When Mark Stewart's The Pop Group formed over three decades ago in Bristol, you never would have believed they'd become nearly as influential as they are today. The band's chaotic blend of post-punk, dub, and funk stirred quite a lot of controversy in the music industry at the time, even prompting one journalist to call them “idealists in distress.” No one seemed to understand that beneath the band's veneer of radicalism and confrontation were iconoclastic musicians with an eye for innovation. But now, after The Pop Group broke their thirty-year hiatus with a reunion in 2010, the press seems to be falling head-over-heels for the group. And you know what: it's about time. Looking at the breadth of his career, both with and apart from The Pop Group, you begin to understand why Mark Stewart is revered by many as one of Britain's most innovative artists. What he brought to the revolutionary Bristol punk scene and to music today is an undying influence on genres as far spread as trip-hop, industrial hip-hop, dub, and post-punk.
Join us as we talk with Mark Stewart about his relationship to his hometown, what it's like playing with The Pop Group again, and his upcoming solo album, The Politics of Envy.
In the past few years alone, you've been releasing more work than you have in decades. Since 2005, you have released two solo records, Kiss the Future (2005) and Edit (2008). In 2010, The Pop Group played their first show since 1980. And you even have another solo album coming out later this month. So I'm, wondering, what drove you back to the music industry?
I've never really been away from anything, you know. I've always been working at different places around the world. As far as I can see, there's different areas in the press that decide to cover you at certain times in your career. I've always been doing films; I do a lot of artwork, a lot of activism. I really think with this record my work is coming into the public eye. I mean, it's not your position to know why everyone re-praises you. I crash, mash, and thrash different genres to make whatever I make. And sometimes it's three or four years before something is appraised. I mean, when The Pop Group came out, there were whole pages of really critical reviews saying you couldn't mix politics and funk with punk. There was a lot of antagonism toward what The Pop Group was doing. Yet years later people are saying we were one of the most important post-punk groups. You know, I just do what I do.
Given your newfound respect in the press, how have the relationships between you and your bandmates changed, especially since it's been over thirty years since the first incarnation of The Pop Group?
For us, The Pop Group was always kind of more a Dada-ist art thing. We were all just kind of protagonists and pranksters in our own rights. We would kind of just take a piss at each other and wind each other up, because that's what punk was all about. The music had nothing to do with, “shall we try to do like a big solo here,” or whatever; everybody was a very strong character. With the early Pop Group, it was like we were all playing completely different songs at the same time. I mean, The Pop Group wasn't a kind of band. It was more a collective of crazy-minded individuals, and we really didn't talk to each other much and we don't really talk to each other a lot now. All that really happens is we just get in a room and sparks fly, and this new stuff we're doing has become like a mutated Chucky baby that's out of control. It's uncontrollable, our music.
Are there anymore upcoming shows with The Pop Group?
We recently played at ATP, which was great. I made friends with Michael Gira, who I really, really like. I did a solo show with Swans back in the day. And Geoff Barrow from Portishead is great. Those ATP things are great. That's one of the reasons we reformed, because Matt Groening from The Simpsons asked me to reform The Pop Group and Iggy to reform The Stooges a few years ago. I really didn't understand the concept of reformation then, but I thought why couldn't I just treat it as a new art project. We're making new material, and it's just a new experiment. I don't see a difference between the old stuff and new stuff and me. We're just trying to open under different doors. We're constantly experimenting. That's the nature of my life.
You mentioned Geoff from Portishead. Since the trip-hop movement really evolved out of your hometown Bristol, I'm curious as to what your connections are with the genre.
I don't really know that much about it. I mean, I'm from Bristol, and a lot of those people in Bristol, right across all scenes even to the dubstep people, talk about how influential The Pop Group was on their work. For example, there was a track on one of my albums, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade, that Trent Reznor later said gave him some ideas to do some industrial stuff. On another track, the trip-hop kids were saying I invented this and that. I don't understand how these things happen - we're all part of the same gang, we all went to the same punk and reggae shows. It's more like a family in Bristol. And The Pop Group going off to America and working with other hip-hop American artists and Jamaican artists, just like if someone from your local club was traveling around the world and experiencing new things, perhaps influenced others from Bristol to do the same thing.
Let's talk about your new record coming out this month, The Politics of Envy. The album is very much a collaborative effort, featuring what seems like an entire extended musical family: Crass's Eve Libertine, The Slits's Tessa Pollitt, Richard Hell, Daddy G, Jesus & Mary Chain's Douglas Hart, filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Anyone else that I'm missing?
Lee Perry. Primal Scream. Kahn, this new dubstep kid from Bristol. Martin “Youth” Glover from Killing Joke. There's people all over the place. I was using these collaborators as actors, almost. Instead of using spoken word samples, I'd use, for example, Daddy G's voice. To me, he's kind of like Marlon Brando; he's a method actor. For me, this album is kind of like a weird, trippy Alice in Wonderland opera with these people in kind of crazy costumes. And Gina Birch from The Raincoats was crucial to the whole thing. I mean, when The Pop Group and The Raincoats were on Rough Trade together, we were among the first to explore those initial ideas of autonomy, independence, and D.I.Y. in music. I still hold completely true to those ideals and politics.
I'm curious as to what Kenneth Anger's role on this album is.
He plays theremin on the album. I'm friends with Anger. I organized this week-long symposium in Portugal for him at this art institute. The theme was occult and magic, and there were a lot of occult theorists, art theorists, artists from all over the world who came in honor of Kenneth. To me, Kenneth is really one of the most important artist of the last two centuries. His ideas of juxtaposition had such an influence on English punk. His film, Scorpio Rising, just blew my head.
You seem to have a really rich relationship with Keith Levene. Public Image Ltd. and The Pop Group shared the stage quite a lot back in the day; you and Levene even collaborated together during the '80s on the musical collective New Age Steppers. So tell me, what do you think of PiL reuniting?
Well, Keith's not in it. The drummer from The Pop Group is drumming with PiL, cause Bruce Smith was in the second generation of PiL. So recently we played at some electronic festival, and he played with PiL. And then he played with us. Keith recently stepped away from music. He recently did this thing called Destroy All Concepts. I was the first guy to get him to play guitar for years since New Age Steppers. I mean, he did some stuff with Red Hot Chili Peppers. But I love the guy as a person, and I think he's one of the lost legends of English punk. He started The Clash, and his influence on PiL started that whole glacial sound right across through My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain. I love the guy. There's just certain people who magic just comes out of their hands. Keith Levene's one, as well as Lee Perry and Kenneth Anger. I'm just so humbled to even be near them. I can't imagine why my name is next to other musicians, but other musicians seem to like my work.
Let's about the documentary Tøni Schifer recently directed about you, ON/OFF: Mark Stewart – From The Pop Group to The Maffia. How did this project begin?
It's quite funny. I was living in Berlin, and Schifer had this label, Cripple Dick Hot Wax! The label had put out this soundtrack to some porn film I quite enjoyed, and I soon became friends with him. I originally thought he was going to make a film similar to something like that recent Cabaret Voltaire short film, Johnny YesNo. A kind of visual interpretation of my work. So I took him to my mother's house, and we travelled around together, you know. Then he started interviewing Björk, Nick Cave, and even tried to get people like Bowie as well. Before I know it, the project evolved into this documentary, which I didn't know was going to happen. It all came out really well, though.
Who else is featured on the documentary?
Massive Attack is talking about me. Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Daniel Miller of Mute Records, the journalist Simon Reynolds, all the people from The Pop Group, people from Skidoo 23, Jesus & Mary Chain.
I recently read the interview with you in Simon Reynolds's 2010 book, Totally Wired: Post Punk Interviews and Overviews. Throughout the interview, Reynolds refers to this phrase that the press often used to describe The Pop Group: “beatniks of tomorrow.” Would you still view yourself as a “beatnik of tomorrow,” whatever that means to you?
It's not my phrase, but I have a lot of time for the American beatniks. Michael McClure is one of my favorite writers. And I spent a lot of time with Allen Ginsberg, which was amazing. And I love the whole city life culture. I grew up reading Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti - that whole San Francisco scene. It's an honor to be associated with the beatniks. And all that poetry and stuff... well, there's a kind of dumbing down on the intellect in England that I don't think is healthy. For me, experimental poetry, spoken-word, free jazz, and art-house film opens your mind. But our culture is trying to cut that off, saying it's too brainy.
Do you feel like your recent work, by bringing all these artists from different genres and media, is perhaps re-enforcing the lost English notion that music can be an intellectual practice - a notion very much present in the whole post-punk aesthetic.
A lot of these collaborations happened by accident from all the places that I work around the world. My mind is kind of fast; I take advantage of thinking by just asking someone to do something. A lot of people wouldn't ask, right? What's interesting about the media I've been speaking to recently in Japan and England is that these really famous people involved, like Daddy G and Primal Scream, is really opening a lot of doors. So here in England, the higher media like BBC, they're taking my work a lot more seriously than they did my other things. To a certain extent, during the '80s me and a few other people were kind of outside artists, which I have no problem with whatsoever. But at this moment I think it's important to engage with the mainstream media just because there's so much crap out there. I'm quite happy to go along with “the machine,” as long as I can control the lyrics, the visuals, and everything.
Do you have any confirmed dates yet for your upcoming The Politics of Envy tour?
We're playing all over the world. We're starting at the end of this month, and we're going everywhere. On the live front, we're working with these sub-bass sounds that are so low, we're having to re-enforce the PAs. The bass is the deepest, guttural, low-end series that makes my face wobble. You know, like those films of those astronauts when they're faces are being pulled apart by the velocity. I love bass.
You can order Mark Stewart's new solo album, The Politics of Envy, on his website.