Mark Stewart has operated at the forefront of unconventional, cutting edge and occasionally confrontational music for the best part of four decades now. As a founder member of Bristol quartet The Pop Group, he was largely responsible for some of the most original sounds that emerged from the post-punk era of the late 1970s, fusing traditional rock methods with dub, reggae and hip hop. Since then, his work with Adrian Sherwood as part of the On-U Sound team undoubtedly helped pioneer the "Bristol sound" pivotal in launching the likes of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead, while continuing to make experimentally challenging records under his own moniker either as a solo artist or as Mark Stewart & The Maffia.
Cited as a major influence by numerous musicians including Nick Cave, Primal Scream and Sonic Youth - who the recently reformed Pop Group supported on their last UK tour at the tail end of 2010 - Stewart's legacy continues to live on through his own music and that of those he's inspired. Next week (Monday 26th March) sees the release of his eighth solo album, The Politics Of Envy. Featuring guest contributions from the likes of Bobby Gillespie, Lee Perry, Richard Hell, Keith Levine, Kenneth Anger, Massive Attack's Daddy G and Factory Floor, it's a startling reaffirmation of one of the most creative artists of his generation.
With a short tour next week to coincide with the record's launch, DiS managed to distract Stewart for half an hour to talk about both his and The Pop Group's new records, his continuing influence on the development of new music and the changes he's witnessed within the music industry these past three-and-a-half decades.
DiS: What are you up to at this moment in time?
Mark Stewart: I'm sat here signing 100 limited edition copies of the album in silver pen ahead of next week's release. I should really be rehearsing for next week's shows, but I've just been chatting to this really cool Scandinavian film maker that's going to make a short film to go with some of my music.
DiS: Your new album, The Politics Of Envy, is out on Monday. How did the record come about and what influenced it?
MS: I worked with this sort of Dadaist art collective in Porto, Portugal. They do all these weird semiotic books and theory and all sorts of art interventions. The biggest influence on The Politics Of Envy though was undoubtedly Kenneth Anger. David Tibet from Current 93 told me a couple of years ago that he was very ill and they were trying to do a fundraising event for him. Through David, I managed to get in contact with Kenneth. Lots of people from my generation love Kenneth Anger. When I was thirteen or fourteen I spent all day in this cinema in Bristol watching all of his films. The magic that came through the television to the audience just kind of touched me. For me when I was young, people like Kenneth Anger, Lee Perry and Richard Hell educated me. What I got from school didn't matter as much as what I took from these people. Reading about Kenneth Anger's love of Lotheron and the weird juxtapositions when he cut in pictures of Jesus to this homoerotic bible film in 1950, it kind of started punk. I guess he's best known for 'Scorpio Rising' in the 1960s, which is when people like Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page started having dealings with him. He's magical. So anyway, we all went on this huge symposium in Portugal for three weeks across all these different galleries and theaters with artists from all over the world and theorists. It was basically people giving lectures in honour of Kenneth Anger called 'Magic & Art'. I got to hang out with him for a little bit, and he was wearing this white panama suit and playing the theremin, and he's still got his quiff! I mean, God knows how old he is, and he's such a playful, naive character. I just love the bloke, so from that, I was living in Berlin at the time and I had an idea to do something with his book, 'Hollywood Babylon'. I wanted it to be a big production with Kenneth's signature on it but featuring different people from our scene. It's like when Cocteau worked with Stravinsky; I wanted Kenneth Anger to put his signature on this piece so it would live on after he died. That part of it is still a work in progress, but Kenneth's avatar kind of quantifies the whole album. I was going to call the album Fountains, and Kenneth Anger was the real fountain that influenced so many people apart from me on this album. There's Richard Hell's experiments in New York from 1972/73 with The Neon Boys; the way he ripped his t-shirt getting "Richard" on it; then, after seeing the Kenneth Anger films I went through a period of listening to nothing but Lee Perry on a daily basis. For me, if Kenneth is a magician then Lee's a shaman. I don't know how to explain it but in the punky reggae times; I don't really know the historical facts of it all but I spent quite a lot of time with some heavy duty Rastafarians, these real elder guys. I'm not really a part of their culture or anything but they were a real inspiration to me. They're like Indian Yokis or something. A lot of the people me and Adrian Sherwood looked up to when we started On-U Sound were cool, older guys with dreadlocks. Even now, with dubstep artists like Burial and Pinch they really look up to a lot of the experiments me and Adrian did with On-U Sound, and we're quite influenced by dubstep and now Adrian's got some of the dubstep kids to remix Lee Perry so it's kind of become like a circular feeding process of inspiration.
DiS: There are numerous collaborations on this album such as the ones we've already mentioned like Lee Perry and Kenneth Anger, along with Bobby Gillespie, Keith Levine and Factory Floor among others. How did these become involved and did they take part in the writing and arranging on the record?
MS: In the past four or five years I've been blown by the wind to different places in the world, and on those travels I've bumped into so many people. It's like when I bumped into Kenneth in Portugal. Bobby Gillespie and Douglas Hart from The Jesus & Mary Chain I happen to share an old girlfriend with; not in that way! Douglas' old girlfriend is one of my best friends and I've always crashed in their front room. I don't really know Douglas that well because he was always away working. Anyway, one night Bobby and Douglas were talking about both their dads being trade union people in Scotland back in the day, and it just reminded me of some of my mates in Bristol. Keith Levine I actually bumped into by chance outside the Marquee club when we were kids. I didn't even know he was in a band. We were just talking about UFOs. For me, Richard Hell is the spirit at the beginning of American punk whereas Keith characterises English punk more than anybody I know. We were out the other day and he ordered chips...with custard! He reminds me of Beavis from Beavis & Butthead. He's so punk that he'll just walk away from things. He's spent fifteen years or so away from being in a band, and it took me years to persuade him to work with me. The thing is, I don't realise that these people genuinely love my stuff. Daddy G from Massive Attack says I'm his hero, and he's one of my best mates from when we were kids. They get something from my stuff which I don't understand. They see me as someone who's keeping the flag flying. It feels stupid talking about myself but they love it. Bobby Gillespie and Andrew Innes from Primal Scream are joining us onstage at the London show on Monday.
DiS: Will there be regular collaborators at all of the shows or different people joining you depending where you're playing?
MS: At the moment we've got Bobby and Innes playing on two tracks in London, Jon McClure from Reverend & The Makers is keen to do something. Because I'm in rehearsals, for me it tends to work like a children's birthday party. Keith (Levine) will probably turn up on the day and I expect other people will be phoning me. It's all a bit mad at the moment, but I know eventually we'll get to the stage where we're doing some stuff with Kenneth, and there's talk of taking Richard Kirk from Cabaret Voltaire to Japan. Dan Catsis from The Pop Group is playing guitar on the live stuff, and we've got this incredible dubstep rhythm section Arkell and Hargreaves. It's basically the punky ends of the songs underneath these kind of three-chord wonder bits which is me anyway reverting back to punk, or even post-punk form. It won't be so capped. It won't be so Andrew Lloyd Webber like if you know what I mean?!?
DiS: The first single off the record, 'Autonomia', was written about a protester who was killed at the G8 demonstrations in Genoa in 2001. Do you think there's too much apathy in modern music compared to when you first started? It's certainly difficult finding that many artists seemingly intent on making any kind of political statement nowadays.
MS: I don't really separate music from anything else. We're doing some big things in Italy with the sister of the guy - Carlo Giuliani - that died. I've been doing a lot of Italian press to spotlight the issues. In Bristol I know people that are carpet fitters, work on building sites, work as teachers or are musicians. I don't separate musicians or artists as being better or worse than anybody else. I think generally across the world with all the occupy movements and the things that are going on in Burma and China we've always been internationalists since the beginning of rough trade. The mirror of capitalism is cracking and people are seeing through. I saw an interview on CNN recently with some wives and mothers of American soldiers in the mid-west, and even they were saying "What is this war about?" People are not believing the old lies anymore which I think is quite healthy. It's a good sign, and politically or idealistically it's important to look at the future with new eyes and not keep on having the same old arguments. We can change the future, we can't change the past. We shouldn't keep looking at old models of left and right or wrong and right. It's possible for some kind of crazy kid with these new liberation technologies to dream a new future. People are still talking about things from the 1950s and Cold War. It's rubbish.
DiS: It's like genre classification in musical terms. Everything has to be put into the right categories, either black or white with no middle ground.
MS: Basically the whole world is connected. I was talking to the guys from Massive Attack about some documentaries I saw recently where some kid was listening to their music in Beirut. They played one of my songs 'Radio Freedom' on Radio Lebanon. The idea of a nation as a state is so medieval. We're all completely connected. Something happened somewhere and we became citizens of the world. That's why music is so useful to this new generation. Everybody can share it. I mean, this record's going out all over the place. Music's a language that can be shared. Personally, I keep on reconditioning myself and keep an open mind as is possible to everything, and the more I learn about things the more older myths and old positions are destroyed day by day.
DiS: You reworked T Rex's 'Children Of The Revolution' for a single at the back end of last year. What made you choose that song and do think the lyrics have a relevant context in the present climate?
MS: Again, that was like the old troubadours who'd go round with newspapers from town to town telling the news back in the day. For me, that was really of the moment, and I wanted to do something aligned or in sympathy with - not completely agreeing with the specifics - Global Resistance. There was a real flashpoint across the world; not necessarily the things that are covered in the western media because that's obviously part of an imperialist agenda, and I'm not saying it's left or right or whatever, but there was a kind of awakening. There still is with the Occupy movement that's going on. I wanted to do the record as a kind of fund raiser. We do a lot of benefit shows in different countries for different causes, but because it was Marc Bolan's song I couldn't give it away for free. I had to put it out as a double a-side with 'Nothing Is Sacred', the track Eve Libertine from Crass worked on. Basically it was me saying "they are the children of the revolution" in that moment. For me, there is something going on but whether or not people are led down another garden path and just given another set of fake leaders no one knows.
DiS: That's an interesting viewpoint because I think many people would associate that song with hedonism.
MS: I don't know, I mean I was having this conversation the other day with some intellectual writers. For me, glam rock, and the gender politics of glam rock, where you'd have a builder from up north suddenly putting lipstick on and wearing high heels, you know; glam was punkier than punk. If glam hadn't happened then punk wouldn't have either. There were mates of mine who'd dress up in women's clothing that were complete and utter football hooligans. I find glam very radical. The way it confronted gender politics messed with a lot of people's heads.
DiS: You mentioned earlier that Dan Catsis, who normally plays bass in The Pop Group, is playing guitar on your new record and at the live shows. How did this come about?
MS: It was just one of those things that happened. It's like if I overhear something on the bus or I pick up a neo slogan from some advertisers in Finland or somewhere; it's just piecing together common themes or a juxtaposition. I asked Gareth Sager from The Pop Group if he wanted to play guitar on the record, but he was busy, so Dan just kind of fitted in really. He used to have this band prior to The Pop Group called The Glaxo Babies and they did this song called 'Christine Keeler' about the Profumo affair which really just blew my mind. Before he joined The Pop Group he was playing guitar with a dildo and stuff! We'd all be walking around with Tampax sticking out of our ears going to Glaxo Babies gigs. I wanted to create this whole post-dubstep Black Sabbath style bass sound with the rhythm section, and then I thought it would be great to have some Levine or Glaxo Babies style backwards profane guitar over the top. When I heard them in rehearsals I was genuinely excited. I was jumping up and down as though I was at a rave!
DiS: I believe there's also a new Pop Group record currently in progress? How far into the recording process are you and when is it likely to be released?
MS: This is the story at the moment. Matt Groening asked me to reform The Pop Group and Iggy to reform The Stooges for an All Tomorrow's Parties event he was curating a couple of years ago. I couldn't do it at the time, I guess mainly because I couldn't understand this reformation idea. I'd rather think about tomorrow. I'm not even thinking about this record, I'm already making the next one in my head. A little while later, I was debating the idea with Barry Hogan from ATP and I said rather than reforming The Pop Group why not just get a bunch of collaborators to perform a new piece. For example, me, Keith Levine and Yoko Ono. It's a bit like necrophilia. And then a couple of years later, by chance as it happens, I was asked to go through some old Pop Group material to see if there was anything that hadn't been released, and I found these old demos that we recorded when we were fourteen or fifteen. When I played them back, even though I hadn't listened to them in years the lyrics still meant something to me, and it sounded quite fresh, and I thought to myself I can actually sing these. You know, why can't I treat working with these people like a new commission just because I know them? We're all still mates, so I said to Gareth (Sager) and Bruce (Smith, drums), if we are going to do this let's make something new. Suddenly, we're in the studio making this new stuff, and it's like nothing I've ever heard before. I don't know how to explain it; sort of sci-fi lullabies maybe? We're not edging it we're taming it at the moment, just letting it happen hopefully with the intention of putting it out next year. I think it's cool to play a few different cards, like Gorillaz and Blur for example.
DiS: As well as the three UK shows next week, you're also playing the Democrazy Festival in Belgium next month. Are there any more live shows and festivals in the pipeline?
MS: We're just checking our availability at the moment but there will be some announcements shortly. I was doing some work on my computer the other day and I received this email with 50+ provisional dates around the world. The album's just sold out in Japan and it only came out over there yesterday! It's crazy what's going on. St Vincent covered one of my songs on the Letterman Show recently, and then there's people like Matt (Groening) and people who work at Sony that are like punk secret agents exposing our music to the world through the back door. There are some cool people in real positions of power. Even I struggle to understand it.
DiS: You've obviously witnessed a significant number of changes within the music industry since first starting out with The Pop Group in 1978.
MS: I've never felt part of any music industry or business, whatever that is. All I know is I'm just a kid from a rough part of Bristol and every now and again I have to report to some office somewhere. I'm not some kind of statistician. I was living in Berlin recently and the way art and image links in with sound over there is quite phenomenal. I think eventually everything will just merge to form so kind of hypermedia. I saw Chris Evans being interviewed the other day, and he said he went into a Soho television studio and sat and talked to a Russian ballerina, except she wasn't there. She was on a bluescreen projection which was being transported from a studio somewhere in St Petersburg. If we're getting hold of this kind of technology, imagine what kind of developments are taking place within military organisations? The future's happening and we're still walking around wearing 1970s clothes.
DiS: Looking through your entire back catalogue, is there any one record which you'd choose as being definitive of Mark Stewart?
MS: I don't want to sound like a plugger, but for me this album is the first properly finished work I've ever put my name to. All of my other records have tended to be works in progress and then Daniel Miller from Mute has said we have to be finished by next week. I didn't tell anyone at the time but we were still editing this right up to the last minute before it went to the pressing factory. I've got some of the finished copies in front of me and it's like a cool little book. It feels like my coming home. There's a community with all of these people that I'm working with on this record, which kind of reminds me about the first time I ever came to London, and Vinyl Solution would organise these gigs by like-minded artists such as The Pop Group, Joy Division and Gang Of Four. This is in the same kind of spirit. That kind of simpatico wave, and it's still going on generation after generation after generation. It's a pleasure to be a part of it.
DiS: Finally, what does the future hold for Mark Stewart?
MS: God knows! My granny was a psychic I'd better ask her. My mum said she's psychic so I said, "Well what's the point in phoning you then mum!"
Mark Stewart can be seen live in March at the following venues:-
26 Glasgow King Tuts Wah Wah Hut
27 Manchester The Ruby Lounge
28 London Scala
The album The Politics Of Envy is out on March 26th via Future Noise.
For more information on Mark Stewart visit his official website.