Nick Mason: Saucerful of Secrets winds back time

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason remembers his first visit to Sydney for all the wrong reasons. This was when the band performed at Randwick Racecourse on a bitter winter’s day in 1971. “It was probably the coldest gig I’ve ever played,” Mason recalls on the phone from one of his English homes. “I actually ended up playing with gloves on, it was so cold.”

Thousands of us made the pilgrimage to hear the high priests of psychedelic rock that day, our teeth chattering in time to the likes of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and the mock-gothic horror of Careful with that Axe, Eugene, as the then-hirsute Mason flailed away behind his double bass drums.

Nick Mason: Photo (and top): Jill Furmanovsky.

Nineteen months later Pink Floyd released Dark Side of the Moon, and, from having a world-wide following among those who liked their music as trippy as the period’s favoured drugs, the band was catapulted into the rarefied zone of mega-stardom with the fourth-biggest-selling album of all time.

Now Mason is revisiting this pre-Dark Side of the Moon phase of the band’s music with a group called Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets (named after Pink Floyd’s second album). The repertoire stretches from the innocence and zaniness of original singer Syd Barrett’s songs through to the album Meddle (which was current on that 1971 tour) – songs which Mason mostly hadn’t played for half a century until this group formed in 2018.

“There’s a million people playing all the Pink Floyd hits, and I think there’s probably nearly enough of them for the moment,” he says. Beyond the endless tribute bands, he’s referring to the solo projects of Pink Floyd’s key post-Barrett architects: Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Mason wanted people to discover or rediscover the early, less familiar material instead.

“It’s not only the material,” he goes on, “but it’s also the way it was played. For me the interesting moment with this new band was the first night we played. It was a small venue with an audience you could see every one of, and it was a deja vu of that feeling of being four people on stage, when we could all see each other, and we could play with the music. We didn’t have to play it exactly as it was recorded.

Photo: Jill Furmanovsky.

“You know there’s a spirit to how the music is actually performed that is as important as trying to remember where the notes go. I like to get up to the drum kit and think, ‘I wonder if I can do something a little different tonight?’ And there’s still that feeling that music is there to be played in any way that everyone feels comfortable with, and build room for exploration.”

Saucerful of Secrets assembled itself with no auditions. “It was really people who had heard about it or were friends or whatever,” says Mason. “[Ex-Blockheads guitarist] Lee Harris was probably the most instrumental in going, “We really ought to do this. You need to do something outside Pink Floyd.’ And he introduced [keyboardist] Dom Beken, and what I think made me settle into it was the fact that [bassist] Guy [Pratt] thought it was a great idea. I’ve known Guy for 30-odd years, and Guy’s worked with everyone – apart from Pink Floyd, with Michael Jackson, Madonna and so on. When he said, ‘I think this sounds like a great idea,’ I thought, ‘Oh, well, if Guy’s up for it, I’ll be okay.’”

The band is completed by ex-Spandau Ballet singer/guitarist Gary Kemp, and in 2020 they released the Live at the Roundhouse album, showing that this is one of those rare exercises in nostalgia that deserved to happen, because they actually breathe new life into the songs which were often more adventurous and experimental than the somewhat tamer, slicker and more homogenous music from Dark Side of the Moon onwards.

The vast sums of money Dark Side generated allowed the band to mount some of the grandest-scale concert spectaculars in rock history – arguably a form of compensation for the players being so small and the sound quality so dodgy in massive outdoor venues. “Stadiums are funny things,” Mason observes. “They’re enormously useful financially, but they are really about something other than the music. [Pink Floyd’s 1979 album] The Wall was written as a protest against these huge venues where the audience weren’t really listening to the music so much as having this kind of tribal day out. A lot of people came back from Woodstock or Glastonbury and they had the time of their lives. That’s fine. But for a musician and a band, in general what you really want is for people to actually listen to what you’re doing.”

Photo: Will Ireland.

Some of Mason’s finest and most important work has come outside of either Pink Floyd or his current band. He produced Robert Wyatt’s 1974 masterpiece, Rock Bottom, which Wyatt wrote in the aftermath of an accident that left him a paraplegic, ending his career as a trailblazing kit-drummer. Thankfully he still had his singing, songwriting and unassuming multi-instrumentalism to lean on. Mason found the project a joy and the music extraordinarily moving. “I think that’s almost the record I’m most proud of,” he says.

At the same time Mason and Wyatt (and a band including Sydney’s Dave MacRae on keyboards) recorded a startling remake of the Neil-Diamond-penned Monkees’ hit I’m a Believer as a stand-alone single. To their surprise, this charted so well that Wyatt was invited on to the BBC’s mimed Top of the Pops TV show, and needed a fill-in guitarist. “So we cast around for someone to mime the thing,” Mason recalls, “and we got Andy Summers! Who knew that he was going to move on to being one of The Police?”

Mason and Wyatt also collaborated on Fictitious Sports, which was marketed as a Mason solo album, although it was really him lending his name, fame and drumming to a project led by jazz composer and pianist Carla Bley, thereby ensuring her innovative music reached a much larger audience. “I loved Carla’s music,” he says, “and I just thought it would be a great thing to do, and I loved working on it. Carla was terrific, [her partner and trumpeter] Mike Mantler was great, and we had [jazz royalty] Steve Swallow playing bass. I still really like it.”

As the only constant member across all Pink Floyd incarnations from the band’s 1965 inception, Mason went through the difficulties of Barrett’s  succumbing to drug-induced mental illness, before having a front-row seat at the legendary fallings-out between Waters, Gilmour and the late keyboardist Richard Wright. He admires bands that continue to work together despite ostensible differences, and denies being by nature a peace-maker in the tradition of Charlie Watts with The Rolling Stones or Ringo Starr with The Beatles. “I just couldn’t find another job!” he quips.

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, Enmore Theatre, September 21-22.