inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #0 of 338: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #1 of 338: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #2 of 338: Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 02:43
    
So Stew. You're a negro? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #3 of 338: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #4 of 338: Berliner (captward) Fri 25 Oct 02 03:17
    
So...what's the problem? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #5 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #6 of 338: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #7 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #8 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #9 of 338: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #10 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #11 of 338: Stew (blackstew) Fri 25 Oct 02 04:09
    
i think welcome bLack is silly adult. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #12 of 338: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #13 of 338: 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." 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #14 of 338: 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)? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #15 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #16 of 338: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #17 of 338: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #18 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #19 of 338: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #20 of 338: 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. 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #21 of 338: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #22 of 338: 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.

 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #23 of 338: 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? 
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #24 of 338: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.164 : Stew, "Welcome Black"
permalink #25 of 338: 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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