A few days ago, Steve Mason posted a message on the website for King Biscuit Time, the side project he started in 1999 while still a member of the Beta Band. “Peace to you all, I’m out of here,” he wrote. “It’s been amazing but I’ve had enough. Over and out. Steve xxxx.” Never mind that King Biscuit Time are releasing their debut album, Black Gold, next Monday. Nor that Mason had a tour lined up to start this weekend. That tour is now cancelled and the singer incommunicado: neither his management nor his record company have any idea where he is.
A few weeks ago, Mason was holed up in the tiny Scottish village of Pittenweem, living in a seafront house and being harassed by the local old ladies who, inexplicably, blame him for the construction of a house next door to his that blocks their sea view. He moved there to escape pressures in the Beta Band; following their fraught split in 2004, it proved the ideal place to recharge his batteries. When I visited him there to talk about Black Gold, the album he recorded in an upstairs room in the house, he seemed in very good spirits – he was even excited about touring. But every so often he would mention his ongoing battle with depression, in a way that made his sudden decision to quit music seem, if not less shocking, somehow less surprising.
Mason is the first to admit that when he arrived in Pittenweem, he had a lot to escape from. Although the Beta Band had been remarkably successful in one sense, influencing everyone from Radiohead to Oasis, their career was financially disastrous: at one point, the band were £1.2m in debt and Mason was working on a building site to pay the rent. He chuckles when he remembers how his new neighbours brought him bowls of soup – “They thought I was starving!”
Ironically, the Betas’ final days were among their most lucrative, largely thanks to their new manager, Alan McGee. Their last album, Heros to Zeros, was making inroads in the US, and after years of losing money on tour, the quartet ended their sold-out farewell UK tour with “12 grand each”.
But for Mason, money couldn’t change the fact that, after seven years, the Beta Band had run its course. “At the start we had too many ideas, which was great, but by the end we didn’t have enough.” He had also long felt troubled by having to “pretend not to be a frontman”. His bandmates “didn’t want it to be seen as my band, with me writing all the songs and being the leader – but ultimately, I did all those things. I wasn’t out to make myself look bigger than anyone else and I think they needed to realise that.”
Then there were the political differences – or rather, Mason’s habit of making contentious political statements. One, he claims, even got the band in trouble with the FBI. On tour with Radiohead in the US, he reveals, he invited the audience to chip in to buy a rifle that could be used to shoot George Bush. Half the audience cheered, the rest booed, and a petition to get Mason deported was handed to the FBI. After that incident, Mason says, if he wanted to talk politics in his lyrics, he had to “sneak things in”. He’s clearly still irked about it.
That’s why he doesn’t regret the demise of the Beta Band, and why King Biscuit Time is mostly a solo project. With KBT, he says, he can finally be “overtly political” – “in favour of a populist people’s revolution, which would mean hanging Tony Blair and his little gang from the yardarm and demolishing the House of Commons. Strict controls on capitalism and basically abolishing everyone who wanted to be a politician.” He grins. “Even me.”
Black Gold’s combination of warped electronics and off-kilter reggae is similar to the Beta Band’s music, yet it also marks a quantum leap from everything Mason has done before. The new songs explore his trademark themes of loneliness, isolation and unrequited love, but with deeper anguish and blacker humour. It turns out that most of them were written not only when the Betas were imploding, but when Mason’s nine-year relationship was ending, too. That’s a lot of upheaval for anyone, never mind someone who only semi-jokingly refers to himself as “a reclusive depressive maniac” with a “self-destruct tendency” that he dates back to his parents’ split when he was in his teens.
By Christmas 2005, Mason says, he felt happier than he had in years. But, he explains, “Depression is totally unpredictable and irrational. You can be laughing with friends and then spend the rest of the night in the toilet with a razor.” And earlier this year, his depression returned. He had what he describes as “my most mental week ever”, in which he habitually found himself “getting drunk and going to the harbour. Trying to jump into the harbour.”
This, you guess, is where Mason’s creative energy comes from. But, having heard him make such a shocking admission, it’s hard not to worry about his announcement that he’s quitting music. Last week, as his record company remained bewildered as to his whereabouts, I sent a text of encouragement to a mobile number I’d picked up while arranging our interview. Surprisingly, hours later, he sent a reply. He’d had, he said, a “hard two weeks”, and although he was feeling “a bit stronger”, he added: “Not sure what I’m doing.” Then he returned to the comfort of silence.
According to friend Alan McGee, “Steve will return. He is just taking a break while he battles depression. He will return as soon as he feels better.”
All the best Steve.
By Dave Simpson