NEW YORK – The last brick has officially been mortared into Pink Floyd’s legendary wall, and it goes by the name "The Endless River."
“It’s a reasonably graceful departure,” founding Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason tells FOX411 about the new album that contains Pink Floyd’s final studio cuts. Released Monday, "The Endless River" began to flow during the 1993-94 sessions for "The Division Bell" that were helmed by the core Floyd trio of guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright, and Mason. (Founding bassist/vocalist Roger Waters left the band amidst much turmoil in 1983.)
In late 2013, Gilmour and Mason reconvened in England to record new material to complete "The River," which stands tall as a muscular, mostly instrumental tributary to the band’s storied recorded legacy. It’s also a fitting epitaph for Wright, who passed away in 2008.
Mason, 70, sat down with FOX411 to discuss the origins of "The Endless River," why the band sometimes had trouble communicating, and if Pink Floyd will ever play live again. Oh, and by the way, which one’s Pink?
FOX411: In your autobiography, "Inside Out," you referred to the music that eventually became "The Endless River" as coming from “ambient tapes,” but I don’t think we can call it that, really. It sounds like prime Pink Floyd music where you’ve once again successfully harnessed that signature sound.
Nick Mason: Thank you. I think we used the word “ambient” because, years ago, it was a word that was more in use, but these are not ambient mixes. This new album felt like we were panning for gold in a big pile of rocks, and we found it.
FOX411: The record is mostly instrumental, and David’s only lead vocal is on the last song, “Louder Than Words.” People seem to forget that many Floyd songs have lengthy instrumental sections, like “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and “Echoes.”
Mason: Yes, exactly. With this album, we had to sit down and think, “We don’t have to be tied down to any rules about how many songs it has to be, or the ratio of instrumental to vocal.”
FOX411: Did you give any specific directions as to “this is what I’d like to hear”?
Mason: Not really. I had very few comments after Phil [Manzanera, one of the album’s co-producers] played me his initial mix, though there were a few sections I felt were too derivative of something we’d done before.
FOX411: Do you mean certain sounds that I’ve seen referred to as “throwback threads” — touchstone guitar and keyboard licks that recall earlier Floyd work?
Mason: Yes. I think that’s always a difficult call because, like I said, in some of the original "River" reworkings, I thought, “No, that’s just too close.” It’s a tough balance — to find when it’s ok, and when it’s not. But if you’ve got what’s called a body of work, references back to it are acceptable.
FOX411: I agree. The album is presented as four “Sides,” so I look at it like having movements in classical music, where recurring themes appear all throughout the work. And speaking of that overall body of work, many people have tried to replicate what you do, but there really is only one true Pink Floyd sound.
Mason: That was part of the learning curve of this project — you take any three musicians working together, or four, and you get something very specific. You can’t change those elements and get the same thing again. You get something different, and maybe something better — but you won’t get the same. As a band, you might think, “Well, if we had a better drummer, or a better guitar player, we’d be a better band.” But the thing is — you might not. You actually may lose something.
FOX411: Communication is an important topic covered on this album, starting with the soundbites we hear at the outset of the first track, “Things Left Unsaid,” and bookended by the final track, “Louder Than Words,” which is perhaps the definitive statement on interacting with each another in this day and age.
Mason: It’s something that we recognize as being a failure in our band life, really.
FOX411: Why do you think that was so difficult?
Mason: I don’t really know. I don’t know if it had to do with egos or the reluctance to upset the apple cart. It would need someone more expert than me to explain it. Part of it has to do with the fact that that’s what we’d been doing virtually our entire working lives, operating together within a constantly changing environment in terms of success and contribution. In 1967, the way we worked and interacted together is entirely different from how we did it in 1978 and ’79, when Roger was putting "The Wall" together. Almost as fast as you’re growing up, you’re also changing. Everything is changing to something else.
FOX411: At least you all got a full circle moment together when you, Rick, David, and Roger reunited to play again one last time as Pink Floyd at Live 8 [on July 2, 2005, in London].
Mason: What I think about that is, “Good for us.” A lot of people enjoyed it. And perhaps more important, we proved to our children that we could actually be grown up.
FOX411: I’m glad I got to see it, that’s for sure. Another thing I’ve always liked is that you’re good editors. The albums are all fairly concise, even "The Wall," so when you put a Pink Floyd record on, you feel like you need to listen to it from beginning to end. Do you think you were successful in presenting full albums to the buying public?
Mason: The ultimate judge of the work of virtually every recording artist is the artist himself. Very few of us can really second guess what the public wants, so all you can do is really please yourself. That’s why I say there’s an element of fate involved, if you like. However great you are, there is no guarantee that that record will take off.
FOX411: Well, one reason your music endures has something to do with the blues and jazz backgrounds you and some of your peers like Cream and The Doors had.
Mason: Yeah. I remember coming to New York the first time in 1966 and going to the Village Vanguard to see Mose Allison and Thelonious Monk. And if ever there was a percussion player on the piano, it was Monk. Just fantastic, what he does.
FOX411: I think we can see that influence in some of your earlier work. You knew structure, but you also knew how and when to veer away from it too, which informed your skill at improvisation.
Mason: I’m thrilled you think that. I remember seeing this movie on the Newport Jazz Festival — "Jazz on a Summer’s Day," it was called [released in 1960, chronicling the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival]. From that, I entirely owe “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” [a pivotal track from 1968’s "A Saucerful of Secrets"] to drummer Chico Hamilton. He played a solo with beaters [i.e., mallets], and they filmed it. It was something I had never, ever seen a drummer do, to use mallets like that.
FOX411: That’s so amazing. I know we both still love listening to 180-gram vinyl, but it can be impractical sometimes, given how much we travel these days.
Mason: I bought a new record player about two years ago, and I enjoy seeing how revitalized the business of buying vinyl has become. The problem is, records don’t particularly work very well in the 21st century. We live in smaller spaces with less room to keep the vinyl, the record player, and the rest of it. We’re used to this thing of having music on demand rather than actually having to put the record on.
One of the things record companies have done really well, in spite of whatever crimes they’ve committed or will commit, is they’ve produced very high-quality music for many, many years. But it’s allowed to be devalued by being played on increasingly poor-quality reproductive equipment. We really ought to try to remember just how good the initial recording was. That’s why so many people are returning to vinyl, for instance. There’s some really good stuff you’d enjoy if you’d listen to it on really good equipment. I’m not talking about just Pink Floyd stuff, but almost any band around.
FOX411: What albums have you played recently?
Mason: A lot of my peer-group stuff — Hendrix, Cream, what have you. And some blues like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and other stuff from America from the ’60s. In that respect, vinyl has lasted so much better than some of the other formats. And then a whole lot of jazz stuff, like bebop — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, things like that. And the MJQ [Modern Jazz Quartet], where you get to hear those lovely, silky Milt Jackson vibes.
FOX411: Someone else who talked up the MJQ with me earlier this year just passed away — Jack Bruce.
Mason: Ahh, that was really sad. Lovely man.
FOX411: You guys had crossed paths back in the day.
Mason: I did some stuff with him, yes. He worked a bit with [Austrian trumpeter] Michael Mantler, and I joined them onstage [captured on Mantler’s 1987 release Live, which also features Rick Fenn and Don Preston]. How great it was to actually be onstage with Jack.
FOX411: Do you remember what the very first record you got as a kid was?
Mason: “See You Later, Alligator,” by Bill Haley [and His Comets]. I had it on a 78 [on Decca, released in February 1956]. And then the first album I got was the first Elvis Presley album ["Elvis Presley," 1956]. After that, there was quite a bit of teenage rock and roll — Neil Sedaka, The Shadows, Cliff Richard, The Everly Brothers; stuff like that. Then I went through a jazz phase, came out of that and went into R&B, and then went into more blues, like Alexis Korner and John Mayall.
FOX411: And now every generation is growing up with Pink Floyd in a similar way. Why do you think that is?
Mason: I think for people who like music, we represent something — and it’s something that’s quirky. You know, we are outside the mainstream. Other bands promote themselves, primarily; they’re showmen. And Mick Jagger is the ultimate rock star, really. For some reason, we found a way of operating outside of that — and I don’t even think it was deliberate. It required we do something else.
FOX411: David has said "The Endless River" is the final band statement, Roger hasn’t been in the group in over three decades, and Rick is no longer with us. All that said, would you still like to play live again under the Pink Floyd name if you could?
Mason: I’d love to. I’ve always said that. I’ve never wanted to finish it at all. I love playing live — going out and doing it, and playing with those guys. But if they don’t want to do it, or David doesn’t want to do it, then that’s how it is. You can’t make these things happen, and there’s no point in doing it unless there’s an enthusiasm. It has to be driven by enthusiasm.
FOX411: Would you do another record on your own?
Mason: No, because I don’t really enjoy working on my own. Drummers are sort of herd animals, really. They need other people to work with. Given the opportunity, I’m happy to play with almost anyone.
FOX411: Ok, let’s put out the want ad — everybody, Nick’s ready to take your calls!
Mason: (laughs) Absolutely! People perhaps think I only want to play with bands that sound like Pink Floyd, but that’s not the case at all. Putting music together on any level in whatever form would be great.
FOX411: You are a noted car aficionado. If you could equate the experience of making "The Endless River" to getting behind the wheel of your favorite car, what car would it be?
Mason: Oh, well, a Ferrari 250 GTO, I think.
FOX411: Agreed — "The Endless River" is a Ferrari all the way, and that sums up the Pink Floyd canon perfectly. How do you view this album in terms of the band’s legacy, almost 50 years into its existence?
Mason: "The Endless River" is a reasonably graceful, sort of gentle departure. I tend to avoid trying to find our place in history and review ourselves. The old line is, “The more I tell people how clever I am, the more stupid I feel.” (Both chuckle) I prefer the plaudits to come from the outside to tell us how great we are.
Mike Mettler is the former editor-in-chief and current music editor of Sound & Vision, and he interviews artists and producers about their love of music and high-resolution audio on his own site, Soundbard.com.