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In Conversation

"We Came From Outside": Thurston Moore & Mark Stewart In Conversation
Robert Barry , January 28th, 2015 10:45

As The Pop Group prepare to release their first album in over three decades, Bobby Barry brings together the band's Mark Stewart with mutual fan (and fellow cloud-botherer) Thurston Moore to discuss punk, properness and Primark. Photographs courtesy of Chiara Meattelli

"No smiling in punk."

Snap. The photographer's flashgun goes off.

"Yeah, no smiling unless we're killing a hippie or something."


The first voice is English-accented, with only the occasional hint of its West Country origins. Garrulous and eager, the speaker is by turns insistently forthright and needlingly jocular. The second voice speaks in a distinctive New England drawl; as thick with irony as the first, but more laconic, more laid-back, more at ease with itself and the world.

Mark Stewart and Thurston Moore are sat across from each other in a north London pub clutching matching mugs of tea. Longstanding fans of each other's work, their respective bands, The Pop Group and Sonic Youth, each played a decisive role in the history of avant-garde rock. Both men continue to produce consistently challenging and conceptually rich music.

On the eve of release of the first Pop Group album in 35 years, tQ brings these two avatars of alternative music-making face-to-face to present a fascinating insight into the development of punk rock on both sides of the Atlantic.

The photographer pauses, apparently unsure how to proceed. "I was just hoping," she says, "to get one shot where they're not talking."

No chance.

Changing the Game Completely

Thurston Moore: I first saw the name The Pop Group in the British music press. We used to steal British music papers off the newsstand at Gem Spa, which is at the corner of St. Mark's Place and Second Avenue - the one that the New York Dolls are posing in front of on the back of their first record.

Mark Stewart: Oh, wicked.

TM: That's Gem Spa. They would have the imported music papers. One of the very few places in Manhattan. They had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker. Those three. And we would steal them. Because they were so expensive and we didn't have any money. So that would be the first place where I would have seen the name The Pop Group. It was very sort of jarring, that a band would call themselves after some kind of banality, which kind of was a smart punk thing. Name yourself after something banal - starting with the band Television. I remember when I first saw that, I was like, you're calling yourself after a home appliance. It wasn't Iron Butterfly.

MS: Well, an iron is a home appliance.

But when you hear the name Iron Butterfly, I'm not sure if most people would picture someone with their ironing board out, ironing the wings of a butterfly…

MS: I do! I never thought of Television as a television.

TM: Well, they transcend the name. But when I saw the name The Pop Group I was really intrigued by what that could be. I was intrigued by anything and everything that was going on at the time. It was like '77, '78, a time when people were dropping songs that were just changing the game completely. I bought the ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil' 7" and that was outrageously good. And I saw them when they came to New York City the first time.

MS: You came to Tier 3, right? We were playing with Arto Lindsay.

TM: I came in at the end and it looked like somebody had thrown a grenade inside the place. Like the water mains had broken because it was wet all over the place. Gareth [Sager] was lying on his back, the saxophone abandoned next to him on the stage. I was looking at it, like, what the fuck has happened?

MS: [laughs uproariously] It's still the same. He's never come back from that one. He's still lying on his back somewhere in London.

TM: They were unlike any band that we were experiencing in the New York scene around then.

MS: We were inspired originally by the New York scene. When we first heard 'Little Johnny Jewel' by Television it was an absolute moment of epiphany.

TM: 'Little Johnny Jewel' was one of the first 7"s to actually come out of that scene. There was something about hearing a record like that. Just the economy of the playing. It was really minimal. Really stark. Production value was obviously really budget. And in a way it was really appealing in that sense because it wasn't this thing that seemed out of reach. This was something that was almost on the street. Really raw and kind of affecting. And the fact that they had short hair was completely radical. At that time nobody in their right mind would get on a stage and play rock music with short hair. It just did not happen.

MS: It was the same for us in England. Growing up in Bristol, I was going out dancing to really heavy funk and stuff on Saturday nights. We were getting dressed up in old 50s clothes, coming up and shopping in London, at Malcolm McLaren's shop, Let It Rock, and Johnson & Johnson's, and going back and getting dressed in clothes that would later on become punk, but dancing to funk. When we first saw a picture of the Sex Pistols in Sounds, they had exactly the same kind of outrageous mohair jumpers and pink winkle pickers that we were wearing to funk clubs but they were a band.

TM: I was 19 when I moved to New York and I was the youngest person. All these other musicians around me were coming out of university. The Ramones were well into their 20s. Patti Smith was 30 years old when Horses came out. This was an older generation.

MS: Patti really helped us out. When we were at school, we were just starting to get press from doing youth clubs in Bristol. Basically we couldn't really play at all. We saw Paul [Simonon, bassist] from The Clash with Letraset stickers on his bass showing him where to put his fingers and we all got instruments and just started like flipping out, everyone playing really fast. Suddenly journalists would come down. Richard Williams [erstwhile Melody Maker editor] came down and saw us in this little club in Bristol and he thought we were like Albert Ayler or something. He thought we were deliberately being experimental. He didn't realise we couldn't play. And then somehow Patti Smith found out about us. She was doing a proper English tour and we got to support Patti. Then we did a bit of work with Pere Ubu. I was meant to be doing my A levels and I was whizzing off my head. I wrote this 50-page thing about Hamlet. It was like pure Gregory Corso stuff. Some of the best stuff I ever wrote. I'd been up for four days with David Thomas and Pere Ubu at this club in Paris where the guy refused to pay us and pulled out this gun. What the fuck?

TM: I would hear about bands in England - The Pistols or The Slits - and these people were my age and they were actually starting bands. My whole thing was, I gotta go to England because that's where my age group are actually starting bands.

MS: I felt more at home in New York [than in England]. For me it was also the radio stations. We had a night off and we got a ghetto blaster and we heard WBLS. It was an early Red Alert show. And then we stayed in every night at this specific time. Took cassettes back to Bristol. My mate who later became 3D in Massive Attack, started doing little graffiti on the tapes. So the whole hip hop scene from Bristol kicked off from that, hearing these pile driver beats. I really, really don't like the way certain people in England split experimental music between experimental music in your kind of Cafe OTO sense - which is fantastic - and dance music. For me, I was hearing much more experimentation on Tom Moulton 12" edits…

TM: Hip-hop is the most successful experimental music in the history of music. I remember when we were recording with Public Enemy -

MS: You recorded with Public Enemy?

TM: Well, we recorded in the same studio. We recorded our record Goo while they were recording It Takes A Nation Of Millions…

MS: Wicked. Respect. [high fives]

TM: You're in the same space and we would hang out every night just, you know, watching television and eating, while the engineers were in there trying to figure out how to run the boards. So we were both recording at the same time and I got to talk with those guys a lot. Coming up in New York in the late '70s, we had this attitude which was like, it's not very cool to be a commercial success because the commercial music scene was so corny and overblown and geared towards money. Our whole thing was that there was a certain glory in our poverty and establishing ourselves away from that ambition to make money, or to be popular.

MS: It was dirty, wasn't it?

TM: Yeah. We were happy to have our own society that we just found. Whereas in hip-hop it was all about making the big money. Not only making it, but showing it off. Wearing gold chains. There was a huge cultural difference there. And I remember discussing it with those guys. The African-American hip-hop scene comes out of a culture that is totally disenfranchised so it's going to take the loot. But punk was coming out of a relatively privileged class of people...

MS: Not in England. You talk to John Lydon. In Bristol, the interesting thing about punk rock, especially my generation, is that it calmed street thugs down. My mates were nutters. They still are.

TM: It's interesting because, in England, it seems like a lot of the participants in the music scene are growing up together from a young age. New York was really an anomaly. It was different because it was mostly people coming to the city from other places. The only really indigenous music for New York was hip-hop. Bands like us, we came from outside. Very few punk rock people grew up in the streets of New York. Patti Smith came from New Jersey, as did [Tom] Verlaine. [Richard] Hell came from Kentucky. They come to New York because they wanted to be where the art world is - even though New York was impoverished in the '70s. There was no money there. It was just drug trade and crime. You didn't go there to be a drug addict.

MS: Avant-garde drug addicts.

TM: There were avant-garde drug addicts…

MS: You become that later on.

TM: I could never afford drugs, so I've never understood...

MS: But art can be a drug, right?

TM: Oh yeah, of course.

Leaping Into The Audience

TM: This music and this art was all very subversive - what drew us to that? Even coming out of a comfortable family world. Was it the political nature of it? That it was asking questions? I always wondered about that. Because it wasn't like I was being traumatised at home. It was something else. Why did Iggy, spray-painted silver, and leaping into the audience attract me more than Robert Plant standing on stage with his hairy chest, swinging a microphone? I didn't really like that. I didn't hate it. But I didn't want to be that. I wanted to be the guy spray-painted silver diving into the audience.

MS: It was defiance, wasn't it? I still feel exactly the same. The thing about punk was: I was in the audience. You're a servant to the circle. When people talk about political lyrics, for me politics is just part of life anyway. I'm just instigating conversations. Everybody has a right, if you've only got one life, to do something that at least has some impact for the next generation. Because if the French poets hadn't opened people's minds...

TM: If you didn't have Paul Verlaine, you wouldn't have Tom Verlaine. When I first heard The Pop Group singing "Nixon and Kissinger should be tried for war crimes" [in 'For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?'], that's a lyric that I'm not going to hear in a Pink Floyd song. That's gonna make me go through the day thinking about that. Nixon and Kissinger should be tried for war crimes. It's a simple statement that any leftwing liberal-minded person could say, but to put it in music gives it a context of urgency and power and emotion. Psychologically, it has much more of an effect. It's a shared commentary that has a direct action effect.

MS: I was chatting to this kid and he was hearing Massive Attack in a really blown-up part of Beirut. The way these things spread. It's cool. It's a kind of antidote. That's one of the reasons why we reformed The Pop Group. I think it's quite important to use the channels at your disposal. To be an explosion at the heart of the commodity. We wanted to actually be a pop group and to go on the television shows and to engage with the normal channels as an antidote to the kind of zombification of society. Because for me, if the New York Dolls hadn't been on Mercury and I hadn't seen them on The Old Grey Whistle Test - if John Lydon hadn't seen them, if Mick Jones hadn't seen them - I'd be a little pen-pusher in some factory somewhere. For me, it's really important to engage - and to engage fiercely. Because at the moment the only people who are engaging fiercely are these blaggers, these Nigel Farages - and there's a lot of those in the music business.

TM: The thing we established in punk rock is to have your own media. That was the most successful thing in punk rock. To establish a counterculture to commercial culture. We all have this now. In a way, the idea of the musician or the artist ever having this ambition towards living in extreme wealth, that's a distortion of the reality of what it means to be an artist or a musician. All these bands that get together, they don't even want to start bands, they want to start brands. This is where value is and money is. Success has got nothing to do with money when it comes to making music or art. It just can't.

MS: Yeah, but sometimes you have to engage. If you want what your doing to be heard by as many people as possible then that can be a reason to engage with the machine.

TM: Engaging with the machine is one thing, but I mean chasing wealth…

The Look Is Everything

TM: The way we were dressing in New York was completely about economics. You would go to these places. The most famous one was called Canal Jeans.

MS: On Canal Street.

TM: It was on Canal Street and then it moved to Broadway. But it had bins out the front and they were called 99c bins and that's where all their irregulars were. Old people's clothes like lapelled jackets, skinny ties, button-down shirts with little collars and straight-leg pants. That's what you could afford. You wore that and you looked like some fifties university geek. It wasn't because you wanted to look like that, it's just that that's what you could afford. Then that became this kind of Lower East Side, East Village look. The same thing with music. The only records I could afford to buy - 

MS: Cut-outs.

TM: Yeah. Cut-outs. And what were the cut-outs? It was the difficult music that the labels couldn't sell. So: Ege Bamyasi by Can. Pennies.

MS: I got Fun House on a cut-out. And a lot of Tamla Motown stuff.

TM: It was like, what is this? Amon Düül? You'd bring it home and that was your record. Captain Beefheart, Spotlight Kid? Pennies. Such a cool record. So while your older brothers and his friends are listening to the Allman Brothers and Rick Wakeman and whatever, you were listening to this weird shit and that's what defined you and that's what led you into listening to the Ramones because the Ramones talked about listening to the same records. They were the first band that was like, we're a band that was inspired by listening to Stooges records. That was really radical. Here's a band that was actually inspired by listening to Stooges records? Like, what the fuck is that? When I hear people say our band was all about being cool - I was not cool. The last thing I was, was cool. Like Television with their short hair…

MS: For me, the look is everything. I was saying this to somebody the other day: when I saw Alvin Stardust on the telly, I thought I could get away without working - I could just stand on stage with a leather glove and just point and not have to work in a fucking factory. Just push my hair back and point - I'm still trying to do it. Clothes are everything. For me, it's the clothes and the look. If I go and see a band or even if I'm chatting to somebody in a pub. That's part of the whole thing.

But isn't that what cool is?

MS: How the hell would you know? Mr Primark!

[And so, as Mark Stewart squealed with laughter at my sartorial inadequacies, I slunk off into the streets, leaving our two punk pugilists to gabble on into the night over cups of English Breakfast…]

TM: You know you're in a proper pub when the chairs are broken. I'm very curious about the use of the word 'proper' because what that implies is that it's socially correct or something.

MS: Like proper English.

TM: Someone said to me, recently - some journalist - it's good to see that he now has a proper band. And I was just like, what?

MS: Oh, you've got a proper job at last!

TM: It's a little like you're sort of well kept. The idea of being proper is very anti-punk. Is there any more of an oxymoron than proper punk? Coming out and playing a proper concert…

MS: [explodes with laughter] A proper concert!

TM: Everything went exactly as I'd hoped. Now we can all piss off home and be satisfied. That's exactly what I don't want to do…

The Pop Group's Citizen Zombie is out on February 23 via Freaks R Us