Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 24 Oct 02 17:31
I'm chuckling, as I write this intro, over a Village Voice caption for a photo of a wide-eyed Stew in concert, left hand gripping his guitar and right arm swung up high - looks like Pete Townshend propeller mode. The caption says "Stew does not smell like teen spirit," an understatement. Richard Gehr's article in the Voice (at http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0237/gehr.php) captures Stew very well: "Stew tells detailed, nuanced stories conveyed in delightful hooks, whose confectionary nature camouflages deeper truth," and " An exotic alternative to Los Angeles's blandly segregated music scene, Stew is a race man in full ironic body armor: You don't name your band the Negro Problem and expect to be perceived as the next Lenny Kravitz." Stew writes pop vivant "afrobaroque" melodies with amazing hooks, the kind that take over your head before you wake up in the morning and just won't let go, but his lyrics are edgy, lysergic, explosive; anything but pop corn. We're thrilled to have Stew as our guest in the Inkwell, in a discussion led by journalist Ed Ward, who wrote about Stew and his band, The Negro Problem, for the New York Times. Ed covers many subjects but the genesis of his writing is in music: rock and roll, blues, rhythm and blues, jazz, etc. Ed was an editor at (my personal favorite, the quirky-hip) Crawdaddy! Magazine in 1967, at Rolling Stone in 1970, and West Coast Editor of Creem Magazine from 1971-77. He moved to Austin in 1979, was rock critic for the local daily, then split for Berlin in 1993, and has been there ever since. Ed writes for Mojo, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and a bunch of others. His range (Roky Erickson to Kurt Weill) is perfect for this discussion, doncha think?
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 02:15
Thanks, Jon. (Although I no longer write for Mojo -- which doesn't like Americans -- and my Stew piece was my last for the Times, which has had a regime change that is no longer friendly to me). I'm happy to be welcoming the man his mama calls Mark Stewart. But we're not here to talk about his mama, so we all know him as Stew. I say "we all," but actually, Stew's still what the industry tends to call a "cult figure," albeit one with a growing and ever more vocal cult. I joined up when his publicist, an old friend, handed me a copy of his solo album, The Naked Dutch Painter, in March, when it had just come out. As I was driving back to San Francisco from L.A., I put it on and was hooked. Hell, I even missed my turnoff and almost drove to Sacramento! In subsequent weeks, I became familiar with his first solo album, Guest Host, and have now been immersed in the three albums he's made with his band, the Negro Problem, which are, in order, Joys & Concerns, The Post-Minstrel Syndrome, and Welcome Black, which has just been released on Smile Records. Stew's albums aren't exactly teen fodder, although there's ample evidence that people of all ages enjoy them. The songs are uncommonly literate, some comic, some insightful, some silly, some mordantly satirical, some just plain pop songs, many a bewildering combination of those elements. The melodies are damnably catchy, and can run around in your head for days if you're not careful. He's been known around L.A. for a few years now, but it appears that the rest of the world is catching on, too. He recently opened for Arthur Lee and Love on some of their European dates, as well as plenty of their national ones, and some of the media attention seems to have attracted some unusual offers for him. Anyway, I'm sure a lot of this stuff will come out in the interview to come, so let's get started.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 02:43
So Stew. You're a negro?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:07
thats true. bone in LA listening 93 khj. Pursued music as a way of staying in trouble. played in weird pop bands in LA & NY before moving to europe to pretend i was a performance art body double. Moved back to LA to play more weird pop music. Formed TNP in 95 and began releasing records in 96. At present there are 3 TNP records & 2 Stew records. And how many planets?
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:17
So...what's the problem?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:37
TNP is sort of like a juggling troupe. or a large party being given in a very small room or...actually, the Problem is alot of fun right now. We are 8 strong and having a very good time onstage fumbling through this new record of ours that we barely remember making. We're like a cover band.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:40
Why did it come out so close to the Stew solo album? Are you just bursting with new material?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:51
i'm not sure if i can relate to the concept of "new" material since i always have things that have been floting around in my head for ages. but yeah, we've always got something new going on the war room. having these two groups is just a way for me to release 2 records a year -- an adult one and one silly adult one. next year, we'll raise it to 3 when rodewald's solo joint drops.
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:57
i didnt really answer your earlier question -- the records came so close together because we wanted to be the negro problem again after 2 stew records in a row. it just took us 3 years to find the proper phone booth to change in.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:01
Uhhhh...which is the "adult" and which the "silly adult"? I hardly see any difference between them, but, being in the middle of it, you likely do. Are the Negro Problem records more collaborative than the Stew records?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:08
sure. basically, the Stew stuff is story telling and the negro problem is laughing at the story. i dont know if its more collaborative -- its more like the Stew stuff gets painted with a smaller brush. In TNP everybody gets a brush but i choose the color.
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:09
i think welcome bLack is silly adult.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:19
Okay, that makes sense. Adn I like the idea of the band as a painter's studio in the old Renaissance style: the master dictates the subject, but there are contributions from all the apprentices or something, all adding to the final picture. Incidentally, folks, the "Rodewald" referred to above is Heidi R., Stew's bassist and partner in crime. I see she's got three co-writer credits on Welcome Black, too. When do we get to see her album?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:25
as soon as we can make it happen. its in the works. and yeah, she wrote the music to what in many folks opinion are the two pivotal songs on the record, "watering hole" and "out now."
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:37
You two come out of a really interesting LA post-punk pop milieu. Wasn't she with a band called Wednesday Week? And don't you have some kind of ties to the band Baby Lemonade, which was working as Love with Arthur Lee? What else can you tell us about some of the folks on this scene, and where do you see yourself fitting into it (if, indeed, you do)?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:50
Yeah, rodewald was in wednesday week. she wrote their two most popular tunes. and yeah, we used to gig with Lemonade back in those heady "LA Pop Scene tm" days. there really is no scene at the moment. when there was -- and truly it was more of a large clique than a scene -- Lemonade, TNP, Wondermints and Cockeyed Ghost were the frog princes in the pond. I dont fit in with that lot primarily cuz i dont worship pop music as they do. i do fit in with them to the extent that i think we have similiar tastes in lab coats. I think, however, i tend to mix my chemicals in a more irreverent manner.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:56
Maybe not worshipping pop music gives you license to do a more idiosyncratic job of making it. You're not afraid to do things you "shouldn't." But then, who do you consider your peers? People on the scene at the moment and people long gone, I mean.
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 05:01
"peers".... my i swear i've never really thought about it lately. to be honest i dont know, i'll answer that one tomorrow. when you drive across the country enough times sometimes it starts to feel like yer the only band in the world. and thats a great feeling.
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 11:18
ok, the "peers" thing. i quite like chocolate genius. he has subject matter that makes me feel like my subjects are normal. art terry is a london songwriter who leads a band called Fairys. he is easily my fave living songwriter. sadly at present hes only got a couple of singles out . i admire dan bern quite alot. hes really doing the troubadour thing in a very committed way. i admire anyone who is trendfree who keeps the fire burning. so much music is just built to "make it" rather than being built to last. i'll think of more peer types as we go along. i think.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 11:35
It's a good thing to think about, because whereas you may not be saying you're as good as or better than them, it's a way to point people to other artists with a sensibility you enjoy, even if it's not identical with yours. You say you admire people who "keep the fire burning," and I'd be curious how you'd define "the fire" in this instance.
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 11:54
the vast majority of the music made in the world has nothing to do with record companies or trends or mtv or even mojo. while we all know this i think many of us, even the "cool" people, get sucked into the same type of media games as we accuse our 11 year old nieces getting caught up in. mojo is tiger beat for adults. in many ways for me the static that surrounds the next "band thats here to bring back rock and roll" resembles the static surrounding britney or j lo. its comical to think that theres a big difference. most folks are happy if the sonic texture of a band or song corresponds to what their fave music sounds like. by sonic texture i mean there are folks out there for whom all you gotta do is put on a 12 string electric guitar and a checkered shirt and they'll love yer record. content is another thing. the "fire" i'm referring to is simply the furthering of the reality that there is good stuff somewhere out there thats more than likely not being delivered "fresh" to your doorstep.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 12:04
So (he says trying hard not to stretch the metaphor to where it whaps back at him) how do we go about finding this fire? (Once, of course, we've filled out our library of Stew and Negro Problem records?) Seriously, once upon a time there were few enough releases each week that you could keep up with what was coming out. Today the landscape is so splintered, it's hard to seek out and find stuff that actually challenges your intellect and your musical sophistication. I think this is one of the things that brings people to your work. But how do we find more of it? Do you think that, as a working musician, you come into contact with it more often than the rest of us, or do you find yourself scratching your head and wondering where the magic went?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 12:19
a jazz musician that i met once in NY said something i'll never forget. he said rock and roll was when the audience got on stage. thats how he felt about trying to play jazz during the brit invasion. so if he thought the audience got onstage BACK THEN what would he think now? sure, there are too many records. i dont scratch my head -- i know where the magic went -- it went right into the toilet once people in pony tails & satin tour jackets starting thinking they knew what was best. when a guy like zappa gets signed by verve that means the industry is following the artist. but now the artist has to follow the industry's lead. but the industry is brainless. however, it suffers from the misconception that it has a brain. the industry is just a machine -- and machines are great & wonderful as long as they do the bidding of humans with good taste. but its like a HAL situation right now. the industry doesnt want to open the pod door. where do you find the "fire." i dont know. i'd hate to be a "music fan" right now.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 12:21
Sigh. I know what you mean. So how would you characterize your own work? Why should someone -- for thier own edification -- buy your records and/or come to see you?
Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 12:30
oh lord, characterize my work? hmm, many dads & moms have told me its some of the only new music that they listen to that their hip kids end up digging -- and vice versa. i dont wanna get into describing it - thats yer gig. i'd rather just comment about what happens around the music. i think some people out there like music that doesnt sound dumbed down. i think thats my audience. people should come to see me cause i'm really funny and yet not a comedian. so all the creepy psychological pain thats associated with stand-up comedy can be avoided while you get a melody or two to take home with you.
Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 12:43
Yeah, where *did* you get that melodic gift from? I mean, stupid question, but...when was the moment when you were messing around and you said "That sounds like a pop song"? Was this something that happened around your early band experience, or did it come after, or what?
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