The Pop Group: Interview
The Pop Group formed in Bristol in 1977 whilst still at school. Frontman Mark Stewart, guitarist John Waddington, bassist Simon Underwood, guitarist/saxophonist Gareth Sager, and drummer Bruce Smith explored dub, jazz, avant-garde art and radical politics, helping to inspire and lay the foundations for post-punk music.
In 1981 The Pop Group did the most punk of things of all, and broke up and the band members went on to work on a variety of subsequent projects. Nearly 30 years later the band got back together and their second phase has been prolific, seeing the release of albums Citizen Zombie in 2015, and Honeymoon On Mars last autumn.
We spoke to Mark Stewart about the band’s legacy, wearing a wedding dress on Mars and refusing to become a zombie.
Q. Many bands fall into the trap of staying static and comfortable. How do you keep moving forward and progressing?
When we started we were undefinable and now people try and define you. It’s like what happened with that stupid fucking trip-hop tag. In Bristol we called it chip-shop down there, it got so wank.
We did a gig in Brighton and it was amazing. We’re experimenting now more in our own way than we did when we were kids, and some fucking wanker shouted out “play some post-punk”. I nearly jumped off the stage…fuck you. That’s like saying to Suicide, “play some rockabilly”. It’s like when you get put in a section in a record shop. I don’t want to be put in a box ‘til I’m dead.
Q. What section would you go in?
I dunno… Pakistani Vampire films or something. Mondo Bizarro.
Q. It feels as though The Pop Group are more prolific now than they were the first time around?
I’m always doing things. Today I’m ghost writing, I’m always producing, helping out in the background. I was always doing Mark Stewart stuff. With The Pop Group, we were constantly playing Eric’s, and Manchester. We were in Liverpool more than we were in Bristol. We were working like mad and touring abroad. We went to New York while we were at school. We did do a hell of a lot of stuff but we broke up so there was a big gap.
Q. The new album Honeymoon on Mars was funded by a Pledge Music campaign. Why did you decide to go down that route?
There’s a politics to this. When we were really young, I was going out with this girl and Geoff Travis was sharing a flat with her. Geoff was running the Rough Trade shop at that time and when he decided to start pushing independent records and independent distribution, right away we wanted to get into the independent and DIY thing because no way could we be censored by corporations or A&R men. It’s bad enough amongst ourselves, the fights going on in the band to try and get what we want to say, without some idiot with a perm from back in the day saying “can you make it (this song) more like Dead Or Alive”.
Q. You could’ve done, though... I like the idea of The Pop Group does Pete Burns. That’s got definite commercial appeal...
We could’ve been Spandau.
Q: Shiny suits.
I had the hair. I fancy doing one of those Rewind festivals!
Q. Have you been tempted to do the greatest hits thing? You don’t even need a hit these days to get on the nostalgia gravy train.
I’m thinking a Night Of The Assassins tour with Throbbing Gristle and Clock DVA… I think we’ll have to wait until we’re a little bit older, there’s some cruises you can do.
Q. You can do the Liverpool to Birkenhead cruise. Boxed off in 10 mins.
Q. So anyway, back to the DIY aesthetic...
A: I try to stay as staunchly independent as I can. If our footfall on social media pre-order what we’re working on, then we haven’t got to borrow any money off anybody. As soon as you borrow money off any sort of label it turns into a really weird mortgage and they start charging you money back. You end up paying so much back and everything gets charged against you and now (with crowdfunding) we’re in control of our means of production which I think is important. It’s what we dreamed of in punk.
Q. Visuals and art has always been important to The Pop Group. With so much music being consumed via streaming now, how does that tie in?
A lot of it is consumed through YouTube. The problem is, I think in hyper-media. When I’m writing something I’m visualising it and try to condense it into a line. I think in 3D anyway, my mind’s a bit quantum. I’m working with this experimental dancer guy from Istanbul; he defies gravity, he runs into brick walls and to have something like that which blows your mind and suspends your disbelief visually as well as orally – to use a comedy word – I think that’s interesting.
I’m getting interested in the developments of hyper-media. I’m trying to do some film stuff. There’s a real explosion of mental, imaginative filmmakers and storytellers on these bizarre new American TV programmes like Search Party and The AO and Sense8 – that’s about telepathy - and because of Netflix and the nature of it you can get little hubs of weird arty people making communities across the world. There’s some amazing stuff coming out. I want to work with some mad filmmakers. I want to dub a soundtrack; imagine if it was a John Woo film! I want to dub the explosions and car chases into the rhythms of the music. I like that. I’m very visual.
Q. I read an interview you did with Psychology magazine, about how you question absolutely everything. Have you always done that, and does it make life more complicated? And is it exhausting? It sounds it.
Yes and yes and yes. I annoy people. It’s been happening as long as I can remember. I’d ask the teachers why, why, and go off and find out what they were telling me at school was rubbish, The problem is I can’t even pretend to be a zombie, to be ambitious.
We’re living in a strange time, maybe it’s good and maybe it’s bad; I’m trying to get my head round it. All the illusions are starting to crack and naked capitalism is coming out from the shadows, it’s bizarre. So…does that help?
Q. Kind of. How does your fascination with detail, and endless thirst for knowledge, help you create?
It makes me flip things. I’ve got this saying, “flip it”. Anything to break the flow of what you’re doing to bring something random in like [William S] Burroughs did with cut-ups. We’re educated to be to linear. One of the best things I’ve heard about The Pop Group, Steve Albini called us non-linear which I thought was interesting. I can’t analyse myself, that’s the problem.
Q. I’m loving the artwork for the new album.
When we were making the record I had this vision of me stumbling out after a party, for some reason dressed in loads of make-up and a wedding dress and bovver boots on. I opened the front door and I was on Mars. That’s why it’s called Honeymoon On Mars. It’s about alienation and thinking, how come there’s psychopaths running this planet, and what planet is this? Each different song deals with the vast amounts of money made from the war economy and the military industrial complex I’m very very pleased with it, and to work with (producer) Dennis Bovell again.
Dennis is like a little child and (on debut album Y, in 1979) he understood our naivite and let us experiment. A lot of other people I’ve met in studios, they’re so normal they’re like bad prison warders. He became part of the process and is completely out there. When we were starting to write this stuff (the new album) I was getting into sub basses and weird sounds coming out of Miami and trap and grime and the way they’re working below the bass drums in these melody lines. These new 3D sonics they’re using in dance music at the moment, I thought who would be the best person to work with and I thought well, the key bass mechanic I know is Dennis dubmaster Bovell, the best dub producer that I know of. Then by chance we met Hank Shocklee (Bomb Squad) over in the States, and I thought he’d be amazing on some of the songs. For me the way he worked with sheets of noise on the Public Enemy productions was mind blowing.
When I first heard hip-hop, I was in New York and I heard a pile driver knocking down a building next door and I got it mixed up in this scratch DJ show I was listening and it got blurred in my head. When I heard Public Enemy I thought fuck, he’s doing even better than I thought I could do! I bowed down before the god of noise. As you do.
Q. You’re in the new documentary Big Gold Dream, about the post-punk scene in Scotland.
When the Pistols travelled round there’s these stories about when they went to Manchester and everybody formed bands because of it; a similar sort of thing happened with the second generation of bands like us and the Gang Of Four and Throbbing Gristle. I remember Bobby Gillespie coming up to me and saying "seeing you in Scotland kick-started ideas of what I wanted to do musically”. Thurston Moore came to see us in New York and said, “I want some of that”. We were inspired by people and they inspire people again.
'Honeymoon on Mars', and 'The Boys Whose Head Exploded', a compilation of rare live performances, is out now.