Culture Is A Weapon. Join the Fight:

An Interview With Mark Stewart

The Enduring Political Legacy of The Pop Group

/ June 14, 2016

Photo by Nick Helderman and Jeroen Dankers

Legendary British band The Pop Group’s initial four year run from 1977-’81 made a lasting impact on not just post-punk contemporaries, but also the shape of indie rock, industrial, and avant-garde music to come. Founding members Mark Stewart (vocals), Gareth Sager (guitar), and Bruce Smith (drums), along with former bassist Dan Catsis, reformed the group in 2010. Since then, the Bristol legends’ own Freaks R Us label’s reissue campaign has reintroduced some of the most politically sharp and musically unpredictable sounds captured during U.K. post-punk’s halcyon days.

The opening of The Pop Group’s vault continued with the May 27 release of The Boys Whose Heads Exploded. Ten live cuts from 1979-’80, including previously unreleased track “73 Shadow Street” and a cover of Glaxo Babies’ “Shake (the Foundation),” will be paired with rare live footage of the band’s Beat the Blues Festival set unearthed by Don Letts.

I chatted with Stewart over the phone recently about The Pop Group’s origins, the social responsibility of musicians, and his band’s ongoing reunion.

Bobby Moore: When the Pop Group started in ’77, punk was about reclaiming the two and a half minute pop song. You guys come out blending funk, jazz, and dub instead. What was the inspiration to break the mold?

Stewart: What was happening is there seemed to be a zeitgeist in 1974 and 1975, when loads of kids were discovering Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, and Nuggets. Punk was something that was waiting to happen. Our take on it was punk was meant to be about change and challenging things, politically and socially. Punk was already happening, and we wanted to bring in the influences we were hearing in the clubs and the street in Bristol, which was a very mixed community. We just thought there’s no point in being another punk band. That would be retrogressive. Plus to me, George Clinton, Charlie Parker, and Sun Ra are punk. Punk is an attitude.

We just thought there’s no point in being another punk band. That would be retrogressive. Plus to me, George Clinton, Charlie Parker, and Sun Ra are punk. Punk is an attitude.

A lot of books and documentaries argue that before there were “punk” records, budding punk musicians who’d shunned Pink Floyd and Yes were focused on reggae records, and naturally started bringing those influences on board. 

That’s kind of true. For this official bootleg we’re releasing, Don Letts found footage of this big protest concert we did against Margaret Thatcher. We still do a lot of benefits and protests, but in those days they were huge. You had Rock Against Racism with Aswad, Steel Pulse, and Jamaican reggae bands playing with the Clash. Everybody was mixing up.

But there kind of was punk music. We were listening to Metallic K.O. by Iggy and the New York Dolls. Basically, the New York Dolls came over here in ’74 or ’75 and appeared on this hippy music show that used to have the Allman Brothers on it. They were dressed in drag, and virtually everyone who saw them started a band. And we were hearing Television early on. “Little Johnny Jewel” was a big influence on us.

Early on and straight from school, we were playing in New York. Us and Gang of Four were very hip in the no wave scene in New York, which is quite strange. I just made friends with Thurston from Sonic Youth, and he said he came to see a gig when he was in school and Gareth [Sager] was rolling around on the floor in broken glass. Thurston decided then to form a band. Back then when we were in New York, we heard these early Afrika Bambaataa radio shows and got into hip-hop. That seeded the Bristol trip-hop scene of Massive Attack and everybody. So there’s always a constant sharing of influences.

While The Clash and The Ruts were incorporating cues from reggae and dub into punk, The Pop Group crafted something new from so many different influences.

Because we were bringing in funk music heard at clubs and we started working with this amazing producer [Dennis Bovell] who we are still friends with, we were kind of making music we wanted to hear for our own pleasure. Mixing weird music with dub, free jazz, and just noise. The funniest thing about that footage is I’ve never seen that band, really. There’s hardly any footage, and obviously I was on stage. Me and Dan [Catsis] the bass player watched it the other night, and we were in fits. We couldn’t stop laughing. Everyone is playing a different song at the same time, and Gareth is having multiple convulsions. We’re still the same. There’s something wrong with us, mate.

You had that do-it-yourself attitude that still permeates independent music.

It was kind of like a class war. Before, I had no vision of doing anything creative. I’d have just gone and worked in the factory where my dad worked. I had no vision of controlling my own destiny. I go see this very early concert of the Clash, and Paul Simonon had stickers on his bass showing him where to put his fingers. We turned to each other and said, “We can bloody do that.” Then Mark Perry from Sniffin’ Glue magazine had three chords, so we went in this rehearsal room with a borrowed bass guitar and played “I Wanna Be Your Dog” while drinking loads of cider for like five hours. We haven’t gotten any better since.

The Slits is a band you guys are tied to historically, between sharing a drummer and a split single. What would you say drew The Pop Group to the Slits, and vice versa?

I think I’m a year older than Ari Up, the singer. But because I’m like 6’7” I was going clubbing at 11 or 12. I went to see this Clash concert in an area of London called Harlesden. While the Clash was playing, suddenly this 14-year-old girl jumped up on stage and started screaming like a banshee. That was the first time Ari had gotten on stage, and I just had ultimate respect for her since.

Music can be a bit male, and it’s great to get away from that Beavis and Butthead band situation, you know what I mean? The Slits are just out there, and it’s great. Sorry to say that Ari died a couple of years ago, but the rest of them are as strong and mad as ever.

There’s another band called the Raincoats that played on the same Beat the Blues Festival that video is from, and they were brilliant. Gina (Birch) from the Raincoats played on a solo album of mine a couple of years ago. They were so spooky and out there. They were bringing this Robert Wyatt experimental thing into punk rock, which was quite interesting.

This may be oversimplifying things, but it seems like there’s political Pop Group songs like “Feed the Hungry” and abstract songs like “Thief of Fire.” What was the inspiration to balance being outside the box and being very angry and direct, like a hardcore band before there was such a thing?

Basically, I don’t separate politics from life. To me, “Thief of Fire” is about taking that fire and running with it. It’s about stuff you’re not supposed to touch and the unknown. There’s this idea of the occult technology of power. They pretend power is something that’s hidden, and we’re not allowed to control our destinies.

I write about what’s making me mad at the time. When we were making that album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? (Rough Trade, 1980), which a lot of these live tracks are from that period, it was just coming out about Pol Pot thing in Cambodia. It’d been covered up, but stuff was leaking out. All I could say at that stage was, “How much longer do we tolerate mass murder? Ten million women and children are dying from starvation every day.” That was the poem. There’s nothing flowery about it. I say what’s important to say to me.

People say that the first album Y was a more experimental album or artsy with a capital “F” or whatever you call it, but the second album is just as bloody weird if weird is your bag. There’s lyrics on Y that were of the moment and real statements of social change.

As soon as you say politics is outside your reality or outside your life, then you’ve given the power to whoever. Later on, the Dead Kennedys and hardcore bands starting saying, “This is reality. Don’t run away from it.” I find it a little bit cowardly to sing about cars and girls at certain stages. Not being rude to anybody, but the world is on fire. Millions of people are being affected by resource wars and refugees knocking at your door. “Baby, baby. Can I have your private number?” No, fuck off.

Not being rude to anybody, but the world is on fire. Millions of people are being affected by resource wars and refugees knocking at your door. “Baby, baby. Can I have your private number?” No, fuck off.

The Pop Group today. Photo by Chiara Meatelli

What prompted the Pop Group to get back together in 2010?

When I was traveling around the world doing different solo things, members of Nick Cave’s band, Nine Inch Nails, and others were coming up to me saying what an influence the Pop Group had been in opening people’s eyes to different ways of experimenting and challenging things. Then I got a call from All Tomorrow’s Parties, and that year Simpsons creator Matt Groening was choosing all of his favorite bands—old, new, dead, or alive. He wanted us to reform The Pop Group and Iggy to reform the Stooges. The Stooges reformed that year, but I was very busy so it took us a year to get it together. The idea was already out there anyway. We’d remained friends. In Bristol, you’re friends with everyone’s brother and sister.

We’d said before that if we did a serious reissue campaign, we should record something new, as well. We said we’d go in the rehearsal room to see what happens. As soon as we get in there, I can’t judge it or call it. The chaos of it I can’t understand, but I think things I can’t understand are good for me. No matter how weird my solo stuff was, when you have four or five very strong characters on a project, you don’t know what’ll happen from day to day. It’s a bit like being in a crazy storm. Everybody is pulling their sails in different directions. It’s interesting, though. It’s a bit like trying to tame a mad dog.

In addition to re-releasing one of your albums and recording a new one (2015’s Citizen Zombie), you’ve opened the vaults for the Cabinet of Curiosities compilation and the forthcoming live album, putting music out there that was either unheard or on expensive bootlegs. Why open the vault?

Because it’s never been opened. We’ve never re-issued anything. When the band broke up, we just sealed it. We kept and protected everything. There’s a five year plan of putting out stuff that’s interesting, recording new music, and playing all over the world. It’s a serious project we’re all into. I think we’re more into it now than we were as kids.