Neil Ewing of Greencarpetedstairs: "It's not what you use, it's how you use it."
courtesy Fake Four
Greencarpetedstairs (due tonight at Rhinoceropolis) is the hip-hop/experimental electronic/IDM project of Neil Ewing. He was part of the loose cadre of students that attended Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in the first half of the last decade that were at the core of the scene around Rhinoceropolis, including Travis Egedy of Pictureplane and Harry C. Walters, among others -- the latter of whom was in the group of people that founded Rhinoceropolis.
It was there that Ewing found a welcoming environment for his musical experiments and his willingness and ability to make completely unconventional music such as Greencarpetedstairs and the now inactive hip-hop group Swimming With Models. Ewing's latest album, a self-titled Greencarpetedstairs release, came out on noted hip-hop artist Ceschi Ramos' Fake Four imprint. We recently sat down with Ewing and talked about his upbringing, his RMCAD connections and his sonic bag of tricks.
Westword: You had a little different upbringing than most musicians in Denver. Where did you grow up?
Neil Ewing: I was born in a town called Lamar, Colorado, thirty-five or forty minutes northwest of Kansas. I grew up a pretty strict farming family. Well my dad was gone for a long time so my granddad picked up a lot of slack. He grew up in the Dust Bowl herding sheep on the plains. So we would just get things to do. If you didn't do your work you were basically seen as sedentary.
They didn't like having people just sitting there. We always had to work a lot. Very old school: "I'm bored." "Go dig a hole." It's still very much like that today. I go home and my granddad gets excited because he has a pile of rocks he wants me to move, a pile of wood or something. I grew up there and then in Colorado Springs at age twelve. At eighteen I moved to Denver to go to school at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design.
You obviously did a lot of visual art growing up, did you make music early on as well?
My father's mother was a folk musician and my grandmother always had pianos and stuff but the drawing came first. I think the drawing was my outlet for this gap between my peers and I. I grew up in the middle of nowhere so until about age six or seven I didn't really have friends. It was just my sister and my cousins and my dog. My mother was graphic designer so she'd say, "Here are markers." So I was using Prismacolor markers in the 80s when they were filled with bad shit. And things like that. Paint markers at three or four.
Me making music was a way of escaping RMCAD. There was a lot of pressure, I feel, at RMCAD. They thought of me as a badass because I was breaking shit and yelling and getting into a lot of trouble. So there was a lot of pressure on me because my teachers would be like, "If you just focus, you could be whatever blah blah blah. Your work is good but you need to focus and get to class on time." And all that shit. I was just kind of like, "Screw this; my roommate can rap really well." He was in the same boat I was except he's an amazing artist. His name is Lorie but he goes by Tran pronounced like "train."
He opted to drop out, whereas I went on through the RMCAD experience because my mom was like, "You've got to do this." I started making hip-hop. Before that it was with my friends but we got really serious into it when we started to understand that in art school there's a lot of failure. Not failure but I guess lack of success as defined by making money. We thought maybe we were lying to ourselves and thought music would be better first to make.
Why did you end up going to RMCAD instead of some other school?
I got a full-ride scholarship to the Art Institute for industrial design. My dad is a roughneck. He's like a welder and builder. My granddad welded and built things. I grew up around all that farm equipment and had kind of a knack for putting things together -- sculpting things and building things. I was just discussing this with my mom why I didn't go. They wanted me to start right after high school.
I had two weeks between when I graduated from high school and starting at the Art Institute. Fortunately, and unfortunately, I didn't go. If I would have went, I think some things that happened that made me what I am and who I am would have drastically changed. I decided to go to RMCAD because I had some friends that were going there and I felt more comfortable to have this kind of other experience.
Were you going there at the same time as Travis Egedy?
Me and Travis lived together. He's a year younger than me. I basically lived right above Travis in the dorms and then we lived together in this house on 44th and Wadsworth with Tran and this other [guy]. That shit was crazy. The house was owned by this mafia family, and every time shit would get really rowdy, we'd get some old dude in a track suit come outside and tell us to be quiet.
Next door was an alcoholic railroad worker who would get mega creepy. He would peek through our windows. We'd have girls over and he would say the most ridiculous, nasty shit to them. It was bad, but it was awesome and it was a good time. We ended up getting evicted. I've known Travis a long time -- [from the time he started living] in Denver.
What got you inspired making hip-hop? Was that the first kind of music you made?
I had a really good friend, probably my best friend in the world, and he died. He passed away. He was always listening to hip-hop. I wasn't really into that as much. I grew up listening to really cheesy music like UB40, Meatloaf and Enya and new age-y stuff. My mom liked the Beatles. My homie Chris, he listened to brown pride hip-hop, Kid Frost, all kinds of West Coast stuff -- Daz Dillinger and Kurupt stuff. I kind of used the hip-hop stuff to celebrate the life of someone my friends and I loved a lot. Through that experience of making and being what we thought was cool, we celebrated who he was.
Did you start rapping before getting into doing production?
We used to rap at the dorms a lot. In high school I used to rap a lot too. We used to kick freestyle for chuckles, just clowning around. The production came after I got a computer. The very first music I was making was in 2003, probably, and it was two Panasonic tape players, an old, shitty record player and a TR-505 drum machine. One of those record players was set to play at 78 rpm. I would throw records on that and every time I wanted a loop, I'd have to stop my tape player, then reverse and cut it again.
I remember giving a tape to Travis and him going, "Uh, it's noise." "Is that good?" "I don't know." It was very tape collage-y stuff. It went from there to me getting a computer and working with Tran and learning programs and stuff like that. In the beginning it was GarageBand. Then I used Logic, and now I use Ableton and Logic.
Logic is really good as far as sitting down and making something someone is going to listen to at a later point. Ableton is something that is really on the go. You can take and cut stuff up and use it live. Ableton is way more dynamic as a live thing, whereas Logic doesn't work that way. You can't really use it live. The computer can't really run all that stuff live. Ableton can partition it out better.
I used to have a really ridiculous set-up to play live. I can't take circuit bent stuff everywhere -- it's going to break. One of my favorite devices broke. I was like, "Screw this, I'm going to Ableton and I'm getting a controller to using what I can that isn't going to break." It's a better way of doing things. It's more cost-efficient. It works better. It looks worse and I understand that. I'm doing just as much, probably even more now.
You mentioned circuit bending. Did you make your own devices?
Yeah! I was first introduced to circuit bending through Sean Devlin, who is in a band called Household. From there I met this guy online named Carlos Ransom who lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and he's in a band called Id and Sleeper. They were on Mush. He taught me how to circuit bend. I sat and circuit bent as a way of getting away from partying and other stuff that was becoming self-destructive.
The first thing I circuit bent was a Casio SK-5 and I blew it up. It was awesome for like three seconds. Then I got a Speak and Spell and I understood after that point. Before that, I just thought I wanted one and sample it. It was very illuminating. There's a spirit inside these old things that weren't seen as valuable anymore.
What was your first musical project?
I think it was Fear of the Furious Cobra Organ. That was the first tape I made in terms of actual music. It was the name of the whole project, kind of. Greencarpetedstairs came about because of that house we lived on at 44th and Wadsworth. We had this really steep staircase and, with the angle, the ceiling was at a steeper angle than the floor was. This kid racked his head on it and was bleeding all over these green, carpeted stairs and I remember somehow admiring the stairs, being like, "I like you stairs, because this asshole hit his head." I felt vindicated somehow.
I think Swimming With Models came after that and Greencarpetedstairs was this ridiculous name I gave myself to produce something under. People always divide it, but, if you divide it, you get a lot of home decor crap on Google, but if you just use one word, it'll surface through the internet better. That's kind of trite and I've tried to change it but that's how people know me so I thought it was pointless to make the change.
Was that first tape a hip-hop thing?
I wasn't at the point where I understood enough about production to make anything that sounded like anything. I'd have loops of Don Williams going and drums that were totally off and me trying to sing over it. I look back on it now and I'm like, "Yeah, that's kind of genius. But it's not really." It sounds like a lot of noise collage tape stuff I hear now. Back then I wasn't exposed to a lot of that stuff.
You were just making the best of the resources on hand.
Yeah, I was using archaic home stereo equipment and cheap music equipment to make something that sounded human.
You played this show a few years ago with two other experimental bands, Whitecatpink and Gloam, and you sounded even more out there than either of those two bands. What would you say for that era of the project?
It was always super experimental. Even the hip-hop stuff. I guess when you're coming from a point where you don't have a lot of music background, that's what you're doing. You're coming from a place where you don't know a lot. You're coming from a childlike mind--innocent about what not to do. You can take all those clichés and things you don't know and use them to your advantage.
I can only compare it to when I was in school painting: My teachers told me not to use too much white. So I used as much white as a possibly could. That's kind of what we did in music in the beginning. We did these things people told us not to do. If it sounded shitty, we did it more. That's basically what Greencarpetedtairs and Swimming With Models was. It was all getting made in the same place.
When I played that show you mentioned at Larimer Lounge, it was Sean Devlin and I, and I was playing stuff from an album called The God Byes, which took three years to make and was never released due to personal issues. A lot of it was pop music for a girl and it took me three years to get over all that shit. Some things kind of stab you in the face and you have to live through that. It was a lot of GarageBand, a lot of guitars and un-syncopated drums and stuff because I didn't know any better or how to run that stuff.
I wish I would have released it because I think that at some point I felt older in the scene and a lot of times I seek some kind of validation which isn't there because I held myself back and sabotaged myself at some points. But that was kind of preparation for what I did later.
One of the most interesting albums out of Denver in the last decade actually is Hypnautix and Pork Produx. Where did that name come from?
You know, when I get together with my old friends, things are said that sometimes shouldn't be repeated. You know what I'm saying? I think at some point I think Tran and I were sitting there with our friend Ross Miller in my studio apartment, when I worked at the nursing home, making music. I was like, "What should we call this?" Tran was like, "Eating Some Chips." You hear a mumble and then he spits his chips and asks, "How about we call it Hypnautix and Pork Produx?"
That was it, man. Basically we found the title and then found an explanation for it. Our society makes its creatives kind of destitute. It treats the people that probably most drive it like shit. It hypnotizes them and feeds them with meats that contains nitrates. You're not supposed to eat more than twelve hot dogs in a month. That's what the album was about. Us being disenfranchised people working terrible jobs. Having to be live being young people that felt kind of hopeless.
What is "Classic Bap" about?
"Bap" comes from "boom-bap," and "bap" is an explanation that DJ Primo made. The song itself doesn't sound anything like the title. The title was just something we ran with that we came up with in the beginning. That song is good, though, because it's all about Tran wishing he had a different life and being pissed off that he can't sit on his ass all day and watch TV all day because he has shit to do. But him still wanting to sit on his ass and watching TV all day.
That record was amazing because it was the culmination of everything coming together. We had the time and the patience to sit together for like five or six days and make the record. It was me and Tran and I think there is a cut with Sean Devlin and Harry C. Walters.
You went to school with Harry C. Walters too, right? How did you meet him?
We went to RMCAD together and the first time I actually hung out with Harry, we went to McDonald's and got hamburgers. We met Sean Devlin through him and worked with him on Green House Train, which was one of the last bands to play at Monkey Mania. It was a combination of all our names.
Harry was in Swimming With Models after that. He was our DJ and stuff for a little while. He has so much genius and ability but that comes with a heavy emotional and mental price. In my life, that's how I've always seen it. I haven't personally met many people like that and I love that dude.
You did a video with Sole recently?
It ended up being me and Sole in some alleyway and he had some medical scrubs on. I think it was for "Bradley Manning Swag." Sole is rapping in some green scrubs and all of a sudden I felt pellets hit me in the head and on my camera. We stopped. I look at the footage now and Sole has red hair and juxtaposed against the green scrubs, nothing fit very well. It probably won't ever come out.
How did you meet Tim Holland?
Travis used to get on some website called soleone.org. I was like, "What are you on?" "People's Republic!" I got on but I didn't really know who Sole was. I knew what Anticon Collective was but, as far as Sole, he wasn't on the same tip as the other cats were -- not in a good or a bad way, just different.
Travis explained to me who he was, what he had done for Anticon and for hip-hop in general and how cool he was. Kind of over four or five years of being part of the board, I got an email from Tim and he said, "Yo, man, I live in Denver now. Let's hang out. You've been on the board a long time."
So I went and met Sole and it turned out we're a lot alike in terms of what we believe, our hate for white people. We got that same kinda old school deal going on. Very masculinist because we gotta fight in order to be righteous. If you can't fight, be righteous.
Obviously through him, you released your new record?
Yeah, basically I played 187 Ultra for Sole's record release party with Ceschi. That was an incredible experience for me because I'd never played a show like that. I think I've played Rhino like thirty times. But I'd never played something where there was guaranteed for people to be there and it was important to me and important to the community that I'm in.
I gave Ceschi a tape, and he had a player in his car. It didn't work, and I sent him a new one, and I guess he listened to it for two months. I think that was All Things End Things. He liked it, and I got a phone call from the manager of Fake Four asking if I wanted to put out a record on Fake Four. And that was because of Sole that those dudes gave me a chance, which I feel is probably pretty rare as far as where I'm coming from, because those dudes probably hear a lot of bad hip-hop, and I'm not even making hip-hop.
What is it you consider your music to be or do you feel like you can put a label on it?
I made basically a pop album and took all these unconventional sounds and conventionalized them into something that a broad spectrum of people can understand -- taking something complex and making it simple, which I think is important. Having totally loaded things all the time isn't necessary all the time.
Content is loaded and, when you pick it apart, you can see how much work went into it and how many people's ideas went into it. For me, I took those sounds with content that my sister wouldn't understand and change it so that she can understand it and enjoy it, whereas maybe she wouldn't before because it would be too [weird] for her.
Almost like you're recontextualizing those elements.
Definitely. I'm just taking things that are way different and counterculture and making them more culturally identifiable, accessible. I want people to understand and access the music because, with my friends, I have some hardcore hip-hop heads for friends, and I wanted to make a pop album they could access a little bit. Not a hip-hop album because that's what all those other dudes are doing.
Right now in hip-hop, I feel like, except for my homies and people I respect, it's at a point where the least amount of effort possible is what's in right now. I don't really want to be a part of it right now. Last I checked, I made 1,119 songs in the past six or seven years. It's constantly working. I'd probably be skinny if I wasn't sitting in front of an album all the time making music. [The new album] was mixed and mastered by Brian Marcus.
How did you come to have Brian work on your album?
Ethan Converse. I was basically finished with the record and I sent it to some people and they said, "Dude, the record sounds good but the drums are fucked up." You need bass drums, this needs to be mixed, this needs to be mastered. I contacted Ceschi and the people who were paying for the record, and they agreed to give me the money for that.
I was having huge issues finding someone I could actually sit in a room with. I'm kind of picky about who I spend my time with. I didn't want to sit in a room with an asshole mixing a record. That was happening to me. So Ethan told me to check out this kid named Brian Marcus. We clicked. We both liked Star Wars and nerdy shit and it flowed super easy. He knew what I wanted and that was it.
How are you releasing this record? What formats?
We're doing digital, then a limited tape run. After that, maybe we'll do some kind of LP. It's just really hard right now for everybody pocketwise. Five hundred for five hundred CDs? I don't know if I want to make coasters. That's really up to other people. What I want to do is tapes and digi. I'll burn a CD for my mom. But it's still awesome to get distro. It's way better than what I had before. DIY is a hard game. I'm still on that DIY tip but it's changed a little bit but it doesn't make life easier.
Years ago you went to Wheel Barrel Gallery, which is where Rhinoceropolis is located now. How did you find out about that place?
School. I think I went there once. People were like, "Do you know who that is? That's Ravi Zupa and he worked with Anticon."
Did you ever see Boy Howdy?
No, but I knew Ryan. I remember before Glob got that name, [it was called Thoth Engine] and there was this music/play/action-choreography thing called Odam Fei Mud. They would go, "Make music for us." I knew about all that stuff because some of those dudes went to RMCAD as well.
How did you find out about Monkey Mania?
Travis. He was like, "Yo, bro, there's this place called Monkey Mania. I'm going to go eat some food." I think the first show I saw there was Little Pocket Knife. These little white girls who rap from San Francisco or Oakland. They rapped about having ADD and playing D&D. I love it when some little white girl goes up there and can spit on some ridiculous shit.
Do you play all the sounds on the new album?
I built fifteen or sixteen circuit bent instruments for that album. I built an Atari Punk console, which is two 555 circuits put together to make this square/triangle drone machine. I hacked two or three of those voice changing microphone things you can get at TJ Maxx. I finished circuit bending this Speak and Spell and this Speak and Read.
I built a couple of 555 sequencers and circuit bent a couple of Danelectro pedals--a chorus and made it choppy and the echo and made a double echo thing with a Barbie karaoke machine. Then I had a distortion pedal but those are pretty good on their own. My box of crap is getting bigger. I got a graveyard of broken shit in my closet.
What kinds of synths did you use this time around?
There is a good culmination of soft synthesizers. You can get something professional, some shit if you wanted the physical version would cost you a couple of grand, like a Juno. I can't afford a Juno but I can download one. I think it's an emulator of the very first one. I used SK-1 samples, MicroKorg, Casio VL-1. All kinds of physical and software stuff. I mixed everything in Logic.
Soft synthesizers are pretty much adaptable to any kind of DAW. You can do what you need to do. If you have the motivation, you're going to make something great no matter what you got. Burial uses Sony Acid from the 90s. Travis uses Magix Music Maker and it's from '97. And that mo'fucker makes money. It's not what you use, it's how you use it. That's what's up.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music