MOUTHY ISSUE TWO
interview by Ben Gott
Frontman of the critically-acclaimed Los Angeles band the Negro Problem, as well as a critically-acclaimed solo artist in his own right, Mark Stewart -- a.k.a. Stew -- has created some of the most memorable pop music of the last twenty years. Marc Cibula of Pop Matters calls Stew ďthe finest songwriter in the United States of America,Ē and Ed Ward of the New York Times says this about Stewís most recent solo album the Naked Dutch Painter...And Other Songs: ďThe album is perhaps the finest collection of songs an American songwriter has come up with this year.Ē Mouthyís own Ben Gott took a break from his usual daily routine of chewing to talk to Stew on the telephone about his recent performance at Lincoln Center; his side project, the Cover Problem, in which the members of the Negro Problem will perform any album the fans choose, live; and Song Portraits, in which you send Stew twenty words that describe a person, place, or thing, and he will write and record a song for you. Wow.
My first question is about the Lincoln Center gig; the ďAmerican SongbookĒ thing. How did you get involved with that?
STEW: They discovered us through the New York Times, [who] had a wonderful article on us sometime mid-last year. And I think we came up on their radar. They do have some rather curious -- curious in a good sense -- people who are involved in that series, and they obviously have to have the standard amount of Broadway and cabaret people from that New York world. But they also want to throw the occasional wrench into the song machine. So I think that the New York Times write up put me on their radar, and they came downtown to see me when I opened for Arthur Lee and purchased the records -- which was also classy. You know how a lot of clubs like to call you and say, ďHey, we wanna book you! Send us everything you ever made for free!Ē But being Lincoln Center, they bought everything and listened and gave us a call.
So what songs did you end up doing? How did you approach this performance?
I approached it the way that Iíve always wanted, at least for the last year or two, to approach performances. I really feel like it was a debut for me in a lot of ways. I approached it the way I would want to approach what I would consider my standard ďcabaretĒ act. I brought in an amazing acoustic pianist, which basically took the place of my guitar in a lot of places. I didnít have to play guitar, so Heidi Rodewald, Probyn Gregory, Marty Beller, who plays drums, and Michael Uleson who plays piano, they were pretty much the music. Heidi sang, as usual. I just approached it from the point-of-view that I wanted to be the singer as opposed to the guy strumming the guitar yelling. And that freed me up to sing better; to entertain more. Iíve been feeling really chained in by the guitar lately. Not having to deal with the guitar too much was a lot of fun.
And what was the audienceís reaction?
Oh, they were loviní it. It was a very healthy combination of folks who were serious fans and folks who were seriously curious, and I think thatís a good combination. I donít dislike playing for the converted, but I prefer discovery rather than just going over the same ordinary steps of a performance.
That segues into another question I have, which is about The Cover Problem. When I read about it, I was thinking to myself, ďDoes this actually mean that I can call Stew up and say, ĎXTC! Skylarking!íĒ?
Well, thereís the Cover Problem, and then thereís the Song Portraits thing...
The ďsend the detailsĒ thing...
Well, you know, it can all be bought. We would never do Skylarking at a normal club, because thatís not well known. The whole idea with the Cover Problem, at least the public version of it, is that we want to deconstruct extremely well-known pop icons.
I saw Thriller on the list, and Saturday Night Fever.
Thatís really publicly what we want to do: to create this really fun...Itís really a fun thing, and I wish I could say that I knew it was going to be like this...I had originally planned it as just something funny, and it actually became this other thing. It actually became this dialogue with the crowd, and I mean genuine. I donít mean when arty people at the Whitney people talk about, [affecting an accent], ďOh, the dialogue!Ē People are actually going crazy and laughing and singing along and itís letting the audience in on the joke because we do these covers that are so twisted, and yet you still recognize the songs. It allows the audience to have fun with what youíve done with the tunes. It turned into a much more serious and fun thing than I imagined it would.
Are you looking for that to continue, to keep going along with everything else?
Most definitely. I rejected the idea of doing covers for the majority of my musical life. Iíve been playing music for at least 25 years and I always loved the Beatles, but I never bothered to learn any of their songs. I was never one of those kind of guys, you know? I was never a cover person; I was always writing my own stuff. At this stage, Iím really finding a way to deal with covers and have fun with them and explore them without being bored. Basically what Iím doing is Iím just taking a really, really personal approach to the tunes. Itís just as much fun as doing my own stuff. I really enjoy it now.
How did ďThe Smiths Vs. Van HalenĒ go?
It went way better than I thought. I thought it was just too high-concept...
Yeah, what would Morrissey do?
Yeah, we did it strictly because we thought that we needed something that would bring folks down, and we were kind of desperate for an idea because we really couldnít think of anything and we were focusing more on Lincoln Center. But we needed one last show before we split -- thatís how we pay the rent, yíknow? So we just thought of this idea real quick and thought, ďOh, boy, this is too high-concept; itís not going to work.Ē But it actually worked really, really well. Van Halen definitely won the battle, thereís no question. One thing I like doing with the Cover Problem is I like taking songs that might seem, in their original versions, sort of shallow and maybe even poorly-written -- like your classic, four-minute rock songs that have the typical macho, party, sexist, drive-a-fast-car lyrics -- and I like to take those lyrics and put them in a more singer/songwriter context. Sometimes you can end up finding these crude David Lee Roth lyrics that actually end up sounding kind of poignant.
It also seems to me exactly what youíre going for, in terms of lightening the mood a little bit. Morrissey fans are crazy.
It seems like that in itself -- putting the Smiths and Van Halen together -- is going to get you noticed.
Yeah. I was very surprised that the Smithsí stuff...We didnít really find a way, to me, to make it resonate. I actually ended up thinking that thereís more depth in Van Halen than the Smiths...
...and Iím not saying that to try to be post-modern or ironic or anything. In a way, Morrisseyís already funny enough. I donít know much about him, to be honest. Iíve never owned one of their records; Iím not a fan of theirs. Whereas I can actually say that there are some Van Halen songs that crack me up...
What about the whole L.A./Largo scene? Do you ever see Robyn Hitchcock or Grant Lee Phillips or any of those guys?
No, Iím not really a part of that thing at all. I played Largo years ago. I love Flanigan, the guy who books Largo; heís a fan of mine as well. But Iíve confined a lot of my doings to a couple of clubs in L.A., mostly more east side. My roots in Los Angeles are more Silver Lake and Echo Park, so thatís where I do most of my stuff.
Thereís definitely a sense that I get about how people try to peg you...The reviews I looked at online are either glowingly positive, talking about ďgeniusĒ and all that, or just the nastiest reviews Iíve ever seen. One compared the Negro Problem to Jellyfish; that was the worst insult they could come up with!
Iíve got a better one, though. Someone said about a Stew thing that it was -- and this was the worst thing that they could say -- that it was a cross between Randy Newman and Sesame Street. And I thought that, for me personally, that was the best thing you could possibly say, because, to me, Randy Newman is brilliant and I think Sesame Street is brilliant. Those are good bad reviews because they draw the line and let you know where exactly the reviewerís head is at and his head is nowhere near what youíre doing. And thatís fine! Itís one thing if someone says, ďWell, this stuffís terrible.Ē But if you actually drop names, and say something like, ďSesame StreetĒ or ďRandy NewmanĒ and thatís supposed to be a pejorative thing. I love that! Because I know that he and I donít belong in the same club, and thatís fine.
The one review I printed out was about Welcome Black, and it starts out with this wonderfully scathing paragraph that talks about the name of the band -- that ďThe Negro Problem [...] curiously feel that they can get away with touting such a blatantly offensive bandname because one of their members is of African descentĒ -- but then there are two comparisons. There is one comment that the songs sound like ďthe sad approximation of a Prince/Promise Ring collaboration,Ē and another that says that the album sounds ďa little like 70s crap-rock a la Chicago; the rest of the time it sounds like 90s wuss-rock a la Hootie & The Blowfish -- castrated, I might add.Ē
Well, the thing is, weíre the kind of band who will take that and put that on our website.
Absolutely. Thereís so much going on there, not the least of which is the link with Darius Rucker.
I love that. We actually havenít heard that one in a long time, since theyíve been out of the public eye. But Iím always fascinated by, ďO.K., letís find a black guy to compare him to.Ē Itís really hilarious. Whereís that one from?
Thatís from Pitchfork, the online magazine. Itís just one of those reviews where you start reading it, and you think, ďThereís just no hope!Ē
I mean, I love the way Welcome Black starts off -- when Heidi comes in, you know that the songís going to be really great. But this reviewer is saying that itís twee-pop crap. And, you know -- what can you do?
[laughs] What I love is that weíve gotten a lot of amazing press, both the Negro Problem and my solo work. Weíve gotten great press. I think itís important for anybody whoís interested in making a career of this to know what it is that people donít like just as much as what people do like. Because to me, itís a product, and I know that sounds really cold and capitalistic. I donít mean that itís a product like Jell-O, but it is a thing that people buy and consume. And, to me, itís fascinating to know what [reviewers] like and donít like about it. It doesnít bother me at all, especially because, most of the time, theyíre funny. I think for a band that maybe isnít getting a lot of good press, and then they turn up that on the Internet, that thatís going to be a real, giant bummer, and I totally understand that. Iím in a luxurious position because I have enough good press behind me where I can look at something like that and enjoy it, frankly.
Right. The Rolling Stone review that I read was fantastic, and to have Pop Matters and Bruce Brodeen from notlame saying ďyet another great album from Stew...Ē leaves no question that thereís some critical agreement there.
The bottom line for me, really is...We just got a great review in the New York Times from this guy, Stephen Holden, who doesnít even review rock that much. Heís like the cabaret and theatre guy, and he dug it and he totally got it. So I kind of feel like I can use a few bad reviews! I can even use a record that everybody hates. This new Stew record, Iím feeling like itís different enough from my other stuff that Iím ready for folks not to like this record. And Iím definitely ready for folks not to like the next Negro Problem record, because itís going to be very weird -- a lot of instrumentals, and Iím going to bring some jazz musicians along -- and people are going to love to hate it. But Iím fine with that, you know?
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