Mark Stewart, frontman with the Pop Group, the maverick’s maverick has a brilliant new album new album and tour exploring the possibilities of sound, The Politics Of Envy is out this week and is backed up with a mini tour. We chat to him.
Mark Stewart defines the word maverick.
In the decades since punk and his legendary band, The Pop Group, he has made a series of records that have combined a whole rush of cutting edge musics to create his own style. His new album, The Politics Of Envy, is his best for years- a mash of dark disco, post punk, skewed electronics and punk spirit- it’s dark, heavy and political but somehow also really pop.
Still fascinated by the cutting edge he has gone to the musical frontiers and collided all the flux of new styles into a composite new whole. The Politics Of Envy is a frenzy of anarchic, confrontational sound with some key collaborations with a series of names that help to define the adventurous spirit of the album from cult film-maker Kenneth Anger, Keith Levene (Clash/PiL), Richard Hell (Television, Voidoids), Lee “Scratch” Perry, Gina Birch (The Raincoats), Tessa Pollitt (The Slits), Douglas Hart (Jesus And Mary Chain), Factory Floor, Daddy G (Massive Attack), all of Primal Scream, Youth (Killing Joke) and Bristol new blood Kahn.
The lead off track, Autonomia featuring a shared vocal with Bobby Gillespie is a modern anthem- the kind of music you expect in these end times and it comes with a really cool video with the two singers wandering through the modern meltdown looking like the hippest wise guys in town.
Mark Stewart has made some serious records in his career and he is also a serious operator but he also has a completely unexpected mad sense of manic humour, a six foot plus rush of energy and ideas, too intelligent for the run of the mill mainstream, too maverick to fit in anywhere, it’s this feral energy and high IQ that makes him fascinating and with the album and a series of upcoming gigs he makes a welcome return to the front-line where we need this kind of loose talk.
Conversation with Mark is an adventure in itself, he can switch from the deadly serious to the almost childlike funny with a series of machine gun gags, he still has the bristol burr of his youth and has that full on lust for life that defines all the punk originals with that added air of unpredictability and danger.
LTW: How are you, Mark?
MS: Tired, but fine. It’s full on at the moment. Rehearsing full on and everything is kicking off. It’s like having to do everything round the world in three days. It’s all good.
LTW: You are about to tour. What kind of format are the gigs gonna take, are you going to be using a lot of the guests you use on the album?
MS: At the moment, I’ve got a killer new rhythm section, these guys called Arkell & Hargreaves. They were the first people I’ve ever seen that can reproduce Future Bass and Dubstep noises with real instruments. I’ve nicked them from this grime outfit called True Tiger. The bass player can get the deepest sub bass low end wobble you’ll find. In the rehearsals the sound is like astronauts in one of those wind tunnels. His bass playing is like sucking your face off! And this drummer is amazing. I’m really excited about it, these kids are mental. The sound they make is mental. The drum and bass sounds mental. Sometimes I forget to sing because I’m just nodding my head.
Then we’ve got Dan Catsis who’s the bass player in the Pop Group, but in fact he’s a really good guitarist as well. Before the Pop Group he was in a Bristol punk band called the Glaxo Babies. They did this great song called Christine Keeler and I saw him play it with a dildo on his guitar. Apart from Levene, he was one of my favourite guitarists from that period. We got him to play bass in The Pop Group, but he’s playing guitar on this stuff, it sounds mental.
And then we’ll have guests coming in and out. In London, Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes from Primal Scream are getting up, and hopefully Doug from the Mary Chain and probably Levene. I think when we play L.A. Kenneth Anger will get up, or Richard Hell in New York, it just depends on who’s around at what ever, just different things.
LTW: It’s quite a complex line up of guests but the album retains your personality and works within the spirit of adventure that was the true punk ideal.
MS: The songs on the record started as punk songs anyway. I just used Daddy G’s voice or Lee Perry’s voice or other people’s voices as textures instead of samples but underneath they are my punk songs- so it’s quite easy to do it live. Playing live is always different to the studio anyway. We always experiment in the studio and try new things. Live, though, it’s gonna be very punky.
LTW: The album has got a lot of collaborations on it, do you just go through your address book and put an album together? You’ve obviously known a lot of these people for a long time.
MS: Yes, My Little Black Book! For me it’s like coming home to my family. I remember way back in the punk days when we used to come down to the Roxy with the Cortinas and I remember hanging out with different people there like Don Letts. I met Keith Levene there the day Elvis died. We were supporting the Cortinas at the Roxy with the Pop Group and I went outside to have a cigarette. There was this kid just leaning against the wall and I ended up chatting to him about UFOs. I really got on with him and thought he was just a random stranger. A couple of years later I saw him playing with Public Image! I’ve always had a lot of time for him, I think Keith Levene is one of the lost legends from the whole English punk thing. So many of the people I work with come from chance meetings like that.
I was going to call this album ‘Fountains’, it’s a bit of an experimental title, it means people that have been fountains of knowledge and information and nutrients to me since I was a kid. I remember when I was about 12 or 13 and I went to this all day Kenneth Anger screening and some of his films just completely and utterly blew my mind. Then I remember reading about Richard Hell and the Neon Boys, and dreaming about working with Richard. And it’s these people that educated me. Like Lee Perry- the guy’s a shaman. Underneath it all I am just a little fanboy, standing next to these people, I’m still the little kid listening to their records in my mum’s bedroom. When we started doing the artwork to the back cover and they got everyone’s names on there, I was thinking what is my name doing in with all these people. Mental!
LTW: When the guests came down to do the recording, did you have an idea of what you wanted them to do, or did you just say to them ‘Here’s the track, do it’?
MS: It’s weird, there’s been some random procedures to it, and the thing has developed on my travels. The vocals on that Bowie cover I did, I organized a big conference in all these galleries in the old area of Lisbon, as a hommage to Kenneth Anger. I recorded that vocal while he was doing a performance piece. These friends of mine from this Dada collective called Mechanosphere did all the treating of it. Some other stuff was recorded in these mental run down bits of Vienna, other bits were done in Berlin. With hard drives it’s like a little diary, a travel log, you pick things up and capture the moment of the people when you’re hanging out with them. With the technology now it’s not like you go to some residential studio and ponce about, you just capture things of the moment and try to capture the magic.
I had ideas that I wanted to use Lee Perry in a kind of War of the Worlds thing as a Richard Burton voice-over thing on the track Gang War. With Kenneth I wanted to bottle his magic so I got him to play the theremin. I was using people as samples of their spirit. We got Keith Levene to play guitar, he hadn’t played guitar for about 10 years. He was doing all this cyber stuff- he’s got this thing called ‘Destroy all Concepts’. He’s back on form now, sounded amazing. Douglas Hart, who has been making films for ages, was playing this weird Indian Ragga stuff which is great. I wanted Gina Birch’s energy and her shouting. I was using the skills of the people to tell my story.
LTW: It’s such a complex sounding process and weirdly, somehow, it almost sounds like a pop record.
MS: Yes, fantastic, that’s what it’s meant to be. And touch wood, with Daddy G’s help and the Primals’ help, suddenly we’re on the BBC, we’re being playlisted, suddenly all these doors are opening which I wasn’t really aware of. I think it’s good to engage with the mainstream at this moment, as an antidote, maybe to have someone saying something else is out there. I know when I was a kid if the New York Dolls hadn’t been on the Old Grey Whistle Test I’d be working in a factory, music can make that difference. They are playing my songs on big chat shows on American TV now, it’s mad.
LTW: The mainstream and the underground are so mixed together there’s no point boxing yourself in one or the other.
MS: Exactly. There’s a real vacancy at the moment for something like this, a scarcity of mad ideas. There are cool people deep in the middle of the machine, there’s punks all over the world running things, taking over. It’s crazy the kind of people you hook up with, maybe all this will make a difference.
LTW: The line has gone really bad now. Are you holding the phone funny?
MS: Yea Yea. I do everything funny John! That’s what she said to me last night!(laughs)
MS: Live we are going to mix it up as well. In Glasgow we’ve got this kid called Twitch from this dance collective called Optima. They’ve got this really cool label, people in Germany love their stuff. Twitch did a remix of Autonomia. He’s doing a mad set when we play in Glasgow. And Adrian Sherwood is doing all the mixing. Jez Kerr from A Certain Ratio has got a brilliant new solo project, I saw some of it by chance and I love it. So he’s going to open up in Manchester.
In London we’ve got this noise artist friend called Russell Haswell. he does this post-conceptual noise art stuff, he’s absolutely brilliant. I’m DJing, Bobby Gillespie is DJing. Bobby and Innes from the Primals are getting up on stage, Adrian is mixing it all, there’s lots of different things going on.
LTW: So like on the album, there is a lot of diversity at the gigs?
MS: Completely. Every single song to me is like a mini movie, a jigsaw. Sometimes I change genre halfway through a song. For example back in the day when I made an album called ‘As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade’, from one song my mates in Bristol went off and had ideas for trip hop, but on the same song Trent Reznor and Al Jourgensen said it inspired them to make industrial music. I don’t see where that’s coming from! I’m interested to see what new genres people will start calling some of these things. I love it when they start thinking of weird titles, especially in a foreign language.
LTW:When you work with other people is it like working with different genres, trying to balance opposite ideas to create something new.
MA: I need to be excited about something. If I’m in some club in Berlin and I hear these new bass wobbles, some post-dubstep or whatever, I just think ‘I want that bass!’ I spent ages looking for this plugin called Massive, it makes the most wobbly flatulence inducing, bowel pounding bass noise I’ve ever heard, and it’s better than sex. But I don’t want to play it in the dubstep style, I played it in a Black Sabbath style with the heaviest sub bass instead. We’re having to bring in special reinforced sub bass sound systems for the tour that they use on big raves and stuff. The bass has got to make you wobble. If I’m excited about something like that, I get in the mood to start hollering on the top of it. Underneath I’m like an MC really. As much as my punk roots, I grew up in blues dances and stuff, where people would just get on the mike and start shouting out nursery rhymes and sea shanties.
LTW: Bristol has always had an eclectic music scene, does that feed into where you’re coming from?
MS: Yeah, my uncles were bouncers in the Fifties, and when the Teds used to wear their drapes they used to have razor blades behind the lapels. So when my uncles had to throw them out, they cut their hands to pieces and I grew up with that. One of the legendary lost bands of the Bristol music scene is this band called Johnny Carr & The Cadillacs, who one of my aunties went out with. My mum and dad had a Skiffle thing called the Eager Beavers, so they were a really big influence and there was also all these other musics about.
LTW: The black scene really overlapped into the white scene in Bristol didn’t it. The white kids had punk and the black kids had the blues, in other cities they were separate.
MS: There’s no difference, I don’t see colour myself. All the black kids came to the punk gigs, we had Asian punks, black punks, dwarf punks. Punk was a completely mixed scene, like the football. Bristol is such a small place so there was only one late night club. We all went there. It’s big enough to be a city but small enough that everybody has to get on. I can’t really explain it but it’s still going on. I’m down there quite a lot. I’m loving all this bass stuff that’s coming out of there like Joker and Appleblim, there’s some great stuff coming out of Bristol at the moment.
LTW: Despite the fascinating guests on the album and genius sounds employed you have an interesting take on the role of the musician…
MS: With punk, we thought everybody was equal, anybody could come on the stage. I don’t see how a musician is different from a sparkie or somebody who works or makes baskets. Troubadours used to be like the local village newspaper, they just spread information around. I don’t hold the role of musician any higher than somebody who works in a cafe. In Bali they have a saying ‘We have no art, we do everything well’. People put musicians on a pedestal and think they’ve got answers. I think if you have got a role as a musician, it’s good just to be honest and not try to make out that you’re perfect. It’s a bonding thing really.
LTW: When we were younger, the pre-internet musician had a certain role or space but that’s kind of blurred now isn’t it.
MS: I’m not really a critic, I can’t analyze it. I’m quite happy to provide a service, a good night out. I remember going to the early Pistols and Subway Sect gigs in London. I remember taking Patti Smith to see the Clash the first time she came over. She didn’t even really know there was a London punk scene. I thought they were just great places to meet people. I’d be chatting to all these people; film makers and poets and it’s a good space. It’s not just about the band, it’s about the people you meet and get on with, it’s a social experiment. You create an area for people to meet for a few hours. Like a free pirate spaceship.
The Free Pirate Spaceship comes to land this week with these gigs and the album- see you there earthlings…