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Downtown L.A. during the Democratic National Convention has the eerie, abandoned feel of a circus after the tents have been collapsed. Standing in the shadow of the Staples Center, Stew and girlfriend Heidi Rodewald -- bandmates in the Negro Problem -- are checking out the activist pageant. Trudging along for three uneventful miles, they learn that a recent police tussle is responsible for the steamy, dead-zone vibe. As heavy-lidded activists slump next to hundreds of white crosses commemorating Mexico-U.S. border deaths, two redheads stride by wearing "Lick Bush and Dick" tee shirts. A fan of Stew's recognizes him and joins the sightseeing march, pointing out that a bald man and very un-L.A.-looking brunette on the sidewalk are married politicos James Carville and Mary Matalin. Finally, mild-mannered and vociferously unathletic Stew is fed up: "Fuck politics," he huffs. "Give me a beer!"
Which is a pretty average band-guy thing to say. Except that there's nothing average band-guy about Stew (real name Mark Stewart), who released his first solo album, Guest Host, earlier this month. First of all, he's 37, old in indie-rock terms. Second, he's a hefty man -- no hollow-cheeked singing twig (though he looks slimmer these days, thanks to a high-protein regimen he calls "The Caveman Diet"). Third, in L.A., a city now unkind to any group without a glam or rap-rock shtick, he can quote Sondheim on the profundity of rhyme.
The day before, at the L.A. County Museum of Art's Eames exhibit, he philosophized about making functional art, using the Eames chair as a metaphor for the perfect pop song. So this is not your typical L.A. native, either.
"I'm just trying to keep smart people awake," he says of his mix-and-match aesthetic. "Because none of the music that's out there keeps me awake."
Stew's signature style is fuzzy women's hats and a sonorous, crème-brûlée voice, which, with its sturdiness and precise pronunciation (very unlike most shirking rock voices these days), requires that you take him seriously even when he's joking. Amid L.A.'s hip musical enclave of Silver Lake, Stew has held steady as record companies dissipated what little scene there used to be. He's nothing if not resilient. This month, for example, the Negro Problem has been opening for the Counting Crows and Live, an unusual pairing that highlights Stew's recent accessibility.
Following an artistic trajectory similar to the Eels' E, Stew won alternative fans and then released a poignant singer-songwriterly record. The Negro Problem's sophomore effort, Joys and Concerns, wooed a mainstream crowd that might have been put off by the band's sprawling, freakadelic first album, 1997's Post Minstrel Syndrome. A kinky mix of art-rock gambol and earthy balladry, TNP's debut won over many Silver Lake residents, but made less impact beyond Sunset and Lucille.
Still, the record became a grassroots phenomenon, beating the sales of Fleetwood Mac and Puff Daddy at a couple of local record stores. Rolling Stone called the Negro Problem "a savvy mixture of Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach's pop classicism, XTC's new-wave ironies, and the lysergic anger of Love's Arthur Lee," and described Stew as "a spooky morphing of Marvin Gaye and Nick Drake."
Stew hinted at the straightforward style of Joys and Guest Host with the few acoustic hidden tracks on Post Minstrel Syndrome -- tracks that were very unpopular with his bandmates, who begged him to leave them off the record. "They all thought it was a bad idea," he says. "I thought it would be really cool to show people we could do this . . . upbeat carnival thing, but that we could also do this intimate thing." People would come up to him and say they'd made tapes of the acoustic stuff for their girlfriends, who enjoyed them even if they didn't appreciate the album's more experimental edge.
Delving further into the singer's quiet side, Guest Host is a stripped-down answer to the bittersweet heft of Joys and Concerns. With the Negro Problem, Stew's obsessions were experimental Berlin and Arthur Lee. Now he's talking about a very obscure songwriter named David Ackles, French star Jacques Brel, and jazz subversive Nina Simone.
"The cool thing about singer-songwriters is that you can really get a close look at someone who's a little twisted, because there are none of the trappings of a band," he notes. "There's no 'There's the dangerous druggie,' or 'There's the sexually ambiguous singer.' Someone alone at a piano, or [with] a guitar, you feel like you're getting an intimate portrait -- I like the frankness."
Writing the songs on Joys and Concerns, Stew vented his sadness over the breakup of his marriage. He had just separated from his wife of 12 years, with whom he has an 8-year-old daughter, and he was moving around from one friend's house to the next. "I was very depressed back then," he remembers. "The hard part was not being with my kid. I wasn't depressed at all making this record. It was a very happy experience."
Because Stew wanted more money for promotion, Guest Host is coming out on New York's Telegraph Company, not Aerial Flipout, the label he co-owns with Rodewald and manager Brian Bullen. The album focuses on Stew's seductive songwriting, smoother than XTC, rougher than Bacharach, though with plenty of references to both. Shuttling between '60s minstrel-folk and funk catcalls juxtaposed against Brady Bunch kids coos, the songs range widely, but use musical tradition as a sturdy backdrop for Stew's streetwise magic realism.
"I wanted to get away from the busyness of the Negro Problem, which means that the next TNP record is going to be really busy," he says. "It's out of my system. I have a place for that stuff now, so that we can make even crazier TNP records."
Guest Host was heavily influenced by Stew's relationship with Rodewald, who co-produced. "She really helped me in knowing when to stop," he says. "With the Negro Problem, I would say, 'One more triangle overdub!' Those guys wouldn't tell me to stop. If I said, 'Hey, dude, I'm hearing fuzz accordion and bagpipes,' they'd be like, 'Okay, dude, I think I know a bagpipe player!' She'd stop it right there."
The highlight of the album is "The Stepford Lives," inspired by the sun-dappled creepiness of the camp film classic ("A husband named 'honey' with too much money/He's sort of a jerk he told her not to work."). Other high points include "Cavity," an ambitious number about love so sweet it hurts (and a few other things like religion and hypocrisy), and "Into Me," a new-romance whoop. For blatant party fun, there's "C'mon Everybody," on which Rodewald puts Marcia and Jan to shame, and the pop-funk breakdown "She's Really Daddy Feelgood."
"I don't even know what most of the songs are about," claims Rodewald. "All I know is that they're the kinds of songs that, if they were 45s and I were still a kid, I'd sit in my room with my little record player and play them again and again."
The Negro Problem has taken some hits over the years: Two members have departed -- including terrific drummer Charles Pagano (no longer full-time but still a "TNP family member") -- leaving the nucleus of Stew and Rodewald. Part of what keeps the two together is sheer impatience. When a much-revered industry figure came courting, they were eager to enlist, but not eager enough to hold off from putting out records. Instead of waiting years for the green light, they grabbed their demos and released Joys and Concerns.
Even more amazing is their commitment to staying apart from the pack. As white kids rap, Stew chooses to write songs that mix humor and sadness -- though his lines can have a wicked edge, rarely will you discern real anger. The Negro Problem's name implies indignation, but Stew never rails against the world at large. His music is a relief; very contemporary, but also a genre-blind throwback to a time when radio wasn't segregated and pop songs stood on their own, apart from pop stars. Stew's lack of rage springs partly from his obsession with artfulness, and partly from his suspicion that most rock these days is merely commerce masquerading as passion.
"We were old when TNP started," he points out, "but we're even older now. I'm not so interested in anybody's angst anymore, unless it's really, really great. Half-assed angst, I'm not into it. Rage Against the Machine -- I'm sorry, I'm not feeling the fact that you're on Sony Records, you're all millionaires, and you're screaming about things. I'm not gettin' that."