“For me, it’s a bit like when they discover a frozen reptile or something and it starts running real quick once it’s reanimated,” says Mark Stewart, firebrand, techno-philosopher and alternative agitator, says of his decision to reboot his legendary post-punk band The Pop Group in 2010.
Since then, the Bristol-based band has issued two albums, Citizen Zombie in 2015 and the recently released Honeymoon on Mars, records expanding on the polymorphic range of the band’s classic late ’70s, early ’80s works Y and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? Blending dub, grime, rock, and free jazz, Honeymoon on Mars finds Stewart and co. fresh and taut. It’s far from your average “let’s get the band back together” vibe, but that’s fitting for a group which transformed and mutated as a matter of principle, often within the same song.
Talking with Stewart is a lot like drinking water from a burst fire hydrant. He free associates and offers fascinating insights every other word. He hops between time frames and peppers his thoughts with self-deprecating cracks and wickedly funny jokes. His voice — one informed by radical weirdness and boundless creativity — feels like the kind of voice we need now, as much as ever. Following, our phone discussion with Stewart, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aquarium Drunkard: This is your second release since reforming the Pop Group in 2015. What inspired this new burst of life for the band?
Mark Stewart: It’s really kind of weird. Everything’s changed. I wasn’t sleeping when the Pop Group finished. The last-ever Pop Group concert was this huge rally in Trafalgar Square in London. I was working for this thing called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. That was the last ever Pop Group concert, but it was also my first-ever solo show.
For me, doing stuff is doing stuff, whoever I’m doing it with. When we reformed, it was out of the blue. All of us are against “heritage” things. As soon as me and Gareth [Sager] started talking about it, we thought no, no. We were properly punk in that we were independent. We controlled our catalog and fought to defend our intellectual property, right? So we started talking about reissues, because there was a huge demand for stuff which hadn’t been out for years and all these young bands were talking about [our records]. Then suddenly, I get this phone call from All Tomorrow’s Parties, and they have these underground celebrities curating the lineups. Matt Groening, the Simpsons guy, wanted me to reform the Pop Group and Iggy to reform the Stooges.
I just thought, “What a weird concept.” I had Homer Simpson going ‘round and ‘round in my head. And we’re looking more like Homer Simpson day by day now. [Laughs] It was a real shock to the system. I had been doing these weird collaborations with Kenneth Anger the filmmaker and political things and performance art, and I thought, “Can I approach working with these people as a new thing?” We were still all friends, but we wanted to ignore what came in the past. Every Pop Group song was different; even within the same song we can change styles, so we thought let’s just give it ago.
AD: Midnight on Mars sounds very modern – do you keep your ear to the underground in terms of seeking out new sounds?
Mark Stewart: I’m in this art project called the New Banalists and we’ve got this motto which is, “Taste is a form of personal censorship.” If you stay too much inside your own construct, too much inside what you know and like, you never find anything new. I’m really excited listening to new music, the way I was before forming the Pop Group, when I was 14 or 15. There used to be this label called the Sound of Los Angeles, and I’d listen to these funk 12-inches where people like Tom Moulton would do these backwards edit cuts to extend the mix. I used to argue with The Wire that this stuff was just as experimental as Derek Bailey or whatever weird shit. But [I’m excited by music] coming out of the grime scene and trap scene, just some of the buzzes and bleeps and weird noises really get me going. So we’re feeding new sonics into the thing, vampiring on trap and grime and even the stuff we’ve influenced – digital bass sounds and this mad Japanese stuff I’m listening to – the same way we were influenced by dub and reggae when we were kids. I’m blown away by stuff like The Bug, Gothtrad, Dalek, Hans. They some how heard stuff the Pop Group did or stuff I did with Adrian [Sherwood] and it blew their heads back.
AD: So many groups go away and come back in a diminished form, but it doesn’t feel like you would have accepted that with the Pop Group. Does that trace back to your ethos to start with, the idea that you never established enough of a “template” to lean back on?
Mark Stewart: We were kind of anti-template. I remember having the discussion with Gareth and we said, “What’s the point of doing the same experiments we did in 1978 and ’79?” The funniest thing is, there’s a whole generation of young kids who are discovering Neu!, King Tubby, Albert Ayler, and they’re finding these things we found in junk shops or whatever. It’s so weird. 10 years ago there was this whole punk funk revival in New York, with like !!!, Out Hud, Rodgers Sisters, and they were doing exactly the same experiments we were doing; it was like our chemical lab had been moved by Dr. Who to that period. In England, it’s like more experiments are happening in what you used to call the dance scene. People are really hungry for new things – like neuronauts, they want to explore sounds, going deep into this glitchy, post-techno noise pop. The real soundheads who used to be in the indie scene are going deep into the beat scene, which I’ve always been into anyway.
AD: You’ve reissued a number of Pop Group titles and released live archival projects. Did going back and listening to that stuff inform the way you approached this new record?
Mark Stewart: No. We’ve been playing some of those songs live, but I haven’t got one Pop Group record on my pile of things to listen to, do you know what I mean? I never look to the past to be brutally honest.
AD: You were there as punk exploded in the mid-to-late ‘70s. Did you find the kids in the punk scene were as interested in experimenting as you and your friends?
Mark Stewart: I don’t really judge people. I can only talk for myself. But what shocked me to a certain extent was – being from the suburbs – we got our punk politics more from the journalists. [The information I was getting] had already been diffused through some really intelligent journalist’s mind, and it gave it even more meaning than some of the singers and bands [were offering]. I kinda hitch hiked onto the Anarchy tour with the Pistols and the Clash, and later on after the show [fans] would be getting drunk, and they were the same kind of racist, sexist pigs the heavy metal blokes were. They were dunderheads. Not being rude – I’m a dunderhead sometimes – but [some of us] really believed in what Joe Strummer was saying. It was about change and an attitude. We wanted to challenge politics and economics, and we thought it was want to challenge that, we’ve also got to challenge the structure of the music. There’s no point in playing blues or pub rock. So we were bringing in all this shit. Of course, there was amazing stuff coming out then and now, so there’s no need to knock it.
AD: Did that crowd take to the Pop Group?
Mark Stewart: In Bristol, some of the hardest kids that I knew got into punk first. It was a real underclass thing. In some other towns there were a bit more art students or whatever, but in Bristol the nutters got it first. Some of the earliest Pop Group gigs were in this place called the Barn Hill Youth Club, which Banksy came out of as well. It was wicked. It was a real celebration of people suddenly finding something in a no hope situation, a flag to fly, a fashion. It was brilliant. So many of my mates back in the day are completely different people because of that.
AD: Did you view punk as a cultural statement?
Mark Stewart: We hadn’t pre-thought it. I was surrounded, for some reason, by these old heads. My older brother would introduce me to stuff. This guy named Pewee was virtually my guru. He ran this underground book shop and was lending me all these things about global manipulation and vodka/cola deals, how America financed the Russian revolution, all these things about Nikola Tesla. Weird things – my head was being blown right, left, and center by finding out what was happening behind the mirror. So I thought if we could do something that’s really uplifting and mad and crazed you out rhythmically and sonically, but also throw in snippets of this made stuff that was exciting me, then it’s a lot better than just singing “party down.” But it’s not as pre-thought as people might imagine. It was feral.
AD: In the notes you describe Honeymoon on Mars as a “hypersonic journey into a dystopian future.” 2016 feels incredibly dystopian. The Pop Group has always engaged politically and ideologically with the prevailing sentiments of the time. Does the mission feel different now than it did then?
Mark Stewart: No. I feel even more idealistic and the weirdest thing is, I don’t feel so alone. When you’re really young you feel like an outsider, like nobody relates to your take on the world. It can drive you mad. You start to question your sanity. That’s the whole point of the Honeymoon on Mars title. You wake up and ask, “What is this planet?” The world is being governed by what I would call psychopaths. But I just got this Jaron Lanier book, Who Owns the Future, and I realized now, more and more, there’s hope. There’s a line on the record that says, “Somebody once told me that hope is a power.” My hope really lies in people on the electronic frontier. The people inventing the future are not from the old guard, which is dying off. This new breed of career politicians are not very smart. The people inside the fiber optic cables, guiding the future — they’re amazingly cool people. As you travel, you realize, in Berlin or Copenhagen, everywhere I go, there are some mind-blown people. They’ve actually rolled up their sleeves, not looking for any egotistic satisfaction, and they’re actually digging in and making stuff that the old guard cannot understand. words/j woodbury