By Ken Sharp
Dave Mason’s seminal work in rock and roll, first as a founding member of Traffic and later as a hit solo artist (“Feelin’ Alright,” “Only You Know and I Know,” “We Just Disagree”) have solidified his status as a rock icon and gifted songwriter. Mason’s impressive six-string work has graced recordings by a veritable Who Who’s of music, including Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones.
Mason's latest CD, “Future’s Past” (Something Music), offers reworked versions of some of his classic songs as well as new tunes. Dave Mason’s Traffic Jam is hitting the highway for more than 70 North American tour dates through mid-February 2015. For detailed dates and ticket information, visit www.davemasonmusic.com/tour.
GOLDMINE: How did the concept behind “Future’s Past” originate?
DAVE MASON: Well, the songs that make up the new CD were pretty much ideas that I work on when I’m home in my studio. I don’t know whether they’re gonna be heard or not; I’m just doing them basically to amuse myself (laughs) and fill in the time. I love doing it. So songs are open to interpretations, and I’ve always tried to write songs with timeless themes to them. There are songs on the album that are as relevant to me now as ever, and then there are songs on there that I wanted to give a different treatment to, like “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” I didn’t write it, but with Traffic, I was involved playing on it and working out the track. I redid the chords to it and put it in a minor key. I didn’t know if it would work, but I started recording it in that way and thought, “Wow, this sounds pretty cool.” For “World in Changes,” I wanted to try it another way and see what happens. When the songs were done, they all worked. I said, “You know what, this sounds pretty cool.”
GM: Is there a song on the new CD you’d like to steer people to?
DM: The thing is, there really isn’t any one song. See, I’m hard to pigeonhole, because this new record is not a blues album, it’s not a pop album, it’s not a rock album and it’s not a jazz album. It’s all of those things in a collection of songs. I’m very song orientated. I’ll write a song, and it’ll suggest a way for me to do it, and it’s not in any one format. I like all kinds of music. So it gets very hard to put a tag on me, and it’s very frustrating for the media in a way (laughs). If I had to pick where a listener should go first, I’d say “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and “As Sad and Deep As You.” I’d prefer people listen to the full record, because it’s a collection of songs, and musically they’re all different. I’m doing an arrangement of a Robert Johnson song on there with “Come On In My Kitchen.” It’s straight-up blues. I like to mix it up; it’s a way to keep me from getting bored.
GM: The new CD is proof that a good song can be reworked in a different style and still hold up.
DM: Well, yeah, that’s true. “Feelin’ Alright” for example. The title really should have a question mark as the song is really about “not feelin’ too good myself;” that’s what I wrote it about. Right there, (Joe) Cocker turned it into “Feelin’ Alright.”
GM: You wrote that a very young age. You weren’t even 20 years old; that’s remarkable.
DM: To be honest with you, back then I didn’t know what was a good or a not-good Dave Mason song; I was just writing. I was 19, 20, 21, so it was an innocent time for me. I had no idea that the song would become an important song. I had a clue when Denny Cordell played me what he’d done with it with (Joe) Cocker. When I heard the version he did with Cocker I thought, “OK, yeah, I get it.” (Laughs.) Sometimes the author is not the best interpreter of his own material, and “Feelin’ Alright” is a case in point.
GM: Today, there’s a new paradigm in the music business, with artists wresting back control and power, not the labels. How has that shift impacted the manner in which your approach your career?
DM: Well, the reality is the Internet is a double-edged sword. It’s also destroying intellectual property. It’s not a question of the delivery system or whether there’s a record label or a distribution system. We have a distribution system; it’s called the Internet and it goes all over the world. It’s one big, universal, shopping mall (laughs) and information center. It’s very hard to get exposure of new music so people know you have anything out. That’s what’s missing. As for me personally, I could use something like the old FM radio format (laughs), where there was a cool deejay saying, “Hey, check this one out.” It just isn’t that way any more, so it’s hard, especially for artists like myself, to get my new stuff even heard or for people to be aware that I have new music out there. Terrestrial radio is still a very powerful thing, even though people have got their iPods and their XM Radio in the car. Radio is all research driven today, and that’s too bad. Some of the soul’s gone out of it. I believe that’s why people gravitate to talk radio, because there’s somebody there. That’s my take on what’s missing — the lack of exposure.
GM: Looking back on your days in Traffic, everyone was so young. Was the ability to navigate that success daunting?
DM: There were no rules. For me, it was all about working on writing good songs.
GM: What made the original lineup of Traffic mesh so beautifully?
DM: It was great because we had differences. Steve (Winwood) already had hits like “Gimme Some Lovin’” with the Spencer Davis Group. He was a child prodigy that sort of popped out that way. He could sing and play really well. So he had that with a soul and blues tinge to it all. My whole thing was about having a song-driven pop sensibility. Chris Wood was an art school student who played sax and flute. Growing up, Jim (Capaldi) and I had been in bands together locally. Somehow it all worked. So I thought the differences worked for the band, but evidently, for them, it didn’t. My differences didn’t work for them.
GM: But you were writing some great songs back then.
DM: Not as far as they were concerned. (Laughs.)
GM: Leaving Traffic to pursue a solo career and reinventing yourself was a big move. Was that scary or freeing or a combination of both?
DM: After I left Traffic, I worked on a couple of music projects in England. But there was no way to equal my success with Traffic; from my point of view, that wasn’t gonna happen. My sister moved to America in the ’50s and lived in San Diego. There were a lot of years between the two of us. When she was leaving to move to America, I was ready to go with her, and this was when I was about 6 or 7 years old. (Laughs.) “Take me. C’mon take me with you!” When I made the move to America, I literally had a carry-on bag and a guitar. I came here and never left.
GM: Was America everything you imagined it would be?
DM: I had visited my sister back in the day when it took eight hours to fly across America. Just the TV and what was going on the radio made me go, “Oh, my God!” There was only one TV channel when I grew up in England, and there was only one radio station, unless you tuned into Radio Luxembourg. I loved America. It was rock and roll. It was a red Stratocaster and a red Corvette. (Laughs.)
GM: What were the greatest challenges you faced as a solo artist?
DM: It scared me to death, frankly. I’m not really a frontman; I just have had to assume that role.
GM: Did you miss being in a band?
DM: I’d worked with Delaney & Bonnie a lot and knew them really well. I played on some sessions for Delaney, and I was on the road with them, playing lead guitar on the Blind Faith tour.
GM: Is that how George Harrison first became aware of you and got you to play on his “All Things Must Pass” album?
DM: No. We used to go down to the “Sgt. Pepper” sessions, and that’s when I first met him. So I knew George and the rest of The Beatles back then. I don’t remember the exact tracks I played on “All Things Must Pass;” I have no idea which songs I’m on. There were a lot of people at those sessions. I wasn’t necessarily there for the completion of the whole song. It was like, “Here, we’re gonna do this track now, here’s how it goes.” I believe all I did on that album was play some rhythm acoustic stuff.
GM: You have another interesting Beatle connection. Not a lot of people know this, but you played guitar on “Listen to What the Man Said” by Paul McCartney & Wings.
DM: Paul and I played those guitar lines together. I was doing a show in New Orleans, and they were recording at Allen Toussaint’s studio. Jimmy McCulloch came to my concert, and he said, “Man, you’ve gotta come down to the studio.” I had a day off the next day, so I took him up on his offer. That’s how that happened.
GM: You’ve toured relentlessly for decades. How do you keep live performances fresh?
DM: It’s just what we do. It’s hard being on the road, and it requires a certain mentality to do it, but the point about it is — I know for me, and pretty much this is how the other guys who play with me feel — we’re there to make something happen for an hour-and-a-half, two hours, and we do it for ourselves. We’re up there because we want to make it a great show, and we want to play great. That’s our buzz, and that’s what keeps us going. That’s what keeps it fun. You could stand up there and just go through the motions, but if you do that, you may as well stay home.
GM: What did it mean to you to be inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Traffic?
DM: Traffic got inducted in 2004. It was great to be recognized. I didn’t get to play with them at the ceremony. Steve (Winwood) was dictating what I was gonna do. “We’re gonna do this song and we’re gonna do it exactly like we recorded it 45 years ago. I said, “You know what, that was 40-odd years ago I did that, and besides that was never the essence of Traffic for me.” It was a question of playing bass, and I hadn’t played a bass in, like, 46 years. Bass is another head space. I said, “Why don’t we just turn it into a jam on ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy’ and we’ll trade solos?” and I was told, “That ain’t gonna happen.”
GM: Who was saying that?
DM: Steve’s people. Nobody ever called me personally about it; Steve never picked up the phone to talk about it. It’s been like that for years. It’s just at this age and at this point it’s just petty; I don’t get it. To jam on “Dear Mr. Fantasy” would have been what the essence of Traffic was. Yeah, we wrote these songs, but when we got onstage, there was always a lot of jamming going on. We were like the original alternative jam band. (Laughs) I said, “Well, I’ll play acoustic rhythm guitar,” and it was, “No, you can’t do that either.” I was like, “F**k this s**t.” It was just stupid. It’s not really something I like to get into or talk about because I don’t really want to put anything in the light of being, “This is bad and this is good.” It isn’t; it’s just what it is, and it’s unfortunate.
GM: “We Just Disagree” was a huge solo hit for you.
DM: That song was written by Jim Krueger. Jim played with me for about 18 years. He played “We Just Disagree” to me and said, “Listen to this, I wrote this song, and I think it’s perfect for you.” I was impressed and said, “Yeah, that’s a good song, Jim. Sure, let’s do it.” “We Just Disagree” is a really well-written song with timeless lyrics. In fact, I thought it was too good of a song to be a hit (laughs). I was like, “I know this is a great song, but I’m just not sure if this is gonna go.” At the time I was with Columbia/CBS, and there were a group of guys at the label pushing the record on the street. These were the guys that got the records played on radio, and they believed in me, and they believed in the song. I spent a lot of time with a few of them, and they did a lot to make it happen.
GM: Those were the days when records could garner airplay through old school ways of heavy record promotion. I’m not sure how records become hits today.
DM: Yeah, that’s the thing. There’s no place for me to go at radio where they’ll go, “And here’s the latest record by Dave Mason; check it out.” Satellite radio is good, but again, you’re talking about 6 million members. But you’ve got 360 million people in this country. So I’m not able to reach a large number of people. I wish there was some form of the old FM radio that existed.
GM: CDs vs. vinyl: Where do you stand on the debate?
DM: The vinyl resurgence is retro. I have to be honest: I love great sounds. I have a studio and play in there a lot, but once it’s done and it’s out there, if a song’s good and the performance is great, it doesn’t matter the media you listen on. But vinyl is cool; now we’ve got a cover somebody my age group can read (laughs).
GM: When you’re feeling down, is there a go-to album you can put on that will always lift you up?
DM: If I’m gonna go and put some music on to lift me up, I would probably be putting on reggae or some Cuban music; that always puts me in a better groove (laughs).
GM: Away from music, what keeps you happy?
DM: You know what? This probably sounds pretty boring, but my life is pretty much consumed with music. It can’t be boring, because if it was, then I’d stop. GM