Little Drummer Boy
Pink Floyd drummer speaks about everything from his Ferrari GTO, to the lasting relevance of The Dark Side of the Moon to the possibility of a Floyd reunion, in this exclusive Rolling Stone India interview
By Bobin James
The first weekend of November saw Nick Mason, of Pink Floyd, pay a visit to Mumbai. The drummer, who is also an avowed car enthusiast was here as one of the judges at Cartier’s International Concours d’Elegance, an exhibition of magnificent vintage automobiles. Mason took time off from his judging duties to sit down with Rolling Stone for a freewheeling chat on cars, superstars and music, of course.
Mr Mason, is this your first trip to India?
No, I was here last year, for a wedding...
And what brings you here, this time around?
This time, it’s an invitation from Cartier for the Concours d’Elegance. My great passion in life besides music is cars. So when they called, I readily agreed.
How did your love affair with cars begin?
My father was a film director. He made films about motor racing, about cars, motorsports, and he used to race a very old, vintage Bentley. So from when I was a kid, I was taken for motor racing.
And when did you first start to drive?
When I was seventeen. But I started to drive with an Austin 7 1927, so I was totally brought up with old cars.
You collect cars… How many cars do you have at last count?
About thirty-five [laughs]…
Well, it’s always the GTO. The ultimate car is always the Ferrari GTO, mainly because you can do so many different things with it. You can race it, you can rally it, you can take the kids to school. It’s such a great allrounder, and it looks wonderful. And everyone thinks I’m incredibly clever because I bought one thirty years ago [laughs].
What are your preferred set of wheels now?
An Audi RS4.
That’s for your regular city driving?
Yeah, I mean, actually I ride a bike most of the times. I love bikes…
What bike do you have?
I’ve got a BMW 800… but, the great thing with the Audi RS4 is that you get sports car performance, yet you can put a drumkit in it.
Which brings me to the music part… are you still playing?
Am I still playing? Yeah, we are not touring… very bad. But I am still working. I play with Roger [Waters] occasionally. I play with David [Gilmour] occasionally.
Can we expect to hear something from you sometime soon?
Not until David and Roger want to work together, and I don’t think… I mean, I know Roger’s coming here in December for a Live Earth concert. But I don’t think I will play with him on that occasion.
But nothing outside of Pink Floyd? You never really felt the need to go out and do a solo project?
No, no. I mean, I like working with other people, and I’ve doing it with the Hollywood Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp, and I do production with other people. But I don’t particularly want to do a solo… I mean, I am not a solo performer.
When you all started Pink Floyd so many years back, what was it that you set out to do? I mean, did you actually tell yourselves that we are gonna be the biggest rock & roll band in the world?
Absolutely not. When we started, the Beatles were fairly recent as well. No one had any sort of concept of rock & roll being grown up. It was only by the time that we were doing our first album that the Beatles were doing Sgt Pepper’s. You know, Sgt Pepper’s was the first album where the album outsold the single. That was the beginning of the transformation and rock & roll being more grown up and…
There being superstars?
Not really so much the superstars, as having a longevity and being taken more seriously. I mean, Elvis was a superstar in 1950-whatever, and he continued to be so for a long time. It was more to do with the music being taken more seriously.
What was it like being in a band like Pink Floyd at the height of it all?
I think the trouble with being in a band is you take a lot of it for granted. You don’t think, “This is fantastic.” I mean, you tend to remember the shows that you were pleased with... the Dark Side shows in ’73… the Wall shows in ’79-’80… The thing is that people say “What was it like having a record like Dark Side.” Well, Dark Side [of the Moon] was a hit record long after we’d made it. So actually, the reality of it all was so spread across, it didn’t really… register.
Did you realise when you came out with Dark Side that it’s going to be a huge hit and it’s going to be on the charts for so many years?
No, because that was unheard of at that time. So it’s one of those rather odd things where… nothing like that had ever happened.
Looking back on it, how do you feel about it now? When you see that Dark Side is still bought by kids who were not even born when it first came out?
I think it’s interesting and obviously it’s something I am very pleased with. But I think the thing I realise about Dark Side now [is that] it’s actually less to do with 19-year-olds than it’s to do with the fact that the lyric content of the piece is as relevant to a 50-year-old as it’s to a 20-year-old. You know, when we made that record, we were in our early 20s… But actually a song like… well, a number of songs [on it] were related to growing old and money problems which is as relevant to a 50-year-old as it is to a 23-year-old. And I think that’s why it’s had a long run, because it has relevance to a number of different age groups.
Mr Mason, if we can go back all the way to the beginning. How did music first happen to you? Was yours particularly a musical family?
My mother was quite musical… but it was not a very important part. I think I was just turned on to rock & roll when I was a kid, as was most of the rest of the band.
Do you remember what you were listening to?
‘Rockin’ to Dreamland’ which was the one programme - once a week - on Radio Luxembourg. I’m hearing Elvis Presley for the first time… and Chuck Berry, Fats Domino. This black rock & roll, as well as Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley stuff… It was something we’d never heard before… it struck some chord…
And how did that interest graduate to a level where you actually said that I want to start playing?
I think at the time it didn’t happen. It sort of just got me interested in playing… and then…
So you started off on the drums?
Well, I actually began the guitar, but drums was where I suddenly got excited… but then I dropped it for three years. Then I was a student and I was earning when I was a student. And then I met Roger and Richard [Wright]… all of us were going to study architecture. And it was there that someone said, “Oh, I need a band to do something.” And I went, “Oh well, I just play the drums.” Roger said, “Oh well, I play the bass guitar…” And so that was the sort of start. But I don’t think any of us at that point were thinking it’s a career… you know, it was sort of quiet, gradual…
Mr Mason, who were you earliest idols? Anyone you looked up to?
Well, initially, lots of bebop drummers: Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, people like that… But then when rock & roll really happened for us, it was Ginger Baker with Cream, Mitch Mitchell with Hendrix, people like Spencer Davis and ELP and Keith Moon… these were the people who were making a career when we were just students watching…
Why do you think Pink Floyd became such a huge phenomenon worldwide? What do you think it is that really made it so endearing?
The answer is I don’t really know but I suspect the answer is that it’s not just one thing. It’s a mixture of things that make up the brood. I think Roger’s lyrics, a lot of people relate to them… I think there is an element of romanticism to the music that triggers the imagination. There’s quite a lot of music that doesn’t even have lyrics, so people can actually allow their minds to wander, and they paint the pictures that are entirely different for everyone. But I think that’s what it is… inevitably, in our case, we perhaps have a bigger fanbase that’s male than female. And I think a lot of males who listen to music would like to do the same, would like to emulate, would like to play. And I think we are sort of an influence on some people who want to play music. They don’t necessarily want to play exactly like us, but I think what they like is the idea that there is an audience out there who don’t demand sex idols and who don’t demand just pounding rhythms. So the music can be a little bit more sophisticated…
Mr Mason, were you in touch with Richard Wright?
Yeah, yeah… he was ill for about 9 months, something like that… and he just didn’t want people to know about it…
So would it be safe to say that we won’t really be seeing a Pink Floyd reunion now?
Who knows… I mean, I think, because David and Rick have been working together, now David thinks without Rick, he really can’t see himself and Roger working together. But having said that, I have no idea. I would have thought that if there were the right occasion, a bit like Live 8, everyone would say, “Well, this is good reason to, even without Rick, to do something together…” But I can’t judge whether that will happen.
(November 1, 2008)
© Bobin James/Rolling Stone India, 2008