The Pop Group Took 35 Years Between LPs and Stayed Relevant
While the safety-pinned, spit-flying saga of the Sex Pistols spearheading the U.K. punk rock movement is stuff of legend, it was outliers like Wire and the Slits who defied all conventions in their singular visions of punk.
Then there’s the Pop Group. Hailing from Bristol, co-founders Mark Stewart (vocals), Gareth Sager (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums), were record-collecting teenage thrift store hounds when they birthed the band in 1977, shattering any and all classification in drawing on their schizoid, dance-inflected tastes.
The contorted, static sound with the crystal-clear message manifested on signature statement single “We Are All Prostitutes” and full-lengths Y (’79) and For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? (’80). These beasts were far ahead of their time, and their warped shouts, funk-driven gyrations, free jazz-inspired skronk explosions, dubby bass boom and face-melting noise has influenced everyone from Nick Cave and Fugazi to Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent and Sleaford Mods.
Another band that took the Pop Group’s neopolitical, socially aware, working-class, dirty funk rage to heart was San Pedro’s Minutemen. “Pop Group had an incredible influence on the Minutemen — incredible,” stresses bassist Mike Watt on Skype from his Cali home. “Here’s some guys that took Captain Beefheart and mixed it with Parliament-Funkadelic. For us, in those days — we’re talkin’ late '70s — that was a mindblow, because we’re comin’ from arena rock. We thought there were these strict rules about music and stuff. Pop Group? They blew that all the way for us. You had permission to let the freak flag fuckin’ fly. That’s what they said to us. It was a really important band.”
After For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, the band dropped out of sight for over three decades. That is, until 2010, when The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was tabbed curator of that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead U.K., playing linchpin for the Pop Group’s reunion when he asked them to perform. Although they couldn’t pull it together in time to play Groening’s ATP, Stewart and his mates used that opportunity to revive their long-dormant band.
Not only have the Pop Group reissued a batch of their long-out-of-print punk-era recordings, but they just self-released — via their own Freaks R Us label — their second post-reunion set, titled Honeymoon on Mars, the follow-up to '15's comeback LP Citizen Zombie.
Nearly 40 years after “We Are All Prostitutes,” the Pop Group have shed none of their piss ‘n’ vinegar-dripping gripes, as shouter-singer Stewart rails against corporate evil and warmongering on the forward-thinking, industrial music-cum-dub dystopian dancescapes of Honeymoon on Mars. Their second album in as many years is a grimy, synth-noise dancefloor burner, with help at the controls from a legendary producer pair: dub titan Dennis Bovell and Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy / the Bomb Squad fame.
CLRVYNT rang up the wired Stewart in London to discuss the contributions of Bovell and Shocklee, the advent of “noise-hop,” and aligning with North Carolina-based producer Brandon Juhans (a.k.a. Hanz) and Japanese dubstep innovator Goth-Trad, both of whom gave the remix treatment to songs off Honeymoon on Mars.
Honeymoon on Mars is the Pop Group’s second post-reunion album after being M.I.A. for 35 years. How did you get inspired to revive the Pop Group and be so productive after being off the grid for decades?
There was a guy that wrote this article, and he defined this thing called "noise-hop," which was just the most bizarre thing, because he kind of defined how this album kind of progressed, weirdly. This kid connected these dots that nobody else has connected between me and Hank Shocklee, and then through to these new German noise guys. It’s weird how a journalist can affect music.
And Hank Shocklee co-produced Honeymoon on Mars.
Yeah, and this kid kind of defined the genre and called it noise-hop. He was [writing about] the early experiments that I did with the Pop Group, and later on, on my solo albums, which a lot of people ran off and called industrial. But I didn’t understand, because I was really into hip-hop. He called that whole genre, then going through to grime in England and this kid called Hanz and this other lot called Goth-Trad, who we’re getting two of the kids to do remixes. He’s invented a new family. [Laughs] I knew these people anyway, but when somebody defines a scene, it just unites you with the people.
So, you’re on board with "noise-hop."
I suppose it’s all right if I used it. Anything for a job! I’ll follow any craze!
Speaking of Shocklee, what did he bring to Honeymoon on Mars sound-wise?
With this second Pop Group reunion album, I really wanted to draw on new sub-bass and rhythmic stuff. There’s this stuff over here called trap, which is just amazing. There’s also this electro-kumbia stuff and progressions of crunk or whatever. It’s a draw on the spatials from some of those dance fields, like we drew on dub and funk when we first started. I just wanted to try and twist some of the things that I’m hearing out in the clubs and on the street and these new sort of glitchy, futuristic R&B sounds and, specifically, the sub-bass field. On a lot of this new stuff, they’re actually playing melodies and little tunes where the bass drum used to be. It’s the weirdest thing. We’re playing these big techno clubs in Berlin. There’s this place called Berghain, and hopefully Dennis Bovell is gonna be doing the live mixing, and we’ll pick up on the same 3D spatials with these detuned subs that DJs do live.
It sounds like you’re deep into those scenes.
That stuff really tickles my fancy. I’ve always been a bit of a bass head and a beat freak, going back to the days putting my head in bass bins at reggae sound systems when I was 14 in Bristol. Bristol is a bass city. All the progressions from us through to Massive Attack to all the new Bristol bass kids we know now like Pinch and stuff — there’s something about Bristol and bass music.
So, I was really getting into hearing these beats and stuff in Miami, and some reggaetón stuff, and I thought, “Who can we get to administer this?” I was trying to insert our post-punk whatever, sort of experimental shit on the top of this. But it gave us a sort of structure to experiment within, and me and Gareth were writing on top of this stuff. I thought Dennis Bovell, who really helped us solidify our vision on our first Pop Group album, Y, would be amazing because he’s coming from the reggae dub tradition. He’s a real bass head as well, and he really helped us put it together.
Then by chance — it was either last year or the year before — we played South by Southwest. It’s really weird, the music game. The people that you got on with when you were kids, there’s solidarity between a certain kind of musician. There was a very old friend of mine [Dave Allen], who was the original bass player in the Gang of Four. I remember me and him having the most bizarre conversations when we were kids. He’s living in the States now, and he suddenly got a hold of me on Twitter and he told me, “I want to bring Hank Shocklee along to one of the gigs.” I thought, “Bloody hell,” 'cause I’m still that little fanboy. I’m shocked that any of these people who are legends to me know what we’re doing. I remember when somebody played me a tape of Bowie talking about us and Throbbing Gristle, and I think I wet my pants. I can’t connect! I don’t think of myself as being in a band. I do what I do and I don’t think about it too much.
What happened at South by Southwest?
So, Hank comes along with Dave Allen; we’re playing South by Southwest, as well as a load of guerrilla gigs across the city. Suddenly, this guy jumps on stage and starts hugging me and virtually pogoing, and it’s bloody Hank Shocklee, who, with his sheets of sounds at the beginning of Public Enemy and on some of the LL Cool J stuff, really imposed noise into hip-hop. He was like the Phil Spector of hip-hop. It was just great for somebody like that to be sort of visceral and into what we were doing. I thought, “Let’s see if Hank’s up to doing a couple of things.” The way he rides the rhythm is just … cool. We also talked about maybe doing some things with Underground Resistance, blah blah, blah. But getting Hank and Dennis on this thing, I’m really pleased with it. I’m listening to a lot myself, which I don’t often listen to. [Laughs] It’s bizarre, I like it. I’m fulfilling a lot of dreams. The bass is good, at least. I don’t know about the bloody singing! [Laughs]
Which records that Hank Shocklee worked on do you really dig?
When “Don’t Believe the Hype” and “Bring the Noise” came out, it was just bizarre because the strangest story was the Pop Group, straight from school, were in New York a lot. Us and the Gang of Four were very, very hip in no wave New York. We were playing Danceteria, Area, Mudd Club, Tier 3. We were just out in New York loads because there was a real buzzy scene — the post-punk and no wave scene was really taking off in New York. DNA were playing with us, and the Bush Tetras. There was a hell of a scene. I was like 17, 18. We were out there and made loads of friends. We all had little ghetto blasters, double cassette machines in those days, and one of our roadies was just messing about with the New York stations 'cause we were just into seeing what’s going on. By chance, he found an early [DJ] Red Alert show on WBLS, which was like KISS-FM, a New York dance station. Suddenly, I heard these scratching noises, this thing going 5-4-3-2-1, this kind of piledriving scratching thing. I thought it was Keith LeBlanc that did it, and it took me a year and a half, but through Tommy Boy, I tracked down Keith LeBlanc and got to work with him on my solo stuff. I make a lot more out of something that I hear. I add loads of things to stuff and make it multicolored and a lot more vivid than perhaps other people do. So, I was having this vision of hip-hop, and then me and Adrian Sherwood were messing about, trying to do with the kind of Maffia stuff. But then Hank came out and it was like, “This guy’s on it.” It was a full-on attack, and it was wicked and it went across the world. That stuff was absolutely revolutionary because before there was like a tinny little drum going on, you know.
You mentioned no wave earlier. Did you identify with DNA, Mars, and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks in the early days of the Pop Group?
The thing is, we were fellow travelers, but my problem was that I was always — from an early age, like 12 or 13 — I was just listening to funk and reggae. I wasn’t really checking out a lot of what I called “white music.” [Laughs]
I’m not being rude, but I was always going out dancing [in] the big funk and reggae scene going on in Bristol, so I didn’t really check a lot of it. It wasn’t really filtering through to England. Obviously, we loved the Dolls and Suicide, and the Mercer Arts Center, we were hearing about that. The New York Dolls were fundamental for everybody forming punk bands in England. When they played on this program here called The Old Grey Whistle Test, everybody wanted to get up and have a go.
You guys were also into free jazz way early on.
To a certain extent, that was a kind of a progression from funk. We were getting into really dirty, heavy, bass-driven funk. Then I kind of started hearing Miles Davis, and Miles Davis was getting really funky. On the Corner completely blew our heads off. Then we started going to this big jazz festival in Holland on the ferry. Basically, it’s just coming home from school and spending your bus fare and your dinner money on weird-looking albums like The Master Musicians of Joujouka, or like weird beat poetry that your brother got into. Just finding shit in junk shops. I remember talking to Mike Watt. He bought the first Pop Group album 'cause he cover looked fucking weird. That’s what you do: You buy stuff 'cause it’s upside down.
How has Bristol changed over the years?
The good thing is — because Massive Attack is still on the same street they've ever lived in, and Portishead is still there — all these Bristol bass kids are taking the whole punk DIY thing in a dance way and setting up their own little empires. You can do everything there now. There’s new studios, there’s mastering. You don’t need to come to London and tug your fall-off to some fucking corporation. They’ll rip you off. We’re quite independent, and it’s amazing. There’s some amazing art shit going on.
How did being in Bristol influence you to go into the musical direction that you ultimately did with the Pop Group?
My best friend, like four doors up, formed the first Bristol punk band, called the Cortinas. They were coming up to London and playing the Roxy and stuff, and we were going to all the punk shows. We were completely into it. We said, “Let’s have a go ourselves.” But we don’t want to make another punk band, 'cause punk was already two, three months old when we started talking about it. I just immediately started saying, “Why can’t we try and play some kind of James Brown and stuff, mix in and use dub techniques and stuff, mix in the stuff that I’m going out dancing to in Bristol?” That seems to be the sort of genesis of it.
Let’s jump way ahead to the Pop Group reuniting in 2010. How did that all go down?
We were talking about doing a proper reissue campaign, 'cause people were paying stupid money for the How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? album. It was being bootlegged, and then Gareth just suddenly said to me, “Why don’t we just put out ‘We Are All Prostitutes,’ and put out something new on the other side just for a laugh? Just as a kind of challenge?” I said, “Oh, all right.” Personally, I don’t really like this idea of heritage bands reforming. So, I thought it’s like necrophilia and always said, “No, fuck off. No, never gonna do. I’d rather do something else.” But then we get this phone call that Matt Groening from The Simpsons is curating this festival here called All Tomorrow’s Parties. He had a wish list and he could choose any band he liked, old or new. On his wish list was Iggy to reform the Stooges and me to get the Pop Group going. I just thought that was the most bizarre thing — that Homer Simpson’s dad could be into the Pop Group.
Were you aware of Groening?
Yes. I didn’t get it together that year for this festival, but it kind of implanted the seed. Basically what happened is, my mind realigned. At that stage, I was doing a lot of collaborative things. I got to collaborate with Richard Hell, Daddy G, and I did this art thing with Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker. I just thought, “Right, why am I writing off these guys in the Pop Group? Why can’t I just see them as a new commission?” So, the conversation with Dan [Catsis] and Bruce and Gareth was, “Look, let’s just see what happens," as if we were asked to do this by some weird, little western front art thing in Vancouver or whatever. The craziest thing [was], as soon as we got into a room, it was demented. I don’t understand it. I do not understand what is happening now with this shit. I’m quite pleased that I’ve got something which is out of my control. I’m not trying to market it, really. We’re just letting the fucking shit explode and happen. Thank god we’ve got control; we’ve got our own label, Freaks R Us. The shit is organized well enough across the world that we can do it and be in control of it.
How taken aback by all the sudden interest in the Pop Group?
You can’t think about that sort of shit. Supposedly, on one of my solo records, Trent Reznor said I invented industrial. Somebody else in Bristol says I invented trip-hop on the same fucking tune. You don’t get into that shit, because if you start thinking about something like that, you won’t make something new. We’re completely naive. The problem is, I walk away from shit. I’ve got a very short fuse, and I just tell people to fuck off and walk away from shit. I don’t know why, but I’m not the best person to deal with. [Laughs] I’m into it for my own sake. For some reason, I believe in that punk dream that Strummer started going on about. Perhaps we got it wrong in Bristol or something, but we picked up this flag that we’re still trying to fucking carry. It’s bizarre.
Honeymoon on Mars is out. You’ve already played a bunch of shows and are touring a lot. Are you stoked on all this new Pop Group activity?
What I’m most excited about is Dennis Bovell, who’s like the King Tubby of England. We can’t get rid of him now. We worked with him when we were kids, and me and him just put on comedy Monty Python voices when we talk to each other. Our manager just said, “Do you want to do the London show?” Now he wants to tour all over the fucking world with us. It means that we can look at the whole thing in a completely different light. When you got a dub master like that, you can just clap or trigger an explosion. We’re gonna use a hell of a lot more space. It’s bizarre. This record is the kind of new beginning we were talking about when we got back together again, but it’s actually pushing us to, you know, we can just stop and let the dub take it over.
Do think there’s been a big progression from Citizen Zombie, which just came out last year?
I love that record. It was full-on and mental, and it’s a head fuck. But [Honeymoon on Mars], with the lyrics and the whole dystopia and sci-fi feel of it, I’ve just got real hope. We’ve got to try and reclaim the future.