The Negro Problem

Yes, there is life outside the L.A. music biz; two self-made troubadours tell how (and why) they live it.


Cintra Wilson
March 16, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

I was in the truck, having one of those
outrageously shitty days where the world
seems full of angry 23-year-old
belligerent idiots with thick necks and
shaved head-sides who hazardously cut in
front of you in traffic, then flip you
off, as their extra-loud Mega Bass
speakers blare from SUVs defaced with
unauthorized decals of an un-Calvin-like
homeboy Calvin pissing on the ground
with an evil smirk.

The bastards were everywhere, and the
sky was the color of blood poisoning and
the wind was whippy and bleak and gritty
as only New York wind can be -- studded
with whirling eddies of the East Coast
filth-pollen of seasonal depression.

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I was half-listening to my favorite
listener-supported radio station
(anybody notice how the quality of life
improves when all corporate influence is
extricated?) and caught the following
lyrics, from a resonant, yowling voice
that sounded like a black Cat Stevens,
about the plight of a gay Ken
doll:

Someday soon

I'll be in your child's room

I'll be forced to kiss

Barbie's plastic tits

And I will hate myself,

and what's more, I'll hate you

Suddenly the fist in my rib cage
unfolded. Somebody, somehow, had broken
free of the norm and was writing pretty,
acoustic-guitar lines with nifty chord
changes and totally irreverent lyrics,
despite the lack of cash and stadium
blow jobs they were likely to get from
it. Wholly without hope for major-label
distribution, and for my money, that's a
good thing.

I sat in the car double-parked and
clutching the steering wheel, refusing
to move until the band identified
itself, and discovered that the Negro
Problem, a small outfit from L.A., were
doing a monthlong residency at New
York's Knitting Factory. I made it a
point to go see them; to go out, at
night even, on a week in which I would
rather have done nothing but hide under
my couch and take all the Percocet left
over from last year's oral surgery, and
whimper and chew my thumbs.

A whole set by the Negro Problem sounds
like a fusion of the Fifth Dimension,
Chicago, James Taylor, Burt Bacharach,
ELO, the Five Stair Steps, the
Beatles,
David Sedaris and Tenacious
D. I usually figure if you can hear more
than nine influences, the band is
"original." The Negro Problem are alive
in a way that other bands are dead,
because they own themselves.

I interviewed Stew (just Stew), the
smart-mouth of the operation, and Heidi
Rodewald, the hot chick of the band,
about their lives as self-made
troubadours. They are clever musical
weirdos who have carved out a tenable
piece of the entertainment world for
themselves, wrangled their 40 acres and
a mule, grown their own infrastructure
and kept things going a lot longer than
other bands who think industry record
deals are the only way to do things. The
Negro Problem prove there is life for
musicians outside the L.A. music
industry. Bloody refreshing. And here,
kids, they tell you how to do it, over
croissants at Fortunato Brothers in
Williamsburg:

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I told your manager I thought you
were a broke-ass Cole Porter for
the '90s.

Stew: Wow. Thanks. We're just
trying to keep ourselves entertained,
basically, because I sure as hell know
I'm not singing to the 14-year-olds.

Jakob Dylan you're not.

Stew: Exactly. So, I'll take the
people who either know who Cole Porter
is or those that don't know but kind of
know -- that know enough to know that
he's good. Because these days you've got
two people -- the people that know things,
who've read things, and the people who
have just heard the echoes of things.
And that's OK, I don't mind. I don't
mind people who haven't really read "War
and Peace."

Have you?

Stew: No, I haven't. Some of us
have actually read things and some have
just heard the echoes, but the great
thing is that we can reference things,
like Cole Porter or Noel Coward.
Anything that smells slightly
sophisticated to me at this point in
history is subversive. Because, can you
believe it? You turn on the TV, and you
can still see these rock 'n' roll codes
-- you know, jeans and long hair and
slightly dangerous, this fake danger,
like you see in the videos, like Kid
Rock. You don't want your daughter to go
out with him, do you? Well, of course
not. But he doesn't even exist! He's
this bizarre prototype of scary,
dangerous rock. And that's so over! I
mean, these guys all have lawyers;
they're not dangerous.

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The Negro Problem fall between the
cracks of any of the categories that
would earn you major-label butt-sniffing
interest. The fact that you've been able
to keep yourselves going in this Jakob
Dylan-type, L.A. music climate is a
wonder.

Stew: It's a wonder to us. The
band has been together for about five
years. It started out as a conscious
decision to write songs with good
lyrics. We knew that if we wrote songs
with good lyrics we would attract a
certain kind of person, and there
wouldn't be tons of people, but once we
got 'em, we got 'em, and they would be
fans forever. It's like we were selling
a certain kind of drug that we knew
they could only get from us. And then we
just kept playing and playing in L.A. We
knew that by calling ourselves [the
Negro Problem] it would hit people who
admired the balls and who had the sense
of irony. I don't know what happened to
irony. If [irony] was in a box, on the
Mayflower, they threw it off. The
English and other guys still have it,
and somehow we lost it.

We had it in the '70s and then it
went away. It got overly prosecuted in
the '80s and then political correctness
stomped out the last dying ember of it.
And now it's gone.

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Stew: Absolutely. We started to
get this really strong following in Los
Angeles of people who were just
fascinated that we were even existing. I
think people actually came to see us,
just to see, is this going to still
exist in a month? I can't believe it,
because surely these guys are going to
quit and go off and get jobs at IBM or
something.

Do you have enough consistent gigs in
L.A. that you're able to not have day
jobs?

Stew: Some of us still work. We
make enough money where we don't always
have to work.

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Heidi: Right now we're not.

What was your hardest period -- your
worst job in your driest hour?

Stew: I've been a security guard,
which is how I finished all the lyrics
to the record, because I can't finish
lyrics unless I'm either on a bus or
working a really boring job. I can't sit
there with the quill.

Where were you a security
guard?

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Stew: In Santa Monica, at an
empty business park.

A bunch of gray offices with cellotex
wall panels?

Stew: Exactly. But hey, it
worked. Also, the way we were able to
last was by doing something that L.A.
bands who are successful don't do, which
is we went to various towns over and
over again, whether they wanted us to be
there or not, and just kept playing and
playing until we finally developed a
following there. Unlike a lot of other
successful Los Angeles bands, we can
have a record release party in Arizona
or San Diego or Portland.

We bought a van. We tour a lot, because
we're smart enough to know that the big
cities are basically jaded. They see you
a few times; first they watch to see how
far you're going to go up, and then, of
course, they watch to see how fast
you're going to fall. A lot of bands are
under this illusion that the whole world
is Los Angeles. And the city is very
good at creating that illusion that it
is the whole world. [Bands] just think,
well, the industry is here! David Geffen
lives here! He parks his helicopter
here! It must all be here. Why should I
go to San Diego? Why should I go to
Mesa, Ariz.?

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Heidi: It feels really good to do
great in San Diego.

Stew: We go there and we make
money. It's just being old-fashioned,
like being a folk group or a blues
group. Rock guys are stupid! They're
uneducated working-class peasants that
have suddenly been given this
opportunity, and after a month they're
suddenly, like [British accent], "I
cahn't have regular coffee, I
want a cappuccino! I can't take a bus, I
want to be chauffeured around!" And I'm
like, hold it, you were a peasant two
months ago. Why don't you just get in
the van and go? Just carry some
equipment? People believe their own
bullshit, these myths, this Rolling
Stones, Led Zeppelin thing, and that's so
gone. That's ancient, it's Jurassic,
it's not real.

So you've carved out a wonderful
little plateau for yourself.

Stew: You have to, these days.
Does Kid Rock really think that anyone
is going to care what he says in the
next year?

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Do you guys have any horror stories
about major record labels that have been
interested in you?

Stew: The best story I can give
you is some guy looked me in the
face and said, "You know, you really
have a great sense of melody, you really
write some clever lyrics, but let me
tell you, there's two things you need in
your band. You need a song that mentions
a car and a song that mentions a girl's
name or a girl's phone number." And I
looked at him and thought, somebody call
Robert Altman right now,
and tell him that he's a documentarian.
"The Player" is real life.

People really say things like that. This
guy said, "You know, I'm a big fan, I
really get what you're doing, but you've
got to have a number like [singing]
'8-6-7-5-3-0-nii-yine.'" This guy was
buying me really expensive Chinese food,
and I was just thinking, OK, this is
what it's all about. [The major labels]
don't know what to do with us, and
frankly, I don't blame them. Walking
into a major label for us right now is
like us walking into the Pork Store over
there on Fifth Avenue and saying, "Can you
handle us?" and they're like, "Well, you
know, we do pork, maybe we could fit
something in."

Heidi: And we don't want to wait.

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Stew: It would be nice if we had
met maybe one friend who had had a good
experience with a major label. But we
know all these people, and they've all
done it, and they come to us and they
all say the exact same thing: "What you
guys are doing is the right thing." What
happened with my friends is, the record
company pays your rent for nine months.
For nine months you walk around thinking
you're a rock star.

They put you up on some crappy tour with
some bands you have nothing in common
with, and then they take two years to
release the record. You hate the songs
by the time the record comes out, but
you have to play them. There are really
quality people [who can't find good
label support] -- Aimee Mann has to put
a record out on the Internet. That's
goofy. Love her or hate her, some major
label should be able to do something for
her.

Heidi: What's really cool that
happened to us is the last record; it
was financed, in the beginning, from a
major label going, "Here, here's some
money, go do some demos for us." It was
great. We did the demos and then we gave
them the tape, but we didn't even think
about it. We just took all [the tracks]
to a different studio and finished the
album and put it out. And everyone else
we know in L.A. would have gone
[star-struck voice]: "Now we're waiting to
hear back!"

Stew: We laugh at these bands who
spend all this time recording with all
these gigantic budgets. Bands who take
too much time in the studio generally
don't know what the hell they're doing.
They've written 10 songs, they get a
deal, then the second record comes out
and they're like, uh, I'm working my way
through song No. 4 -- that's so lame!
Then, it's like, "Oh, let's send them to
New Orleans for some inspiration." You
don't know how many people I know who
have been "sent to New Orleans."

New Orleans is like a bus graveyard
for rock talent. You have a whole tier
of rock stardom that young band hopefuls
should know about. It's a way to
reroute their careers so they can
actually do music.

Stew: It would be pretty
impossible for us to do what we do if
[Heidi's job] wasn't a music-oriented
job.

Heidi: I work with studios. I
sell recording tape.

Stew: They understand the world
that she's in.

Heidi: I'm kind of leaving [work]
a lot now, kind of pushing it.

Stew: You can't leave your
average job for a Thursday and a Friday
to go out of town.

Heidi: It's not safe, nothing's
safe. We're old enough to where we've
already gone, "This is what we're
doing." We can't say, "No, wait, we
should work, we can't go to New York."

Stew: It's a paradigm shift --
most people, like people who quit our
band because they can't handle it, say,
"I can't go to New York, I have a job."
We just go, "We have to go to New York.
How can we do it?"

Heidi: We figure it out later. We
don't know what's going to happen next
month. We're kinda scared. We don't know
where the money is coming from. We have
a giant van we have to pay for.

Stew: Things do tend to work out,
if you rethink the situation. They
don't work out if you think, "Oooh, I
want to keep my job and I want to keep
my band. How do I do it?" Then you're
fucked, because you're on the fence. You
have to say, either I'm here or I'm
there.


Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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