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Mark Stewart Interview – The Pop Group


Mark Stewart/The Pop Group Interview

The Bristol Band The Pop Group with Singer Mark Stewart was founded in 1976 and lasted until 1980. They released the two landmark albums Y and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder plus a couple of seven inches during their time, the most famous was called We Are All Prostitutes, with Amnesty International Report On British Army Torture Of Irish Prisoners on the flips. Their musical styles borrowed from funk to reggae to jazz to freeform, controversy and provocation was intended along punk movement went down it’s decline. This following Interview was taped in November 2005 in Berlin, where Mark Stewart And The Maffia came to play a show at Festsaal Kreuzberg to introduce a new compilation of historical plus recent tracks on Vinyl/CD called Kiss The Future on Soul Jazz Records/cargo.

Mark. How did you come to meet the dub-producer Dennis “Blackbeard” Bovell?

When we were young in Bristol, before punk, our gang, our friends were going to Funk Clubs dressing in 1950s dot-clothes dancing to B.T. Express, A Higher Place, Ultra Funk, early Fatback Band. My music was always going up with heavy bassline. And from that gang in Bristol, the boys and girls and maybe their elder brothers, the black and white gang from our posse became Massive Attack and Tricky, out of 40 people. We just danced to this stupid Funk.
By the time of 1977/78 we were as support doing concerts with Pere Ubu and Patti Smith. We were looking for a producer. And there was a conversation with John Cale. He came to Bristol and I liked his work with the Stooges. I was trying to make a connection with King Tubby. I was sixteen, still being in school. But as of the background of my mothers house it was very easy to connect with Jamaican people. We came to make a record and everybody like the company and my elder brothers were saying: you need a producer. I said: we don´t want no fucking producer. They said, na, na, you can´t do without a producer. I said: fuck off! We can do it ourselves. It´s about me. We do the graphics – we do everything, so fuck off! (laughs).

They asked again, and suggested the reggae producer Vivian Jackson (& The Defenders) and also Norman Whitfield (Motown, The Temptations, Rose Royce »Car Wash«) and I said: King Tubby! But we couldn´t get King Tubby. Then I heard two dub-records Dennis Bovell had done, one was Elizabeth Archer & The Equators »Feel Like Making Love«. But it was the flips, the dub-side I liked, but the two of them were brilliant. So I saw the name and knew his work a bit and said: I want to work with this guy, with Dennis Bovell. But by then the white English companies were very separate, they didn´t know the people. I found Dennis immediately sympathetic. We went to some residential studio and we just related. We cut the first Pop Group single »She Is Beyond Good And Evil« in a few hours.

Watching The Pop Group live at their primetime was like witnessing the performers exploding into chaos. The release of the debut »Y« (Radarscope Records) was a huge statement in 1978, delivering all that extreme and tense energy. Two years later, by the time of the follow up »For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder« (Y Records), the freeform spirit of »Y« had vanished and the band broke up. What happened?

When we started, the idea was to be a pop group. The ultimate pop group with interesting limits. We had this idea of an explosion, as you mentioned. We had many tags and I took lots of ideas from these early activism and these german art and fluxus and the whole idea was to become an political act of explosion right into the very heart into the commodity. To dress, to pretend to be a pop group, to get a massive contract, right, get onto television in England and the American, get on the front cover of NME, which we achieved, and then to start coming strong saying exactly the opposite but in a position, not in the extremes, not moaning to your friends in a little squall… We wanted to go into the middle and say it. We got to the front covers of the English music magazines, doing very well in America and Japan, everything, you know. Very quickly we took a position because the thing is – I still like my music now, I put the work in – the thing is there is cool people inside the structure. In all different structures there is some really nice people. With my stands I find travelling around the world that good people respect – not exactly totally agree with my opinion – but respect the independent stands. You know, they respect the fact that I don´t change. They are very pleased that somebody is trying to do something a little bit correct. Trying, trying… And the older journalists kept saying – it´s brilliant, brilliant -, but didn´t realise the fact that we couldn´t play. The people wanted something with argue, something to achieve to, something cool. Shall we say it´s an energy. Last night in vienna kids from young bands came to me and saying we take an energy from your music and from your band from your thing, and it gives us the energy to do something ourselves. To have a stand up and have a go, right? The same energy I remember when I was was watching the The Clash very early at the RCA and the attitude and the pose of them on the base, they couldn´t really play but they had stickers on its base and they had the arrogance. Now I got a quote which is saying: There is the arrogance of power which is the people in control, but we have the power of arrogance. Now who is going to stop us?

But this was a only sign of the times…

It still is!
So, answering your question. What was happening was we couldn´t play when we started, right. We were trying to be funky like Cool And The Gang or these P-Funk stuff, but all the time were wrong. We couln´t keep, we couln´t play. Journalists were saying oh, this is experimental, this is like Captain Beefheart they are deliberately changing the song and will soon try to come. But then, as the musicians learned to play a little bit, they started to become more and more drawn to like extreme Free Jazz like Albert Ayler and you know crazy Free Jazz and Tristan Honzinger and the like, because for them they are expressing themselves through their instruments. For me, I only could express myself through the lyrics. Like the lyrics becoming more and more brisk and stronger, stronger, stronger! And that was my vehicle, right. For the musicians, they were starting to learn their instruments and they were being more and more drawing to experimenting and coming more and more to crazy Free Jazz and become a chaos, right. And that is very, very difficult to sing. Lyrics over Free Jazz makes you a crazy Yoko Ono yodelling, you know what I mean. I think that is the problem. I mean, we would be jamming and jamming and jamming. It was fantastic music. But it was difficult just to make slogans over, you know. I think that was the division. The Pop Group musicians became more and more drawn towards Jazz which is impossible to sing over. And I wanted to work with Reggae musicians and Funk musicians.

How did Jazzman Tristan Honsinger came to play the cello part on »We Are Prostitutes« ?

I just been with Gareth to see one of Tristans Concerts like two or three days before recording »Amnesty Report«. And we loved the energy straight away. I´ve been listening to a lot of crazy experimental weird noise and Free Jazz stuff at that time. We said just to Tristan, can you please come and jam with us for one take? And again, we had the control of the rhythm, only because the bass and the drums were so strong you could put that craziness in and spin it.

Tell me about the origin of »Thief Of Fire«

That is a little bit mystical. It´s about Ikarus coming too close to the sun. I have a punk attitude towards everything. Nothing is forbidden. Nobody controls the truth.

What level of brisance could develop a band like The Pop Group or Throbbing Gristle?

I think it´s more the interviews. Because when you read an interview with TG there is some very interesting philosophical links like passwords. For example Genesis did an interview during the week and he called himself an eso-terrorist, like esoteric, like a link between magic and terror, he coupled it up as eso-terrorist, which I thought is a lovely line in England, because as in journals, you´ve got lines that fit, you know. And the good thing about the Throbbing Gristle context was just after punk – punk was coming in quite straight. But also punk was going back to the pub-rock. You know, punk was not very experimental, the music was becoming more and more rock´n roll, more and more »normal«. With the Pop Group we thought, if we were punk, we would have to change the music as well as everything else – the theory, the politics, the style. You have to question the music, right? We were very young, and we started just in punk, but we didn´t want to play punk, because we thought it as a repetition to just play punk. It would be more punk to play funk. Because that would be questioning everything. But the good thing about Throbbing Gristle was not particulary their music, it was more their ideas. And I would always argue with Genesis P. Orrige about some concepts, abbut a Throbbing Gristle concept, but I think nowadays maybe, all concepts may be all about consense. People come to talk to other people, it´s more like a open salon, you know, there´s gonna be more interesting friends and music to find– it´s a bit like a getting together.

So nowadays the discussion is mainly about inspiration or ideas?

Excactly. But I don´t know about this reformation idea. Because, people are offering me stupid money. To do one cabaret-pop-group-thing. It´s stupid, stupid, stupid money. And personally, I don´t really even look at yesterday. For example, if there was nobody here from the music business – I´m in Berlin for five days – I would have just switched and gone back into normal mode, just gone to the shops and switched immediately back into normality. While we´ve got some old friends from Bristol here to work on the boats I would just say: bye! And have disappeared again, right? And I wouldn´t even analyse the concept, because it is done. So I don´t look at the past, I´m not interested in retro-phelia. I like old Doo-Wop music, I like some old, very old Jamaican music, I like things from the 17th century. But I´m looking for tomorrow. I have to rest and then new ideas will come. But to join in making the compilation for Soul Jazz that was the first time I´ve listened to my very early songs for the first time in years. Because I thought, lot´s of record companies wanted to do some compilations, because now they are saying, you are a legend and you started the punk-funk and all this – krrchhh! Ka-ka, right? And I knew, if I wasn´t involved, a company in Japan or in America would licence the tracks with no involvment from me or anyone of my bands, right? And the »classics« would be ka-ka, and it would be one track from each record label. I wanted to make a good compilation with some new tracks included.

But if I do it with Soul Jazz I can select the tracks, I can bring in some new tracks, I can work on the graphics. With the original pressings there is some really good art: postcards, have some of the prints, right? So, I am happy with me. To have a compilation on Soul Jazz is an honor. Because before, no single new artist has had this compilation, it´s always been from legends, like Studio One, Brazilian Music, Jamaican Classic. I´m the only young person that’s not dead they are treating with some respect. For me, it´s fantastic, and I know the journalists and critics across the world, if a record arrives in the post from Soul Jazz, you know, they are going to give it a listen. So it´s fantastic.

How did you meet the musicians from Sugarhill label, that later joined in Mark Stewart & The Maffia?

Basicly, The Pop Group went to New York in the early 80s, just when this No Wave thing happened. But the scene was already devided. We were playing Danceteria and all that common No Wave clubs. I mean, I was interested in Funk before I knew that Hip Hop was starting. I already knew Africa Bambaata and Zulu Nation, then there was a Radio Show in New York on Kiss FM. There, me and some friends of our gang would copying this Radio Show, this early Hip Hop things. So this copy of a radio show would come to Bristol with this tape duplicated by 40, 50 times. My friends of Massive Attack had copies, we were just switching Hip Hop tapes in the beginning. Bristol was very strong on Funk and Hip Hop, more than London or anywhere. The Funky Four or Grandmaster Flash was just going around by that time. On one of these tapes was a mix of a very heavy drum machine, an (Roland) 808, with a sampled tape of a rocket going off, counting 5, 4, 3, 2, – (hiss). And I was in the studio working with Jamaican musicians, the classic Jamaican Rasta line-up, doing »Learning To Cope With Cowardice«.

And there was no samplers yet, there was just an AMF-Machine with no bass. We won jackpot, I felt. I always tried to copy this thing but it went complete ka-ka. But I loved this sound, I thought it´s fantastic. Just by chance a musician was saying, I want to work with this guy Keith Le Blanc. And I just said, nnnngh! (rolling his eyeballs). A couple of month later Adrian Sherwood with On-U-Sound went to a music conference called the Midem and he was quite bored. But just across the hall there was this American guy, and we started a conversation about music and everything. And this guy says his name is Tommy Silverman. And he runs a Hip Hop Label in America called Tommy Boy. Later I found out that Adrian knew this guy, and I said, please, ask this Tommy Boy Silverman about the phone number of Keith Le Blanc. So the next day Tommy is coming to Adrian who is playing him some of his tapes. And Tommy didn´t know anything about dub-music, but said: this is crazy!
Suddenly, Tommy Silverman, who is now the Chief of Tommy Boy way up to Def Jam, is a massive On-U-Sound fan just by chance. He gave us the numbers of Keith LeBlanc, Doug Wimbush and Skip Macdonald, the Sugarhill Gang. I spoke to this guys a couple of times on the phone saying please come to England, I would love to do a collaboration. Later they arrived in England, all dressed up in the Shugarhill Gang outfit with Spandex and stuff. Right off their plane I see them and said: no! Fuck off! I`m not going to play with you! (laughs). At their first concert in London I took a bag of second hand Levis and ripped punk-clothes and made them wear this because there were in this really bad Spandex. It was like an extreme crossover.

But playing with them was just fantastic and we keep experimenting since ever then. The first song we did was »Hypnotised«, recorded in New York for a complilation. And »The Veneer Of Democracy« was the first album we started working with them.

The new songs on Kiss The Future seem to fit in perfectly.

»Radio Freedom« is one of the best new ones. It´s a collaboration with a guy called The Bug, with whom I´m working on the new album. The Bug is one of my favorite outfits in England at the moment. This guy is called Kevin Martin, he´s really into classic stuff like hard Ragga, Punk-Reggae. There is another song called »The Lunatics Are Taking Over The Asylum«. And the third one »The Puppet Master« is a collaboration with Asian Dub Foundation. I´ve always done the artwork back to the Pop Group. I´ve always done the graphics – I haven´t got my name on it – the Pop Group posters, the newspapers, the physicle stuff, right? And origninally I wanted to do a book, a little booklet with some graphics and slogans inside. But then it came down like to include this cards. You know, I like xerox-art, to mail on with xerox-art. With the postcards the people can mail that and use them as free graphics. It was supposed to include a series of six to ten cards. But I don´t really know because, as you were saying, at the moment while doing this compilation I had to go back into the archives and listen to decide what was going to be on the compilation. I was talking to these other members of the Pop Group and other ragga-members of the original Maffia and the producers and they get crazy, but okay, this is democracy, I just ask: do you mind if I use those tracks or images for my own thing? And I was listening to some very early Pop Group things when we were 15 or 16 playing in the garage of my mothers house which never will be available. And one or two lines were coming to me again, these very stupid lines, that maybe I wrote to one girl I had a liaison with, really like a cliché. But now in the age of clichés I think you could play anything with clichés. I was thinking it might be fun to sing these lines in a really funny way again, and play these things again, right. And in that festival space last weekend, I was talking to one of the boys from the The Stooges who loves our stuff. But, by chance and another whole, Bruce, the drummer of the Pop Group was there too. And I had already been talking to Gareth the guitarist and a couple of other people and I said: look – I have to tell you this, cause it would be rude if I didn´t. Lot´s of people are saying, would you like to do some concerts as The Pop Group in Japan and da, da, da. And since 20 years I said, no! I´m not interested. But recently I heard these early songs when we were very small and had a high pitch like Bronski Beat or someone. Imagine, this was like being in front of a mirror when you were acting like a young David Bowie for a laugh. But Bruce said: I don´t play anything like that! Gareth says, the main problem is Bruce, who lives in America, and he is working very, very hard with other bands. And as I met Bruce we were friends again straight away. And just in the end he was saying: No! – this would be a complete disrespect to play all the old songs, it´s not punk, fuck off, you know, the classic Pop Group attitude. I said, yeh, yeh, stay cool, cools right? And he says there is many people, American companies like A&M who are offering me a lot of money, the head of Sony Pictures. And he always says no, because that’s a time you can never catch. And I said to him, it might be interesting for me to do a completely different bunch of new songs, as I am seeing the Stooges doing Fun House and even Sly and the Family Stone doing something. But for a whole new album I said to Bruce, why not do a complete opera piece, a commission of new work. At that stage it wasn´t about reforming the Pop Group, it was about me, Matt, Mike from Underground Restistance, Keith Levene whom I m playing with, and maybe Ari Up from The Slits. And we could make a whole set of a new piece and send it to the opera houses around the world.

What happened?

I don´t know what´s going to happen. There is talk. We could reform The Pop Group in a minute if we wanted to, because we are still friends. It would be very easy for us to go into a room and just do some more, do the next stage. It´s not a problem. As said, if we wanted to.

That one could easily slide into self-parody.

I like cliché. I love cliché. Cliché is my trade. I love flipping cliché. I take my lyrics from advertising. I take slogans from clichés. There is a hundred slogans at the moment, the power of dreams. Like if you say, cli-Ché Guevara.

The media will turn it around and against you.

But you can turn it around again!

The Pop Group lyrics always played with slogans, they dealt with a heavy political message.

No, that wasn´t heavy political. You want some heavy political? It wasn´t heavy.

Forces Of Opression, Rob A Bank?

Oh, oh, oh! I don´t know… (pause). But still, this wasn´t heavy.

You mean, thats nothing though…

To me, that’s not heavy. That’s middle.
Even the musicians I´m working with with now, the american boys, they don´t know the punk tradition. They don´t come from the the anarchist/socialist culture that we come from. They know nothing about it. They love meeting the people like my stuff they find you sympathetic and find you cool people because this is position. They don´t really know, they are American or whatever. For instance, Keith (Le Blanc) the drummer, he is telling me these completely bizzare conspiracy theories of white wing christians, he´s talking more crazy ideas than me.

What do you think about being part of that post-punk revival?

We played in Rome two days ago. The last time I was in Rome was in 1980 with The Pop Group and The Slits. After our concert the whole went into a discotheque. And in that discotheque they played exactly the same records as when I went there 25 years ago. I think it´s crazy. Must be a time warp.

What´s been left?

I can´t really say. People keep saying to me I´m like a mug pipe. I keep things from the 16th Century, some arabic magic from before christ. Time is not linear. A few days ago people in Vienna were saying to me now is the time for neo-liberals, saying wasn´t it more important singing protest songs on tour? I just said: neo-? neo-? neo-? One chief in Japan was asking me about my opinion about the neo-conservative government in Japan. I replied: ask Billy Bragg. For me, all this is a question of economics. Exactly the same people are still in control about what is happening. There is just an illusion of liberality.
Maybe it´s good for the schools and health service and maybe it´s good for our culture. But it´s from the expense of Africa. We can only live with this position because of the expense of taking everything from the rest of the world. You know, wait till China comes in. And I don´t see it as politics, people keep saying your music is politics, I think Bruce Springsteen is more political than me. I just report, I use slogans from advertisements and turn them into something else. I´m just seeing the world. If you open your eyes, you see the world. If you close your eyes, that is political.

Are you able to make a living from your music?

Yes! I get massive advances (sneers).

Okay thanks. That might be enough for a first conversation…

Now you´ve got it, boy. (Sneers) Yes! That´s enough for a year!

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