[Photo by Megan Mack]
By Emilie Friedlander
The musician, video artist, and perennial drifter James Ferraro first appeared in my life in the form of an idea, passed on by a college friend of mine who had spent a few months couch-surfing with him during a semester abroad in Berlin. We were sitting in his mother’s SUV, listening to a slowed down version of “We Are On The Race Track,” a minor chart hit by the ‘80s Jamaican soul diva Precious Wilson. James had gotten my friend in the habit of playing old vinyl ‘45s at 33 speed and dubbing signal onto reams of warped cassette tape, and I remember being transfixed for the first time by the sound of a pop song in slow motion. The singer’s muscular alto had transformed into a mournful, slothful baritone; the upbeat disco instrumentals seemed to sag under their own weight. It was like uncovering a second song, a second existence, that lay dormant in the first.
If he does not suddenly decide to fall off the radar completely, James Ferraro will be remembered alongside folks like Ariel Pink, R. Stevie Moore, John Maus, and Spencer Clark as one of the musicians who, at the turn of the 21st century, elevated the crackle and grain of low-fidelity recording to a field of aesthetic exploration. They claimed outmoded technologies like the 4-track and the tape deck as their own, and made the vocabulary of pop music and the preoccupations of the avant-garde seem a lot less incompatible than much of the previous century had implied.
The particulars of James Ferraro’s biography escape even those who have lived and worked closely with him, and he would probably be more inclined to tell you a fiction about his own life than a couple straight facts about his working process. What we do know about James is that he was born in Rochester, NY sometime in the mid-‘80s, and was raised by a father who once ran a heavy metal radio show and worked in the legendary instrument and pedal emporium in that city called House of Guitars. According to Todd Ledford, founder of the New York label Olde English Spelling Bee, an innate affinity for travel has prompted James to settle, consecutively and for months at a time, in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Ohio, New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, San Diego, New York, Belgium, New York, Los Angeles, New York, and Los Angeles. Explaining his most recent change in location, Ferraro told AZ's Samantha Cornwell earlier this year that he wanted to try his hand at being a Hollywood action movie star. One more plausible explanation in circulation is that he moved for reasons of the heart; another that he and Ariel Pink are working on an album together.
Ferraro’s most iconic features are his short, fluffy afro and his missing front tooth, which he says he shattered with a BB gun when he was a kid. In his quarter century on this Earth, he has released some 25 albums, splits, and cassettes under his own name, 25 more as one half of The Skaters (his band with fellow sound collagist Spencer Clark), and countless others under various pseudonyms. He has no website, did not have a reliable phone number until recently, and has a bothersome habit of not showing up at his own concerts. Aside from the occasional tongue-in-cheek foray into straight-ahead pop-punk (as in 2010’s Night Dolls With Hairspray), James Ferraro’s muddy sound collages are as hybrid, unpredictable, and compassless as your typical drift down the information highway-- especially if your designated road markers are ‘80s radio rock, video game music, and campy b-movies of the Street Trash variety. What unifies his work is a consistent impression of overhearing somebody turning a static-y radio dial in the apartment next door-- of being struck by the familiarity of a strain here and there, but never being able to concretely identify any of it (I'm pretty sure Ledford once told me that Ferraro has never sampled other people's songs).
I met up with "the man with the moon-lit pompadour" in late October, a few hours after he had kicked off the first night of the Neon Marshmallow Fest at Brooklyn's Public Assembly. I was there to chat with him about his recently Zoned In Far Side Virtual LP, which, as Michael McGregor explains, pretty much pulls the rug out from under any descriptions of his work like the above. Ferraro's Hippos In Tanks debut is clear as a bell, constructed greatly from what sounds like cheesy MIDI presets, and melodic to an almost comic extreme. After finishing an interview with Elle magazine, he took a walk with me down to a small manicured park at the foot of The Edge, a massive, glass-paned condo complex on the Williamsburg waterfront. As actual condo pets trotted by on designer leashes, we talked about life in Los Angeles, far side virtual reality, and what was actually going on in his head when he recorded the LP. (Hint: Far Side is a record about 2011).
AZ: Last time you spoke with Altered Zones, you told Samantha Cornwell that you had moved to L.A. to pursue a career as an action movie star.
James: I wanted to be an actor-- in drama, actually. I still think about it, but I’m back and forth. I’m interested in directing a serious drama. I think that’s my next thing-- hard-core drama pieces.
AZ: Like Douglas Sirk-style melodrama?
James: Not as comical or self-aware. I mean like really intense, human condition-style dramas.
AZ: Who would you get to play in it?
James: This is really funny. Without revealing too much about the plot, it’d be someone a bit like Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut-- someone who can grip something like that. Or, what is his name in American Psycho?...[Christian] Bale? Or some sort of Mel Gibson character who is really passionate, or on fire about some very insanely detailed nuance.
I was at this party in LA and I was talking to this guy-- I won’t use his name. And he has written some pretty famous television shows. I was just talking to him and he was literally laughing his ass off, losing it. Seriously, wine coming out of his nose kind of thing. At the end of our conversation he was like, very nonchalantly, “Who do you write for?” I was like, “I don’t write.” Once that happened, I was like maybe I should take some of these concepts that I have planned for records and make movies out of them. Some of the records are pretty cinematic in their own way.
AZ: Where does the album title come from?
James: Far Side Virtual mainly designates a space in society, or a mode of behaving. All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks-- buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is-- because people kind of live in it already.
AZ: Is it referring to the idea of the simulacrum?
James: It’s definitely simulacra, but I feel like society has surpassed the idea of simulation. Of course, we live in that [concept]…but It’s just embedded with what our new world is.
AZ: Well, I guess the idea of the simulacrum came about before the ubiquity of the Internet...
James: I think it’s pre-Internet scare. We live in a post Internet world, and I think the paranoia has lessened. [I think that] it does destroy certain aspects of humanity-- but also that it creates a new form of humanity. People are using the Internet as an appendage and carrying on with our lives as humans within the context of what the Internet is. If you were to ask certain philosophers of [the Simulacra] school of thought they would’ve predicted that the world was going to devolve into this smushed, dumb, hyper-society-- this monoculture.
I think they would be surprised to learn that we’re texting. We’re using text more than we’ve ever done in mass communication, and I find that really interesting. I thought that we were supposed to fall off and forget how to read. I think that says something about how reading and language work. You don’t necessarily learn to read-- you learn how to copy and how to recognize symbols. Maybe what I’m saying is a product of this time. Maybe I sound like those people lost in this Generation Y phase.
AZ: With Far Side Virtual, you’ve taken up a new direction. Does it feel like a Y Generation album to you?
James: It does. I’ve heard things from people that use Casios, but say that it’s ‘90s MIDI. People are open to interpret [the album] however they want, but I was fully saturated in things that are happening now. All my equipment is from 2010 to the present. So, the idea of it being retro-centric is a bit alarming. But, of course I understand that reference, [as this album is coming from] someone who has been retro-centric, and has used artwork that was retro-centric as well. The new direction really wasn’t that much of a conscious decision. The record is a 21st century still life: now.
AZ: I was told you had a laptop on stage tonight at Public Assembly.
James: To be honest, I didn’t use it for the show. I like to use it for decoration. I like to have it up there [as a reference] and to have people create their own fiction. I like to create fiction in reality. I feel like people who use laptops are treated like they’re not being real. It’s not like grassroots, it’s not like subculture, it’s not like punk. To not use a laptop is being subversive, inherently. At the same time, a laptop a very unique tool and it has the potential to expand culture beyond what is so subversive to you. I believe in a good, healthy subversion.
AZ: What gear did you use to record?
James: It’s a keyboard/synthesizer that has a whole bunch of different tones and presets. You can tweak the presets. Those are patches that I designed. You can play them naked, how they came-- or, you can tweak them and do that sort of thing with them.
AZ: It sounds like you’re showcasing synthetic versions of real-world sounds.
James: That’s a super important point of the record-- to make the still life of the world, which is now an infrastructure that is not only buildings, but cell phones, all these [different] noises. It’s not really showing already-made synthesized noise. There’s no MIDI-- maybe I understand MIDI differently. There all outboards, [though], and some VSTs.
AZ: Do you feel like your new record is breaking free from this paradigm to which you were pegged-- this “hypnagogic pop” that draws on memories of ‘80s youth?
James: I would hope that people can appreciate that the artist needs to grow. People create these terms around your music, but you don’t have any hardcore attachment to these ideas. A bunch of my friends and I were literally just making music. It’s open for interpretation, definitely. Sonically, I think there are some ideas coming from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but for me, personally, a lot of my records have to do with now. If you look at Multitopia and Last American Hero, these records are all about a post-9/11 America. I have many styles, and they’re changing. I don’t have any anchor that’s keeping me into lo-fidelity or hi-fidelity. I could do another lo-fi record-- it’s not a heavy departure or anything.
AZ: Would you say the cues of the new album are mostly the now?
James: This is my intention. The original concept for the album was for it to be 16 ringtones that you bought and listened to on your cellphone. But obviously that didn’t work out. You can expect people to buy 16 ringtones for two bucks each. [Instead], I expanded those ringtones into 16 songs and placed them on a record which would kind of work as a gallery space for these ringtone symphonies. Then, when the title comes in, it’s a Haiku. There’s [also the element of] this aerial view of society. The sound fonts themselves were invented way back when, but the instruments I’m using are fully of now. I think that whole ‘80s or ‘90s retro thing is a misconception-- you might as well say that anything that samples a string or a classical arrangement becomes retro-centric. If you can no longer take from the past, you are stuck in this constant future, which is blank. We build off generations and generations.
AZ: I feel like this work could be presented in an art world context in addition to a music one.
James: The record is cool, but it's only there to capture and contain these things that are meant for cell phones-- ringtones mainly. The best way to listen to the album is with an iPhone with a speaker.
AZ: Michael McGregor says that he listens to it on his way to work…
James: It works like that. People have said that it’s really happy. I’m drawing from these things that have been psychologically tweaked to make us feel happy… little ringtone zaps. It’s optimistic. It’s like, “Whoa, somebody’s calling you!” I’m influenced by basic psychological principles, and take from that stuff, so the music is inherently happy.
AZ: It also felt like a video game soundtrack or like a film soundtrack…
James: It definitely is a score. You walk into a frozen yogurt place and Far Side Virtual is the score of a yogurt shop. Fro Yo.
AZ: Is there a Fro Yo culture in LA?
James: The biggest outside Asia. It’s next level-- like this new couture of frozen yogurt…and it links to the global village. These are little expressions that tie us all together as a globalized thing.
AZ: Do you think that the record was influenced by your move to LA?
James: It has way more to do with New York. If you listen to it and just walk through the city you’ll be surprised by how much sense it makes, actually. You’ll see these little boutiques, these pet grooming places, these baguette shops, these toy stores, cheap clothing stores…
The record has to do a lot with domesticated pets-- hence the name “Condo Pets.” Musically, I was trying to think of the mystery or the scared feelings they would have, or whatever trouble they would get into while their masters were away. Far Side’s working title was ‘Ring Tone Story 3.’ I was like I don’t think people would have grabbed on to it immediately.
AZ: Do you feel like there is a dark side to all of this?
James: It’s life. I don’t have an opinion or try to criticize it or anything-- I’m just literally trying to capture it. Of course there’s inherent evil and inherent good in all of it, but that just kind of goes with the territory. These are psychologically tweaked sounds, and the human mind responds to these tones, [but] I’m not trying to weigh in too heavily on my own personal thoughts.
AZ: There’s a rumor that you and Ariel Pink are going to collaborate on a record together. Is that true?
James: I’ve never heard that. We’re friends, but there are definitely not any plans to produce a record with him.
Far Side Virtual is out now on Hippos In Tanks