Interview: Stew On The State Of The Union

I'm sure stranger things have happened on Broadway than a brilliantly scrappy Los Angeles psych-punk band – provocatively named the Negro Problem – evolving into a Tony Award-winning musical. But I really can't think of any.

Still, that's what happened to guitar-slinging, Godard-quoting, rockin'-soul singer Stew and his bass-bumping artistic henchwoman and former squeeze, Heidi Rodewald. So if you somehow managed to miss Passing Strange, run-don't-walk to your Netflix account and queue up Spike Lee's eargasmic film documenting the show's last couple of high-energy, emotionally gripping performances.

Seriously, do it now. I'll wait.

Last month at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, Stew and Heidi followed up Passing Strange with a run of shows called "Making It." Stew's a black man who doesn't conform to virtually any of the stereotypes typically affixed to African-American males; and a lot of his art, especially Passing Strange, reflects that misconception (yo! Obama). "Making It," though, was mostly about how a certain type of success destroyed his and Heidi's relationship.

Stew and I hunkered down backstage prior to his second St. Ann's show. This is what he had to say about the many moods of making it – on Broadway, as in expatriate in Berlin (where he spends much of his time), in the White House, and at your local tea party.

HeadCount: Times are tough for a lot of people these days. How have your perceptions of "making it" in America changed during your lifetime?

Stew: We chose the term "making it” because of all that it implies. “Making it” in terms of getting to do what you love for a living, all the way to having enough money to do whatever you think you want to do, all the way to "making it" as fucking and getting away with something. To me, there’s a whole criminal subtext to being an artist in America when you're suddenly making money from it. Some people almost feel a little bit guilty. Artists are made to feel like low-level criminals.

Maybe it's human nature to feel you’re not worthy once you become successful.

Yeah, but I don’t know a lot of European artists who feel like they're scamming. A plumber goes to work, does his job, and feels like, “Yeah, I worked hard today.” Heidi and I without a doubt don’t believe in this idea of “making it.” People are like, “You’ve made it now; you’re on Broadway.” But we’re lifers. We know there’s life after Broadway. We’ll probably be carrying our amps around for as long as we’re able to carry them. My models are bluesmen and old country-and-western guys who go around in big trucks and play in tents and wait till they've signed the last guy's CD before they leave. If I'm there at 65, it'll be exactly where I wanna be. So the classic idea of making it is illusion bullshit for us. Our last version of "making it" is making music, that's the only "it" we want to make.

Speaking of making it, what’s your assessment of Barack Obama’s first year in office?

Bottom line for me is that I'm actually not that concerned with the day-to-day dillying and dallying of any politician or administration. I'm more interested in the long-term affect they have on the culture at large. Obama's defining our era no less than Nixon defined his. What I'm most interested in, frankly, is not what happened yesterday with healthcare but rather how black teenagers, and even Turkish teenagers in my Berlin neighborhood, are going to think about what they're capable of doing. I was in Berlin the day Obama was elected, and this Turkish kid was running down the street holding a newspaper. You could tell he was running home to tell his parents the news. And this kid, who I'd never spoken to before, stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, held up the paper, pointed to it, and smiled. It felt like the kid was saying, “See, I have something to do with this too.” And that marked the beginning of an era.

So I am more interested in the cultural psychological impact Obama's making on our psyches in the long run. It's like America has taken a new drug and it's scaring some people, making them have tea parties and think, “Maybe I don’t really trust a black man being in charge.” But he’s not a surprise to me. As I’ve said a million times, I have uncles and cousins who look and act like him, who've been to Ivy League schools. So it’s no big deal for me. But it’s a big deal for a whole bunch of people, who range from the frightened tea partyers to everyone who thought he was going to be Jesus – so everybody gets to be disappointed.

Sounds like a no-win situation. Is that what electing a half-black president really comes down to?

Yeah, and I knew that going in. I knew the messiah thing was happening and liberals, conservatives, and everybody else were going to get pissed off. I even think it's kind of great if he pisses of some black people too, because then maybe black people will understand this isn’t as much about race as about politics. The most interesting thing about OJ Simpson was that the black guy got off, and our whole history is supposed to be about throwing the black guy into jail when he kills the white blonde. This one got off. Why? Because of money and power. And that’s what’s interesting about Barack. Black folks think everything he'll do will be fantastic for them. I think we’re going to learn an interesting collective lesson about what politics really is, and how it’s about more than just race.

You mentioned living in Berlin. How would you compare and contrast the way each country works from your point of view.

My Berlin life is much easier to live now that Obama’s president. People used to not consider me American. They considered me a black American, which meant I wasn’t responsible for all the bullshit. But when Bush came into office, even black Americans were treated as though we were Texas rednecks. I consider myself an expatriate artist who happens to have family and friends there. I pay attention to German politics when I can. We always have a party when there’s any kind of election. The scary thing about contemporary German politics is that they seems to be boring on purpose. Germans are very wary of charisma because that got them into big trouble during World War II. They play charisma down big-time. They’re clearheaded and don’t raise their voices much. What’s going on in Germany is that the idea of workers being protected, drawing wonderful pensions, and never going bankrupt is going away. Employers are getting much more hardcore, much more American. They thought all these people were going to invest in East Germany then suddenly realized that doesn’t work. Because a lot of East Germany is polluted and the people there don't want to work for nothing. They want pensions, protection, and vacations too.

Are you still in touch with the anarchist Berlin art crowd you portrayed in Passing Strange? Where are those guys now?

Living with their babies in legalized squats and voting for the Green Party. They're trying to incorporate their politics into their everyday family lives just like I am. They’re not in the streets throwing rocks anymore. When I was there years ago, people were wearing masks and throwing large things at the police, but lately it’s been more like a party. That doesn’t mean things aren’t still burning, but it’s mellowed out a lot. People my age certainly aren’t in the streets anymore, but that’s not a surprise.

It sometimes seems as though the only radicals left in the United States are the tea baggers, "tenthers," and other Republican-Libertarian fringe groups.

I am so fascinated by them. Honestly, if I had the free time I'd love to go to those kinds of things. I would love to meet these people up close because I'm tired of thinking about them as some sort of alien spore. I don’t want to do a "Kumbaya" thing with them; I just want to see what they’re like. The way their paranoia manifests itself in the notion of Obama being Muslim and not having a birth certificate is utterly fascinating. I want to see that up close. I was shocked when George W. Bush was elected because I thought, “Who’s going to vote for him?” And then all these people did. So if I'm supposed to be this hip, aware guy who knows what’s going on, why didn’t I know that? So I just want to know who these freaks are out of sheer curiosity.

And while I don't think there’s any truth to the shit they’re saying, there is a truth in their paranoia, and that truth is one of the big stories of America. We still have not dealt with race, and I don’t think we really have a language to talk about it with each other. So their paranoia and psychology is bubbling over in a very interesting way. Maybe they’re freer than we think they are in some way, because why are they bubbling over and the so-called politically correct people aren’t? Who's actually repressed? At least the tea-party people are screaming, and anybody who's screaming is interesting to me. When people aren’t screaming, I begin to wonder why not.