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Problem? What Problem? : Mark Stewart Doesn't See the Fuss About a Band Name; He'd Rather Cause a Stir With His Music


KISS put on makeup; Pete Townshend smashed his guitar, and Jimi Hendrix played his with his teeth.

Singer-songwriter-guitarist Mark Stewart, who goes by "Stew," hopes his band's name will do the trick.

"I realize that part of what I do is salesmanship, and with the name Negro Problem, we're getting the desired effect," Stew said during a recent phone interview from his home in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. "I mean, people are somewhat puzzled. . . . They want to know what the heck this band is all about."

Pop fans eager to find out can hear the quirky, Silver Lake-based quartet tonight at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach, where they'll open for Orange County's the Ziggens, or on the Problem's debut LP, "Post Minstrel Syndrome" (Aerial Flipout Records).

Intended as a tongue-in-cheek appellation, Stew concedes that the name often provokes shock rather than curiosity. Some clubs refuse to hang posters or put "Negro Problem" on a marquee. But with such equally controversial names as the Dead Kennedys, Niggaz With Attitude and Marilyn Manson already in circulation, he wonders what the fuss is about.

"I think it's funny," said Stew, 35, an African American who grew up in L.A. "When you look back at the '60s, with stand-up comics like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, you think these battles have already been fought . . . that you could say or do just about anything. I think Bruce must be rolling in his grave today wondering why a name like the Negro Problem is causing such a stir."

The quality of the band's music will tell whether it makes a lasting impression. With influences from '60s-era pop (Love, Fifth Dimension, Beatles) and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to soul/R&B (Sly and the Family Stone) and neo-psychedelic modern pop (XTC, Robyn Hitchcock, Pere Ubu), they mix lighthearted, bouncy tunes with thought-provoking social commentary.

The new album incorporates attacks on celebrity culture and media icons ("Birdcage"), calls for enlightenment ("The Great Leap Forward"), dissections of racism ("Ghetto Godot," "Doubting Uncle Tom") and a delightfully twisted version of Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park." Backed by accordion/keyboardist Jill Meschke, drummer Charles Pagano and ex-Wednesday Week bassist Heidi Rodewald, Stew's emotive baritone roams through all of the aforementioned styles.

Stew denounces boundaries; he said he would like to see fans embrace a variety of music, regardless of racial and social pressures.

"I was like the only brother to see the Who concert at the [L.A.] Coliseum in 1976," Stew said. "And some of my circle of friends were afraid to go to punk concerts because of the skinheads and violent element at some shows. There's always been a social aspect to what's acceptable to do or see. Very little has to do with the music itself, and that's really frustrating to me.

"Musically, I'm not a big fan of ska, but what I like about its popularity right now is how it seems to be so positive and inclusive. The vibe is like, 'Hey, this for everyone to enjoy,' and I find that inspiring."

A similar spirit helped launch "Post Minstrel Syndrome" in August. The independent, pop-only Aerial Flipout label--conceived in 1996 by Stew and Jeff Merchant of the band PG-13--was formed to record the music of several Silver Lake bands.

"It started out as several local bands who wanted to pool their resources, a safety in numbers kind of thing," Stew explained. "Now, one [Cockeyed Ghost] is negotiating with Big Deal Records, but I'm happy operating at this level. We're believers in the indie ethic that says the music is what matters, not the free meals and limo rides that in part define success at the major labels.

"Word is out that life in the majors is not all that wonderful," he added. "I hear about bands bickering with the honchos over graphics and song titles. Then, when the CDs are finally released, they sit on shelves somewhere with no [promotional] push. Man, labels should be facilitators instead of gettin' in your way."

He maintains that crafting "old-fashioned, 2 1/2-minute pop songs" should inspire camaraderie and innovation.

"Seeing [the Beatles' film] 'A Hard Day's Night' is something I'll never forget," Stew said. "I still cling to that myth of a band where everyone lives in the same house and the group members represent four parts of one single brain. That's a very attractive image for me, just like carefree kids all playing in a clubhouse.

"Great pop songs, like the Beatles' 'Can't Buy Me Love,' are brilliant in how much emotion and thought are expressed in just a few minutes," Stew added. "Man, that's some serious craft."

But he also believes in leaving enough unsaid for listeners to wonder about a song's meaning.

"I like when people tell me, 'Stew, I don't know what that song's about,' " he offered. "And I tell them, 'Listen enough and you will,' because you can get more out of it with each listen. Just let your imagination go. . . . There are enough subtleties that encourage various interpretations."

* The Negro Problem appears tonight with the Ziggens at the Blue Cafe, 210 Promenade, Long Beach. 21 and older. 9 p.m. $5 (562) 983-7111.

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