My mother hated The Pop Group back then, late seventies. ”Why can’t you listen to The Beatles like everybody else” she screamed in despair when I put their debut album ‘Y’ on my cheap record player, for the umpteenth time, at full volume in my tiny little room.
I was a punk kid listening to The Pistols, The Clash and The Damned and reading New Musical Express (British music weekly) all the time to discover new things. The Pop Group was definitely a new thing. Loud, aggressive, provocative, chaotic, paranoid, manic ! A gang of rabble-rousers, confrontational Bristol teenagers fronted by lyricist and freaky voice Mark Stewart. They mixed countless different genres of ‘underground’ music. Some of which I had never heard of when I read about it in NME.
The final result was a monumental funky dub cacophony of noise. The lyrics were caustic, torrid commentaries on modern society where capitalism was the new God. How could you not love them ! Many other artists did/do. From The Birthday Party to Nine Inch Nails. From Fugazi to Yeah Yeah Yeah’s. After four hectic years (1977-1981), two terrifying albums and two timeless singles (‘She’s Beyond God And Evil’ and ‘We Are All Prostitutes’) the party was over. Clashing personalities was one of the main reasons of the break up. All members followed their own path. So did frontman Mark Stewart. Countless collaborations and some impressive solo albums (check his excellent ‘The Politics of Envy’). Maybe thanks to the Simpsons’ spiritual father, Matt Groening – The Pop Group was on his wish list of bands who should reform (fact !) – they got back together in 2010 for some concerts and re-issues. Another five years later and I’m listening to ‘Citizen Zombie’, their brand new, stirring comeback album. Anno 2015 they sound like an electrifying-non-stop-full-funktastic-orchestra on a new mission. Ready to tackle the zombie world we live in. Their second coming starts here ! Honestly, it’s quite a thrill, to hear the old and the new stories directly from the man himself, Mark Stewart. A giant personality (not only literal). An internationalist. A music junkie. A pop group star. And I can assure you, he’s truly mad for it !
Stunning debut single – 1979…
When I first heard The Pop Group it sounded like schizophrenia on vinyl. Was the band formed to scare people? “We were just like that. Me, Gareth, Bruce and Dan were constantly doing mad things, making mad jokes and taking the piss out of each other. For us punk was about change, experimentation and challenging things. So we thought if we gonna challenge ideas in the lyrics we should challenge also the very concept of the music because it was too formal. We formed when punk was happening in 1976/77 and we thought forming just another punk band wouldn’t be punk. If you think The Pop Group was music then something is really wrong with your mind (amused laughs). I remember a review of our debut album saying “I think my record player is broken.” For us it was all about change. We wanted to confront normal society and we always continued to do that. I’m still doing it in my everyday life. I’m never gonna become a citizen zombie.”
The Pop Group was an outspoken political band inspired by far left. Was that a conscious choice? “I don’t really see it like left or right. I don’t see politics as anything different from day-to-day life. It’s part of it. For example, in that period (end of the 70s) a holocaust was going on in Cambodia. Tens of thousands of men, woman and children were dying everyday. Outrageous. For me this was a human thing not a political one. It would be an hypocrisy to sing ‘I love you baby, look at my car and my bright blue jeans’ when a mass murder is going on. For us it was about human things, not political issues.
‘Capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions’ and ‘Money is a weapon of terror.’ Two lines you wrote for The Pop Group’s songs. These could have been slogans for the Baader-Meinhof Group (German violent militant group who wanted to destroy capitalism. Very active in The Pop Group’s lifetime). “Again I refuse the idea that this was meant to be purely political. It’s true that capitalism is the most barbaric of all religions and it’s getting worse. We’re giving away this postcard with the new album. It says that today the 85 richest people in the world own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people in the world. It got so much worse in the last ten years. The rich ones are taking all the world’s resources and are leaving the normal people with nothing. Again, this is not political for me. It’s about people, about human beings. It’s political when people say “Oh, it’s happening far away, therefore we shouldn’t do anything about it.” It’s really important that conscious people consistently say that there’s something wrong with this society and that there should be a more equal distribution of wealth, at least. There shouldn’t be a reason for hunger. Give everybody across the world a tiny bit of that big cake and people would be a lot happier. But the rich ones prefer chaos, they are making money out of it.”
The saddest thing is that 35 years after you wrote these commentaries on capitalism nothing has changed. “True, it even got worse. Are you blaming me? Are you blaming The Pop Group? (salvo of loud laughs).
As John Lydon once said “There are no evil people, only evil governments”… “Yes, it’s all about the slave state. There’s a saying in England ‘all that is necessary for evil to prevail is that good people do nothing’. One of the problems in England amongst conscious people of an alternative persuasion back in the seventies and eighties was that they were arguing with themselves about nothing really important. In the meantime the evil money people, the idiots, toke over. So now it’s really important for conscious people to stand up again, like they’ve just done in Greece, and say: “Excuse me, but despite all your historical and economical analyses, even by the most educated minds in the world, you are talking bollocks. Your theories are all based on castles of sand and illusions. Excuse me, the world could work in a better way.” That’s what The Pop Group does again at the moment. And there are bright, idealistic, futurological minds out there on the internet who are far ahead of the old medieval way of thinking.”
Some atheists say religions were invented by an elite of charlatans to suppress people. “Oh, yeah, there’s a lyric in The Immaculate Deceception, one of the new songs, that says ‘there’s no cure for this disease of religion. All I know is, again going back to punk rock and how it changed me as a human being, you should have confidence in yourself. You can control your own destiny and be an independent person. I can’t understand people saying that you’re not personally responsible, that’s it’s all up to a higher being or fate or that all is preordained. I’ve got no problem at all with mysticism or concepts of the supernatural. I even think that music can be a portal to the supernatural. I was always interested in that sort of things. Also my grandmother was a clairvoyant. There are certain energies but you shouldn’t put a name or a face onto it.”
Isn’t it punk’s true merit that many talented youngsters got the guts and the confidence to actually play and to actually do their thing? “Completely, yes. I had no intention at all to do anything with music. When we were kids music was something far away from us. All synthesizers, long hair and beards. I couldn’t be bothered at all. I was more interested in clothes and books and I always thought I would have been a journalist. But then we saw a tiny photo of The Sex Pistols in a music magazine. We never heard of them before. But it was the first time ever that we saw somebody who was wearing similar clothes to those we wore to go into funk clubs in Bristol, our hometown. We went up to London to Malcolm McLaren’s ( New York Dolls/Sex Pistols manager) early shop ‘Let It Rock’ and bought all those 50s clothes and mohair jumpers. We saw there were more kids dressing like us. When punk erupted we all came out of the shadows.“
Nick Cave’s The Birthday Party (early 80s) sounded like a completely messed up rock and roll version of The Pop Group. Or was The Pop Group a messed up experimental The Birthday Party? “We were before them. Nick’s first band was ‘The Boys Next Door’ with Mick Harvey and they said they were influenced by us. Later when The Birthday Party came to England for the first time they played gigs with this Bristol band Maximum Joy. I was doing the sound for them. That way I met Nick, Mick, Tracy (Pew) and the others. I thought they were brilliant. There was a mutual love between our bands. It was a time when we all experimented in our own way with new-found things.”
Any chance that Mark Stewart will end up at the piano and write/sing ballads like Nick Cave after his total metamorphosis in the early nineties? “Haha ! That was what me and Gareth (Sager – The Pop Group’s guitarist) exactly did yesterday. He came over with an electric piano, we completely distorted everything and produced a mad drone like a washing machine. And I was yodeling against that piano. We both joked we could walking around like those Hinge and Bracket characters in that funny English comedy, old guys dressing up like old ladies (laughs loud).
When we were writing the new album we really loved to listen to these French chansons by Leo Ferrer. Gareth and me have a shared love for his ballads. Even going back to that early Pop Group song ‘Savage Sea’ (note JL: a surprising piano track on The Pop Group’s debut album ‘Y’) underneath there’s a big kind of Leo Ferrer song. I love that thing of just a guy getting up on that stage and tear out his soul. When I was living in Berlin there were some amazing young Turkish like male singers. Very emotional, almost crying. I love it when a man shows emotion. Nick Cave is a friend of mine and I’m not gonna comment on his music but sometimes in life it’s quite interesting to flip the script, like we did when working with Paul Epworth as producer on our new album. He’s one of the best producers in the world (note JL: Paul Epworth worked/works with countless artists with very different backgrounds from Coldplay to Bloc Party, from Adele to Primal Scream). Deciding to work with him was very un-Pop Group. Sometimes I deliberately do things I don’t think I should do like buying a certain book or cd or seeing a film or turn left in the street. We call it psychogeography. Doing things that make you end up in a situation you wouldn’t normally be in. I have respect for people who break out of their own environment. Even in an alternative, experimental world you can become a stereotype. That’s why we decided to work with Paul and experiment in certain areas.”
Leo Ferrer – chansonnier formidable…
Why do four lifetime experienced musicians actually need a producer for? It’s not that The Pop Group really needs a producer. I’m a very good producer in my own right. Paul thinks my productions are amazing, they opened his head when he was a kid. But Paul is so on the ball with the new technologies and the new skills and he made this amazing studio. The new album is like a big cathedral. Me and Gareth were like little children in his place with that old harmonium and noise generators. There were piles of amazing stuff we could plug in, then turning upside down and make stupid noises out of it. Also Paul is to a certain extent a kind of a Scout leader. With so much strong personalities in the band sometimes it’s good to have someone from outside who’s stopping you tearing each other heads off over a bass drum sound. Also you have to learn to unlearn.
Recently you’ve said: “Even I am shocked by the new album.” Shocked in what way? “I can’t believe what’s happening at the moment. I don’t understand how all this really happened. From me and Gareth just getting together with a little keyboard player starting to write some melodies and then going into Paul’s recording studio with forty ideas. And suddenly Bruce is setting up a drum kit made out of thrash cans and somebody is sending something through the back of a harmonium and then hearing the result first on underground radio stations here in England and Asia Argento (Italian actress/director) making a video for it. I can’t believe it’s me. It’s weird. I’m like a kid at Christmas time right now. It’s really exciting. A whole new project and I’m really trying not to control it and just see what happens next. We are still here and we still do what we want to do. Let the freak fly again. We still can make a difference.”
Once a musician, always a musician? “I don’t really see myself as a musician. I remember my mum used to say when I chanted along to punk records as a kid that all dogs in the neighbourhood came out howling. I can’t play anything and I don’t think my singing is that good. But back then me and others had the power of arrogance to jump up and have a go even when beer was been thrown at you. We were kids from the audience seeing Paul (Simonon) of The Clash with stickers on his guitar and thought to have a go ourselves.”
Let me guess. ‘Citizen Zombie’, the new album, is about what the British people turned into after nearly 5 years of David Cameron? Everybody, politicians and civilians, is controlled. Everybody is being played. Not only in Great-Britain. It’s a global situation. The political parties have very little power. Basically they are puppets controlled by whoever finances them. Hidden agendas. It’s a game of cards and the dice are dirty. We don’t really know what’s going on and I don’t think the politicians really know. What I do know is that the ultra rich are getting richer all the time. It’s like vampires sucking our blood. The working people are being ripped off.
Staggering title track of new album ‘Citizen Zombie’…
Should Great-Britain join the European union? It’s very difficult to discuss such matters in an interview. There are so many different ways to look at this and I got so many different ideas about it. Let’s say that there are different elites in control and the idea of the nation’s state is medieval. I’m an internationalist living in a global world. Economics are what happens in this world at this very moment. Again, the super rich and those who control the financial system should realize that only a better redistribution of wealth would make poor people to be able to pay for essential things like water, food and heat. People would be much happier and the rich would also benefit anyway. Why do they want just everything?
The new video for comeback single ‘Mad Truth’ is directed by Italian actress/producer Asia Argento (39). I never heard of her. Who is she? Asia is brilliant. She did these really cutting-edge movies as an actress some years ago. Rough kind of cinema. She established her own character. She’s a very independent and powerful girl. I played nearly whole my life in Italy. With The Pop Group and solo. Bologna is a second home for me. I have a lot of Italian connections. A friend of mine, a promoter, told me Asia did some djing and she used to open her set with our tunes. I really liked her films and asked to hook us up. So she came to a Pop Group concert in Italy, pogoing and getting mad in the front. We had a great chat afterwards and decided to collaborate. She’s the priestess of provocation, a kindred spirit.”
‘Mad Truth’ video – the Italian connection…
Is the new album a one-off event or can we expect much more? It’s at least a five-year plan. We were writing so much material, we got like twenty more songs left. Only just today I thought about three new songs I want to work on with the band as soon as possible. We’re starting rehearsals for the tour soon. There’s no stopping now. We’re gonna be all over the world and there will be another new album and some re-issues of old material. Great things to come. From America to Iceland.
Dangerous plans for a band who still fights in the studio after all these years… That’s why we have producers and outsiders that we can all make our complains to. We’re like the United Nations. Everybody has to be heard for their own dignity. It’s crucial to our sanity that we all have our say and that produces interesting sparks between us. Just like in the punk days.
Should young artists listen to the new album and take notes? I don’t wanna tell anybody what to do. I hate it when people tell me what to do. I’m not somebody’s teacher. I, myself listen constantly to loads of stuff from young musicians, from new bands such as Viet Cong to crazy footwork producers in Chicago. I also believe that in general people’s ears are more open now. They listen to Björk, Massive Attack and Aphex Twin. We’re in a world where Nine Inch Nails can get to number one. And, yes, it’s an honor to know that across the years other musicians have taken energy from what I or the band have done and started to experiment themselves with it. It’s on the edges that interesting things happen.
Many thanks to Mark Stewart from taking time off from his busy schedule for this interview. And most of all thanks for being back !