Spaceland manager Jeff Wolfram remembers the time some years back when two black men approached him in front of his Silver Lake club about the name on the marquee: The Negro Problem. “They asked, 'What's that all about?' and gave me some attitude,” he says, re-enacting how he simply put his palms up and said, “Hey, ask the lead singer.”
Mark Stewart, whom the music world (and now the theater world as well) knows as Stew, has been weathering his pointed inside joke for a decade and a half, from the moment he formed his otherwise white psych-pop band down through the days the ACLU (and even, once, the NAACP) protested its gigs.
“I always looked at the name in a quaint Shakespearean way — nobody in my family even blinked,” the Los Angeles native (now a Berlin resident) says. “Everybody else did. You know, not really getting the joke. Which has kinda been the story of my life.”
So maybe it's a badge of honor that last week, when the sometimes humorless New York Times previewed new music from Stew and longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, the paper casually mentioned their résumés, including “the acclaimed pop band The Negro Problem.”
Of course, since Stew and Rodewald shelved TNP six years ago, they've become stage sensations, taking the musical Passing Strange from repertory to Broadway, earning seven Tony nominations (and one victory, for Best Book of a Musical) and watching Stew's autobiographical story become a Spike Lee–directed documentary.
“All of a sudden since we've had some mainstream success, it's like the name is OK,” Rodewald says, “even though, if you look around the country, things aren't any better politically.”
Indeed, it seems a perfect time — “if you look at all the problems my favorite Negro is having,” Stew says — to take their original show back on the road. Fresh off a recent performance of their Brooklyn Omnibus song cycle in New York, The Negro Problem is embarking on its first tour in six years, a seven-city excursion that includes two shows in the city where Stew first raised eyebrows and blood pressure, Los Angeles.
“We can't wait to get back on the road,” Rodewald says. “When you're on tour, that's all everything is about.”
“Everybody assumes that once you start making money off something, it becomes your main focus,” says Stew, who with Rodewald is currently juggling three theater commissions. “Making a Broadway show is not our main focus; we just got sidetracked for a couple of years.”
The Negro Problem released three critically praised albums: Post Minstrel Syndrome (1997), Joys & Concerns (1999) and Welcome Black (2002); in his solo capacity, Stew's more singer-songwriterly material comprised three more, including the brilliant The Naked Dutch Painter and Other Songs. A new collection that Stew and Rodewald debuted in Brooklyn last year, Making It — which documents the end of the romantic partnership between the duo as their professional exploits were taking off — will be available on tour.
When The Negro Problem splashed down in L.A. in the mid-'90s (they played the very first Monday residency at Spaceland in 1996), Stew already had traveled the world in pursuit of his various muses. The band's music sounded like it, an intoxicating mix of avant-, punk-, prog- and power-pop, which served as a canvas for the songwriter's rapier treatises on race, politics and culture — streams of consciousness with lovely rivulets of melody that could have come from the likes of Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb or Arthur Lee.
“I grew up on the AM radio of Love, Jefferson Airplane and the Beach Boys — music that sounds like butterflies and sunsets,” says Stew, 49. “But in reality these are very dark bands, and that's the thing about California music. It has darkness and light.”
Ironically, The Negro Problem's music found steadfast support in New York City (specifically, Joe's Pub, part of the Public Theater) in the early part of last decade. Through exposure there, and with Rodewald as Stew's co-conspirator, Passing Strange — the story of a black musician from L.A. who … well, travels the world, pursuing his various muses — took shape.
Years later, the Stew-Rodewald creative alliance is so tight they often forget who writes which parts (though the lyrics are all Stew's). “She used to be like the secret weapon,” Stew says, “and now she knows what I want better than I do.”
Both are eager for TNP's return to live shows, where Stew is equal parts songsmith, raconteur and commentator, and frequently anything goes. “I'm not going for some carrot or some brass ring,” he says. “I just want to perform — I don't care if it's in dive bars or stadiums. After all is said and done, we're just a little Silver Lake band.”
And one with a long memory, at that.
“I remember sitting in a car in downtown L.A. in front of our rehearsal space and cleaning all the change out of the ashtray so we could enjoy a beer before practice,” Rodewald says. “That's why music is so good. When you're down to nothing, you still do it.”
The Negro Problem plays on Sat., Oct. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Getty Museum's Harold M. Williams Auditorium and on Tues., Nov. 2, at 9 p.m. at the Echoplex.