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Influences: Singer-songwriter Stew

March 7, 2012 |  8:00 am

Stew and Heidi
This post has been corrected, see note below.

Even before his improbable transformation into a New York theater figure by his Tony-winning musical “Passing Strange,” the musician who calls himself Stew was confounding people with his odd mix of ingredients. Here was a songwriter who’d been part of an abrasive Berlin underground who came out in the '90s as a “closet pop freak.” The leader of the Los Angeles-based band the Negro Problem, he was a large black man whose deepest passions emerged, apparently, from music with very limited African American roots: XTC, Burt Bacharach, neo-psychedelia and so on.

The L.A. native, born Mark Stewart, will be back in town Friday, with bandmate Heidi Rodewald, for a performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall that will include a series of songs about Los Angeles and to support their new album, “Making It.”

Apparently the ravenous spirit of his interests goes way back. “I used to ditch school, at Fairfax High School, and go down to the downtown library,” he says. “This was my way, if I ever got busted by my parents, I could tell them I was educating myself.”

We spoke to Stew –- who says he and Rodewald have become, uneasily, “show folk” -– about the artists outside the rock/pop traditions who have inspired him.

French Surrealism: I got into Surrealism – André Breton’s manifestoes. They were doing the same thing in their world that I wanted to do in mine. And their frustrations mirrored my frustrations and sense of adventure. They were not satisfied. That’s probably the biggest thing for me.

Thelonious Monk: I think it was being able to be virtuosic and playful, and really complicated and simple. Everybody loves Thelonious Monk; he’s one of those guys like Al Green and Johnny Cash. People walk in and hear him playing, it completely affects the room. He could play at your house, at your Christmas party, and it would just rock.

William S. Burroughs: There was a time when he was hugely, hugely important to me. Something about his way of carving out this very singular image and sound and vibe. I’d buy him as a musician, as a singer in a rock band.

Jean-Luc Godard: He’s probably the single biggest overall influence on me, because when I had my first crisis of confidence about pop music, when I was about 17, his output just blew me away. He would invent a genre and move on. It was always about the next film.

Alfred Brendel: In an interview they asked him if he was going to miss live playing, and he said, “My ego doesn’t need it.” But when the tour is announced, as soon as he’s in the zone of having to deliver, the adrenaline starts and he’s 17 again –- the arthritis goes away. I thought, that’s it –- adrenaline is the key to life! It’s the secret of those old blues guys who keep going. It goes back to the fight or flight instinct. People wonder why they do their best work when they’re performing, or when they’re on deadline -– but they do. I started listening to his music after I heard that quote.


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-- Scott Timberg

Stew & the Negro Problem, UCLA Royce Hall, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles, 8 p.m. Friday,

[For the record: An earlier version of this story misspelled Heidi Rodewald.]

Photo: Heidi Rodewald and Stew. Credit: Sabine Scheckel