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Saucerful Of Secrets’ Gary Kemp: “Playing with Nick Mason and Roger Waters was utterly intimidating”

Saucerful Of Secrets
(Image credit: Paddy Balls/Martin Griffin)

It’s a brave band that takes on Pink Floyd’s back catalogue, even if they feature a member of Pink Floyd themselves. But Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets, the group formed in 2018 by Floyd’s founding drummer and longest-serving member, played it smart. Their live shows have found themselves forgoing the obvious big hitters to focus exclusively on deep cuts from Floyd’s early, pre-Dark Side Of The Moon catalogue, leaning heavily on the Syd Barrett era. That means See Emily Play, Interstellar Overdrive, The Nile Song and Fearless rather than Comfortably Numb, Money and Another Brick In The Wall. “All the stuff David Gilmour and Roger Waters don’t play,” says Saucerful Of Secrets singer and guitarist Gary Kemp.

Kemp is the wild card in the SOS frontline. Where bassist/co-vocalist Guy Pratt, guitarist Lee Harris and keyboard player Dom Beken all have direct or indirect links to Floyd, Kemp is best known as a member of New Romantic dandies Spandau Ballet. But as anyone who saw the band’s shows in 2018 and 2019 – or has listened to the subsequent Live At The Roundhouse album, recorded at the eponymous North London venue - can vouch, he’s a key factor in helping make Saucerful Of Secrets more than a Pink Floyd tribute band who just happen to feature Pink Floyd’s drummer in their line-up. “Yes, we are playing those old songs,” says Kemp, “but we play them with a youthful energy, despite the age we all add up to. I think there's a sense of fun and fury about what we do.”

Planned Saucerful Of Secrets dates in spring 2020 were, inevitably postponed, with the shows now taking place in early 2022. It’s tantalisingly named The Echoes Tour, which suggests they’ll be bringing the epic track that makes up side two of Meddle into the set. “It’s not as daunting as you think, but you’ve still got to get it right,” says Kemp. “I’m just lucky that’ll I’ll be up there playing it with Nick.”

Prog

Saucerful Of Secrets’ very first gig was at the Dingwalls club in London in May 2018. What do you remember about that show?

There was a lot to think about. You’re just trying to hold on to the parts of the song in your head. But what I remember most is the look on people’s faces. They were jammed together, amazed that they were hearing Nick play this, with a small band, in a small club. There we were, making these psychedelic noises, and you could see the glee on people’s faces.

A mate of mine who used to go 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 he was back there. I like to think we probably played the songs better than they were played originally [laughs].

Well, you were probably on different substances…

True. But we started with Interstellar Overdrive which, apart from the big riffs, is a really broken-down, atonal, freeform track. I think we were immediately saying to our audience, “This is the heart of where we’re going, this is very different to what David and Roger have been doing for the last 20 years.”

Were you nervous about touching the back catalogue of a band who are so sacred to so many people?

You’ve got to have faith in yourself. Everyone’s nervous, but if you haven’t got the balls, you’re never going to get on. I compare it to when it got announced that I was going to be playing Ronnie Kray [in the 1990 movie The Krays], and there was so much shit in the press: “How can this bloke from Spandau Ballet play Ronnie Kray?” I knew I could deal with that one and I knew I could deal with this one too.

But, yeah, there’s always gonna be trepidation, and probably most of all for Nick. He had more to lose than anybody, 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 has really given it validation to the Floyd freaks. And it’s the Floyd rhythm section from two big tours, so I think that helped as well.

Saucerful Of Secrets

(Image credit: Will Ireland)

What’s Nick like? Is he the one pulling the strings?

Nick is very open to ideas. We were all experimenting. When we first got into rehearsals, I'd never sat and made those kinds of noises with my guitar before, the kind of atonal stuff we were really coming up with, and Nick was really willing to go with it. It must have taken him back to those early days when Syd and Roger were just fucking around with guitar loops.

The best thing about this band are the gags. There’s a competition for who can crack the most jokes. And that carries onto stage, which I think is a revelation for Floyd fans. If you go and see any Floyd tribute act, or watch them on YouTube, there’s an utter po-facedness to what they do. That seriousness has become the image of Floyd forever. We wanted a sense of fun, a sense of dynamics. Funnily enough, Roger moves around a lot on stage now - he’s quite theatrical.

On the live album, you drop a cheeky little line from the Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun into The Nile Song

As a band, we’ve had music filtered down to us through so many layers of reverence for other acts. We are the sum of many parts, of many genres, and that naturally comes out in your work. We’ve never gone, “We are trying to emulate the source, and get this exactly like the record.” We don't need to be because we're not a tribute act; we have Nick in the band, so we can push it in any direction as long as that's OK with him.

At another point on the album, you shout, “You’re my guitar hero”, which is a nod to The Clash. Is there a connection between Syd-era Floyd and punk, in terms of the way both were doing things their own way and nobody else’s?

I think there’s a through-line from Syd to Bowie to punk, even though there were very few ‘punk’-type songs. But Syd definitely had that moody, punk energy about him - very London. And that spreads through all the stuff I love, personally. When I do See Emily Play, there’s a bit of [Bowie guitarist] Mick Ronson in there.

So what era Floyd is your era?

My first introduction to Floyd was definitely Dark Side, but the first time I ever got introduced to Syd was when I heard Bowie do See Emily Play on Pinups. I can look back and admire the whole canon, but for me what they were doing with Syd early on was really pushing the envelope so much.

My fantasy would be to walk back into the UFO club, and not just to see the band playing on stage, but to feel the youth culture that was burgeoning there. That was a great tribe to belong to, and Floyd were at the head of that; they were the house band. So, really, in my heart, that’s my era.

When you and Spandau Ballet were hanging out with the New Romantics down at the Blitz club, were you allowed to admit that you liked Pink Floyd?  

[Laughs] No, it definitely wasn't. Any band, when they become huge, people are going to be contrary about them, but without any doubt, we were all listening to them secretly.

But the era that we’re dealing with, the Syd era, has always been hip. The first thing I ever 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 countercultural house in Islington. We were down in the basement, jamming this song with [actor] Phil Daniels and a couple of other guys. It went on for hours and hours.

When we did the second Spandau Ballet album [1982’s Diamond], we didn’t know what we were going with it – on one side of it was [hit single] Chant: No.1, but the other side was us totally trying to make a Floyd record, with soundscapes and the rest of it. We didn’t know if we were going to go prog or not. [Laughs] Obviously things turned out very differently.

But Syd has never been anything but an icon in the world of fashion and art. He was forever hip. I think Roger was right to hang on to him as an icon within the band as a kind of invisible fifth member, and to write albums and tracks about him. That was a very clever thing to do, even though it was done for emotional reasons.

Speaking of Roger, he joined Saucerful Of Secrets onstage in New York to play Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. What was it like being up there with two members of Pink Floyd?

One of the highlights of my musical career, but also utterly intimidating. [Laughs] I didn’t want him to look me in the eye. Me and Guy are musical control freaks, and it was a little bit out of control. We hadn’t soundchecked, which worried me a little. But Roger’s such a pro, plus it’s a song you can elongate – it’s not, like, “Oh, we’ve got to go to the bridge.”

But yeah, it was a great moment, because him and Nick were there right at the beginning. They have those memories of going to America the first time with Syd, and what that must have been like - a bunch of kids experimenting and trying to sell something that was bigger than the band, this youth movement. So there was a massive smile on my face. Obviously, it isn’t very Floyd to smile onstage, is it?

So have you tried to get David Gilmour to join you onstage?

[Laughs] We’d be more than happy. Obviously, Guy knows him. But we don’t need to ask him. If he wants to, I’m sure he’d ask us.

Do ever think, “I fancy having a crack at Money or Comfortably Numb”?

All the solos that I do, or Lee [Harris, co-guitarist] does, are made up by us. They’re not copying anything Syd or David did before. In fact there are solos where there weren’t solos before - I do a solo at the end of A Saucerful Of Secrets, which wasn’t even there on the record

With songs like Comfortably Numb, the solos get purple, which is a phrase people use in the theatre for lines like, “To be or not to be”, which everybody knows and people can’t bear to hear it any other way. Everybody knows every lick in those songs, so if we played them it would just turn us into a bunch of session players, which we’re not. So we’ve tried to avoid that.

Also, they were a much bigger band when they started doing those songs, in terms of the number of people onstage. They were going out with double keyboard players and three backing singers and lots of saxophones. There are only five of us, and we want to keep the kind of sound we have.

The flipside of that is, could you imagine writing new material with this line-up?

I've mentioned it to Nick, and it is something I'd be ready to talk about, but it’s really got to come from him. If David writes a song, or Roger writes a song, it's different because they're going get up and sing it, but with us, it would need to be something where Nick would be heavily involved. But I'm not closing any doors on it.

Saucerful Of Secrets’ Live At The Roundhouse is out now. Gary Kemp’s new solo album, Insolo, is out on June 25.