Mark Stewart (The Pop Group) Talks
By the time that The Pop Group had split up, I was barely even a cheeky little glint in my father's eye. However, they're one of the bands that I've repeatedly found myself drawn to across my short time on this planet as they never seemed to be an outfit that followed in anyone else's footsteps. To some, they may be just another band that are reuniting to kickstart their career yet that's not quite their style, and, in all honesty, is a rather simplistic way of looking at what they're doing. I had the good fortune to be able to sit back and listen as Mark Stewart recalled tales of past adventures, of what's to come and, of course, put the world to rights;
What are you aiming for with the new album? Is it the same sort of sound or are you trying something a bit new?
For me, when we all started talking about getting together again, we’d all stayed mates but I was living in Berlin and really immersed in cutting edge stuff, we were talking about doing reissues and playing together but since we started talking we thought ‘look, if we are going to get together we’re going to have to meet, like we are now, as human beings and basically make something now that is us now that hasn’t necessarily got any relevance to the thing before. The whole point of The Pop Group reforming was kind of anti-Pop Group. It was quite a weird idea when it came up. Basically, Matt Groening from The Simpsons was curating a party and we wanted Iggy to reform The Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group and this really cool mate of mine who manages The Swans and has worked with Factory Floor phoned me up and was chatting about it and I said ‘Paul, it sounds like necrophilia’.
So originally it wasn’t quite your cup of tea to do a reunion?
The strangest thing for me is basically that the point of The Pop Group was to take risks and go against what we would be doing. I’ve got this kind of concept that taste is a form of personal censorship and you should question why you’re deciding to do something because it might be a product of the construct or the conditioning you’ve got. It’s like when Eno does things with those oblique strategies, I often throw in a chance procedure or deliberately do what I think I shouldn’t do just to break out of whatever frame of mind I’m in. I’ve heard of Bowie cutting up lyrics and throwing them in the air to see what happens so I immediately thought, luckily I had quite an open mind at that time, ‘right, how am I thinking about this? From what angle am I thinking about this?. At that stage I was doing a lot of collaborations and I was doing a weird performance art thing and I just thought ‘can I work with these people I already know but in a new context and make a different experiment? If it was a whole chemical thing, can I use those elements and see what happens?’ It’s quite a weird procedure for me because I’m really learning. To tell the truth, I’m more hyper-active and in need of Ritalin now than when I was 14, I’ve got an excited attitude towards things and I’m running around like a headless chicken.
You’re sort of going in the opposite direction to other people?
I don’t think I’m in the same universe to tell the truth! I’ve learnt to stand back. To set up a chess game, there was a multi-dimensional chess game once on Star Trek where people were moving things on different levels, and I’ve learnt to stand back and with this Pop Group stuff as soon as we started doing it I thought ‘bloody hell, what the hell is going on?’ I couldn’t understand it. In my normal self I would try and bring it into something else that was interesting or weird but I deliberately didn’t do that and just stood back, lit the fuse and waited to see what would happen and then when one explosion happened… It’s kind of like an alchemist making a golem and the golem is a whole different being to what you imagined it would be. Personally, I’m finding it really interesting in the fact that it’s uncontrollable and has a life of its own.
It’s a refreshing take on a reunion, rather than the bands that just come back out to play the old hits, that you’re trying something a bit new this time around.
Yeah. One of the mottos of The Pop Group is that risk is everything, but not risk for the sense of being experimental which can be a little bit holier than thou. The risk of working with Paul who’s a real top end classic producer, he got a Grammy, that was so against the grain that we deliberately did it. Working with Paul Epworth was as much Pop Group and taking a risk and going against what we should be doing as way back in the day when we tried to work with King Tubby or John Cage. It would have been really easy for us to make a sheets of noise record and put it out on Diagonal. I mean, I love all that stuff but we deliberately flipped it again. We used to have this situationalist phrase on posters that we wanted to be an explosion in the heart of the commodity and we always really did want to engage and be a pop group, like The Pistols were a pop group, not to stand on the sideline and tut and say ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ like a vanity press. We always wanted to be engaged. If I hadn’t have seen New York Dolls when I was 13 or 14, if they hadn’t engaged with the system to a certain extent I’d be working in a factory.
So if they’d been too outside the system, they wouldn’t have found themselves in that position?
Exactly and I think the problem at the moment is that the underground is becoming a little bit insular, although I kind of live in the underground and draw my ideas from the underground, but what I’m learning is that there are really cool provocative people in really weird sections of society. Especially in the digital terrain, a lot of the free-thinking idealists that I know from all over the world are really inventing these structures that we’re going to be living in digitally and they’re quite open-minded people. There’s a parallel universe between the 19th century world we’re living in which is of bricks and mortar and people thinking they’re being governed by a national government and then there’s this whole trans-national digital thing which is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s kind of cyber-punk gone real. There’s real freedoms in those things and, for me, we’ve got a real strong independence at our core and we’re being completely independent with what we’re doing in a new digital way on a global scale and it’s really refreshing, the last couple of weeks since things have started there’s been really cool things happening right across the world like Dangerous Minds and you guys. It’s like sniffing glue gone big.
Do you think that if you want to be successful in the underground at this point you have to stay open minded and try new things? Even if that means dipping into the mainstream a little bit more.
For me, there’s no such thing as them and us any more. When we were kids we were dressing different, it’s like back in the 60s, but at the moment, I don’t know how to explain it, I really think there’s a new wave developing of how to see things and do things and people that I know who kind of infiltrated from back in the day or cool young creatives from Berlin or noise artists, there’s a completely different flip and there are so many cool people that are in like Sony film. Part of the process of reforming the process is, and was, to be a battering ram, a trojan horse to try and be an antidote for the zombification of society. We are going to go on some of these TV programmes and we are going to really engage but for us as long as what we’re doing inside our resistance unit is what we want, and there’s no interference from outside capitals or censorship, as long as we know what we’re doing is what we want to do and nobody is controlling us because we’re masters of our own destiny then we’re quite happy, we’re strong enough to go into the fray. I think it’s really important for conscious people to stand up and say ‘we’re here’ at the moment, especially in England because the next government could be the most bizarre thing you’ve ever seen. All these other people that are standing on the left and arguing amongst themselves saying ‘you shouldn’t have that haircut, or doing that’ – now is not really the time for disagreements between them. Conscious people have got to stand up and say that we’re here and we’re as much a part of this world as the people who claim to assume power. We don’t even know what power is.
Do you feel that people on the left are becoming a little more close-minded in a way?
Not me. Again, there’s new ways of looking at things I think. I’ve got this lyric ‘the flags of our fathers are tattered and torn’ and the more I find out about para-politics and the unknown history, the more I find out that those concepts were actually invented and there’s these ideas like false flags. There’s this concept of false flags which is when the flag that you think is doing the attack that is your enemy or that you’re fighting for is in fact an invention. I really try and check geo-politics. You can just really see the smell of arms dealers. We’re doing a lot of work with campaigns against the arms trade. There are these things like vulture funds which are like hedge funds where they make money from instability, so they’ll try and make a country unstable so that can get the oil or fund the militia. It’s this kind of feeding frenzy. They’re aping the resources of the planet and trying to say that they’re doing it for this or for that but if you look really behind the scenes there are these arms dealing hyenas that are arming both sides and it’s inter-connected.
Well there goes my thoughts about this just being a music interview!
It’s quite alright, it’s nice to have something like this – it’s a lovely different take on things that you don’t usually hear in the media.
Well in some media you do but the problem is there’s a slight division between… People are zoning out and creating something like, as I call it, a digital cage but you really have to look out the window and see what state things are in because England’s going to be a resource ward or something – there’ll be refugees looking for water and, as I’m going to keep on saying, people have to stand up and say ‘we don’t like what you’re doing’. You get it with Occupy and things like that but it’s crazy what’s going on at the moment and with this next coming election in England people have got to… I remember when we were teenagers some of my mates suddenly started reading Kafka and became existentialists and were into Satre and they retreated into themselves and started tutting. But you’ve got to go out there and engage.
Because by tutting you’re not actively doing anything.
It’s quite nice to get political, rather than having to ask ‘what’s your next single’ and things like that!
Well I was going to come to that…
I really like Mad Truth, can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Basically, one of the points of The Pop Group when we were kids was that we grew up and we were energised and enable through punk and we were forming as punk was happening – our best mates were in this punk band in Bristol and we were going to see The Pistols with them. We decided to make a band when going up in the van to one of their gigs. We just thought ‘punk’s already happening and it would be completely un-punk to make something that is punk, that would be just too normal’. Growing up in Bristol, from a kid onwards I was just going out dancing to really heavy funk and going to reggae dances and we just thought we’d bring in some of the stuff we were really into like Sun Ra and whatever. For us, punk was freedom and we just used those juxtaposition ideas and just started mixing things up and making the kind of music that we wanted to hear. My concept was that as there’s experimentation going on in the music it’s good to experiment with the lyrics and the context of the lyrics so I just constantly threw in snippets of information that I thought was relevant to me. People say ‘this is political’ or ‘this is poetic’ but for me it’s all the same thing.
People are always going to have their own opinions on what a song means but as long as to you, the songwriter, it has a specific meaning…
Yeah but I’d even argue with myself! Basically it would just be things that occurred to me on both sides of the argument, there are contradictions. Sometimes one voice in the song is arguing about another voice. I just had to write down the actual lyrics on paper for some Japanese people to translate them and on paper they don’t make any sense. Like Bowie, you can hear somebody saying something in a off-the-hand manner and it’s somebody asking his other self a question. The contradiction thing is quite interesting but Mad Truth to me, in essence, at the moment I’m feeling really technicolour and excited about things and very vivid in the world. So, to a certain extent, when you wake up in the morning and you’re walking down the street, one of the lyrics is ‘you fall in love a thousand times a day’, so you’re falling in love with the architecture and the people around you, you’re just really on. There was that film out last year with Scarlett Johannsson, Lucy, where she uses 100% of her brain. Sometimes I feel like 60 or 70% and you just feel on.
Like everything is working with each other.
Yeah, so Mad Truth is a celebration of being alive and functioning with a full tank of petrol.
Being conscious of being alive.
And being conscious of being part of a society or a community and being vividly aware of the contradictions and the butterfly effect of your actions. If you buy something from Palestine or from China, how we are all entangled in the world. But in a hopeful sense. Often when you talk about things like that people will sweep them under the carpet because they don’t want to talk about it. There’s a way of being joyful with uplifting dance music but saying something a little bit radical over the top of it. I always wanted to go to a really good dance music event where everybody is punching the air where there’s something interesting in the lyrics. I see knowledge as a nutrient, something that’s interesting to your mind and not just ‘baby, I love you, bend over’ or whatever.
We’re not going to be hearing lyrics like that from you then?
I thought you said you were going in a slightly different direction?
Alright, I will then – just to prove a point!
You said you’ve been out living in Berlin, is there anyone or anything out there that’s particularly exciting you?
For me, the most exciting thing about Berlin, Kreuzberg specifically, was the real bleeding edge arts scene. I made friends with this Canadian film maker called Bruce Labruce who was always in this pizza place on the corner near where I was and it was so cool. You could just be sat in a cafe having these weird conversations. One day I was having a cup of tea and I was chatting to some lad and he was a fluffer in some kind of gay porn film, anyway, Bruce is making these amazing, crazy, zombie, gay post-holocaust things and they’re being seen as artwork. For me there’s that ‘shock’ factor, I remember when they used to show Kenneth Anger films before The Sex Pistols. The most exciting stuff that I know of is happening in performance art in these weird, experimental, I don’t know how to explain it but that’s what gave me a buzz while I was over there. There’s this guy called Ron Arad who’s doing this really out there, transgressive stuff. There are some amazing bands right, left and centre – German bands, Turkish bands, the Turkish R&B scene out there is really cool. It’s a buzzy place and you’ll end up just sitting somewhere and chatting to somebody and a lot of people from all over Europe, maybe from some sleepy town in Portugal or some little suburb, go to Berlin to be expressive. There are whole generations of kids are working in cafes while trying to get ideas off the ground and they’re happy to talk about them, which is great!
Do you think that’s what’s necessary, to have people exchanging ideas or even just vocalising their ideas?
Yes and I constantly feed off other people’s experiments or ideas. Recently I’ve been doing some stuff with this Japanese noise artist and there’s this label called Diagonal and I’m constantly just scouting around because I need to feed off stuff. I’m as much of a consumer of culture from magazines and fanzines and political things and mad music or whatever because I need that. It’s like having breakfast to me, I’m constantly looking for stuff and finding stuff. What I find about Twitter and some of these digital things is that you can look at somebody’s list and think ‘what the hell’s that?’ and you use people as gate-keepers. A friend of mine is this noise-maker and I look at what he’s checking out and I see what I like there and I see what I like from this guy in the States and if I’m interested in some kind of cyber thing, I’ll check with somebody that I know. You can really scout about and make your own little pot pourri.
If you have these people whose opinions you trust then you’re quite happy to indulge yourself into whatever they’re listening to and see how it suits you.
Yeah, and it’s kind of like when we were kids, there was a journalist for NME called Nick Kent, way back in the day – just before punk. He was constantly going to New York, he was the first guy to write about Patti Smith. You can trust these gate-keepers and check them out.
Interesting that you mention Patti Smith as well as she’s making a return this year at Field Day.
Oh great, I like Field Day! Fantastic! She really took us under her wing when we were kids. While we were still at school we went on tour with Patti Smith around England and then we did a little European tour with Pere Ubu. We were 16/17, it was amazing! As soon as I left school we were in New York for a long period during the No Wave time. Personally, the Pop Group, if we did feel close to anybody, we felt closest to some of those No Wave bands in the States – specifically early Television. Personally I’ve never really felt a huge connection with English music because I was always listening to a lot of funk and reggae and experimental stuff from wherever. We spent a lot of time in New York and I was hanging out with Vincent Gallo and people, it’s weird. I’m really looking forward to going back out there this year, we’re doing some cool stuff in the States. It’ll be great.
I was going to ask, what are your plans for 2015?
Well, you’re the first to know that it’s going to be called the Zombie World Tour, which is after the Citizen Zombie thing. I was trying to think of something that sounded like Poundland and last time I was in Canada there was this place called Dollar World, or something like that, so I thought I’d call it Zombie World. Basically, we’re going around the world. We’re doing New York, Seattle, California, a couple in Japan, Australia and then coming back and doing Europe and England again. America is really interesting, there are some friends of ours called The Swans and they’ve done some really amazing groundwork, every town in America now has a cool music venue. I remember back in the day in Europe, in Italy and Holland, there used to be these anarchist centres or cool youth centres which were brilliant places to do gigs and The Swans have really brought this back. We really want to set up new independent roots and we’ve been doing things like that since we were kids but The Swans are really connecting these places and we’re working with their agent and it’s great! They’re completely different music but it’s good to know that there are people like The Swans and Sleaford Mods, who we’re doing something with. Back in the day we did bills with Cabaret Voltaire and Gang Of Four and, for me, it’s just great to feel like you’re not on your own because sometimes you feel like a bit of an outside.
The Pop Group's single 'Mad Truth' is out now. Their album, 'Citizen Zombie', will be released on 23rd February via Freaks R Us.