Mark Stewart of The Pop Group: ”Juxtaposing Is Always In My Life” Chiara Meattelli and Dominic Lee

Mark Stewart of The Pop Group: ”Juxtaposing Is Always In My Life”

Written by:

Andrei Bucureci

Published:

November 14, 2019

1. Introduction

Mark Stewart of The Pop Group is more than an inspiration for me. When I first spoke to his frequent collaborator Adrian Sherwood, he called him intimidating. I had no idea what to expect, but I had a special conversation with the artist, even though we have a 30 year generation gap between us. And I found out that 1979 saw the poetic and political Stewart at the tender age of 18 and debuting on record, with his band The Pop Group. Their music was being very far from what one might call pop in any decade, be it the seventies, eighties, nineties or our present day.

Many might consider the sound of Bristol something other than dub-influenced, funk-driven post-punk, but The Pop Group and their debut album Y demonstrates how you can make an LP that doesn’t feel dated at all some 40 years later. When talking with Mark I feel like I am talking to a future friend, more than with a seasoned veteran.

In our conversation combined with his poetry, we touched upon topics like the 1979 UK political climate, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Patti Smith, experimenting in the studio with dubmaster Dennis Bovell, Frankenstein (why not?), collages and Bristolian NGO’s. All right there in the last year of the seventies.

We were 18 years then, Thru the darkest night, As the new reality dawned.

2. Dub Music and Collages

The Pop Group
The Pop Group

40 years of Y now: an interesting trip of four decades for an album that hasn’t aged at all, it still feels fresh and focused. What are your fondest memories from that time when you were composing this LP, back in 1979?

My favorite memories are from sitting on the floor of the studio, at Ridge Farm Studios, in the deepest countryside. We were playing children's instruments and toys, with the rest of the boys from the band.

We were 18 years then
Thru the darkest night
As the new reality dawned


Our tunes from the Y album have evolved over a period of a couple of years. From when we first started up to then in 1979, the songs have mutated at rehearsals and gigs and then gestated again in the studio. We put different heads on other bodies, like the New York Dolls song, Frankenstein.

How would you describe the experience of working with dub/reggae master producer Dennis Bovell? How did you meet, were you listening to his band Matumbi in Bristol?

I actually heard his work as a producer from the start. The dub Dennis did of a tune called Feel like Making Love by Elisabeth Archer and the Equators had blown my mind. I was always a big dubhead from my very early teens and have been following Jamaican soundsystems. I was seeing people like The Revolutionaries and U-Roy at an amazing space in Bristol called the Bamboo Club. I really wanted to crash dub technics with our bands ideas. Juxtaposing is always in my life. I have been working with Dennis recently too, he is such an artist, a true human portal.

Can we talk about the way Dub music was being heard in Bristol in the seventies?

I was hearing it at soundsystems and late night blues dances. Shabeens is the mostly Caribbean neighbourhood of St. Pauls, and that is where my mother grew up. I would go there often.

How do you feel collages express best the DIY and punk/post-punk ethos?

The Cut and Paste Merz works of Kurt Schwitters and John Herfeld’s photo montages in the Second World War were brilliant. John Hertfeld, I believe, did the most amazing photomontages of the 20th Century.

Jamie Reeds appropriation of the Situationist detournement by putting safety pins through the Queens nose, on the other hand, was a classic provocation. But to box this kind of praxis into a certain historical era could commodify it. I believe we should throw these tropes forward into the future.

Obviously, Peter Kennard, my favorite contemporary British artist, who we worked with at the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and recently, Banksy, who asked us to play at his Dismaland Bemusement park. Dismaland was a great choc-a-bloc with engaged and enraged artists from all across the world.

My mates Massive Attack work with very cool radical visuals too. I would define them totally as post-punk/post-everything, in this age of statement aesthetics. But personally, the only time I would like to be put it any kind of box, is after my postmodern post-mortem!

The end of certainty
The luxury of shame
The return of history!

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3. Influences

How did you collaborate at the cover artwork of Y with Malcom Garrett?

It wasn’t done with him actually, no matter what the internet says. My best friend at school, Rich Beale, is a great artist plus I love Don Mudmen characters, we took these pictures of them, and we just put it together. I did the montage poster and there’s some other great works included in the reissue, you’ll see. Somehow I have a synesthesia, as Rudolf Steiner calls it, but more of a sort of cultural crash like a soundclash, like naif, artbrut sort of stuff.

I just have to do it / The muse must be obeyed / Arghhh she’s calling me now / Like a siren!

"I walked backward into the future with my eyes fixed in the past” (Maori proverb)

I believe this could be a problem: the best way I can describe Y is like thunder in the arid neon desert.

So our influences on Y were these:
1. Studio One (Jamaican Reggae Label)
2. Os Mutantes/Desire of the spark mutantes
3. The Ox by The Who
4. Konstantin Raudive/Voices of the Dead LP
5. Isabelle Eberhart
6. Stephane Mallarme
7. The Kay-Gees
8. Jobriath aka Bruce Wayne Campbell
9. Paul Sharits
10. Kurt Kren
11. Tom Rapp
12. Meat science essays by Michael McClure
13. Keith Hudson (UK Reggae Dub Producer)
14. Comte de Lautréamont
15. The Count of St. Germain

You have a special connection with charities and NGO’s. Was it the same in your youth, in Bristol?

Yes Bristol has a unique energy.

Feeling our power on ad hoc basis / From Blackbeard to Tony Benn / Wild Bunch to Giant Swan / There’s something in the water / Everywhere it brings its pragmatic inventiveness / It’s jubilant energy of opposition to the catastrophe

The latest charity I’ve been involved with is Mercy Ships, an organisation that provides humanitarian aid and free health care. They operate the largest hospital ship in the world.

Back when in 1979 were you friends with Adrian Sherwood yet?

No. We are now.

Did you actually discuss with King Tubby to produce Y? Was he going to come to the UK to record and produce your LP or were you planning in going to JA by ship?

We were initially having meetings with John Cale of the Velvet Underground, as we all loved his work on Nico’s Marble Index. And I vividly remember having to bunk school to meet him! Also racing back through Europe back to Bristol, from our tour with Pere Ubu, for a school exam! We actually were just beginning to reach out to Tubby, when he got shot. No way would we have reached Jamaica, it was awash with weapons at that time in 1979.

4. Calmness

Mark Stewart
Mark Stewart

What are your memories about the gig you did with Patti Smith?

We did a whole tour with Patti, she really took us under her wing. Richard (Dov) Sohl was amazing. Hanging out with them and poet Alan Ginsberg was totally cool for us, as 17/18 years old. Then surfing the No Wave train when we got to New York was amazing, Lizzy Mercier Descloux et al.

Witnessing the birth of punk / Sharing a cab with Burroughs / Sitting next to Keith Haring at Save All Robots / Being namechecked by Bowie / Working with Kenneth Anger!!! / What next?

What were your views on the Eastern Block back in 1979?

Vladimir Mayakovsky's Cabaret of Wolves was and still is a huge influence on us. I already mentioned Konstantin Raudive and his Tesla tape machines, and also his Voices of the Dead LP.

Were you back then as students exposed to art movies from directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Milos Forman or Polanski?

I was never a student, thank you. But Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker’ was really an eerie description of our world then and now, and it made a deep impact on us and mates of ours in bands like Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire. The cathedral scene in Nostalgia changed me forever.

After Tarkovsky
No way back
The Pop Group
No safety nets


What music shops did you enjoy at the end of the seventies?

Weird question, because I just remembered that we were also talking to Conny Plank for helping to produce Y. We found music everywhere, often second hand shops and buying records with our school dinner money. But to answer your question, yes, we found early electronic music LPs Nectar Jane, Guru Guru. My absolute favorite song is Ride the Sky by Lucifers Friend! I had also Flaming Hertz by Michael Rother from the later Deutsche Wave. DAF aka Deutsche Amerikanishe Freundschaft were mates and played with us. Right now Thai psychedelia, Turkish prog, Italian Giallo film soundtracks, all of that and more are my todays playlist.

We Are Time and 3:38 are probably the dubbiest tunes on Y. What were you channeling on those tunes? Were they discussed with the producer?

3:38 was a kind of I Ching, chance procedure, channelling on all 24 channels. And yes, Dennis Bovell was like Captain Kirk on the starship Pop Group, voyaging into unknown musical dimensions. We simply tore up the map together. We Are Time is Star Trek again, only way you could / would describe the mixing of that song.

Where were the songs from the bonus LP Alien Blood that you found? Have you got a favorite one that triggers something special?

Alien Blood is made up of the original versions of the songs from Y. They were unearthed, when the boxes of the Y sessions were opened again for the first time in 40 years. It was amazing, a fairytale of sorts, like a genie jumping out, we just sat back and listened in awe! To be honest they are all favorites I wouldn’t and couldn’t recommend one in particular.

What can you tell us about the Y Live album companion to your anniversary release?

I remember being with Bruce Smith, our drummer in New York City and he just put Live/ Evil by Miles Davis in my hands. It blew me away and soon afterwards I found the set of the Live at the Cellar Door recordings from which Miles put Live/ Evil together. Bruce said, That’s the music The Pop Group were trying to make! Teo Macero’s editing on the On the Corner LP too was totally crucial in teaching us about the live process and getting that energy in the studio as well.

How did such a calm and blissful song like Savage Sea come into being? Most of the tunes on Y are like a sonic attack.

What is calmness?

About the Author

Andrei Bucureci

Andrei Bucureci aka Intimidatah is a Romanian writer, music curator, spoken word artist and singer-songwriter in the band Crowd CTRL.

@andreibucureci
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