Pink Floyd’s Final Cut: Inside The Endless River

Pink Floyd’s Final Cut: Inside The Endless River

“It’s a reasonably graceful departure.”

That’s Nick Mason, founding drummer of Pink Floyd, assessing The Endless River, the new album that contains Pink Floyd’s final studio cuts.

The Endless River began to flow during the 1993-94 sessions for The Division Bell that were helmed by the core Floyd trio of guitarist/vocalist David Gilmour, keyboardist Richard Wright, and Mason. (Founding bassist/vocalist Roger Waters left the band amidst much acrimony in 1983.)

In late 2013, Gilmour and Mason reconvened in England to record new material to complete The Endless River, a mostly instrumental album that shines on right alongside other high fidelity, first class entries in the band’s storied canon. It’s also a fitting epitaph for Wright, who passed away in 2008.

We sat down with River co-producer Andy Jackson in the control room of the Astoria, the band’s houseboat recording studio moored on the Thames near Hampton, Middlesex in England, as well as with Nick Mason in the Sony Club in New York City, to get their respective takes on the final bricks in Pink Floyd’s wall of studio-recording excellence.

When was the lightbulb moment between the time you put together The Big Spliff [an unreleased ambient record compiled from Division Bell outtakes] to when you realized, “Oh, we can actually do this as an album now”?

Andy Jackson: The whole thing with Rick [passing away], and David saying to Phil Manz [Manzanera, one of River’s other co-producers], “Go and see what we’ve got.” It was quite intriguing. And then it went to Youth, who had a poke at it. He extrapolated some stuff and did some weirdness — that is, he did what he does — and then we all got together to listen to it and said, “Yeah, I think we’ve got a record here.” That was the beginning of last November, and it came from having done one layer of development after it went to Youth to play around with. “Have we got a record? Yeah, we have.” Well, not yet, but it’s in there. Then we got into the details: “This is great, lose that bit, this part was better before.”

When you started on the mix in full force last November, did you and David talk about how you wanted the overall character of the sound to be?

Jackson: Not specifically. Once I got it together, he came in and got in my head, as it were. He trusts us, same as he does with James [Guthrie, Floyd's other main longtime producer] — he trusts us to do what’s right. What happened with this album is quite interesting, as there were huge sessions in Pro Tools. And because we were a generation back in Pro Tools, we were constantly running out of voices [i.e., room for extra vocal tracks], and it was really hard.

Nick, according to Andy’s production notes, almost exactly a year ago to the day, on November 11, 2013, you first got behind the kit on the Astoria to lay down your new tracks for this album. How did that feel?

Nick Mason: It was great. I really loved playing on this album. It was an opportunity to rediscover or rework tracks that you’d played on, and then get the chance 20 years later to review what you did and decide whether you liked it or were going to change some aspect of it — play a different fill, or whatever. It was terrific.

Kind of like uncovering “lost gems,” as you told me earlier. What do you like about the sound of that room you all recorded in on the Astoria?

Mason: For one thing, it’s extraordinary, because it’s so small.

That’s true. I stood in that room myself, and it didn’t even seem as big as it looks in the picture that’s in The River’s LP gatefold showing you, David, and Rick all playing together there.

Mason: I know! It’s tiny. You’re hard-pressed to think it would be a good place to play. But it’s the ambience of the whole boat — like the fact that you’ve got the swans passing by outside. It’s such a cool place to work.

Is there a particular sound or feel that you got there that you can’t get elsewhere, considering the way the three of you — and later, just the two of you — were working together in such proximity?

Mason: It’s less the sound as much as the way getting the music works. You’re very attuned to listening to what other people are doing. The fact that you’ve got eye contact is very different from working in, say, Abbey Road, where there’s a drum booth. And it’s important to be that close as we get older and more short-sighted. [Chuckles]

Is there a particular favorite moment you have on the album?

Jackson: There’s a moment that goes to this large pipe organ [“Autumn ’68”] — that’s the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. We did the Albert Hall on David’s tour [May 29-31, 2006], which was the first time they’d been back since they got banned. Pink Floyd played the Albert Hall in 1968 and got banned for letting off cannons and nailing stuff to the floor! But when they were there in 1968, Rick had a go on the pipe organ. There was a Revox and some mics going in, so it was recorded. Damon [Iddons, engineer] is also our librarian, and he tracks all the things that are coming through, and he went, “Oooh, I’ll tell you what I’ve got! This is great!” It’s a great sound.

Mason: That was an extraordinary thing. I had no idea that existed. I suppose I feel that is one of the gems, much like the one on Wish You Were Here with Stéphane Grappelli [a version of the Wish You Were Here title track on both the 2011 Immersion box set and Experience edition that showcases the legendary classical violinist Grappelli taking a solo]. I thought we had lost that one — that we’d run out of space and recorded over it. To find that one really pleased me. It’s amazing. And the great advantage of digital technology now is you just save everything.

David Gilmour & Nick Mason (Photo: Harry Borden)

David Gilmour & Nick Mason (Photo: Harry Borden)

Communication is an important topic covered on this album, starting with the soundbites we hear at the outset of the first track, “Things Left Unsaid,” and bookended by the final track, “Louder Than Words,” which is perhaps the definitive statement on interacting with each another in this day and age.

Mason: It’s something that we recognize as being a failure in our band life, really.

Why do you think that was so difficult?

Mason: I don’t really know. I don’t know if it had to do with egos or the reluctance to upset the apple cart. It would need someone more expert than me to explain it. Part of it has to do with the fact that that’s what we’d been doing virtually our entire working lives, operating together within a constantly changing environment in terms of success and contribution. In 1967, the way we worked and interacted together is entirely different from how we did it in 1978 and ’79, when Roger was putting The Wall together. Almost as fast as you’re growing up, you’re also changing. Everything is changing to something else.

At least you all got a full circle moment together when you, Rick, David, and Roger reunited to play again one last time as Pink Floyd at Live 8 [on July 2, 2005, in London].

Mason: What I think about that is, “Good for us.” A lot of people enjoyed it. And perhaps more important, we proved to our children that we could actually be grown up.

I’m glad I got to see it, that’s for sure. Another thing I’ve always liked is that you’re good editors. The albums are all fairly concise, even The Wall, so when you put a Pink Floyd record on, you feel like you need to listen to it from beginning to end. Do you think you were successful in presenting full albums to the buying public?

Mason: The ultimate judge of the work of virtually every recording artist is the artist himself. Very few of us can really second guess what the public wants, so all you can do is really please yourself. That’s why I say there’s an element of fate involved, if you like. However great you are, there is no guarantee that that record will take off.

The Endless River doesn’t sound dated at all. It has a bit of a timeless feel to it. It has a combination of the Pink Floyd aural “touchstones” that let you know who it is, alongside the newer elements.

Jackson: Well, good, that’s interesting to hear. I think that’s something we became very conscious of. When we did A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987), there was a production decision that largely came from Bob Ezrin: “We should make an album that’s very now.” Now, of course, it sounds very then. Coming back to Division Bell and River, we said, “Let’s not do that. Let’s do classic.” We deliberately made it sound timeless rather than “of a time.”

Will there ever be another new Pink Floyd album?

Jackson: No, I don’t think so. Shame. I’ve really, really enjoyed the process of making this record. It was inherently different than making any other record because I was dealing with pre-existing building blocks that took an enormous chunk of the process away that made it really fun to deal with. Certainly with Floyd, it was always going into the studio with a blank sheet of paper. You spend a year in the studio, but 9 months of it is writing. And then you make the record like a normal record at the end. Most bands, you don’t get involved like that. It’s typical of a few other guys — Genesis and Queen have “their guy” too. But that’s our life.

David has said The Endless River is the final band statement, Roger hasn’t been in the group in over three decades, and Rick is no longer with us. All that said, Nick, would you still like to play live again under the Pink Floyd name if you could?

Mason: I’d love to. I’ve always said that. I’ve never wanted to finish it at all. I love playing live — going out and doing it, and playing with those guys. But if they don’t want to do it, or David doesn’t want to do it, then that’s how it is. You can’t make these things happen, and there’s no point in doing it unless there’s an enthusiasm. It has to be driven by enthusiasm.

Would you do another record on your own?

Mason: No, because I don’t really enjoy working on my own. Drummers are sort of herd animals, really. They need other people to work with. Given the opportunity, I’m happy to play with almost anyone.

Every generation is now growing up with Pink Floyd as a rite of passage. Why do you think that is?

Mason: I think for people who like music, we represent something — and it’s something that’s quirky. You know, we are outside the mainstream. Other bands promote themselves, primarily; they’re showmen. And Mick Jagger is the ultimate rock star, really. For some reason, we found a way of operating outside of that — and I don’t even think it was deliberate. It required we do something else.

How do you view this album in terms of the band’s legacy, almost 50 years into its existence?

Mason: The Endless River is a reasonably graceful, sort of gentle departure. I tend to avoid trying to find our place in history and review ourselves. The old line is, “The more I tell people how clever I am, the more stupid I feel.” [both chuckle] I prefer the plaudits to come from the outside to tell us how great we are.

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Mike Mettler, a.k.a. The SoundBard, is the Audiophile columnist for Digital Trends, chief content officer of Hi Res Audio Central, and music editor of Sound & Vision, where he also served as editor-in-chief for 7 years. His writing has appeared in Guitar Player, Palm Springs Life, Car Stereo Review, and UniVibes (a Jimi Hendrix quarterly published in Italy). In his alleged spare time, he dreams of owning a fastback 1967 Mustang.

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