by Jon Kanis
(edited version published in the San Diego Reader, October 1997.)
“They’ll never play in my club. Can you imagine the kind of trouble a band with that kind of name would attract? — (Anonymous) San Diego Club Manager
“There is no Negro problem.” — Lyndon B. Johnson (circa 1965)
“If you keep doing the same weird thing over and over again, people will eventually get it.” — Mark Stewart, The Negro Problem
From the Echo Park/Silver Lake area of East Hollywood comes The Negro Problem, a group as musically enigmatic as their name, who return to San Diego this Saturday for a performance at Java Joe’s in Ocean Beach. Fronted by African-American singer/guitarist Mark Stewart, The Negro Problem have frequently referred to themselves as the “Fifth Dimension in grad school.” The rhythm section of the band includes drummer/vocalist Charles Pagano and bassist/vocalist Heidi Rodewald, who help to “funnel the swirling vibe” around Stewart’s genre defiant songs (although Stewart does offer that his the songs are “miniature psychedelic political documentaries shot with a camera that only records daydreams”). If that seems a little too clever for it’s own good, their recent debut CD Post Minstrel Syndrome will tell you that this is a band worth paying attention to.
The Negro Problem begins and ends with its “deconstrunctionist” frontman and namesake Mark Stewart (in conversation he prefers to be called “Stew,” lest he be confused with the British Mark Stewart of Tricky and Portishead fame). Stewart has taken a rather strange and loopy musical journey over the last decade, with a long history of being unconventional.
“I wrote [what you would call] ‘normal’ pop tunes when I was younger” says Stewart. “But when I moved to New York in ‘82 I stopped doing that and moved into weirder, nosier stuff.” After two uneventful years in New York, Stewart gypsied across Europe for several months and eventually settled down in Berlin.
“When I arrived in Berlin I thought that I was going to play in the normal rock clubs like everybody else did. But [the group that I was in] got adopted by this squatted museum and when they heard our tape they said ‘Oh, you guys are arty – you belong with us.’ So we just fell into this complete art clique and suddenly these artists started hanging around us and we began to do art installations with our music and we got further away from the music and more into the art, with the band becoming an actual installation piece. We did nutty things. We did a show once where we were being videotaped in an adjacent room so you could only see us on television…sometimes we got pretty extreme. We did a show once on Hitler’s birthday and sent invitations to this neo-Nazi group daring them to come to our show, which was in a predominantly Turkish neighborhood. But we knew that they wouldn’t come because they would’ve gotten their ass kicked.”
As much fun as Stewart was having stoking his bohemian soul in Germany, the political climate went through a radical shift when the Berlin Wall came down and he decided that it was time to head back to Los Angeles. “Before the Wall fell, it was nothing [to be a black in Berlin]. But after the Wall fell it was…way too significant. (Laughs) I mean, after the wall fell you could get the shit beat out of you by skinheads on the subway. That would have never happened before the Wall fell. Berlin was a very cosmopolitan place; people were almost too jaded to be openly racist like that. But after the Wall fell it was completely different – it got ugly and that is why I left cause I wasn’t there to deal this archaic shit.”
Upon returning to L.A. Stewart quickly fell in with another group of improvisational musicians and formed the group Primal Synthesis. After performing at the LACE gallery in downtown L. A. Stewart met drummer Charles Pagano and it wasn’t long before the two were working together. United by a mutual love of progressive rock, orchestral music and absurdity, Stewart and Pagano created the foundation for what would later become The Negro Problem.
“When I got back to Los Angeles and got into Charles’ clique it was with all of these people who were fairly un-pop” says Stewart. “We were playing the type of music where you really didn’t know what was going to happen next, kind of like John Cage with some hidden pop influence. It was a real gradual process. Seven minute tunes would be whittled down to four and we just kept kicking people out who weren’t into it, so that by the time we called ourselves The Negro Problem we had decided ‘Yes, we’re doing songs.’”
The move into a pop context became solidified when Stewart and Pagano wanted to put an accordion track on one of Stewart’s songs and they enlisted the help of accordionist Jill Meschke. They dug the results so much that Meschke ended up becoming a full-time collaborator. It was a relationship that would last a full five years (Menschke left TNP in August). Stewart admits that “Jill was the one to point us out of our progressive rock orientation.” Once the threesome decided to take a more listener-friendly, song-oriented approach, they found bassist Gwynne Kahn and asked her to join on the strength of her garage/punk roots (Kahn’s musical pedigree includes the seminal L.A. band The Pandoras, as well as her grandfather, composer Gus Kahn, who wrote a plethora of classic tin pan alley songs: “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Yes, Sir That’s My Baby” and “It Had To Be You” to name but a few) and an irreverent attitude that complemented the sarcastic side of the band perfectly. When asked about their “controversial moniker” she quipped that the band wouldn’t change their name “until the United Negro College Fund changed theirs.”
Armed with a provocative name and fistful of great songs, it was with this lineup that The Negro Problem began to take their delicate balancing act of race and gender out into L.A. underground. Their initial outings met with a fair amount of resistance to their name, with some club owners refusing to list the band in its print ads or on the marquee. “Can you imagine someone getting upset about a band name?” asks Stewart. “It should be as innocuous as The Fifth Dimension.” The name did, however, help them to get some press in Los Angeles and Stewart used this to the band’s advantage. “It was a good way to get attention” he admits. “Because with our name, people are curious. They want to see if it’s a bunch of skinheads or a black guy. If they see me I think they get it.”
A series of recording projects followed over the next three years, and The Negro Problem began to receive attention on the national level, with invitations to play at the South-by-Southwest music festival in Austin, TX (which they accepted) and the CMJ show in New York City (which they chose to turn down). The personnel of the band went through a period of musical chairs for awhile when Menschke took a sabbatical to play with Elastica on their Lollapalooza tour (keyboardist Carolyn Edwards filled in for her) and bassist Marc Doten sat in for the frequently absent Kahn. By the time the full length Post Minstrel Syndrome was released this summer, both Menschke and Kahn had permanently split the band and TNP was reduced to a trio with Rodewald entering the fold. Stewart says that new TNP feels “pleasantly naked” and that the goal is to “shift the baroque nature of things away from the instruments and towards the vocals.” When TNP played Java Joe’s in September with the new lineup (they continue to utilize long-time sideman Probyn Gregory on trumpet, percussion and the occasional keyboard), the songs actually benefited from the addition of Rodewald and the stripped-down arrangements. Stewart: “Someone told me that back in the days of Tim Buckley and Dylan, when a singer/songwriter would make a record with a full-on band, that it was considered something special when you would see this person live and their band would be pared down so that you could actually hear the songs. For me, the different stuff that you hear on the records, whether it’s a keyboard or whatever — it doesn’t make that much of a difference if I hear that stuff live or not.”
Whether live or in the studio, the music never takes itself too seriously, as Stewart often deflates the very subjects that inspire him to write in the first place (their sonic irreverence is due in large part to Pagano’s arrangement ideas). Far from being dependent upon pop-culture references, Stewart nevertheless draws a great deal of lyrical inspiration from that most obvious trapping of life in L.A.: the media. (“The Los Angeles news has got to be the most satanic local news ever” he says.) The hilarious “Birdcage” (as in liner) pokes fun at the Los Angeles Times while several of his songs use the television newscast to get a particular point across. “It’s not that I’m fascinated by these newspeople” Stewart says. “This is where the information comes from, from this ridiculous, buffoonish forum. And that’s what I’m fascinated by — that these people are supposedly telling you the truth.” He’s careful to add that “it would be missing the boat if it seemed like I had a fixation with media personalities.” Still, in Stewart’s universe you can easily run into the likes of Mia Farrow, Sting, Sebastian Cabot, Oprah Whinfrey, Montel Williams or Peter Jennings. If namedropping doesn’t do the trick, then perhaps the snatch of a TV theme song will, as in the use of “The Fishing Hole” from the Andy Griffith Show in the TNP song “Camelot.” But is all that cleverness lost on an audience that comes out to the clubs to see the band on a ordinary night out? Stewart seems to think that that is probably the case.
“I’m convinced that most of the people that come to the clubs who dig us don’t particularly know or care that our music is kind of like Frank Zappa or Jimmy Webb or Burt Bacharach. And I know where I am right now – I’m in a rock club competing with, for the most part, frustrated single people. And the subtext of their being there really is to get laid. And to get drunk. And I’m competing with every woman and man in there and how they’re dressed and the price of the beer so I know what I’m up against. The club for me really is about figuring out ways to make a connection with people.”
But once a connection is made, what do you do with it? Stewart blanches at the suggestion that he has a specific agenda or message to impart through his songs. “I think that maybe we have to define the term ‘message.’ Because there are definitely ideas in there, but that’s different. ‘Message’ implies that I’m sending you a message and that you have to receive it in order to validate the idea. An idea can just sit there. But in order for it to work it has to communicate to you in some way even if you don’t know anything about it.”
So, no messages, just ideas. It’s a paradox as simple as the “idea” behind Stewart’s brilliant song “Heidigger In Harlem.”
“I was talking to and reading about these really hard core black nationalists who were really into “black essence,” meaning that there is a distinct essence about being black. And I was reading Heidigger and he was basically saying the very same thing about Germans. The only problem with that was when the Nazis came into power Heidigger took a job at the head of a university under the Nazis and held hands with them and said that Hitler was some kind of incarnation of the German will. He philosophized and justified Hitler’s existence through this very highly intellectualized mode of thinking. He was a jerk, basically.
“But I saw similarities in the way that he justified [the Nazis] ideology. Because some of his ideas are really beautiful and he was really a deep thinker…so in my mind I had this contrast between Heidigger and these so-called oppressed blacks who turned to nationalism as a way of somehow combating the racism that they had been dealt. It was a fun idea to me that these black guys had a similar ideology and point of view as this German philosopher who tried to be a Nazi.”
Message or not, there is the vibe that runs through most TNP songs that something is being said and not being said at the same time. “And that’s just it,” says Stewart. “The idea is to throw out all these images.” Still, that doesn’t mean that Stewart doesn’t have an agenda when performing for people. It’s an agenda that deals with integration and harmony and the way the band’s collective voice seeks to interconnect with the audience.
“After songwriting and the lead vocals comes background vocals in order of importance” says Stewart. “It’s what I hope will separate us from all these non-singing slacker bands with their soccer crowd background vocals. I want to assault people with the raucous beauty of lowbrow collective singing and make them question themselves for feeling slightly uncomfortable about how much they are enjoying the goofy sing-song melodies. I want to come to them as this strange little urban(e) tribe with these odd ritual songs. And challenge them to see where they might fit into this music. See, that’s the message. The message is not politics this – black that – heavy lyrics, blah blah etc. The message is that we simply exist here and now in all our complexity and simplicity and are doing this in front of you and are celebrating everything and inviting/challenging you to find your way into it.
“But the bottom line is that this is all entertainment. Even with the films that I really like. I mean, Goddard is my favorite filmmaker, but the reason that his films are still watchable to me is because I find that stuff entertaining. I don’t think I would go back to it if it bored me in some way. And I know that that is the reason why some people like us is because it is entertaining.”