Taking in lost soundtracks and bands he passed over first time around, the songwriter talks Ed Nash through his recent musical discoveries.
Steve Mason has always sought the unexpected, both in the music he listens to and the songs he writes.
Over the course of a career that’s taken in The Beta Band, as well as his solo work as King Biscuit Time and under his own name, Mason has never rested on his laurels. This year he returned with his most immediate sounding record yet, About The Light and he says that the live-sounding feel was exactly what he was looking for. “I wanted to get the whole band involved and record the songs in the rehearsal room before we went into the studio. It’s just energy, I wanted to put the energy up.”
When we talk about the nine songs he’s selected, his choices follow a similarly maverick path to his own output. He says that “I could easily have changed my mind about which songs, but this is stuff I’ve been listening to over the last six months.”
His selection takes in kindred musical spirits from the 1950s to the present day. Artists who have also followed their own path, from the mercurial Clams Baker, who regularly sends Mason packages full of records and musical bric-a-brac in the post, to Martin Hannett, the game-changing producer of Joy Division amongst others, who infamously fell out with Factory Records when they decided to open the Hacienda nightclub rather than invest in new studio equipment. There’s also Patrick Cowley, the producer of some discos’ most futuristic records, such as Sylvester’s "Do Ya Wanna Funk", but who Mason recently discovered also had an unexpected sideline composing soundtracks for pornographic films.
As well as a maverick streak, both of the artists themselves as well record companies who unearth the outré, the spirit of a recording is just as important as the music featured here, where Mason returns to a recurring theme of optimism amidst the darkness.
“I met a guy called Clams Baker through Dan Carey when I was working with Dan on Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time. Clams sends me loads of music in these packages with fanzines, colouring books, postcards and records that he’s made under different names with different people.
“They’re all brilliant and he’s never sent me anything bad. He sent me an album that sounded like it was recorded in New York in the early ‘70s, it was a bit jazzy with clarinets and him doing spoken word over the top. Some people do spoken-word and its a bit light but with Clams it’s always quite gritty, there’s humour but a lot of darkness and weirdness as well, and he manages to do it in a really real way
“Clams also does Paranoid London, which is super strict Acid-House stuff, they release very limited edition 12s” and once they’re gone, they’re gone, there’s nothing online whatsoever. When they went on tour Clams was doing spoken word stuff over the top of it and that’s what ‘Fifty Dollar Bills’ is like. I know Clams is part of Sworn Virgins but you never know with him, it’s quite a mysterious project.
“’Fifty Dollar Bills’ is from a three track 12” released last July on Deewee Records. I like the EP as a whole but with ‘Fifty Dollar Bills’ I prefer Clams when he’s doing danceable, up-tempo stuff. It’s ever so slightly like the Underworld and Iggy Pop record and I love the tempo, percussion and box by Clams. Records like this are so clever, with the use of space and drops and builds it’s a bit like a late 70’s, early 80’s Proto-whatever record. It’s definitely something you can drop in a DJ set around 1am.”
“This was in the package from Clams that had Sworn Virgins in it. I never know what he’s going to send me, it’s always a surprise and this record Whale City was a surprise. It’s one of those records that when I put it on I liked it straightaway and I really wanted to be a part of it. I wished I’d been there and contributed to it, it’s the kind of record I wish I’d made.
“It’s a bit aggressive in places, but it’s got really good rhythm stuff on it. It’s a really exciting, fresh record but it also reminds you of other things and who doesn’t like a bit of post-punk? It changes around all the time, it’s angular in places and then it’s a bit rock and a bit punk.
“Dan Carey produced it and I spoke to him about the recording. Sometimes he’ll decide to make records with very strict guidelines and for this record he put a fair amount of pressure on the band. They recorded it live and deleted the whole thing if anyone made a mistake, so they had to start from the beginning again. I’d imagine that was a guideline he decided really early on, maybe he heard them in the rehearsal room and thought “The best way to get what I want out of these guys is to put them under huge amounts of pressure and build up the aggression and tension in the studio.”
“I’ve never done that but I can imagine what that’s like, how tense and frustrating it would get and that will massively come across on the recording. You can feel that tensing and the will of every player to concentrate and keep moving forward. The aggression is great and the songs have a spirit most bands out there would give up a year of their trust funds for.
“I picked ‘Standing on the Corner’ but I could have chosen the whole record. It’s one of those albums that you need to listen to in one sitting.”
“I try and get everything that Martin Hannett did but I’d never heard of this before. It was unreleased until last year by Finders Keepers Records who do all kinds of stuff - I’ve got a Fingerbobs album they released - and when I saw this I ordered it straightaway. Finders Keepers are a bit like Trunk Records, they find interesting stuff, package it really well and put it out. They’re my two favourite labels at the moment and have been for a long time.
“It’s a 7” single and this is the B-side, recorded in 1982 and performed by Hannett’s in-house band The Invisible Girls. I love the sound of The Invisible Girls, they did Pauline Murray’s album and lots of other things like ’Conditional Discharge’ by John Cooper Clarke, which has something I love about Martin Hannett - it’s got lots of high end and high melodies, which is something he also did with Happy Mondays. He adds these high, sparkly things at the top end and I think that’s kind of missing from this, but it doesn’t suffer from it. It doesn’t sound as beefy and as clean as a lot of his records, but as a sound it just works.
“‘Scandinavian Wastes’ is an instrumental and it’s got another thing he does really well; there’s a slightly dark edge running through it but there’s this optimism in the melody at the same time. The other side is quite different again. If you know Hannett’s work, it’s everything you imagine. It’s fantastic, a brilliant record.”
“This was on a compilation called Paris In The Spring that was put together for Ace Records by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. Without a doubt it was the compilation album of last year, the whole compilation is brilliant.
"They did another one at the end of last year called State Of The Union - The American Dream In Crisis which was a collection of American songs from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s and it’s about when the American dream had gone wrong and that’s really brilliant as well, I’ve been listening to it a lot recently.
"Evelyne’ is a wonderful piece of music. I’d never heard it before and it’s from the 1969 French film Slogan, which starred Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m going to try to get hold of it. ‘Evelyne’ stands out on Paris In The Spring because it’s an instrumental and there’s not that many instrumentals on the compilation. Like the Martin Hannett track, it’s got a beauty and optimism to it.”
“The American band from the mid-60s, I first heard of them a long time ago but I only recently got one of their albums. I went to see a friends band last year and one of the guys from Shindig was there selling records, I thought I’d get this and see what it was like and it's really great.
“I’d held off listening to them since hearing about them in the ‘80s. There was so many of those bands from the mid to late ‘60s and so much of it. I was a bit done with all that Watchband, Alarm Clock, Seeds sound, so I never made the jump. It was a mistake
“This is on an album called The Limit of the Marvelous and the songs are great. It includes the best titled song ever written ‘How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?’ You can just imagine the relationship can’t you? I was going to pick that song but it felt a bit obvious; ‘32-20’ has got that plod to it and the guitar thing going on.
“Bob Dylan must have been aware of them, because they had a combination of Velvet Underground meets a traveling band from the cowboy times. They’re the sort of band you’d hear playing in a saloon in 1850, with banjos, top hats, chewing tobacco and a spit bucket beside them.
“It feels ahead of its time, considering the sound they had in 1966 and what they were doing. I don’t know what happened to them and I don’t think they released a proper album, all the albums are compilations, somehow it never quite happened for them for some reason. It draws together these two different things and that’s why I think they were ahead of their time. The psychedelic people got into that later on, but these guys were doing it before that.”
“Danny at Heavenly Records sends me records every now and then and he sent me this. 1, 2, Kung Fu! is quite an odd album, but it’s a really good album. It changes all the time and every track is a curveball. I know nothing about the band, but they might be Welsh. I didn’t know they’d won The Welsh Album of the year but I’m not surprised - is there a statue of them in Cardiff town centre now?!
“After I’d listened to ‘Walking Thompson’s Park’ a few times I thought “I think I’ve heard this before…” that maybe it was on an advert or it was a cover version or something like that, and then I realised it’s actually just a really classic song. It’s always the melodies that draw me in and the way the vocals fit with them.
“I hope they know that they’re good. ‘Walking Thompson’s Park’ is a brilliant song with brilliant melodies from a very, very good album and I highly recommend the whole album, I love it and it’s got great production too, if that floats your life raft.”
“The guy who runs Dark Entries Records puts out lots of stuff and he’s massively into digging up old gay porn soundtracks. ‘One Hot Afternoon’ is from Patrick Cowley’s soundtrack of the 1982 film Afternooners, which was released for the first-time last year.
“Like Martin Hannett, Patrick Cowley is one of my favourite producers. He’s made some monster disco records and with his big hits he was the king of the arpeggio and cowbell, but when I discovered he’d been involved in making these porn soundtracks I thought “Fuck, I really want to hear that!”
“His disco records are mostly beyond fantastic, but these porn soundtracks, of which there are three - Muscle Up, School Daze and Afternooners - are quite different. Away from the dancefloor he could experiment, let tracks breathe and not worry too much about focus or arrangements and that makes these soundtracks pretty special.
“He must have done them at his home studio because they’re quite under-produced, but I don’t mind that at all. With this track there’s a hint of John Carpenter, but it’s a bit more sleazy and sweaty rather than dark and ominous, there’s a sexy darkness to it.
“Patrick Cowley probably never imagined anyone than whoever watched the films would hear these soundtracks. I don’t think they were ever scheduled for release, but it’s always nice to hear things that people have done and worked on that they never imagined anyone would ever hear.
“He had his big disco producer career, but he was doing this side line in gay porn films, it’s brilliant. When you get someone as talented as him and hear what he’s doing away from the eyes of the public it’s really interesting because they’re off the lead, no-one is expecting anything of them and they can really do just whatever the hell they want to. I just hope he got paid for them! Maybe he got paid in VHS tapes.”
“There’s a TV channel I love called Talking Pictures. I watched an Adam Faith film on there called Never Let Go, Peter Sellers is in it as well and his character is really horrible, he plays an absolute bastard. It’s one of those proper British film noir films and you forget how nasty some of the things that happen in them are. Styles have changed and because it was made 60-odd years ago things aren’t quite as shocking now, but when you take a step back from looking at it as a period piece you realise it’s actually really dark, scary and nasty.
“It all builds to this climax where Peter Sellers is trying to get this guy and then this track suddenly comes in. It’s an instrumental and it’s really hard to describe because it has quite an odd rhythm, but it’s a phenomenal piece of music. I tried to find the soundtrack but I don’t think it’s available unfortunately, because it’s stunning. I’m going to try and speak to Bob Stanley and see if he knows if it was ever released.
“I think it was John Barry’s second ever score and this track and the end title, which is a crappy Adam Faith vehicle, are all you can get. Even if you can’t find the soundtrack though, the film is really good and Adam Faith is brilliant in it, he plays a nasty bastard really well.”
“The Way Out were part of the second wave of the Mod Revival, which is when I got into them in the mid-‘80s. 99% of the music made under that banner was crap - with bands that couldn’t play or write songs, recorded by producers that couldn’t produce - but within every scene there’s always a band that stands out and the reason they stand out is because they’re talented and have really good songs.
“This was released in 1985 and was one of only two singles they ever made. This might be massively indulgent and might be an echo of my youth, and if I hadn’t listened to it at the time I might think it was garbage, but I don’t think so. There’s so many bands that make one or two singles and disappear forever and never make any more music. Whilst that’s sometimes a good thing, others seem like missed potential and I think The Way Out were one of those bands.
“I’d heard their name when I was a kid and I went into the record shop and bought it. I was probably 13 or 14 years old and it was completely different straightaway. You could tell it was a band that totally gelled and the production was really big; it was a great power-pop song. I never got to see them live, but they’re playing The 100 Club and I’ve bought tickets. I’ve been in touch with their singer Matthew Wiles - him and his brother were in the band - and it’ll be interesting to go and see them.
“This single has never disappointed me. I’ve never played it and thought “It’s not aged very well” or “It’s not as good as I remember.” Every now and then when I’m going through my 7 inches it jumps out and I get exactly the same feeling. It makes me feel like I’m 14 years old - angry and confused and all that stuff that you are when you’re a kid - and I like being reminded of that.”