by Erik Espe
Mike Stewart said goodbye to the music industry in the early '90s, leaving Los Angeles with his family to find work as a computer programmer in Silicon Valley. In the previous decades, the Palo Alto resident had been deep in the music business, singing on hit records with the '60s rock group We Five, and, later, producing artists like Billy Joel and Tom Jones.
"I left the business because you can't raise a family and still be in the music business," Stewart says. "Your (present) job could always be your last job. You're at the whim of the current public tastes, which change."
He may have walked away from the Southland music biz, but certainly not music.
Now, Stewart, 51, is in a new band, playing bass with people who are half his age. In fact, he's working for his own son, 24-year-old James Stewart, in the 6-month-old band The Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto. The nine-member group is already getting airplay on college radio stations and performing in prestigious small venues like The Catalyst in Santa Cruz and The Cactus Club in San Jose.
The elder Stewart, by far the oldest member of the group, is finding it easy enough to take orders from his son. "I work for him," says dad matter-of-factly. "He gets to call me by my first name. He even tells me to turn my bass down. I guess he's getting back at me for all the times I told him to clean up his room."
In addition to being the primary songwriter, the younger Stewart is also the man responsible for the band's name. He came up with it after his mom gave him the album, "The Indestructible Beat of Soweto."
"We actually had a meeting about the name last week," James Stewart says. "A couple of people wanted to shorten it to Indestructible Beat, but the major rallying cry was to keep Palo Alto, because it's kind of a kooky name."
In any case, fans have already taken it upon themselves to come up with a diminutive appellation for the band: IBOPA--pronounced "eye-bow-pa."
Whether it's the kooky name, or IBOPA's danceable combination of soul, lounge, ska and New Wave electronics (in a unique sound that James calls "cinematic death mambo"), the band is gaining steam on the local music scene with songs like "Leopard Coat," which evokes doomsday, horror-movie like melodies, but is also playful and danceable.
While daddy Mike provides funky and clunky bass grooves, son James writes and sings lead vocals.
"Most of my lyrics are about the interesting dichotomy between death and happiness," he says. "I'm trying to find the inherent humor in things that are horrible. The aesthetic that appeals to me is really dark and nasty."
The band collectively finishes each piece. "I come in with a piece, and we all make it real," the younger Stewart says.
"Leopard Coat" stands out as the band's crowd-pleaser.
"It's a song about forgiving the devil," says James Stewart. "It's the ultimate song about forgiveness. People go nuts for it."
The group is tight, and the combination of players eclectic. In addition to Mike's experiences in the business, James has played with a few big-name musicians, including members of Devo and the Divynls. The guitar player and Motown fan was the member of an R&B cover band before IDBOPA came together.
"Brady Fischler, the drummer, and I had gotten tired of the whole scene," he remembers. "We said, 'Hey, why not put a band together?'"
The band formed in about a week, James Stewart says.
"It's like a miracle from God, out of nowhere," he continues. "We were just putting it together as a lark. We're fortunate we got together some really gifted players, smart, fun people."
Although the name pays tribute to Palo Alto, the band members don't all live in the fair 'burb. James, trumpet player Tim Kirby and accordion player Don Dias grew up here, but now live in Mountain View, where drummer Fischler and baritone sax player Kurt Stumbaugh also live. Guitarist Corey McCormick, rapper Joe Stewart (both of whom are not pictured) and bassist Mike Stewart do live in Palo Alto, but percussionist Brian Fischler (Brady's brother) lives in Hayward.
After Brady and James came together, Mike joined after jamming with the two founders. They all realized something had clicked. At the end of the session, James asked his dad to join.
"He plays a real Motown-oriented bass," James Stewart says of his father. "It's really simple and clunky, but super super groovin'. He keeps everything really together."
Mike, meanwhile, says he's found that his son is "as talented an artist as many people I've produced, and might actually have a real shot," the elder Stewart says. "There's a certain angst in James' music that he is especially good at portraying. It's poetic pain."
The band is also an opportunity to renew his relationship with his son, he says.
"When James was young and I was in the music business, I wasn't around much because I was trying to keep the money coming in," Mike Stewart says. "I wasn't much of a father at that time. I'm very thankful for the chance to have a second relationship with him. For me, that's what this band is about, in addition to being lots of fun."
The Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto is scheduled to give a free concert at 6:30 p.m. June 1 at Lytton Plaza, University Avenue and Emerson Street. You can also see them on July 19 when they open for Idiot Flesh and Oxbow at the Cubberley Community Center Auditorium. For tickets to this Earthwise Productions concert, call 949-4507. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door.
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