Dave Mason: The Cream Interview



Dave Mason speaks in a rock star's ambiguous accent — although he was born in the West Midlands of England, not far from where Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant grew up, Mason sounds almost like an American. Yet it's not only the occasional vowel sound that betrays his origins as one of the many English musicians of the '60s and '70s who adapted American music to their own purposes. Mason was a founding member of Traffic, an experimental pop group whose members included vocalist Steve Winwood and drummer Jim Capaldi. He wrote such early Traffic tunes as "Hole in My Shoe," "Utterly Simple" and "Feelin' Alright." As Mason explains, his songwriting ambitions and pop proclivities often ran counter to Winwood and Capaldi's more progressive leanings.

Mason worked on Traffic's debut, 1967's Mr. Fantasy, before leaving the band in early 1968. He produced the first album by English progressive blues-folk rockers Family, Music in a Doll's House, before rejoining Traffic later that year. Traffic's second full-length, Traffic, appeared in 1968 with Mason's "Feelin' Alright," a two-chord pop-blues number that has gone on to be a rock standard. Joe Cocker's 1969 hit version is likely definitive.

Along the way, the versatile guitarist, singer and songwriter helped out on acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland track "All Along the Watchtower." Moving to California, Mason hooked up with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, whom Mason had met at a 1968 Rolling Stones recording session. He played guitar with American soul musicians Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett on a 1969 tour that included another English guitarist enamored of blues and soul, Eric Clapton.

If you grew up in the '70s and listened to FM radio, you remember Mason's "Only You Know and I Know," from his 1970 full-length Alone Together. Or maybe you know Delaney and Bonnie's version of the song. Immensely popular during the early '70s, Mason also cut a record that is virtually forgotten today, which is a shame: his 1971 collaboration with former Mamas & the Papas singer Cass Elliot, Dave Mason & Cass Elliot, is more than a period piece. The combination of Elliot's warm, juicy vocals and Mason's post-Beatles guitar sounds fine today — check out Mason's quasi-power pop lick on the record's "Next to You." Like a lot of Mason's work, the record falls into the category of yacht rock, a genre Mason helped to invent.

Born in 1946 in Worcester, England, Mason is truly a pioneer of the England-California school of easy-going, laid-back rock — the pop veneer is never too thick, and Mason's roots in basic rock 'n' roll, soul and blues are never buried too deeply. He hit again in 1977 with a classic piece of super-schlock titled "We Just Disagree," which Mason didn't even write. It's a yacht-rock milestone. He continues to record, with the 2008 full-length 26 Letters — 12 Notes sounding a lot like, well, Dave Mason. He's bringing his acoustic show to Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night. Unpretentious and funny, Mason talked to the Cream via telephone from his home in California.

Dave, thanks for talking to us. First off, tell us about the acoustic show you're bringing to town. We understand Jonathan McEuen, who is the son of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen, is part of the band.

I've been doing that for about the last 10 months. I'm excited about this — I feel like dad going out with his son. Jon's 34, and he's an extremely talented kid. I am actually bringing my drummer — just some light percussion stuff to give it a little groove. Stripped down to the bare bones. In the acoustic situation, I am pretty much the band and the singer. I don't really play any lead guitar, 'cause I'm playing rhythm on everything. Jon is handling all the lead guitar work, which he is more than capable of.

You produced the first album by Family, one of the great English progressive rock bands of the late '60s and early '70s. How did you come to work with them, Dave?

They were managed by a guy named John Gilbert. He was a music freak, and the '60s in London — I mean, it was a great time. Plus, how old was I, 18 years old? And I knew John really well, and we used to hang out a lot, and he started talking about this group, Family. And I heard some of their stuff. I guess, in a way, talking about Traffic, I look back at Traffic as being one of the early alternative bands. In those days, there was a lot of that, and Family was definitely one of those. They had this guy, Roger Chapman, who, I mean, he really didn't sort of sing more than just assault you with his vocals. They were very different, avant-garde, and [Gilbert] asked me if I'd produce them. I'd never produced anything before.

The music on Family's Music in a Doll's House is complex and stylistically diverse — a variation on what Traffic was doing at the same time, perhaps. Did you help them come up with the arrangements on that record?

Their songs and arrangements alone sort of dictated the approach. There were things we did in the studio that today you can just buy as a plug-in. To get certain echo effects, you 'd get a piece of two-track and tape, and you'd run it around the heads of a machine, and it'd be going around a pencil, around a screwdriver. A lot of the stuff done at [London recording studio] Olympic, which is where it was done for the most part, we were basically working in four-track. I mean, the first Traffic album was four-track. It forces you to know what you want to do before you start doing it.

The Family record draws from a lot of different kinds of music. Were you similarly musically omnivorous in those days?

At the time, I was listening to all kinds of music, from Bulgarian to jazz to blues to rock and, you know, Stockhausen. Very avant-garde. Being young, I was just exploring everything myself, basically.

In Traffic, what was source of the conflict between you and Steve Winwood?

I was trying to figure out what it was I was doing. I had never really written until that band formed. It basically formed with four guys, and we just hung out for a year. Partied, and fucking late-night shit, playing records. And that's really how Traffic came about, that and Stevie's desire to stop being tagged as the young Ray Charles. He was bored with doing the Spencer Davis thing, and wanted to try something new. It started out that way, a group of people, and for me it was, "Well, shit, this is a great opportunity to be as original as we can." So my focus was on writing.

When we started, they were looking at doing covers of stuff, too. I mean, Stevie's written enough catchy melodies on his own. My sensibility is a pop sensibility. I look for the melody that will stick, and the lyric, and the hook. "Hole in My Shoe" is the first thing I ever wrote. Looking back at all that early stuff, I think a lot of it is really trite and banal. It's very naive, let me put it that way. Which, in a sense, was where I was at anyway. I was just a kid from the country, basically. I grew up well, but I grew up in a very rural setting. Steve formed an alliance with Jim [Capaldi] because of Jim's lyrics — Jim was great with lyrics, and that's not Steve's forte. But music and playing and melodies, yeah, and singing. That just happened. To me, it was more of a strength to have those differences in there. And then my stuff started getting picked for all the singles. To me it was like, so fuckin' what? Who cares who writes a hit single? That means that more people are gonna listen to the album, and get drawn more into the other music you're doing. It's like having a Lennon and McCartney together — together, they're great. Separately, Paul's a little sappy and John can get a little too over the edge. I always looked at Traffic that way. The problem was that what I was doing became, for them, a monumental fucking problem, to the point where they didn't want me in the band any more. That's why I basically just up and went, "You know what, fuck it, I'm gonna go where this music started. I'm going to America."

I'm sure you get asked about the Traffic years a lot, Dave.

I'm always asked when Traffic is gonna get back together.

That saves me from having to ask.

I have this answer: You're asking the wrong guy. I mean, it'd be great. I wish the two of us could just go out, and you don't have to call it Traffic. Call it, you know, Playing in Traffic.

Or Dodging Traffic.

Or Dodging Traffic, right, and go out and do it as a retrospective. Maybe invite a couple of other people who are huge fans. That would be really cool. I think it would be a great show, and I think people would love it. But it's down to Stevie, 'cause the creative differences all spilled over into some bizarre personal animosity somewhere. That's the part I don't get.

How did Traffic's sound change between Mr. Fantasy and Traffic?

Our sound started to come together, and started to gel, on that second Traffic album. I think it was great. My writing was really naive and trite. But sound-wise, and in terms being experimental, musically, there's a lot of shit in there. The second was more straightforward and more song-driven, really cool material. That one song, "Feelin' Alright," just never stopped.

Are you still a musical omnivore today, Dave?

Not really. I tend to drift back to shit like Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly. I mean, that was rock 'n' roll. Jerry Lee Lewis. That was for-real, live, right-there. In my day, we didn't have monitors. There's no Sam Cookes any more. There's no Marvin Gayes. There's no Jackie Wilson.

So coming to America changed your appreciation of music.

Absolutely. We British just took what started here and brought it back to you.

I've read that you knew Gram Parsons quite well. How did you meet Parsons?

I met him at a Rolling Stones session in England. I think he might have been around for [1968's] Beggars Banquet. Gram was easy to like. So when I came here with an acoustic guitar and one bag, my sister, who passed away a year ago, had moved here in the '50s.

She lived in San Diego since the '50s. I came straight to the West Coast. I'd been coming back and forth since '67 and '68. As I recall, I slept on Gram's couch for a couple of weeks. I came over, really, on a wing and a prayer. Traffic really wasn't big over here. It was known, and the music was known, but it really wasn't like a big band here. That's when I met Gram, and I met Cass [Elliot]. Cass had a couple living at her house that I'd known forever, from London. So that all tied in.

And you got to know Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett around this time, right?

Delaney and Bonnie I'd known since '68. Gram had turned me onto them in '68. I used to play at the Palomino [Club] a lot, in the valley. That's how I got to know all those people. A guy named Jimmy Carstein played drums for them — it was just fucking great. Just groove. There was not fancy shit going on. I told [Island Records president] Chris Blackwell about them early, early on. I said, "Man, there's a band over there that you should manage, and you should record." Nothin' ever came of it. And I just got to know them really well, and they were managed by this guy who started managing me. I just got involved with them, and it was great. It plugged me into all those Tulsa people — Chris Ethridge and Carl Radle and another great drummer who did so many sessions, Jim Gordon. I got to know all those people really early on, like Leon Russell and Rita Coolidge. I played guitar with Delaney and Bonnie for a while. It was the real shit goin' on up there.

They were authentic soul musicians, among other things.

Whatever it was, yeah. It was a Southern boy kickin' ass and writing some pretty decent songs. I was playing guitar with them on the Blind Faith tour, really when Eric [Clapton] started to get involved with them. Of course, they cut "Only You Know and I Know," and it went to No. 2 or No. 1.

I'm a fan of your Cass Elliot collaboration. How did that come about?

I think in retrospect, if you were looking at a career, I probably would not have done it, to be honest with you. Because of her, they sort of became a surrogate family for me. 'Cause I just came here with nothing, basically, to America. That was my family. The album came out of that situation with Cass. The summer of '69 was fucking crazy. It's an odd pairing. But a lot of people love it, so I'm not always the best judge.

I'm a big admirer of Cass Elliot's singing. What was it about Cass' approach that you liked?

It was all wrapped up in the person, for me. Cass was great. She was very smart, and had a fucking great sense of humor — a real cutting, dry sense of humor, which I loved. Whatever it was, you knew it was her singing. She had a beautiful voice. But doing the album came out of a very sort of surrogate family kind of thing, because we all spent so much time together. Cass was like, "Why don't we cut something and try it, and see what comes out?" It's obvious from my checkered career — I like different styles, and get bored with one thing.

When fashion changed in the late '70s, and punk came onto the scene, did that affect your career?

Well, I knew what that was — that stuff came from England. That's from, like, tough, brutal fuckin' neighborhoods. That's where that punk stuff came from, and it immigrated over here. And yeah, it was like I didn't exist.

So that was a bad time for you in some ways.

Yeah. I mean, there was no career, really. There were just plenty of shows.

Was there a moment or two when you thought that you'd been forgotten?

Well, the business itself turns off to you. Because it's into something else. You're not gonna get signed. It's old hat, it's this, it's that. That old suit hanging in the closet, if you wait long enough, will become fashionable again. He who lasts longest wins, I guess.

But it came around again.

I got people who hadn't seen me play in years — "The last time I saw you play was in 1970-something, somewhere." And a lot of times, it's young kids who are coming. I mean, like 17, 18 years old, you know. And they're like, "Wow, man, that's really great." My thing is, it's always about the song, and good music will last, and if you can pull it off standing up there and make it work, then you can make it. Live is the basis for where it all is.

You've done charity work to benefit veterans, I understand. Tell us a little more about that.

A couple of friends and I started a charity over five years ago, and our mission is that we help veterans start their own businesses. [Mason's charity is called Work Vessels for Veterans.] We give away a lot of laptop computers for their business or education. There's a farm in Jacksonville, Fla., that we helped start. It's an all-volunteer charity — we don't have any overhead.

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