(Also - I'm aware of the spacing problems. Too tired to fix them tonight. Maybe tomorrow.)
30. Is This the Single? - The Negro Problem (2002)
It was a Saturday night in fall 2002. The 28th of September.
I was a married man then, newly re-relocated to Los Angeles. It was my 3rd try at southern California living. Despite my reservations at coming back, I thought it could all work out. More than seven years later, the jury is still out. They went to Hamburger Hamlet for lunch. They may not ever be coming back. But on 9/28/02, I had other concerns.
There was a culture war going on that year. And I feared it would come to a head that night. Two disparate musical artists shared a bill at the Knitting Factory, which had just opened its Hollywood outpost in an attempt to cash in on its New York laurels. It had to be a mistake, I thought, when I first saw that Frou Frou and the Negro Problem would be performing together. That would be like Air Supply and Molly Hatchet sharing a stage in '79. Or, for the younger readers out there, that would be like Atlas Sound and Rihanna performing together at ATP in 2010.
Back to the culture war of 2002. An insidious musical genre called "chillout music" was wielding it's new power stick on the indie FM airwaves and, more frequently, on mix-CDs that party hosts would specifically design to be played during the tail end of the night, when the Trader Joe's dips got warm and the mini-samosas got cold. I was no stranger to this form, having actually purchased a brand new copy of a Zero 7 album in 2001. It was my second biggest regret.
Chillout music had its champions on Santa Monica's KCRW, the all-too-powerful NPR outpost stationed just down 17th street from the next-to-last apartment that I'd be married in. Sure, KCRW would play better stuff, music that I liked. But it was a chore to sit through the Gotan Project and Portishead and even more standard pop fare like pre-good Coldplay just to get my taste of quality Flaming Lips, Stereolab, and pre-bad Badly Drawn Boy. So I listened to my CDs mostly, as I reconnected with being stuck in L.A. traffic
Now, I wasn't opposed to the entire sonic landscape that the chilloutistas favored. I liked some artists whose music could be described using any of the following: smooth, clean, relaxing, trippy, electronic, ambient, etc. I owned a Beth Orton album. I chose a Tricky song as the second of my three wedding songs one year and six days earlier. As recently as today I found myself lost in the delightful sea of Prefab Sprout's YouTube presence, their crisp sheen relaxing my heart rate. But I had a notion then, even more strongly instilled today, that the song and not the specifics of the sound was what counted. A great songwriter and musicians to put it all together, regardless of their ability to chill us out, was what mattered.
I don't need to be relaxed. I don't need lyrics relegated to the background, or in the case of Moby (born exactly one day after me), lyrics mashed into found relics of a wayward pasture. I'm not afraid of the words. And in the case of Stew, the principal singer and songwriter of the Negro Problem (it's okay; he's black), there exists a man whose precise but unbashful lyrics, blessed by a brave sprawling life lived, music had given me my new best friend.
From 2000's She's Really Daddy Feelgood on Stew's solo debut:
I was sent home to the projects / To polish up your pretext / Email sent by the demon...
Who dig being your rejects / Your shiny black art objects / Spray hieroglyphs of semen
Okay I can't explain it. But I know what it means. It's about a life, a person. It's specific and adaptable. It sits on cluttered beds and thought is given to putting some of the clutter in piles. Three years after Feelgood and one year after Is This the Single?, Stew simplified it all on his 2003 solo album: "Love is a way of life, my love."
It's more than words. Stew and the Negro Problem created a small universe of pop wonder for me, one that stretched over the century's end and still gets me today. Even if Stew is keeping himself way too busy winning Tony awards and pleasing New Yorkers.
Over those years that I listened to his music more than that of any other artist (1998-2002), I never saw him or his band live. In 2001, he finally played in Minneapolis for the first time after I implored him to do so via email. On the day of the show however, I was stuck in Tuscany for a honeymoon and I missed it. My biggest regret.* So imagine my glee when the Welcome Black edition of the Negro Problem would be playing at a good-sized but intimate club. Close to home. On a Saturday night. And I could get the tickets. Yes, my glee was palpable.
Which brings me to Frou Frou, the chill-heavy ambient electronica project of brilliantly monikered British singer Imogen Heap and hard luck producer Guy Sigsworth.** In that fateful fall of '02, I took it upon myself to heap (get it?) every ounce of inner and outer musical dislike on Frou Frou. In my eyes then, they stood for all that was wrong with the new century's cold chilly harmonic reserve. I wondered why the new millennial shift and the 9/11 upheaval were unable to shake up much of the American independent music scene. I feared a culture impressed with Thievery Corporation and a pant suit revival would not be the culture I wanted.
Yes, I'm conveniently forgetting some medium revolutions that occurred back then (Strokes, Stripes) and some infinitesimal ones (Le Tigre). But I have an obscurist thesis to push through. I think I have to accelerate the process. Guy was the scientist. Imogen was the sleek educated lady with the over-reliance on breathing in audibly, then breathing out more audibly. I hated their music. I cringed as I watched the Frou Frou fans joyously pretending to dance in rhythm as the Negro Problem fans drank domestic beers and talked a little too loud. I was sick of standing. I wanted the headliner to hit the stage. I wanted all to be good. I wanted the chillouters to have second thoughts. It seemed like we could get through this war without any serious battles. Then she pulled out the cowboy hat.
Imogen located the cowboy hat (not the one pictured; imagine something twice as large) between songs, not far from the stage. She placed it on her head awkwardly and sang the last few songs posed like that - poised, balanced, in control, a Limey cowgirl claiming victory. Even before Stew and the guys and the girls hit the stage, the KCRW crypt keepers pumped their collective ineffective fist.
Then the talentless hacks of Frou Frou, with their high-end microphones and tumbleweeding synths - a pale bearded man and a wrinkle-free woman - strode off haughtily, unaware that their performance was a truly horrible thing.
The between set delay was longer than usual but I still didn't see it coming. From the looks in their eyes, it was clear that it was Monica's idea to leave. but Jason had no real investment in staying at the club. I witnessed the hippest couple in South Pasadena leaving before the good stuff started, perhaps unaware that they had just traded art for chilloutery. And to think: Jason and Monica met and fell in love in art school.
I could mention that the Negro Problem opened with Father Popcorn and set the motherfucking room on fire - confident, controlled fire but fire nonetheless. Stew sang about how he had no intention of putting any of us in a "pop coma." Soon after, as the band prepared to launch into the potsmoker epic Lime Green Sweater, Stew became the first performer I've ever seen to openly ask the audience for drugs: "Don't give me weed in bags. I want loose joints. L.A. might be home but we're on tour and I don't have time to roll." The audience laughed at his audacity. People handed him envelopes. Eventually he sang this song, the one I put at #30: Is This the Single? Despite its catchiness and rollicking forward motion, this would not be the single. The Negro Problem didn't have recognizable singles; that was Frou Frou's scene. (Yes, I'm aware that Frou Frou was just the opener and that 40% of you have never heard of them.)
Postscript: Both Frou Frou and The Negro Problem never record again as bands. They never tour again. Imogen Heap and single-named Stew continue on their bumpy roads to mild to medium stardom. Stew's musical Passing Strange wins a Tony. "Chillout" as an adjective disappears from the language. 'Chill' is still around, trying to sell itself as noun, verb, adverb, and adjective all at once. One of this will stick, maybe two, and no more.
This means the Negro Problem and all good artists won the culture war. He spends most of his time in New York. Which means he probably gave the place up in Panorama City, the place that everyone forgets. (Admit it: You heard of it years ago. You forgot about it until today.)
Monica and Jason get married. They have a lovely daughter and move to the promised land, Madison, Wisconsin. Laurel and I correct this imbalance and get divorced.
** "Hard luck" in the sense that Sigsworth has worked with Britney Spears AND Zach Braff.