There's a famous old skit on Saturday Night Live in which a series of cheesy spokespeople vied with each other to prove that their brand of jam was the best, simply because it had the most vile name. The perverse gist of the mock commercial was that only a wonderful product could survive a horrendous moniker. The punch line went something like this: "With a name like 1,000 Dead Orphans, it has to be great jam."
It's hard not to think of that gag when contemplating the Negro Problem, the likably demented pop quartet from Los Angeles. You're tempted to think that any band that can survive, and damn near thrive, with a handle so oddly out of step with premillennial America must have something to offer musically. On the other hand, you could argue that this name, and its ability to unnerve people, is not the band's greatest curse but its greatest hook.
Not since the "Holiday in Cambodia" heyday of the Dead Kennedys has an American band managed to make people squirm so readily at the mere mention of its moniker. Initial reactions generally run the gamut from nervous amusement to puzzlement to outright hostility.
The band's African-American front man, Stew (formerly Mark Stewart), knows the powder keg of emotions that surround the phrase. He knows that it was used by Reconstruction-era whites to label their fears about integration. He knows that it was used by turn-of-the-century civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois to depict America's inability to create a place for blacks in mainstream society. But such heavy historical baggage had little to do with his choice of the name. The idea of naming his band the Negro Problem simply made him laugh.
"I like playing with things that people take seriously," he says. "In America, it's so hard to get irony across. I find it sad when I'm talking to somebody and they really don't get it. I have to explain the whole thing: 'It's just a crazy band name. It's kind of like the Grateful Dead; they're not really dead, and they're not grateful. It's just a phrase.'"
America's difficulty with irony is particularly acute for black artists, who are too often expected to prove their worth by being earnestly sincere. The idiotic implication tends to be that if black artists are too clever, that must make them less soulful. Black artists are also uniquely locked into inane preconceptions about their proper musical roots. For someone like the 37-year-old Stew, who grew up in L.A. and feasted on the kaleidoscope of sounds that was late-'60s AM radio, such limitations simply don't apply.
As a kid, he first heard the Beatles' Abbey Road in L.A.'s predominantly black South Central district, and he says he was introduced to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon by an all-black funk band he once auditioned for. He recalls that for his sister and cousins, new albums by the Beatles and James Brown were treated as equally big events.
So it's hardly surprisingly that his band willfully jumbles a wide array of influences, everything from the Fabs to Jimmy Webb's sophisticated adult pop to the Smile-era Beach Boys, with heavy doses of early Frank Zappa.
On the band's wildly eclectic, 18-song, 70-minute debut CD, 1997's Post Minstrel Syndrome, Stew reveals his stubbornly humorous take on racial politics. He generally looks for the joke in such serious matters, but he gets a bit miffed when people approach him and suggest that he's a black man playing "white music."
"Forget Jimi Hendrix and Arthur Lee, or Tom Wilson, who was black and produced Dylan and the Mothers of Invention, and people like that," he says. "But who's this guy Mick Jagger and all these other white guys? It's okay for skinny English white guys to try to approximate blues, and it's okay for skinny New York white guys like David Byrne to try to pretend that they're African, but I'm playing so-called 'white music'?
"I grew up with the Western music canon, like everyone else. To me, it's like the colonial days. Paul Simon can find some Brazilian or African music history, but if you're black, you're supposed to do what your neighborhood's doing. Well, my neighborhood wasn't that boring."
Post Minstrel Syndrome can be a bumpy ride, because the band seems determined to weigh it down with as many ideas as they can possibly cram together, as though this was going to be their only chance to grab the ear of the public. At times, you sense that Stew's pop instincts are warring with his penchant for rampant wordiness. But that's also part of the album's charm.
Unlike much contemporary guitar pop, which grabs you on first listen and loses its impact over time, Post Minstrel Syndrome actually grows in stature the more you hear it. You slowly start to admire the humor behind the band's odd musical quotations, like the solo taken from The Andy Griffith Show theme or the snippet from the Moody Blues' "The Story in Your Eyes" which they work into a cover of "MacArthur Park."
Repeated listening also brings to light Stew's compulsion to speak his mind and let the shrapnel fall where it may. On the album's opening track, "Birdcage," he gleefully bites the hand that feeds him by repeatedly bashing the L.A. Times' senior music critic: "What the hell does Robert Hilburn know about rock 'n' roll?"
On "The Meaning of Everything" (titled with characteristic TNP understatement), Stew sets the mood by singing: "I watched the Oprah Winfrey show today/I never thought the world would end this way." Later, in the same song, he indulges his pop-culture-fueled sense of the absurd: "We left the TV next to Richard Harris' cake/So that Montel Williams would have two less hearts to break."
The entire album (most notably, its title) is loaded with playful twists on American racial history; phrases like "doubting Uncle Tom" and "my underground railroad keeps sinking" pop up again and again. Stew describes his band as "the worst kind of punsters that you could possibly imagine" and attributes his lyrical obsessions more to being "conscious of language" than any defined political agenda.
The band's musical sense of adventure can be traced back to five years Stew spent in Europe touring with an artsy collective that mixed musical theater with performance art. At the time, he'd decided that he was through with straight musical projects. Eventually, he changed his mind, moved back to L.A. and hooked up with drummer Charles Pagano in an experimental group associated with a local art gallery. The avant-garde group leaned heavily on tape loops and improvisational playing, but Stew found himself drifting back to the verse-chorus-verse structures of his radio-listening youth.
"I was pretty much closeted about being a pop songwriter," he says. "It's almost exactly as if you were a gay person wanting to come out in front of all these straight people, and you didn't want to freak them out too much. So you dropped little hints here and there. Every couple of songs I showed the band, it would get a little more melodic."
The band's traumatic shift in direction led to the departure of its original bassist and guitarist, but Stew soldiered on with Pagano and since-departed accordionist Jill Meschke Blair. When Blair made some big bucks playing with British band Elastica on their first American tour ("their keyboard player couldn't get into the States because of some drug charges"), she bought an eight-track machine, which the band used to record Post Minstrel Syndrome.
A lot of bands make noises about being independent, but Post Minstrel Syndrome was truly an independent venture from beginning to end. Recorded for a paltry $900, the CD was released on the band's own Aerial Flipout label, and the band got it in stores without the help of high-powered distribution. But when it began earning raves around the country, even mainstream record stores grudgingly began to stock the album.
TNP's newer, more concise material makes it clear that on Post Minstrel Syndrome the band was still feeling the hangover effects from its experimental early days. Stew says he sees the band moving in a more pop-friendly direction. Yet, with a couple of labels offering TNP demo money, he remains wary of being trapped in the industry machine and forced to release music on a big label's timetable.
"Right now, the big issue is radio for this next record," he says. "I'm not even sure I like that sound sonically. Some people have said, 'Go into the studio and play exactly what you would normally play, but the only difference is make sure everything is perfectly miked up and that it's gonna sound perfect for the radio. And it won't be like selling out, 'cause you'll still be doing your music, but it has to sound a certain way.' And I think the sound of certain things has to be married to the music in a certain way or it loses something."
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Stew says he's a bad judge of his own material, and recently has taken to asking audience members which songs they liked best. But despite the band's considerable musicianship and innate pop appeal (which has enabled them to headline at L.A.'s Poptopia Festival), they're a hard sell in the niche-marketing '90s, in no small part because they refuse to make even a pretense of hipness.
"It'd be so much easier if we were 21-year-old white guys," Stew says. "Even if we were 21-year-old black guys, if we were all black. If we were 21-year-old cute black guys with dreads and shorts, those kind of shorts that they all wear that go to the knees, you know? And maybe if we had a skateboarding image or something.
"We're all those things right now that you're not supposed to be. Our management always goes crazy, 'cause we all tell how old we are, and we're not ashamed of the fact that some of us are in our mid- to late-30s. The L.A. Times did an article on us, and our management almost fainted because we said our real ages. I said, 'No, you don't understand.' We think we're the real punk rock, because we think it's punk rock to say, 'Yeah, I am older than all of you guys, and that's why we're better than you. We're older, we're weirder and we're far more jaded than any of you Gen X people could possibly imagine. We're jaded 'cause we know and remember good music.' I think you've just got to admit what you are and just go with it."
The Negro Problem is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 24, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with Dustbin Flowers and Les Payne Product. Showtime is 8 p.m.