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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're African-American and call your band The Negro Problem, you're unlikely to shy away from tackling issues about race. My guest, Stew, the band's founder and lead singer, doesn't. He and a songwriting collaborator and bass player, Heidi Rodewald, who is white, wrote a musical called "Passing Strange," based on Stew's life, that won a Tony on Broadway and several Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Musical.

"Passing Strange" is set in the '70s. The main character, called Youth, is African-American, but his taste in music, which includes rock and psychedelic music, doesn't conform with what the African-American teenagers around him like.

Having an identity crisis because he's not considered black enough, he leaves L.A. for Amsterdam and Germany, where he discovers avant-garde music and theater. Stew and his collaborator Heidi were a couple when they wrote "Passing Strange," but they broke up during the show. They're still collaborating, and their new album, "Making It," under the band name Stew and the Negro Problem, has several songs related to the breakup. Let's start with the song "Pretend."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETEND")

STEW: (Singing) Plays are real if you pretend, you are too until the end. Trapped in a homegrown masquerade, costumes wrong but so well-made. Curtain fell, but who got played? Plays are cool, don't get me wrong. But as a rule, they're way too long. So damn smart, and they mystify. Songs are dumb(ph) , but they don't lie. Song are dumb, but they don't lie (unintelligible)...

GROSS: Stew, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you. The new album is in part about your relationship with your co-songwriter and bass player, Heidi Rodewald. And you worked on "Passing Strange" together and I know that you broke up during or just before the start of the performances. I'm a little unclear on that.

But the album, you know, deals with the breakup of that relationship. So just give us a - just orient us a little bit, when did you actually break up within that process?

STEW: Heidi and I, we broke up in the green room of the Berkeley Repertory Theater during the 2006 winter run of "Passing Strange." Maybe it was the fall run of "Passing Strange," but 2006. So we basically broke up in 2006 and then spent two years being a broken-up couple in a play, which is kind of like getting a divorce and staying in the same house for two years after.

GROSS: That sounds horrible.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's like...

STEW: It's - yeah, there are more pleasurable things to do, especially when you're in a play that's about love and loss and art, and I mean, you couldn't break up in a worse play, you know. Two people had been creating together all that time and then suddenly to have to go, OK, this is over, and then the next day you're in a play looking at that person across the stage, singing songs about love and loss and art, it's - yeah, it could have been better.

GROSS: Plus the breakup's in the green room of the theater. So you have to put your public face on when you leave the green room, right? I mean...

STEW: I don't know if we were good at the public face thing. I think, you know, when you're working in theater, it's like being on a ship. So everything that happens in a dressing room, especially if it's screamed at a loud volume, or let's say if a cup happens to fly through the room just by accident, just because it's haunted, you know, because the theater is haunted, if a cup flies through the room and breaks against the wall, everyone hears that, you know.

So when you're in a play, everybody knows what's going on on the ship, you know.

GROSS: But you've obviously decided to keep collaborating as a couple because you wrote these songs, and in part these songs are about the breakup. So what has kept you together as collaborators in spite of the end of your romantic relationship?

STEW: Well, I think we realized when we - because at first we thought there's no way this is going to be able to continue, you know. But you start to realize as artists and as collaborators that there's a different kind of love. There's a romantic love, but then there's - you know, I don't know if this term has been invented before, but there's sort of like an art love, there's like a collaborator love that exists, you know, that is really just as strong as romance, you know, arguably stronger because to me, my, you know, my artistic relationship with Heidi to me is never-ending because there's nobody like her who was, you know, born in the same part of the United States, listened to the exact same radio as me, watched the same TV shows as me, saw the same punk bands as me.

You know, there's - you can't break up with that, you know. Romance can end, but I don't think art really ends, as romantic as that might sound.

GROSS: So what was the process of writing songs about the end of your relationship?

STEW: I kind of had to coax her into it in a big way. She is not as comfortable, Heidi is not as comfortable with me - as me - with this sort of airing laundry. Whether it's dirty or not is up to the listener, you know, but she wasn't as comfortable with airing the laundry as me.

I had to. I thought I was going to make this "Making It" record without her, actually. That was the idea, that I was going to do this record by myself. And then I realized that's not going to be possible. So - and she wasn't as comfortable with me - you know, with she and I both doing this kind of crazy thing, you know. But I had to because it was like a demon I had to exorcise, you know, I had to get it out.

GROSS: So there's a line in the song that we heard, "Pretend," a stupid little song that will make you break down and cry. I think we all have had those songs or have those songs in our life. Is there a specific song that you were thinking of?

STEW: No, I was just thinking about the relationship between, like, writing a play, which is this big sort of machine, you know, creating a play is like this gigantic machine that you make, and a song is just this tiny little afterthought. But I still felt, by the end of my sort of Broadway run and all that kind of stuff, that songs, at the end of the day, songs were the things that knocked me over still.

You know, that seemed kind of funny to me that you make this big two-hour-fifteen-minute behemoth, but at the end of the day it's really one of the little songs in that play that really kill you, not the whole experience, at least for me, you know.

I think it was sort me reaffirming my, you know, my belief in the singular song, as opposed to the, you know, big Wagnerian (unintelligible) kunstwerk kind of thing, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to play another song from your new album, "Making It," and this one's called "Curse." So there's a line in this I particular love called - and this is after the breakup - you don't need a new girlfriend. What you need is a nurse.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: What left you feeling that way?

STEW: I was trying to write the song - you know, Heidi made a really interesting sort of dramaturgical, if you will, call with this record. And she listened to some of the early songs and said, you know, this is exactly how I feel. And when she said that - in other words, I was trying to write songs from my point of view, and then I wanted her to write some from her point of view.

And she was a like, well, no. I mean, this is how we both feel, actually. And I thought, hmm, that's interesting. So that line, yeah. I mean, that line is just - what you need is a nurse is, that's sort of - you know, if a man has a cold, it's like the end of the world, you know. And I'm that kind of man.

You know, if I have a cold, it's the end of the world. Everything has to stop. Everything has to stop and deal with my grave illness, which is that my nose is stopped up, you know. And so obviously if a relationship ends, oh my God, it's like I feel I need 24-hour surveillance, and I need to be hooked up to some machine because my relationship has just ended, and I don't know what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK, so here's the song "Curse" from the new Stew and the Negro Problem album, "Making It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CURSE")

STEW: (Singing) It's a love and pain thing, and no one can explain thing. It's simply complicated, folks. The wee-hour excursions, the seven different versions of who got (unintelligible) who hurts the most. She made her exit when she needed to, there's so much there to read into, left you when you needed her most.

(Singing) And then you watch your love turn into a ghost. And then you watch your love turn into (technical difficulties) and now you don't need a new girlfriend. What you need is a nurse. We won't flag you a taxi, we'll just hail you a hearse. You think you'll never find better than her, and since you won't settle for worse, still you want to converse without her being so terse, tell her to put down her purse, ask her to lift the curse, ask her to lift the curse...

GROSS: So that's "Curse" from "Making It," the new album by Stew and the Negro Problem. Stew is my guest. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer, guitarist, playwright Stew, and he and his band The Negro Problem have a new album called "Making It." And he and his songwriting partner, Heidi Rodewald, collaborated on the play "Passing Strange," which won a Tony, and it was also shown on public TV.

So let's talk a little bit about "Passing Strange," which is the musical that you were performing when you broke up. And this is your - it's autobiographical fiction, is the way you describe it, and it's a story about leaving home to go far away, to basically try on different personalities and in the process figure out who you really are.

A complicating factor for the character in "Passing Strange," which I assume was maybe a complicating factor for you, is that, you know, being African-American, who he wanted to be, what his tastes in music are, were, didn't quite fit with what was expected of him as a black man.

STEW: Certainly, yeah, right, not in his neighborhood where he grew up, absolutely not.

GROSS: Your predicament?

STEW: Most definitely. My predicament in my circle of friends, the guys I grew up with, you know, black guys who liked crazy rock music, particularly the kind where men wore feather boas and had really high heels, you did not want to be on the bus that I took home holding a David Bowie record from the early '70s, which actually happened.

You know, I loaned a friend of mine "Ziggy Stardust," and he was holding "Ziggy Stardust" when, like, seven Crips got on the bus and approached my friend and sort of - we're on the radio, so I can't say what they said, but they made certain observations about his sexuality based on the David Bowie record that I had just handed to him five minutes before they got on the bus.

And they were basically about to pulverize this friend of mine until, luckily, a really eloquent young woman from our school got up and explained that they shouldn't do that.

But so, yeah, there really was sort of like - you know, there's one thing where you're just listening to weird music that freaks your mom out, everybody does that, but I think we were doing something that was not just freaking our mom out, but it was freaking our friends out as well.

It wasn't that we didn't like the music that was on quote-unquote "soul radio," but we just liked all music. And we seemed weird because we liked all music. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yeah, so how were you introduced to music like David Bowie but also punk rock?

STEW: Through black rock musicians, oddly enough. I mean, the guys in my neighborhood, the older guys in my neighborhood liked everything. The first time I ever heard early Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin was from the black guys in my neighborhood who were like five and six years older than me.

They were very much from this sort of '60s mentality where they embraced - the first time I ever had headphones on, listening to "Abbey Road," was - I was about God knows how old, eight years old or something, and I was at a cousin's house.

So it was - it wasn't like I went to this white world and discovered all this fancy music, you know. Los Angeles was - the L.A. that I grew up in was a place where - you know, musicians are always eclectic. Musicians are always curious and hungry for new things. And so it wasn't unusual.

But suddenly when I had to navigate on my own, like holding those records on my own and sort of having to defend my taste and that having to defending my taste suddenly meant having to defend my position within my culture, which was something that I just didn't see the connection with - I didn't understand why what I was interested in, what kind of art I was interested in, had to reflect on my membership of my - you know what I mean - of my community. I didn't see the connection between those two things.

GROSS: So you had to defend yourself.

STEW: I had to defend myself. I had to defend my tastes. I had to, yeah, explain why I liked things. And that's the hardest thing in the world to do, to explain why you like something, to explain why you like a song or why you like the sound of three guys from England harmonizing is almost impossible to explain.

You can't explain why you like something. The bigger question for me was always to the people that were asking me to explain is why don't you want to hear this. That was the part that was so fascinating to me; it's not why someone liked something, but I love finding out why people don't like things.

And if you ask people why they don't like things, particularly when they get into this sort of culture box, you find out that they're not liking things because of what people are going to think about them and not because of what the things actually sound like.

GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Stew and guitarist, and he and his band The Negro Problem have a new album, which is called "Making It," and it's a collaboration of songs co-written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and they also collaborated on the music theater piece "Passing Strange," which...

STEW: Some people call me a playwright, believe it or not.

GROSS: I'll add that to...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: Just because I won a Tony but not because I'm a good playwright, because I won a Tony for doing it.

GROSS: For "Passing Strange," yeah. Anyway, so - and "Passing Strange" was shown on PBS too, because Spike Lee did a film adaptation of the show.

So in the show, in "Passing Strange," the mother, and kind of your mother, because the character's - the main character's like your surrogate - so the mother is described as like a churchgoer who insists that you go to church.

STEW: Right. Well, let's be clear. She wasn't my mother. She was the mother of the boy in the play.

GROSS: The character.

STEW: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Continue.

GROSS: What was church like for you, and were you expected to go?

STEW: My mom never went. She wanted me to go all the time. And I didn't want to go, but when I got there, I loved the music, and I loved the social aspect of it, but particularly the music. And once I made the connection between the blues scales that I was learning on the guitar and the musical language of the preacher in my church, that was like - you know, that was like the big epiphany for me.

That was kind of probably when I decided that I'm going to do this for a living because I realized that here was this connection between this thing that I loved - here was this connection really between, like, the Beatles and God, you could say. You know, I mean, this was like the connection that no one really told me existed, but this was like, oh, OK, so my minister sounds like Howlin' Wolf.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: And nobody told - I didn't even - until I learned those blues scales, I made that connection, like oh my God, my minister is singing the same notes that Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf play, sing. And I'm like: Why didn't anybody tell me this is what was happening? You know, and that was it for me. I was on. I mean, it was on from that moment on.

GROSS: Did it make you think too, yes, music really can reach people's souls?

STEW: No question. I mean, it had already reached mine. I just didn't know that they were separate things between what these people in my community were doing on Sunday morning and what I was doing basically seven days a week, you know, which was letting music change my life and stir my soul.

I mean, I didn't realize these two things were connected. In fact, I pretty much was taught that they were completely opposite worlds, you know. And to find out that they were exactly the same thing, but even like musically they were the same thing - now, this is a very common, well-known thing. But when you're a kid, you're not reading music encyclopedias, you know? No one was - no one told me this.

I literally had to make this connection between, like, blues and gospel and rock 'n' roll. I made that connection on my own as, like, an eight-year-old, or a nine-year - you know what I'm saying? Like a kid. Like a kid, you know. I didn't read any book about it.

And certainly my - the people in my community weren't telling me anything about that. In fact, the first time I played - I don't know if you know what a 1-4-5 chord progression is, but it's basically the chord progression that's used in blues music.

So I copped that - those chord changes once from a song on the radio, and I was playing them in my grandmother's living room, and I was about nine or 10 years old. And suddenly, you know how you know when someone's in the room looking at you? I had a start, and I turned around, and there was my grandmother looking at me.

And she said: Where did you learn that? And it was sort of like this ominous kind of like, you know, like the cellos in the horror movie would have come in at that moment because, like, suddenly that nice little middle-class - you know, her nice little black middle-class grandson was playing that music, that music that they've been trying to get away from, that music that you, that the mortgages and the fancy cars, you know, will get you away from, that the nice jobs with benefits will get you away from, that music that they've all been trying to get away from, suddenly there it was in her living room being played by this nine-year-old. And it freaked her out. She really was like where did you learn that from. And what makes it most - and what makes it even more scary is when suddenly these white English art students who kind of dress a little too effeminate and wear, you know, scary-looking clothing, they start playing it.

You know, I can remember the look on my mother's face when I was listening to "The White Album," "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?," and this is a song where McCartney spent like a really, really long time trying to make his - like basically trashing his voice to try to make it sound as much like, you know, probably Howlin' Wolf or whoever he could as possible, you know.

So my mother walks in, hears this music, and I mean, the complete and utter confusion and kind of strange kind of guilty delight also, like here's this white boy from, you know, 6,000 miles away trying to sound like a 55-year-old black man, and it was just like this kind of surreal moment where she just looked at me, I looked at her, and I don't even think we exchanged words.

She just listened to it for a few minutes and then kind of shook her head and kind of smiled and then walked out. But I - it was just this kind of - you could just see she was trying to process like what is going on.

GROSS: Stew will be back in the second half of the show. The new album by Stew and the Negro Problem is called "Making It." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter, singer, guitarist and playwright Stew. His band, Stew and the Negro Problem, has a new album called "Making It." Some of the songs are about his breakup with Heidi Rodewald, his longtime songwriting partner and bass player. Although they're no longer a couple, they're still collaborating. Stew and Heidi co-wrote the Tony Award-winning musical "Passing Strange" that's based on Stew's experiences as a young man. Spike Lee filmed the final performances. His movie version was shown on PBS and is on DVD.

"Passing Strange" follows the main character, called Youth, who leaves his home in L.A. for Amsterdam and Germany after feeling like an outsider within his African-American neighborhood.

So in the show "Passing Strange," like, you to leave home because, you know, in part because the thing...

STEW: The - Youth leaves home.

GROSS: Youth leaves home. Yes. The character's called Youth...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...to symbolize youth. So in the play, the character Youth leaves home in part because the things Youth really loves, the music he really loves are not considered authentically black. And he wants, you know, he wants to find a place where he can be himself, for whatever that is, because he's still youth and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...isn't completely sure what himself is.

STEW: Right.

GROSS: So, you know, he goes to Amsterdam, and there he's seen as like oh, you know, the ghetto warrior...

STEW: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because he's like...

STEW: Mostly in...

GROSS: Yeah.

STEW: Yeah, mostly in Berlin. But yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So when you were in Europe, what were some of the things projected onto you simply because you are African-American?

STEW: That I must know somebody in Grandmaster Flash.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: They immediately think everything that they've seen on TV. They think that you are from a really, really, really hardcore ghetto. And this is something that, pre-Internet, you know, you really - they really had no idea. You know, they really had no idea. So they would assume immediately that you were from the hood. And the hood, in their mind, was a compilation of every single cop show, action movie - urban action movie that they'd ever seen in their lives, you know. So all these things were expected of us, you know, like we would be great dancers. You would go to, like, a - you would go to a discotheque and people would assume, like, when you - like, we would hit the dance floor, and people would immediately form, like, a circle around us. And I'm like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: ...I'm not going to do anything worth watching. Stop looking at me. You know what I mean? Like, literally, we would go to some places, and people would just make us - and I'm like, it's OK. I'm not going to do anything interesting. I promise. Just let me dance and not be looked at. But, I mean, this is - again, this is like - it sounds like prehistoric times. Now people, you know, kids in Munich know everything that kids in Brooklyn are doing, and kids in Brooklyn know everything that people in Lagos are doing. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

STEW: So everybody knows what everybody's doing now. But back then, you didn't really know, and you could make up whatever you wanted because nobody knew.

GROSS: Well, did you play up the whole, yes, I am the black man from America? Yes, I grew up in the ghetto?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: I actually didn't play it up as much as one of my friends did who I was with. But we definitely all, to some extent, played on it when we could, you know. But I wasn't as brave as one friend of mine, who a lot of those scenes are based on, where he just completely, like, he would just draw, like, he would just create movies. You know, we'd be, like, in a club, and some girl would sit down and he would literally create an entire movie. You know, like, well, here's what I did right before I, you know, got here. You know, I jumped across three cars and was in a gun battle, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: And the thing is that - this is why it's called "Passing Strange," because when I read that scene where, you know, Othello was talking about how he won Desdemona over and he's talking about all these tall tales that he told her, these war stories - because he was a soldier, right? So he wooed Desdemona by telling her these, you know, tall tales about what it was like in war. And when I saw that scene, I thought this is exactly what Youth was doing, you know, in Europe, you know. He was telling these unsuspecting girls all these war stories, and like Desdemona, they would go wow, that's strange. That's passing strange. And that's where, you know, the title came from, you know. You can't do that anymore. You can't - if the Internet has done anything, it's made it so you can't tell a good lie anymore, you know. You can't really make stuff up anymore the way you used to.

GROSS: I don't think I'd heard the expression passing strange until your show.

STEW: I hadn't heard until I was handed a, you know - actually, I was handed an Othello comic book, thank God...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: ...because if it would have been the real play, I would have never made it through. But someone handed me a comic book, and we opened it and we opened it to that page, and I thought: Here's the story, A. This is the story, the one I just told. And secondly, passing strange has got to be the title of this play...

GROSS: Right.

STEW: ...because there's too many fantastic meanings.

GROSS: That is a great title. So I want to play a song from "Passing Strange."

STEW: OK.

GROSS: And this is a song called "The Black One." And it kind of fits into exactly what we're talking about.

STEW: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: In the show, right before the song is sung, Youth - which is the character that's loosely based on you - has been reading this like poem about how he's bleeding sunshine and emptying his veins and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And...

STEW: Yes.

GROSS: And one of his women friends says to him: Only the slums of America could produce such pain. Exquisite. Like an orgasm in reverse.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And then he starts singing the song "The Black One." Why don't you set up the song for us?

STEW: We needed - we really wanted to have, like, a Broadway kind of parody tune in our play. We made a big stink when we were at Sundance working on the play, we made a big stink, you know, about how, you know, we want to make this play the real music, the real rock music that we want to make and we don't want to compromise da, da, da, da. And, of course, everybody was fine with that. And then we were like, but we have to have one song that's like one of those Broadway-type tunes. So we literally wrote it in the time it took to just write a song, like, literally, like, in real time, because all the chord changes are completely cliche and - as is the melody. So we just wrote it, like, immediately and started rehearsing it, and it just became this thing that we have to do. You know, it's our little tribute to Broadway.

GROSS: I really like it, though.

STEW: Oh, I like it, too. We do a really mellow version of it now, which actually kind of points out that it's not as bad a song as we intended it to be.

GROSS: No, and the lyrics are really funny.

STEW: Oh, the lyrics are funny. Well, that's what I do, though. I mean that's, you know, funny lyrics, that's me.

GROSS: And it has the expression post-modern lawn jockey sculpture.

STEW: That's true. That's, like, the third song that's use that phrase, actually, though. There's a, no I'm just kidding...

GROSS: You're stealing from yourself?

STEW: I'm just kidding. I'm just kidding.

GROSS: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. So this is "The Black One," sung by Stew from the cast recording of "Passing Strange."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BLACK ONE")

STEW: (Singing) Who lends the club that speakeasy air? The Black One. The Black One. Who dances like a god and has wunderbar hair? The Schvartza. Now he's the life of every soiree. He'll give the bum's rush to your ennui. Turn up these lights, 'cause I barely can see the Black One. Is he the post-modern lawn jockey sculpture?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Black One.

STEW: (Singing) The Black One. Or just a soul on a role exploding your culture - that Black One.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) An artist creates surfaces.

STEW: (Singing) And then comes the fee. He's doing the same thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Except I call the surface me.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) He's dancing in a cage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) But I'm the one with the key.

STEW: And he's the Black One.

GROSS: That's "The Black One," from the cast recording of "Passing Strange," a song written by Stew and his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald. And Stew and Heidi have a new album under the name Stew and the Negro Problem - that's the name of his band. And the album's called "Making It."

Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stew. He's a singer, songwriter, guitarist, playwright, Tony Award-winner for the musical "Passing Strange." And now he and his collaborator Heidi Rodewald have a new album called "Making It," and it's under the name Stew and the Negro Problem.

So in the show, in "Passing Strange," the mother is very hurt when her son leaves L.A. to go to Europe, and even more hurt when he doesn't call and he doesn't come home for the holidays. And he doesn't seem to care about her needs or her dreams. He just wants to fulfill his own dreams. And - were you as self-absorbed as that?

STEW: Sure. For sure. I think many, many, many artists that I've met - particularly at that age - are. And it's a tunnel vision that you kind of adopt, which is a combination of being really, really immature, but also being really, really focused. And I think some of that immaturity you can find in athletes. You can find it in artists. You can find it in computer scientists. You can find it in all manner of, you know, classical musicians, this thing of just I want to do the thing that makes me happy. And I think life kind of tells us at a certain point that you're not going to do the thing that makes you happy for a living. And - but I think when you are allowed to do the thing that makes you happy for a living, I think that, in some way, can stunt your emotional, if not intellectual, if not, you know, emotional - yeah, emotional growth.

GROSS: How?

STEW: Because you're sort of allowed to stay in the sandbox. You're allowed to kind of grow up in the sandbox. You're applauded for what you do in the sandbox and you don't - then you don't know how to do anything else except what you have done in the sandbox, and you start to trust the sandbox. And then there are people outside of the sandbox saying: You've got to come out here. You've got to stop playing, literally and figuratively. You've got to stop playing for a minute and come see about me. And some artists just don't, and some do. And some figure this out late in life, and some never figure it out.

GROSS: And you?

STEW: I have figured it out slowly. Slowly. Slowly.

GROSS: So you record under two names. You record under the name Stew and under the name The Negro Problem. And The Negro Problem, you know, why don't you explain why you called your group that?

STEW: We were sitting around doing what all bands do way back in 1990, and we did what every band does. We made a list of the band names and brought the names to rehearsal, and everybody read the names off. And when it came to, you know, I brought in the name The Negro Problem, and we couldn't stop laughing at the name. You know, we just - we tried to move on with the rest of the session, which was the point of which was to come up with a band name, and we just couldn't stop laughing at the idea of this all-white band fronted by this black guy called The Negro Problem. We just - we were - we just kept laughing. And we weren't high. We were just - it was just the hilarity of this band name.

And I remember very clearly one of the band members going: Are you sure we want to do this? And I'm, like, well, yeah. What the hell? We're just a band. It's not like we're a, you know, we're not a political party or a country. It's not like naming a new antidepressant or something, a drug or something. We're just a stupid band, you know. And it doesn't work, we'll change the name back, you know, to something else. And it worked.

People started showing up, going, you know what? I'm here in L.A. for the weekend. I looked through the newspaper. I saw your band name. I have no idea what you guys sound like, but I'm here because it's an outrageous band name. And for us, it was taken - it was, you know, a lot of my influence, a lot of our influence in The Negro Problem is, like, late '60s psychedelia. So, you know, names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock, you know, or like, you know, even names like The Velvet Underground, those names existed because back in the day when there weren't, like, official, like, you know, cards and record stores where you knew this genre and that genre, if you were called the Strawberry Alarm Clock, that was telling that 17-year-old in the record store that you're not Perry Como. Do you know what I mean?

GROSS: Yup.

STEW: So band names used to actually - band names used to have, like, a very strong - they used to be messages. They used to be, like, commercials like for the band. And I thought a name like The Negro Problem would do two things: It would alienate a whole bunch of people, but it would also - we'd also find our tribe, so to speak, the people who were as irreverent as us and, you know, just had the same sense of humor as us. The people who took it too seriously, whatever. I mean, we don't - you know, we don't need them, anyway.

GROSS: And it still feels like a good name to you?

STEW: It still - it feels like a great name even more, now more than ever, I think. You know, I mean, I always thought the term Negro - you know, when I asked my cousins way back in the mid-'90s: What do you think about the name The Negro Problem? And they were like, you know, it's - Negro was like quaint to them. You know, it wasn't even offensive. It was like a Shakespearian term. It's, like, whatever. It's just a band, you know?

And, sure, we had, I mean, you know, NAACP tried to picket us.

GROSS: Did they really?

STEW: Yeah. When we played in Iowa. And I was really - the only thing that our publicist at that time, who I love madly, she called them and said, oh, no. There's a black guy in the band. And I was like, oh, my God, Susan. Why did you call them? The coolest thing would've been for them to be picketing and then I get out of the van, and it's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: You know? But she wanted to be cool.

GROSS: That's so funny. I want to play another song from the new album, "Making It," and this is a drug song. You've written many drug songs...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...over the years. This one's about speed. In fact, it's called "Speed."

STEW: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And do you want to say anything about it before we hear it?

STEW: Yeah. I write a lot of songs because I really, really like more - I'm really more into the idea of drugs than I am in the actual taking of them. All of my drug-taking is, like, you know, decades ago when I was, you know, 19 and fearless and, you know, you know, completely invulnerable. You know what I mean? I don't do it anymore, but I love the idea of how they work and how they don't work and what people think about them and how people use them, particularly creatively. I'm not interested in, you know, addiction. I'm more interested in what a person does, you know, like, you know, a Jean-Paul Sartre on nicotine and methamphetamine writing, you know, his work.

Or people like, you know, well, I don't want to name other names but, you know, there's just - I'm interested in the drugs more as an idea than as the actual, like, thing. So that's why I like writing about them. It's more fun to write about them than to actually have to deal with scoring them too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So one of the lines in this: and my body was so resilient, everything I said was brilliant, and it seemed to fulfill a sincere artistic need - the it being the methamphetamine.

STEW: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you were taking - if you ever took speed in your life, did it help the songwriting process at all or did it give you the delusion of helping?

STEW: I can remember the very - this song harkens back to a particular, literally, a particular week in my life when I was, you know, like probably 18, and I remember just my friends and I talking the entire week and it feeling like it was - that I had, just by having these conversations, I had written like 100 songs and all I had to do was wait for the conversation to end and then I was going to go and write all these songs, you know.

And so, of course, that didn't happen, but I'm really, really, really, not into this idea of take it from me, kids, you know, don't do this and don't do that. It's like people, you know, I'm not here to, like, tell some, you know, I'm trying to think of a word that's not a curse word. I'm not here to tell the, you know, the stupid story, the cliche story about like, you know the wrong path taken and all that kind of crap. I'm really not interested in that. I have a very particular way of dealing with drugs and what it tends to be is it's something from 30 years ago. It's something that I did, definitely did, gained a particular knowledge from it and then moved on. I'm lucky that I haven't ever had any drug addiction problems, but I'm very much into how they inform the artistic process.

You know, that's what I - that's my obsession. It's not - drugs aren't my obsession. Drugs and artists are actually more my obsession.

GROSS: OK. So with that, here's "Speed" from the new Stew and the Negro Problem album "Making It."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKING IT")

STEW: (Singing) Jeff sewed pencil holders into his guitar case. Willy plucked hairs one by one off his scabby face. Mary stayed up two weeks straight working on one song. That one ended up lasting 30 seconds long. My new love, espresso, she's a deeply rich dark brown. But I miss my sweet black beauty and I wish she was around. I needed to put distance between me and present past. And crank gave me the head-start to outrun my mind at last.

(Singing) Never, never, never, never had (unintelligible). I said, you better, better, better, better, better want some in your scene. My body was so resilient. Everything I said was brilliant. And it seemed to fulfill a since artistic need. Things are moving faster now but I, I miss speed. Things are moving faster now but I, I miss speed.

GROSS: That's "Speed" from the new album by the band Stew and the Negro Problem called "Making It." You can hear three tracks from the album on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Hilma Wolitzer's new novel "An Available Man." This is FRESH AIR.

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