The gospel according to Mark

June 26, 2012
Mark Stewart: Menacing machismo. Photo: Chiara Meattelli and Dominic Lee White Shirt Lead

Mark Stewart
The Politics Of Envy
Future Noise Music
Released March, 2012

"Genius and lunatic are two sides of the same coin," says Mark Stewart. The post-punk pioneer is telling Green Left Weekly about "Method to The Madness", a song on his star-studded new CD, The Politics Of Envy.

But he could just as easily be talking about dub-reggae doyen Lee Scratch Perry, Clash co-founder Keith Levene or mindbending moviemaker Kenneth Anger, all of whom appear on the album.

Or he could, of course, be talking about himself.

Stewart has said that if he hadn't channelled his corrosive criticism of capitalism into music, he could have easily "been dragged into some louty gang shit".

Instead, the founder of avant-garde auteurs The Pop Group is cited as a defining influence by myriad musical masterminds, from trip hop trailblazers Massive Attack to today's dubstep dons such as Kahn. (Both, incidentally, also appear on his album.)

Australian aural A-lister Nick Cave has even gone so far as to say, “Mark Stewart changed everything." And it seems the love is mutual.

"Nick sees the beauty of sadness,” says Stewart. “He embodies 'the romantic agony' through [Romantic poet Lord] Byron and [revolutionary politician and philosopher Marquis] De Sade to [Romantic poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley, [French prose poet Charles] Baudelaire and my favourite, [French poet and critic Stephane] Mallarme."

It's a typically studious statement from Stewart, who is slightly better read than your average rock star.

"Recent books devoured and requisitioned include a book I helped with, Consuming Terror by Rupert Goldsworthy," he says.

"It follows the red star as a floating signifier from its earliest roots through to the radicalisation of South America to the mirror wars of today.

"[And] Hartmann, The Anarchist by Edward Douglas Fawsett, originally published in 1892, a surprisingly real critique of consumerism and globalisation, a story of [Russian revolutionary Sergey] Nechayev-style conspirators whose aim was to pierce the ventricles of the heart of civilisation."

Despite such learning, Stewart says he hasn't really changed since the age of 14. Asked what epiphany he had back then, he says: "I think I caught a mutant strain of idealism after meeting some crucial enablers like Robert Eringer, author of The Global Manipulators, and Michel Prigent, one of the original situationists.

"My mind suddenly went quantum, 'the dark shadows' were illuminated. A strange, almost primal, awakening."

The Politics Of Envy is also an eye-opener, sounding like nothing else around. On it, Stewart takes sonic sensibilities such as Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound and projects them into the future via cutting-edge electronica.

"The future, I think, lies on the electronic frontiers," says Stewart. "We are now in a borderless world and we must dream the future and use all tools to be invented. Liberation technologies to be succinct."

Throughout his career, Stewart has been hailed as being ahead of his time. His political astuteness has even led recent reviewers to claim he was predicting the Occupy movement years ago.

A sample on "Hypnotised" - the Top 10 British indie-charting single from 1985's As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade by Stewart's band the Maffia - intoned: "Seven percent of the population, 94% of the wealth… pay it all, pay it all, pay it all back."

But such foresight most likely comes from Stewart being an observer rather than a seer.

Asked which media outlets he follows, Stewart replies: "Subtopes: subtopia, a field guide to military urbanism - spatial politics - counter geography, carceral landscapes. Darkpolitricks: unreported news. Occupied Times - as [Intellectual Noam] Chomsky says, we must occupy the future. Papua Occidental: free West Papua, also myriad other counter intuitive sources and streams from Indymedia and Global Revolution to IPSA Portal, which scans the top 300 political science websites."

Little surprise, then, that the lead single from The Politics Of Envy is "Autonomia". A collaboration with Scottish rave-rock veterans Primal Scream, it is dedicated to activist Carlo Giuliani, who was shot dead by police during demonstrations at the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001.

"I recently hooked up with his sister to support movements in Italy," says Stewart. "My links to Bologna - going back to the days of radio Free Alice, which The Pop Group guested on in ’79 - radicalised my already raging DIY Rough Trade Messthetics."

Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie is a natural fit with Stewart. Gillespie's politics were deeply influenced by his trade union activist father, who was a member of the International Socialists in the 1960s.

In the trippy, stop-motion video for "Autonomia", Gillespie's airy androgyny also proves the perfect visual foil to Stewart's menacing machismo.

Conversely, the Primals' dark and heavy guitars bring some weight to Stewart's sonic enlightenment.

"The Primals for me are the true heirs of the Detroit garage scene - that is, Mitch Ryder, James Osterberg [aka Iggy Pop], and so on," says Stewart.

He is clearly just as thrilled to have worked with the other guests on his album, who influenced its original title, Fountains.

"Working with people who have been fountains of knowledge to me growing up, like Richard Hell, Kenneth Anger and Lee Perry, inspired the working title," says Stewart.

"But I see The Politics of Envy as a kind of open neo-slogan - is it politics with a big 'P', as in personal responsibilities, or is it politics with a small 'p', as in those who falsely claim power and are constantly taking the piss?"

Stewart has been a fountain of knowledge himself for young musicians such as Kahn, the dubstep demi-god who has writing credits on half the album.

The pair's home town of Bristol in south-west England has always been two steps ahead in two-step, breaks and bass - and Kahn's kaleidoscope of shifting sounds typifies Bristol's sonic sophistication.

"The new Bristol Bass scene of Kahn, Appleblim, Joker, Buggsy and so on reminds me of the early hip hop crews," says Stewart. "The ethos is similar to what we had there back in the day, like the seminal Wild Bunch [that evolved into] Massive Attack, my posse and 2 Bad crew at the infamous Dug Out club.

"The town is so small, we all know each other or each other’s mates or brothers... it's kickin’. Bristol boys make more noise!"

As for how his latest slice of Bristolian brilliance should be taken, he says: "I’d like this work to be an index of possibilities that people can run off with in any direction they want."

Genius or lunacy? It could be both. You decide.


Vanity Kills (with Richard Hell)
[Iconic gay movie director] Kenneth Anger added occult Theramin [an early electronic musical instrument controlled without discernible physical contact from the player] to Kahn’s baroque'n'roll riddim. I used Richard [Hell] as a demonic avatar to denounce the fall of Rome. I think he invented punk rock with the Neon Boys and his love comes in spurts like a true fountain and father of our blank generation.

Autonomia (with Primal Scream)
Dedicated to Carlo Giuliani, who died at the G8 Summits in Genoa. I recently hooked up with his sister to support movements in Italy... My links to Bologna - going back to the days of radio Free Alice which The Pop Group guested on in ’79 - radicalised my already raging DIY Rough Trade Messthetics. The Primals for me are the true heirs of the Detroit garage scene, that is, Mitch Ryder, James Osterberg, and so on.

Gang War (with Lee Scratch Perry)
As the devouring jewels of the mega-corporations devour the world's resources and vulture funds incite instability, the world is being torn apart by vested interests and hidden agendas. Lee Perry [who shouts "Viva Chavez!" in the song] is king snake shaman, constantly denouncing injustices from his throne of bones.

Electro has always been close to my heart, from the Zulu Nation no wave years I spent in New York City, and I often return to [the] body-popping tropes of my youth for inspiration. The lyric began as a letter to a lost first love at the age of 14.

Want (with Factory Floor)
My love affair with ragga, reggaeton, booty bass and - recently - juke comes to play here. Bass is maternal. Factory Floor are the cold wave leaders here in the UK at the moment and I love their work. My old mucker [Youth] from post-punk comrades Killing Joke sings on this as well as [playing] bass and helping me produce the whole bloody album.

Gustav Says
Written in Berlin with members of Der Plan, this sums up my clubbing decadence decade in Germany and Austria. I think it's important to try to say something on the top of stonking beats, and rap back in the day was highly political.

Baby Bourgeois
Synth porn with a vacuum-sucking backbeat rallying against celebrity culture, media whores and anybody who sells their soul and sucks corporate dick. [French philosopher and social theorist Michel] Foucault loves disco.

Method to the Madness
Genius and lunatic are two sides of the same coin. In our accelerated culture the risks of fiction and scandalocity are high. I see this as a sci-fi lullaby owed to these spectacular times.

Apocalypse Hotel (with Daddy G from Massive Attack)
Too much, too soon as the New York Dolls said. This song happens in the bar at the end of the universe, the lizard lounge where even the devil sold his soul...

Letter to Hermione (with Clash co-founder and Public Image Limited guitarist Keith Levene)
I wanted to screw my version of Bowie’s Letter to Ms Farthingale, of lost love. [David Bowie's "Letter to Hermione" was written about Bowie's ex-girlfriend.] Every time I hear the original and mine, I get shivers down my spine.

Stereotype (with Factory Floor and Keith Levene)
The next single, also featuring The Raincoats legend Gina Birch. To get her and Keith Levene - the unsung catalyst of English punk rock, having formed The Clash and PiL - with new breed Factory Floor, was a ménage a trois made in post-punk heaven.

Green Left has bought a luxury double CD version of The Politics Of Envy to give away. Just email your name and address to before the next issue comes out on July 4. Winner picked at random.

Listen to The Politics Of Envy on the interactive YouTube album sampler:

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