With a rush release on the Japanese market for his new album, Edit, remixes by Adam Sky and Alec Empire, a forthcoming documentary, On/Off from the Pop Group to the Maffia, conversations with promoters and record companies waiving fistfuls of cash and a bit of news exclusive to Dorfdisco, it seems that underground post punk icon Mark Stewart might yet get to burn an invitation to the rock & roll hall of fame.
The Pop Group were a squawling art punk beast with free associated agit prop lyrics. Their dub swerves were compared by journalists to Captain Beefheart but their weird tempos, Stewart hastened to point out, were arrived at because they wanted to play funk but their timings were off. Subsequently he has worked with Adrian Sherwood, On-U, Tackhead, Tricky, Massive Attack, Chicks on Speed and Trent Reznor, creating plunderphonic sound collages, politicised dredd, new fusions and genre-clashes, a hydra-headed Maffiossi spreading a little bit of anarchy wherever he goes.
We caught up with him and chatted about dance music, French nineteenth century poets, Situationism, Trip Hop, Antonin Artaud, post metal and his status as a pending living legend.
M.Stewart: One of my favourite bands at the moment is Om. I love Om. I played with Om at a Festival and they were the best thing I’ve seen for years. I went to see them, we were at an indoor thing in Nantes and I knew Sleep a little so I went to see Om and there was hardly anybody there on an afternoon but I loved it, I really got into it, I went up to them after the gig, just as a fan – and I haven’t done that since I saw Roxy Music, got really excited and started shaking their hands. The really great thing was that the next day I was playing and they came, and they didn’t know our stuff but they came up after and hugged me and said, “That rocked, you really rocked,” and to hear that from someone like Om is fantastic for me.
Dorfdisco: It would be great to see some synthesis. The absence of lyrics, of a vocal seems problematic in a lot of that music to me. Found sound maybe? It is as if some of it lacks a focal point, some of that stoner rock goes on a bit.
M.Stewart: But going on a bit is part of it. I remember that old grunge thing – or even LaMonte Young – what I like about it is – I remember going to see Terry Riley, even some of the free jazz things I’d go to, when I was a kid, its making you sit – and you would think about something completely different.
Dorfdisco: But in a live context that’s a little more difficult?
M.Stewart: Do you know Nile, Isis and Orange Goblin as well? – I even like Mortice, have you seen Mortice, yeah? Really cool. I didn’t something with Johnny Ultraviolence once which was really funny as well.
Dorfdisco: I was going to ask about the remixes, you’ve worked with Alec Empire and Adam Sky, what was that like?
M.Stewart: Well Alec was a while ago, he just did a remix but I am meant to be doing something together with him soon – the thing with Adam was really quite interesting because – as I was saying, I am as much a consumer of new music as anyone and I am getting really excited about all sorts of stuff that’s coming out, especially around Crookers and Soul Wax. There’s a whole scene and I love it, going to some of these clubs in France or Belgium, they’ll play Reggaeton, they will play some of the old Pop Group things, some new things – I just did a collaboration with Digitalism about two years ago and its really opened things out. I was living Ibitha and I was really into techno but the house scene was becoming a bit closed and this kind of fashiony thing is opening a generation of young kids ears to a really wide range of music. Reggaeton , Bylar – funk, Diplo, this Baltimore sound, a great new palette of sound that I pull in to my own stuff – and then Adam. I was meant to be helping Chicks on Speed of all things, and again I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition and often I am more tempted to work with people who aren’t the obvious ones. It would be easy to work with Throbbing Gristle, but at the moment I would be more interested in working with George Michael.
Dorfdisco: You were saying before that surprise was important.
M.Stewart: It’s going against the grain.
Dorfdisco: I guess that that is one of the things that I find exciting about your work, that you tend to want to do that whereas most people tend to want to go with the grain, to conform to genre…
M.Stewart: One of the best things that anybody has ever written about this, a few years ago – someone came up with this idea of “genre-crashing”. I liked that as a semiotic term, its like “gender-quake,” or something. I like words like that, you can’t ever sing them but… I don’t deliberately do it – but I just think – just in my magpie mentality, when I was making cassettes when I was fourteen or fifteen there would be Metal Machine Music, D.A.F, Georgio Moroder, weird funk stuff, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, bizarre electronic stuff – Varese, all mixed together. For me it’s the cut and paste mentality that we learnt from punk and I do a lot of graphics work as well.
Dorfdisco: But it always used to be quite tribal, you were this or that, you listened to this or that. If you listened across genres it was considered a bit weird. There was no gang that would have you.
M.Stewart: yeah but what you did is you went out with different gangs on different nights. I’d go clubbing with my builder mates and then, with my brother’s arty friends, go and see Derek Bailey. You used to have different gangs of mates.
Dorfdisco: – so long as they didn’t catch you.
M.Stewart: yeah, yeah – caught with a weird hat on.
Dorfdisco: Seen with a strange tie… Laughter
Dorfdisco: In relation to Edit, it seems very book-ended by the intro and the outro, almost like it was a TV show – and a lot of its lyrical content seems, broadly, against the media, against the Spectacle which is kind of a recurring theme in your work…..
M.Stewart: The Caribbean Situationist International. Marcel Prijon, they split off into Action Direct didn’t they? King Mob?
Dorfdisco: Well there are a hundred and one factions and splinter groups.
M.Stewart: The lyric I was just writing for some friends of mine, “Under the spell of the Spectacle, a very British coup. Have you ever felt you were being used by Kennedy, Onassis and Howard Hughes.”
I actually found these Situationist pamphlets by chance in Compendium (a London bookshop, now sadly closed). I was looking for William Burroughs’ pamphlets, these little things I think they were published by TX, my brother was really into the Beats and I was obsessed with poetry, by the time I was twelve or thirteen I was into Lautréamont and Gérard De Nerval – but also the more extreme Beats. There was this guy Michael McClure who had this thing “Meat Science Essay”, it was fantastic – just blew my mind – anyway I was in Compendium with my brother who went to art school and we just found these seventies reprints of the Situationist things, you know the Society of the Spectacle – the one with the original graphics – I think these were the second run of reprints before Leaving the 21st century – but ever since I was small I would go looking in the back of semiotics textbooks for things that I could cut out and use. I had already picked up some Bakunin and I just loved the feel of these things the paper…….
Dorfdisco: that homemade quality………..
M.Stewart: Yeah, and I have never really talked about this in interviews – but this stuff was in another pile. Just in my bedroom along with some Velvet Underground bootlegs and loads of Artaud, I was collecting loads of his writing at the time, and then about two years later The Pistols started referencing it (the compendium of Situationist writing, “Leaving the 21st century behind”.) but I just wasn’t aware of it, somehow though it had gone into my thing and I actually met one of the original Situationists, Michel Prijon, in Paris…….. anyway why are we talking about the Situationists……?
M.Stewart: ……..Oh yeah I had this record called “None Shall Escape” by the Caribbean Situationists of them talking- that is just such a bizarre idea, Situationists in Korea (sic) . But actually yeah, detournement is really important – Chris Marker, the guy that made “La Jettee” – one of my favourite filmmakers – that solarisation of the kamikaze images – that’s what I want to do with my film, the film I’m working on with Tony at the moment (“ON/OFF”) – have some weird cut-up text.
Dorfdisco: Have you ever seen any of the Guy Debord films?
M.Stewart: That’s what I was going to say right, the idea of having some funny kung-fu movie with a Marxist soundtrack is just genius. My girlfriend, Angie Reed and I were in this bar and there were two different TVs on at the same time and you get this thing, this detachment going on. I think the most important thing in art in the twentieth century is juxtaposition. Its like magnets if you put something against something else you get a spark. I just do it naturally but yeah, juxtaposition is very interesting.
Dorfdisco: I had a couple of questions about Adrian Sherwood. At Simon Reynold’s “Rip it up and start Again” event you talked about the Pop Group’s story quite extensively and I imagine you are a bit sick of talking about it – but what happened next, after the Pop Group?
M.Stewart: Well I just saw a copy of Don Letts’ autobiography and what happened was that it brought back a lot of memories. At the age of fourteen I was washing up in a restaurant in Bristol, knocking off school and going to London to buy records and 12″s and funny pink clothes. I remember I got my mum and dad to drive me to London in 74 to see Kilburn and the High Roads, this was before punk, anyway I was back and forth from London a lot and then, when the Pop Group took off we were there but also in New York a lot, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I was in Ladbrooke Grove a lot and my girlfriend at the time was Viv Goldblum, she’s a professor of punk in New York at the minute, and so there were all these interesting connections between us and the Clash and the sound-systems and I was going to lots of reggae concerts. Viv took Johnny Rotten to Jamaica to record with Big Youth, the whole Frontline thing. Viv’s house was an open house for reggae musicians, Niney the Observer, Lee Perry, the Dread at the Control blokes – they were all at her house. She was interviewing them. I had a long conversation with Sun Ra, it was fantastic. I was like 17 and these people were heroes to me.
Dorfdisco: Of course, Lydon was always big pals with Dr Alimantado..
M.Stewart: Yeah Rotten loved “Sense of Purpose” and Adrian Sherwood was Alimantado’s friend. Adrian was from High Wycombe (a grim suburb of London) and he was like a normal kind of football fan kid but he loved his reggae – the original skinheads were big reggae fans – so he just started driving a van, just to help out with the sound-systems. I used to knock of school, to escape German lessons, and on a Thursday we would say the Van from Zion was coming, you know? With all the dub-plates. Two years later when I was eighteen I found out it was Adrian driving the delivery van.
We always liked working with girls and we had a close relationship with The Slits, they were our friends and we toured around Italy with them. Through the Slits, they had brought Prince Hammer another good reggae guy on tour with them, – Adrian, who was working with both Prince Hammer and Prince Far-I, and I loved Prince Far-I – which is how I got to know Adrian Sherwood. It was a kind of separate thing really but we had already been working with Dennis Bovell and we’d been trying to bring King Tubby over. Lots of different things.
So anyway what actually happened was that the Pop Group was coming to an end and, even though we were still all good friends – and in fact there is even a possibility that we might do something together again – actually this is kind of an exclusive for Dorfdisco – but let me come back to that in a minute, let’s get back to Adrian.
M.Stewart: Well the times now are pretty heavy, right? But back then we were going around in full combat gear, just waiting for something to happen. The miners’ strike, nuclear weapons, it was a VERY heavy time.
Dorfdisco: This was in Hackney in the eighties?
Our conversation was briefly interrupted, he told me that Zack from Rage Against The Machine went off to work with the Zapatistas but that he, back then, had grown sick of music and the “clash of concepts” and had wanted to go to Cambodia but somehow ended up working behind the scenes as an intern at CND…….
M.Stewart: I was squatting and working at CND when Bruce Kent came into the office and I overheard them saying that they were organising a big rally in Trafalgar square so I said oh you should get some music, for the younger kids maybe I can get The Specials or someone, they didn’t know I was in a band. Anyway I was phoning around all these people and there was a problem so it ended up being us (The Pop Group) and Killing Joke, in front of five hundred thousand people in the middle of London. I was stood there with M.P Tony Benn, Paul Condon, the head of the police and then Crass turned up, driving down with a black column of anarchists. They were driving down towards Number 10, Downing Street and Condon was on his walkie-talky saying ” we are going to have to send the horses in”. So I said “Mate, if you send the horses in there will be a riot, all the people here will riot and there as well”
…Anyway, right, we were on stage and I wanted to do something, a song, like “We shall Overcome”, something everybody, all the old people would understand, so I decided on doing “Jerusalem”, even the Women’s Institute knows this song – but I wanted to do a kind of Reggae version, so I brought on some of my friends and some of Adrian’s friends, Jamaican musicians, so when The Pop Group finished their set some other people came on and we all jammed together and those people became the Maffia. The Pop Group and the Maffia morphed, just like that.
Dorfdisco: You mentioned that there might be a possibility of something new happening with The Pop Group……
M.Stewart: Well not new exactly. I wouldn’t say new.
Dorfdisco: There was a time when reforming was an anathema to you……
M.Stewart: … not even reforming. We are still friends but over time, because I am more active in the music business, Simon is a documentary maker in Africa, Bruce lives in New York, Gareth’s high up in () – we all live our separate lives – but it was a complete democracy and I have always consulted everybody on reissues and how we control them. There is a spirit of people around the world… We have always been polite to each other and friends to protect the legacy of the thing.
What happened was that Stuart from Soul Jazz wanted to do a compilation of my history and work on this film …
M.Stewart: For a living artist to do something on Soul Jazz. I mean I always loved their stuff and it’s like a retrospective or something. Immediately I am a legend, like a Penguin Modern classic. What other living artist on this label…… and they’re nice people as well. Stuart was saying to me he would like to do this Pop Group compilation as well. He’s been saying for ages. Have you got any unreleased stuff? You know there’s bootlegs, that Japanese copy of Y – that sold so many copies – and it’s really bad quality.
So I had a bit of time off in Bristol last year and I worked with an engineer friend, and we talked to everybody from the band and we dealt with as much material as we could and last year I compiled this thing which I am calling “Cabinet of Curiosities”, a strange compilation of really early Pop Group things – for me its quite funny- like when we were sixteen. Poetic Mr Poet, you know – trying to put Maldoror over a futurist beat.
So I went through this stuff and we retrieved as much as we could and put the compilation together. Everything we could get our hands on from everybody’s archives. I think we had some stuff from Edwyn Collins archive, from Japan, America all over and I think there is enough decent material on there and it should be out next year on Soul Jazz. There are two songs on there in particular, “Let me talk to the driver”, which was always one of my favourites, and another, “Colourblind”, and I was just listening to them to just clean off the hiss and I felt completely connected to these weird teenage lyrics and I could imagine doing them again. Y’know – like Tony Hadley ……
He imitates the sound of a cheap string section and we laugh about Celebrity Stars in their Eyes- then he told me….
…… for the first time there was a click, people have been offering thousands of pounds, Fuji Rock in Japan, Thurston, last year for All Tomorrows Parties wanted for us and the Stooges to y’know, it’s been on the cards for a while – a reunion thing.
I bumped into Bruce, the drummer, at a festival in Spain and he was saying, “Oh we should just do something new.” – but I can certainly imagine doing those songs and I was talking to Barry, who runs All Tommorrow’s Parties and we were arguing about all these bands that were reforming. So I said why don’t you do something like the opera. Make collaborations, like me and Keith Levine and Michael Rosen, commission an new piece and we can do it in Australia. Actually do a new collaboration. Like they do in jazz.
It is in my nature to deliberately de-condition myself, to go against what I have said – just as part of my “punk process” – and if I have decided not to do something then I will probably do it.
M.Stewart: So the fact that it is completely against my principles to have a Pop Group reunion
Dorfdisco: Perhaps that’s a good reason for doing it.