Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on ‘Early Years,’ Syd Barrett, Inter-Band Tension

Pink Floyd’s journey to prog-rock masterpiece Dark Side of the Moonwas long and varied, and it’s one of the most fascinating stories in rock, with stops in blues jamming, otherworldly psychedelia and trippy folk music. It’s documented exhaustively in the recently released box set, The Early Years: 1965 – 1972, but the band’s drummer, Nick Mason, remembers their origins as being even humbler than the early recordings in the box let on.

“From ’65 to the beginning of ’67, we were a really amateur band,” the dapper, soft-spoken drummer says, reclining in a velvet couch in a tucked-away corner of a SoHo hotel. “It’s funny because if I could add up the hours of actual drum playing I did between birth and 1966, it’d be, I don’t know, 100, 150 hours. I didn’t practice. I didn’t study. I just had a drum kit and played with my friends for fun. A year later, I’d probably put in 700 hours.”

Thinking back on it makes him laugh, and he leans forward. “By then we’d done 200 gigs and been in the studio for hours,” he continues. “It was a very rapid sea change from amateur drummer to making a living. It’s a curious one.”

The box set, modeled visually after the band’s early-period van, contains 27 discs, spanning CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray, containing around seven hours of previously unreleased audio and more than seven hours of never-before-seen footage. It begins with the group’s first-ever sessions, a Stones-y jaunt from 1965, then it traverses Syd Barrett’s psychedelia, their soundtrack improvisations, festival space-outs, ballet dalliances, ambitious orchestral suites and their avant-garde Pompeii film. In the space of seven years, they lived several lifetimes.

When Mason reflects on the group’s origins, he speaks carefully and measuredly, while sipping a cappuccino, often making dry jokes that he caps with a chuckle. What’s most evident during his in-depth interview about The Early Years with Rolling Stone is the deference he has for his former bandmates now and the pride and amazement he has about the work the band put into their career on the way to “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

One of the box set’s major standouts is your first recording session from 1965. What do you remember about it?
Nearly anyone in music will always remember their first recording session in a proper studio. It was a bit nerve-racking going into the control room, and hearing my drums and the bass and the rest of it coming through monitors at whatever decibels, but it’s fantastic. I remember thinking, “That’s me.”

What struck me was how you can use the recording studio to turn that raw material into something that sounds like a record. I remember that from those sessions, but also “Arnold Layne,” same thing. We went and played it, but by the time Joe Boyd finished mixing and fixing and added that repeat echo on the hi-hat, you go, “Oh, that’s clever.” You’re blown away by it.

What stands out to you now about the band’s first gig, in February 1965?
The word “concert” may be over-egging the plate. It was a cellar somewhere in south Kensington, and I remember it quite well because we had a residency there. It was really the only paid gig we’d ever done, probably for almost nothing. We did three or four shows there, and then they had a noise injunction served on them. We were so desperate for the money; we did an unplugged thing for a couple of weeks. But I do remember it quite well because it was just the very beginning of realizing we had a small audience, but an audience. It was probably our first real gig that wasn’t someone else’s birthday party.