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."
While Stew spends more than half of his time in the United States, including many weekends in Brooklyn with his 7-month-old baby boy, he has been living in Berlin since 2006, which he likes for the relative quiet and emptiness of the streets. Rodewald, however, lives in Brooklyn's Park Slope, a neighborhood that will definitely get covered in their show, and perhaps not altogether flatteringly. "We'll have to get into the strollers," she says with a discernible groan. "There should be a law that there's only one allowed a family. I saw a kid and her mother both pushing them — the kid had a pretend one."
He can't resist adding, "I push my 7-month-old son along Eastern Parkway and I see the hierarchy. There's a code. Even if the mother or father wear raggedy jeans and T-shirts, they make sure they have the right stroller. They push them like peacocks." There's no segue necessary to a discussion of the people who are against the so-called gentrification of Brooklyn, in particular the conversion of the Atlantic Yards into an area of high-priced apartments. "They're saying it will change Brooklyn, as if everything doesn't always change anyway," he says. "And they're spending $7 for organic yogurt, pushing $3,000 strollers. I don't see any Dutch guys walking around here anymore or King George, and it's his borough. Whoever owned Bushwick 15 years ago doesn't own Bushwick now."
To somewhat explain why these particular Brooklynites' behavior so irritates them, Stew says, "Heidi and I are from L.A., where everything changes all the time. Everything gets torn down. The coolest things first. People only care about their pool, the barbecue and the plantain tree. They're hard-core. L.A. people invest in themselves, not neighborhoods. Never heard of neighborhood pride."
They met in L.A. in 1997, when he was looking for a bass player for his band the Negro Problem. She loved the group, and knew the only way to make it was to go on the road, and that's exactly what they did. "I was really happy lugging equipment around," she says, "so I jumped right in. I knew that you didn't get anywhere hanging around L.A. and waiting to be a rock star. All the great bands broke up after two years."
Musically, they were also made for each other. "We're two years apart in age," he says, now 49. (She is 51.) "We grew up listening to the same music: AM radio, church, classic rock, punk rock. We passed through all the same phases, went to Hollywood to hear bands. I can say, 'Remember that soft-rock guy in the '70s, and she'll know exactly whom I'm talking about."
He also listens to his 18-year-old daughter. "She keeps me from becoming an old fart — though sometimes it's sort of nice to be an old curmudgeon," he admits. "She makes me listen to music that I'd probably dismiss because of my background. She suggested I listen to Destiny's Child, and I realized they were fantastic. I heard the artistry."
But given a choice, he prefers simply listening to what's around him or jazz, mostly from the 1960s and '70s. "My favorite jazz explodes the myths of high art and low art," he says. "Because jazz to me is both folk music and classical music. It's so great to revisit music. It tells you so much about how you've grown and how you haven't."
Stew and Rodewald work hard to write interesting melodies and eloquent lyrics and to meld them into something memorable. They can't really explain their process, only that they keep files with images and fragments of ideas — she says hers are far neater than his — which they use as a source of material.
"Neither of us have a great sense of ownership," he says. "We both know our strong points. I encourage her. She listens to me. I listen to her. A song doesn't always gel immediately, like 'The Wound' in Passing Strange. I knew I never nailed the lyrics. Finally, three years later, I got them to say what I wanted them to say."
Through all their projects in theater, television and musical shows, they're gaining bigger and broader audiences. It's a nice feeling when someone on the street in New York recognizes and compliments them. "Then the city feels like one big party," he says. But turning to Rodewald, he adds, "We used to know who was out there. It was always club rats who liked weird rock music. Now it's sort of scary — and exciting because we don't have any idea who is out there."
Valerie Gladstone, who writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times, recently co-authored a children's book with Jose Ivey, A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student.