One of my favourite concert films is no doubt Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii from 1971. It’s the epic version of Echoes and the almost surreal surroundings of at empty Roman amphie theatre. Still, one of my favourite moments is Nick Mason looking like a 70s rock star, with his shades and moustahce beating the hell out of his drums on One of the Days.
While David Gilmour and Roger Waters has been touring almost relentlessly over the past two decades, Nick Mason has acted more as the Pink Floyd curator dealing with exhibitions and box sets compiling the band’s legacy.
In some way, this led to his latest project, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It started with an urge to revisit the early pre-Dark Side era of Pink Floyd. An era that’s often overlooked by both David and Roger and the casual fan. Instrumental in forming the band and laying out the direction of this project was former Blockheads guitarist and super Floyd fan Lee Harris.
As the band is releasing their new concert film and album, recorded at London’s Roundhouse in 2019, I sat down with Harris and got deep into being a Pink Floyd fan, guitar gear and what’s it like to play with Nick Mason.
Lee, thanks for sharing your time with us and congratulations on the new live release! Let’s start with your musical background.
I was brought up my parents listening to a lot of what we now view as classic rock bands so The Who, Rolling Stones, Santana, Allman Brothers, Deep Purple, Joe Walsh, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top and of course Pink Floyd. I picked up a guitar because I got into Eric Clapton and through him I became a blues purist at the age of 13.
I played in a variety of bands in London through my twenties until the late 90’s when my friend Billy Freedom invited me to jam with one of my childhood heroes – the bassist Norman Watt-Roy from Ian Dury and The Blockheads. I ended up being their webmaster, agent, co-manager and, most rewarding of all, playing guitar with them sporadically as a touring member over a period of 12 years.
My father is a cinematographer and worked with Storm Thorgerson on a few Pink Floyd projects – the most famous being the video for High Hopes. It was at an exhibition of Storm’s work that Guy Pratt and I met and became fast and close friends. I asked him to take Norman’s place in The Blockheads at a festival show, which is when we first played together.
When did you first get into Pink Floyd and what’s your favourite era of the band?
One of my earliest memories of listening to an album is when my parents put Animals on the record player when it was a new release, I would have been 4 years old. I loved David’s talk box and the sounds of the animals. In 1981, my parents took me to see them performing The Wall live at Earls Court which had a profound effect on me and still does to this day.
If I had to pick one album to have on a desert island I’d go with Animals but, honestly, I don’t have a favourite era. I love all their albums, as I love the musicianship and musical ideas that everyone playing on them brings to the table. I even like all their solo albums.
You’ve been with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets since the start in 2018. How did that happen?
My wife and I got married in 2014. We were at a point in our lives where we had no ties and could try something different and after 12 years of constantly gigging up and down the UK I was happy to take a break from (live) music for a while. We moved to the far South of France and began renovating parts of our home into holiday rental properties.
In the summer of 2015, I saw David was playing in Orange so I called Guy and met up with him at the show. After the concert I realised how much I missed playing so when I got home got my Strat out and started playing lots of Pink Floyd music, just like I had done when I was a teenager. The following year they came back to France and Guy invited me to the Nîmes amphitheatre.
Whilst watching the concert I was thinking about how much I would love to play Floyd music with Guy. Whilst watching David playing a lot of his famous solos it struck me that the best way to interest Guy playing with me would not be to ask him to play these songs. I started thinking about Nick and (probably because we were in an ancient amphitheatre not dissimilar to Pompeii) the early era of Floyd and whether he would be interested in playing that with us. I told Guy my idea and he thought it was great so he approached Nick.
The timing was fortuitous as the Early Years box set was 4 months from release and Nick was also very busy co-ordinating Their Mortal Remains so he was surrounded by his past and having to talk about it, rather than being musical.
We set up a meeting in February 2017 at which both Gary Kemp and Dom Beken were put forward by Nick and Guy to round out the band. Due to other commitments it took us until November that year for the 5 of us to get in a room together.
You’re playing exclusively from the pre-Dark Side of the Moon catalogue, including a number of fairly deep cuts and Barrett songs. Was that something you decided on early on and what’s the process of picking the songs?
In my original proposal to Nick, I mentioned (because it is largely ignored) the pre-Dark Side era would give us an edge over the countless tribute bands and even Roger and David, who play a lot of the same songs on tour. As it was my idea initially and the other guys were relying on me to push things forward until we got in a room most of the initial song choices were mine to start with. This wasn’t particularly difficult as I went with the songs that I thought were the most well known and would be fun to play.
As time went by I would run things past Gary and he would in turn send me suggestions. We’d find various versions of songs in bootleg form and from The Early Years box set to see how the band approached the tunes in a live setting.
As momentum picked up the others got much more involved. Once we were up and running with a European tour in front of us the focus was not so much on having to play a song that might be expected (like Careful With That Axe, which we still haven’t attempted) but that gave a set list a beginning, middle and end as well as a good balance of instrumental passages to lyrics.
What strikes me is that you’ve obviously done a lot of research, listening to album versions and bootlegs, but you’ve also managed to make these songs your own and allowed them to evolve much in the same fashion as how Pink Floyd constantly altered the live versions during the early days of the band. Was this something that Nick encouraged or how much involved is the band with the arrangements?
Nick wasn’t interested in being in his own tribute band and neither were we in replicating parts exactly like the record the same way every night. Dom tells a good story about us being in rehearsal and listening to something off of a bootleg, after a couple of minutes Nick said “Here’s an idea. Why don’t we try pretending we are playing together in a band?!” – meaning ignore the bootleg and just do what YOU would do.
How I personally look at it is the original studio recordings are demos that we listen to in order to make our own versions of the songs. I’ll take bits that I would miss if they weren’t there and maybe make more of something or even leave something out. There is, of course, a framework to fall back on but each of us changes things here and there from night to night.
We also add certain dynamics that come out of the blue at some shows that we like enough to make them a nightly occurrence.
Some of my favourite live recordings are from the 1972-73 tour, with the show opening with Obscured by Clouds and When You’re In and you’re performing some really great versions of these. You share lead slide with Gary Kemp on Obscured. Can you take us through the process of sorting out the different guitar parts and deciding on who to play them?
Gary and I always get together without the rest of the band to sort our arrangements and usually play straight into amps without pedals and work out what sounds best to both of us.
I have a bluesier style than Gary who has a more melodic approach – so that helps us towards picking who plays what and in some cases Gary plays solos where there isn’t one originally (Saucerful and Green Is The Colour for instance).
There are a fair amount of overdubs on a lot of the material though, so there aren’t that many tunes where we’ve had to make up our own parts completely from scratch. The way we play Lucifer Sam for instance sounds like a cross between Rolling Stones and The Ventures. When we started the first thing I said to Gary was “We have to become the Keith and Ronnie of Pink Floyd”. We have a lot of fun!
Your tone is remarkably spot on that early Floyd era, paying tribute to both Syd and David. Please take us through the pedalboard and the process of researching the tones.
For understanding what David used in various eras I had an absolutely invaluable tool in all the work you put into Gilmourish.
There was also the DGGF (David Gilmour Gear Forum) where I met a few people who could give me tech advice such as Phil Robinson who has been indispensable and, as you know, now has his own pedal company. For an overall fun education in what pedals do there’s Dan and Mick on That Pedal Show. To be a guitarist nowadays, with the internet and the ability to watch reviews of pedals, is so different to when I started playing.
So I started researching and buying pedals that I would see in your reviews, pretty much knowing they would achieve what I needed BUT I would allow myself to get side-tracked. I’d buy a Big Muff and an old Electric Mistress and be thinking “Great I can get the Comfortably Numb tone!” and then realise that I didn’t actually need that sound!
I had no time to test pedals out properly through my brand new Hi Tone rig before rehearsals started properly. I was basically throwing lots of money at the rig hoping it would do what I needed. Where we live in France is isolated so it made sense to have it built in the UK and I was very lucky in that Joe, Jake and Dan at Gigrig accommodated my constant reconfiguring (about 5 times over 4 months) until only 3 of my original 14 choices remained.
Someone else could have done with less od’s and distortions but my pet hate is bending down and changing settings on a pedal during a show.
What I had for the Roundhouse were
A Gigrig G2 for switching.
– Catalinbread Germanium Karma Suture for an overblown speaker sound in Nile Song, See Emily Play and Point Me At The Sky
– Throbak Electronics Overdrive Boost for Obscured By Clouds/When You’re In and Childhood’s End
– Analogman NKT275 Sunface for One Of These Days
– Analogman Bi Comp for Arnold Layne
– Free The Tone Fire Mist most of the Syd songs
– Analogman King Of Tone for Atom Heart Mother and boost on One Of These Days
– Free The Tone String Slinger for Fearless
– Electronic Orange Bananaboost for the end chords of A Saucerful Of Secrets
– Free The Tone EQ for various songs
– Earthquaker Devices Rainbow Machine for the breakdown in Set The Controls
– Dawner Prince Boonar for Celestial Voices
– 2 x Free The Tone Flight Time (not always on at the same time but invariably in series to get an ethereal quality)
– Ernie Ball VP Passive Volume Pedal
– Real McCoy Wah
When we started, it was always about finding a vintage tone that worked with a particular song. It didn’t have to be the exact same pedal that David used but something from his tonal palette.
There are factors that come into hand that prevent you from being a purist on the road such as weather. Last year we toured Europe in a very hot July and my germanium pedals stopped working in the heat. Luckily I was in a position to get Silicon replacements out to me overnight.
One of the reasons I feel free to do what I want with the material is that, in the years we are covering, David had not yet become the guitarist we know and love him to be so there isn’t much worry of having to treat something as if it is one of the sacred tunes that are uploaded by guitarists every day to youtube.
The most challenging aspect of the playing has been emulating Syd’s style because he was so experimental and not prone to repeating himself. To an extent, that is what David was trying to do before he found his own voice and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that David’s style was born out of Syd’s.
With that in mind, I have been focusing on getting Syd’s distortion tone to be more accurate and I know some people think it’s a Buzz Tone pedal but (as I own one) I can tell you it definitely isn’t. He probably used that to achieve some feedback here and there.
It is his Esquire straight into a very loud Selmer Treble and Bass amp. I’m excited to be working with a very well known company on a pedal that reproduces that sound. [ThorpyFX is releasing the Scarlet Tunic, which is based on the Selmer Treble and Bass amp – Bjorn]
And your guitars. You have a wide range of different guitars on stage. What models are you playing and have you performed any modifications to bring them closer to that early Pink Floyd sound?
In Live At The Roundhouse for the Syd songs I am using a custom Admiral guitar by Gray Guitars. Pickup wise it has a Yardbird in the bridge and a HS90 Blue Note in the neck (which I have never used). Both are made by Bare Knuckle Pickups.
I use a repro of Syd’s mirrored Esquire which was made by Phil Taylor (David’s head tech and the man who has been in charge of Pink Floyd’s backline for many years) for me as a gift from Nick.
For David’s songs I use a 2018 Fender American Original 50’s Strat in Aztek Gold which I have had modded with a set of Schaller in line gold tuners and a Gotoh vintage style trem bridge in gold. I swapped the stock bridge pickup for a SSL5 .
The lap steel is a Recording King Roy Smeck model made in the Gibson factory in 1937.
The Gibson acoustic I play in Green actually belongs to Gary who lets me use it on tour so I don’t have to buy a new acoustic to play for just 4 minutes!
String-wise, I use Hard Rockin Steels and Nickel Benders (on the Syd songs) by La Bella Strings 10 – 46 gauge.
What amps and cabinets are you using?
All made by Hi-Tone in Columbus, Indiana. I have a HT50 DG (and a HT100 DG as a spare) and an Eclipse 4 x 12 which is fitted with 4 Hi-Tone Cresendo A speakers which are exact clones of Fane Crescendo’s. It was obviously important to me that I go for this tone stack with the band.
You’re playing Fearless, which was recorded with an open G tuning. Are you using any other non-standard tunings for the show?
The only other guitar tuned differently is the lap steel which is in E minor. I did experiment with playing One Of These days in open G but it just didn’t sound right.
The band is releasing a live album and concert film from your 2019 show at the historical Roundhouse in London. Tell us about how you recorded the guitars. Was everything recorded straight from the board? Did you have to go in and redo some parts?
Everything was recorded live. There were three mistakes that needed rectifying. The first was in Astronomy when just before the E chord (where it stops before the guitar solo) I played a D instead of a D sharp. In the film you can see Guy smile and raise his eyebrows at me when I do it.
In The Nile Song I went out of key towards the end of the first solo. The other thing was in the Celestial Voices part of A Saucerful Of Secrets when I rub the string (to get the violin sound) there was unwanted feedback through the PA on the night we filmed.
In all of these cases our producer, Nick Davis, was able to fly in more pleasing elements in from our show the night before so I didn’t have to redo anything “live in the studio” as it were but unfortunately the correction in The Nile Song is noticeable in the film as my hands are somewhere else on the neck for a split second.
Nick took a split from my normal on stage set up which is a Shure SM57 close mic’d on a cab – classic. Upon mixing he added a bit of delay or reverb if necessary and a tiny bit of eq. Nothing too drastic.
We made the fixes at Rak Studios before moving over to mix in Studio 3 at Abbey Road (which is where Dark Side was recorded).
Back to performing with the band. You started out playing small clubs and it seemed that Nick wanted to keep this very low key and just going out there and having fun but it quickly evolved into something much bigger. You obviously filled a need among the fans who wanted to hear the songs that Roger and David won’t play. Can you talk a bit about that journey and what the response has been from the fans.
I remember walking onstage for the first show at Dingwalls and feeling overwhelming support and love for Nick from the audience before we played a note. It was very exciting as it was the only time we’ve played when nobody in the crowd knew what was in the set list.
The material was always going to appeal to staunch fans that know these songs and this has been typical of our audience. A lot of obsessives (like myself) wanting to hear this era living and breathing again, with Nick who was present and partly responsible for their birth, and Guy who is a large part of the later years of Floyd history.
Playing in the US was interesting. The casual Floyd fan in the States doesn’t know pre Dark Side as the majority of it never got played on the radio but the response was amazing. I think quite a few people came along not knowing a lot of the set but left realising that they are great songs.
Having Roger guest on Set The Controls with us at the Beacon in New York was very special. Particularly so when he told us in front of the audience “My considered opinion is you sound a lot better than we did back in the day”.
However, one can then be taken back down to earth such as when we played Taormina in Italy last summer and someone I know overheard one of the couple sitting next to him ask “When are they going to start playing Pink Floyd songs?”.
Nick hasn’t been all that active since Pink Floyd’s 1994 tour, while the rest of the guys has done a lot of touring and recording with different bands and projects. Still, he plays remarkably well. How was the first rehearsal? Did it take a lot of practice and shaping up for him or did it come naturally when you started rehearse?
The first time the 5 of us played together it was like being in your first band! We were in a small rehearsal studio in West London and hired kit from the studio. Nick sounded great!
When we played Set The Controls I remember thinking that touch could only be his. It’s so simple and delicate and (because of the space he leaves) it is so much more powerful than anyone else I have heard attempt it.
The most practice he did was to listen to the original recordings for the arrangements, rather than to copy his part exactly. Jon Carin once said to me that he found “playing with Nick was not like playing with a drummer”. Once we played together I realised exactly what he meant and he was in no way being rude – quite the opposite.
Nick’s approach is not so much that of a time keeper but is more the discipline of a melodic instrument. This is particularly evident in Controls and Saucerful but also still very obvious later with the rototoms at the start of Time, the sparse drum fills in the choruses of Comfortably Numb and something like Skins on Endless River.
Again, thank you for sharing a bit of behind the scenes and details about your gear! Anything you want to plug?