Without much fanfare, Steve Mason, one of the Britpop generation’s few genuinely brilliant and original songsmiths, has been delivering on the promise of The Beta Band’s The Three EP’s – the masterpiece which introduced his extraordinary talent to the world.
The groundbreaking recordings on The Three EP’s, which were compiled 12 years ago from Mason’s very first releases, had a massive impact on the UK pop landscape and beyond, quite literally altering the way music was made, bringing a fresh, playful, genre-busting spirit to the deployment of new technology and traditional instruments. Thereafter, The Beta Band, led by Mason, struggled manfully beneath the weight of expectation. After they split up in ’04, Steve went to ground in his native Fife, firing off wonderfully unconventional records under a series of pseudonyms – most prominently, King Biscuit Time and Black Affair.
In a Mike Yarwood “And this is me...” type development, however, Steve’s latest album, Boys Outside, will appear under his own name, because, he says, he’s had enough of all the aliases, and because, more than ever in his life, he’s comfortable in his own skin. Also, he’s proud of these ten songs, whose sparse, haunting arrangements bespeak economy, maturity and focus. Boys Outside is fully the equal of The Three EP’s, packed with inventively sculpted sounds and sublime melodies, and shot through with a rare emotional honesty.
It was in the wake of his last project, Black Affair, that Mason began to toy with the idea of a new approach. 2008’s Black Affair album, Pleasure Pressure Point, found him indulging his love of ’80s funk, early electro and Detroit techno, on a terrific collection of 100% electronic pop tunes. Before that, 2006’s King Biscuit Time record, Black Gold, blended elements of R&B, grime and dancehall into a bold, hi-tech new sound.
“I was writing another Black Affair album,” he remembers, “which was a mixture of R&B and goth – or R&G. I’d got pretty far on with that, when my manager called up, and asked me if I was thinking of making a King Biscuit Time album. About 20 minutes later, I picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time in 3 or 4 years and wrote a song straight away.
“I suddenly realised I was bored of pissing around with drum machines, and all that stuff. Just that immediate thing, where you can actually perform a song with a guitar – it seems really obvious, because I’ve done it loads in the past – but I’d forgotten it was possible. You can actually create some really beautiful magic with just that instrument and a voice. So I started writing lots of stuff like that again.”
Steve’s new-found immersion in the ageless pleasures of songcraft, however, seemed stylistically at odds with a vague agreement he’d had to collaborate on his next record with Richard X. A celebrated pop producer, famed for his work with the likes of Sam Sparro, Liberty X, Sugababes, Annie and Roisin Murphy, he’d declared himself a fan.
“As it got closer to the time where we were going to do something together,” Steve recalls, “I said, ‘Well, listen, I’ve started going in a different direction now. Do you want to hear this other stuff I’ve done?’ I wasn’t really sure he’d be up for it, because he’s more known as a pop-dance producer. But he really liked it. I kept sending the songs through as I wrote them, and he really liked them, too, so we just kept going.”
Mason entered into the arrangement of working with a producer with mixed feelings. “I did want the weight of the production of this record lifted off me,” he says, “so I could just concentrate on the music, as opposed to the whole process of recording the music. But then, I’m not used to working that way. All the Beta Band records were co-productions, and the last two I produced myself. So, I was a bit worried about relinquishing control to someone else, and egos becoming a problem. But Richard’s really good. Probably because of the world he’s coming from, he’s used to people with egos, and he knows how to deal with it.”
With a shared penchant for the minimalism of early electro and late-’90s house, the two were aiming for a pared-back sound, with no flabby excess layers. “I wanted it to be like you could strip away the top half of it, and you’d be left with an R&B-type hi-tech backing track. But then, you could listen to the other half, and it would be a song, with vocals, acoustic guitar, piano – the traditional ingredients.”
With his proven mastery of pop arrangement, Richard pushed Steve even harder than he’d ever pushed himself, to achieve perfection. “One thing you’ll notice,” Steve laughs, “is that the vocal performances are, for me, flawless!”
Once finished in the autumn of 2009 the album found its way to Laurence Bell at Domino who, impressed with the record, immediately signed Steve on a publishing deal. Within weeks Laurence had become so enamoured by the 10-tracks he also offered to release the record on the Domino imprint Double Six Records.
At once fiercely contemporary, and unlike anything else you’ll hear in 2010, the tracks on Boys Outside are every bit as singular as The Three EP’s, only now their author is a grown man, with half a life of apparent success, and private agony, behind him. Throughout his career, Mason has suffered from depression, a condition which he kept at bay with various treatments, until he underwent a course of hypnotherapy, which “completely sorted me out”.
The album’s title track looks back on that whole terrible period of paranoia and self-torment with disarming openness: “Who on earth did you think you were?” he sings, not without bitterness. “Fifteen years in a prison shirt/And I tried to let you down/Never tried to turn it around…Those are the days that no-one misses”.
Thankfully, the album isn’t all about depression. He says, however, that he likes writing “songs that are sad, but uplifting at the same time”. In the classic vein of The Beta Band’s ‘Dry the Rain’, ‘All Come Down’ translates introspective thoughts into a mood-elevating, exhilarating anthem, while ‘Understand My Heart’, ‘I Let Her In’, and ‘The Letter’ likewise make glorious sound from romantic failure. ‘Stress Position’, on the other hand, fires off angrily at a different target: “It’s about Iggy Pop selling insurance and John Lydon selling butter, how nothing is sacred, and the real heartbreak you feel when you realise that."
So, he summarises, “this album is the one I made where I was actually fixed as a human being”. In conversation, Steve is charming, and exudes a far greater confidence about his role as a music-maker. Gone are the days, when he would grumpily dismiss his latest work as “a load of shit” (as he did The Beta Band’s self-titled debut album proper), or when he would quit music altogether (as he did, temporarily, after Black Gold).
Having always, even in Beta Band days, struggled on meagre budgets, Steve is optimistic about professional prospects, as well as personal. “I’ve always had that hunger,” he says, “not money, just to make my music as successful as possible, although at times I went about it in a very convoluted way. If I’d died at any point after The Beta Band, I’d’ve been happy, because it was a big achievement, but I still feel there’s an awful lot for me to do musically. This is an album The Beta Band might be making about now, if we were still together.”
As such, Boys Outside is a godsend for those who’ve followed Steve Mason right the way through. It’s also a record that’ll stop the uninitiated dead in their tracks. Here is a top-class songwriter, on a new, hard-fought high.