By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
THERE'S A LINE FROM A SONG ON STEW'S NEW ALBUM, The Naked Dutch Painter . . . and Other Songs, that brought me up short on a first listen with its tough-tender specificity about L.A. life, and love lost therein, that I'd not heard invoked since the heyday of Randy Newman. "Adams and Crenshaw is beautiful/And we're smiling in the sun," Stew sings, his robust voice improbably set in the middle of delicate, dreamy piano. I felt an aha at the mere mention of that corner, a rivers-deep satisfaction I haven't ascribed to any music of the day, and certainly not to aging Adams and Crenshaw, in a long, long time. After another listen, I don't know if the song is sarcastic or nostalgic, but that doesn't matter; what's important is that Stew elected to sing about it.
When we meet for an interview at a Pasadena diner, I mention the line, which is from a triptych of songs called "The Drug Suite." Stew looks at me, amazed. "Wow," he says. "That's my favorite line in the album. It isn't ironic. When I was 10 or 12, that place was magical for me. That was near my church where I sang choir, and my favorite taco stand. It was near that roller-coaster hill on Arlington, you know it?" Indeed I do. He seems genuinely happy that I corroborate the childhood lure of a little-known L.A. crossroads, though the more perverse side of him likes the idea that maybe I got it wrong. Despite a reputation as a social critic, Stew claims not to do conscious irony in his music -- but he doesn't mind if youthink so, or if you think anything about his music that hasn't occurred to him yet. "It's like playing a game," he says with a faintly devilish grin. "You might think I'm being ironic at times. But I'm not. That's the joke -- that there isn't one."
Not that time, but as Stew (born Mark Stewart) and a host of critics and admirers will tell you, humor -- if not irony -- at its most bracing and unexpectedly resonant is what separates him from the traditionally touchy-feely singer-songwriter pack, and what has made Stew's band The Negro Problem so delightfully unclassifiable since it launched its first album, the wickedly titled Post Minstrel Syndrome, five years ago. Front man Stew, 40, has in recent years gone solo; Painter is his second effort, a follow-up to 1999's Guest Host. Ironically -- or not -- Stew has described these albums and their self-contained stories as outlets for his sensitive side, a countervailing force to the infectious beats and lyrical impudence The Negro Problem has worn on its sleeve throughout its seven-year history. He calls The Naked Dutch Painter, which was recorded live at the Knitting Factory for that intimate feel but also improved upon in the studio, his first work "with a life of its own." Certainly tunes like "The Drug Suite," "Giselle" and "Love Coming Through the Door" are as up-close and personal as Stew has gotten, though that hardly means he's lost his edge or sense of humor in the process. ("Cast your last into her well," goes "Giselle." "She wears leather/whatever the weather.") However large or small the scale, in fact, Stew's talent for panoramic observation and a converse gift for telling detail are always in abundant evidence, solo or no, and The Naked Dutch Painteris no exception. Stew nonetheless likes to separate things in his own head. "The Negro Problem is like having a party, and the solo records are like writing a letter," he explains over pancakes. "I wouldn't tell the 'Naked Dutch Painter' story at a party, but I would tell it in a letter."
The first line of the album's title song is a shocker, even by Stew standards, that seems indeed best read in private: "The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen does not want to fuck you." But the song swiftly gets beyond the sting of the F word to poignantly address a host of things that have become Stew calling cards: stunted ambition, unrequited affections, emotional façades with a decidedly L.A. sheen. And race. ("She's asking questions about my groovy black ghetto," Stew sings tartly of the über-hip Dutch painter.) Oddly, Stew and The Negro Problem rarely get probing questions from interviewers about race beyond an obvious comment on their name, though it's not so odd considering a general skittishness, even among music critics, about addressing the dysfunctional relationship pop music has long had with black musicians, who have always been more strictly categorized than any other group. "I get the 'hmmm' thing of a black guy playing white music -- how's that feel?" muses Stew, who cites his biggest musical influences as James Brown and the Beatles. "That clearly reflects a narrowness in thinking, because all musicians grab from different areas. The question implies that your mind isn't big enough to accommodate everything. White critics will say, 'This is strange, this isn't what black music is.'" What black music is is another article, but suffice it to say that race is as consistently but unselfconsciously present in Stew's music as love and heartbreak and absurdism; sometimes they all converge, though never for the sake of protest or point making.