Before I started writing for Splendid and actually going to shows again, I had what one could only call an active imaginary life. I kept lists of shows that I would go to, if I still went to shows, and whenever I travelled for work, I would figure out exactly which clubs I should be going to and which bands I wanted to see, at least theoretically. And then, when the time came, I ordered room service and watched Friends instead. This is basically how I discovered The Negro Problem, who just happened to be playing Maxwell's in New Jersey on a night I was in the city, whose web site provided access to three amazing songs from their 1999 album Joys and Concerns, and whose album, when it came in the mail weeks later, was so uniformly excellent and category-bending and literate and pop-catchy, that for the next two years I kicked myself for my inertia in not going to see them. So when I heard that Stew, the lead singer for The Negro Problem, had released a new solo record with long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald, I had to get it.
As it turned out, The Naked Dutch Painter was even better than Joys and Concerns, a full tapestry of tightly compressed stories, vivid characters, carefully crafted hooks and difficult but insanely catchy melodic twists and turns. It is full of folk storytelling, jazz intervals, mordant cabaret and soulful vocal stylings, the kind of mix that may not make sense immediately, but gains in resonance every time it plays.
I caught up with Stew as he was just packing up for an East Coast tour, starting at that bastion of high culture, Lincoln Center, and had a fascinating conversation about music and relationships, casual nudity and tenement-dwelling heiresses, Love (both upper and lower case) and the challenges of drawing from a whole range of black and white cultural influences while remaining uniquely oneself.
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Splendid: I want to start out talking about the whole notion of musical categories. I think that's one of the things that's really interesting about you -- that you use lots of different styles, folk and jazz and cabaret and rock and roll.
Stew: That's a big problem.
Splendid: Right, and I want to talk about the ups and downs of that, because one of the reasons that music is not very good now is because it adheres to these very rigid categories, and yet that must make it difficult to get your stuff heard -- the fact that you can't really put it in a box.
Stew: It's extremely difficult. It's more difficult than anyone can really imagine. We keep hearing the same thing -- you know, people say "Every time I play your music for regular, straight normal people, it might take them a couple of times, but afterward they really get into it." And people ask, "If I can turn my accountant on to you guys and suddenly he becomes a big fan, why aren't you guys huge?"
It's not my place to really answer that question, but I can certainly lend insight. One of the things that I've noticed is that when you don't have a slot to put music in, there are people who will not give it the time of day. Also, our records sort of act as dissonance for people -- cognitive dissonance. By the fourth song, they've heard four types of songs. That just is not how they hear music. It's confusing. The average record doesn't do that.
Splendid: Even when they've gone to the trouble to buy your record and actually listen to it, it's still...
Stew: I'm talking mostly about the people who are just like your average person, who might come across this because a friend recommended it. There's that initial confusion. People who have discovered us in one way or another, through a friend or through a critic. A lot of people talk about how it took them a while to get used to the differences -- even getting through the difference from one of our records to another.
Our model is pretty much -- not that we consciously go into the studio and think this way -- but my ideal, what I grew up with, I wanted to make records like mid- to late-period Beatles. I don't mean a genre, but rather that on any given Beatles record, there is probably a tune that Grandma might like. But then there is also something like "Helter Skelter". To me, that has always been the model. There should be something for everyone. Despite my foul mouth, I really do like the idea that people play my music for their five-year-olds when they're car-pooling to school.
Splendid: Yeah, you know, I was doing that with The Naked Dutch Painter, and I kind of had to stop, because it was just too much to explain. I have an eight-year-old, and he was like "Why is the painter naked?"
Stew: Yeah, we have people who say that their kids are addicted to the song.
Splendid: Well, it's very catchy, so you have this little boy in the back, singing all these risque things. But I'm sort of conflicted about it, because it's just such a great song, and it's so human, and there's so much truth and life experience in it, that it's really, if you're going to learn about love and relationships, it's not really a bad place to start, in a way.
Stew: I have a kid, too, and, yeah, that's a whole 'nother issue. I bought the regular version of The Eminem Show for my ten-year-old, thinking that I was the cool liberal dad who could handle it. And now I know why the guy is making so much money, because the parents buy his record, they buy the dirty one first, listen to it themselves, and then they buy the clean one for their kids.
Actually, it wasn't Eminem so much that I was concerned about. There's one tune on his record where he talks and sort of goes completely x-rated. It's like porno. And I couldn't handle that for my ten-year-old. Eminem's issues I can actually kind of handle. And my kid's pretty smart. He's heard it all. That's the thing -- we try to make records, not consciously, but we do it for ourselves. We want to make records that we would want to listen to. But I have a ten-year-old kid. It's not that we consciously want to please people, but our tastes are broad.
Splendid: I think just going back to the category thing, I'm the same age that you are, I guess, and it seems like the radio used to jump around more. You'd have the Staples Singers, and then you'd have Cheap Trick, and it was all kinds of stuff that was all together, and you'd have to make those kinds of leaps. Now people are so formatted that they're not used to making those kinds of transitions.
Stew: That seems to be the case. I know that the musical environment that I grew up in, there's no resemblance to what I remember. I grew up in a predominantly black environment, and yet I was completely exposed to poppy sort of...
Splendid: Tell me about that. What were some of your early experiences with music?
Stew: Pretty much everything. The poles of my family's listening experience were pretty much The Beatles on one end and James Brown on the other, and my father liked jazz. I had two happening sisters who drove around in VW Bugs in 1967, and they knew everything that was going on in the pop thing. Sly and the Family Stone was probably the one that put it all together...
Splendid: Oh, my god, he's the best, isn't he?
Stew: For just being like what I grew up in -- we grew up in a predominantly black area but were by no means one dimensional. I grew up among a lot of different races and different types of people. That music was a bridge between the more white pop music and James Brown type funk. But things were more varied then, and I don't recognize the landscape now. That's kind of what we're trying to do -- more so with The Negro Problem, I have to say. With my solo stuff, I'm really just trying to get into the lyrics a lot, and storytelling. But with The Negro Problem, especially with the last Negro Problem record, Welcome Black, we tried to put up straight-up danceable stuff and then a couple of songs later, kind of rock tunes. We're trying to mix it up. It's not a conscious thing. It's just what we do.
I think we're trying to -- what everybody does musically, if you're a pop musician -- you're almost trying to recreate the radio that's in your mind. The radio that you kind of remember or think you remember. I don't mind aping stuff and ripping stuff off, because I'm not into that, but just trying to recreate that same kind of buzz and excitement.
Splendid: The stuff that made you happy when you were young.
Stew: Yeah, and that also challenged you in some way. I was challenged by The Beatles. From the words, wondering what they were singing about, hearing a weird sound on the recording and wondering what made that sound, and then reading about it, and finding out, whoa, that was a tape of a merry-go-round going backwards. To me, that was experimental music and also pop music. I have a background in experimental music as well. The Beatles approached pop music in an experimental way, and that's kind of what we do.
Splendid: What is your background in experimental music?
Stew: I got bored with song structure somewhere around 1983. I started making improvised trash can music. That whole experimental period lasted about five years, during which I moved from New York to Berlin, and continued to do it there. I just kind of tried to cleanse my mind of all the traditional song structures. Of course, I ended up coming back. It was just a hiatus.
Splendid: Is that even possible? To take all that song structure out of your head?
Stew: Oh, it's absolutely impossible to take it out. It was just sort of an attempt. That's why I describe it more as a hiatus than an actual cleansing, because that's what I learned. You cannot take that stuff out of your system. And I came back out of that five-year, maybe seven-year period, feeling more attached to song structure than ever, for understanding its role in my life.
Splendid: It's interesting that you say you spent time in Berlin, because there are certain songs on The Naked Dutch Painter that have a very Brecht and Weill feel to them.
Stew: Without question.
Splendid: You almost expect Lotte Lenya to be singing.
Stew: Yeah, that's just trying to use the song structure to tell a story that's a little broader than just, "We met at the restaurant, I looked into your eyes." That kind of stuff. And at the same time, I find it easier to write these more intense storytelling tunes than I do to write -- I'm still working on trying to write the sort of straight-ahead Woody Guthrie, just colloquial, American speech kind of tune.
Splendid: No, don't do that!
Stew: But that to me is harder. I can spin a seven-verse yarn about someone I just met. I think I've gotten pretty decent at that. And I still want to do that. I still like doing that. I still want to talk about difficult things in songs, but I'm in awe of someone who can write a simple lyric that really connects with people. But that's not stupid, you know?
Splendid: Simplicity is hard.
Stew: That's the big challenge.
Splendid: Yeah. One of the things that I really love about The Naked Dutch Painter is the way you observe women. You have these just unforgettable characters in "The Naked Dutch Painter" and "Giselle" and "North Bronx French Marie", and it makes me realize how general and composite most songs about women are. You never get the sense that there's a real model there.
Stew: Yeah, that's funny, because I think the reason I was scared to write about any of my relationships or any of the women that I knew was because I was so scared of falling into that -- what you described. Then, on this record, I kind of said "Let's go for it." But yeah, I'm not comfortable with a lot of the whole codes that rock and roll mythology uses. There's this rock chick that always shows up in songs. You know what I mean? She's got the phone number and the cool car and the way she holds the cigarette in her mouth. That stuff is just not -- I know why those things have to exist in songs, but...
Splendid: Well, it's all about desire, but it's the kind of desire a 15-year-old has that doesn't have anything to do with the object.
Stew: Exactly. And I have to admit that when I moved to Europe, I did kind of grow up there, just in terms of relationships. Before I moved there, in 1984, I just had your standard American relationships, meaning the kinds you have in your late teens and early 20s. I really never thought of myself as sexist. I grew up around a lot of strong women in my family. But that said, I think when I got to Europe, I started meeting women who were living lives not by men's terms, but by their own. I'm not saying that there aren't women like that in America; there certainly are. But just because of my luck, I guess, I wasn't meeting a hell of a lot of them. And suddenly to approach a relationship the way they were presented to me there, with the women I was meeting there, it just seemed more like, oh, okay, yeah. You're not just this object of desire. You're a complete human being that I'm having a conversation with, and we're talking about what's going on, as opposed to me just trying to get into your pants. That was definitely an awakening for me. It's hard to describe without making it sound like -- oh, Europe is better than America. I really don't mean that.
Splendid: But it's different, though.
Stew: It definitely is different. I met more of people's exes. When I would get together with a woman in Europe, I would meet her ex-boyfriend. It would be really sort of encouraged or common to get to know the guy and get along. In the states, the ex is the person that you most try to avoid. I just noticed a certain kind of maturity with relationships that really, deeply changed me. It stuck with me. It's going to stick with me. I feel like I grew up in Europe. I really do. I was pretty immature.
Splendid: I have a weakness for songs about difficult women. There aren't that many songwriters that write them, because most of them are looking for easy relationships with beautiful women. I love songs about women who clearly have all kinds of issues, but the songwriter likes them anyway.
Stew: Right. Definitely.
Splendid: I want to talk about "The Naked Dutch Painter", and the first thing I want to know is about the drawing that's on the CD cover -- was that created to accompany this song?
Stew: That was created by Tony Millionaire. He's a syndicated cartoonist -- a nationally-known kind of guy, who also happens to be an old friend of mine whom I met while I was living in Berlin. He knows the world that song came out of, because he and I were in it in the 1980s. So I just told him to make a drawing. I said, "You know the scene. We've been there a million times. We're in someone's apartment or loft, and the song's called 'The Naked Dutch Painter.'" So he painted the woman, and I'm kind of the shadowy figure in the corner. He just nailed it. He had been there. We even laughed about the kind of cabinet that's there. There's a certain kind of cabinet that we would always run into when we were there.
Splendid: So the song came first. Is that something that more or less happened to you?
Stew: What happened was this. I went to Europe with three other American friends of mine. We basically played and toured around. We played in Germany and Holland and England. What that comes from, the first thing we noticed when we were in Holland and Germany was that nudity was this thing that everyone was so completely comfortable with. North Americans are completely uncomfortable with it. We used to joke about how easily Germans and Dutch people would get naked, and how it didn't mean sex. And that was fascinating to us. That was absolutely fascinating, the idea that nudity was not necessarily connected with sex. Even now, when I and my friends get together, we could spin an evening's worth of stories about how hilarious our misinterpretations were in social situations. It took us a couple of months to realize that when a woman came out of her bedroom topless and went to the fridge topless to make a sandwich and then went back to her room, she really didn't flash us. She really just got up to make a sandwich and went back to her room.
Splendid: But one also gets the sense that this woman knew exactly what she was doing.
Stew: Uh. This one in this song is actually a composite. So it's really hard to pin down the motives, which is sometimes problematic anyway. But this woman is at least five to six different people. It's just impressions. That's a really good question, which I've never thought of -- whether she knew what she was doing or not. I do know that so many people we would run into -- the situation with the guy in bed who invites the other guy in -- that's the same thing. It wasn't like guys were running around completely flaming gay, but you'd be with some guy, you'd have a couple of drinks and the next thing you knew, you'd be getting hit on. For Americans in their 20s it was something to get used to.
Splendid: It sounds like the whole sexuality thing was much more part of the fabric of life there than this sort of drum-roll thing we do in America.
Stew: Oh, it is. The drama or the comedy, whatever you want to talk about, is these American guys trying to make sense of it and trying to... It was really a fun sort of game. It was like being involved in a strange game that you didn't know the rules to. You never really knew when something was going to happen. In America, you always knew, here's my moment. But there, it's like, to put it bluntly, you never really knew when you were going to get laid. It could just happen. The times you were sure you were gonna, you didn't, and then when you least expected it, there you were. For a guy in his early 20s, that's something to think about. But the situation, the kind of boho scene we were in, made us think about it. It formed me.
Splendid: It's a really good song. It's the kind of song that could be a short story or a novel. It's so compressed.
AUDIO: The Naked Dutch Painter
Stew: I've actually been approached by some folks who -- I'm starting to get involved in theater now. I'm putting together something right now. I've been approached by a couple of different entities who are interested in doing a song cycle of some of the more descriptive songs like "Giselle" and "Naked Dutch Painter" and maybe trying to put them in some kind of theatrical context. I've got a collaborator and we're figuring out a way to do that. It's brand new for me.
Splendid: Are you worried about it becoming too obvious, if people are out there on the stage acting out your songs?
Stew: Ah, I don't think what I'm talking about so much is somebody on stage acting it out. I think what we want to do -- we have a particular thing that we're not into sharing right now. We have a particular approach to doing a song on stage in a theatrical context, where we're not going to literally have people being characters.
Splendid: Yeah, because I think that would just kill it.
Stew: It probably sounds really vague, but we've got a hook. We're trying to figure out how to present the songs. But no, there definitely will not be someone on stage naked with a paintbrush and an easel. That will not happen.
Splendid: Can you talk a little about "Giselle?"
Stew: "Giselle" is a definite composite. "Giselle" starts off with the kind of women I would meet at art openings on the Lower East Side, who were from Paris or Berlin. They would be living in the tiniest, most fucked-up parts of the Lower East Side. Then once I got to know them, I would find out that they were heiresses. Or that their parents owned the largest glass manufacturer in Marseilles. But these kind of women who were just tough in some ways, intellectually tough. I'm not one of these people who thinks that just because someone comes from money, that makes them bad. I've met fucked-up people from all financial strains. But the Giselle character is more like someone who comes from comfort but doesn't let that dictate her life. So you do have slumming there, no doubt about that, but at the same time you have a curiosity. A lot of these women, because they were so well educated and well-traveled, they actually did have interesting perspectives on life and on the world, and they actually used their positions of privilege to learn more.
Most of us, when we're privileged, we just sort of wallow in our privilege. Like Dubya, who has never been to Europe. I think that's a really American thing, not being curious. I was fascinated with these women. Sometimes I would hook back up with them in Europe and see where they come from, and it was like wow. I don't hate slumming. I'm fascinated by anybody who tries to broaden their world. If you have the money to fly to Tokyo and check it out and the next day fly to Lagos, Nigeria, more power to you.
Splendid: Yeah, I'm just wondering, the character also seemed very closed off in some ways. You know, you're saying she's intellectually curious and very tough, but maybe a little bit unable to connect with other people -- or am I just making that up?
Stew: I don't feel that that's there. I think what I've done with that tune in particular is taking some of the more extreme aspects, the more surfacey things.
Splendid: There are just so many great lines in that song.
Stew: Thank you.
Splendid: It's really entertaining, and I know you say it's not one person, but you feel like it is a person and you know her a little bit.
Stew: That's my goal. I want it to be like, I was sort of trying -- the model for that song is that you want to create a picture of this person quickly. So you might not talk about some deep conversation you have with this person about how they were feeling about the war. Instead, you would talk about their dog. And saying things like, when I talk about her doing coke in front of the mom, that's trying to show you that she's so completely charming that she could do that in front of your mother and it would be somehow okay. At the same time, I like the idea of creating this superstar. Not superstar like Madonna, but creating this character that seems unbelievable. But yet the way I'm describing her, you sort of believe in her.
You don't know how many people came up to me -- and this is a different song -- you don't know how many emails I get from people saying "Hey, that girl in the song, wasn't that song based on a girl name Anya that used to live on this street." Because they don't even consider that it might be made up. Or that it's a composite. We got tons of emails from people going, "I know that girl."
Splendid: I also really like "Reelin'", which is not a story-based song. It's just got this beautiful melody that sort of hooks under the chorus and carries you forward, and it reminds me a little of "Repulsion" from Joys and Concerns. Tell me about writing that.
Stew: "Reelin'" was an absolute break from my way of writing. Nothing before that, even The Negro Problem stuff, which wasn't really storytelling, was like it. That was more based on images and stuff. "Reelin'" is essentially the first naked love song that I've had on any record. For me, that was a big deal, because I had never really written a tune that said, this is what's going on, I'm into this person, and I'm thinking about it. My band members and my friends, back in the day, we would kind of cringe at that kind of song. I think my band probably would have thought that I was a nut if I had brought in "Reelin'" two years before that. Because that's not what Stew does. I could see them kind of going...
Splendid: Where are the clever metaphors?
Splendid: But it's a great song.
Stew: Yeah, it just takes a while to break out of your shell. When I'm dealing with musicians, it doesn't matter that The New York Times says this or The LA Times says that; when I'm dealing with my arranger partner Heidi or my musicians, I want them to like the songs. I wouldn't even have had the courage to bring in a song like "Reelin'" to The Negro Problem three years ago. They might have just looked at me and gone, "What is this?" It's out of character.
Splendid: So tell me about the people you work with. I know that Heidi is in The Negro Problem as well.
Stew: The whole company right now is really me and Heidi, both for Stew and for The Negro Problem. Our main drummer for The Negro Problem left a couple of years ago, and when our keyboard player left, instead of replacing them, we just created a pool that we could draw from. We've got about four drummers who can actually play our tunes. We've got about eight keyboard players who can do that as well. I hated it at first. I thought it was horrible to keep jumping back and forth between people. Now I kind of like it a lot. It's almost like we're a jazz group, in a way. It especially helps the audience. Every time somebody comes to see us as a band -- I mean, Heidi and I do most of our shows just the two of us, the Stew shows -- when we do a Negro Problem show, we've got seven people on stage. Like, we played a show with Blondie recently. We did these crazy couple of tours with the Counting Crows. Every single time you see us, it's a slightly different band and it's a slightly different feel and that makes it exciting for us. So we go from this nice little Stew cabaret thing, to where we do The Negro Problem, where have this crazy band.
Splendid: There's kind of a theme in a lot of your songs about white women asking you "stupid questions about your groovy black ghetto?"
Splendid: So I thought I would jump on the trend and ask you about the whole racial thing. You're black, obviously, and it's in all your songs, but you're not really working in one of the categories that people expect of a black musician.
Stew: It's the big giant thing. It's one of the biggest issues in our country. It seems to be the filter that we see everything through. I grew up right at the point where -- I never grew up feeling oppressed, even when I would get stopped by the cops all the time. I always felt like I could basically do anything I wanted. I felt like an outlaw, maybe -- when I was a kid, when I was in high school, I was doing illegal drugs and doing all those things that your parents and the police don't want you to do. And listening to weird music. So I always felt like sort of an outlaw. I was outside the system, but I never felt like a victim. I just felt like "Of course, the cops are going to stop us if we're riding four-deep." Four-deep meaning four blacks in the car. Of course, they're going to stop us and they're going to search us and even if we're not doing anything, they're going to do that anyway." I never felt like that was "the man". I felt that that was just life and we had to deal with it. And I think the reason that I felt like that was I had heard the actual horror stories from my parents and my grandmother. So compared to the stories they told me about how their lives were, it was hardly in my mind that I could whine about what was going on in my life.
From a musical point of view, from a creative point of view, it has just always been annoying that Paul Simon can make music from Brazil and music from South America, and people don't blink, but if I play a couple of chords from The Beatles or Jimmy Webb, people are like "My god, he's black and look what he can do." Like I'm some sort of trained monkey. And the thing is, what I've explained to all these people, critics and audience members alike, is that I'm a Western person. I grew up with Bach and James Brown and everything in between, just like you all did. Just like all white folks did. Even if they don't realize it. You know, the Bach is in the commercials. Western European classical music is everywhere. It's in there. You probably don't know that you're hearing it. And we're also hearing Duke Ellington every day and James Brown every day. We hear the Beatles every day. So this music is part of the air that we breathe. I breathe it just like everyone else does.
The question isn't how could this exist. The bigger issue is that it's too bad that life is so difficult. I know a lot of black musicians who love music that's associated with being European.
Splendid: Like folk music.
Stew: Yeah. But in the same way that society is physically segregated, it's also culturally segregated as well. So I know what it's like to actually get your ass kicked -- I was too big to really get my ass kicked, but I had a friend who got his ass kicked for carrying a New York Dolls record to school. It was an all-Black school and they said, "You must be a fag if you're listening to this."
Splendid: It's interesting, though, because it seemed like in the late 1960s, you had bands like Sly and Love, and it seemed like there was more of a willingness to blur the boundaries.
Stew: At that point, there was. But the school that I went to in the 1970s, junior high, these were inner city black kids who by that time really did not accept you or anything if it didn't fit into what everyone else was doing. There wasn't that much open mindedness. When you get to high school, it's a little different, but still. In the area where I went to junior high and high school, you were a freak if you were black and you liked this other type of music. I'm writing a book of interconnected short stories which is all about my junior high school musical experience. That's kind of when I was coming out of the closet as a musician. By the "closet", I mean admitting to all my friends that I liked more than just James Brown. I liked the Beatles. I liked the New York Dolls. I liked effeminate white guys prancing around in boas, making this kind of music. And like I said, my friend got beat up for carrying a New York Dolls record. That's the central image in this book of short stories. You can't imagine the tension and the judgment that was going on back then. If you were carrying the record by these effeminate white guys -- David Bowie or Mott the Hoople -- it wasn't just that you were saying "I like something that's not black"; there was also a sexual element. And in the black community, that's the worst thing that any man could admit -- you know, you think it's hard in the white community. It is, in the black community -- that question of sexuality. Ask any black guy man and he will tell you. It's a nightmare. So just holding a record by David Bowie could really get you in trouble.
I don't know if that was a good answer. That was a rambling answer.
Splendid: It was a really good answer. I was kind of embarrassed asking you about it.
Stew: No, no, it's fine. I just hoped that I answered you.
Splendid: You toured with Love last year. Can you talk about that?
Stew: Yes, we were in the UK and then went to the States. The States was great, and a lot of fun, but the UK was like a dream. For the opening band, which was us, me and Heidi standing up there in front of 1,500 people or 2,000 people, it was a dream. Arthur Lee, when I was a teenager and speaking about all those judgments that people make, are you authentic or are you not, Arthur Lee really made me realize that I wasn't a freak. Or (laughing) maybe I realized that I was a freak like him? So to be touring the U.K. with him after the impact that he had on me... The thing is that I'm not a real gigantic Love freak. I don't own every single one of their records. I own two of their records.
Splendid: Well, there aren't that many of their records.
Stew: I think there are six, but some of the 1970s stuff is questionable. But anyway, it was a dream. The fans in the UK were so intense. Quite often, we would be playing to venues that were 80 to 90 percent full when we would get onstage. As the opening band, you always dread no one being there to watch you. That was not the case for us. The fans knew that he was carrying around a band for the whole tour. Obviously that says something. That's a good thing. It's a sign of approval. So they were giving us a shot.
Splendid: Yeah, but I see a lot of commonality. When I read that you were touring with Love, it made perfect sense to me.
Stew: Oh, yeah, we felt the same way, too. And the audiences felt the same way as well. It was just the best. We just had the best shows. There was not one stinker in the entire UK tour. We played some really out-of-the-way places, where the folks were not exactly the most with-it in terms of music -- it's clear that some of the clubs that we played, they had never heard that perspective before. You know, we're up there doing songs about gay Ken dolls.
Splendid: I love that song.
Stew: We were playing for a crowd that wasn't really ready for us. But still, the whole tour was fantastic. And then the other thing was opening for him. I was sitting there one day after our show in Brighton Beach and it all just kind of hit me. I was, like, wow, this is a really great place to be. I feel so happy and privileged to be in that spot.
Splendid: So is he still great?
Stew: I think so, yeah. I think he's definitely inspired by the love that the Europeans have for him, because he feels that he deserves that level of love and he does. The thing is, the UK, while I'm sure it's great for him, you can feel in the UK that there's more of a curiosity factor in the audience. The irony, of course, is that the folks in Europe know his music like the back of their hands. In America, they don't. They're still looking at him, they're sort of curious. They're like, "Oh, I've heard about this Love singer, this Arthur Lee guy", and so I think when you're his age and you've done what he's done, I think you kind of feel sometimes, fuck, you know, I've done this, I'm here, you should know how great I am. And that's the sad part. Because in the UK they do. He's respected there the way he should be. But it was a real lesson playing with him. I'm sitting around here at 41 feeling like, I mean, I feel very young because I have a job that does that for you, but people are like, well, 41 --, that's old for a rock and roll singer. But to see him out there, kicking ass, it puts things in perspective. If we don't play another show with him, it doesn't matter because we had the best.
Splendid: Great. I just read that you were playing Lincoln Center?
Splendid: Which is where people go to the opera and the symphony, and I was wondering, is that a little weird for you? I mean, it's such an institutional setting and your stuff is so subversive.
Stew: Oh yeah, it couldn't not be weird. It's so giant. It would have to be specified for a lot of the folks at home who may not know, Lincoln Center does have many different stages. For folks that think we're playing on the big, old...
Splendid: Avery Fisher Hall.
Stew: Yeah, that's not it. We're playing in a 200-seater which is the most beautiful room that I've ever seen in my entire life. It is called the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse and three out of the four walls are full-length glass windows.
Splendid: Oh, how beautiful.
Stew: It's breathtaking, and when I saw it, I completely freaked. Getting the call from this American Songbook thing is just -- I've got it in perspective, because we've done stuff like tour with Arthur Lee, tour with Counting Crows, Heidi and I have been on stage in front of 10,000 people playing. And I'm 41. I've been playing for a long time. So I don't have that feeling like, ooh, yeah, now we've made it. It's more just like it's just a great gig to have. It's a great gig to say you've played. And it definitely is going to help the resume. No question. But I see my career not as "making it". I think when you're 21, you think about making it. My models are more like folk and blues artists who are like -- B.B. King still gigs, you know. When did he make it, and when did he not make it? Making it seems like you get your pool and you retire. But to me, I feel like I'm going to have something to say when I'm 61, 20 years from now. I just want to be able to do this. That to me is making it.
I'm at the Lincoln and then two days later, I'm going to play Buddy's in Wilmington, somewhere.
Splendid: So if you can't get tickets to Lincoln Center...
Stew: That's the cool part. Yes, it's great that we're playing Lincoln, but the cooler part is that two days later we've going to be in some dive in New Jersey. It's just a whole process. It's more like a life than a career. I knew that already -- but reading about all these folk and blues guys, and when they described these guys' lives, I was like, oh, yeah, that's more like it.
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Jennifer Kelly is actually starting to scare us a bit with this power-interviewing thing.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photo - eugene ahn (from stew's website) :: credits graphics ]