Leading up to The Pop Group‘s fourth studio album release Honeymoon On Mars last week, we got to speak with Mark Stewart, legendary founding member of the post-punk and industrial hip-hop group. A clear departure from what they released in their early days, the band has found a way to incorporate a wide variety of genres into their sound that bring them into the fold of modern music. What’s even better is that they’re still able to write with a clear political spin on it all, causing a ruckus and making an impression everywhere they go. Check out our interview with Mark below.
What is the first album or song you remember listening to?
I would think it’s “VooDoo Child”, the Jimi Hendrix one, it was in a cheap rack when I was around 9 years old. Because my family would buy anything from those like 99-pence shops here; you probably have like dollar shops in the states. So that’s where I probably got my eclectic taste, you know- what’d you call your thing- yard sales? We have a load of those sorts of things, so I just buy crazy shit.
I was talking to Mike Watt from the Minute Men or the Stooges and he was saying that the reason he got the first Pop Group album was because he found it in an off-cut sale or something, and he just bought it for the cover. And I did that, with loads of weird jazz and music concrete and stuff when I was a kid.
Was there an ‘ah-ha’ moment when you realized that music was your thing- that’s what you were going to do?
Mhmm, the amazing, the guy with the big hair from Norway. . . Morton? He was the boyfriend of the girl from Aqua, who did “Barbie Girl”. Classic.
Music was a kind of ‘class’ thing in England, before punk. It was a very far away idea, right? It was only for like, kind of like for aristocrats. Only for people with really long hair and beards that went to public schools and had lots of money to buy banks of synthesizers and dress up as King Arthur. So, I wasn’t really into that, it wasn’t my scene. I was kind of a bubblegum kid. But suddenly, we were going to lots of concerts, but we didn’t feel connected to the band, because they didn’t wear the same clothes as us. But I was going clubbing a lot because I was tall, at like the age of 12, and in Bristol where I grew up, there was a really big reggae and funk scene so I was going to lots of funk clubs. We were going up to London, buying up 50’s clothes, pink mohair jumpers, plastic sandals, and we were just going up to buy clothes for a Saturday night.
All the bands we were going to see at that stage were a thing in England you call “pub rock.” There was a band called Dr. Feel Good, a really, really, really, kind of dirty R&B, early Rolling Stones stuff. And there was another band called Kilburn & The High Roads which was Ian Dury’s first band. And the scene then gave us a little bit of a connection, but they still didn’t really look like us. But then, I was reading these music magazines I was obsessed with, then I saw a tiny, stamp sized photo of The Sex Pistols, and they were wearing exactly the same kind of pink trousers, mohair jumpers, and had sort of dyed Bowie hair that we were wearing to these kind of outrageous, fashionable, teenager funk clubs. So I showed it to my mates at school and I said ‘they look a bit like us’. First time ever. Because nobody on the television looked like you, you know what I mean?
There was a youth cult developing in England, without anyone’s permission. So there were people traveling around when we were kids in the 70s when The Pop Group kicked off; we’d meet the Primal Scream lads, who were going to form a couple years later. We saw The Sex Pistols and The Clash and decided to form a band, and the next year down, they saw us, and decided to form bands. These people in isolation, in evening suburbia were picking up Metal Machine Music by like Lou Reed, or The Stooges’ live album. And there must have been one or two kids in each area that somehow were getting into this area, and it seemed everyone was kind of ready for punk. It didn’t just trickle down like Moses with the Ten Commandments or like the Beatles, it was very grass roots.
This class thing in England was very important. When we saw Paul from The Clash with stickers on a very cheap bass guitar telling him where to put his fingers to make the chords, it demystified the whole thing. Not needing any technique whatsoever, so I’ll have a go. That hadn’t happened for years and years. Suddenly people were trying and screaming and spitting, and we’re still doing it.
My next door neighbor five houses up, his name is Jeremy Valentine and he started the first Bristol punk band, The Cortinas. Me and Gareth, the to-be Pop Group guitarists, and Bruce, the drummer, were all best friends in this little gang. So we were traveling up to this heavy punk club in London with them, just as mates at age 15 or 16. And we were on our way back from one of their concerts, and I think there was an IRA bomb attack that got us stuck driving in a circle around London, but we were all saying that punk is about change and having a radical attitude about stuff. So we thought it would be really punk to take in all these reggae influences and heavy funk influences in Bristol, so we started doing that and being experimental. We also thought all these jazz guys were really punk, even extreme, concrete noise music was really punk- you know what I mean? So we just mixed in all these weird kind of radical stuff we thought was stimulating and exciting us, and we’re doing it again- which I find quite cool. Even with a big gap and me doing my solo stuff and the rest of the band were doing other things and whatever. It’s kind of like our energy was frozen in ice like one of those wooly mammoths they bring back to life.
But, together, a few years ago, suddenly, we’re all throwing in influences we’re hearing now, with this record. Like trap music, there’s this stuff from South America. We’re using these kind of crunk sub bass sounds which is kind of like a southern hip hop thing, not in a crunk way, but we’re mixing in dub, in reggae, those kind of things. People say we invented punk-funk- whatever that is. We’re into this crazy, mad stuff. I was living in Berlin, and there’s this Turkish MTV channel where these Turkish guys get really emotional before they start singing. It’s amazing to see people be emotional over straight noise. Somebody’s gotta do it.
Stemming off being in England, what is your favorite or least favorite part about making music in Bristol? Big positives or negatives?
What The Pop Group did and what I did with my solo stuff, working with Jaimaican musicians and hip hops guys, The Pop Group were very, very hip in New York. And we were playing these clubs, and I was just hanging out with this filmmaker guy, and I heard hip hop on Red Alert, and I knew all these guys from way, way back, and what had happened was a similar relationship to The Cortinas. The Pop Group got very big very quickly, on front covers of English music magazines in the first couple months. A lot of people felt like, well if Mark can do this, we can have a go. What we got off The Clash, they got off.
Before that punk period, it was an impossible dream to be a musician. You had to go beg to some multi national, arms dealing corporation. And they’d control or censor stuff – just crazy – then they’d drop you if you didn’t sell like 100,000 copies. So maybe us fighting for free speech and stuff really influenced people. Now that whole second generation created a kind of infrastructure in Bristol – it’s self sufficient now – they don’t need to go to London. With the internet, that whole dictatorship with capital is all broken down now. And the major labels, I think to a certain extent, the entertainment complex really doesn’t know what’s going on. All these things are kicking off, amazing dance scenes are coming out around Paris, all without others’ permission, which is punk.
When you got back together, what made you decide to continue working together after that initial comeback?
We thought it was completely un-Pop Group. We hated that old kind of heritage, old people squeezing into jeans at like 50 years old. Worst thing is having younger pictures of yourself, right next to you.
I’ve always kind of lived on the edges, to an extent. With my solo stuff, I’m always doing weird stuff, to keep my sanity. I was in Berlin, working with this filmmaker, and there’s this festival in England, which has kind of guest curators, quite famous people curating can choose new or old groups. I get a phone call, saying someone wanted me to re-form the Pop Group. I said it was a stupid idea, thinking why don’t they commission some Alaskan-wolf experimental dance piece. So I didn’t do it that year, but we’ve always had complete control of our catalog, and all the members of the band, even people not in the band at the moment, are still friends and we’ve got this punk thing of everybody owns their stuff. We were kind of talking to each other, because we can’t get away from each other, as we’re all friends with each other’s families, so we were talking about doing some reissues. We were becoming one of these ‘bucket list’ bands or whatever they are. So it was me that couldn’t get my head around getting back on stage.
I’m a fan of that band, I always make music that I want to listen to, I can’t listen to anything else. Why can’t I approach this thing? Because before that, I’d get commissioned by some art center where they say, “come to this space for 3 weeks, and make some piece with some underground filmmaker.” I just thought right for this whole collaborative thing, working with some heroes, so why can’t I treat Gareth, Dan, Bruce like a collaboration? So we were going to come in with new eyes, making something as the different people we are now, experimenting in a new way. Not trying to recreate something, like squeezing into a pair of 12 year old drain pipe trousers. I think, Honeymoon On Mars is the fruition – and Citizen Zombie I love – and everyone was behind us and it’s a great album, but this album is The Pop Group really being able, on our own terms, being able to do things differently.
Supposedly we invented like five different genres on one track, back in the day. We couldn’t ever go in and say, “We gotta mix some genre specific sound..” Fuck off.
There was a lot of high praise around framing Citizen Zombie as a new sound in 2015. How did that feel, having not released a studio album together in 35 years or so?
I can’t analyze other people’s take on what we do. I can’t even analyze it myself, because you become a schizophrenic, analyzing others’ opinions of yourself. We try to be really kind of naive, not so much these days, as journalists aren’t so much social worker-y, they had everything so stratified in like racial charts like, wow how did you get into reggae- like what the fuck, get over it. What is cool, and has been cool since the punk days, is that often, the writers are a lot more intelligent, and can express themselves a lot more than the people in the bands. Back in the punk days, the bands didn’t know politics, or anything. Not saying anything bad. . .but now writers cluster genres themselves. Somebody makes these genres, in an often intelligent piece, linking things together, creating some sort of meaning. There is some sort of really intelligent writing on the wall, that explains it, and gives it worth.
It is very nice to be able to do what you want to do. You’re able to fund your projects with pre-sales, controlling your own means of production. With The Pop Group, especially with live things, it’s more of a gathering of freaks. . .
Do you get excited when you’re about to release an album? Or are you jaded about it, having done this for so long?
I have to create chaos in some way, and one of the nice things about sometimes being hidden away, being in your room, wrestling with demons, bringing ideas into some form- especially difficult when working with people as they think you’re mad- you meet some cool person in like Scandinavia- and for me, this is like the payback.
I was just having some cigarette, in Houston or something, this kid comes up and said cheers Mark, what’s great about your stuff is that it makes me feel like I’m not the only weirdo in town. It kind of gives people permission to be different. I think that’s kind of our function, to keep on banging the nails in the coffin of conformity. Best quote of all the interviews.
Do you have a favorite song from the upcoming album?
Yes. I’ve got this song called “Instant Halo”. It’s kind of like, there’s this American kids’ program, Bewitched. I’m really into hip hop that would sample kids shows, and old commercials, and there’s this lyric- “you bought your soul in a vending machine”. Kind of playing with advertising, bringing mysticism into like cereal boxes- kind of getting weird… but yeah.
I like all of the tracks. For me, again, one of the biggest pleasures, to be brutally honest, I don’t see myself as a musician, all my mates really have nothing to do with the music business- and I don’t really don’t like a lot of people in the ‘game’ as they’re just kind of being rather than wanting to be. And on this record we’ve got Hank Shockley, he did these walls of noise on the Public Enemy rap music, and he was like dancing on stage with us, and we really got on with us. I’ve always just approached people, and that’s where I’m kind of punk, not being shy about approaching supposedly important people. Being able to work with Hank Shockley has been a complete pleasure. The rhythmic thing, for me, again, like a lot of dub music, is crucial to me, I’m constantly checking the layer speed, all these cool rhythms coming like in trap, and his rhythmic work is the best. What he’s doing with our drums, and slightly reprogramming them, is kind of like punk, that will stand up in a way that’s kind of cool. I’m pleased with the record, with so many different layers of stuff going on.
Any fun anecdotes from production, working with the band again?
The bassist and me were working with this Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell who produced our first ever Pop Group album, called Y. The techniques he uses, plugging echo machines backwards, reprocessing it, throwing it back in another machine, cutting it 15 times, throwing it on the wall, it’s incredible. Everyone was standing up this one night, Dennis and I doing live mixing on the desk, and some of their mates came around, we were drinking rum, and it turned into this huge party. This kid started rapping, and it wasn’t on the mic, but we nearly tore the roof off the place. Just amazing that people around there could just get into the vibe of it.
There’s some classic old picture of some of the Lee Parry studio days where everybody was just sitting around, but when something starts, someone just gets up and starts dancing, nothing sterile about it at all. It’s cool. A bit like a traveling circus, if only there were more dwarves around these days..
What do you love about performing live?
It’s going to sound really weird, completely disconnected. It’s very ritualistic. It isn’t meant to be like we’re into black magic like some weird metal band. But we were doing this big festival in Japan and they were filming – but I’d never watched any live footage or anything – and we didn’t do it deliberately, and something suddenly was kind of conjured up, and you just feel the energy. There’s this kind of monkey-chanting, like a trance. Something happens, the band, it’s just the energy off the audience, like a gathering or something where everyone gets ecstatic and goes somewhere else. I kind of live in what I call ‘the other’, I’m not really here all the time. Kind of weird, but it’s what kind of happens to me.
What is the biggest message you want people to take away with this new release? Or is there one?
Well, there’s a lyric on one of the tracks, “somebody once told me that hope was a power”. It’s really funny because people think the whole post-punk thing was a really sort of negative, hopeless, blank generation- basically all the photos were always in black and white on media magazines, and we were and still are very hopeful people. If you can show that if you can think about big subjects like politics and try to work out your place in the world, for me, it’s kind of anthems for the optimistic. Although you have to take a negative stance to certain kinds of things, but we’re like the alternative.
A lot of punk people are in science, inside all the computers and fiber optic cables, a whole new world is being created. New networking, emerging, just like punk and independence, and the old guard, the medieval, they had no idea of what’s going on, so there’s hope.
How does it feel, knowing you’ve inspired so many people in music and life over the years?
I’ve been inspired myself, so I don’t think about it. We don’t do it deliberately. What you reap you sow, what you sow you reap. It’s a complete and utter other-universe. This is life.
If you go to where there are supposed to be edges, that is where the sparks are. Human beings are telling us to use like 1% of our potential, because they want to like enslave us into their zombie drone armies.
Anything else you’d like to add, for our readers to know?
Don’t listen to The Pop Group. Start your own band.