Interview: Pink Floyd Drummer Nick Mason on the New Remasters, Gear and the Chances of Another Floyd Tour
Yes, Guitar World is a guitar magazine, but how could I turn down the chance to speak to Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason?
Mason was in New York City last week doing some press for the first wave of a massive Pink Floyd reissue project called "Why Pink Floyd?"
It started September 27 with the release of Discovery editions of all 14 remastered studio albums; a Discovery box set that includes the 14 albums and a photo book; audio downloads of the remastered albums, plus expanded Immersion and Experience editions of The Dark Side of The Moon in CD, vinyl and digital form.
More releases will follow on November 8 and February 28 in the U.S. Be sure to check out the official "Why Pink Floyd?" website for more details.
Anyway, I headed up to a very woody-looking radio studio on 50th Street and Sixth Avenue to track down the answer to "Why Pink Floyd?" (It turns out the answer is "Why not?") and a ton of other questions about guitars (Yes, guitars), auto racing, George Harrison and how much time Mason would need to get ready for a full-fledged Pink Floyd tour.
Here's how it went.
GUITAR WORLD: Someone is sitting on the couch one day, having a smoke or whatever, when suddenly he or she exclaims, “It’s time to launch a massive Pink Floyd reissue campaign!” Who is that person?
Well, it wasn’t anyone from the band. It was the record company’s idea, EMI. I think the reason is they had the experience of doing all the recent Beatles reissues, so they knew sort of about it. I think they probably realized that trying to get us to agree to this would be tricky, because we got to the point where we've already done the “best of.” It’s been done enough, really. But they did a presentation to us; they went into some depth and really explained how they thought it could, and would, work. And we were all taken with it. We said, “Sure, why not? This could be interesting."
I think in my case, I realized I actually had quite a lot of stuff in my own collection. It’s sort of like Verve, the jazz label, which did all the Charlie Parker records. They put out five different takes of his songs -– 30 seconds, breakdown, restart. And I thought, “Well, if I'm buying this Charlie Parker stuff, maybe other people would want to do the same for Pink Floyd.” So maybe people do want this sort of thing. It actually ended up being something worthwhile. People seem to like it so far.
Is there a particular Pink Floyd album you most enjoyed revisiting during this process?
I actually enjoyed going back to A Saucerful of Secrets because I had forgotten how, in some cases, it's quite sophisticated in the way it was put together. It definitely represents a move forward. And the most extraordinary thing – I had the version of "On the Run" from '72, and I thought someone had given me the wrong CD. I thought it was some jazz club thing. It's an up-tempo jazzy thing, whereas on the record (The Dark Side of the Moon), it turned into a lute from the VCS3 synthesizer. So there were some nice surprises here and there.
What was the involvement of the band members in terms of the remaster-and-reissue campaign?
Well, the way it worked was, the work was done and then sent to us, and everyone then commented on it. So everyone was involved. The comments would be very different. I would say all the drums are a bit light here, or there's something wrong there or whatever. But sometimes the crossfade was wrong, or it felt wrong. We're not trying to remix, we're trying to remaster, and it's quite a big difference. We're not trying to change history, but what we are trying to do is get it right. And there might be the odd tweak where you might just go, "Well, I know it was like that on the record, but actually, it would be much better if you could just bring the whatever-it-is up just a little." That sort of thing, but everyone was involved, but at different times, with different demands.
Was Roger Waters sent the two post-Roger albums?
Absolutely not. Someone might have done it just to annoy him, but that wouldn’t have been a good thing to do -- and not relevant. But I suspect Dave would be sent The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, even though he's not on it.
Does Roger acknowledge A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell?
He disapproves of them deeply, but that’s inevitable, really. We just live with that. I think at one point, he said, he'd never actually listened to them, but who knows?
I recently read how happy you were -– as part of the reissue process -- to revisit music from the band’s Syd Barrett days. But from your comments, I got the impression you were talking about unreleased music that hasn’t come out as part of this first wave of releases. When will we hear that?
Well, there are a couple of things that weren't released; they were sort of bootlegged, and they are occasionally available on illegal downloads, but there were a couple of songs that were never finished –- “Vegetable Man,” “Old Woman With a Casket,” all that kind of stuff. It would be better if we did it ourselves, master it as well as we can, rather than leave it lurking around. Also, if we do something like an “Immersion” version of the earlier stuff, there's some demo stuff from '66, late '65, even. So there are a couple of nice Syd Barrett songs that would be fun to put out.
If you got a call from Roger Waters today, saying, “Get ready, Nick! Pink Floyd are touring and our first show is this weekend!,” how much time would you need to be comfortable with the material?
I don't know, but I would need some time. I could sort of busk through most of the catalog, but in order to play it properly, well ... for Live 8 in 2005, for instance, we still needed to rehearse and work it out. In fact, in a good day, you find yourself rearranging, because you have different technology now. And almost inevitably, you come back to something without having listened to it or rehearsed it or whatever, so you're double high-hatting everything, you know. I'm very conscious of how easily it is to fall into that.
Ah, yes, Live 8. That was a great day for Pink Floyd fans, and it made the world clamor for more Floyd. Sorry, but I have to ask: Is there a chance the three Floyds will tour again?
The answer is, I have a different view to David. If you ask David, he'll go, "Not a chance,” where I sort of live in hope and think that Roger and David are capable of rising to an occasion. So if there were another Live 8, or something close to their heart, I think that could swing something. I think there's no chance of going back into the studio, because that would be a waste of everyone's time. It takes so long to make a recording, which is sort of devalued, as a lot of records have been. They’re downloaded for nothing, so you end up spending a year working on something that was just a giveaway. But I certainly don't think we're headed off on a world tour, either. But I would do something for the right reasons.
Do you perceive Pink Floyd as a living, ongoing entity?
Just the catalog has a life of its own, I think. We all still feel some relationship with it, and I think things like copyright extensions are quite important in that point of view, that we would like to retain some control of our work for as long as possible. So, even if it's not producing anything new, it still feels like it's not a dead thing.
Pink Floyd is one of those bands everyone seems to respect, sort of common ground for fans of all sub-genres of rock. Do you agree, and if so, why do you suppose that is?
Yes, absolutely. I think there are moments where we've sort of rushed passed various different genres. Of course, Dave's knocked out some pretty good guitar solos. I think if you have a highly rated guitarist, you’re probably allowed access to the heavy metal fan base. I think it's that. Frankly, I think David -- on his own -- has got us in that particular door.
What’s your relationship like with David and Roger? Old friends, pretty much?
With Roger in particular, yes, very old friends. We've known each other since 1962, so I think that qualifies. I do see David occasionally, but you know David's moved out of London, and I think he's enjoying a quieter life in a way. I think eventually, he might pick up his guitar and do some solo stuff, but he has no interest in it really, in the big band thing.
Everything’s been remastered, but I’ve always thought all your music, including The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the earliest stuff, sounded crisp and well-separated, whereas a lot of old Kinks songs, for instance, sound pretty ragged. In fact, I just remarked to a friend that “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” from A Saucerful of Secrets sounds like it was recorded last year. Is that the result of having recorded at Abbey Road?
Yes, to a large extent. It's partly Abbey Road, but it's actually partly to do with the whole approach to recording, because of who we were and when we were. And after Sgt. Pepper, everything changed. Before that, the Kinks were booked in for three hours to make a record. Whereas, post-'67, we had unlimited studio time. And so it was going to be on an LP, which had a far higher quality of audio. It was high-quality audio, so everyone paid a lot more attention. Drum sounds, drum tracks and so on. We were taken much more seriously than some of those Kinks songs.
Speaking of the Beatles, I know you and George Harrison shared a passion – auto racing. Do you still race, and did you and Harrison ever connect in those circles?
Yes and yes. We had quite a lot of friends in common, in particular Damon Hill.
So during your downtime from Floyd, you’ve gotten into auto racing and flying planes. That's very cool, but be careful!
I think for me it's been a fantastic balance of one thing and another. One thing you do with a group of people, so it's a very different way of working, and it's kind of nice to have something that is entirely independent. You're totally responsible for your own destiny when you're in the car. But that works. But I also enjoy music outside the band. I've been doing production for other people, including Robert Wyatt. Check him out. The album we did together, Rock Bottom, I think it’s really lasted well. It's a 35-year-old album, but it worked.
You're the only member of Pink Floyd who’s been on every album but not necessarily on every track. Thoughts?
Yep, but that was true from the very beginning, because Norman Smith played drums on one track. “Remember a Day,” I think. And then someone else played couple of the tracks on The Final Cut. So every now and again, everyone else has played. I've never bothered about that. It's not like I’m outraged.
This is more like something I’d ask if I worked for a drumming magazine, but what’s the technique behind the distinctive Nick Mason sound on Pink Floyd records? It’s sort of crisp without being dry.
Well, I mean if you're talking about the sonic qualities, it's really about the miking, followed by the amount of ambient noise put on the drums. I've always liked a very dry snare and, like everyone else, a very dry bass drum. And then a certain amount of echo on the tom-toms. I think that's what I've always liked to do live. I've actually got quite a live sound off the tom-toms.
Describe the evolution of your gear choices.
I started on Premiere, originally. Then I went to Ludwig. It was Premiere for the first year or so and Ludwig as soon as we got to America. I bought my first kit from Manny's in New York City. Then I basically stayed with Ludwig for years. I think Ludwig is just wonderful, but they were just overwhelmed by cheap imports. And Bill (Ludwig) ended up having to sell the company. He just couldn't make it work. There's some resurgence now, I suspect, but they went through a period with a lot of the stuff being shipped in from the Far East. Really sad. Then I met John Good from DW, who I am very, very happy with, a terrific outfit. I love their attitude. John is always looking at you, trying to make a drum, improve the sound of it. Whenever I'm in America on the West Coast, I always go up to Oxnard and just go and hang out there for a bit.
And you play some guitar as well, yes?
Not really, but a bit. I bought myself a ukulele for Christmas, so I'm concentrating on that.
Ah, another George Harrison connection! Guitar-wise, do you have a favorite brand? Do you prefer acoustic or electric?
Well, I'm not an electric guitar player, really. I do have electric guitars, because I've always believed, especially when I'm working in the studio with other bands as producer, that there should be a really nice Strat around. I actually have a nice Fender Precision Bass, a nice Strat, a Telecaster, an Ovation and a Martin D-18. Otherwise you find that someone has a guitar that buzzes or hums and doesn't do it properly. And I've also done some Strats with the Fender Custom Shop for a thank-you present for Ferrari when they mended a car of mine. Have you seen the pictures of it?
Of your cars? Yes.
No, no -– the Strat.
Ah! No, I haven’t.
It's quite nice. I got a silversmith in London to make little silver prancing horses as inlays instead of mother of pearl. The scratch plate is made of Kevlar, carbon fiber, like a race car. So I sort of have a passing interest.
Do you have your eye on a particular car at the moment?
No, not at the moment. In fact, I'm sort of thinking about doing less racing and possibly changing a couple of cars.