James Ferraro discusses DIY aesthetics, apocalyptic visions, and his new album NYC, HELL 3:00 AM.
In November 2011, James Ferraro flooded a stack of end-of-year-best-of lists with the sharply produced sound-abstraction Far Side Virtual. The laptop-produced masterstroke spawned a slew of genre-bending digital releases and an ongoing discussion surrounding its conceptual themes. Ferraro has kept out of the race for editorial consensus, instead keeping himself busy pushing toward totally new vistas in music.
Since his days releasing scummy CD-Rs as a member of pioneering noise duo The Skaters, the music world has been paying close attention to Ferraro’s activity. His latest opus NYC, HELL 3:00 AM is out on October 15 by way of LA-based electronic label Hippos in Tanks. In this follow-up to last April’s online mixtape release Cold, Ferraro continues to work his moody, atmospheric deconstructions into a framework of cultural critique—describing in disturbing detail the psychological structure and decay of the American consumer economy.
James discussed the album’s dark matter, his fascination with post-apocalyptic dystopias, and how the landscape of his mind has changed since Far Side Virtual.
Catlin Snodgrass So you’re back in LA?
James Ferraro Yeah, I came to LA to record Far Side.
CS And you decided to stay?
JF Yeah, it kind of set itself up like that. My label’s out here in LA so I’m back-and-forth between here and New York a lot. I was also working on projects that were related to Far Side so it kept me out here for a little bit longer. But I’m out here post this album, NYC, HELL, to kind of get out of the inferno a little bit.
CS Does the change in environment have an effect on what you’re producing?
JF They’re kind of both their own thing. There’s a distinction, but I’m inspired by both places.
CS You’ve spoken a lot in the past about expressionism in music and it being a canvas for audio art. Obviously your work is heavily conceptual. What’s on NYC, HELL’s canvas?
JF There are so many concepts that are inherently a part of the process. There’s a kind of iconoclast thing going on with this one. A lot of things to do with how the media affects emotions and how it creates an emotional environment or a stratosphere for human interaction. It has a lot to do with how these experiences are intertwined with life and how they all work in collaboration with each other.
CS FADER called Eternal Condition/Stuck 2 “a scene in a really depressing movie.”
JF It’s not necessarily that. People’s thresholds for intense emotions and pain are different. I assume some people will feel that way, but other people might feel empowered by it.
CS There’s been an obvious shift in mood from Far Side and Condo Pets’s glossy, glamorous aesthetic to darker themes of misery and chaos. What sparked the temperature change?
JF To be honest, my mood and my inspirations for this album were really similar to Far Side. There all the things that I take from culture. Far Side was masked in this glossy elevator Muzak kind of sound. You hear the gloss, but beyond that is this darker reality of what’s really going on in culture. HELL was more of a personal story. I allowed myself to look deeper.
CS Is it as much of an intellectual effort?
JF I can’t really say that because it’s an expression that came from me. They both came from the same place. I can definitely see how people can create a distention between the different albums, but for me they’re in heavy conversation with each other.
CS To me, there’s a sound distinction. It seems like you’re playing on a lot of hazy R’n’B deconstructions in your newer releases, particularly with Cold.
JF I think maybe that’s just in my blood. Maybe those sounds come out of me because of who I am and what I love. I just allow myself to have complete freedom and that’s what came from it. People are going to interpret it however they want.
CS What did you listen to growing up?
JF Everything from rap to classical. My parents had really amazing taste and my father is a record collector so he always had different records on deck. Because he was a DJ I heard everything. I love it all. It’s hard for me to narrow it down to a particular genre.
CS So you come from a musical background?
JF Yeah, my father was a musician and my mom was a vocalist so they sort of rubbed off on me. My dad was really supportive. He was always working on his own musical projects, playing in a lot of bands. He was a DJ in Rochester, NY for a little bit. It’s always been a part of my life.
CS When did you start recording?
JF In high school. I used to make beats on this thing called MTV Music Generator for PlayStation. It was deep. I used to make beats on that program with all my friends in middle school.
CS I feel like a lot of writers have the false perception that your work is heavily laced in stock commercial Muzak samples and recycled sound bites.
JF Yeah, people think that I sample but I don’t. I actually never use samples. I sample my own sources of sounds. I use AT&T Natural Voices and text-to-speech generators so it’s all original content.
CS There’s a strong emphasis in your work on the by-products of consumerism. Can you talk about where that comes from?
JF What that means, as far as I relate to my own art, is that I like to think about signs reaching a point of excess when they begin to lose meaning.
CS Excess to the degree that it becomes something frightening?
JF Yeah, that sense of excessive repetition, something that originally has meaning but then starts to lose it through repetition. At that stage it becomes something entirely different. Icons and symbols are things that really interest me. That’s a heavy part of how I begin to work.
CS Your records evoke a pretty dystopian scenario.
JF Yeah, I think life is pretty dystopian. But I allow it to be both. That’s the potential of people.
CS That presents an interesting point of discussion: that our nightmares or fears are the benchmark for our aesthetic interests.
JF Yeah, people have been working with those themes since the beginning of theater, literature, and philosophy. We love apocalyptic scenarios.
CS Your work seems to be as grounded in an image as it is a sound experience.
JF Absolutely. It’s a lot like the sampling. What I use the image for is to lift away from the original meaning of something and to show how it affects the essence. Tabloids are a great example of that.
CS What was the image in your mind when recording this album?
JF For this record, I was really interested in 9/11 and surveillance footage and how the image stands on its own with a separate meaning from the actual event, like how we judge criminals based on an image rather their actions. When it comes to social, emotional, and economical dimensions, the image is usually what sums it all up. I think it’s interesting how society has fallen on that as something reliable. The thing about that, is that it was just from my raw experience of what’s around me: subway stations, trash on the ground, rats, everything that was around me at that time. I accumulated the material for the album as I went on. I went into it totally blind and at the end I realized I was making a record about these things.
CS So it all starts with visuals?
JF I would call it a vision.
CS Conceptual or aesthetic?
JF Definitely both. For this record, a lot of my own personal rules changed. I allowed myself to step back and let it be. Far Side was much more controlled, whereas NYC, HELL is about letting go of control and seeing what comes out.
CS Was it a surprise to you?
JF In a lot of ways it was. It was a raw sculpture or a living thing, because it was living along side of me as it was manifesting itself.
CS That’s the most honest way to make music.
JF Yeah, when it has a life of its own.
CS After a long stint as an instrumentalist of sorts, your vocal arrangements have been taking center stage lately. How did that come about?
JF It was just natural. My solo work is all more instrumental, but in The Skaters I used my voice a lot because it was our main instrument. I’ve always sung, and that theme of letting go helped it come into the picture. Separating myself from it, I would say one of the central themes of HELL is the power of money and how it acts as a god in a society that is built on the worship of money. If you think about the lyrics as a stage for these things, then they definitely represent that.
CS Cold’s eighth track “Slave to The Rain” really seemed to propel the concept of that album forward.
JF Yeah, that song in particular has a double meaning. It’s “Slave to the Rain,” but also “Slave to Rain;” as in, the raining of money, and to rain emotionally. It has a lot to do with how society is dictated by money. Sexual interest in people and even emotional love is dictated by the power of money.
CS My personal favorite record of yours is Marble Surf, which people probably don’t bring up very often. Or often enough, rather. It kind of got dusted under the rug back in 2008. You have a lot of great material out there that’ll probably be revisited for a long time.
JF Thanks. There was no control over how my early stuff was put out into the world. I used to make CD-Rs and stuff to sell at shows. All that work comes from a really interesting time in my life. I love that period, just for that reason alone.
CS Being a part of a DIY community?
JF Yeah, the CD-R community really had its own scene. And with Marble Surf—among the people that were into my music back then—did cause a little bit of stir because it was one of my very first efforts as a solo artist.
CS Are you always working on something?
JF Yeah. I’m recording all the time. It’s just a part of who I am. To always be writing music down and making melodies is the part of my being that expresses that.
CS You’ve always had a laptop-produced, DIY approach to making music. Do you generate most of your work from home?
JF NYC was recorded at an actual studio, but that’s different from anything I’ve done before. I really enjoyed that experience of having a space to create in. I don’t have any strategy or agenda, but I’d like to record in that environment more often.
CS Tracing your history from these kind of pastoral, hypnotic lo-fi releases to something much more high-def and pristine, really exposes your range as an artist and how you’re constantly changing. When do you become exhausted with a particular sound?
JF My perception of genre is that it seems like such an outdated way to consume art and music. The aesthetic, style, and ideas are always changing, but as far as switching sounds or genres, I don’t really think about it like that. I don’t get sick of any one sound. People never see the process, so when they hear the end result it might seem like I’m jumping from one thing to another. For example, I have Far Side Virtual 2 recorded, but I never put it out because it didn’t make sense to. It’s just all within me. I can’t really explain it. I’m interested in a lot of things and I feel like I’m everything at once. At the end of the day, music classification and genres made sense at one time, but in 2013 I don’t think they have that much meaning. Even post-modernism is an outdated theme because we live in a post-modern culture. In the ’60s, the Beatles even killed that concept with baroque pop. At the time that might have been seen as how an artist today will have multiple styles, but in the next ten years, I don’t think people will even think about music like that.
CS How do you think they’ll perceive it in the future?
JF They’ll probably think of it in purely aesthetic terms.
CS With every album, it feels like you’re on the working in a totally new genre, which is why your sound has been so hard to peg.
JF I’ve definitely been called a lot of things, and as soon as those things die out, I’m a new thing. I think that’s a part of being yourself and doing what you want to do. If people are into something, they’ll create a world around those works.
CS Like the vaporwave movement.
JF People have talked to me about vaporwave. It sounds really interesting and I like to hear other people’s take on it. Apparently it’s a post-Far Side concept. I mean, there’s so much shit going on in the music world, it’s hard to keep up. But I’m just an artist, and I create what I create. It’s hard to speak about it beyond that because I feel like it’s too early to say. I’ve been making music a long time, and started with The Skaters when I was 17. I was really young back then and things change. My ideas are different now.
I like the name though. The name is cool.
CS From what I understand, you don’t perform live very often.
JF That’s changing. I’m booking shows and planning tours now, but I was going through a period where I was purely focusing on writing music. Luckily I did because I’m happy with the results. It’s been a transition period, so I think I’ll do a lot more now.
CS In an ideal world, would you play more shows?
JF Absolutely. The Skaters and I were on a 3-year tour and it was a nice break from recording. So definitely. I love playing shows.
CS With the exception of The Skaters and Lamborghini Crystal, you’re mostly a one-man operation, but are there any artists you you’d like to collaborate with?
JF Also Bodyguard, which is Sean Bowie from Teams, and me. Do you know Teams?
CS Oh right. Is that project active?
JF Yeah it’s definitely still active. As far as collaborating, I’d say yes, on a production level, maybe with certain producers. But as far as other artists, there are a lot of people I haven’t met yet. There are plenty of artist I’d love to know and have that conversation with though. I’d say Arca, Dean Blunt, you know, people that are on my same squad and are peers of mine. I feel really blessed to be surrounded by artists like that.
CS You usually construct an album with a particular listening format in mind. What format was NYC, HELL intended to be heard on?
JF Any format. It’s night music though.
James Ferraro’s new record NYC, HELL 3:00 AM is out now on Hippos in Tanks.