Mark Stewart (The Pop Group) and Algiers Talk Post-Punk, Past, Present and Future

A discussion of the history and evolution of the label, and more.

Lee Tesche and Ryan Mahan are multi-instrumentalist members of the Atlanta-based post-punk band Algiers; Mark Stewart is a producer and the frontman of the legendary Bristol post-punk band The Pop Group. The three are friends, and recently, they hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the genre that Mark pioneered and that Algiers continues to experiment with.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Lee Tesche: I guess we’re here to talk about post-punk, past, present and future. I suppose a starting point would be — since you’re a bit older than us, Mark—

Mark Stewart: [Laughs.] I feel like Joan Collins — I put Vaseline all around the lens.

Lee: [Laughs.] What was your origin story with that stuff, and music in general?

Mark: Well, the funny thing is that this — whatever they say, this DIY thing — proper punk, if you ask me was the most DIY. I made my own bondage trousers out of rubber firemen’s things, because I’m so tall, and I made my own weird Clash jacket. We painted our own clothes. I mean, it was the epitome of DIY. Later, my friend Mark Perry had this fanzine called Sniffing Glue, and he just printed really bad drawings of where to put your fingers for three chords. That moment tore down the barricades of Prog Rock — everybody thought, I can have a go

But for me, this DIY thing continues through two turntables and a microphone — enabling technology, right through to these nodal sorts of things on the blockchain. It’s that decentralization and do-it-yourself aesthetic, I think, that’s crucial to all aspects of life.

Lee: Did you have to make your own clothes because you’re so tall?

Mark: Yeah. And we always sort of adapted stuff anyway. But not all my own clothes, just the bondage trousers. [Laughs.]

Lee: What about just with Bristol in general, growing up there? Did you notice things shift there?

Mark: Totally. Because a similar thing happened when graffiti happened. Before it was like society of the spectacle — you were a spectator at Cockney Rebel gigs, at Roxy Music gigs. You had no chance of getting ideas above your station. England was completely class-riddled. And at punk concerts, you just realized that people from the audience were able to jump up on stage. I mean, you said the singer in your band [Franklin James Fisher] used to come and see you, didn’t he? And then suddenly he was on the stage.

Lee: Yeah, Ryan and I had a band before Algiers, and we would play once a month or something at the different clubs or house shows around Atlanta. Franklin was like our super fan, always up front singing along. He just really loved that band, and I guess for him, that band was a moment that is foundational to him. Then I think as soon as that band dissolved, it was like, “Alright, well, let’s start a band.”

Ryan Mahan: Yeah. Mark, it’s interesting that you mentioned style being sort of part and parcel of that entire experience. For us, basically being influenced by kind of more the American strand of punk rock and hardcore—

Mark: They didn’t have a style! From what we could see, that was just guys without any shirts on.

Ryan: Well, this is exactly what my point is! We were like the epitome of no style. 

Mark: What do you mean, “were”? [Laughs.]

Ryan: [Laughs.] I was just going to ask in terms of the parallels — obviously, you became interested in American hip hop, which was happening late ‘70s, early ‘80s. But then of course, there was this whole American hardcore thing going on with Minor Threat and Black Flag and all these bands. Were they on your radar? Did you see them?

Mark: So there’s a couple of different strands here, right? And for me, any derivation of the word punk is… You know, as Don Letts said, punk is an attitude, and it’s not really even to do with music. Most of the punk-iest people I know [don’t have] anything to do with music or bands. It’s just the way you walk and the way you talk. So that attitude comes through in the sort of tribal clothes thing. My neighbors, who had the first Bristol punk band, had a song called “Defiant Pose” — so that’s the sense of the thing, that sense of defiance and of challenging the status quo.

In lockdown when they were saying there was no vinyl, I was going, “Well, I want to do a fanzine with a cassette in a plastic bag,” like we used to see these hardcore things coming in from Corrosion of Conformity or whatever. I think that organizing on a local level, sharing context, split singles, and controlling the means of production — which stops censorship and lets you be free to do what you want — was crucial. Ian [McKaye] and Mike Watt are the crucial figureheads for me, from outside of that scene. I’ve seen some films on American hardcore and stuff, and if you look at people pogoing at the early Pistols and Clash gigs, it’s a similar vibe. It’s complete and utter kettles-exploding energy. But you also got that with Public Enemy. 

I’m helping with this film based on Simon Reynolds’s book Rip It Up and Start Again, and the bands they’re referencing like Pere Ubu, Chrome… For me, we were listening to Miles [Davis], Anthony Braxton. We were listening to crazy stuff. We thought we were playing funk — we couldn’t play, so people thought we were deliberately being weird. But anyway, for me, the post-punk thing is: Punk happened and kind of tore down the illusion, if you like, and then you could mix in whatever you want. Eclectic is a crappy word, but be you’d able to have basement-fi, bits of Sun Ra. It was wide open. I thought it was going to get rid of genres, but suddenly, it’s in danger of becoming a genre, which I hate. 

Your stuff — you’re mixing in all these sort of Atlanta beats into the Algiers sound, right? 

Ryan: Yeah.

Mark: That’s exactly the sort of thing we used to do with Funkadelic or whatever. But it sounds like you are working with the actual musicians, which happened a bit later in Bristol. Then it became a real melting pot. For me, Massive Attack are the ultimate post-punk band, because they pull things from right, left, and center.

Lee: I see. That’s interesting. Yeah, when random moms and dads stop me on the street, I’d usually just say, “We do an eclectic mix.” [Laughs.] But Franklin will say we’re a post-punk band, so it’s just different perspectives, I guess. 

Mark: People are standing tall and calling themselves post-punk, which I think is quite interesting. It’s kind of like a badge of honor, which I’m quite proud of. You’ve talked about Savages, and Boy Harsher are the ultimate post-punk thing from what I can see. Can you elucidate more on those sorts of bands? You’re part of a scene!

Lee: Scenes are such an interesting one. I was thinking about that a lot today, because I’m asking you about Bristol and I feel like there’s this fetishization of scenes in other places. I was just thinking how there’s been a lot of online scenes — there was a whole music scene around MySpace, which is interesting to think about. Same with the current day Bandcamp type of stuff. I feel like a lot of people that we’ve kind of come in contact with or are in our orbits, are more in these online scenes in a way.

Mark: Yeah, but they support each other — like Boy Harsher have got their own infrastructure in the same way that Ian MacKaye would have done, or Crass, or we did with Rough Trade, you know?

Mark: That helps them get really weird shit out there, keeping the scene edgy and experimental. There’s not too many gatekeepers or filters.

Ryan: And it’s really interesting with them, because they produce a really specific strand of post-punk. You were talking about genre and how it was really disconcerting that post-punk had become a genre, but it’s almost become such an umbrella term for micro-genres  — like just infinite micro-genres that somehow influenced each other. So with Boy Harsher, they really do a fantastic job of distilling this rhythmic, body-oriented music that’s really dark. And then bands that they put out in the past, like a band like Special Interest from New Orleans — which, you know, people don’t typically think of New Orleans as this sort of wild, almost no-wave type of scene, but that’s the type of music that they make. But it also has this post-punk, industrial influence too, so you just see this multiplicity, basically. 

But you were asking about place and you mentioned Atlanta. Essentially, we’re becoming more and more imagined by the day in terms of the idea of space and scene—

Mark: Community. 

Ryan: Yeah. It means much more because we are so decentralized and atomized by our economies, by governments and by technology. We have to create these imagined scenes versus physical scenes. So with us, the name Algiers in itself — the whole idea of a place is because we almost felt disassociated from place and from home and from community in some way. A lot of the incorporation of Atlanta, for example, comes from intangible memories rather than actual experience, from childhood and hearing early forms of trap. Because that’s a genre that is essentially ultimately post-punk, because you’re talking about a drum machine, an 808, a sampler, a computer. But people just think of trap music as just a big industry production.

Mark: But it mutates. I was watching some entertainment channel award ceremony and they were saying every little town has a variation of a beat, or certain slur on a rap. Even in different areas of Bristol, the tagging, the graffiti is slightly different. It’s like postcode wars. I find it really, really interesting.

There was a scene in San Francisco called hyphy, which I was really mad about. And I’ve still got tapes of it and stuff, like scratch battles and Invisibl Skratch Piklz. But you realize it’s only one club that’s running it. The same thing happened with — I’m into this cosmic Italo stuff, and it was just one guy. He was totally post-punk, mixing Italian space disco with post-punk. For me, the perfect thing is the way that a Liquid Liquid bassline mutated through Doug Wimbish — who plays with me — into a Sugarhill bassline. Things just go across. The way that Kanye West crate digs into my stuff or Medium Medium, or that Drake is into 23 Skidoo. It’s just so wide open. If we can just let the rainbow spread out instead of putting it in a box, or a coffin — I think it’s that need for exploration for post-punk to go to other planets.

Lee: Yeah. Let me ask you this. What about the opposite, like the deconstruction? I mean, early, quote-unquote, “post-punk” stuff was heavily influenced by dub, and dub is such a deconstructed sub-sub-genre type of thing that’s all about just kind of taking things apart.

Mark: Skeletal, yeah.

Lee: Yeah. And I feel like particularly British music brought that into mainstream punk.

Mark: A crucial thing is Daniel Miller, TVOD — stuff like Robert Rental. That one plinkety-plonkety synth. That’s where everything came from, going through to Depeche Mode Nine Inch Nails, house. You talk to Carl Craig or Jeff Mills and they were into D.A.F. or The Normal or Cabaret Voltaire. 

I was just thinking about Cabaret Voltaire, because the original Cabaret Voltaire Cafe was a meeting place and a sort of discussion place. I think punk became a little bit closed. I don’t like to say it, but I got a bit fed up with what I call the London punks, because they’d only talk to themselves. I mean, we dreamt into punk reading NME and stuff — we thought it was going to be really challenging and really open and full of possibilities. And so we tried to make that happen. 

Ryan: Mark, I was going to ask you, because you did mention Drake and Kanye, and more on a wider scale modern rappers and rap producers are completely happy to make the connection between rap music and post-punk and almost wear it as a badge of honor. That leads me to think that there’s such a deep connection between post-punk and rap, particularly with how your career developed later.

Mark: When we were in New York back in the day, like ‘79, us and the Gang of Four were like the flavor of the month. I was out there for ages, playing Hurrahs — I mean, the playlist at Danceteria was absolutely crazy, going from B-52s to, like, Spoonie Gee. You know, wide open, and the mixture of different people. I mean, the gigs were quite segregated, and my friend set up the Black Rock Coalition to kind of go against it. But at the nightclubs and the warehouse parties, you’d be sat down and [Keith] Haring would be drawing on a wall next to you, and they’d be playing the weirdest [mix]. There’s tapes of Danceteria up online, and the stuff is like the beginning of Ibiza, but so many years earlier. It was so eclectic. 

It was totally intertwined. One minute, I’m trying to find out where Kool Herc is playing or walking across New York to find Keith Hudson’s studio. The next minute, I’m at some la-di-da art show, or Hurrah’s, or we’re playing and DNA are supporting us. It was a real mix up. You’d have Gray — Basquiat and [Vincent] Gallo’s band — playing with Mars, but they were playing the same sort of pub venues where the next night, there’d be somebody like George Thorogood or something. 

Ryan: [Laughs.] That’s so bad to the bone. It does seem like particularly some of the innovators of post-punk — like Pop Group, who took the genre so many amazing, incredible, interesting places — [were] proudly also referencing and working with Black musicians, and dub and rap music and techno all that kind of stuff. And as post-punk progressed over the last 30, 40 years—

Mark: Yeah, but I don’t even look at it — in Bristol, we didn’t see race, gender, or class. Punk was really multiracial in England. It goes back to Lee Perry and Mikey Dread working with The Clash. The biggest thing for working class skinhead, suedehead kids — which I was just a bit too young for, but those are the lads that brought me up — was reggae. And there were Black skinheads.

Ryan: Yeah, and Kanye West has a song called “Black Skinhead.” But I was going to ask, as post-punk progressed, it seemed to get even more and more scene-oriented and less interested in referencing specifically or being connected to the lineages of and interconnections with Black music, to the point of whitewashing or erasing this history. Thankfully maybe that is being reconnected and challenged by the likes of Special Interest, as I mentioned before, or the Make Techno Black Again campaign. 

Mark: There was a lost period between ‘79 and ‘84 when we were playing loads in Europe and the States. And that’s what people were playing, this weird kind of electronic stuff. It was just such a weird mix up of what you’d play and what you’d hear at a party. And the music magazines, I think they moved from punk to power pop to post-punk to new romantic, and it became sort of codified.

Ryan: It’s really interesting to me because nowadays, one of the biggest questions that we get asked is “How do you mix genres?” Like work music or gospel music with guitars and noise and post-punk and electronic. And to me, it goes back to all the things that you’ve discussed. A lot of our roots, everything comes directly from that, from this post-punk experimentation and collaboration. It’s just funny to me that we get asked that question, where that question would have been absurd to you guys. 

Mark: It is absurd, you shouldn’t answer it! That’s what I keep on saying to people, especially about politics and stuff at the moment, and these weird narratives and counter-narratives — if you accept the question as valid, then you’re immediately entering into that narrative and you become a lock on it. It’s nonsense. I’ve never been around anybody’s house that hasn’t got the Carpenters next to Alice Cooper. 

Lee: The only other thing I really wanted to ask you, Mark, was just about your solo career. I was going to ask you if you consider yourself a musician or singer? And then how that led into you making your own records after Pop Group dissolved. 

Mark: No. 

Lee: [Laughs.] Cool.

You can catch Algiers on tour in Europe next month:

5/10: Bern, Switzerland, ISC
5/11: Turin, Italy, Circolo della Musica 
5/12: Milan, Italy, Biko
5/14: Zurich, Switzerland, Bogen F
5/16: Munich, Germany, Strom
5/18: Berlin, Germany, Lido
5/20: Stockholm, Sweden, Nalen Klubb
5/21: Oslo, Norway, Revolver
5/22: Copenhagen, Denmark, Stengade
5/23: Hamburg, Germany, Knust

Ryan Mahan is the bassist for Algiers. Their debut record, The Underside of Power, is out now on Matador, and you can follow them on Twitter here.