Mark Stewart's Faith Is Room For Doubt
How The Pop Group frontman keeps an open mind to fuel creativity.
Posted Feb 28, 2017
“Somebody once told me that hope is a power.” —From “Days Like These” by The Pop Group
Mark Stewart of the band The Pop Group told me, “People for some reason say that my stuff is prescient.”
No argument here.
The Pop Group’s music was boundary breaking, and both predicted and influenced several generations of bands. In comparing The Pop Group band to their contemporaries, Rolling Stone wrote, “Among their rabble-rousing post-punk contemporaries, none boasted as much sheer musical inventiveness and audacity,” and stated that the band influenced bands such as Fugazi, Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. And according to Paste Magazine The Pop Group’s debut album Y “is all right angles, jagged shards of melody and the coiled rage that would fuel fellow bands like The Birthday Party, The Fall, and Minutemen.”
Why was the work of Stewart and The Pop Group so influential?
Because Stewart approached his art the way he approaches his life—he questions everything. While for some people, skepticism springs from pessimism and the belief that things will not turn out well, Stewart’s questioning of the world around him is the foundation for optimism. And it is only through challenging all of our pre-conceived notions of the world that we can realize our own potential.
Stewart’s approach most likely started in a home where both of his parents readily embraced alternative perspectives. “My dad is an obsessed scientist, just kind of out there—obsessed with PSI discoveries and behind the iron curtain and telekinesis. And my mam was a sort of English spiritualist and so we used to do this sort of table rapping and a séance every Sunday,” he said.
Dreaming big was sort of the family business. “I remember growing up with my dad and all his mates and I remember science was full of idealists—more than art,” Stewart described. “They were reading Asimov and that ‘50s really cool kind of sci-fi and they were dreaming the future.”
As a result, Stewart adopted a sort of faith in which nothing was assumed to be true and problems were seen as possibilities. “For me faith is room for doubt. I have seen and felt all sorts of things. I constantly question where my info is coming from, how it’s textured and who’s paid for that channel,” he explained. “I’ve been like that since I was a kid. Why is it a problem? It might be an opportunity. There’s no point in being a pessimist.”
As he grew up, this more open approach allowed Stewart to be friends with children who did not share similar backgrounds or political beliefs. “Constantly, since I was young, I had people saying, ‘Don’t talk to him. He’s a this or he’s a that,’” Stewart recalled. “But I hang out in these rough places and I’ve got a lot of friends who are pretty out there kind of people with pretty nomadic country beliefs.”
“But I trust them all with my life.”
Perhaps predictably, Stewart gravitated towards the confrontational and innovative artists of the punk rock movement. Stewart described how bands like Suicide, the Sex Pistols and the Clash influenced him and gave him creative inspiration.
“Punk is an attitude. Suicide invented punk—their street punk thing. And then punk in England—there was a real energy,” Stewart said. “And it’s weird like when you pick up a radio wave that’s been distorted—things mutate down the line. There’s a story that reggae started in Jamaica because there was an R&B station that kept on cutting out so you got this weird rhythm. So in Bristol, we got a very idealistic take on what the Pistols and the Clash were doing.”
“I think I believed in it more than Strummer did.”
And Stewart approached his music just as he’s approached his life—taking nothing at face value. “We thought if you’re trying to drum up shit with your graphics and your lyrics, what’s the point of playing pub rock 12 bar blues which a lot of early punk was. It was very simple pub rock before,” he explained. “We should mix in and fuck up and challenge the stuff that we’re into, which at that stage was funk and dub reggae in the clubs in Bristol when we were teenagers. We’d already got to Albert Ayler and free jazz.”
Creating the proper chemistry so that the band could explore divergent ideas and perspectives was no easy feat. “For me it’s kind of like the alchemists. The music isn’t necessarily what I think or believe—the different stances or the oppositional forces inside the thing. I’m constantly trying to hold a rudder—we call the label Freaks-R-Us,” Stewart described. “We’re constantly trying to let our freak flag fly. The Pop Group is a temporary autonomous zone. In rehearsals it’s a little like cage fighting. I fight like mad to make it open. And it’s been open.”
And often the music reflects Stewart’s perspective. “One of the most important songs we wrote is called, 'Days Like These.' I have this line, that 'Somebody once told me that hope is a power,'" Stewart said. “If you keep an open mind, new things will develop. And new seeds will grow. And your mind will be unleashed. You’re not caging it. Don’t define it. Like you’re a kid in detention and you write a 100 times, ‘I will not pee on the teacher.’”
“I write ‘Don’t define it.’”
For Stewart, his approach to music and life naturally flows into an approach towards politics and world events—even in the current ominous political climate. “Although it’s dark days, it’s time to dream again. I’m not one of these people to tut and wring your hands and say, ‘Stupid idiots.’ And with all of this shit going down and the greedy ultra right claiming this scorched earth policy—you cannot just shrug your shoulders—you have got to engage,” he explained. “But you have to engage in a new way. I have this lyric, ‘Bankrupt ideologies litter the dealing room floors.’ I’m not moaning about things and saying this is wrong and this is right and wringing my hands.”
“You have to pick up the ball, look to the future.”
To be sure, while his open, questioning approach translates into an overall optimism, this does not mean that Stewart does not breathe fire at the things he sees wrong in the world. In particular, as many artists imitate the punk rock artists that influenced Stewart, he questions whether imitation really is the most sincere form of flattery.
“When we first started, when I was 16 or 17, and we first saw the [Sex] Pistols and came out of that whole thing, there was a fucking attitude…an in-your-face fucking attitude. But now it’s so fucking contained and co-opted,” Stewart described. “It’s a trope…It becomes disconnected from the load. And then the thing becomes a floating reference. It’s the ghost of a ghost of a ghost. It just disturbs me—the lack of engagement of the so-called independent scene. It’s full of wankers. Full of complete and utter charlatan wankers. I’m not saying I’m not a wanker.”
“It’s like they’re play-acting at being in bands and being in the music business.”
Still, there’s plenty going on in the world to support Stewart’s optimism. He’s encouraged by his peers who keep creating new and interesting music and getting involved politically, such as Ian Mackaye of Fugazi.
“There’s this thing by this guy Ian [Mackaye] from Fugazi called ‘Occupy the Future.’ He’s real. I’ve got so much respect for that guy,” Stewart said. “You’ve just got to look four or five years down the line…so many people will give up in seconds. And fuck ‘em.”
And he sees much of the spirit of punk rock playing out in other styles of music, such as electronic music. “For me, the real brains and the real seeds for the future are in the electronic frontiers,” he explained. “And there are some very conscious people right in the middle of the machine and building the machine…but there is this sort of medieval battle going on outside the crystal castles.”
And so, Stewart continues to push the envelope to explore new musical territory and different lyrical content. After a 35 year hiatus in which Stewart put out several solo albums, The Pop Group came back in 2015 with Citizen Zombie and recently released their 2016 album Honeymoon on Mars. And while The Pop Group will always hold its influential place in history, Stewart has no interest in such nostalgia.
“You don’t want to get put in a genre. Our whole point was to not be in a genre and now they try to put us in this little ‘post punk’ box,” Stewart said.
“I don’t want to be in a box until I fucking die.”
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman