The enchanted forest

Carl Stephenson on Beck, the Geto Boys, trip-hop, and the fine line between dream and reality

Stephenson had always been a fan of music, first and foremost, particularly soul and R&B such as James Brown. Secondly, however, he was an exceptionally conscientious human being, raised in a churchgoing, environmentally aware family to which he remains very close. He says he was worried about the message that gangsta rap put out.

Later, he would even agonize over the popularity of what he saw as a negative message being received too eagerly by young people--his own "I'm a loser, baby/So why don't you kill me?"

"I didn't meet Beck until I moved back to Los Angeles," Stephenson says. "I got a job in Washington state because I wasn't making enough money to support myself, so I went back to live with my parents for a few years. Then, when I moved back [to L.A.], I got a publishing deal with BMG, and the publishing company told me about Beck. Margaret Middleman had met him as a street performer, performing on corners for, like, pocket change. So when I met him, he was really poor. He was wearing secondhand clothes and gave himself his own haircuts, so he was, like, really disheveled looking."

Appearances aside, Stephenson says he knew there was something special about Beck Hansen from practically the first moment he saw him. "Beck's very much like an elf or a troll kind of character. He's got a lot of magical energies. He has such a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that I was kinda laughing the whole time we were working together. He's always making fun of everything to a certain extent."

The label had suggested the two get together to combine Beck's folk music with Stephenson's hip-hop and world-music influences. "I had some ideas of some grooves, and I played them for [Beck]. At that time, I had taken several sitar lessons, so I laid some sitar into a track to see what he thought of it, and he started scribbling down some ideas that he had onto a piece of notebook paper, and after a couple of hours, we roughed out an idea for 'Loser,' the first song that we ever did together. We'd just met a few hours earlier."

The two continued working together, laying down the bulk of Beck's groundbreaking 1994 album Mellow Gold in Stephenson's living room in a makeshift studio. This was also the time that Forest for the Trees was coming to life. As we all know, however, Stephenson was vastly overshadowed by his young buddy with devil's haircut, whom many now point to as the single biggest influence in alternative music today.

Unfortunately, many of the critics--and even more fans--who waved Beck's banner never bothered to read the song credits on Mellow Gold, the ones that listed Carl Stephenson's name. One can imagine Stephenson--by then sinking into a serious mental state--explaining to his fellow patients that he was the co-author of one of the biggest songs of the decade. It sounds like a sub-plot in 12 Monkeys.

But the fact that Beck received much of the credit while Stephenson's name was barely mentioned was never a source of despair, Stephenson says. "It doesn't bother me," he says, and there's nothing in his voice to suggest otherwise. "I thought it was funny. I can do without fame. I'm more into it for the music."

His own music, preferably. Not Beck's (though he says the two have worked together since and may possibly do so in the future). Not in the studio with acts like the Geto Boyz or Paula Abdul, where he says he is always subjected to people altering his vision. Where Stephenson wants to be is the tiny garden he has carved out for himself in Forest for the Trees.

It's a garden where bagpipes grow harmoniously next to sheep noises, water sprinklers, Casio keyboards, and Indian chanteuses. A place where Stephenson can sing, without even a hint of irony, "I am a painting," and you realize that, by God, he's right. A place where you sit down to reflect on such confounding subjects as "When I get up, I don't know if I'm truly awake, or if I'm still dreaming" or the still more perplexing "How now, infinite cow?"

And it's appropriate that Carl Stephenson is the keeper of such a garden, as he's following in his father's footsteps. His dad, he says, is employed as the protector of an ancient forest preserve on a Washington state Indian reservation. That gives a clue to the name Forest for the Trees, but he says there's more to it.

"For me, it's like you see every individual tree, but you're not aware that you're in a forest because you're just thinking about the immediate vicinity rather than the whole forest. I think that's what happens a lot with the music industry. They don't think about the whole forest, they just think about their individual selves more, rather than being a part of the whole, and end up cutting down too many trees or polluting the environment."

His voice is noticeably trailing off, becoming more quiet and ever less cohesive, as he is either tiring of the interview or drifting off to another level of consciousness that has little room for a journalist's inanely pragmatic questions. He seems to be almost talking to himself at times, with long pauses.

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