The "killer nerd" from New York speaks about his latest release on Olde English Spelling Bee, and discloses his childish fantasy to live like a teenager on Mars.
Velvet red lipstick, glittery pink nail varnish, bright yellow leather vest, ripped and torn light-wash denim jeans, and, of course, a pair of Ray Bans and seeming a little shy yet ultra-friendly James Ferraro arrived at The Artch all dolled up for his first gig in London this year. His outfit slightly resembled the cover artwork of his latest dream-pop release, ‘Night Dolls With Hairspray’, on the American label Olde English Spelling Bee.
Predominantly known as one half of The Skaters and one half of Lamborghini Crystal, the prolific experimental figurehead from New York has put out over 30 releases in the past 4 years (mostly CDr’s in super limited runs), which include last year’s long-awaited and promising re-issue on vinyl entitled ‘Last American Hero’, also on OESB. Having spent some time in LA, Ferraro recently relocated back to New York to work on his new record. Happy to admit that he still enjoys being young at heart, ‘Night Dolls’ is Ferraro’s delivery of his intense desire to weave the extravagant past into the futuristic present, creating woozily vibrant sounds that fabricate his ‘teenboy fantasy’ and his dreamy pop construction. Despite the consistent guitar cords (whether played rapidly or in delay) that perhaps run through most of his work, there clearly is an evolutionary progression from his previous soothingly slow and hypnotic keyboard tones to the mutated, brisk sound. His ever-so-empirical music orientation can be detected by simply skimming through those provoking song titles (like opening track Dollhouse Frotteur and Leather High School), in which showcase his exaggerated yet genuine statement of life as an intriguing form of art. Although reluctant to remark on whether he sees himself as a part of the ‘hypnagogic pop’ circle, when unfolding his fancy-guised and hazy album what strikes the listener is the carefree sexiness, whimsical wanderlust (to Mars and Japan), and unrestrained adolescent fairyland.
Before the gig, I caught up with James while his band soundchecked. He explained the concept behind his latest installation, and revealed his ultimate fantasy of being a teenager on another planet. Apart from his releases and music production skills, we also talked about pop art, literature, Mars, valley girls, Italian soap operas, Japan, and other larger-than-life matters.
How are you? How’s London treating you so far?
Yeah, good, amazing, London is the city of dream, I love it. I’ve been in London a lot actually. It’s a beautiful city.
You are a very mysterious guy, could you tell me more about yourself?
At the moment I live in New York. I’m from there. [At this time the barmaid arrived with cases of beers.] Oh, the party has arrived! Haha, but yeah, I was living in LA for a little bit. I’m back in New York now, just recording a new record.
How’s the music scene in New York and LA?
The music scene is amazing. There’re tonnes of really good underground bands, as in the bands that I know about, doing really exciting things. It seems to be all right though.
So, let’s talk about your latest release, ‘Night Dolls With Hairspray’, it seems to me that it has a scene of nostalgia running through the whole album in terms of the artwork, the tracks, and even the lyrics. It gives me a feeling of high school, maybe even childhood, and brings me back to that period of time. Is that what you’re trying to do?
The concept of the album kind of varies, you know. If you hear it at the gig I’m sure you will pick that up. But the main point is that high school is sexy. And that’s pretty much what I want to give across with the record. The artwork was just things that I created on the computer and that stuff just kind of came from my head. There is definitely some inspiration from various artists from the past, and even now, like contemporary artists as well. The nostalgia … To me, the record is not very nostalgic because I thought it exists, really, in that way, though I can see why it can come up as nostalgic. I’m happy with that, that’s fine. It’s a valid impression to have about it.
Would you say it’s partly a recollection of your adolescence?
It’s the impression of the teenager that’s in me right now, more than the teenager that I was when I was an actual teenager. But I was reading this book called “Teenager On Mars”, basically, the author was talking about different years on different planets and stuff, and how someone of my age is actually a teenager on Mars, so I kind of felt like I should exist that way, like I exist on Mars, without those childish fantasies on my record.
What’s the inspiration behind ‘Night Dolls’?
Inspiration? It’s just… life. And life is art in the age of stimulation, and obviously there is a bit of flamboyance I feel as the inspiration. But it’s mainly about life as art. It’s also a statement of the canon of the art, and the canon I feel like I belong to. ‘Night Dolls’ is one of the first expressions to that.
In your album you frequently sang in a high-pitched voice….
Do you mean castrato?
Yeah, castrato, do you like doing it?
Oh yeah, I love it. Castrato is one of my favourite types of vocal style. It’s silly and harmless and definitely nothing technical or anything like that, but it’s also there as a sort of style, you know, like the style of valley girls, which are voices that I really like. They’re voices which are very cool, and futuristic sounding, and I just want to add the album into the music, and also to over-exaggerate certain emotions that the lyrics convey.
Speaking of futuristic sounding, I read in an article that you don’t really use samples when making music, but your music does sound very sample-based…
It’s achieved by, in some way lots of hard work, and in some way, it’s very simple. It’s just a matter of what type of filters you want to put on a certain sound. I use samplers but I don’t sample from other people’s music or sounds, meaning I created every sound from scratch. To be completely honest, I was asked this question in New York in an interview, what I told them was I sort of realized a lot of the stuff that I was emulating was a record when it is completely and fully produced. So the post-production is something that I’ve been really inspired by and obsessed with. While I’m making my music I try to curate all of the [different parts] while I’m playing, you know. For instance, something that sounds like a sample from a record, that’s basically a guitar or super-sounds that I made going through a filter or some other type of effect that I’ve created, is a kind of fidelity. If those things were already in clear fidelity, then people won’t be as confused. But I use sampler machines to play on samples from other people’s music, and I do love sample-based music, I probably will sample in the future. Actually I have a project that is really sample-based, that should happen some time in the future.
Is it your new project?
No, it’s actually my new band, it’s called the Kamikaze and the Night Dolls, that’s taken from the record by the way. I love also the confusion that people have [when] listening as well. I don’t’ mean to build on it too much but I feel like maybe it would help people understand the music a bit. When you create certain things, you spend a lot of time developing certain textures and sounds, and if you want to get really specific, it’s hard to search around whatever sound is already out there. I think people will have a more specific idea of what sounds you wanna have on your record, especially at least with my current set-up, my musical equipment, and the best result I’ve got have been created from scratch.
I know you owned a label called New Age Tapes…
New Age Tapes is an old label. It’s hasn’t been operating and has been dead for the past four years. My new label is called Airhead Entertainment, which actually started this year.
What’s your musical direction on this label?
Pretty much just imagine the record now, like ‘Night Dolls’, and also everything I’ve been doing in the past, but in a more sort of accessible fidelity, I would say. And maybe a little more produced and more of a larger sound. There are things I’ve been doing, as in ideas and patterns, that now I’m actually trying to make those available and more listenable kind of way. I think I didn’t consider the listeners too much, and this is one thing that I’m thinking more about lately. I just feel the need to curate something more, because I spend so much time on the actual music. Certain things like the fidelity thing can create confusion. Also, a lot of stuff is washed out, people don’t really like them, it’s really embarrassing. There are also tonnes of bad online mp3 rips to my music, so people would hear those and judge the music based on an mp3 rip.
I’m aware that mp3 ripping does make music sound a bit crackly and slightly off, which is an effect a lot of lo-fi and DIY musicians try to achieve nowadays…
I don’t follow it so much really, I hear about it, I know there’s something called chillwave, drone, noise and stuff, but I don’t actually know the bands…
Oh ok, I’m just wondering if this kind of music has an influence on you at all.
No, not really, the bands that I know are [what people call] chillwavers, and for others, I haven’t heard of those bands, it’s not really an influence on me, I don’t find myself attracted to it so often. But I try not to dismiss it, it’s just I don’t know that much about it. But I know this kind of hypnagogic pop, in fact, there’s an article that I was featured in, and that kind of goes with that [synth music], although I don’t necessarily quite know if I belong to it [hypnagogic pop] completely. Regardless, I’m still pleased to see it exist within the interpretation people want it to be, so I don’t really have a problem with it. It’s like language in the end really, it’s how people try to understand things collectively, so if it happens to exist within that world, that’s fine, if it’s does not, that’s ok with me as well. But I prefer it if it wasn’t, I mean, you know, what am I gonna do about it… there’s nothing I can do about it.
What kind of music are you digging into these days?
I listen to a lot of different stuff. Billy Brown, he’s one of my favourite artists. Glam rock, cyber rock, techno; and pretty much the digital futurist camp from Berlin. I like that stuff a lot. Basically it’s just anything that is cutting-edge and new sounding. Also, the new music which started in LA called ‘speed’ is one of my new favourite kind of music. It’s fast paced, techno-based, kind of like rock music too. It’s actually more about rock n’ roll and more about glam rock, I’m really into that stuff.
Interesting you said that, because I feel like in ‘Night Dolls’, there is some kind of glam rock sound and influence when compared to your other releases.
I would say that, yea, certain things on the record are definitely more poppy. But I would say pop in a pop art of way, because I consider myself a pop artist in some ways. I think the music [in ‘Night Dolls’] defines me more with the aesthetics of pop than the previous records, but I’ve thought about whatever my music is, I’ve always thought about it the same way. One record is more pop music on Earth, while the other one is pop music on the other planet. I’ve thought about it the whole time, I just thought about it being like poppy, big, and larger-than-life in lots of different respects. It is fair to say that, definitely.
You’ve got a certain cinematic vision, some of the videos you’ll be screening later tonight have been screened at the Rome Film Festival…
Yeah, I’m screening a couple of music videos after my show tonight.
Tell me more about your videos?
Firstly, it started when I was on vacation in Las Vegas. While I was there, I kind of got struck with the bug of trading deeper of fiction. Basically, I first wanted to write a novel, but then I wanted to have a more age-appropriate medium for people to look at or be entertained, so I got into videos. That was pretty much the inspiration I had when making videos, and they’re mainly music videos, I don’t really make actual films. We’ll show a few music videos that I made tonight.
Oh, right, I had the idea that they were short films.
It’s kind of. It’s a collection of 10-minute long videos. I soundtracked it.
Are there any visuals artists, film producers, directors, or even photographers that might have influenced your album, or you personally?
A specific artist?
Not necessarily, maybe a type of movie or certain kind of visuals.
I’m really inspired by S. Bujard, who is an author and a philosopher. He has definitely had a head, inspiration-wise. I seem to draw a lot of influence from poetry from the past, like literal romantic poetry and William Blake, and a lot of other writers. I know it’s hard to associate that but those have been inspirations for a lot of things that I’ve done. Aesthetic-wise, I‘d say I can’t really single out one specific person or artist because I’m influenced from it as a whole amalgamation of them. It blends into one media entity through, for example, television, and through everything like hearing sounds of people’s iphones and ringtones. It’s just like the sound of life happening in a hyper-real existence. That’s coming from different sources but it’s like, in a way, kind of one artist, and that’s really interesting to me, aesthetic-wise. It’s definitely something I’ve been trying to tap into.
You mentioned pop art as well, does that have anything to do with your music?
Definitely, [pop art] has a lot to do with it. On some records more than the others, but in general, there’s a presence of that, whether it’s Lichtenstein or Warhol. Those people have a definite effort in a lot of ways in their decision to represent the world. But also, I feel like it’s through the filter of ‘now’ that we are looking at things, everything is in a way pop art, but pop-art is sort of synonymous with, in my opinion, a surreal artificialness which exists around us all the time. Well, not all the time, there’s loads of escape to it, but that’s pretty much it.
Have you seen any good movies lately?
I haven’t been to the movies in a long time. I haven’t seen any movies that I would care about. Maybe TV drama, one of the coolest things that I’ve seen recently is an Italian soap opera. I was in Italy performing at a festival back in March, [it’s] a multi-media festival. It was a pretty beautiful and amazing experience.
Do you speak Italian?
No, but I kind of liked it because I projected my fiction onto what was happening. It’s really emotive and dramatic. It was almost like a psychological therapy but in a really weird kind of way. You can project your own fiction or fantasy, it’s really cool, I really like it. Actually, also another thing, I was watching some movie that they have overdubbed actors, you know, those voice-over actors. I was kind of interested in that as an idea of maybe one day meeting the famous voice actors of Italy. Sometimes they use one person for, like, for example, Robert de Niro, I am just curious if those guys were famous in Italy. That’s kind of a weird experience.
When’s your next gig?
I wanna go to Tokyo, that’s my big dream right now. There’s nothing planned but I’m trying to make that happen, slowly. Actually I’ve got to fly back to the US and hopefully I’m not there longer than a couple of days, and then maybe I’ll go to Tokyo, if it’s possible.
It’s funny you said that, because when I listened to your album, I thought I was in a Japanese video game arcade, you know, like those kind of gaming centre where Japanese teenagers go…
That’s a really nice thing for you to say, for sure. I’ve never been to Tokyo but I imagine it through movies or music and stuff, but it definitely has been a dreamland in my mind, by just seeing visuals of it and stuff. I’ve never been there so I wouldn’t really know, but I’ve often thought about it in some ways.
I’m sure you would like the city, definitely.
Really? Ok, cool, I have to make it happen then!