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“It’s become an adventure I wasn’t expecting” – the Stereo Embers interview/conversation with Mark Stewart

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Casting aside any concerns for a reputation for fierceness that might precede him, SEM steps into the Skype ring with Mark Stewart, the Pop Group’s estimable front man. Voluble, prolix, and with a gift for off-the-cuff stream-of-consciousness, the man also turns out to have an uncanny knack for answering questions yet asked.

SEM: Hi Mark, thanks for talking with us. So, couple of things. I’ve got some questions written down, if we stray from them, fine with me, if we just cover those, fine with me as well. Also, I sometimes have quite the preamble to my questions but I always get there in the end.

MARK STEWART: (laughs) Do you tell that to everyone you meet?

SEM: Yeah, I pretty much do. I just hand ‘em a card. (laughter) So, where’s the band based these days, still in Bristol?

MS: No, the band’s based all over the place. I’ve been living all over the world. I’ve been on a volcano in the mid-Atlantic, in the Azores, and then I was in Berlin and Vienna. The bass player Dan Catsis is still in Bristol, the guitarist (Gareth Sager – ed.) has been living in London since back in the day, and Bruce (Smith) the drummer, who also plays in Public Image, is in New York.

SEM: Well it’s good then with technology the way it is these days.

MS: Well we actually play face-to-face. We don’t actually send parts or anything we always play face-to-face, which is good.

SEM: That is good. So how exactly did the getting back together happen and are you at all surprised to have the four original members back together? I mean I know Catsis wasn’t an original member but he came in pretty early.

MS: Well the funny thing is – I never really analyze it. You know, when you’re kids you just play a bit of music and it’s just a part of your life. I never really analyzed that I was a musician in a band. I never really think about it like that. I just kind of do my life. Most of my friends aren’t musicians, they just work in shops or are carpet fitters or whatever. And, so, we were kind of friends before we made a band, y’know. We were all mates from school and youth club. And mine and Gareth’s best friend, Jeremy Ballantine, formed the first Bristol punk band and we were all just part of that kind of gang. There were like a hundred of us in Bristol that were the early punks, and we’re all still mates ever since. Whenever people go up to visit their folks or somebody’s brother or cousin or something, we all kind of know and check each other’s activities. And, we were all really really big fans of the Pop Group, so even though we kind of stopped in real time, in our hearts we carried on, and we fought like cats and dogs to protect the copyrights and the legacy and the type of autonomous position of that band and the recordings. And we said that if we ever did decide to play again together, the first thing we’d try to do is make something new straightaway as part of the challenge, because that’s part of the ethos of the band. Soon as we started talking to each other we said ‘Look, obviously we’re going to do reissues  and stuff, and we wanna make sure everything we do is under our control and set up our own label and blah-blah-blah,’ but we said ‘If we are going to play live, we’ve got to make something new.’ So I personally just treated it as a new commission, because a year before I’d been doing a lot of collaborations with people like Kenneth Anger, Richard Hell, Massive Attack, and my solo album just before that. And I thought ‘Right, can I treat working with these mates as a kind of new commission?’ as if I’d been thrown into some sort of performance art thing with some Balinese dancer or something. So we all just went in to this with new eyes. We had no intention of – we just went into this as completely different people to what we were before. We had no intention of making something that sounded like the Pop Group, although, even (original) Pop Group tracks kind of didn’t sound like the Pop Group. In the first year of the band we had a new take of the band every few weeks because of all the influences we’d gotten excited about, do you know what I mean?

SEM: Sure, yeah.

MS: So we always want to flip it. And for me personally, risk is everything, experimentation. So, it would have been very easy to come out and make a kind of extreme noise Pop Group album and completely flip out and make something really out there because that’s in our blood. But, we’ve always got that kind of Situationist idea of being like a Trojan horse, so, the funniest thing is, to work with Paul Epworth who’s, y’know, one of the biggest producers in the world – though he does a lot of underground stuff as well – was a real flip, so we were experimenting with being normal. It’s too easy to be weird, sometimes.

SEM: I understand, and that’s funny because that was a question down the sheet a little ways, your working with Paul Epworth. Quite a highly regarded producer but I researched and I didn’t notice him doing any work with anyone near as, shall we say, ‘avant’ as the Pop Group. But that all worked out well enough.

MS: (laughs) What a word, ‘avant.’ No but the thing is his roots, he had this project called Phones when he was just starting that I checked out, and his roots are a kind of abstract hip-hop, a bit like Anti-Pop Consortium in America?

SEM: Right.

MS: He was making this weird out-there stuff and he’s got this reputation for recording in really weird weird ways, but just a couple of the people he worked with, like Florence and the Machine, and he did something with this band called Futureheads (whom we love – ed.) which was quite interesting. And he’s got pretty weird techniques, plus he kept on saying in interviews that he was really influenced  when he was young by my production techniques, with the solo stuff and with the Pop Group, that it just blew his mind in how you could do stuff in different ways. And so, it was him that was kind of ranting about us, and we were just thinking about who to work with and – I was just with Thurston Moore this afternoon and we were talking to him early on and it’s just like, you know, we were just throwing around a lot of different ideas. We were even thinking of working with a booty-based producer, just something weird to throw into the mix. But then – I’ve only begun to talk about this record and this project and it’s quite weird for me because I’ve kind of let the thing run away on its own. I’ve thrown the dice onto the table, and the dice have kind of run off the table, grown legs and become a weird monster and gone off. So even when Gareth and I were beginning to write these songs suddenly these kind of French ballads appeared and we just thought ‘What the fuck is that?’ It wasn’t something we would have normally made, but somehow, just listening to this record again, just starting to talk about it now, it’s got something of its own. It’s not me, it’s not Gareth, it’s not Bruce, it’s not Dan, it’s not Paul, it’s something that’s become something on its own. And the only thing I know now about growing older is to actually sit back, stand back, once you’ve lit the fuse and watch the thing explode. Don’t try and – and then it changes and turns into a rainbow or a cube or whatever. Often in my life I’ve tried to harness an energy quite early on, but with this Pop Group stuff I’m being quite patient and seeing how the thing spins, if you know what I mean.

SEM: Is that, with the Pop Group, a recent development for you?

MS: It is to a certain extent but I’ve never really analyzed that. I’m quite an intuitive person so I’ve never really analyzed it and especially when you’re with mates, there’s a lot of, like, comedy and child-like play because you’re constantly taking the piss out of each other and when something weird happens we let it happen, we don’t try and correct things. But, yeah, I mean I can’t see it, really, but now, talking to people and being able to stand back I think it’s because everybody is such a strong character within their own mindset that I’m just letting it happen. It’s like throwing weird ingredients into the stew and seeing what happens, and personally, for me, I’m shocked, I’m quite interested about this album and what’s going to happen in the next few years, because for some reason, that band, and again looking at it from a schizophrenic way from a distance, means a lot. I mean it means a lot to us, of course, but it means a lot to a lot of other people in the world. Often a lot of those people are really creative and quite out there, but all of a sudden lots of people who are kind of in the middle of the machinery are kind of opening doors for us so I think, if we stay true to what we try to do with ourselves, and with the protection of this core kind of independent stuff that we’re setting up I think we can really engage on a political level…(an ambient interruption stops Mark for a moment, there’s a short bit of stop ‘n’ stammer, then the conversation continues) It’s become an adventure I wasn’t expecting.

ms pg again

SEM: Right. That’s gotta be rather essential to your process, I would think. One of the questions I wanted to ask is, dealing with conditions in the realm of music-making, which of course are radically different than they were back in the early 80’s, means of distribution, all of that, piracy, Spotify and just the saturation via the Internet and all, I was wondering  for one what your take on all of that is and second..

MS: Can we just keep it to one, please? Sorry. Can you ask that question again please?

SEM: I’ll just fold it into one question: what are the opportunities for the Pop Group given the saturation, the short attention spans, the Spotification of music distribution –

MS: Well, yeah, you can’t say that’s a given. That’s your opinion. Sorry.

SEM: That’s alright.

MS: One of the problems at the moment is, if that is your opinion, your theoretical opinion or something, I’m not really going to question your opinion but I don’t really see it in that way.

SEM: Well what I was wondering was –

MS: One of my problems at the moment is, that, umm – I don’t know how explain it – (pauses) Basically, from the prehistoric days, we’ve kind of picked up whatever tools we’ve got, and maybe we turn the tool upside-down and start banging it from the wrong end or something, so even like working in this amazing studio with Paul Epworth, it gave us all facilities to go mad and to plug things in but go louder, with a better quality of saturation. And when you talk about saturation, I just think about noise saturation and chaos onto ferric oxide, onto digital media or whatever, but since going back to the cyber-punk days, I’ve always been very utopian about the whole electronic frontier foundation and this whole – my father was a bit of a futurologist, and as with the Brand Institute of something like that I think it’s really important for people to kind of dream into the future and see the enabling possibilities of some of these things although it’s true that often corporations are trying to make us into digital slaves. Part of the concept of this album, the Citizen Zombie concept is the zombification thing where people are just going in to their tablets or whatever, it can, possibly, and hopefully, be that people will pick up the tools and corrupt them and turn them backwards and use them in a different way. It can be liberating, enabling. All I know is some goat herder in the Sahara can order some grain, right? So, the cage is of your own developing. You can sit in a cage and zone out and not engage with reality like hundreds of thousands of people are doing with these mobile devices, or you can use it – we used to say the same thing about paper but people made fanzines out of paper so, the whole kind of semiotic debate of media and what I call ‘product fatigue’ or ‘fallout fatigue’ is a kind of problem I’m finding in what you’d call the music business, which I try to – you know, a lot of my digital mates are doing crazy things and inventing things, nothing to do with music, they’re kind of scientists, right? But the problem in the music world is a lot of people aren’t looking to the future they’re just moaning about things that were in the past and it’s kind of a Cold War mentality. Not knocking what you’re saying cuz what you’re saying is cool. I was just having a conversation about hacktivism and stuff, for me, the thing is not quite solidified enough, and I think it’s too early to call the shots on that. But what’s really important is the power of the ISPs as kind of gatekeepers. And all I can do in my own way is fight against censorship in my own work and any type of capital involvement which means censorship. So going back, we really do try to control the means of production, it’s an old DIY thing. I mean I’ve been there since the beginning of Rough Trade and independent distribution got set up throughout the world, back to Re/Search and, y’know, all over the place, that’s as important as having been in the punk scene, the context is just as important to me as the human being. And now we’re doing a lot of work with this thing in England called Campaign Against the Arms Trade, so, the kind of politics of it all, the context, but there’s also the enabling thing of the DIY, Messthetics, it swings in a roundabout.  I dunno, we could go into Bitcoin and cyber-currencies and the whole – what’s interesting to me is the idea of the nation state has kind of broken down, so we’ve got, to my mind, these communities of radicals across the world. I mean these friends of mine were working with this movement called Indigenous Resistance to develop kind of electronic samizdat kinds of things to help with things like loggers, so there’s both sides of the issue. The information can get out, but as you say, whether people see the information in the wash, or whether they need to engage with the physical – it’s not my job to decide those kinds of things at the moment though I think about it as much as you.

SEM: I agree with you in terms of the internet and communities. I often argue that side against those that – y’know, we’re pretty much the same age and so I have a lot of friends that are moaning about how things aren’t the same – whether they’re musicians or not – and pining for something that’s obviously never going to come again. I think you’ve pretty much answered my question, I was mainly concerned –

MS: Could I just add something there quickly before I forget it?

SEM: Yes?

MS: One of the key kinds of mission statements of my whole life at the moment, and with the Pop Group and the kind of energy and joy that comes out when the four of us are hanging out with each other and laughing, we’re getting a lot of gigs, it’s really important that we’re spreading a kind of hope, a kind of positive positional hope. Because that’s the reason we’re working with dance music and we’re working with Paul Epworth and stuff, we really don’t want to be put in the corner like somebody moaning, you know what I mean? We don’t want to be angry or punks or something because someone could just dismiss that really easily. It’s part of my motive to actually engage a little bit and throw ideas a little bit closer to the mainstream, even, as some kind of antidote to this, again, kind of ex-facto zombification of society. I think it’s really important for good-minded people to try and engage, not just stand on the sides saying ‘You shouldn’t do that, you shouldn’t do that.’ Y’know, there’s that saying, “It only takes good people to do nothing for evil to prevail.”

SEM: Right, exactly.

MS: Yeah, in England we’re facing real serious problems, politically and everything else. The next election could just go completely stupid. So all these other people, left-wing people or artistic people are standing around moaning about things that aren’t really the most important things to talk about. People have got to come out on the streets and show that there’s conscious people in the world, as they say in reggae songs, it’s important time to stand up and not argue amongst ourselves, I find.

SEM: Well, yes, I totally agree. You’re talking to someone that has the travesty of the US Congress to stare at the face of every day. What I’ve found is that the devices as you were describing, the whole Citizen Zombie tendency, has a palliative effect, that everything’s fine so long as I can get on facebook and look at my phone, they think-

MS: Clicktivism. They think they can relieve their conscience by just clicking on a good cause.

SEM: Right, though I’m sure I’m at least slightly guilty of that myself, though it’s better than not clicking, I suppose.  I have to ask, to cut to the album itself, there’s certain no shortage of subjects (to write about), there was a comment you made in a band statement you made about where you said “Let’s face it, things are probably more fucked up than they were in the early 80’s.” And I categorically agree with that but getting to specifics, umm, who’s Sister Rita? Are we talking about the Christian mystic?

MS (laughing): Was there a Christian mystic named Sister Rita? Well there is a bit of mysticism in one of the other songs. Sister Rita. The girl in the office was singing that. It’s “Sister Freedom!”

SEM (laughing): Ohhh! OK.

MS (laughing louder): The ‘Rita’ was at Rita’s, a chip shop in Bristol (laughter). Rita would be really punk, sitting in Rita’s car. ‘Sister Rita.’ Yeah, she’s my half-sister, sister from another mother. Sister Freedom! It’s amazing. There’s this website somewhere for the misinterpretation of 80’s songs.

SEM: Yes.

MS: Sister Freedom!

SEM: Well I’m glad we cleared that up.

MS: OK with me, though, ‘Sister Rita’ sounds cool.

SEM: Obviously, my copy of the promo didn’t come with a lyric sheet.

MS (laughing): You’re lucky.

SEM: I don’t think so

MS: Sister Rita. Love it, love it. That’s how things develop, with misunderstandings. So, OK, yeah, Sister Freedom.

SEM: Well, that question’s answered (laughter). But, there are quite a lot of liturgical references on the album – “St Outrageous,” “The Age of Miracles,” “The Immaculate Deception” – and, kind of off the topic, but a lot of us, almost against our will, have found our stand against the Catholic Church softened by Pope Francis. I know it has nothing to do with the record but I couldn’t help but be curious what your thoughts about that were.

MS: Do you have a Catholic background?

SEM: No, not at all. I’m a devout atheist, have been since I was about twelve.

MS: How can you say ‘devout atheist?’

SEM: Oh, just to be clever.

MS: Ahhhh (laughs). Umm, well, I haven’t really been following Pope Francis but one of the reasons I’m using those specific terms is just me taking a little bit of poetic license. For me, it’s not saying the ‘saint’ bit it’s saying the ‘outrageous’ bit, because for me, at the moment – when I was living in Berlin, I was communicating with – there’s this thing called ‘queer theory,’ right, it comes from Bakhtin’s concept of carnival or something, right, and some of the most interesting things I know that were happening in the art world or the theoretical world were coming from this kind of queer theory. One of my friends is this guy called Bruce Labruce, he’s a Canadian performance artist, filmmaker, and his work is completely the spirit of punk, for me. Basically he’s like this weird kind of modern-day Kenneth Anger. And this concept of outrage, which came from – the boys in the band are basically glam rockers, because we came of age in ’73, ’74 with Roxy and Bowie and whatever, and to a certain extent in England punk was sort of a continuation of glam, with a bit of politics. The shock value, I remember seeing David Bowie for the first time on Top of the Pops with my mum and we were little kids having our tea, that shock value, that sort of transgressive shock value, and then Sweet and Roxy and stuff and then loads of my friends becoming, y’know, [glam], and this whole trans culture is fertile ground. I don’t – I’ve just always kind of been like this. Those kind of shock tactics that we had when we were kids and I think that part of art – y’know, hopefully – we’re working with a lot of experimental filmmakers. And what I’m saying about how the Pop Group is going to continue for the next few years. We’ve started sorting out the music but I really want to engage with kind of cutting-edge performance artists, and queer theory filmmakers and theorists and move into a more multi-media kind of thing and align ourselves with other people. When we were kids we used to align ourselves with Linton Kwesi Johnson and Cabaret Voltaire and whatever but my personal thing these days is more aligned with some of these [other disciplines] and to just kind of think of a way of how- earlier on we were talking about making a film about Gramschi or something – trying to figure out how we can use the sort of punk ideas in media as it is, as a sort of feature film or something like that. Do you understand what I’m saying?

SEM: I think so, yeah.

MS: Couple of years ago I was trying to make a musical out of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, I was talking to Kenneth about it, but I think the idea of setting up a Situationist sort of thing but with a few mates involved and trying to make it some sort of spectacle, you know.

SEM: Right, to try to get the ideas out there Trojan horse-style.

MS: And that defiance is what made me who I am. I was just talking to Thurston Moore and he said he saw an earlier picture of Johnny Rotten spitting or something and for me seeing Paul from the Clash, at a really early Clash gig, with stickers on his bass, standing there and just fronting it, is what enabled me. That is part of the process, and that is part of the process I think of being a musician, of being that part, that cog in the community. That’s one of the things about the Pop Group. So many different people from all these different genres of different cutting-edge bands, techno bands, mad Brazilian bands, saying that, y’know, Pop Group records blew their heads or encouraged them to do their thing, and I think about things that blew my head or continue to blow my head, so if you can kind of give things back and feed it into the alchemical state then, y’know, you can claim so sort of worth in it all, I suppose.

SEM: Well right, that’s the substance of legacy right there, actually.

MS: Yeah. And it’s not like – y’know, personally, as I’m re-entering the fray and talking to different people across the world and just checking out what’s going on, I think it’s a very – even in China, and even in, y’know, Laos and Cambodia, there are cool people and with the internet, you can kind of belong in a network, do y’know what I mean. Because it’s dark out there, and the nutters are constantly trying to claim some power which isn’t theirs to claim.

SEM: But, right, the internet does allow for some kind of guerilla alliances to form which, again, so long as the ISPs keep their hands off it.

MS: Yeah, yeah, but also that human sense of belonging, at a gig, or, I think I’m like this person because I’m into this kind of music or wear these kind of clothes. It’s crucial to people’s mental stability, and for me, knowledge is a nutrient, like finding cool books or – some kid in the office was saying that he just got into Lautremont because he heard something Genesis P.Orridge was saying about it in a tweet. I remember when I was a kid, if you can just keep circulating heretical ideas, it’s cool.

SEM: Well, yeah. It was crucial to me when I was a kid to be reading Henry Miller and find out about Blaise Cendrars who then became one of my favorite writers. There’s this level of –

MS: Who’s that? Who’s that writer?

SEM: Blaise Cendrars?


SEM: So yeah, to me there’s this level of trust, a bridge of trust, I feel, that develops between people when – I mean, if someone is akin to my taste, musically, politically, then I’m curious to know what they’ve been reading or listening to. And for all its faults, so far as facebook goes, it’s just been a boon. I mean it’s just an example, an internet example of how sort of lattice work of interests, and emotions, and, I dunno, identity can latch on to each other.

MS: Yep.

SEM: Well, I don’t know how much more we need to cover here, but, umm, here’s a real personal thing. You’re touring here which I very much appreciate, I never got a chance to see you back then, and in fact took me a little while to get into the Pop Group, to be honest.

MS: (laughing) Sounds like donkeys wailing to me (laughing even harder)

SEM: And you’re coming up the West Coast and you’re going from San Francisco one night to Seattle the next night which is tempting to me but I’m not sure I’m going to make it up there – I’m in Portland.

MS: Portland?

SEM: Yes. Moved up here from San Francisco twenty-five years ago.

MS: I hear that it’s cool.

SEM: Yeah, mostly it has its advantages. But at any rate, hopefully-

MS: You want us to come play in your living room.

SEM: Yes, exactly, let’s do a house show.

MS: (chuckles)

SEM: Hopefully I’ll make it up to Seattle, not sure I can make that happen or not, but since you’ll be going for a few years at least, I’ll hold out hope.

MS: OK. Is that what you were going to ask?

SEM: Well, it was just a comment. But I had nine questions here and we tended to knock out three or four of them per discussion point so I think we’re good.

MS: Cool, cool. And give my respect to you and your site, it’s cool here in England.

SEM: Alright, I’ll do that, that’s great, and I really appreciate your time, Mark.

MS: You too, mate.

SEM: Alright, cheers.

MS: Cheers.

[as a bonus, please enjoy this album teaser, complete with Japanese subtitles. How perfect]