Nick Mason on Revisiting Early Pink Floyd with Saucerful of Secrets

Mike Greenhaus on May 27, 2020
Nick Mason on Revisiting Early Pink Floyd with Saucerful of Secrets

My initial hopes for Saucerful of Secrets were fairly low. I was thinking we’d play some pub gigs, but it spiraled slightly out of control. The other sad thing is that it wasn’t really my inspiration—it was [guitarist] Lee Harris who came up with the idea and thought that it was time that I went back to work.

So he suggested it to [touring Pink Floyd bassist] Guy Pratt and the band formed around me. There were no auditions. It was just like-minded people getting together, which is exactly how so many bands formed in the ‘60s. The Rolling Stones didn’t hold auditions; they were just people who liked the same music.

From the start, I said, “Let’s try one or two days in a rehearsal studio and see how we feel about it.” After about 10-12 days, I thought, “Right, we’ll go out and perform.” In America, especially—where so much of our audience only discovered us with Dark Side— all the music before that is almost unheard of. So the great thing about the early music is that it gives us the opportunity to be a little bit freer with it. The problem with playing “Comfortably Numb” is that the fans want to hear the guitar part played exactly as David [Gilmour] played it.

With this material, we don’t have to worry about every precise detail, which gives it a freshness. There is a lot of improvisation. When we made our first album [1967’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn], we spent a lot of time shortening the numbers to a reasonable vinyl length. “Interstellar Overdrive” is about nine minutes on the album, but when we played it at UFO, it would be 20-23 minutes. Now, we can extend it or shorten it. We are going for the spirit; the expectation is not to follow [the songs] slavishly.

No Pinch-Me Moment

[Pink Floyd] played some of these songs very rarely. We probably played these songs to promote them but, particularly if it was a single, once we couldn’t actually sell that single, we lost interest in it, and it would get sort of pushed to one side. Then, fairly shortly after that, we had Meddle and Dark Side and there was a sense of moving on a bit. Things got shelved that could have been developed but, in their own right, were not that interesting.

[In terms of Roger Waters’ emergence as Pink Floyd’s primary songwriter], it wasn’t that it was gradual, but there was so much going on with Syd [Barrett] leaving. It was a very odd transitory crossover, where David was miming to Syd’s songs when we were doing TV shows and stuff. There is a clear difference between Piper, where Roger had written “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk”—which I don’t think is a great song—and one album later where he’s doing “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” which is a great song. But there was no pinch-me moment, where there was that transition. The transition was slightly curious. What actually happened was that Syd’s presence, even though he wasn’t there, probably lasted for another three or four months before there was a sense of David being a fully integrated member.

The Peter Green/Fleetwood Mac story is fascinating to me— there’s that element in Pink Floyd, where you lose people and there’s someone there that sort of steps in. Genesis went through same thing. I’m the one they can’t fire. [Laughs.]

Revolving Circles

Basically, our aim is to explore any music that we made prior to Dark Side of the Moon. Once you hit that, you’re into some other territory. So far, we’ve probably only played 15 percent of the material that is out there. Some of it is not that interesting, but there’s certainly lots of material that we intend to add to the repertoire before we go out again.

Before [Pink Floyd toured in the United States], we’d heard a lot about America. We’d heard about the light shows and psychedelia and all the rest of it, but we had no idea what the actual music was. These names sounded exotic. But, the interesting thing is that Big Brother & The Holding Company was really an R&B band. For many years, we thought the 1910 Fruitgum Company was going to be a wild band, when actually they were pop. And Country Joe & the Fish were almost a countrywestern thing.

We actually met Zappa on our first American tour— he was a huge influence on everyone. Later on, when he was in Europe, he played with us at The Actuel Rock Festival. He was one of the great rock icons and philosophers. I say he was very influential partly because of the Mothers’ very high musical standards—just in terms of being radical, but also being extremely expert.

Now, when I look at the younger [psychedelic bands], I think, are we now the equivalent of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Howlin’ Wolf? In the 1960s, all the bands were picking up on the old R&B artists—taking that and making it modern.

Maybe it worked—50 years later, they’re listening to ‘60s music. It’s curious to see this revolving circle.

Moving Monuments

It’s been over 20 years since I’ve toured. I’ve considered it other times, but I’ve never found a formula that interested me enough or gave me the confidence to feel that it would be different enough. There was a slight sense of alarm that I either had to do completely new music, which requires a different sort of band and months in a recording studio, or I had to play the greatest hits of Pink Floyd, in which case you almost become a tribute band.

I don’t think there was a formal decision [for Pink Floyd to stop touring], but what happened was that, between ‘87 and ‘94, we did an awful lot of touring, and they were long tours. And we reached a point—particularly with David—where he did not really want to go out for another year. The problem is that, with big tours, you tend to have to go out on quite lengthy runs to justify your expenses. I like touring, but not to the point where all home life disappears—and, by the time you get home, your wife’s left you and your children have left home. But things have changed. Touring was so linked to album releases, and now studio albums have become less a part of the mainstream music business. With streaming, pirating and everything else, the real activity is now in the live realm.

Another driving force for this was when we did the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition in London. I spent quite a lot of time working on [Pink Floyd’s] history and finding material for that. I really enjoyed doing that but, at the end of it, you feel like a monument because it’s all about the past and history and so on. And there was a bit missing—playing the music. I got to the point where I thought, “I would love to bang on the drums again rather than simply talking about it.”

[In addition to playing music, I also race cars and those passions] complement each other. They are opposites. Music requires other people to make it work; when you’re in a racecar, you’re on your own. You need both prospects in your life.

Where We Are Now

With Pink Floyd, there is a shortage of material that shows where we were at any specific moment. It’s a regret for all of us. The only great piece of Pink Floyd playing on film, up until about the last couple of tours, was Live at Pompeii, which I’m very fond of. It was a great snapshot of where we were at the time. With Saucerful of Secrets, every show was just getting a little bit better. [The show we filmed for the new release Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets Live at The Roundhouse] was at the end of the British leg of the tour. The Roundhouse was also a great venue [to film at] because it is somewhere that I’ve worked since the dawn of time. Pink Floyd played there in October of 1966—before we had a record deal, before we had a manager or anything like that. So I have very fond memories of The Roundhouse. It felt like a home game. The setlist was basically what we had been playing. We added a few songs to it and it became a film about where we are now.

We all feel that we picked the right night, by luck. As far as we’re concerned, that’s probably the best show we’ve done. And hopefully, when we go out again, we will improve on it. But it was a good marker of where we are now.

Cellphone Snafu

I told both David and Roger that I would love for either of them—or both of them—to come play with us some night. And Roger was in New York, so we talked about him playing with us at the Beacon a few days before the show. And then he managed to leave his phone in a cab, so I didn’t hear anything from him for two days. I assumed he’d gone cold on it. Then on the day of the show, he said, “OK, I’ll come along.” So we really didn’t have a proper plan. We knew which song he would do but we hadn’t thought it through properly, which made it a lot more exciting because none of us knew whether he was going to remember the words to the song he was going to sing. He was great—he absolutely, inevitably, just picked it up and ran with it.

I don’t think that David and Roger are game to do anything together anytime soon. But, I would love Roger to come back and do something else with us, and I would be very happy to go and do something with him. Neither of us wants to be in each other’s band, though. We want to do things our own way—maybe just get together for bits and pieces. I don’t think we’re about to reform a band to go and do anything.