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Seasoned Stew 

The brilliant frontman for the Negro Problem on ageism, racism and preaching to the converted

It's a rock-crit cliché, the one-of-a-kind artist we just have to tell you about because Musician X is so hard to categorize, so unique, so indescribable that we are perversely compelled to undertake the impossible: to go ahead and describe the poor fucker anyway. As any casual reader of music writing knows, Musician X is usually just one in a long line of hapless subjects in our tired "They shouldn't be pigeonholed, but we'll go ahead and do it anyway" rock-hack formula. That's really too bad, because Stew ( Mark Stewart), solo artist and leader of the delightfully cerebral LA-based pop band the Negro Problem, is a true rarity in the contemporary indie-rock scene -- not because he's a pudgy 39-year-old black guy in a genre overrun with skinny 20-something white boys but because he makes weird, beautiful, smart music that would sound remarkable coming from any human being at all.

Guest Host, Stew's new solo album, and the two TNP releases contain stunningly pretty psychedelic folk-rock songs, embellished with lush, frequently goofy arrangements (backward triangle, anyone?) and lyrics about doubting Uncle Toms, gay Ken dolls, failed rehab attempts and Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn's utility in the lining of birdcages. Vocally, Stew resembles a smarter, less dippy Cat Stevens or a funnier, less bombastic Peter Gabriel. As a songwriter, Stew favors witty, melodic chamber pop studded with oboe, harpsichord, sitar, flute and piano -- "Blackarach," as he's described it -- in the tradition of Elvis Costello, Arthur Lee of Love and Andy Partridge.

Describing Stew, we often fall prey to such preposterous comparisons, such name-checking flights of fancy. On paper, he just seems implausible, an unlikely amalgam of influences cobbled together by some pot-headed pop scribe. Stew is philosophic about his press: "One guy, some critic somewhere, said something negative -- I mean, he totally hated us -- and the best critique he could come up with was something like 'Randy Newman on Sesame Street.' I thought, 'We're going to put that on our Web site!' He was really hating the music, but I was thinking, 'God, you should be our publicist!' But we've had great press. I'm perfectly geared up for the backlash," he laughs.

Positive press notwithstanding, Stew concedes that he's not likely to make any significant inroads in the record industry, where the same qualities that fascinate music writers cause label honchos to flee in terror. "On the one hand, I think the race thing should be a buried issue, but then, on the other hand, I'm a casual student of history, and it's so much of what this country is about that in a way I can't even fault it," he explains. "I actually get more pissed off about the age thing than the race thing; in the record-company world, it's, like, 'How do we market a 40-year-old?"

"Even with that crowd who likes us, one thing that crowd likes even better is if we were about 15 years younger," Stew says ruefully. "It would be more fun to rave about the whole wunderkind thing. I'm not into how young a person was when they made this record, but every time these people go on about how this musician is only 23 years old, I go back to Bob Dylan or Lou Reed and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. If you're going to play the age card, let me remind you how young the Beatles were.'"

On the one hand, Stew's failure to conform to stereotypes makes him the darling of obscurantist pop geeks and music journalists; on the other hand, he's not running a freakshow. He's merely doing what all good artists do, regardless of age or race: He's making the kind of music he wants to make. "When people talk about what I'm trying to do here, acting like it's some kind of weird anomaly or something, I'd like to remind them that Arthur Lee of Love wrote the most pretty, melodic tunes with really biting lyrics, and it's not like what I'm doing is some freakish thing. This stuff has existed before, you know? And the only reason you haven't seen more blacks doing this kind of music has nothing to do with the fact that there weren't a ton of them doing it. It's just that musicians tend to do what they think they can make money doing, what the industry sort of forces them to do, and every once in a while some goofballs like myself go, 'I'm just going to do what I want to do.'"

Refreshingly, Stew isn't bitter: He's perfectly happy making records for those who like intelligent, sophisticated songwriting that can't be crammed into a corporate marketing scheme. "Our goal is completely different than the goal of your average band on the make, because bands on the make are trying to sell records, trying to convert people. We are trying to simply find the people who don't need to be converted, who will already like us once they get a chance to hear us but can't hear us because we don't have the channels that those big bands who are trying to sell records have. We know that there are a couple thousand people in this city, a couple thousand people in that city -- our goal is just to find those people and to make a living from this. We know that 17-year-olds don't want to buy this music; we know that the backward-baseball-cap guys with the goatees don't want this. We're not mad about that. We're not going around, like, 'Those guys are so stupid; they don't know about real music.' Our point of view is, we're perfectly fine that they don't like us. We wouldn't expect them to, quite frankly. Our goal is to find the people who do like it. We're trying to find the people who are off the radar, who aren't plugged in."

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More by René Spencer Saller

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