The Root Interview: Passing Strange's Stew and Heidi Take on Brooklyn

They were probably the least likely rock band ever to hit Broadway. A Tony Award and a Spike Lee film soon followed. Now they're exploring the creative possibilities of the borough of Kings.

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Well settled in the basement of the slightly dilapidated Brooklyn, N.Y., brownstone of their band member Mike McGinnis, Stew and Heidi Rodewald looked like two happy, overgrown kids allowed to let loose and make music. They'd just started writing songs for their new show, Brooklyn Omnibus, which will be performed with their band, the Negro Problem, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Oct. 20-23. The dark space, piled with dusty boxes, seemed like just the kind of place where their special genius could take flight.

"The ultimate fun will be to talk about Brooklyn," Stew says. "We're not about to put the borough on the couch. There's no narrative. We don't make definitive statements. We're subjective, and slightly surreal. We don't write about characters; we are the characters. If we nail something, it'll be great. I love the word omnibus. I hope we can do omnibuses in a lot of cities."

Commanding in an easygoing kind of way, Stew sports a small, brimmed straw hat and a bright red shirt. His heavy beard, he explains, is not a fashion choice but the result of a schedule too busy for regular shaving. He holds a guitar in his arms, strumming almost unconsciously. Rodewald, in jeans and purple shirt, faces him, a bemused smile playing across her pretty face. Creative collaborators for 13 years and romantic partners until 2006, they can practically read each other's thoughts. "A good thing," he says.

And "a bad thing," she counters. "Sometimes I can get pissed off at him before he even opens his mouth. It can be problematic that we're an ex-couple. Everything is potentially fraught."

They're two of the most original musicians working today, but they keep a low profile, totally committed to their art. They're not about to be pigeonholed by any critic or, for that matter, by any producer dying to make big bucks off of their considerable talents. That says a lot about their modus operandi.

In the past six years, they've gone from being an almost unknown, however cool, rock band, a cult favorite from their auspicious debut album Post Minstrel Syndrome in 1997 -- a brilliant mix of idiosyncratic, romantic and witty songs -- to the unlikely creators of the off-Broadway, and then Tony Award-winning, rock musical Passing Strange. Started in a workshop at the Sundance Theater Lab in Utah in 2004, it tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young black man who leaves behind his middle-class, church-ruled upbringing in 1970s-era Los Angeles to find his artistic and personal identity in Europe. Spike Lee turned the show into a terrific film that was shown on PBS last summer and can now be seen on Video on Demand.

With honors like these, it's no surprise that major gigs have followed, including commissions to write a score for a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream in Connecticut, an engagement at Lincoln Center Out of Doors and a new musical for the Public Theater. And that's not counting making their 11th album and having a busy tour schedule, with concerts all over the country coming up in the next few months. Still, the pursuit of fame doesn't figure in their calculations. "We're only out to make ourselves happy," Stew says.

As a bassist, Bragin says, Rodewald anchors the band; "she can capture multiple truths."

Clearly in love with writing music, Stew and Rodewald talk about some things that are inspiring their Brooklyn songs. "Take walking around," he begins. "I go to this halal restaurant near here almost every day. They serve this beautiful buffet. All kinds of people show up -- cops, hip-hop kids, teachers just off their jobs, Muslim families. It's amazing. So the other day, afterward, I go toward Atlantic Avenue, and there's this white guy in his 30s, on edge, challenging some tough black kids that are just sitting around, ignoring him. He's drunk; he's saying, 'I'll take on anyone.' It's like theater, an anthropological study. Now maybe we'll make a song about the halal spot or the crazy white guy."

She says, "We've looked at small, strange places. Like, there's a brothel in Bushwick, where cars pull up with people who don't live there. It's curious. We've already started on a song about falling asleep and dreaming on the G train."