Interview: Mark Stewart

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 04.04.12 in Interviews

Mark Stewart was the most caustic provocateur to emerge in the aftermath of British punk rock. In his native Bristol, still in his teens, he corralled the Pop Group, a volatile collective, whose jagged fusion of punk, reggae and funk outflanked punk’s first wave for sheer sonic extremity, and pretty much defined what would later be termed “post-punk.”

Given that the band played many of their key gigs at late-’70s anti-racism/anti-nuclear marches, their music was astonishingly experimental, and Stewart himself cut a visionary dash, not serving up numbskull politico chants, but tossing out esoteric yet penetrating images of state control, paranoia and cultural fragmentation, in his trademark, bone-chilling wail.

When the Pop Group scattered, he hooked up with Adrian Sherwood — another reggae-influenced iconoclastic nutcase — with whom he further pushed the envelope across an occasional series of brain-busting collaborations in the ensuing three decades. Backing musicians in the early days included the erstwhile Sugarhill Gang, aka Tackhead, who’d played on numerous proto-rap and electro tunes. Hip-hop, disco and industrial/EBM all found a place in his sound.

For his latest opus, Stewart has ventured beyond that relationship’s relative comfort zone. Called The Politics of Envy, his seventh solo album was made all over Europe andNorth America, as the ever-influential singer flitted between art happenings and romantic liaisons, calling in numerous associates and disciples to contribute. The cast list is astonishing: from Lee “Scratch” Perry, Primal Scream, Massive Attack’s Daddy G and Public Image Ltd’s legendary guitarist, Keith Levene, through to hip young electronicists like Factory Floor.

With strong flavors of contemporary R&B and dubstep duly infused into his unmistakable sound, this 50-something hero sounds more furiously relevant than ever.eMusictracked him down to a flat by Clapham Common, just a five-minute bus ride from where theLondonriots erupted in September 2011. His conversation, just like his music, is free-associative, often surreal, even hysterical, but always profoundly thought-provoking…

How did the recent Pop Group shows come about?

I did a gig at the SE1 Club [in 2005], and Barry [Hogan] from ATP came up to pay me, and he said, “Matt Groening, the bloke from The Simpsons, wants me to ask the Pop Group and the Stooges to reform.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Minehead!” It’s like, that’s our local seaside resort, like Barry Island or something. I grew up there; my cousins had caravans there. I just said, “Oh my god! What?”

Then maybe a couple of years later, I was doing one of these weird collaborations, some mad film about a serial killer, something weird in a café in Vienna and it was kicking off. Then this thing popped up again. And I thought, “Why am I negating these people, just because I’ve worked with them before? Why can’t I just think, “Ah, I can make something new with these people? We’re all completely different people now. Why am I negating that as a channel?”

So we phoned around, and I said, “I’m only interested in doing it if we do an experiment and do something new.” It hadn’t particularly crossed our minds. It was just like a commission, like Miles Davis and Gil Evans or something — like a Medici commission to make a new piece.

But then me and [guitarist] Gareth [Sager] got together, and, suddenly, instead of sitting in a room writing with somebody I’d never met before, like if I’m off producing a band in the Czech Republic or whatever, suddenly we’re in this room, and these French ballads are coming out of nowhere! I’ve never done anything like it before. I’m like, “This is all right! What the fuck is it?!” But I’m just letting it happen, not trying to think about it…

We’ve got all our back catalogue back, right, like the Pistols, who just did a deal with Universal. So I was just thinking, say Y came out, and at the same time something new, on a cool label, it would just give it something extra. Let the new stuff run, and don’t stop it. Don’t try to contain it.

The funny thing with those [old Pop Group] songs though, was that we’d made them up in the studio, and we never played them. Suddenly, we were listening to a record which had never been reproduced live, because in those days, we started writing something after school, and you’d have a bassline — rip off a funk bassline or something, so we’d go and do a gig with ATV or Gang Of Four or Joy Division, and I’d just be shouting something, like “blind faith!” over a bassline. Then a few weeks later someone would be playing a bit of guitar over it, maybe a solo. But after a few months, somebody said, “Oh, you’ve got to go to a studio,” and we’d record the things that had got that far. But we never played the recorded versions. I’ve got recordings of The Pop Group, and the songs don’t sound anything like the records. The songs are completely amoebic, it’s like mad jams, like Albert Ayler, it sounds like donkeys! But the things in the studio were sculpted in the studio. Now I’m having to learn the records!

Listening to the records you’ve made with Adrian Sherwood, one can almost imagine the two of you high as kites in Sherwood’s front-room home studio, setting up beats, concocting weird noises and laughing maniacally.

Yeah, it was just like that! “That Hooversounds good — come in with the Hoover!” It’s like Joe Meek up in Holloway Road; he was throwing stuff down the toilet pipe on his records. I’ve been doing that sort of stuff since I was a kid. I had this reel-to-reel tape machine, and you remember those little tin waste-paper bins? I worked out if I unscrewed the little speaker from the reel-to-reel and put it in the little bin, it would vibrate — kkkkkkkcccch! — against the tin, or you could put something backwards.

The good thing about Adrianis, he had everything there. Before, you’d go to a studio, and honestly, it was like those old films of George Martin. There’d be people in grey coats [posh English accent], “Oh, you can’t do that!” Or there’d be some engineer sitting there reading Motorcycle Weekly, just setting the normal settings…I remember, we tried to do something backwards with Dennis Bovell [circa '80]. “You can’t run it backwards!” I was like, “There’s people in New York cutting it backwards and forwards, all the disco people. And actually, what do you mean I can’t do it, it’s my tape!”

Adrian’s nonchalance was the thing — he’s just a West Ham fan who likes messing around with mad noises, like Joe Meek. He doesn’t wanna be in a band, he didn’t wanna be David Bowie. He’s a scientist. His place is like a strange secret laboratory. The possibilities that gives you! When we’d do gigs, the PA guy would be like, “You can’t turn the bass up like that, you’ll blow the speakers!” “No, we won’t!’”

For The Politics of Envy, you’ve recorded stuff all over the place, including a fair amount with Sherwood, but it’s Youth who’s helped you streamline all the tracks into a coherent whole, right?

He pulled it all together. Youth has got a real big dub heritage. Me and Youth were both influenced with a lot of the hip-hop things, back in the day in New York. He had exactly the same Kiss FM tapes that I brought back and gave to all the Massive people, which kicked off the Bristol scene. That open-mindedness, and letting someone be creative is crucial. My mum’s a child-minder; she looks after Asperger’s kids, and you’ve just got to let somebody do something. I remember when I produced Tricky’s first thing, he hadn’t really done anything at that point, I just let him do something, and I tried to catch it. Like, put it in a box, and give it to somebody else. I didn’t want to put my own ideas on top. It’s about standing back. It’s psychotherapy, really.

Anyway, I’ve been collecting all this stuff on my travels. That’s the thing about hard drives and computers. I can be inBerlinin somebody’s studio and catch them of the moment, or I can be inViennarecording and just catch things the next day if I like something.

I don’t understand why people hold what I do in such high regard, and why people will drop things, or do things morning noon and night to help me keep something in order. I don’t understand. It’s certainly not for monetary reasons, so I don’t know why they’re doing it. I think I owe a lot of these people favors.

But obviously these days it’s easier to be connected: Flights are cheaper, and communication is free and instant!

Yeah, and people really want to do something cool. Any of these people could have said, “Talk to my manager,” even if you’re friends. But they just said, “Yeah.” So, it’s a patchwork from that particular activity. And it wasn’t particularly expensive to make. We’re doing it on trades, and nobody asked for vast amounts of money. I’m paying people in songwriting or splits or whatever.

I like that interconnectivity — suddenly I’m playlisted on Radio Lebanon! I had this song, “Radio Freedom,” and it’s fucking on there apparently! Then, I was down working with Massive Attack, and I’d just seen this documentary about Beirut, and there were these kids in these bombed out bits of the city listening to Massive Attack. This mate of mine from Portugal, when I was living in Berlin, he formed his whole mind-view on us, something that happened in Bristol when he was a kid. We are having an effect!

Your stuff is always very politically aware, if not explicitly “about” specific events or politicians. Something you said in an article I read the other day really struck me: “I can’t see how the word political should be separated from reality.” But until very recently, Anglo-American rock had been almost completely politicized since the early ’80s.

Yes, it’s been the zombification of society. One of the songs I’ve been working on for ages was “Citizen Zombie” — “Don’t point your plastic finger at me, Citizen Zombie.” It’s like, why are people talking to me about politics? A friend of mine fighting for this indigenous resistance thing in South America, or up in the hills in Burma — old Pop Group fans — are they any different somebody on a production line in Coventry, if there still was one? Why are they asking me about it? Why isn’t anybody else talking about what’s happening in the world?

But isn’t art of all kinds there to provoke that kind of discourse?

But I don’t even separate art from it either. There’s this thing inBali, where they say, “We have no art, we do everything well.” I don’t see why cutting your nails is any different to painting a picture. I don’t see these definitions. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It seems to me that the illusion that’s been surviving since the end of the crusades, when the Templars came back and the Renaissance began — this illusion that somebody will look after you, a local government or a nation state. It’s suddenly being torn away, and there’s this big slathering fuckin’ wolf at the door. For me, it’s like the Fall Of Rome: can nobody else see what I’m seeing? Can nobody else see what’s going on?

Funny you should mention that. Listening to your music, I’ve often been reminded of Cassandra screaming her prophesies of the Fall of Troy, but nobody’ll listen.

Yeah, I’m screaming away, and everybody’s walking past! I get it in my day-to-day life, though. I feel a bit locked out. Other artists and musicians get it. I don’t understand what’s going on. Who says you have to sing about cars and girls and whatever? Who says? Where did this orthodoxy arrive from? It’s bizarre.

“Baby Bourgeois,” on the new record, has lyrics about brand whores and corporate cocksuckers. It makes me think about the riots down the road, which was all about people looting for plasma-screen TVs and trainers, rather than any urgent social motivation.

No, mate, that’s about hanging around with the Habsburgs in Vienna. The problem is, people take these songs as political neo-slogans, but they’re actually very personal things that have actually happened to me. The Politics of Envy could be about people around you, about how envy drives personal politics.

I question what we value — why, when we were kids, everybody wanted to talk to this blonde girl, for instance, and not the brunette. It’s conditioning. And when you ask about branding — the corporate cocksucker — maybe that’s me!

Your music is all about juxtaposition — in the Pop Group, it was putting some funk into punky-reggae, and so on…

Yeah, deliberate, and some of it in order to question my own construct. I’m arguing with myself, in a process of learning. I’m arguing with myself about things, and then suddenly in the process of making an album, my whole view of world history and economics is completely destroyed, because some new evidence emerges.

It’s a bit like a kid’s toy, a plastic thing where you have a round brick and a square brick

and a triangular brick, and I’m still trying to put the wrong brick in the wrong hole — for hours, until you get a spark. And when that spark finally happens, some other people run off and say, “You’ve created this! You’ve created that!” But I do it for my own pleasure, really.

So, on “Stereotype,” you’ll pit Keith Levene, Factory Floor and The Raincoats’ Gina Birch against each other just to see what happens?

Yeah. It’s like having a wedding party and deliberately inviting antagonists because you know somebody is gonna wind somebody else up. I was just constantly taking the piss. People don’t realize, but for me punk was about taking the piss.

I know it’s good to be serious, and to present a wholesome thing you can get your teeth into. But I’m a very jovial, “up” pisstaker really. The pleasure is in the friendships and the juxtapositions — like with Grant from Massive Attack, we’re virtually brothers. We’ve known each other since we were 13. I’m probably wearing his shirt right now — we swap clothes because we’re both so tall. We’d always stand around with each other by the bass bins, because we couldn’t go dancing with girls. There’s a lot of friendship and a lot of love in it.

Ever since the Pop Group, you’ve never exactly had a fixed band behind you, but why did you collaborate so widely this time?

Somehow, the wind blew me to some of these people. I’ve been living a lot of different places the last five or six years. In a castle in Poland, I met this Portuguese art collective called MechanoSphere; they’re kind of weird prankster semioticians. I really get on with them, we sparked. I said to this guy, “What do you do?” And he said, “I’m doing an opera based on radar.” Like, “Oh great, let’s have a pint!”

Out of that, we ended up organizing a three-week symposium inPortodedicated to [late-'60s underground movie legend] Kenneth Anger, on magic and art. We had all the top theoretical magical historians all coming in, giving lectures, and all these galleries in the old quarter of Lisbon exhibited sympathetic artists.

I was talking to Kenneth, and found out that he does a live performance thing where he projects his films and does live Theremin. So me, MechanoSphere and Kenneth did these live performances in these derelict ballrooms in Lisbon and that was the seed of this album.

I’ve read that the track you did with Primal Scream, “Autonomia,” was inspired by Carlo Giuliani, the protester who died outside the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001…

I was just talking to his sister, today. It started from this guy, Hakim Bey, who has a piece of conceptual art about setting up temporary autonomous zones. And my ex-girlfriend was running this free-TV temporary autonomous zone, like one of those weird drag things in New York in the 1980s. I remember having quite heated discussions with Geoff Travis about some of this, because I sort of shared a house with him when he was starting Rough Trade, and Mayo Thompson, when he was doing his Art & Language stuff. Some of these concepts really stuck with me.

But I think you have to really adapt to be able to flow in the veins of the beast. And if you can take a shield and go into the heart of it — the Pop Group had this idea of the explosion in the heart of the commodity, which came from Michel Prigent, one of the original Situationists, who somehow I became friends with when I was 19. I decided with this thing to engage with the machine. And it seems like now, all these doors are being opened around the world. I think probably it’s because cool people are in quite good positions, like high up in Sony films or whatever, or Matt Groening. They’re opening the door, like, [furtively] “Mark, Mark, come in here…” There’s like sleeping agent punks, way up the ladder!

Do you think that that sense of community is sorely lacking in the post-millennial music?

That is the solace I got when I was young from music, of being in a community. Now, with the internet, you’re talking to people inArgentinaor wherever, and they have this tribal sense by being into stuff. You’re using it as a badge of honor. It is a feeling of community, and that was the point for us, during punk. We were gonna play at the Roxy, but in the audience — we’re just the same people. It was an anti-star thing.

The last time I’d really hung out with Keith Levene was outside the Marquee [legendary London rock club] the day Elvis died. I was young and came up to see my mates The Cortinas play there, and there was this bloke outside and we ended up talking about UFOs. I didn’t even know he was in a band, so me and Keith were like that [crosses fingers], then Adrian [Sherwood] and Keith became friends, then somehow some of these people get written out of history. For me, Keith is British punk. His character — he was like the Beavis, and Lydon was just like [chuckles evilly like Butthead]. It was Levene, really. We went to the pub after one of the sessions, and he had custard with his chips! It was like — yes! And he doesn’t give a fuck. He didn’t play guitar for years and years and years.

Keith comes to the studio, he walks in, and I just take the piss out of Keith. Everybody holds him in such high regard.Londonpunk means nothing to me really; who gives a fuck? I just remember him because he was all right outside the Marquee once, you know? I nicked a fag off him, and everyone else was posing around him — but Keith was alright! So Keith comes in, and I start taking the piss out of his trainers.

And then he looks over at Youth and says, “Aren’t you that kid that used to look through the letter box?” You see, Youth used to dress up like Sid Vicious when he was at school, with a white coat on. He would go round to Lydon’s house in Gunter Grove — I went round there a couple of times with Linton Kwesi Johnson. But he used to knock off school, and look through the letterbox at Levene and Wobble and John Lydon’s brother, and try and get in! So, all these years later, Keith goes, “Aren’t you that kid who looked through the letterbox while I was trying to read the paper? Fuck off! I’m not fucking working with him!”

What were your first experiences of punk?

I’m from Bristol. 1960, I was born, so to me the first punk band was the Feelgoods, then Eddie & The Hot Rods. Hanging out with Douglas [Hart] and Bobby [Gillespie] from The Jesus & Mary Chain, right, I didn’t really know them that well. And then I remember talking to Ian Curtis a bit, and other people from our generation, about how, in isolation, when we were 12 or 13, we just kind of found “Metallic KO” by Iggy, or some [New York] Dolls stuff, or some early garage thing. I really liked “The Ox” by The Who, I just found it in a junk shop. We all started finding this stuff, and some weird literature, and there’d be one or two people in these different cities — in Glasgow, kids from the Mary Chain, the Primals; in Manchester, the Joy Division lot, Devoto, Linder and all that lot — even Morrissey.

But we were all picking this stuff up on our own. It was a weird synchronicity, and then when you suddenly saw a picture of the Pistols…I was coming up and shopping in King’s Road, and buying mohair jumpers, pink drainpipes and those kind of clothes, and wore them to funk clubs in Bristol on a Saturday night.

But when I saw a picture of the Pistols in there, and they were wearing the same mohair jumpers, and the same plastic sandals that we wore, I just thought, “There’s somebody in a band that isn’t like a grebo! They’re wearing the same clothes as us,” and then they started talking about the same reference points as us: They’d seen the Dolls on [BBC TV's] Whistle Test, and were into Jobriath or whatever. I don’t know how we picked up these tropes at the same time. It’s quite strange how something happened out of it.

So how did your band, The Pop Group, form out of it?

Gareth was in a different school, and my friend, the singer in the Cortinas, he was my neighbor — we were just into Roxy [Music], but he [Sager] was trying to learn saxophone to be like Andy Mackay when we were 12 or 13. Then suddenly we didn’t know anybody else inBristolthat was interested in similar things to what we were interested in, in that kind of art music stuff. Then somebody said, “Oh, Gareth has got a Terry Riley record.” I was like, “Who’s Gareth?” It was like, “Oh, he plays a bit of guitar,” and I’m immediately thinking, “Ooooh, I could get a band.”

It’s weird how I could sit down with Mike Watt from the Minutemen, who’s in the Stooges now, or somebody in Berlin, and talk about this stuff, and we’ve got so much more in common than I have with my own brother. This is a community, a culture. And making this new record for me was a bit like being a fan-boy. I’m still that 13-, 14-year-old kid that’s going around junk shops on the way home from school, and I’d pick up Hollywood Babylon, or Vampire by Lee Perry, and hear about him doing Keith Haring drawings on the Black Ark or something. I’m thinking about all his psychobabble and Sun Ra-isms, and suddenly I’m standing next to him in the studio!

The Pop Group was reputedly a fragile and rather heated union. Afterwards, you all split off to do other things — Rip Rig & Panic, Maximum Joy, Pigbag and, of course, Mark Stewart + The Maffia. Did the sense of community in the band not endure?

The funny thing is, people thought there was some big falling out, but because we’re all from the same posse, we were all just doing our own things anyway. We’ll all go to the same places in Bristol, when we’re in Bristol. Massive Attack still live two doors down from where my grandfather lived. There’s a hub there. It’s not really like who’s in a band with who. There were a hundred of us, our little gang, and nobody’s really any more important than anyone else. There’s people I ask after more. There’s this dread mate of mine, who was carrying this cross around in St Pauls [Bristol 'hood] — he was some gang fella — I ask after him all the time.

When Adrian lost his Jamaican buddy Prince Far-I— who was shot dead in JA — he was so disgusted with reggae’s violence, he reacted by making ear-splitting industrial music. He was into some proper heavy sounds…

And still is! [Long pause] I was still at school, right, and John Cale came down for a meeting, because [the Pop Group] all liked John Cale’s production of The Stooges. I was talking to Iggy about it recently. For me, The Stooges are really dance underneath — with Steve Mackay’s sax and everything, it’s really funky! He was going, “We thought we were Motown!” I met Mitch Ryder as well in Berlin. Everyone makes Iggy out to be a punk, but it’s like Northern Soul, his stuff, they were trying to play dance music! It’s like the English R&B bands were trying to play black covers, but they were playing them slightly different.

I originally said I wanted to get King Tubby to produce us, but then he died in Jamaica. It wasn’t that I wanted to make reggae; it was that I was really interested in the deconstruction, and the way they’d suddenly have a doorbell ringing, like on Joe Gibbs’s record. It reminded me of [legendary British radio comedy] The Goons.

We thought punk was all about tearing up the rulebook, and questioning everything. By the time punk had happened, we didn’t want to play pub rock, or four-bar blues, or whatever. We were like, Why can’t we mash funk, with punk, with reggae, with dub and — later on, with the Maffia — with hip-hop, and now with dubstep and coldwave or whatever the fuck it is. Why can’t we do it, right?

At the time, the Pop Group seemed like the most extreme music ever. Was that the idea? To be the leading edge, post-punk?

The bleeding edge! If you think they’re extreme, at the time, I was listening to this thing called “Spark of the Desired Magneto,” which was English experimental stuff. I could play you extreme! I thought it was pop music.