In which 17 Seconds has a hugely enjoyable time interviewing The Pop Group frontman about his new album The Politics of Envy, The glory days of The Pop Group and even ends up making him laugh with gag about CND rallies
It’s a Friday afternoon when I call Mark Stewart at a number in the Greater London area for what turns out to be one of the most pleasurable interviews I have ever done.
Before I start, I ask him, as I do with most interviewees, if there’s any areas that are off limits.
‘That’s what I said to her last night,’ he deadpans from four hundred miles away.
Who said post-punkers were po-faced?
Mark Stewart released his last album, the rather fine Edit back in 2008. Since then he’s been living all over the place, including spells in Vienna, Berlin, on top of a Volcano in in the Atlantic, before coming back to the UK. His forthcoming album, The Politics Of Envy, features collaborations with the likes of (deep breath!): Kenneth Anger, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Richard Hell, The Raincoats’ Gina Birch, Primal Scream, Clash/PiL guitarist Keith Levene, The Slits’ Tessa Pollitt, Factory Floor, Richard Hell, Massive Attack’s Daddy G, Jesus & Mary Chain’s Douglas Hart and Bristol producer Kahn. He has also worked with Judy Nylon, Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire and Viv Albertine on recordings. Impressed? You should be.
And it’s clear that many people were happy to work with him. ‘Anybody I phoned, those people came,’ he states. He’s not boasting, but there’s a sense of pride when he tells me that people weren’t asking for expenses, they were happy just to be there. But there’s more to it, than just that. Talking to him, several times he states ‘I’m a fanboy,’ that he is a huge fan of the music of those people he is working with. After our interview I find myself wondering what a conversation between him and Bobby Gillespie of the Primals about music would be like.
It is clear that this album is something that he is particularly proud of and involved with. Now, you might argue – not unreasonably – that this is what any artist, trying to promote their latest album is going to say. But given the stellar supporting cast he’s worked with, and the process of making it, it’s clear that there’s more to it than that.
‘This album is like a travelogue,’ he explains. ‘I’m still really involved in it. I’ve only had the artwork for a couple of days.’ This seems quite incredible, this close to its’ release, but he seems genuine.
I ask him how long he’s been working on the album. His response throws me, somewhat.
‘Since I was fourteen,’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘I wrote ‘Codex’ when I was thirteen and a half.’
Now, this might sound unlikely, but the teenage Stewart was already taking note on the world around him, soaking up not just what his native Bristol had to offer, but also going up to London to see bands, and reading up on what was happening across the Atlantic in New York at the (in)famous Max’s Kansas City.
Back home people like Subway Sect were ‘seminal’ while he also tells me that The Cortinas were friends of theirs. ‘I believed in punk,’ he states firmly. ‘We thought it was about questioning things. I’m still excited [by it].’ It was the spirit of the time that gave him and others like him ‘the arrogance of power to stand up as part of the era.’ Punk certainly knocked down the doors, he acknowledges.
Not just punk, but all sorts of music was entering his world, including that of Jazz folk like Ornette Coleman, whose impact on the sound of The Pop Group really cannot be underestimated. In terms of spirit as much as sound. As he puts it, ‘with punk having wiped the slate clean, we were free to discover people like Ornette Coleman.’
And people were discovering The Pop Group, too. ‘We were on the cover of the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds in the same week in 1979.’ No mean feat for a band on their debut album, Y whose members were still in their teens. Supporting Elvis Costello the band were described as ‘mental monkeys of the future.’
Y still astonishes all these years later, with its’ heady mix of punk attitude, free jazz, funk and dub reggae, amongst much more besides. Produced by Dennis Bovell, who also worked with The Slits and the cream of the reggae scene, it’s one of the key records of the era. And this in a year that also featured such forward-thinking albums as Fear Of Music, Entertainment, Cut and Unknown Pleasures. The band have recently acquired all their rights back, as well as footage of them with both William Burroughs and Joy Division.
This should also hopefully mean the long-awaited re-issue of the band’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? Originally released on Rough Trade in 1980, this has long been out of print. I ask how come it’s taken so long. ‘Radar [the band’s original label, also home to Elvis Costello] got reactivated, so Y came out again. I put together a compilation called We are All Prostitutes rather than re-issue the album. I thought it flowed better,’ he explains. Alas, Radar went under again.
‘We Are All Prostitutes’ is perhaps The Pop Group’s most famous song. It was part of an episode of the 80s-set Ashes To Ashes TV Series, and the phrase is one character’s final words, before blowing himself up. I ask Mark if he saw it. He says he was aware of it but didn’t see it. He retains a considerable degree of modesty when focusing on his own work. He was followed around for three years by film-maker Tøni Schifer for his documentary on him called On Off, but remarks that he can’t comment on work that relates to him.
‘I can’t see myself as some arch-Godfather!’ he tells me. This is despite the fact that his work with The Pop Group, and subsequently as part of the On-U Sound System’s New Age Steppers, and then solo with Maffia have clearly reached out and influenced a lot of people.
Not only that, but he’s certainly met an impressive amount of people. He’s still impressed that he got to meet Sun Ra, and also recalls touring as part of a package as frontman of The Pop Group which also included The Slits and Don Cherry. On this tour Don Cherry also bought along his step-daughter Neneh. Mark recalls how later Neneh Cherry would give Massive Attack a leg-up, and help them get big, too. He sees this as part of the cycle of artists helping each other out.
Things are, of course, cyclical, and if any world is more cyclical than any other it’s probably the music world. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening asked him to reform the Pop Group for an All Tomorrow’s Parties he was curating, getting Iggy Pop to reform The Stooges at the same time. There will be a new Pop Group album. ‘It’s like Damon Albarn does with Blur and Gorillaz,’ he says. Whilst reformations can be fraught with problems, he decied that a simple but effective approach was needed. ‘I thought: why can’t I treat working with them as a new thing, outside of the box. It’s getting a life of its’ own.’
And don’t underestimate his ability to pull a crowd. In 1981, The Pop Group performed their then final gig to the crowd at a CND Rally in 1981. I suggest, somewhat tentatively, that that’s going out with a bang, ‘even if I shouldn’t say that about a CND rally,’ I say apologetically.
He cracks up. ‘Finally,’ he says, much amused, ‘someone in the music business with a sense of humour!’
Meanwhile, according to his website: Mark will be playing Glasgow King Tut’s on March 26th and supporting him will be the legendary JD Twitch on the decks, Manchester Ruby Lounge on March 27th, joined by another tru legend, former ‘A Certain Ratio’ man Jez Kerr and the Family Bizarre, and London Scala on March 28th, with supports Russell Haswell. Bobby Gillespie will be doing a DJ set and him and fellow Scream member Andrew Innes will also be joining Mark on stage for their new single Autonomia.