Got it collared

Steve Mason may be his own worst enemy when it comes to making money, but the former Beta Band frontman's ambition to make meaningful art has never wavered

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Next year marks two decades since the Beta Band called time on their critically acclaimed yet commercially disastrous career, which left the Edinburgh quartet £1.2 million in debt to their record label and with a legendary reputation for self-sabotage (they famously denounced their debut album as “fucking awful” one week before it hit stores).

Although the group sold relatively few records compared to their late 1990s peers, their off-kilter blend of dance music, psychedelia, hip-hop, folk and rock won them a devoted fanbase and influenced a whole generation of artists, Radiohead and Oasis among them.

For former frontman Steve Mason, the group’s legacy is both a burden and a gift.

“I like moving forward. I don’t like nostalgia,” he says expressing mild frustration that every time he brings out a new album “that I think is amazing” the question that he most finds himself answering is: “Are the Beta Band getting back together?”

“I’m sure there will be a time to look back but it’s not now. That’s for sure,” he says with a friendly chuckle. “I’m really proud of the Beta Band. It was an amazing thing to be involved with and it was just the right time when there was still money left in the music industry. We took that money and we turned it into amazing art and we left it penniless, which is how it should be. A month after the band split up I was working on a building site. And there’s something amazing about that after being involved in something so special and unique that changed people’s lives. For the people who knew and loved the Beta Band, it really meant everything to them.”

That was back then, however. Today, Mason’s attention is very much focused on the present and his fantastic fifth solo record Brothers & Sisters, provocatively described by its creator as “a massive fuck you” to Brexit and riposte to anyone terrified of immigration.

“Even the nutters are starting to realise now that Brexit is an illusion inside Jacob Rees-Mogg’s nappy,” dismisses the songwriter, sipping a Coke in a tucked-away corner of a bustling pub in central London. “It’s an incredible lesson in how you can dupe enough people to get them to vote for something that will make their lives worse and their children’s lives worse, and their grandchildren’s lives worse.”

Mason’s strident views will come as little surprise to anyone who has followed his consistently inventive post-Beta Band career. His 2013 Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time was a politically-charged concept album born of the 2011 London riots that memorably advocated combating the authorities with “a fist, a boot and a baseball bat”. Follow-up LP Meet The Humans promoted the power of community, while past interviews have seen the outspoken musician, who has also performed under the aliases King Biscuit Time and Black Affair, voice his opposition to everything from capitalism to President Bush to organised religion.

Like its predecessors, Brothers & Sisters reflects the charged political climate it was made in, although anyone expecting an angry protest album may be surprised to encounter the artist’s most compassionate, spiritual work to date.

“I wanted to make a record which is genuinely uplifting – that didn’t necessarily shy away from political matters but wasn’t a sledgehammer,” he explains.

Work on the record started in early 2020 during the first lockdown – a time when Mason says he felt much like everyone else in the country “thinking what the fuck is going on?” Unable to tour, he took sanctuary in the attic studio of his Brighton home. “It was a little world where it felt like everything was getting better.”

As the songs began to take shape, Mason found himself returning to the adventurous, carefree spirit of his earlier work. In contrast, he says Meet The Humans was written with radio play in mind and 2019’s About The Light, which received some of the best reviews of his career, was conceived in the period just before he got married and became a parent for the first time.

“At the age of 45 I felt this sudden weight of responsibility, which I’d never really had before,” he recalls with a self-deprecating laugh. “I felt that very keenly and I’ve loved it. But I think About The Light was maybe too safe and I was starting to go down a road that was maybe going to result in a record that I wasn’t very happy with. I realised that I just had to be a hell of a lot braver.

“When I shut the attic door I had to leave those responsibilities downstairs and do whatever the hell I wanted to do. Nothing was off the table.”

The 11 songs that make up Brothers & Sisters validate that creative mindset, seamlessly fusing soul, electronica, gospel harmonies, elastic funk and tender pop melodies with a rich musical palette that includes Eastern strings and two standout collaborations with Pakistani singer Javed Bashir.

“I always feel that when I put out an album there’s a lot of goodwill behind me and a lot of people who really want me to make a great record. I think maybe this is it,” says Mason, whose tender croon provides the record’s emotional heart.

He points to the anti-imperialism anthem No More as a song that he’s particularly proud of. Other tunes promote a message of cross-cultural unity that serves as a stirring counterpoint to the deep societal and political division of recent years.

“I’ve had the accusation levelled at me that I’m some Brighton-dwelling leftie living in a bubble, and, yeah, I don’t live in Bradford, but I think it’s important to knock on your neighbours’ door wherever you live and try to get to know them.

“My wife is a Kashmiri Muslim and my daughter is mixed race and part of me shudders to think what this country would be like if it wasn’t for immigration.”

He is particularly scathing about the government’s controversial plan to deport asylum seekers deemed to have entered the UK illegally to Rwanda. Equally concerning, he says, was how the majority of British news outlets covered the issue by focusing on Gary Lineker’s BBC suspension for tweeting about the policy, rather than the people most affected by it.

“Gary Lineker [was] completely lambasted by the media for doing nothing more than saying, ‘the government are doing this’. Somehow that’s worse than actually allowing women and children to drown in the Channel and trying to put them on a plane to a country that they’ve never been to before. It’s a completely parallel dimension that we’re in now and it really worries me where it’s all headed.”

Brothers & Sisters is also notable for being one of the last records to feature Primal Scream and the Charlatans keyboard player Martin Duffy, who died in December aged 55.

“He was one of my best friends in Brighton. It was a huge shock and a massive loss on so many levels,” reflects Mason sombrely. “I still feel he had an awful lot of records and music to make and I’ll miss him as a musician and as a friend. It’s really not fair at all.”

Looking back on his own colourful 25-year career as a professional musician, Mason says that he’s immensely grateful for the ongoing support of his fans but concedes that he’s hungry for more success.

“Of course, I want to be bigger than I am,” he volunteers. “I’ve always wanted to be incredibly successful and not because of the money or anything like that, but because, for example, you can put on an amazing live show.”

Elaborating on his point, he says that his decision to take a full live band on the road with him for this month’s UK tour, as opposed to the more financially lucrative option of just him and a keyboard player onstage, means that he’ll “earn hardly anything” from the shows, yet that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make.

“If I’m going to go down, I need to go down in flames with an amazing bunch of musicians around me giving it everything. But not many people think like that,” he says with a determined look.

“I’ve never been particularly great at the money side of the music business, but I am good at the art side of it and I am good at making decisions based on art. The fact is that I’m still making a living out of being a musician and that is a massive victory given the current climate. I don’t take that for granted. I feel very, very lucky and blessed. Do I still have ambitions? Yeah, I always have done but my routes to get to those points have maybe not been the cleverest,” he laughs.

Brothers & Sisters is out now on Double Six Records. Steve Mason plays Future Yard, Birkenhead on 20 April, Academy 2, Sheffield on 21 April, Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on 27 April and Gorilla, Manchester on 3 May

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