The band survived the mental decline and heartbreaking dismissal of their founding songwriter Syd Barrett just as they crossed the threshold to mainstream success. Moving forward with guitarist David Gilmour, Pink Floyd achieved earth-shattering stardom with history-making albums like The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall before an acrimonious split with visionary leader Roger Waters. Following extensive legal battles, they continued on as a trio, releasing two chart-topping albums and packing arenas until quietly going on hiatus in 1994. Fans clamored for more, but the death of keyboard player Richard Wright in 2008 ruled out much hope for a reunion.
So when The Endless River was announced last July, the news was treated as a rock ’n’ roll second coming with rapturous headlines around the globe. The project reunites Mason and Gilmour with Wright on record by utilizing unheard tapes made primarily during sessions for the band’s last album, 1994’s The Division Bell. After selecting and sequencing from over 20 hours of instrumental tapes, the surviving duo recorded new drum and guitar tracks with the help of producers Phil Manzanera, Youth, and recording engineer Andy Jackson. The result is four movements of wordless ambient music, save for the album’s lead single “Louder Than Words,” which features lyrics by Gilmour’s wife Polly Samson. It’s an elegant effort that pays tribute to the late Wright, as well as the band’s unparalleled legacy. And their power hasn’t diminished with time—the first Floyd album of the digital era has already broken records for the most pre-sales in Amazon UK history.
Pink Floyd is a musical phoenix, constantly rising from the ashes of its own destruction to soar to even greater heights. But David Gilmour has insisted that The Endless River will be the band’s last offering, closing the book on their half-century career. On the eve of album’s US release on November 11, VH1 spoke with Nick Mason, the man who has been there since the beginning, to discuss the band’s new album, legacy, and whether it really is the end of the road.
I was floored listening to “Louder than Words” because I never thought I would hear the three of you making new music again. What were some of the challenges in making The Endless River sound like an organic and fresh Pink Floyd album, even when some of the tapes were 20 years old or more?
I think it’s a credit to those tapes, really. By actually playing them together live, I think they had a special quality. We were able to pick up and more or less move on. And we spent quite a lot of time reworking them, occasionally putting new guitars on or extra drums or whatever. But I think that freshness of the playing then, it’s something that doesn’t decay with age.
As a fan, it’s emotional to hear. Was it an emotional experience to revisit those tapes?
Well, it was emotional to initially listen back to the pieces, particularly in the case of Rick, obviously—he died six years ago, now. But I think once you’re in the studio you tend to focus on trying to make the best of whatever it is you’re going to do with the piece and you become a lot more technical rather than emotional about it.
Was it a conscious effort to make it a primarily instrumental album?
In my opinion, no. I think you work on music and it more or less makes it’s own mind up as to whether it needs to be a song, or whether it stands on its own as a piece of music, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. It became clearer and clearer that actually there was no requirement to necessarily produce a number of songs. If one song works really well, it throws away concern. We’re very happy with it, and the rest of the pieces work well in this rather odd formula. It’s very, very old fashioned, almost like four sides of vinyl.
Speaking of vinyl, this is the first Pink Floyd album released in a post-iTunes world. As co-creator of some of the most successful albums in history, do you feel that album making is becoming a lost art in an age of MP3s and streaming?
No, I don’t think so. Hopefully this record will influence the concept of being allowed to make longer pieces. I think that would be brilliant! We have sort of come full circle here. There was a point at which a 78 RPM record only lasted for two minutes, so that set the parameters of how pop music was created and played. There’s no reason, with downloading and streaming and everything else, why you can’t listen to a 70-minute piece if people have an appetite for it. I think it’s a method. There’s an opportunity to revisit that sort of music.
I think this album has a nod to all sorts of previous work. I think the business of playing in the studio together for a long period meant that we frequently would come up against an idea that we’d had before, and it would sort of creep into the music. I actually find that quite attractive and there are moments that have links to Wish You Were Here, but actually I think there are moments that have links to much earlier work, like Meddle and A Saucerful of Secrets from 1968.
I’ve read that you, Rick Wright, and Roger Waters were architecture students, and on early recordings like A Saucerful of Secrets you would sketch out the recordings almost like an architectural blueprint. Do you find that your architectural studies lead Pink Floyd towards building the huge, layered blocks of sound that became the band’s trademark?
I’m not sure the architectural studies influenced the band’s sound, per se, but I thoroughly recommend it as a training for anyone that wants to go into rock and roll! [laughs] I mean, not only did Richard, myself, and Roger meet at architectural college, over the years there’s been a load of people who’ve worked for us who’ve done brilliant work. I’m thinking of someone in particular like Mark Fisher, our stage designer who came from an architectural background. And Arthur Max, our lighting designer who also comes from architecture. I think that mix of technology and art is so well suited to the music industry.
Pink Floyd were pioneers in their work with electric music, synthesizers, and even sampling. How do you feel about the current rise of EDM and its major role in pop music today?
Speaking as a man with a house in Ibiza, it’s mind-blowingly noisy. [laughs] It’s interesting! I mean, curiously, it’s the closest thing to our sort of music in a way. It’s programmed to play almost continuously without breaking, and so we do have a sort of absolute direct link to house music in that respect. And I think some of it is wonderful. There’s interesting stuff now where you get the mix of a recorded track but you also get live playing as well. There’s this band named Goldfish in particular who are absolutely terrific. They’ve set a groove going (well, it’s clearly not record decks anymore in this day and age) and then saxophone and whatever is played and improvised along with it. Which I think actually is a really creative way of doing things.
Is there a piece of music that you feel is Rick Wright’s finest hour?
Not one particular one. I mean, there’s a curious throwback in The Endless River to a piece of music we discovered which was Rick playing the Albert Hall organ in 1968 when we were there playing A Saucerful of Secrets. The plan was that at the end of the evening, the end section of Saucerful has a sort of uplifting organ part. On the record it was played on a Hammond organ or something. But it was agreed that he would be allowed to play the Albert Hall organ, which is a fantastic instrument. It holds half the building up! He spent the afternoon noodling around on this instrument. We managed to find those tapes and they’re included in this record. I think that’s a wonderful tribute to him because, in a way, where he started is where he finished. He’s still that unique and absolutely wonderful player.
David Gilmour has been quoted saying that The Endless River will be final Pink Floyd album. The tape vaults are emptied and there’s no more new material. Do you feel the same, or is there a chance for more?
Well, I think he’s right. I mean, I don’t think I’m going to argue with that. I know that Dave feels “This is it,” and he’s sort of done that and wants to do other things. That’s fine. I think it’s a good way of bowing out gracefully.