The Pop Group is unequivocally back. After reuniting four years ago for festival shows and limited UK and European tours, the band’s singer Mark Stewart has told Dangerous Minds that their long-promised album of new material is at last being recorded this month, and that wider tours are in the works. This news comes fairly quickly on the heels of the announcement that the band is reissuing their 1980 album We Are Time and a rarities collection called Cabinet of Curiosities this autumn.
The Pop Group began in Bristol, UK, in 1978, and established a niche all to themselves with an unabashedly abrasive ruckus of No Wave and free jazz noise, punk’s ethos of confrontation, and a rhythm section devoted to dub and straight-up funk. Atop all that, singer Stewart chanted far-left declamations in a voice that lurched without warning from warble to shriek. The effect of this melee could be caustic, disorienting, and exhilarating. The band became influential despite its volatility, and in 1981, it fractured, jettisoning its members into the bands Rip Rig + Panic, Glaxo Babies/Maximum Joy, Pigbag, and the Slits. For his part, Stewart has recorded solo and with his band the Maffia. The Pop Group’s albums Y, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder, and We Are Time have, in the USA, at least, been only intermittently available and sometimes ridiculously expensive to obtain, so the news of impending reissues is most welcome. Because it’s 2014 and this is how it’s done now, there’s a pledge drive afoot for the releases, and some of the premiums are mighty cool. (I’m pretty sorely tempted by the Signed Ultimate Boxset Bundle.)
Earlier this week, Mark Stewart was kind enough to talk to DM at length about the band’s origins and future plans.
DM: Just this morning, I came across a news item that references The Pop Group, and I was wondering if you were aware of it— the Washington Post was reporting on a corrupt politician, and they posted a video of “We Are All Prostitutes.”
Mark Stewart: Yeah. I haven’t had a chance to check out all the details of the story yet, but a very important confidante of mine, who writes books about conspiracies in politics, says it’s the most important story the Washington Post has run since Watergate, is that true?
Possibly. The ex-governor of Virginia and his wife have been convicted of fraud and selling access. It’s pretty huge. He was a presidential hopeful once, and now this blatant corruption comes to light. But I wondered if you were aware of the Post using your song in that context, and whether you think that speaks to the Pop Group’s continued relevance?
The lyrics to that song are timeless. The second real album that we made, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was a bit more time-sensitive. It was talking about things that were happening in real time in Indonesia, and coups that were happening with ITT and Allende in Chile, things that were happening in Cambodia. That was more a real time, newspapery kind of album. But the other stuff, like “We Are All Prostitutes” and Y and the stuff we’re re-releasing now, it’s weird, because for me, I’m looking at it that way as much as you, because it’s like listening to something that’s out there now.
It’s quite bizarre. Me and [Pop Group guitarist] Gareth Sager, we spent two years going through, trying to find the best stuff from that period—and I’m a fan, I’ve realized recently, with all the music I’ve made, I’m making it for myself because I have an idea of what I’d like to hear. Like mashing up a free-jazz saxophone against a funk beat with Arabic wailing or something, I’m doing it for myself, because I’m only hearing those things in my head, and making things up like a little kid, and I just want to make those things. I’m having to analyze this stuff and see it again and it’s weird. But the We Are Time album sounds like new bands I’m hearing out of London now.
Well in terms of the songs’ political content, over the last thirty years, I’m not sure so much has changed or gotten better…
Hold on! You’re like my girlfriend! I think a lot has got better! Are you a pessimist?
Ha, maybe! Some things have gotten better on the social front, sure, but in terms of the oligarchs’ takeover? At least in the United States, oh my GOD, they are winning.
Yes. And, as far as I can see some of the battles in the Middle East are between different factions in America, like an American proxy war going on there, oil companies acting like medieval dynasties, it’s bizarre. And they’re backing jealous militias.
So are you an optimist, then? What do you see getting better?
Generally I think people across the world are genuinely more aware. Right now I’m in this fishing village, and the guy who lives in a shed at the bottom of the garden knows as much about the world as I did in 1979. There’s access to more media, and people, as far as I can see, are seeing through the illusion. Back in the day they used to think politicians were correct, and they’d tip their caps in a kind of regal way. People are kind of owning and feeling the responsibility and making the connections, that the things that are happening aren’t so far away. There’s blowback, and the actions we make in everyday life are a result of these actions across the world, funding our avarice.
It’s easier to put these ideas into songs!
Haha, understood! I want to touch back now on that idea of combining influences because you aren’t hearing something you want to hear, wanting what’s in your head to be out in the real world. In the Pop Group’s first go-around you were contemporary to No-Wave, the Birthday Party, early punk, but you were using dance beats, which was anathema to punks. What emboldened you to break with that doctrine, and what sort of influences were brought to bear on the music you were making?
The strange thing, in Bristol, there’s no difference really. When I grew up, I was sort of a funk boy. In England there’s a tradition for clubbing in youth culture. So in the mid ‘70s, there were these kind of funk boys, and soul boys, who wore 1950s clothes and went dancing to really heavy funk, like Ultrafunk, KGs, really mad American funk, heavy, heavy bassline funk, and that was the sort of stuff we’d go out clubbing to, wearing clothes like pink zoot suits and jumpers.
When we saw the Sex Pistols, they were the first people that kind of looked a bit like us. Before, the bands were either completely glam, or they were prog rockers. They looked nothing like the kind of kids on the street that were going clubbing in plastic sandals and Andy Warhol shirts! There was quite a kind of punk sort of underground, but connected to funk music in Bristol. And then we had the reggae clubs. The community was so mixed! My mum grew up in a black area, and blah blah blah and blah blah blah. So for me, I don’t really see the divisions of race and class, since Bristol was so small, and there were only so many late night clubs, everybody had to get along, and all the different posses, all the different gangs would mix. BASS is the backbone of Bristol.
So we were getting into punk, really, in the kind of DIY aesthetic of wearing those kind of clothes, and we saw Paul from the Clash with stickers on his bass, and thought “oh, we can have a go at doing that.” Before, being in a band hadn’t even crossed my mind, it was so far away, and it was all run by prog rockers, I don’t know, you couldn’t imagine being in a band, you had to have thousands and thousands of pounds. But seeing somebody with a cheap guitar with stickers all over it, well, any of us could do that, so basically Pop Group was a gang of mates in a youth club that just said “OK, you be the drummer…” Gareth was the only one that could play. Simon, the original bass player, was just a clubbing mate of mine. So it was a gang that decided to become a band as an escape route, like people would become footballers.
So in that whole Bristol melting pot, you’d have say Grant from Massive Attack, and Miles from the Wild Bunch, the old Massive Attack crews, and people from Portishead, they’d be coming to Pop Group gigs, we were the only band out of Bristol. Before us there was only a band in the ‘50s called Johnny Carr and the Cadillacs. There were no bands out of Bristol inbetween, so for our kind of youth clubbing gang to break out, and have a go, and get to London, then other people saw and said “Oh, WE can have a go at doing it.” Otherwise we’d all be working in factories. That’s an interesting thing about punk, the only thing similar was the very early Merseybeat, and the American garage sound, which gave a lot of kids the chance at starting bands.
It’s difficult for me to look back on it, I personally don’t feel very different in my brain than when I was fourteen, I don’t really analyze myself, I feel like exactly the same person. In a band or not in a band, I’m with all the same mates. I take it all with a pinch of salt, since the music business is a cesspool, and a breeding ground for people with really serious ego problems who really should be taken up against a wall and shot! I keep my distance…I’ve always tried to be completely and utterly as independent as I possibly could, because anytime you get any kind of capital from anywhere, capital comes with control and censorship. And you end up, these days, as kind of digital slaves. I mean, I think the whole world’s enslaved anyway, but in order to be able to say what you want—we learnt that with Rough Trade in the beginning, we kind of really worked at the beginning of the independent record scene, so I’ve got a lot of respect for people like Ian MacKaye and Mike Watt—but we really have to kind of do our own thing and keep it as clean as we possibly can from our side, in order to be able to say what we want to say. I’m quite pleased at the moment. I think the Swans have done a lot of work to rebuild a lot of these independent tentacles, and there’s cool people, cool festivals, and cool kinds of sites like you guys. There’s cool people big and small, and what I’m finding at the moment is that there are kind of Pop Group secret agents out there, like sleeper cells, way up in Japanese media, the guy who does The Simpsons, Conan O’Brien, blah blah blah blah blah. And as soon as they’re seeing we’re active, they kind of open the secret back door, so if we can keep it tight and make cool stuff, we’ve got a chance at that old Situationist idea, being the explosion at the heart of the commodity. We always wanted to be a pop group!
So the band name wasn’t sardonic? You really had aspirations of becoming big?
Right. We were like fifteen, sixteen, and we wanted to be THE Pop Group.
To what extent is the band active again? I know the reissues are coming out, and there’s a UK tour…
Yes. And, suddenly, last Friday, we’re told we’re going in to finish the new album. Since we reformed, we’ve been writing. We’ve got a pile of songs we’re going to finish and record in the next two weeks, so I’m like manically checking everything and trying to pressure-cooker as much madness as I can into these four-minute ditties. We’ve got a lot to live up to, we’ve all been friends, and we’ve all had a lot of respect for our legacy, and we’ve refused to let people put just anything out, because we wanted control, and we got all of our catalog under our control and we’re running everything, so we can do it like this with the reissues.
When Matt Groening from The Simpsons was curating All Tomorrow’s Parties a few years back, they give the curators a wish list of bands they’d like to re-form, and he asked Iggy to re-form the Stooges and us to reform the Pop Group. When we all started talking about it, we agreed that if we were to do it we’d have to do something new as much as something old.
You actually answered my next question, I was gong to ask if there’d be any new material.
Can you talk about what it’s like?
I can’t really. It’s the strangest experience of my life. It’s growing and mutating. I’m kind of writing the songs as I’m talking to you now, but the sounds, the music, I can’t put my finger on it. It’s shocking to me because I’m standing back. We’ve lit the fuse, and the only thing I know from age, especially when you’re collaborating with other people, is to stand back and let things spin out, maybe throw some lit dynamite in it, wait for some kind of alchemical reaction. It’s like a golem out of control, and I’m deliberately not putting it in a box. In two weeks time, there will be something, and I’m not trying to get from A to B, I’m standing back treating it like a kind of weird experiment in not knowing what we’re trying to create.
Is there a working title?
There was, it was called The Alternate, but no, I’m going to name it once it’s born. It’s Damien! I’m quite interested in ritualistic procedures as a defense against what I call “the honey trap,” it’s like a ritual of redemption, it’s very personal, I can imagine it feels like when those guys in the Amazon go into the forest and strip themselves off and see what nature throws at them. It’s like being stripped naked and being put in a cage with a load of other gorillas.
Did I just call the other members of the band gorillas?
You may have.
Monkeys, monkeys, nice little monkeys… So I’ve got two weeks of that, and I’m trying to power up and make sure my mental skills are ready for the battle. It’s the time of the beast!
With the reissues—you’re doing We Are Time, right?
And there’s this Cabinet of Curiosities, is that non-LP singles, b-sides…
No, no, no! That’s a bit like when the Velvet Underground put out VU. It’s stuff that’s never been—apart from one single, “Where There’s a Will,” the rest of the stuff has NEVER been available. We put “Where There’s a Will” on there because a lot of the singles were never on albums, but I’ve got the list in front of me, and going through it, there’s the original version of “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” which was our first single, a defining moment, but originally we recorded it with Andy Mackay from Roxy Music, and it’s taken us AGES to find the tape of that, but we found it. And there are songs that were never released. We’ve been through piles of stuff to find the most interesting stuff that’s never been available, so Cabinet of Curiosities, NOBODY’S heard that stuff—even I hadn’t heard some of it until recently.
Will Y and Mass Murder be reissued?
Yes, over the next period. There’s a kind of plan, of these two first. We want to play We Are Time live in its entirety. A lot of the songs on that album, we only played live for two or three months, in youth clubs. The sound was mutating so fast, going right, left, and center, and writing loads of new songs, so when we all got together, we said let’s try to play those songs that we never really got a chance to play. So suddenly, there’s words in these songs—it’s like my younger self is talking to me. I’m sitting there trying to work out the changes, so there I am listening to myself, like I used to listen to others, and all of a sudden these old words come across and I’m thinking they’re relevant to something that happened last week, and it’s helping me deal. It could make anybody schizophrenic. It’s like letters that were never opened. This whole thing is quite a wake-up call on all different levels. No matter how experimental you think you are, it’s good to put yourself in weird positions.
Is there any chance of a United States tour? I would love to see The Pop Group.
Give your personal address to Howard [the band’s publicist], we’ll be there in about two days. No, but yes, yes, for sure. For the moment, and this story’s never been told, and we’re telling this story to some people we respect. We’re working with Campaign Against Arms Trade in England, and trying to put some meaning into it, because as far as I can see a lot of these proxy wars are, like the first World War, set up by arms dealers, and someone’s making stupid money, when it’s the same companies selling weapons to both sides. Anyway, I’m quite involved in the campaign, and the campaign is linked to the tour in England. So we’re trying to use these two hooks to tell the early story, and as soon as the new album’s ready, there’ll be a schedule. The dates are popping up, and we’re working with the people behind Swans. I’ve got a lot of respect for Michael [Gira, Swans’ singer/leader]. And The Pop Group has always looked to the States, always been more parallel to the States. There was always American music I was interested in, and there weren’t a lot of English bands we felt parallel to. People put us in with things, but I felt closer to like Judy Nylon, and Snatch. Anthony Braxton, we were listening to, and all the stuff we were referencing was American. So yes. Definitely. And there are venues—each city has its own underground scene in the States, as far as I can tell.
If all of the foregoing wasn’t enough for you, here’s an interview from Italy a few years ago, when the band first reunited:
We Are Time and Cabinet of Curiosities are scheduled for release on 20 October in the UK, and October 21st in the US.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
The Pop Group to reunite!
‘Nothing is Sacred’: Maffia man Mark Stewart duets with Eve Libertine of Crass