As riveting as the music that sprang up during punk’s assurgency in the late ’70s might have been, the subsequent bands and variations that followed in its wake were perhaps even more astounding. Like many of their contemporaries, The Pop Group was an answer to punk’s DIY call to arms. The Bristol-born band took its vitriolic predecessors’ rebellious attitude and applied it to a hybrid of rock, funk, free jazz, dub, and yes, pop, juxtaposing the concoction with a healthy dose of political and social commentary. The group, whose members were teenagers when they formed, released only two albums during their initial incarnation, but those records—1979’s Y, which featured their most well-known cut, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” and 1980’s For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?—sealed the band’s legacy as a touchstone of the post-punk era.
In the intervening years, The Pop Group’s influence has touched countless bands. And though the band’s members have continued to challenge musical norms in other guises over the decades, when the band reconvened a few years ago, it was a very welcome surprise. After playing a number of festivals and self-releasing a couple of archival recordings, original members Mark Stewart (vocals), Dan Catsis (bass), Gareth Sager (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums) emerged this year with a new album, Citizen Zombie, and a string of U.S. tour dates to promote it. In anticipation, I got Stewart on the phone to ask him about the reunion, but in fitting provocateur fashion, he put forth the first query.
Mark Stewart: So what does Agit Reader mean?
I know you’re familiar with Agit Prop and it’s a play on that, as well as just the general idea of agitating. There’s also a great song, “Agitated,” by the Electric Eels.
MS: I posted that the other day. Superior Viaduct just reissued some of that. They’re great!
I was born in Cleveland, as was Steve, who runs the label. The Superior Viaduct, which the label is named after, was this huge bridge that connected the east side to the west side of Cleveland.
MS: Cleveland is where Pere Ubu and Rocket from the Tombs were from, right?
Exactly. Electric Eels were contemporaries of Rocket from the Tombs. And I know you played with Pere Ubu back in the day…
MS: Mate, honestly, the story is just crazy! I was in school and we were playing in youth clubs, then suddenly within a couple months we were in Europe on tour with Pere Ubu while I was still doing my exams. I had to come back early on a ferry overnight after playing the last concert of the tour. I was an hour late to my English exam and I wrote this 30-page Burroughs speedwriting thing with no grammar about Hamlet being a hero of the mind or something. Honestly, going on tour with Patti Smith and Pere Ubu while I was still in school was just crazy. Then sitting having tea with Sun Ra—I can’t believe half the things I’ve done!
Yeah, I’m familiar with some of those stories. It seems like you were in all the right places!
MS: It’s bizarre! By pure luck, I happened to be 13 when glam rock was kicking off. My older brother came back from this concert with his eyebrows shaved off and told me about David Bowie. So we were wearing glam rock clothes to youth club, with big David Bowie badges. That’s when I first met Gareth and Bruce, playing ping-pong in the youth club, and the Bowie badges would get in the way of the ping-pong paddles. Then seeing amazing music from ’73 to ’76, amazing people coming to our town from John Cale to Lou Reed’s Rock & Roll Animal Show. My brother picked up Lou Reed’s cigarette stub and has kept it ever since. That show was amazing! Then suddenly being right in the middle of punk because Gareth’s friend who lived five doors up was in one of the early punk bands and seeing The Clash and the Pistols early on. Then we were in the middle of the hip-hop scene in New York… New York is crucial to the story. We went on tour with Pere Ubu and Patti Smith and then it really started kicking off for The Pop Group. We were one of the very first bands of that wave, even before Gang of Four. We were playing at Tier 3, Danceteria, Hurrah’s, and the Mudd Club and hanging out with Basquiat or sitting next to Keith Haring in some crappy bar somewhere. It was crazy, straightaway after school, and we were there for months on end. We felt really connected to stuff that was coming from the States from an early age. Before punk, the English music scene was a little bit pompous. I don’t know if you had American prog rock bands, but I even prefer Grand Funk Railroad to hours and hours of prog rock!
Did you guys make it out of New York to see any of the rest of the country?
MS: We went to Pittsburgh. We played at the theater where they did some of the Alan Freed rock & roll shows. I had been reading these books about payola and the rock & roll scene. Some of the Alan Freed rock & roll shows were filmed at this theater in Pittsburgh. So we’re doing all these songs about politics and how much longer do we tolerate mass murder, and right before we go on, this girl got onstage and started doing a burlesque dance with tassels on her breasts. I could not understand what the hell was going on. I was just about to go and ask her politely to get off the stage, but decided I couldn’t do it. It was quite a heavy vibe. She came backstage, and I asked, “Sorry love, but what are you doing?” And she said, “I’m Jim Dandy’s girlfriend. I dance before every band that comes through here. My name’s Lydia Laser.” I said, “Any friend of Jim Dandy’s is a friend of mine.”
Later on with the solo stuff I went to San Francisco a lot. There was a cool scene that developed around the zine Research. Rough Trade San Francisco was an important shop. There were lot of connections between England and the States through the ’80 and ’90s. The people that I really respected were Mike Watt, Ian (MacKaye) from Fugazi, and Ian (Svenonius) from Nation of Ulysses. The whole thing that Fugazi did and the independence they stood up for is parallel to what we were trying to do, even though it’s a completely different kind of music. That staunch independence is crucial, just flying the freak flag so other people are encouraged to do it.
You’ve been talking about how young you were when all this happened and now you’re approaching the group from an older perspective…
MS: For me it’s just a different perspective. I don’t know how to explain it, but I don’t feel any different. Something happened to me when I was 14. I don’t know what happened, but it’s like my head exploded and it’s been like Technicolor ever since. I don’t think I’ve learned anything more or unlearned anything less. I just know that my transmitter’s been turned on. With The Pop Group, the whole point of making a new record, we all said to each other that we have to make something new that is us now and doesn’t hearken back to something from the past because that would be like necrophilia. We want to do something now and in the next three to four year set up tendrils of an alternative octopus across the world that other people can use. Before we reformed, I did a solo album with a lot of collaborators, and I’m seeing this new Pop Group album as a new commission. I asked myself, “Can I see playing with my old mates in a new way and approach them for the skills they’ve got?” Gareth and I tried to do spontaneous writing and just see where the thing went. We didn’t try to make something that would sound like anything else. We didn’t sit down and try to do a coloring book version of something from when we were young. We’re just dong what we’re doing now, and for me, it’s a new band. I mean, it’s the same people, but we’ve all lived completely different lives and have had completely different experiences. The strength in each individual character is something I haven’t seen for ages. I’m really pleased that everybody has held on and mutated in their own way. There’s more sparks and tension between us than ever. There are no yes men in this band.
To me, it sounds like a continuation of where you left off and immediately recognizable as a Pop Group record.
MS: I’ve been listening to it myself to figure out how we’re going to do it live, and as it’s me, I can’t see it with any distance, so that’s interesting to know. I can’t analyze it like that. We started as mates in the youth club constantly taking the piss out of each other, and as soon as we all got together in a room, there was immediately that kind of youth club camaraderie, like “What’s wrong with your eyebrows?” So if you see it as a continuation, that’s cool.
You hinted at this a little bit, but was there a synergy once you got together again?
MS: Yes, it’s mad. For the first time in my life, I really don’t understand what’s going on. In other situations where I’ve been experimenting, I had an idea of wanting to go from here to there and knew what experiments I wanted to make even if I didn’t know what was going to happen in the lab. But with this thing, it’s really, really weird. I’ve learned to stand back and watch the thing explode and grow. In a way, we’re running down the road after the horse. Something happened in the studio. I was singing something and suddenly Gareth came over and started improvising in a completely different direction than what was going on. It was jarring and I saw this weird space appear. It was like that movie Phantasm. So I’ve been holding my breath and trying not to put too many of my preconceptions onto the thing, not trying to abort something that could be a brilliant idea. It’s weird, but I’m finding it quite exciting. There’s something about this band and what it’s meant to people over the years. We respect what that thing is, but we have to do our own thing.
In that respect, do you feel like you have a certain legacy that you have to live up to?
MS: For me, it’s always been about context and political context. Back in the day, in the post-punk times, we were really engaged and involved in all kinds of campaigns and independent distribution. If I’m going to be ranting and raving and arguing with myself about the contradictions of reality, then the context is really important, even down to the paper of the posters and the graphics. The last ever Pop Group concert was at a huge demonstration for the campaign for nuclear disarmament in Trafalgar Square. I was also working for the campaign in their office. We were constantly doing stuff with different groups and working with Rough Trade. Now, we’ve only just begun, but we’re trying to align ourselves with other sympathetic people, like getting Cecil Taylor to play with us in New York and working to keep our independence to make sure there’s no outside from bad labels influencing us. We’re using PledgeMusic, where people can buy a sort of plow share. It keeps us from getting a bad deal from a label who will try to tell us what to do. It’s like Joe Strummer said, “complete control.” That’s what I’m trying to do. What I really am trying to fight for is to bring people together. We’re doing a split single with Sleaford Mods, who are really cool. We’re quite close to the Swans. We’re not collaborating with them musically, but we’re working with their agent. It’s sharing with other musicians and gathering people together. To a certain extent, I miss that about Rough Trade and the early indie scene. You’d bump into somebody on the stairs at the label or somebody like Ian Curtis at a gig or Genesis from Throbbing Gristle. There was a real community in England.
Yeah, back in the day, record stores were a place where you got information as much as bought records.
MS: Yeah, to a certain extent, but to tell the truth, I always bought secondhand. I always bought a lot of cut-outs. I’d go to these weird junk shops. They’d have a load of vinyl and bits of furniture and, like, cups. Then you’d find a bunch of City Lights books, which would blow your head, amongst a bunch of Carlos Castaneda books and hippie stuff. In England, we have these boot sales, and I often buy something that I know nothing about, like some Turkish ballad record. Mike Watt told me he bought the second Pop Group record at a secondhand shop just because he thought the cover was so weird. And that’s still going on. Because everyone is decluttering and going Zen in their bloody interior design, there are amazing CDs that they’re almost giving away at the charity shops.
You were talking about making these connections, back in the day being a young band with limited resources, how did you hook with someone like Andy Mackay (of Roxy Music)…
MS: We’ve always had tight control on our stuff because we don’t want to owe anyone or have anyone owning our stuff. So we’re very, very frugal. There’s a saying about the arrogance of power, but from punk we got the power of arrogance. For example, when Allen Ginsberg did a poetry reading in Bristol, I just went up and started talking to him and his boyfriend and we went off for some Chinese. He said that I was exaggerating the apocalypse. From the age of 12 or 13, we always tried to go backstage and talk to the musicians. I remember being in the dressing room with Eno when he was playing with Roxy and going up to John Cale. I’ll always find the thing that excites me, so we’ve always just found a way of doing it.
Obviously, your interests have expanded exponentially in the intervening years. Were there specific influences that you were trying to bring to this record?
MS: Musically, I’ve been influenced by juke, or they also call it footwork. It’s this stuttery dance thing from Chicago, just some of the sonics and the position of the bass drum and some of the polyrhythms. I’ve been mostly listening to that and Cumbia. The funny thing is, though, the world has kind of caught up to what we were doing in 1979. There’s a new station here, BBC Radio 6, and they’re constantly playing The Fall, The Pop Group, King Tubby, Sun Ra. If only we had a radio station like that when we were kids! It seems like people of all different generations are getting into this kind of music and band like the Savages and this really cool band Vietcong, who are doing similar experiments similar to what we did. The zeitgeist of then seems to be coming true now. It’s weird. It does seem like there’s a hunger for knowledge. I mean, there’s the zombiefication of society, which I go on about on Citizen Zombie, and the X Factor and American Idol, but there’s also so many people with cool, open minds that are hungry for something interesting.