This is a brave group that takes over the back catalog of Pink Floyd, even though it features a member of Pink Floyd himself. But Saucerful Of Secrets by Nick Mason, the band formed in 2018 by Floyd’s founding drummer and longest-serving member, played it smartly. Their live shows found themselves forgoing the obvious big hitters to focus exclusively on the deep cuts from the start, pre-The dark side of the moon catalog, drawing heavily on the Syd Barrett era. That means See Emily play, Interstellar overdrive, The song of the Nile and Intrepid rather than comfortably Numb, Money and Another Brick in the Wall. “Everything David Gilmour and Roger Waters don’t play,” says Gary Kemp, singer and guitarist of Saucerful Of Secrets.
Kemp is the wild card on the SOS frontline. Where bassist / co-singer Guy Pratt, guitarist Lee Harris, and keyboardist Dom Beken all have direct or indirect connections to Floyd, Kemp is best known as a member of the New Romantic dandies Spandau Ballet. But like anyone who saw the band’s shows in 2018 and 2019 – or listened to the following ones Living in the rotunda album, recorded in the eponymous location in north London – can attest, he is a key factor in helping to make Saucerful Of Secrets more than a Pink Floyd tribute band that features the Pink Floyd drummer in their line-up . “Yeah, we play those old songs,” Kemp says, “but we play them with youthful energy, despite the age we’re all adding to. I think there is a feeling of fun and fury in what we do.
Planned dates for Saucerful Of Secrets in Spring 2020 have inevitably been postponed, with shows now taking place in early 2022. It’s enticingly called The Echoes Tour, which suggests that they’ll bring the epic track that makes up the second. opposite Mingle generally. “It’s not as intimidating as you might think, but you still have to get it right,” Kemp says. “I’m just lucky I’m up there playing with Nick.”
The very first Saucerful Of Secrets concert took place at the Dingwalls club in London in May 2018. What did you take away from this show?
There was a lot to think about. You’re just trying to hang on to the parts of the song in your head. But what I remember the most is the look on people’s faces. They were stuck together, amazed to hear Nick play that, with a small group, in a small club. We were there making these psychedelic noises, and you could see the joy on the faces of the people.
A friend of mine who was going to [legendary late 60s London hangout] the UFO Club was there. I spoke to him afterwards, and he said he just closed his eyes and was over there. I like to think that we probably played the songs better than they originally were [laughs].
Well, you were probably on different substances …
True. But we started with Interstellar overdrive which aside from the big riffs is a really broken down, atonal, freeform track. I think we immediately said to our audience, “This is the heart of our destination, it is very different from what David and Roger have been doing for 20 years.”
Were you nervous about hitting the back catalog of a band that is so sacred to so many people?
You have to have confidence in yourself. Everyone’s nervous, but if you don’t have the balls, you’ll never get along. I compare it to when it was announced that I was going to play Ronnie Kray [in the 1990 movie The Krays], and there was so much shit in the press, “How can that guy from Spandau Ballet play Ronnie Kray?” I knew I could handle that one and I knew I could handle that one too.
But, yes, there will always be apprehension, and probably especially for Nick. He had more to lose than anyone, because his reputation was so strong and powerful: was this band going to live up to that? But I think having him in the band really gave Floyd’s freaks validation. And that’s the Floyd rhythm section of two big tours, so I think that helped too.
How is Nick? Is he the one pulling the strings?
Nick is very open to ideas. We were all experimenting. When we started rehearsing, I had never sat down or made that kind of noises with my guitar, the kind of atonal stuff we really wanted, and Nick was really ready to go with it. It must have taken him back to those early days where Syd and Roger were just fucking with guitar curls.
The best thing about this band are the gags. There is a contest to see who can make the most jokes. And it continues on stage, which I think is a revelation for Floyd fans. If you’re going to see a Floyd tribute act or if you watch it on YouTube, there is utter poetry in what they do. This seriousness has forever become the image of Floyd. We wanted a sense of fun, a sense of dynamics. Oddly enough, Roger moves on stage a lot now – he’s pretty theatrical.
On the live album, you drop a cheeky little line of the Sex Pistols’ Vacation in the sun in The song of the Nile…
As a group we have had the music has filtered us through so many layers of reverence for other acts. We are the sum of many parts, many genres, and that comes naturally from your work. We never went, “We’re trying to emulate the source, and get this just like the record.” We don’t need to be because we are not an act of homage; we have Nick in the group, so we can push him in any direction as long as it suits him.
At another point on the album, you yell “You’re my guitar hero,” which is a nod to The Clash. Is there any connection between Syd’s day Floyd and punk, in terms of the way the two did things their own way and no one else’s?
I think there is a direct line from Syd to Bowie to punk, although there were very few punk type songs. But Syd definitely had that brooding punk energy in him – very Londoner. And it spreads through all the things that I love, personally. When I do See Emily play, there is a little [Bowie guitarist] Mick Ronson in there.
So which era Floyd is your era?
My first introduction to Floyd was definitely Dark side, but the first time I introduced myself to Syd was when I heard Bowie do See Emily play at Pinups. I can look back and take in all the cannon, but for me, what they were doing with Syd in the beginning really pushed the boundaries so much.
My fantasy would be to go back to the UFO club, and not just to see the band perform on stage, but to feel the youth culture that was booming there. It was a large tribe to belong to, and Floyd was the head of it; they were the house group. So really, in my heart, this is my time.
When you and Spandau Ballet were with the New Romantics at the Blitz club, were you allowed to admit that you loved Pink Floyd?[Laughs] No, it certainly wasn’t. Any group, when they get huge, people are going to be against them, but without a doubt, we were all listening to them in secret.
But the era we’re dealing with, the Syd era, has always been trendy. The first thing I played in my life with a band was Set the controls for the heart of the sun. It was in [boho publisher/author] Jay Landesman’s counter-cultural home in Islington. We were in the basement, jamming this song with [actor] Phil Daniels and a few other guys. It went on for hours and hours.
When we made the second Spandau Ballet album [1982’s Diamond], we didn’t know what we were going with – on the one hand there was [hit single] Song: n ° 1, but on the other hand, we were totally trying to make a Floyd record, with soundscapes and the like. We weren’t sure if we were going to go prog or not. [Laughs] Obviously, things turned out very differently.
But Syd has never been more than an icon in the world of fashion and art. He was forever connected. I think Roger was right to hang on to him as an icon in the band as some sort of invisible fifth member, and write albums and songs about him. It was a very smart thing to do, even if it had been done for emotional reasons.
Speaking of Roger, he joined Saucerful Of Secrets on stage in New York to star Set the controls for the heart of the sun. What was it like being up there with two Pink Floyd members?
One of the highlights of my musical career, but also quite intimidating. [Laughs] I didn’t want him to look me in the eye. Me and Guy are musical control freaks, and it was kinda out of control. We hadn’t checked the sound, which worried me a bit. But Roger is such a pro, plus it’s a song you can stretch out – it’s not, like, “Oh, we have to go to the bridge.”
But yeah, it was a great moment, because he and Nick were there from the start. They have these memories of going to America the first time with Syd, and what it must have been – a bunch of kids experimenting and trying to sell something that was bigger than the bunch, this youth movement. So there was a huge smile on my face. Obviously, it’s not very Floyd to smile on stage, is it?
So, did you try to get David Gilmour to join you on stage?[Laughs] We would be more than happy. Obviously Guy knows him. But we don’t need to ask him. If he wants to, I’m sure he will ask us.
Never think, “I wanna have a crack in Money or comfortably Numb“?
All the solos that I do, or Lee [Harris, co-guitarist] made, are made by us. They don’t copy anything that Syd or David have done before. In fact, there are solos where there weren’t any before – I do a solo at the end of A saucer of secrets, which was not even there on the disk
With songs like comfortably Numb, the solos turn purple, a phrase people use in the theater for lines like “to be or not to be,” that everyone knows and people can’t stand to hear it any other way. Everyone knows every language of these songs, so if we played them that would make us a bunch of session players, which we are not. So we tried to avoid that.
Also, they were a much bigger group when they started doing these songs, in terms of the number of people on stage. They dated double keyboardists and three backing vocals and plenty of saxophones. There are only five of us and we want to keep the kind of sound we have.
The flip side is, could you imagine writing new material with this line-up?
I told Nick about it, and it’s something I’d be willing to talk about, but it really has to come from him. If David writes a song, or Roger writes a song, it’s different because they’re going to get up and sing it, but with us, it would have to be something that Nick would be heavily involved in. But I’m not closing any doors on it.
Live At The Roundhouse from Saucerful Of Secrets is now available. Gary Kemp’s new solo album, Insolo, is released on June 25.