Read the full unedited transcript of Mark Fisher's interview with Mark Stewart
The Wire: Let’s talk about the film. How did that happen?
Mark Stewart: Basically what happened was Tøni Schifer, the filmmaker, approached me and wanted to document what’s been happening. It’s difficult for me to analyse my own work. They seem to be telling this story that I’ve made all these connections between Jamaica, No Wave New York, English dance music, Indian Desi music, hiphop, Bristol, Berlin.
What’s interesting is that we have been doing a lot of the filming in Berlin. A couple of weeks ago we were talking to Vernon Reid, because I was living in New York when the whole No Wave thing was going on and I was really interested in this thing called the Black Rock Coalition, which Vernon was really heavily involved in. Vernon was saying that black kids couldn’t get into any of those galleries and gigs. We were playing in those things but I was hanging around in the Bronx, hanging around with Keith Hudson and street parties and stuff. The No Wave New York that they are talking about was quite closed. I was in and out of New York living with this guy making a film, The Pop Group played out there and then we kept on going back and we were playing with DNA and Mars and stuff but what happened is that we were suddenly, Bruce the drummer found this radio station called WBLS and there was this DJ called Red Alert and we knew nothing about what was the beginning of hiphop at that stage, this was 78-79, and Red Alert was doing these radio shows on WBLS and we would stay in at a certain time every night in New York to copy these tapes. We were interviewing Daddy G from Massive Attack the other week in Bristol and he was saying those tapes were copied and copied and copied all round Bristol, and people started getting decks and it’s crazy and Nellee, from the Wild Bunch started doing little graffiti drawings on the tapes and stuff. Hiphop hit Bristol much faster than anywhere else in England. Nothing was happening really in London, there were some funk clubs and stuff, but because of the West Indian heritage in Bristol a lot of my friends had cousins in New York, people had moved to England and the states and Jamaica and they would move back and forth. The connections between Bristol and New York were quite strange.
The strange thing is that I don’t analyse what I do, I just do it. Quite long periods of time when I don’t think about making music, just knocking about with my friends who are builders or whatever, I don’t analyse the role of what I’m doing. Making this film, having to look back, I had never looked back at anything, I’m not even the sort of person who would look back at yesterday, having to look back at this film is quite bizarre and for the first time in my life I’ve had to answer the questions in the interview and not try and steer the rudder somewhere else. The vivid memories I have are Allen Ginsberg, I was having a big argument with and he was saying that I was exaggerating the apocalypse in the early 80s, and having high tea with Sun Ra, in Holland. The strange thing is that it’s like a circle, I get stuff off other people, I feed off music and knowledge like a nutrient and I pass it along down the line. Tøni is talking to people like Nick Cave, Bowie is talking about The Pop Group in the film. Tøni wanted talking heads and for me I’m pushing more, my favourite filmmaker is Chris Marker. He’s getting all these talking heads and I can’t see the person talking on the film is me. It’s important for me to protect my innocence and my excitement about things. Now I’m as much excited about all this Desi stuff I’m into, this Desi stuff is like the first proper English multi-culture youth movement ever, every time I get a new tape or a new movement or a new rhythm it’s invigorating, it’s a pleasure for me, Asian friends of mine in Wembley are making the most wicked stuff and there’s a wicked Desi scene in Canada.
So I’m as excited now finding weird things or parapolitics as I ever was. I have vivid memories of the past, all I can remember for this film was Sun Ra and Ginsberg and we took Patti Smith to go and see one of the crucial points in my enlightenment – going to some early Clash gigs. Just before punk we were listening to lots of dirty R ‘n’ B music like pretty things and b-sides. My best friend in Bristol had this R ‘n’ B band called the Cortinas and they were supporting Patti Smith on one of her early shows at The Roundhouse. The same night The Clash were doing this thing called ‘A Night Of Treason’ at the ICA and we were knocking about backstage (we were about 15) saying to Patti Smith if she wanted to go and see this punk band and to her, she didn’t understand that there was an English punk thing going on. We took her to go and see The Clash at the ICA, Shane Macgowan was there and he bit some girl’s ear off near the stage, there was this big Observer thing about The Pistols, the Anarchy tour, The Pistols got banned everywhere and we went across to Wales.
I had this saying ‘there is the arrogance of power and what we
got from punk was the power of arrogance’, anybody can have a go,
seeing people just like us on stage not really knowing what they
were doing, that spirit, changed the world to an extent, people
realised you didn’t have to go cap in hand, it really democratised,
you can do anything.
The Wire: One of the most controversial moments in your career was the second Pop Group LP, which was heavily criticised when it came out. There was a stand off in the NME between The Pop Group and The Slits on the one hand and Ian Penman on the other. What prompted the change in approach from the first Pop Group LP?
MS: We thought the world was going to end, it wasn’t the time for French Romantic poetry! I was working behind the scenes in CND, and they were saying they were going to have a big rally in Trafalgar Square and I just overheard someone - I was a volunteer, nobody knew that I was into music or anything - and I said “I’ve got a band” and I could ask a few people, basically, the last Pop group and the first Maffia show was that huge CND rally that brought in 500,000 people and London was at a standstill in the middle of Trafalgar Square. There’s footage of it.
The political and the mystical go hand in hand. With underground political thought, it’s like you were surrounded by alchemists or something. One day I’m allowed to say ‘how much longer do we tolerate mass murder?’ and ‘ten thousand men, women and children die of starvation every day’ and on this album list the human slavery going on in the world and at the same time write a love song and those political things are love songs. I was arguing with someone the other day. For me, there is possessive love and there is unconditional love which is like a political thing for the planet, when you want to change things, possessive love is when you want to own an object. My position is that you can have an up, the music can be an up, but you can say serious things when you are up and there is nothing dowdy or depressing, people are brainwashed to think that these things are out of your control, in the shops round here people say ‘I don’t want to think about politics’, they are taught, it’s kept behind the curtains, it’s healthy. Arguments are good and when critics took a stance saying you weren’t allowed to do this, it was quite interesting because it made people take positions.
For example, people I know are quite involved with indigenous resistance movements around the world, other people actually fighting in Burma. What is happening in the world is part of life, for me to wake up in the morning, put a blindfold on and write about going down the highway on Route 66, would be lying, that everything is fine. Basically, if there is something that I’m interested in, I will say about it and I am interested in parapolitics, as I am in relationships. The root of ‘politics’, is some Greek word which means relations or population or something, why do people want to separate things?
The Wire: You said before that there are long periods when you don’t make music. How do you survive when you’re not making records?
MS: In England I’m seen as a maverick, in Chile and Japan, there are some quite strange juxtapositions of things that have happened recently and we get quite good money in other places. What seems to have happened, in the last few years there seems to be a real growth area, cutting edge performance art festivals. I turn money down cause I really want to do something and I’ve got something to say.
Looking back on things, I think the reason quite cool people across the world say Mark is alright, or I am some kind of figurehead, somebody who hasn’t sold out and kept true to their ideals, we represent something right now. I think when you hear the musicians talking on the film, we continue to open a lot of doors. I’ll put whatever I want next to whatever I want, I’m like a baby sat on the floor trying to put a square brick into a round hole. If I want to put a harpsichord on top of stuff with a Latin beat and recite an Amnesty International report over the top of it with something about shadow wars, I’ll fucking do it. Other musicians pick up on those ideas and run with those ideas and create whole new genres, from the same album all these different musicians are saying Mark did that, but I’ve already moved onto something else. It’s that arrogance, I’d be making up stuff anyway.
The Wire: You’ve always distorted your voice with effects. Why did you start doing that?
MS: I love Eddie Harris, going back in the day early on in my first clubbing experience, we had these really heavy funk clubs in Bristol when they were playing stuff like ultrafunk really dirty, heavy stuff and there was Eddie Harris with these wah-wah pedals, we were dancing to On The Corner in funk clubs before I’d even thought about getting into bands and stuff, there was this dirty jazz people, east river by the Brecker Brothers is one of my favourite tunes. Dirty funk stuff that was treated and some of my friends were putting harmonicas through wah-wahs and I always thought, we always wanted to have the dirt, the dirt is what’s important. It’s good to deny ego, I’m arguing with myself, one voice will be arguing with the other voice, the way you say the word is important, it is the intonation of the voice and the way you say it, repeat it to make it real.
I’m not worthy, I’m not saying I am right and you are wrong, I don’t know why we have to keep going over this. Politics – there is no separation between, if you want to curl up in a couple. The world is outside the window, you can’t pull the curtains over it. The reason I decided to make music instead of being some theory slut, I’ve got boxes and boxes of bizarre texts, I deny the very values that that language is built on. Even me and you are getting locked in this thing about politics and music, I have just had it in Germany. For me that language makes something feel like it is far away, very Victorian, the idea that politics is made by kings and queens and I deny that.
The Wire: Isn’t this a bad time for politics? The anti-capitalist movement seems to have lost momentum since 2001…
MS: I think that the whole world is more politically educated than it has even been. People, even my mother, realise that there is something behind the mirror, things I was talking about years ago have become public currency. I don’t see borders, race, everything is interrelated, I’m interested in the economics of genocide. These things are facts, they are related, what happens in Indonesia affects something here, they are becoming aware of it. The problem is with these arguments, you just end up with one liners.
Years ago I had this idea of a vapourware, that you could go off on different links, contained in the synopsis, you could go off in whatever direction you wanted to go, it opened the doors and different ideas. For me, England is dreary at the moment, there is something inherent in the English character that I find quite dreary.
I’m quite excited about loads and loads of cool music that is
happening at the moment. In some of this new cutting edge dance
music, new add-on stuff, it is a really healthy time, really good
experimentations, mutations of all different forms of music and
people are pushing things in all different directions. I’m quite
optimistic and I can’t stop consuming and showing an interest and I
think it’s quite a positive time at the moment. This Desi stuff,
English subculture, Desi means homeland in India, and in Manchester
and in Wembley and stuff Asian kids, black kids, white kids mixing
and sound systems, heavy English influence, Indian tunes and riffs
over the top of it and it’s uplifting, it’s street. It’s as
exciting as when hiphop first hit.
The Wire: How was the new album put together?
MS: On the track we would overlay guitars in Vienna then we would bring it back to England and process it. Maybe in that processing there would be a bleep, that bleep would be expanded and then inverted then it would implode. That would be taken to Berlin and worked on by one of the DHR crew. I think it’s because I’ve got gypsy blood, for some reason I end up near to people I find it interesting to work with. There is a track called ‘Loner’, which was with this guy Phillip Quehenberger. He’s connected to DJ Hell and the international DJ Gigolo crew at the moment I am working with Adult, who are this really cool Detroit electric duo who I completely love. It’s part of this collaboration, you get a beat or you get a line and it just goes round and round, I can’t explain how it works. Going back to this idea of authenticity, it happened when I made this album, Learning To Cope With Cowardice, we were listening to these early hiphop electrobeats, and me and Adrian were trying to reproduce them, we were trying to use AMS, full samplers and stuff . My philosophy from the minute go is if I want something I shall go to the source, often I think of tunes as a radio play, if I want the sound of the sea I will go to the sea. I was at a DJ show in Berlin and I would just ask him, would you give me a beat/rhythm? It all kind of mixes but I will go to the source, the moment I am playing with this idea of alien ballads/ sci-fi lullabies or something Billy Fury crooning on Mars. I’ll go to the source, I’ve got no hesitation, if I want Keith Levene’s guitar sound – I will use Keith. I have access to these people and they are more than happy to be part of the story. It’s not namedropping, I will take the effort to go to the actual people, like with The Pop Group, there is even talk of doing something with Ornette Coleman.
I have gypsy blood, I am in Berlin, Vienna, I have to go to South America, Chile to do something. I am not attracted to architecture, it is the people, specific people I am attracted to, I will be somewhere for specific people. There is a new Berlin developing which is quite interesting. It’s a real melting pot, there is a magic in Vienna, people are coming from all over to come to Berlin, there is something developing, I think it’s a great time at the moment, South America is going through the roof, collaborations with people in China, it’s an interesting time, there is an optimism and a real willing to experiment in the world. The problem is you get dragged into the inner cynicism in the UK and it’s like banging your head and you feel like you can’t be bothered, but if you realise the effect that your writing has on somebody in a small town. Seeing the New York Dolls, when I was about 13 or something changed my life. Things we do are like an antidote to the mass. It’s time for people to stick together. If I’m a bit down I don’t want to pass it on to other people, it’s what I stand for, this optimism, this hope, people across the world hold onto my stuff as a flag of hope. Listening to it in some little town in the Midwest or something, I had this weird guy who had this parapolitics bookshop when I was a kid in Bristol and through that bookshop I got ideas. This guy had crazy stuff, bizarre things, global manipulators and hidden economic things. I was knocking off school, going to this record shop called Revolver and every Friday these dubplates Would arrive and I would sit in there, three years later we found out it was Adrian [Sherwood] driving and delivering the dubplates to Bristol.
The Wire: Part of the power of what you do comes from channeling and expressing negativity though…
MS: You could say it’s like an exorcism. I think there is an honesty telling things as they are. If I am in a relationship with somebody I will just say this is going wrong, there is no point in making everything rosy and saying there will be a happy ending, this is life, this is reality and to be awake and to be alive. I’ll stand at the front and take the fucking bullets.
The Wire: What about the Marxist idea that talking about conspiracies personalises things too much, that it distracts from the way that capital operates as a system?
MS: This idea that something is bigger than us and far away and there is no hope and that it’s Kafkaesque, it’s just an excuse for people to say they can’t be bothered. You have to interact, if the good people do nothing – evil wins. It’s all very well for people to split off, you would just hang yourself.
When I was young the idea of looking to the kind of boundaries
of genres, really going off on tangents of the weird kind of musics
is what, like what The Wire does, getting into bizarre
free jazz and musique concrete. I think it is that same kind of
searching nature that I have with parapolitics. There is this new
idea that’s come out called high strange which is quite interesting
that I just found out yesterday and immediately I’m kinda thinking
about, there is something that says ‘The frontiers of knowledge are
challenging the very definition of science’. I’ve just seen
something about quantum psychiatry or flicker weapons it is exactly
the same as finding out about some kind of weird ghetto tech or
something, that sounds interesting I wanna go and find out about
it, that’s how you get into different sorts of music.
The Wire: Do you have any plans for making your own website?
MS: We had an idea, we called it vapourware or something, you can do it now with embedding links and stuff so if somebody was talking about the Gemstone Files, or suppressed science or some kind of heresy or any of these kind of weird things that I am interested in you could trigger. If it was linked to AK press or Counter Productions, you can go to intelligence websites, if you are interested in any of these things, it’s like an index of possibilities you can follow the things through – find out more information.
I had this Control Data idea linking all the things together, I don’t know if it is going to be a website or how it’s going to work. At the moment I’ve got too much to do with music but it’s good to link with people, the good thing at the moment is that people stick together, instead of running off in different directions. It’s good if people stick together, it is important with things going global what is important is to have some kind of portal.
And you can link up with people in completely different cultures, that’s why that Indigenous Resistance thing was interesting because friend of mine, Pat, was connecting Brazilian, indigenous Indians, resistance groups in Indonesia with people like me and Mad Mike, UR and it was cool we were like connecting, doing something straight away with people in Brazil who were on the front line, it wasn’t just airy fairy.
I’m working on this thing called bomb art with this guy in Vienna, Ian Svenonius, and he’s written a new little red book on kind of politics and music, his band is called Weird War. I’ve just done another action thing in Japan. I’ve found the weird thing that noise has become respectable as an art piece like friends of mine who back in the day would have been on tiny little cassette labels and now working with Cerith Wyn Evans and their noise pieces are being bought by collectors.
What I find interesting is that especially in Berlin, as well as the polysexuality of the place there is a real, I find, merging of image and music and art and music, which isn’t really my scene, it is more my girlfriend’s scene. Friends are working on the next generation of communities that will replace MySpace and YouTube and it’s gonna enable people to make their own kind of television and also be the means of distribution, with these things the images and the sound and the text and the thing is going to be the same thing, like this film. I think it’s attitude that is important more than anything, in Bali they say “we have no art we do everything well”, it is quite strange because, with the Pop Group stuff, I had this idea when we were starting, that instead of haute couture it was like lout couture. Where I grew up it was like a Stewart Home book, we were like delinquent kids into delinquent disco.
I think it’s attitude and I think it’s the same attitude that people like Adam Parfrey and Feral House and AK press people, it’s attitude that is important at the moment. It’s really important that people find this stuff because there is such an ocean of possibilities, you need an index and people saying that things are pointing you in certain directions, because when I was really young, 12 or 13, it was like Bowie interviewing Burroughs and talking about Jean Genet. I think it is quite radical that the Pop Group wanted to go into the belly of the beast, it is just as radical to take on that thing and be like an explosion in the heart of the commodity, as to be cottage industry.
The important art of this period is the process of juxtaposition, putting something next to something that hasn’t been there before. It is important that Massive Attack and Radiohead are in the middle of it all opening up doors, as an antidote, as I was saying these kids in Baghdad, through Massive Attack they get into all different sorts of music. They’ll listen to Massive Attack, then they’ll listen to my stuff and then they’ll get into all sorts.
That was the good thing about punk and Dr Feelgood: a real political democratisation of art, it gave normal kids like us the arrogance to have a go, through that a whole generation of people, thought I can have a go and do this and that and researching people in this film, just talking to people in Bristol and other musicians around the world, people think if Mark can bloody do it I can have a go. I think that’s fantastic.
The Wire: The idea of juxtaposition and collage has always been important to you…
MS: By missing something, error, typography or something it’s a
question mark, what is it? I think that’s quite interesting.
They’ve added their own to something I’ve done and made it their
own. Even in those neutron accelerator things, they fire the
smallest and smallest, and things would keep appearing and
disappearing into dark matter. I think that is crucial and not
saying that you are right. Juxtaposition, saying the opposite of
what you have just said, that was the nature of dub, the nature of
dub was the holes. I think that the overload of noise is like a
certain affect when you put a bright green and a grey together and
it flashes, you can’t really put those things together and put of
that process of layering or editing against the grain it’s the
process and the way that my mind picks things up in reality. I
think it’s important to edit your own preconceptions because we are
products/constructs and that is crucial to me we are constructs.
And that saying that “the truth is the first casualty lying dead on
the cutting room floor”.
There’s a thing about aestheticising your politics and politicising your aesthetics, it’s crappy words but I love it. I’m as much as a theory slut as the next person: Baudrillard, Semiotexte, running with poetical ideas, running with strange ideas and the lyricism of the thing kind of inspires you.
Life is politics, every decision you make, that’s what it means,
when people start going on I just get completely lost. It’s
separated, like before the First World War, people would say about
politicians and Kings or Queens and people just did as they were
told. But again I don’t think it’s like that, I think people are
aware of what is going on in the world and it’s like the
implications of how the things, the connectivity of it all.
The Wire: One of the things that’s happened is the privatisation of stress, the idea that mental health problems which are actually caused by political and economic causes can be solved on an individual basis, by prescription drugs.
MS: A similar thing I was thinking about a while ago was the
overload of just filling up people’s time, I remember when activism
started, people were overexcited about computers, you can do this
and that. And I was like saying you have to spend another £1000
every time on a Mac to do these things, getting sucked into and by
the time you have done your MySpace and answered your three
different mobiles you haven’t got the time, it is like diversionary
The Wire: Baudrillard has the idea that just having a television functions as social control, it doesn’t matter about the content.
MS: The TV is a kind of flickerweapon. I was working on this thing about how all my emotions have been shut down. When people just close in or go into a couple situation because they think it is too much hard work, the attitude and the flame when they were younger, people tend not to think like that any longer and tend to just go into a “flatpack reality”, that’s part of this story of kinda overloading things. The interesting thing is that the potential of the human mind is working at around 2% supposedly, I was reading something about how we used to have a biomagnetic sense that humans used to have. There is all sorts of things and that’s why I am interested in supposedly the paranormal, it’s things that maybe, it’s possible we can do. I think live with music, it’s like a revelation and sometimes you can just switch everything on, it’s normal behaviour and if you can keep your antenna on and not become cynical for me it was like a nutrient, sometimes you feel super alive or supernatural. Hyperreality is better than sedation.