'In the '60s I thought we would last about three or four years'
Ahead of a new Pink Floyd box set, drummer Nick Mason talks to John Meagher about the band's glory days, a V&A exhibition and the struggles of musicians today
A multi-millionaire rock star is not, perhaps, the first person you might think of when it comes to picking up the cudgels and arguing that young, fledgling musicians really should be properly paid. But then Pink Floyd's Nick Mason is that bit different to his uber-wealthy peers from rock's Golden Age.
"It really is a difficult time to be starting off in music," he says. "And it's wrong that not only are young musicians not getting paid properly for the work they do, but sometimes they even have to pay to play."
As a founding member of one of the biggest selling rock bands in history, Mason has not had to worry about money since he left his architecture degree course in the mid-1960s, but he believes properly apportioned payment is crucial to help the best emerging musicians make the music they're capable of.
"Looking back, I realise how incredibly lucky I was to have been a young musician at a time when the album was considered to be so important and where we could spend a long time in the studio to make the work we really wanted to."
Banging on the payment drum, this celebrated drummer may be, but he insists his thoughts are not motivated by helping the elite "build another swimming pool or buy another Rolls-Royce".
Mason is talking about the early days of Pink Floyd, whose work between 1965 and 1972 has been collected in a lavish new box set, which - ironically, considering his heartfelt sentiment about ensuring others are remunerated properly - is sure to swell his bank balance yet further.
"We started thinking about pulling the work from that time together about 10 years ago," he says. "A lot of people joined the fanbase with Dark Side (1973's huge-selling and era-defining The Dark Side of the Moon) and might not be that familiar with our lesser-known albums."
Pink Floyd's first album, with Syd Barrett fronting the band, was released in 1967 and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn would be the first of seven albums they released in a hugely fertile and prolific period up to 1972.
"It wasn't that unusual at the time," Mason says. "The idea of rock albums was still comparatively new and a lot of people aimed to bring out one a year."
Piper would be the only one to be completed by Barrett and has long since attained the dubious honour of being one of rock's great cult albums. The singer reportedly battled with drugs and the pressures of fronting a popular band who had seen an early single, See Emily Play, attaining a high place in the charts.
Barrett was asked to leave the band the following year, to be replaced by David Gilmour, and he largely disappeared without a trace, one of rock's great recluses, until he died in 2006.
"The Syd story is not entirely clear," Mason says, choosing his words carefully. "Yes, it's generally accepted that he was a LSD casualty, but there's another issue - it's possible that Syd had worked out that he didn't want to be a pop star. We misread that."
Years later, in 1975, Pink Floyd's Dark Side follow-up Wish You Were Here addressed their regard for Barrett and remorse, too, particularly on both Shine On You Crazy Diamond and the title track.
Mason says, as a drummer, he was shielded from the sort of focus that has so badly scarred frontmen - and women - both then and now. "I never wanted to be out front," he says, with a laugh, "although I always do say that all bands are made up of the rhythm section and a bunch of novelty acts."
He has regrets, though: "I would love to have been a better technical drummer. I've always said that. It's all well and good to be self-taught, but one bit of advice I give young musicians is to take any tuition they can get."
He believes Dark Side is the band's most consistently strong album, but says its success is partly down to the strong push it received from their record company. Had such support been given to previous albums, he reckons they would have reached far more people.
He is especially proud of the band's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968): "I love Set the Controls (for the Heart of the Sun) - it's one of Roger's [Waters] best songs. And the title track is great, too."
Pink Floyd's evolving music has been the subject of acres of critical discourse - as has the visual quality of their album sleeves. Atom Heart Mother (1970) was the first of several classic covers, including The Dark Side of the Moon, 1977's Animals and 1979's The Wall.
"We worked out early on, well certainly from Saucerful on, that album artwork was going to be very important to us," he says. "And Hipgnosis (the design firm behind some of the 1970s' most enduring album sleeves) really helped us to push the boat out."
That rich visual legacy is set to be appreciated in all its glory from May of next year when London's V&A Museum runs an extensive exhibition commemorating Pink Floyd's entire career.
The idea was inspired by the huge success of the V&A's David Bowie Is in 2013, which Mason says "was groundbreaking in terms of how this sort of exhibition could work".
All three surviving members - Mason, Waters and Gilmour - have helped pull together 350 artefacts for use in the exhibition, but it's the closest they are likely to ever get to reforming.
They last played together in a one-off show for Live 8 in 2008, but stopped being a going concern after the release of the 1994 album, The Division Bell. (A 2014 album, The Endless River, was culled from discarded tracks from the Division Bell sessions of 20 years before).
"I've been exceptionally fortunate to have been able to build my life around music. If you'd asked me in the mid-60s if the band would last long, I would have said three or four years. Tops."
- Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 box set is released on Friday