“Feelin’ Alright” is his most famous song but it can also be Dave Mason’s motto. His guitar and voice resonate through many of rock ‘n’ roll milestones – from Dave’s days with TRAFFIC on to here and now – yet, what with all the ups and downs Mason might experience along the way, he retained the optimistic look at life. That’s the message the veteran carries on-stage and that’s what oozed out of the artist’s words during our interview just before his Traffic Jam hits the stage of Toronto’s “Hugh’s Room.”
– Dave, why did you decide to do an overview of your career on the last album?
You get “Future’s Past,” right? But there’s another one, a live one, with our whole show, that has even more stuff on it. Basically, I wasn’t even planning on doing anything – I just fool around in my studio at home with things sometimes – and I really wasn’t planning on putting anything out, but some of the things turned out so well. I revisited some older songs and we did them and we arranged them, like “Dear Mr. Fantasy”: I’ve been doing “Dear Mr. Fantasy” live like that for a couple of years now.
– Your current band is called TRAFFIC JAM…
That’s the show that’s called that.
– I assume that you play a lot of TRAFFIC songs, but how much jamming is in it?
I’ve arranged some of the tunes like “Low Spark Of High Heeled Boys” – it’s about a 10-11-minute blues song now – “You Look At Me,” “World in Changes”: there’s a lot of stuff that I do that has room for a lot solo work.
– But do you think of yourself first of all as a songwriter, a guitarist or a singer?
All of them. I do all of that. (Laughs.) I do all of them! I don’t see any one thing at all.
– You write about many things on your Facebook page, but not a lot about yourself. Is it still an English thing to be so humble and writing mostly about other musicians?
Well, I pick things that aren’t just about me: Lord knows there’s enough information about me on my website, more information than even I want. So Facebook is more about a conversation about things, and it could be anything. And I don’t know about my Englishness, as I’ve lived in America since 1969! I’ll put it this way: my father was born in 1894, and at the end of his life he had a sticker on the back of his car that said “Citizen of the World.” (Laughs.)
– Good analogy! You’ve been living in America for so long, but if I listen to TRAFFIC and then to your solo stuff there’s like an immediate switch from English music to American music.
All of English music is influenced by American music. America’s where it all came from. This is the place that gave you jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, gospel, R&B: all contemporary music comes from America – we just copied it, all of us English people.
– But this relaxation on “Alone Together” is a purely Californian thing, isn’t it?
The songs on “Alone Together” would have been on the next TRAFFIC album, if I’d still been there. So I was approaching it the way I would have probably done, if I’d still been with the band, it was not really any different – all I was doing was putting some acoustic guitar and electric guitar together. But had they been on a TRAFFIC album, TRAFFIC would have been the musicians on it; but since I wasn’t there I had great musicians in L.A. For the most part, they were Jim Keltner, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, a lot of great musicians who were session guys there, Leon Russell: that’s the people that I had to use to make that album.
– You introduced a lot of soul in your music already on that album. Was that an influence of DELANEY & BONNIE?
Ah, that was white soul. (Laughs.) But my influences were blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, rock’ n’ roll, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran… My tastes are pretty diverse, you know. If you listen to my albums, there’s never any one style of music. The style is usually dictated by the song. So I don’t really follow any one style, although in my guitar playing the blues is underneath most of it.
– Is it true you were the one who taught George Harrison to play slide guitar on that DELANEY & BONNIE tour?
Actually, there was an article, an interview with George where he said the reason he’d started playing slide guitar was because of a show that we did at Fairfield Hall in Croydon. And he was there, and Eric [Clapton] was there, and it was, “George, come up and jam on one of these songs.” He said, “Well, I don’t know”, and I said, “Well, here! Let me show you this little part, the slide part on a song of theirs called “Comin’ Home.” (Laughs.) And I didn’t even realise, but in that interview he said, “I credit that to Mason showing me this slide guitar part and that’s how I started playing it”, so… I had no idea!
– I can’t say there’s a lot of slide guitar on your solo albums.
No, there isn’t . Maybe on a couple of things on “Mariposa [De Oro]” there’s some, but no, I’ve never really gotten into perfecting it.
– Talking about “Mariposa” and “Split Coconut”: you did this chameleon thing there. You put a white suit on and you went commercial but retained the quality of song. So was that the idea from the beginning, to go commercial?
I’m always commercial! (Laughs.) I have a pop sensibility.
– But then you didn’t show much of that in TRAFFIC; more so, they complained you weren’t so willing to write together and you came in with an already-written song. Still, one of the earliest things you did after leaving the band was an album with Mama Cass. So what would you say about a collaboration thing as a whole?
Well, Jim [Capaldi] and I have written songs, very few, but yes, I was writing my own stuff in TRAFFIC because I was very young – I was 19 years old – and I was trying to find out what it was I could do or not do. They didn’t like what I was doing, but most of the things that I wrote were picked as their singles. (Laughs.) So I guess it created a rub. And that’s why that all broke apart. When I’d first moved to America, I stayed with Gram Parsons, who I knew, a little while, and he introduced me to Cass, and at Cass’ house there was a couple that I knew well from England who were living there and I didn’t know were there, so I spent a lot of time visiting those people, and the thing with Cass came from that, out of just getting to know someone really well. And it was like, “OK, why not? let’s try it!”
– There’s a song on that album called “On And On” which reminded me of a LINDISFARNE’s “Lady Eleanor.” Did you try to bring your English folksiness to California?
No, not really. (Laughs.) I mean there’s no specific stuff with me. I’m influenced by a lot of different music, so it depends on what the song is, really.
– Sometimes you re-record your own songs. “Here We Go Again” came from the album with Mama Cass to land on “Headkeeper.”
Yeah, I did it on “Headkeeper” in a different style. The same thing with “Future’s Past”: I got that stuff on there that I’ve redone but redone in the sense that… I don’t see things as being old songs: either they’re good songs or they’re not good songs. And so a good song to me is good anytime anywhere. “Sad And Deep As You” is the song that could be done in a number of different ways, and I think the version on “Future’s Past” is so much better than the version on “Alone Together.” Then, “World In Changes” came just because I was screwing around with stuff and I thought, “Let me turn this into reggae,” because I like reggae. And “Feelin’ Alright” is a song that’s open to all kinds of interpretations.
– On the TRAFFIC album, the title of “Feelin’ Alright” had a question mark at the end of it, but then it somehow disappeared. Why?
Well, the song’s about not feeling too good myself. But I didn’t drop the question mark; I guess it just got dropped after Joe Cocker did it and turned it into “Feelin’ Alright”. (Laughs.)
– “Feelin’ Alright” seemed to be a soulful song in the beginning and then you made it funky, and now you try to bring it back home to soul. Is that right?
The way I do it now is a sort a funk version, but that’s the way I do it, and you can do it any way. You can do the song reggae-style or the way I did it originally. There’s any number of ways you could do that song. (Laughs.)
– One of your most diverse records is “It’s Like You Never Left”: you had George Harrison play there and Stevie Wonder. Was it out of friendship or out your desire to enrich your arrangements?
Stevie Wonder was working with the same engineers that I was working with and he was working in the same studio. So I got to know him and it was just a question of saying, “Steve, I got this song. How would you feel about playing on it?” He was, “Sure. Absolutely!” George Harrison happened to be in L.A. and came to the studio, and I had that one song so I just asked, “Would you be up for playing on it?” and it was the same thing. Same thing with Michael Jackson when he sang on one of my songs. We were in the same studio – I was in one studio and he was in another, and he was recording “Thriller” – and I had a song called “Save Me” on “Old Crest On A New Wave” and I needed somebody to sing a high part. And I was thinking, “Well, Michael sings high, so I’ll go ask him.” So he was on a break and I went over there. He said, “You know, when I was 12 years of age and did a TV special with Diana Ross, the last song we did on that special was ‘Feelin’ Alright,’ so absolutely I’ll come sing on it.”
– So he did know who you were?
– And Malcolm Cecil. Did that connection come from Stevie Wonder?
Yes, Malcolm Cecil was working with Stevie Wonder and he was working on my album also, yeah.
– You mentioned “Old Crest On A New Wave”: was it a wordplay on New Wave style of music?
– But it looked like you didn’t want to get in the new style because you had a strange sabattical from 1980 to 1987. What was the reason for that gap in your career?
(Laughs.) It was whatever the latest flavour is. And the latest flavor was something I didn’t want to be any part of. I didn’t fit into the business at that point. You’re talking about punk music and stuff and that’s not who I am. I don’t like that kind of music, you know, it just angry music and I don’t make angry music.
– But you make humorous music! I was laughing when I listened to “You’re Standing in My Light.”
That’s a Jim Capaldi song. Jim also wrote the words and I had the music for “Look At You, Look At Me” and “Vagabond Virgin”; we wrote those but not a lot of stuff. And there is a new song that I finished after he died that’s on there, “How Do I Get to Heaven.”
– Back to your collaborations: you worked with WINGS, you were a part of FLEETWOOD MAC, and you played with THE ROLLING STONES. What all those artists found in you? Why do you think they needed you?
I don’t think it was a question of need, I think it was just we were in the same place at the same time, and they happened to be recording! (Laughs.) With THE STONES, everybody recorded at Olympic Studios with Eddie Kramer, and Jimmy Miller was the producer who was brought over by Chris Blackwood to produce TRAFFIC. So everybody knew everybody and I knew Brian Jones pretty well, and so people would just drop by sessions. So I just happened to be there and play on “Street Fighting Man.” Then, I was doing a show in New Orleans and Paul McCartney was recording in there, and they had a day off and some of his band came to my show and they asked me to come down to the studio the next day. And he happened to be cutting “Listen To What the Man Said” and said, “Come on here, play on it!” so that was that. The same thing with Hendrix. I spent a lot more time with Jimi than probably with anybody, and I did a number of things with him. The most standout stuff, of course, is “Electric Ladyland” with me singing on “Crosstown Traffic” and playing the acoustic guitar on “All Along the Watchtower.” As for FLEETWOOD MAC, Mick Fleetwood called me one day and, because the band wasn’t together anymore, said, “I’m thinking of putting something new together with FLEETWOOD MAC. Would you be interested in being part of it?” and I was like, “Well, yeah, okay. Sure. Why not? Let’s give it a try and see what happens.” And we did some touring and made an album called “Time,” but the record label never really got behind it, so it disappeared into the woodwork.
– Would you have been happier if it had been the old, bluesy MAC?
Well, maybe, I don’t know. It was what it was. They’d gone through so many different incarnations.
– What most people don’t remember is that you were also a producer. You produced the first FAMILY album.
“Music In a Doll’s House,” yeah. They were very, very alternative, probably one of the original alternative bands, other than TRAFFIC, I suppose. A man named John Gilbert, who was managing them and I knew him: that’s really how it happened. They asked if I’d be interested in producing that. And they were pretty unique and different, and sure I thought it’d be fun to do that.
– Are there any other artists you’d like to produce?
Producing these days is not really much of an option. (Laughs.) Everybody’s recording with their own stuff at home, doing their own thing. Financially, there’s nothing there any more. There are no record sales.
– One of the first songs that you wrote when you went solo is called “Just a Song” which begins, “Don’t talk to me of fame and fortune.” But do you agree to be talking about that as this day and age?
I never really got into it for the fame part of it; I just wanted to make music. But it was certainly nice to make a fortune! I’m not going to say no to that! (Laughs.)
– But fame…. What do you think about the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? You’re a part of this, but now it’s more like a comedy show than a real music institution.
Yeah. There’s a lot of artists who are not in there who should be in there. I don’t know why there are rap artists in there. (Laughs.) It’s just the industry patting itself on the back, basically. It is what it is. Nice to be recognised for your work I suppose but it’s turned into… When TRAFFIC was inducted, it was a musically great show: there was Prince, TRAFFIC, ZZ Top, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne and there was a Fifties group, I can’t remember which one. But that was musically a great job.
Oh no, it had nothing to do with that. (Laughs.)
– But you’re feeling all right now?
Oh, sure! (Laughs.) And I will just keep playing until I can’t do it anymore.
– What do you think were the highest and lowest points of your musical career?
Hopefully, I haven’t hit the highest point. (Laughs.) And lowest? There really hasn’t been one. You just go and do what you’re doing. “Low” is a relative statement, so I don’t know.
– So if you show me your cup right now it’s going to be half full?
Many thanks to Jane Harbury for making the conversation happen and to Sally Jane Sharp-Paulsen whose’s turned speedy transcribing into an art form.