by Mike G, November 2013
The Detroit-born Neil Ollivierra – painter, musician, novelist, graphic designer and now entertainment industry lawyer - is best known for a string of remarkable electronic albums and EPs he released under the name of The Detroit Escalator Co between 1996 and 2006, after which he mysteriously disappeared from the music scene. Fast forward to late 2013 when I found him alive and well, happy to grant Ambient Music Guide this remarkably in-depth and wide-ranging interview.
The Detroit Escalator Co’s music is quintessential ambient techno. Spacious and subtle, soulful and complex, it has aged beautifully and remains much loved by both Detroit techno aficionados and ambient electronica fans. Neil Ollivierra also stands out as one of the few composers from Detroit's early electronic scene who embraced ambient techno exclusively, whereas others – Carl Craig, Aril Brikha, Richie Hawtin and others – dabbled in chillout but largely remained focused on the dancefloor.
My own introduction to DEC was around the time of his Black Buildings album in 2001. UK label Peacefrog did a fine job of promoting that record and for many fans it was their first taste of DEC's music. The debut album Soundtrack  from 1996 had languished in relative obscurity, praised by Tim Barr's Rough Guide to Techno as “one of techno’s most overlooked classics…a note-perfect vision of late night Detroit and a compelling combination of warm beauty and desolate force.”
Having not heard or read a thing about DEC since 2006, I often found myself wondering "whatever happened to...". I was also curious to know more about Neil Ollivierra's life in music and art; very few interviews are to be found either online or in print. Until very recently, the DEC website remained enigmatically blank, save an email address.
Nonetheless, I tentatively wrote to request an interview. Somewhat to my surprise - and to my unalloyed delight - Neil replied the next day. A steady series of email exchanges followed over the next two months. Neil was exceptionally generous with his time, providing loads of fascinating background about the Detroit electronic music scene and anecdotes about other artists, as well as some beautiful insights into the process of creation.
Now read on...
PART 1: Life in the Technotropolis
AMG: Let’s start with your experiences in the early days of Detroit techno. Before you started working as a club promoter and label manager, were you already an artist?
NEIL: I actually didn't venture into any artistic endeavors - music or painting - until years following my introduction to Detroit's electronic music scene.
When I was 18 years old, Derrick May and his friends Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson became the first genuine artists I ever personally met. Not only did they adhere to the highest standards of originality and futuristic thinking in their works, they developed a keen acumen with which to introduce their works to a world that at the time was not quite ready for the notion of an African-American electronic music composer. They carried themselves with dignity, poise and grace. They persevered to win international recognition not only for themselves, but for scores of young black artists who were later inspired to follow in their footsteps, myself numbered one among them. Their standards with respect to artistic endeavors directly informed my own, and for this I'll be forever grateful to them.
They were genuine artists. Meaning to say, in my mind there are two kinds of artists: fake ones and genuine ones. The fake ones are people who simply want to "be" artists. They want to be regarded as artists in the public eye, and in that capacity enjoy a certain elevated status in society. When their work is criticized, they often view it as an indirect attack on their status, which is a very frightening prospect for them. While some of these folks can be quite charming, I've found the vast majority of them to be thoroughly revolting, such that I can't remain in their proximity for more than 6 or 8 seconds.
The genuine ones are merely people who dedicate themselves to composing one work of art or another, simply for the sake of completing it. They're hell bent on achieving the end result, and nothing other than an exact rendering of their ideal vision will release them from the burning desire to get it done and over with. Any form of compromise has a nagging psychological cost for them, one that I've observed can often lead to depression and self-hatred. Though brilliant, some of the saddest people I've ever met are genuine artists. When their work is criticized, they view it as a direct attack on their very being. They don't want to hear criticism because they've finished the work and have finally been released from it. They don't want to see any "mistakes" that would drive them back to toiling on it.
AMG: So what kind of artist would you consider yourself to be?
NEIL: I've never felt comfortable referring to myself as an artist. I feel like if I ever do, I'd be cursed to never achieve the results of my artistic endeavors. Like anyone else on earth, I'm just a person who sometimes gets an idea to do a painting or a piece of music or writing; sometimes I'm driven to execute these ideas, and sometimes I'm not.
The first person I ever heard refer to me as an artist in the way I personally think of artists was my friend Kenny Larkin, an artist himself. In 2000 I was working on the series of paintings for the Black Buildings album and Kenny had reserved one of the paintings for himself, "Exit I." After I finished it, I rented a truck and took it to his loft in downtown Detroit to mount it for him. It made me happy that he was pleased with it, as he'd only seen sketches of it. But I remember feeling my heart sink as we stood there staring at it mounted on his wall. It became apparent to me that the blue colour palette of the painting was too dark. It gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. I didn't say anything, but even as I shook Kenny's hand and left I knew that I was going to have to do it over again.
And that's exactly what I did. All in all, it took me a little less than two weeks to finish it. I remember being really excited when I picked up the phone to call Kenny and give him the news that he was going to get the "real" painting. I was really surprised to find that he was far from being excited. I told him: "That shit is too dark, man, I knew it as soon as I saw it hanging up on your wall." He was flabbergasted, and a little upset. But he now felt obliged to look at it.
I rented the truck and brought the painting over. He was dubious as I removed the original painting from his wall and leaned them both up against the wall next to one another. We stepped back to look at them. Even I was shocked. They were almost identical. The colour palette of the new painting was slightly brighter than the original. The difference was there, but it was barely perceptible. He turned to me and asked what I thought. I had no words for it. I'd been driven to do this. It was embarrassing. He said, shaking his head, "You're a true artist, you really are. You're out of your fucking mind." We both laughed. I asked him which one he wanted. He was still pissed that he had to choose. He decided to take the new one. I took the other one away in the truck and later I tore it up with a box cutter.
AMG: Speaking of artists, the Rough Guide To Techno says of Juan Atkins: "Usually, as in the case of house music or rock n roll itself, genres develop from a confluence of cultural imperatives, ideas and events which transmute into the work of a number of different artists, producers and DJs....in the case of techno, however, the ideas, concepts and sounds came from one man: Juan Atkins." Now that's a pretty big claim - for any art form. What's your take on it?
NEIL: I’ve never read that quote. The honest truth is that I’m not qualified to answer. Like many Detroit natives, I’ve heard differing viewpoints on what techno is and where it came from, and to what extent certain individuals may lay claim to its origins. While I’ve known Juan Atkins for many years and he’s always had my utmost respect, it’s only within the last few years that I’ve been privileged to call him a friend.
I wasn’t acquainted with Juan when he first embarked on his musical endeavors. I never spoke to him about what first inspired him to compose music. On the occasions I’ve had an opportunity to grab a bite with him and chat, I’ve found his focus always to be on his present or the future. I’m realising this only now, actually; in all the conversations I’ve had with him, we never really delved into the past. I’ve witnessed firsthand, however, the respect and admiration extended to Juan by his friends Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson and all of those who followed behind them. And these are people who are not easily impressed.
AMG: Let's skip back late 80’s Detroit. You were working as a promoter at underground techno club The Music Institute and met Derrick May who was DJ'ing there. How long were you working for his Transmat label on Gratoit Avenue?
NEIL: Exclusively from 1988-1992, then casually for a while, and then I returned again in 1999 after moving back from Chicago.
I remember the first release I had the privilege of working on upon my return to Transmat in ’99 was the Signals/Smile EP by Microworld. I designed the label's official bright blue 12-inch jacket which was used for that release. Aril Brikha's amazing album Departure in Time album followed shortly after.
Derrick Ortencio and then Kevin Reynolds had joined the label by that time. They each possessed both brilliant minds and youthful energy. They were much younger than me, and honestly far more in tune with the dance music scene of that time. Derrick Ortencio was himself a DJ and a successful club promoter. Kevin was a certified audio engineer. They were really good at thinking outside the box, and between the two of them they were plugged into tons of fantastic creative and business resources. Among their many amazing achievements, Derrick Ortencio in particular is to be credited for arranging new distribution and manufacturing networks for the company. Derrick and Kevin and the folks they introduced to me at that time remain my friends to this day, and still rank among the best people I know.
By that time [the late 90’s] dance music had taken over the entire planet. Whereas I used to go to record shops and be able to say I'd heard every dance track in the joint, the scene had grown beyond my ability and even my interest in tracking new releases. I'd not really enjoyed clubbing since The Music Institute closed. Going to any club after regularly going to The Music Institute was in my mind like going from a Lamborghini to a Pinto. I was by that time spending a lot of time dissecting esoteric and/or vintage ambient music, rock (e.g., Flying Saucer Attack, Led Zep, Soft Machine), batucada music, drum ‘n’ bass, and tons of Jamaican dub which ultimately led me to incorporate a lot of synchronized tape delays into my Black Buildings album project.
With the label safely under the leadership of Derrick Ortencio and Kevin Reynolds, I backed into more of a supporting role in the company, doing database design and art direction. This continued until 2000, when I relocated to San Francisco.
AMG: You told me that your unpublished 1992 novel Reality Slap is based on true stories. Its central character Todd is in a lot of pain: a young artist living in grimy Detroit, broke and struggling with his love life, but he can still make us laugh out loud. “Life is as funny as shit.” How much of the young Neil is in there?
NEIL: I was a young kid without a care in the world when I wrote that. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking too far ahead into the future. On the one hand, I wish I could get back to the kernel of hedonism and confidence that drove my outlook and endeavors back then. On the other hand, I'm very grateful to have largely moved on from the self-centred and self-pitying spirit that inhabited the same person.
I wrote Reality Slap just after returning from my first trip to Europe. I'd gone there on behalf of Derrick May to work for Neil Rushton. It was at the time that the underground house and techno scenes were just becoming recognized by the major labels. The underground club scene had set the entire world on fire, and London was the unrivaled epicentre of it all. Having never been to Europe before, it was an eye-opening experience for me. I was privileged to befriend a lot of cool and interesting people in and around the scene while there - folks like Mixmaster Morris, Mark Moore, Baby Ford, Sarah Gregory, Darren and Dexter Mohomed, Carola Spadoni and designer Sofy Prantera, many of whom remain friends of mine to this very day.
When I returned to the States, I had this burning desire to document the last few years of my life. To build a sort of iconic shrine to the fantastic people I'd been privileged to meet over the years. I remember thinking that the people in my life were way too cool for me to keep to myself. That I had to somehow share them with the world.
I had to completely remove myself from the scene in order to freeze my experiences and document them. And so I left Detroit to spend the summer with my father in Washington D.C. I wrote the novel in a three-week period while living in my father's basement, often doing ten or twenty pages each day. It just poured out, largely facts embellished with random splashes of fiction. I wrote most of it with a big grin on my face, often times laughing out loud. I avoided leaving the house, because I didn't want to be distracted by new experiences. I barely showered or changed clothes. I remember that at one point the plumbing in the house went awry; a pipe busted, and the basement became flooded with water for a period of days. I couldn't be bothered, and I remember rolling out of bed to slosh barefoot through two inches of water to sit down at the little Mac Classic, light up a Camel, and go at it. I'm surprised that I wasn't electrocuted or otherwise killed off by some strange new form of mould or other filth before it was all over. I was like a disgusting troll, living down there. I'm sure my father thought I'd gone insane.
After it was finished, I sent it to the people who were documented in it. I didn't know what to with it after that. It was Rufus Knightwebb, the very gifted London-based artist, who came up with the idea of including it as part of Stacy Pullen's album release on R&S/Sony. It was featured as a free download on the album's website, which resided on what was then a very new and very sparse internet. I think Macromedia's Flash had only just then been invented.
I haven't read the book in a long time. It’s never been formally published. I was tickled to later find that book publishers from around the world, having heard of the novel, would get in touch with me and offer to publish it. But as soon as they learned that it was being duplicated all over the internet as a free PDF, they'd turn away. I didn't mind. I didn't write it for money, after all. I was just glad to have the opportunity to share my friends with people outside the scene.
PART 2: Into the music
AMG: Making your own music came quite a bit later, didn’t it? Do you remember when the inspiration hit you to start composing?
NEIL: In the years I first worked at Transmat, I never gave any thought to the notion that I should try my hand at composing music. I had enough varied interests. I enjoyed writing fiction on occasion. I enjoyed RGB pixel-based graphic design. And I enjoyed designing databases. It was latter which indirectly led me to electronic music making.
Around the time Transmat's releases started appearing on the European label R&S is when things at the label started getting too much for me to handle. All that I knew about the biz I learned from Derrick May, and between he and I and Derrick Ortencio, we could no longer cover all the bases between the three of us. This was before Kevin Reynolds joined the team. We had three Apple computers in the Eastern Market loft that served as the offices, but there wasn't any form of software that supported the daily operations of running a record label. I figured there had to be a way to leverage these computers to do more work.
Then I learned that a subsidiary of Apple Computer called Filemaker specialized in database software. I bought the software and taught myself how to use it. I found the process of planning and constructing a database to be surprisingly enjoyable. It's a process that exercises both halves of the brain. Logical analysis is applied to the structure and the code that makes it work. Creativity, illustration and colour vacuity went into the design of its graphic user interface.
I remember that it was a pleasure to work on the database after hours, after everyone had gone home. On a Friday night at 2am I'd be sitting at my desk in the darkened office, the space illuminated only by the peach-coloured glare of the streetlights beaming through the window, along with the flickering rays from the computer monitor on my desk. Environments: A Collection Of Antipodean Soundscapes [an obscure Australian ambient techno compilation] on the stereo - I'd play that album over and over again. It was music for designing databases. I also played Global Communication’s album 76:14 over and over during that time.
Beavering away at the database every night while listening to these and other similar musical works, something clicked. The fact that I could achieve the database design by way of intensive research gave me confidence to explore the notion of synthesizer programming. The basic concepts of attack, decay, sustain and release. The function and characteristics of filters, envelopes and low frequency oscillators. The application of compressors, gates and delays. I started to see a bit of the "grid" that I'd heard Juan Atkins describe in an enigmatic fashion all those years.
AMG: Your first releases as Detroit Escalator Co - two EP’s and the album Soundtrack  – came out in 1996. Most producers in Detroit at that time were still making club music, yet interestingly you were drawn to ambient techno…
NEIL: Well it was synthesizer programming that primarily interested me and I enjoyed making sounds that calmed my mind, which tends to race around like a hummingbird, sampling only the tiniest microscopic details in a life that often tends to overwhelm me with possibilities. Lush chords and pads. Evolving textures and sweeps. Skittering metallics, compounded with tape delays and cavernous reverb. If the sound ended up being musical, it was either pure coincidence or a gift.
Soundtrack  was actually composed at least a year and a half prior to its release on Ferox, perhaps even earlier. I'd been teaching myself keyboard programming for the better part of a year, using a Korg X5 that I'd purchased for that purpose. It was a digital multi-timbral keyboard synthesizer with a built-in effects processor. A software sequencer, Emagic's "Logic Express" (the precursor to what is today Apple Computer's Logic Audio), was bundled free with the purchase in the form of a few 1.4 meg disks.
The Korg's operating system was fairly straightforward, and the manual was very well written. I simply started on page one of the manual and went through every programming exercise in the book until I understood the functions of the device like the back of my hand. Then I started programming sounds of my own on it. I remember that it pained me to think that no matter how hard I endeavored, I could never really get an original sound out of that keyboard. It was a digital synthesizer, with no built in sampler. In other words, I couldn't make any sound come out of it that wasn't contemplated by its designer-manufacturer. This was something I rectified years later with the purchase of a Kurzweil K2000 and the release of Logic Audio. But at the time, I figured that I was only learning synthesizer programming after all, and everyone has to start somewhere.
Some of the programming I compiled on the device at that time seemed very musical to me. The best bits occurred to me after a night's ride through downtown Detroit on Derrick May's bicycle. He'd purchased this beautiful $2,000 trail bike with dual shocks. He'd often let me borrow it for a night's ride through downtown Detroit. I'd ride around for hours, often getting home well after 3 in the morning.
There was something truly mystical about riding a bicycle through the empty downtown streets of Detroit at 3am. Nights so quiet and desolate that you could hear the traffic lights click when they changed colour. There'd be hours between sightings of any human beings at all. Reality would drop away, leaving me to bathe in the absolutely authentic notion that I was literally the last man living on earth. The things I saw and heard during those midnight bicycle excursions evoked very deep feelings in me that I couldn't begin to describe in words. I heard things that inspired not only synthesizer programs, but musical compositions. After each ride, I'd get home and go straight to the keyboard in order to expand on the things I'd heard that night and compound them with the overall feelings evoked by that night's excursion. Within a few weeks, I had a compilation of entire songs.
Around the time I finished the album, Carl Craig's album Landcruising was released. I remember wondering whether Carl had been similarly inspired to craft that fantastic album, albeit from behind the wheel rather than the handlebars. I wouldn't be surprised. The city of Detroit has had an awful lot of influence on its native sons and daughters over the years.
AMG: I understand your created you own record label for your first Detroit Escalator Co release?
NEIL: Yes, I released an EP containing three of the songs on a label I'd dubbed The Detroit Escalator Co. I put a lot of thought into the notion of my recording moniker. I remember that it was important to me in selecting the moniker to pay tribute to the city that had inspired my endeavors in the first place.
I also knew that while the music I was doing wasn't exactly Detroit techno, I had to similarly pay tribute to the pioneers of that musical genre, without unfairly riding on their coattails. By mastering a complex technical process of composing and recording within a genre of music that was at the time being advanced almost exclusively by native Europeans, pioneers such as Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May, Jeff Mills, Mike Banks and Carl Craig literally changed the world's limited perception of what African-Americans were capable of, musically speaking. I wanted to join them in advancing that notion through my own endeavors. Hence, The Detroit Escalator Co.
In that regard, I sent a copy of the EP to around a hundred people who'd been kind enough to support Transmat's endeavors. in the years I spent working there. I promised them that were I to release any more music on The Detroit Escalator Co. label, they could get it from me, without paying a dime for it. As it turns out, that was my first and last release.
A few months after the EP's release, a friend of mine from high school named Meredith Ledger was hosting a guest in her home. Her guest's name was Russ Gabriel. He was visiting Detroit from England, where he owned a record label called Ferox. She was making dinner for him along with a few other friends, and as a musical accompaniment was playing a cassette recording of the album I'd given her months before. He asked about the music, and she told him about me. And that's how the album was later released on Ferox.
PART 3: Floating architecture
AMG: Your next album of all-new material, Black Buildings (2001), wasn’t just music but a series of abstract paintings, too. A complete creative package. Can you talk about how that project came to fruition?
NEIL: My approach to programming and music composition very much changed when I had the pleasure of meeting Gerald Simpson aka A Guy Called Gerald for the first time.
He came to Detroit not long after the release of his album Black Secret Technology (1995). I'd long viewed Gerald as a musical genius of paramount importance. His recordings were hailed as anthems in clubs around the world, including The Music Institute in Detroit. I first heard Black Secret Technology just after the Ferox release of Soundtrack , and it absolutely blew me away. It reflected precision and an almost insane attention to detail with respect to programming and arrangement, yet it brimmed over with very real and very warm soul. You couldn't listen to that album without closing your eyes, seizing your bottom lip in between your teeth, and bobbing your head, all the while wearing a bass face. Each song was an auditory journey through a vast and surreal galaxy of cosmic anomalies.
Derrick May knew that I was a huge fan of Gerald, and so when Gerald came to Detroit for a visit, Derrick arranged the introduction. The next thing I knew, Gerald was in the basement studio that I shared with my brother on the east side of Detroit, and I was watching Gerald noodle around on my Kurzweil K2000. He was interested in a drum kit that I'd programmed out of car factory sounds. There were kicks, snares and hats comprised of samples of drills, punches and metal lathes. He was tickled pink, and I thought it a surreal moment to have Gerald Simpson in my ghetto-ass basement composing beats out of my programs.
I never thought for one second to propose a collaboration. I merely wanted to watch his process and learn. And what I learned was that Gerald Simpson takes his time. He sat in front of my keyboard and took nearly a half hour to compose two bars of kicks and snares. It was like watching snails fuck. You'd never know anything was happening at all, unless you were watching from the very beginning. Then all of a sudden the brilliance was made apparent, the payoff would be there, a thoughtfully tailored pastiche of sounds. And you'd think: oh my dear lord, I see it now. He truly has a gift.
I came away from that experience with the knowledge that I was going to have to slow down my efforts with respect to sound programming and music composition. I was going to have to expend a greater amount of time in digging much, much deeper into the capabilities of my tools and equipment. As Gerald had been doing for years. I understood, with some shame, that with respect to programming and composing, I'd only nicked the surface with Soundtrack . I was literally a babe in the woods.
Shortly after that meeting, I took a time out from Transmat and music composition to complete my bachelor's degree at Columbia College in Chicago. After that, I wasn't quite ready to return to Detroit. I'd stacked school credits to compress nearly three years of education into a year and a half, and was exhausted. So I decided to remain in the city for a while and enjoy some no-mind time while I considered what to do next. I took a rather mindless job at an office downtown, and lived with three of my best friends in an apartment in Wicker Park. While working at that job, which had absolutely nothing to do with arts and music, I thought about art and music all day long. The programs and sketches for the Black Buildings music and painting were first conceived at that time.
AMG: What exactly was your inspiration for the Black Buildings theme?
NEIL: The project arose out of my interest in slowing down to examine the dimensions of sound and visual space. With regard to sound, my interest stemmed from my observation of Gerald Simpson's tenacious pursuit of perfection with respect to his programming and recording processes. I didn't have the opportunity to observe him at length, but the time he took in exploring and stretching the capabilities of his tools made a really strong impression on me. I took to exploring the stereo space as I'd never done before.
I'd come home from work and program new sounds in a project studio I'd set up. Taking a cue from Gerald's slow-motion approach to musical exploration, I'd spent weeks working on a single program. It was a grand time. I worked like this for years, compiling sketches and programs and musical phrases, exploring and learning as I went.
As for visual space, the benefits I obtained by slowing down my process of music composition inspired me to likewise slow down the manner with which I'd long observed the world around me. While I'd for many years dashed through life at a mad pace in order to see, smell, hear and taste everything imaginable, I learned the benefits of slowing down for the purpose of observing greater detail. When I managed to slow myself down and smell the flowers, so to speak, a whole new world began to open up to me. I found myself amazed and entertained by the smallest pleasures, the tiniest details.
I kept a mechanical drafting pencil at my desk at work in Chicago, along with a stack of vellum paper and a ruler. Between phone calls, I'd sketch modified blueprints of my office cubicle on these sheets of paper. I imagined the angles of the paneled walls surrounding me taking on vast proportions, akin to geometric landscapes. I began to deconstruct them and re-assemble them as abstract sketches, architectural in nature. By the time the job ended, I had 15-20 of them, a few of which I thought were pretty good. I knew that I wanted to see them realized as very large format canvas paintings, rendered in monochromatic shades of blue.
But I had no idea how to execute the crisp straight lines required to achieve the result. I researched for a process, and in this way discovered that H.R. Giger used an airbrush to achieve his detailed masterpieces. And that's when I knew that I was going to take up the airbrush. A classmate of mine from school was making quite a name for himself as a graffiti artist in Chicago at the time. His name was Carlos Rolon, aka Dzine. He was teaching airbrush classes at an art supply shop in Wicker Park, and I signed up. It was Carlos who first showed me how to use an airbrush and compressor, over a period of a few days, in that shop.
AMG: How did the UK label Peacefrog become involved with your Black Buildings project?
NEIL: That happened after I returned to Detroit from Chicago in 1999 to help Derrick May resurrect the Transmat label. He'd been nurturing a variety of new artists including Aril Brikha, Tony Drake and others, and was planning to release a compilation of their music on Transmat. By that time, I'd completed the first of the Black Buildings musical compositions: "Nebulae" and "Plumb." They were very different from anything I'd done previously. They were different from anything I'd heard up to that time in electronic music.
For this reason, I asked Derrick whether I could include "Plumb" on the forthcoming Transmat compilation album Time:Space (1999), just to see what the reaction would be. He agreed, and when the compilation was later released, the reaction I got was an offer to record an album for Peacefrog. The label kindly offered me enough money in the way of an advance for me to rent a loft large enough for me to do the paintings and record the music at the same time. So I left Transmat to embark on my first full-time artistic endeavor, and the first of several dramatic personal character transformations to come.
I'll never forget the day I found that loft. It was right around the corner from Transmat’s Gratiot Avenue office. A ground floor space of a little over 1,000 square feet, with a basement almost the same size. My plan was to set up the painting studio on the ground floor where I could obtain natural light, and set up the recording studio in the basement.
I figured I'd go to Cheap Charlie's supply shop across the street, and purchase 10 pairs of coveralls and a pair of Timberland work boots. I'd throw out all my clothes, and just pull the next pair of coveralls off the rack, so as to spare myself any distraction and save time. I'd grow a beard and let my hair grow out for the same reason. I'd paint all day and record music all night, leaving the place only to get supplies and groceries. I'd live like a hermit on that cobblestone street, sometimes emerging to stand on the stoop in my paint-splattered coveralls to get some fresh air and have a smoke.
I remember thinking to myself, four months later, as I stepped outside the door of that loft in my paint-splattered coveralls to strike up a Camel and scratch my bushyass beard: "Wow, you're that guy, now. Maybe you're more capable than you'd previously thought."
"Or maybe you're just a lucky bastard."
PART 4: Blue Science & Time:Space anomalies
AMG: Your most recent Detroit Escalator Co release was the Blue Science EP in 2006. One track has ghostly vocals and actual lyrics, something new for you. Were you contemplating a shift in direction at the time?
NEIL: Absolutely. I was at that time on a mission to compose music conducive to a live performance rendered by musicians playing real instruments. Specifically, I wanted to collaborate with Jeremy Ellis and a few other musicians in crafting an album that we could take out on tour, with myself playing the drums. This goal of the EP was my strange way of redeeming one of the great failures of my life: the Time:Space Tour.
Some six years prior to the release of the Blue Science EP, after the first Time:Space compilation was released on Transmat, the label was approached by MP3.com to construct a tour comprised of the musicians featured on the album. The sponsor wanted to know whether there were enough musicians among the composers to assemble a tour. There was. Tony Drake is a trained professional bass player. John Beltran played piano. I played the drums, though I was what Mike Banks aptly calls a "pocket drummer." I had told him that I wasn't a real drummer, because while I could play anything given enough time to practice, I couldn't improvise and fill time on the fly. Mike's response was that this was okay, it just meant that I was a "pocket drummer” - good enough to "get in the pocket and hold it down" - and that many a funk drummer operates with the same level of proficiency.
In preparation for the tour, the team left it to me to devise the arrangements. My thoughts were that my recordings and those of Tony Drake weren't exactly the kind of thing one would want to hear in a club. So I focused on John Beltran's catalogue of creations. John sent me a large number of his recordings on CDs and I deconstructed them and rearranged them as tracks with a kind of Latin house vibe. I was keen on Latin drumming at the time, especially the songo and the bossanova. My plan was to have John trigger prepared sample maps and play Rhodes and piano, while Tony and I played over the top of his lead.
I bought a beautiful Gretsch bop kit for the purpose of the tour, and hunkered down in the basement of the loft on Gratiot to tediously knit sample maps out of John's music. The plan was for the band to converge in Detroit a couple weeks prior to the first tour date in order to practice the renditions using the sample maps I'd created. For my part, seeing as my drumming was the weak link in the unit, I practicing my drumming against these arrangements concurrently with their creation so I'd be prepared.
John and Tony came down to Detroit for the first practice session at my place. But Tony's bass was grossly out of tune with the samples. We couldn't figure it out. I finally asked John what he'd used to prepare the final recordings. It turned out he'd used an ADAT (Alesis Digital Audio Tape) and that he'd altered the tempo of his songs before arriving at a final mix for each, throwing the songs out of the traditional chromatic scale. I hadn't thought to inquire prior to mastering as to whether John had altered the tempo of his tracks.
As such, there was no way in hell we'd be able to tune Tony's bass and John's keyboards to match the scale of the samples. So instead of spending the two weeks prior to the first tour date practicing prepared music, we were now faced with the prospect of composing new music for a tour and then thoroughly practicing it. All in two weeks. To say that I was terrified and humiliated would be a vast understatement. It would've been a surmountable obstacle, but for my weak drumming. I'd let my friends and the folks at Transmat down. Looking back, we should've cancelled the tour and repaid the sponsor.
AMG: Do you recall specific gigs from the Time:Space Tour? Was your drumming really that lousy?
NEIL: We played one date where we performed the most horrible improvised music. After that date, John dropped out of the tour to accept an engagement in Amsterdam. Jeremy Ellis stepped in to assume his position, and Aril Brikha, who was playing separately on the tour, salvaged the situation by allowing the group to construct and perform live renditions of a few of his tracks. But even those performances were weakened by my lacklustre drumming. I would've been able to nail it had I sufficient time to practice. But I didn't have the time, and so each date on the tour was like an exercise in humiliation for me. I just wasn't good enough to satisfy my standards of a stellar performance.
The final tour date was The Detroit Music Festival, but the group had received an invitation to expand the tour to Australia. By that time, I'd had enough. I quit the tour, and the team found themselves a proper drummer as a replacement. I'd fallen in love with San Francisco when the tour stopped there to play 177 Townsend, and my plan was to relocate there right after the opening of the Black Buildings exhibition at Detroit’s Cpop Gallery.
AMG: And that was when you finally said goodbye to Detroit as your permanent home, right?
NEIL: That's right, though I've reservations about calling anything permanent. You never know, you know? I moved to the Mission district of San Francisco, and signed up with a tech head-hunter who sent me on jobs designing databases for various companies. I bought a 1978 BMW 100S, set up my recording studio, met a nice girl, and tried to put the agonizing failure of the tour behind me.
But it was pointless. I knew that I'd never get over it unless I transformed myself into a real drummer, a drummer that could meet my lofty standards of a good drummer, and then embark on a tour that would redeem and heal my feelings about failing to rise to my own personal standards on the Time:Space tour. I wanted to collaborate with Jeremy Ellis in composing music that would be fun to play live on stage, and a dynamic live performance that would be fun for people to watch. A kind of repayment to Jeremy and Tony for their dedication, and Aril, too, should he be interested. The Blue Science EP was the first result of those efforts.
PART 5: Left turn off Gratiot Ave
AMG: What have you been up to since your last DEC release in 2006, both creatively and professionally?
NEIL: I had more fun recording the Blue Science EP than I'd thought possible. Collaborating with Jeremy Ellis and Alison Cecile Johns was an enlightening and humbling experience. It made clear to me that I'd made the right decision in aiming to collaborate with others, and that there was much to be learned in the course of doing so. The folks at Peacefrog kindly introduced me to a booking agent in Europe who was prepared to book the tour upon the release of the album, and who in the meantime was also interested in placing me on a small DJ tour, doing gigs throughout western and eastern Europe.
But before any of that transpired, I learned that I'd been invited to attend a law school in Los Angeles on a generous scholarship.
AMG: Which answers a big question that prompted this interview: whatever happened to Neil Ollivierra and the Detroit Escalator Co. What aroused your interest in that career path?
NEIL: Well I had applied to law school after I spent a summer [in 2003] helping Derrick May get Detroit's Movement Festival off of the ground. In the face of the trouble that the Detroit Music Festival had been experiencing, Derrick had been granted the right to command Hart Plaza on the same dates previously occupied by that festival. His only interest was to pick up where the old festival left off, for the benefit of the musicians who played there, for the audience who enjoyed coming to see them, and for the city of Detroit itself. He invited me to help him, and I travelled from San Francisco to Detroit to spend a few months doing exactly that.
In doing so, I learned first-hand about the insane amount of work that goes into producing such large scale events, and about the crooked and self-serving people that invariably pop out of the woodwork to target the endeavours of the event's producers. What killed me is that out of all the surreal obstacles our team was obliged to confront in developing the event, the most inhuman and damaging adversaries were the licensed attorneys who were purporting to help us. If the attorneys weren't idiots, they were assholes. There wasn't an honest and competent attorney to be had anywhere, it was simply amazing to me. And because I knew next to nothing about the law, the extent to which I could help Derrick May and his team circumnavigate the machinations of these immoral and awful people was extremely limited. I'd never felt so helpless in my entire life.
Fortunately, Derrick Ortencio, Transmat's then label manager and a good friend to us all, was himself an experienced event producer. He kindly agreed to assume the role of Derrick May's right hand man and the leader of the festival's daily operations, and between he and Derrick and a few other key people to whom I'll be forever indebted, we managed to pull it off. But I set firmly in my mind the fact that I never wanted to feel that helpless again, and on that ground I started looking at law school.
It was about as drastic a personal transformation as I'd ever embarked upon. But I figured that if I were to succeed, I'd emerge from the experience a much more capable and well-rounded person. I'd be better equipped to defend myself and my fellow artists from other lawyers. I'd be better equipped to take on even greater challenges and minimize the associated risks. Specifically, I had a few motion picture projects in mind that I'd always wanted to evolve, but hadn't a clue as how to develop them without placing myself and my prospective artistic collaborators and financial supporters in jeopardy. So when the scholarship came, I abandoned the album and the tour plans to accept the invitation to attend Southwestern Law School in L.A.
AMG: Law school sounds like one hell of a change from making music and art. How did you find the experience?
NEIL: I could write a book about my experience at Southwestern, but suffice it to say that law school was far more difficult than I thought it would be. I was simply not built for that shit. It was a breeze for many of my classmates, but it was not a breeze for me. It was a humbling experience. I thought I was a pretty smart guy until I arrived at law school and saw people ten years younger than me, my classmates, running absolute circles around me. I was older even than a few of my professors; and the brilliance of the professors in particular was such that I wasn't even in the same food chain with those folks. I never would've made it at all without the support of my professors and a few brilliant and generous young souls among my classmates, to whom I'll forever be indebted.
But with their help I did make it, and later went on to join Lionsgate Entertainment - the largest independent motion picture production company in the world - as an in-house production attorney. The folks at that company, from top to bottom, were some of the most brilliant and hard-working people I'd ever met. Every time we produced a film, it was very much like producing a music festival but on steroids. Relative to producing a music festival, the number of people and complications involved was increased tenfold and more.
The folks I worked with inside and outside the company were very generous with their knowledge and experience, such that within a few years’ time I'd absorbed enough of their tutelage to find myself appointed a vice president at the company, and an adjunct professor at my former law school, teaching Motion Picture Production Law. That's how brilliant and generous my mentors were. I honestly can't take any credit at all for these achievements, as I ended up where I was simply by following their lead. They know it, and I know it, and I'd not have anyone assuming it happened any other way. I'm absolutely one of the luckiest people I know.
AMG: So is the Detroit Escalator Co still open for business?
NEIL: Well I left that job last year and have since then have been spending my time happily teaching, designing databases, doing legal work for motion picture companies, festival promoters and law firms, and composing music. I was obliged to turn down a few generous and enticing offers to record and tour while I was in school, and am now very pleased to have set up a fantastic recording studio comprised of the best equipment I've ever laid my hands on, including a brand new drum kit. I've also completed the sketches for a new series of paintings, though it'll likely take me a few years to accumulate the skill required to execute them. Time will tell what comes next.
AMG: Where do you live now, and do you still have a base in Detroit?
NEIL: I still live in Los Angeles, where I teach and work. I was lured to California by the beauty of San Francisco, particularly the hills, and so had some major concerns about relocating to L.A. for school. At the time I was accepted to study here, I knew nothing of L.A. From all the talk, I expected to city to look like a great big cluster of smog-filled freeways. I remember being relieved to learn that there were plenty of hills in Los Angeles, lots of nature.
At the same time, it's a large city, much larger than San Francisco, and parts of it remind me of my Eastern Market neighbourhood in downtown Detroit. My mother and many family members still live in Detroit, and of course most of my best friends. I visit regularly, and it's never far from my heart; it's with me wherever I go, and wherever I go I feel obliged to represent myself as Detroiter and act accordingly.
I had an opportunity to deeply explore my childhood in Detroit in the course of writing a screenplay based on the book YBI: the Autobiography of Butch Jones, which I've been privileged to option from Detroit-based writer and publisher Julius Justice. Julius and I are at the moment together exploring the notion of shooting a trailer for the purpose of financing the film, which must of course be shot entirely in Detroit. I'm currently speaking to a line producer here in LA about her rendering a budget for the film, and am very hopeful about the prospects. If all goes well, I'll be spending a lot more time in Detroit over the course of shooting the trailer, and ultimately the film.
The people of Detroit and Michigan in general have always been very special, very near and dear to me. But their value and influence were made more apparent to me after I relocated and had an opportunity to spend some time outside the borders of the city, looking in.
Detroit Escalator Co Essentials
Soundtrack  (1996, Ferox Records) - The wonderful debut album, currently out of print.
Excerpts (2000, Peacefrog) - A compilation containing all three tracks from the long unavailable Braille EP (1996), plus a new track and highlights from Soundtrack .
Black Buildings (2001, Peacefrog) - A new level of sophistication here. Not necessarily better than the debut, but distinctively different.
Blue Science/Between Dubnotes EP (Peacefrog, 2006) - Contains some of DEC's lushest music and includes an experiment with ghostly, soulful female vocals.
If you like those then listen to...
Future Noir volumes 1-3 mixed by Mike G - three mixes that include DEC cuts. Listen here.
Detroit Melodik: atmospheric techno mixed by Mike G - iconic names from the motor city's early techno scene like Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin and Derrick May's Transmat label are mixed up with exquisite ambient techno from the Detroit Escalator Co and lesser known names like Ireland's Derek Carr and L.A. artist Laurel. Listen here.
Time:Space (1999) and Time:Space 02 (2002) - Two fine compilation albums from Transmat's late 90's renaissance. Contains DEC's "Plumb" and a good deal of innovative and home-friendly techno and electronica. Out of print for years and hard to find on CD.
Black Secret Technology (1995) by A Guy Called Gerald - The seminal drum 'n' bass album which Neil says "reflected precision and an almost insane attention to detail with respect to programming and arrangement, yet it brimmed over with very real and very warm soul."
Departure In Time (1999) by Aril Brikha - Relaxed, soulful and lovingly sculpted 4/4 techno and deep house from Stockholm native Aril Brikha.
Environments: A Collection of Antipodean Soundscapes (1995) and Environments 02: Antipodean Armchair Travel (1996) - Obscure but wonderful Australian ambient techno comps, the first of which helped inspire Neil to start making his own music. Features contributions from members of Severed Heads, Itch-e & Scratch-e and other early Oz techno acts.