Mark Stewart talks about his new “Vs” collaborative album

Photo by Chiara Meattelli and Dominic Lee

Vs is a unique album that brings influential and uncompromising vocalist / producer / songwriter Mark Stewart together with different artists for each track. Looking at the lineup, it would seem like the results would be chaotic, and they are to some degree. But there is also a strong sense of cohesion as Stewart unites with artists who have been part of his music sphere over the years and/or shares his aesthetics and philosophy.

Mark Stewart started The Pop Group in 1977 in Bristol, England. In 1980 he embarked on a solo career highly influenced by the sounds he had discovered when visiting New York. Through his solo work and collaborations, he twists elements of styles such as post-punk, dub, industrial, and electronic music into exciting new directions. The Pop Group reformed in 2010 and has continued to record and perform.

The collaborators for Vs include: Adrian Sherwood, Mark Pistel (Consolidated), Leæther Strip, Patrick Codneys (Front 242), Eric Random, Ye Gods, KK Null, Lee Tesche (Algiers, Nun Gun), Peter Harris, and Xuqui. In the following interview, Stewart talks about the release and looks back at how it relates to his musical past.

The album has an interesting list of collaborators, but it all gels together really well. Could you tell me about the inspiration behind this album? How did this project come about initially? What was your primary motivation for doing this?

Mark Stewart: Fear? But the antidote to fear, I believe, is risk. So, for me, risk is everything. And in my travels, I got KK Null to open for The Pop Group, and I was in love with Japanese noise going back to High Rise and his first band, Zeni Geva. And Masonna. I became friends with Mika Vainio from Pan Sonic. For me, each track is a complete and utter learning process and a curveball, because on my normal trajectory, which is weird in itself, I hadn’t thought about engaging with a lot of these people. A lot of them were friends and co-travelers to a certain extent. But the connections are just so bizarre. There was a famous club in Belgium called Ancienne Belgique, where the sound came out of something called the AB sound, which I loved. And Front 242, when they first came out, their whole stage show and everything they did was completely and utterly shocking. They looked so NOW; they looked like some kind of enforcers. So to be able to work with them…

We gave Cabaret Voltaire one of their early gigs in London. We organized this big benefit for Amnesty International when The Pop Group were just really kicking up. I’ve been friends with them all the way through, and Richard [Kirk] sadly died last year. But to work with Stephen Mallinder … Eric Random is just a fountain of pleasure. He’s a stalwart in Manchester. He’s been there since the beginning. Tony Wilson used to run this Factory night before he set up the label at this tiny club, The Russell Club, and Eric used to come with Ian from Joy Division. What’s really weird for me is I was helping the two directors of “Rip It Up and Start Again” [to] kind of connect with people that I knew from back in the day. And [we were] just sort of swapping notes on who we thought should be in their film. And it just goes full circle. Because, for example, one of the crucial people from the post-punk scene to me was this girl called Linder Sterling. She was in this band called Ludus, who were amazing. And they supported us at the same gig that Eric and Ian Curtis came to, which Tony Wilson put on. I mean, there was hardly anybody there, but Linder went on to do these amazing kind of montages for the Buzzcocks. And later, she was a big influence on Morrissey. I mean, just these connections coming full circle. Then somebody told me that Morrissey met Johnny Mar at a Pop Group concert. It’s just so weird the way these things kind of connect and reconnect. But for me, the thrill also was working with Ye Gods, who I think is THE new kid on the block. It’s like we threw a ball in 1978, and it’s bouncing back in my face.

Could you talk about what the collaborative processes were like? Doing these tracks, was there any kind of connecting thread to how you worked? Did it depend on the collaborator?

Mark Stewart: I was so pleased when you said it kind of threaded together because, for me, it’s like a huge wrestling match. That’s why I called it ‘Vs.’ It was me versus KK Null versus Mike Watt; it was me versus Ye Gods. It’s like a battle of the gods. And so each one was a sort of thing in itself, but it kind of grew from different sources back in the day. Like, the Front 242 [collaboration] came from these connections I had with this Ancienne Belgique club in Brussels. The Pan Sonic thing; I did a collaboration with Mika, this weird kind of performance art, an experimental art festival in Austria, and he gave me four tracks before he died.

I kept on wondering; I kept on trying different things to do with them. And then, when Aphex Twin recommended Ye Gods and I heard his stuff, I thought, “This is the kid’” … in his own way, he is as over the bleeding edge as Mika was. You can’t compare them, but to be able to … and I talked to Mika’s estate … to be able to finish something off with a parallel amount of brute force or energy. I’m pleased with it, and some of these things I’ve been finessing for years.

For me, a lot of the noise stuff goes back to Metal Machine Music by Lou Reed. When we were kids, there was one junk shop on the way home from school, which just had, like, smelly clothes, bits of pots and pans, and a few records in the corner, which were like a shilling each or something. And we just bought them because of the cover. So I ended up with like, “music concrete”, Hammond Plays Pop, Bert Kaempfert, and just the maddest collection of things I’d clean off and get the mold off.

So, this is just what I do. I kind of bounce up against people. I get on with somebody at a gig or go to their gig. I go up to Kenneth Anger and ask, or I go up to Alan Ginsburg and try and get something going. I’m doing it all the time. I’m kind of doing it in the film world now, which is a bit weird, but there you go. They call it provocations in the art world, but I see it more as a sort of instigator, and I don’t know where these things are going to go.

Throughout your career, you’ve really brought together a lot of different influences and styles. As you are creating, is there any fear that things will not work?

Mark Stewart: I’m surrounded in a room full of things that haven’t worked since the age of 12! I don’t know; it’s just, the planets align; it sounds pretentious saying it. You suddenly make a decision to run with something. And the thing from punk that we learned from Malcolm and from John Lydon and stuff is, whatever you decide to do, you front it to the best of your abilities. But I’m really pleased that I did this. It was outside the box for even me, and it’s a challenge. Some of the things are a bit like the Hadron Super Collider when you shoot things at very high speed at each other. I can’t even … I’m going to analyze it, like next year or something. It’s still really raw and really live; for me, it’s as out there as “Y” was when we were making it.

And I’ve kind of thrown off any kind of comfort blanket. Obviously I’ve worked with Adrian and On-U Sound and Dennis Bovell. There’s all sorts of different people I’ve worked with; the Tackhead crew. But for me [with this album], each track is a kind of album project on its own.

Was it a challenge putting it all together, for example, figuring out the album structure and sequence?

Mark Stewart: It’s always a challenge sequencing and even the split second between the tracks. I was just listening to Crowded House, of all people. And the way one track suddenly gooses you or jumps in on a split second, even those moments. And the artwork, the whole thing. But for me, the infrastructure and the feeling behind the thing is just as important [as] the connections I’ve made. I mean, Mark Pistel from Consolidated is really part of Scott’s eMERGENCY heARTS setup. And the people that worked there kind of remind me of early Rough Trade; they’d have like committee meetings. There’s thought, whether you agree with it or disagree with it, at least there’s thought going into every action. And they’re trying to support all sorts of interesting people. It feels buzzy, which is again part of the thing. Sometimes, I’m not being rude, but sometimes some things are just sort of co-opted. Maybe the musicians or the artists or something really mean well, but behind the scenes, there’s like a huge kind of like war machine running the whole thing.

You probably know how media works and stuff these days; it’s quite strange. So it’s good to have a team of people who you get on with. You can throw mad ideas into the thing. You know, I’m constantly throwing mad ideas into this whole process as it’s happening. There’s a friend of mine who died recently, Mark Fisher, this guy who wrote “Capitalist Realism.” I’m trying to help get a film together on him. And that’s really interesting. So I’m kind of writing; I’m pushing music into that. And then you find out that the new president of Chile was … the effects that people’s work have in the most bizarre places. Somebody just sent me something about Matt Groening talking about his love for me [Groening had been the 2010 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curator and asked The Pop Group to perform.] And have you heard of Esquivel, the space rock guy, the space music guy in the late fifties? It’s the whole thing. And the whole process is a kind of eye-opening excavation and blossoming in itself. I’ve got this saying: unleash a new reality. I[‘ve] just got a funny feeling that all these people [are] going off with torches into these different jungles; we’re going to see something where there’ll be Mothra lurking in the volcano, who knows.

You mentioned performing with Cabaret Voltaire early on. It seems that as styles and genres grow, they can become more separated.

Mark Stewart: I challenge that, and things shouldn’t become a genre. The whole point of post-punk is it wasn’t a genre. When we were in New York back in the day, Basquiat’s band Gray was incredible. But then hearing Latin stuff and like the way that Liquid Liquid got picked up by Doug [Wimbish] who plays bass with me and became a baseline for a Grandmaster Flash tune or whatever, one of those Sugarhill tunes. The interdependencies and the strange connections are astounding, and a lot of people just focus on the sort of band-y part of it. But there were the DJs. Even the Italo cosmic guy was into post-punk. Post-punk was wide open. For me, it’s like films, graphics, books; the energy of punk went in a myriad of directions. It was like rainbow dust. And the more you try to define, … well, personally, the more you try to define me, the more I’m prone to try and break out of that rubber room or that straight jacket. I hate it. Because the whole point of post-punk was experimentation.

And that seems to be when you look at some of what people, what the young kids, are calling post-punk, now it’s wide open. They’re referencing a lot of electronic stuff. The new bands are like a cargo cult, a complete mashup of all sorts of different things. And they’re not restrained, which is amazing. We got that, Pop Group got that from free jazz, really. Punk blew off the doors and we thought we could do what we wanted.

Going back to the early days, what was it that initially kind of like inspired you to be a musician?

Mark Stewart: The first thing was there was a guy called Alvin Stardust on Top of the Pops in 1973 and he had a leather glove with a ring on it. He sang this song called ‘My Coo Ca Choo’, which was like a sort of glitter band production. And I just thought if you can make money by just pointing with a leather glove with a ring on it, I’m down. But then, really, for me, it was just the story of friendships and sort of gangs. And you know, we were just mates around a ping-pong table in a youth club. And our friends, like further up the road, started a band in Bristol. And then we were going up to the Roxy with them and we just thought we’d give it a go. I mean, we didn’t really have any intentions because before punk, music was so far away, it [had] become the whole star system. It was as far as away as being a stockbroker. It wasn’t in our career opportunities handbook. You had to buy huge synths and stuff, but then suddenly, probably like the Bert Weedon thing with the Liverpool explosion or whatever. My friend Mark Perry just put some chords in Sniffin’ Glue magazine and you could just … and Paul from The Clash had stickers on his bass, showing him where to put his hands. Suddenly anybody could have a go. So we learned and played ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ for like six hours, and off we went.

Did you feel punk was getting stagnant? Did that inspire you to push things further, or did you always just have a lot of ideas or interests that you wanted to pursue?

Mark Stewart: The English take on punk was a bit pub rock for me because we’d already heard “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television. We’d already heard “Road Runner” by Jonathan Richmond. We did “Pablo Picasso” by The Modern Lovers in our early set. And we were really into things like Albert Ayler, things like this drummer called Paul Motian. We were just into all sorts of weird stuff. People would come on with like . . . Tristan Honsinger played on “We’re All Prostitutes” and he’s like the most out-there European free jazz viola player there is. But when you look at it, it’s a similar thing. I’ve been listening to some feedback loops that the Velvets had going, John Cale and Angus MacLise in the early Velvets. It’s not new, the whole Fluxus stuff. We were aware of all that sort of stuff. So to a certain extent, some of the English bands had come from pub rock. And I’m not being rude, because the energy was great and the chance to dress up and challenge the system and whatever, the energy was fantastic. And it really emboldened a lot of people and demolished a lot of obstacles. The amount of people you hear that were energized by the feelings of punk. But the audiences were as important as the band. And that’s one thing I’ve always liked. Often I go and see bands; I don’t particularly or totally like their music, but I just know there’s going to be some other outsiders in the audience that I can have a laugh with or decent conversation. It’s that feeling of community. I’ve got this thing, outsider theory, theory of the outside, outside of the theory.

Could you talk about what the music scene was like in Bristol back then?

Mark Stewart: There were like Indian Sikh punks. A lot of my mates of Jamaican descent had Mohicans and stuff. So it was a real mix-up. And the punk gigs were in reggae clubs. The Pistols were going to play this legendary reggae club called the Bamboo Club, but it got burnt down. And we had to go across to Caerphilly to see the Anarchy tour. But in Bristol, it was the same group of lads and girls that had been going to these funk clubs. We were dressing up in like fifties clothes when we were like … I was like, 14 or 15, the other people were older. And going up to London and buying stuff off Malcolm McLaren and Lloyd Johnson and wearing like winklepickers and pink pegs and stuff to these really heavy-duty funk clubs. That was our scene. And then, when I saw a picture of the Pistols, a tiny little picture of the Pistols in ‘Sounds’ they were wearing the same mohair jumpers and trousers that we were wearing to the funk clubs. Because Malcolm was dressing them. The clothes and the fashion and the roots, it’s all kind of intertwined. I’m loath to analyze it, because I’m still within that thing, but there’s such a mix-up of … and in New York there was such a mix-up, like I was saying, between the Jamaican guys, like Kool Herc, starting hip-hop. I’ve heard hip-hop guys scratch up Bauhaus. Kanye West is a big Pop Group fan. He wears “Beyond Good and Evil” T-shirts.

The connections across are completely and utterly bizarre. So it wouldn’t really fit into somebody trying to write a book about it. But back in the day, you used to do interviews with people from the NME or something; you just realized they were fitting your answers into something they were writing about post-structuralism or something at college.

Hank Shocklee, who is best known for his work with Public Enemy, produced the Pop Group album “Honeymoon On Mars.” What was the experience like?

Mark Stewart: Incredible, because what happened was when The Pop Group reformed, we played one of the South by Southwest [conferences]. And we were playing on the roof of this shopping center and were with Dave Allen, the bass player from Gang of Four. He [has] always been a friend because we were running parallel to Gang of Four. He just texted me or messaged me out [of] the blue and said, ‘I want to come to your gig, and can I bring my friend Hank Shocklee? And I thought, ‘Oh my god,’ and I said, ‘Of course.’ And Hank just wandered on the stage. I knew straight away; you can just tell by somebody’s look. We just sort of hugged each other. It [was] the same with Carl Craig. You know, you just immediately make friends. It was the same with Sun Ra. You just make friends with people. It’s quite childlike. And I got on with Hank like a house on fire, and we were ping-ponging stuff to him and whatever. You listen to those layers of noise on the Public Enemy records, Bomb Squad Productions, and it’s pure dissonance with a beat. And it’s the sort of stuff that I was into, in the early hip-hop scene anyway, because I was listening to, like, scratch Red Alert mixes on cassettes that had been copied three times. And I always liked the Slammy, noisier side of stuff. I threw him that idea. Hank’s really into cutting-edge technology, and we talk about stuff like that. It was incredible, because we were actually doing the recording with Dennis Bovell and then had Hank to do the finishing touches. It’s like, for me, it’s a dream team.

People don’t realize how punk early hip-hop was — the whole idea. My friends Massive Attack and Tricky and stuff. The whole idea of two turntables, and the microphone was pure DIY. And that was part of it… the DJs were partially coming out of post-punk, you know. In Bristol, it was about sound systems, DJs, funk — we had our feet in so many different camps. And then Nena Cherry came up, and we were working with the Slits, you know, with really strange connections. We put out a record by Diamanda Galas.

You’ve worked with Adrian Sherwood throughout your career. How did you initially meet?

Mark Stewart: Basically, the Slits were having problems with their managers or something, and I said to Dick O’Dell, who we were running Y with, and who was managing The Pop Group, I said, let’s give them a hand and do a split single with them. We did it again recently with Sleaford Mods because I just like that idea of package tours, split singles with different bands, you know, nicking each other’s audience and stuff. And then the Slits were doing a gig in Bristol. I went there, and I believe Prince Hammer, one of Adrian’s toasting guys, was opening for them. Adrian was mixing the whole set, and me and Adrian just got on like a house on fire. I knew a little bit of his Hit and Run records, some of the reggae productions.

And we were both really, really into this guy called Jah Woosh. We’d obviously been to a lot of the same concerts, but he was from High Wycombe and I was from Bristol, but for some reason we had a similar sort of upbringing, coming from … I wasn’t as into football as he was, but that kind of youth cult thing coming from skinheads and suedeheads and early reggae. We just, we are like brothers, we just gelled. We’re doing a big celebration of On-U. We’re doing a huge gig in London with Horace Andy, Tackhead, African Head Charge, Tessa from the Slits, blah, blah, you know, a load of On-U alumni at the end of April. And hopefully, playing in Bristol, you know, so the whole thing is … Somebody called it a collective of outsiders or something. It’s wide open, and even Jalal from the Last Poets was on there, and Judy Nylon.

‘Vs’ features a track with Lee “Scratch” Perry, who passed away before the album was completed. Could you comment on his contribution?

Mark Stewart: I’ve known Lee for quite a long time, and I grew up listening to Lee’s work, amongst a lot of other Jamaican musicians, like Niney the Observer, Prince Jeremy, blah blah, blah. But Lee’s kind of — I don’t really want to use the word ‘shamanic,’ but he was a shining example of how technicolor a human being can be. He’s a shining beacon, I believe, in this century. For me, [he’s] just as important as somebody like Marcel Duchamp. And I just had this mad idea of getting Lee to recite nursery rhymes because I remember there was an American kind of weird mood guy, I’ve forgotten his name, who made these sort of children’s records, but they were so out-there. And I just thought it was an excuse for people of a certain age to be able to play some sort of cool dub stuff. Well, they were like rocking the pram.

But the bugger died a little bit of the way through. But I’m so pleased, because I do this art project as well with a collaborator called Peter Harris. We’ve got this thing called Bomb Art, and Peter’s other main collaborator was Lee. For the video for the track, it’s full of Lee’s and Peter’s unseen artwork. I mean, there’s a little bit of footage of Lee working in the studio, making these paintings with Peter, and he’s just … I’ve seen him do it. I was around Adrian’s garden, and Lee picked up this pebble and just sort of held it. It was like he was blessing the thing. It was like it was becoming a thing. And there’s this footage of Lee just going over a sort of mural with some fire. I thought, oh my God, what’s going on there? It really reminds me — I’m really into this stuff called Chi energy that the Qigong masters used. It reminds me of one of those, and there are these things called Chinese ghost films. I don’t know how to explain it, but he’s tapping into something which is very nutritious, which is there for everybody, you know?

Throughout your career, you’ve come across as an artist who never wants to repeat themselves. Is this something you consciously strive for, perhaps discarding things that might be too much like your past work? Or does it just come naturally based on your own interests?

Mark Stewart: Basically, I’m doing this for myself. You know, making my ultimate sort of mixtape, like we started back in the day with boom boxes and double cassettes. I’m just making something that I’d want. And I’ve got to like deprogram and challenge … I’ve got to keep on shedding skins and getting rid of a reptile eye. It’s what I do, and I’m not being rude, but I don’t care if I tear up a whole career’s worth of [work] … luckily I’ve been surrounded by real maverick kind of businesspeople as well, which has been very helpful. Nobody has dared to sort of say, why do you do this? Or why do you do that? I’ve been lucky enough that if anybody did, there’s a lot more people I could walk off and work with. And that’s, again, the whole thing about eMERGENCY heARTS. Could you, could you imagine trying to A&R me? It wouldn’t end nicely, I don’t think.

The Pop Group have been cited as a big influence on many artists, particularly in bringing elements of funk into post-punk. What do you think about your influence?

Mark Stewart: I don’t, to tell the truth. I mean, what I’m quite proud of is my connection to my friends in Bristol, like Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack. When we saw the Cortinas, our neighbors, getting up on a stage and going up to London and playing on the same stage as The Clash and whatever, at The Roxy club, we just thought, ‘Oh, we can have a go,’ so I think when my friends in Massive Attack, when they were the Wild Bunch, you know, I remember pushing Tricky on stage. They probably thought if Mark can do it, I can have a go. So it’s breaking down that glass ceiling, if you like, you know, but the breadth of people, I don’t even know if it’s an influence, like in that sense, it’s more a sense. It’s more an index of possibilities, if you like.

And it’s not for me to say, but you know, a lot of these, you know, Nick Cave is my friend. These people have ended up as friends, and what goes around, comes around, and I’m as influenced … there’s this band blowing up called Benefits who, and the Sleaford Mods came out, I’m as influenced and infused and given a desire to get up in the morning and really plow on again by new shit. Like Ye Gods, you know, I heard him. I just thought, wow. It gets you going again.

I think passing the torch is interesting if you look at it like that. I’m a fanboy, you know. “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television, “RAF” by Snatch with Judy Nylon and getting to work with Judy. And Judy’s my friend. I mean, I cannot believe it sometimes, getting to work with Richard Hell, getting to work with Kenneth Anger. I can’t believe some of the situations I end up in. It’s like my 12-year-old self would’ve wet themselves.

Are there any dream collaborations? People you haven’t had the chance to work with yet?

Mark Stewart: There are conversations going on with Ryuichi Sakamoto because I really like his stuff in the Yellow Magic Orchestra. There’s lots and lots of kind of weird potentials in the pipeline, but I’m also like … There’s this English folk singer called Shirley Collins. I like to just do things completely outside the box, and sometimes I get ideas that are just not anything to do with what I’m known for, that could just be good for somebody else. Or ghostwriting or something. And I’m really getting into this idea of, I don’t know what they call it, it’s in between like a film soundtrack person and a music supervisor. I mean, there might be a chance that I get like the whole soundtrack to a film, and I just farm out to different mates and bands under my sort of vague auteurship. There’s a hell of a lot of potential things going on at the moment. But let’s see.

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