it’s for more than one reason: It’s partly Roger’s writing (he was in his twenties at the time) which is still as relevant to fifty or sixty-year-olds as it was to teenagers. I think the concept was new and interesting, and people responded to that. It was a very high-quality recording, thanks to Alan Parsons, and it has a fantastic piece of artwork from Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgerson, for the cover. We had enormous support from Capitol Records who had put a new President in place, Bhaskar Menon. He had decided to make it work, particularly in America. It’s a bunch of stuff really; it’s the music, the packaging, the sales force, it’s also the word-of-mouth, it became the stereo test record. It’s that whole thing that The Beatles really started, where music became something more than ephemeral. In 1967, no one considered that. I mean, whether Rock ‘n Roll would last was one thing, but no one believed a Rock career would last more than three or four years.
DP: You worked with Alan Parsons on the Drum Masters: Nick Mason Drums Sample Library. How did you go about putting this together?
NM: I was approached to do it, and basically I just went in and played. The idea was to play the original kit I used on Dark Side of the Moon, which I still have, and also to get Alan, who had been the original engineer on the album, to re-engineer these sounds. It was a nice opportunity.
DP: You’ve done some producing yourself. I read that you were a producer for Steve Hillage, Robert Wyatt, Gong, and the charity single “Save the Children (Look Into Your Heart)”. How do you feel about being the other side of the recording desk?
NM: I really enjoy it. What I really like is doing different things. I’m happy playing drums in the studio, but I also really like working with other aspects of recording music.
DP: Do you mean experimenting with the mics, production, set-up?
NM: Yes mics, mixing…the whole thing, really. For example, it was great working with Gong’s drummer, Pierre Moerlen. I could suggest he do something that maybe I couldn’t play myself!
DP: You had your own project in the 80’s called Fictitious Sports. Can you tell us about that?
NM: This was made during the making of The Wall. We all had a re-worked Sony contract which enabled us each to make a solo album, if we so desired. It was an opportunity, but in fact Fictitious Sports wasn’t a solo album at all; it was more a cooperative thing with Carla Bley. It was great fun and lots of great musicians came and played on it.
DP: So was the album Profiles with Rick Fenn (1985) your solo project?
NM: More so, but it was hardly a solo album given that Rick had done so much of it. Rick and I had worked together for a while as we’d done a couple of movie soundtracks (Tank Malling and White of the Eye) and we also knocked out a couple of commercials. I had become quite involved in music outside of the band.
DP: What was it like playing the Live 8 reunion concert at Wembley in 2005?
NM: It was terrific and it felt really worthwhile. We didn’t have any fights on stage, which was good. Credit to Bob (Geldolf) and everyone involved, as it was a far better reason to play together, rather than for lots of money.
DP: The Endless River was the band’s first album in twenty years. Can you talk us through how this came about?
NM: It’s slightly convoluted but when we made The Division Bell, originally we had intended to do a double album. The idea being, we’d do an album of songs and an album of ambient tracks. We didn’t have time to do that, as we were already booked to start an American tour. Basically, that material hung around for a very long time. We simply didn’t want to re-visit it. It didn’t feel like enough on its own to justify anything. Andy Jackson, who was the engineer on The Division Bell, kept telling us that we really ought to do something with this, so he spent some time on it. That raised the interest a bit. It really was over a twenty-year period with Andy, and eventually Phil Manzanera came on board and had a go and that pushed it further ahead. Then Youth came in and finally there was a sense of ‘this does have legs.’
DP: How did the producer Youth shape the sound and the parts that you needed to record?
NM: Just by listening and explaining what we should do. I remember going into the studio to re-do some of the drum tracks.
DP: The dynamic and relationship between bass and drums is often discussed. How did you find playing along with Roger?
NM: Yes, that’s absolutely right. I like Gary Wallis’s description: “The band is a bass player and a drummer and a bunch of novelty acts!” (Laughs). It’s because you actually end up having a real sense of what the other person is going to do. It’s a very powerful unit.
DP: Looking back over the years, do you think your drumming has changed over time?
NM: Inevitably. As I’ve said, I’ve never had a lesson, but over forty or fifty years working, you’re drumming will change enormously. The more time you spend on the stage or in the studio, you’ll hopefully learn something.
DP: DW has made several drum kits for you over the years. Can you talk us through the story behind the Ferrari drum kit?
NM: Well, this partly came about because I’d organised with Fender to do half-a-dozen Ferrari Stratocaster guitars, which were then sold for charity. Jacques Villeneuve bought one. I just liked it as an object. It was painted in Ferrari colours, the switch plate was made of Kevlar from the race cars, Theo Fennell made silver prancing horses to go on the fretboards. I thought it seemed silly to have guitars and not have a drum kit. We actually made one for the Ferrari factory in the museum at Fiorano and another, which is mine.
DP: DW also made a Fairground drum kit for you. What was the inspiration for this?
NM: I’d always liked fairground art and having always lived in North London, I was very familiar with the look of the fairground and the Hampstead Heath Fairs. I gave Louie Garcia at DW, who does the most fantastic artwork, a book of fairground art and I’d marked various pages of illustrations. Louie just picked it up and ran with it.
DP: More recently, you played drums on “Wish You Were Here” at the Olympic Closing Ceremony in London with Ed Sheeran, Mike Rutherford, and Richard Jones. That must have been an incredible concert and experience. Any recollections on that?
NM: I hadn’t been an enormous fan of The Olympics but when I went down there I absolutely got it. The atmosphere was incredible. It was a hell of a production with lots of people, all of whom were really involved. That’s what was nice, with so many people helping, supporting, and so on. In the end, I felt really privileged to take part in it.
DP: I have to ask, what are your favorite Pink Floyd songs to play and why?
NM: “Comfortably Numb” because I love the minimalism at the beginning of it and the lovely crash, bang, wallop end to it all. My favorite, in many ways, is really “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” from A Saucerful of Secrets, as I like the song and it’s an opportunity to use mallets instead of sticks. I think it’s got a slightly unusual feel to it, possibly a slightly lifted drum part from “We’re Going Wrong” by Cream, so there’s an homage to Ginger on that and there’s also an homage to Chico Hamilton’s, “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”.
DP: You played on a track on David Gilmour’s solo album. Did that feel different than recording a Pink Floyd song or was it like old times again?
NM: When you play drums, you just do it as best you can. I wouldn’t say it felt like old times, but it didn’t feel peculiar either, any more than recording any track I’ve ever played drums on. Interestingly, I think the answer is: there’s no difference. Whatever it is, you just to find out what needs doing, and then try to do it.
DP: Pink Floyd has an exhibition, Their Mortal Remains, opening in 2017 at Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Can you tell us more about it?
NM: If you’ve seen the Bowie exhibition, basically we are the next event. We’re obviously a bit short on costumes! There’s an appetite for exhibitions that are a bit more than nostalgia. What you try and do is show something about how you did things and worked in the past. I’m hoping it will be more like some of the American or kids’ museums, where it’s a ‘please touch these exhibits’ so you can really get a flavour of things. Part of it is really the story of recorded music for the last fifty years; from four-track recording to the modern digital era with endless tracks. I’m hoping people will come out and rather than saying, “I remember that” it will be, “Oh, so that’s how it was done!” -HC-
- reprinted with expressed written permission DW's Edge Magazine -
photo credits: David Phillips
David Phillips could be called the UK's drum whisperer. He has backstage access to iconic drummers that's only reserved for a handful of elite authors and photographers in the world. His two books A Drummer's Perspective and From The Riser - A Drummer's Perspective II are available from his website