Q&A: James Ferraro On NYC’s Hidden Darkness, Musical Sincerity, And Being Called “The God Of Vaporwave”
Originally one of the key voices in the psychedelic memory-mining music known as hypnogogic pop (whose less experimental cousin, chillwave, actually did grow into real pop), James Ferraro had his breakthrough in 2011. His album that year, Far Side Virtual, was one of the last times I remember hearing an album that sounded like nothing before it. Well that’s not quite right because FSV sounds like many things, it’s just they’re things you never really think of as music: cellular ringtones, elevator Muzak, the menu theme on your Nintendo Wii, or any number of commercial jingles. The best way to describe it is one that Ferraro has often offered – it sounds like “frozen yogurt.” It was an album so plastic, empty, so fucking pleasant to the point of nihilism that it became profound – almost spiritual in it’s vapidity. But it made an impact, and a big one. A few months later Ferraro was awarded album of the year by The Wire magazine, still the towering authority on experimental music (they even had to issue an explanation to their voting process after objections, to give you an idea of how contentious the record was). But acclaim means nothing, especially when you look at what happened after. The record (along with Chuck Person aka Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never’s Eccojams Vol. 1) became a sort of catalyst for a new community of young artists in what became known as the vaporwave scene.
While that record could have become something of an albatross for Ferraro, FSV is, instead, something of an anomaly in his work, with each release sounding different than the last. It is something that, despite claims of insincerity or ironic mockery in his music, has made him grow into a deeply honest musician. His newest album is called NYC, HELL 3:00 AM and it is one of the darkest records I’ve heard this year. Built around anxious auto-tuned freestyles, distorted drums, murky synths and found-sounds of rats, trains – and most disturbing of all – news coverage of the 9/11 attacks, it is a deeply personal album for Ferraro who grew up in Queens and one that could change the minds of people who think of Ferraro as a jokester. I met up with Ferraro a few weeks ago in a park in lower Manhattan where he enthusiastically dissected his new record, expressed his own thoughts on vaporwave, and talked about the darkness of New York that inspired him.
STEREOGUM:Some of your work has these really focused concepts and NYC HELL definitely sounds like one of those records. Did you go into this recording with a certain idea in mind or did it reveal itself to you?
FERRARO:For this record in particular it definitely built. It was really blind. Honestly, I just had the ritual of recording after midnight and all the stuff that I recorded during that period started to build into the album. There’s definitely a concept there, but it was just inherent within these recordings that I was making. But it was pretty blind. At the end, it sort of revealed itself to me without me setting out and doing it. There’s a midpoint where you realize what’s taking shape and then you direct it.
STEREOGUM:Do the mixtapes you make like Cold sort of inform or influence the albums?
FERRARO:I think mixtapes, in a way, are times to process shit. A lot of times it’s experimental, it’s exercise, and I’m definitely more loose with the mixtapes. As far as Cold, it’s almost a prelude to whatever the album is going to be. I think, naturally, it’s definitely foreshadowing what I do. When I made Cold, I wasn’t necessarily like, “Okay Cold is the beginning of whatever phase was next,” like NYC Hell, but looking back I can see there’s definitely a connection. Cold was actually me focused on making music in a specific way and NYC was more the private side, the personal recording side. There’s yourself as an artist and whatever you project into the world — NYC Hell was developing on the side. It’s like the personal versus your public image.
STEREOGUM:That makes me think of this interview with you, with The Drone, right after Bebetune$ was released and you talked about how that after such major concept albums this was sort of an introduction to you simply making music.
FERRARO:Yeah, I think I kind of pinned myself in a conceptual corner where the people that followed my records were expecting something different. I was just trying to tell people that b£b£ Tune$ was just kind of a listening experience — whatever commentary is in that is something that is beyond me and is just the narrative of society. I was just having fun recording.
STEREOGUM:In that same interview, you said you had this feeling that people would thing your music is meant to be ironic or sarcastic. I never heard it like that, but that did become one of the reactions. Did that bother you?
FERRARO:I think having time to process that… I look at it now like the world has its own narrative about your work. But I feel like it was more that critics had some idea that I was joking around. And there are no jokes in what I do. The most serious thing for me is creating and doing my music. It’s a little annoying but, at the end of the day, that is just that person’s context — I can’t really help how this person is going to experience it. If we come from different places and, if that’s how their peer group needs to interact with my music to understand it, that’s on them. Like maybe you don’t take yourself that seriously or maybe you can’t process something like this without joking around. I feel like it mirrors the person rather than what my artwork is. The whole thing with irony is that I don’t know if anyone is really doing that when it comes down to it — maybe people are afraid to embrace certain things so they it hide behind the joke but I see that more than I see people just wasting time and joking around and shit. There’s definitely humor. Like Far Side Virtual had lots of humor in it, but a lot of my favorite pieces of literature and film they’re tragedies but there’s definitely humor within that. I always think about Dante’s Inferno — I mean, it’s a Divine Comedy and that’s one of the darkest things — but it’s supposed to be a comedy in a sense. I think our idea of humor and comedy is changed because of the way we see genres and stuff. Like we think, “Oh this is funny, it’s not…” there’s a whole spectrum of experience.
STEREOGUM:Well, the way the new record sounds it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to think of it as funny or ironic. It’s so dark. Do you think this will change people from saying that kind of stuff?
FERRARO:Maybe. I’ve kind of moved on from worrying about that, but I hope people drop that so they can get more into the music. I hope they lose that guard. That would be interesting to see what that would do. For instance, some publications they kind of introduced me as some prankster. I don’t really mind that, but it would be interesting to see that drop a little bit because it’s never seemed to be focused on the music. That superficial stuff is cool too, though, because that’s the narrative and that forms people’s impressions. I really don’t mind it. This record is really dark so I feel like it might trip people out, the tone is really… it’s cool that it’s coming out in the fall.
STEREOGUM:Yeah, when I got my promo it was still really hot out and I thought that this would be so great in October, which is when it comes out…
FERRARO:Yeah yeah yeah! It’s funny — I thought that too. I wanted it to come out in the fall because that’s when it was written and conceived. But obviously the campaign begins in the summer but it was cool because I actually got a new perspective on the record when it was in the summer when I was finishing up and mixing. I was just like, “Damn…this is super dark” because of the heat and working all hours of the night and we kind of injected a new energy into it.
STEREOGUM:One of the things I love about the new album is that it’s so much like a snapshot or a field recording – it’s so specific. I haven’t listened to it during the day once — it’s always when I’m walking back from somewhere around two or three in the morning.
FERRARO:Yeah, that’s the time I feel it really comes alive.
STEREOGUM:Was that sort of snapshot something you were going for?
FERRARO:Definitely. It was always recorded at a certain hour. That’s where the 3:00 AM comes in because 3:00 AM is always a very dark hour, especially in New York. It’s weird — the hedonism kind of spills out into the streets. I definitely wanted it to be a snapshot. The way I was thinking about it towards the end was that I got this feeling I was in this Frank Sinatra mode a little bit. He was singing about the glory days of New York City — I’m singing about the beat-up, decayed contemporary New York. Kind of current day Frank Sinatra-type shit. I started to put together where “New York, New York” is mad glamorous, this New York is mad dark and decayed. But to be honest with you I really almost like fetishize seeing society change, I like to experience it. And there’s definitely some darkness that comes with change and I don’t think that’s limited to New York, but the city is such an exaggerated version of that. I’m definitely in tune with that — it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s dark and it’s cool and it’s amazing. But I’ve definitely seem some shit change. Like this area, when I grew up, I didn’t really come down here. As a kid, I didn’t even go to Brooklyn because it had a reputation of being super violent, so I didn’t even fuck with it. For me, the violence and crime that used to exist is definitely still here but it’s more hidden. People don’t know that in something like Chinatown, there’s crack spots and dumpling houses around here, you can get heroin. I think there’s a part of the world that’s oblivious to that and just go to Whole Foods and hop on the train, go to work. I don’t know if you heard about this, there’s actually a super cheap hotel around here that just got busted, they literally put people in cages. Have you heard about that?
STEREOGUM:No.[NOTE: Ferraro is indeed correct, a little research found a nightmarish article on The Sun Bright Hotel.]
FERRARO:Yeah it’s around here, on Canal. It’s like 20 bucks, and it’s like a dumpster. You know how you go to a dog pound, like in kennels. It’s like that with TVs and roaches everywhere. And shit like that is popping up everywhere around here.
STEREOGUM:A lot of people now call Far Side Virtual this sort of catalyst for and influence on the artists in the vaporwave scene . It reminds me of what you said about being received, because when these artists do get covered, it’s just people saying that it’s a joke or it’s irony or satire, when it has a real sincerity and thoughtfulness to it.
FERRARO:I definitely appreciate that because when I was making that record… I literally lost friends. People asked me, “What are you doing?” I’m just like, “Damn, man, how can you not see…?” People focused on “Oh the fidelity is changing.” Yeah, but for me [Far Side Virtual] was the darkest record I’ve ever made in my life and people don’t really see it like that. I love that people take away that plastic eco-pop, that frozen yogurt brain-dead vibe, but people think it’s a joke but for me… I’m really shocked because I don’t understand. How is that a joke? And with vaporwave and what kids are doing post that record, I appreciate that because…it was really difficult losing friends, having to go through this period where you’re making something new that no one is doing and you have to face the social stigmas and get into weird taboo territory and now post that record it’s kind of easy to fall back on like, “Cool, this is vaporwave.” Now it’s a genre, I guess, but I appreciate people that were inspired enough to create their own thing from it. It’s cool — and I think a lot of those kids are pretty young, you know? I always knew that record would speak more to the younger generation than it would to music writers because writers are usually older. I think the older writers can see the historical significance, but the younger people just know what it is. They just understand.
STEREOGUM:They are. A while back one of those artists who used to go by the name Internet Club, but now goes by Wakesleep, put a song up on Youtube that left me speechless. And I messaged him asking him if he was going to do keep doing music like that and his response was something like, “Yeah, I want to do more stuff like this when I go to college.” They’re so young, but I think it’s incredible.
FERRARO:Yeah me too! And I think people should embrace them because the idea of working with Muzak and appropriated imagery, I feel like that is really important for where we are at with capitalism in society. How is that a joke? I get that maybe people who aren’t aware of these things are kind of turned off by that, but I don’t see jokes. I see smiles, and people laugh when they hear the music, but that’s a positive thing. I laugh when I see dark movies, there’s a humor in that, but I don’t hear jokes in the music. I appreciate that on a personal level because making Far Side Virtual, I lost so many contacts, but it’s cool to see people embracing it as a whole different thing now. You could take post-Far Side or even post that first wave of vaporwave…it’s morphing into it’s own thing. I’ll get e-mails from these kids who are like, “Yo, you’re the God of vaporwave” and … I mean, I kind of like that name [laughs] but I didn’t really know what they’re talking about. Then I found this article that was written by this British dude –
STEREOGUM:Is that the Adam Harper one?
FERRARO:Yeah. And I read that and I got an idea of what he was talking about it. I had a Far Side Virtual 2 and I recorded it and it was done but then I pulled the plug on it.
STEREOGUM:When was that supposed to come out?
FERRARO:Probably around the time of Sushi. Sushi was like an EP so we had a date planned for when Far Side 2 was going to come out but I just figured I would just let that coast into eternity. I had lots of new ideas I wanted to express, but Far Side Virtual was more about toxic waste and oil spills so a lot of 2 was focused on assembly lines of new cars. So it had this cool new car smell vibe. I didn’t put that out but I probably should. I think one day there will be a Far Side Virtual reissue and I’ll put it out with that.
STEREOGUM:Did you feel some pressure when Far Side Virtual had the impact that it did?
FERRARO:Dude to be honest with you — I was completely oblivious to it. I really wasn’t following it. I was doing interviews but I wasn’t following up on it and reading them. It still doesn’t feel real. I think the influence is there and the presence in culture is there but a part of me still feels like I’m just making shit and putting it out there. I guess I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that I’m having an impact on what’s going on culturally.
STEREOGUM:The lyrics on NYC, Hell are so direct and honest in so many parts, especially a song like “Cheekbones.” How did you go about writing the lyrics.
FERRARO:”Cheekbones,” specifically…. I really like to talk about the songs specifically and the titles because they really reveal a lot of what the songs are about. “Cheekbones” is that weird type of narcissism in sexual experiences where people mimic the symbols of sexuality instead of understanding them. So they mimic films or movies — young people have that vibe a little bit. So “Cheekbones” is about this fascination with emaciated faces and in a way a dark love song. A dark love poem about sexuality and the commodification of sexuality — the idea of a sex tape really influenced this record. The direction of the record that we originally started out with was the soundtrack to a sex tape. In the very early stages, it was an idea that I was playing around with before it transformed into something else. “Cheekbones” is definitely a remnant of that idea of sexuality and the failures of sexuality and the triumphs. The lyrics are there to paint the setting more and are connected to an observational thing, kind of whisking through my mind like a cityscape. A lot of it is free-styled but I had this 20-page poem I wrote a couple years ago after I went to this fashion party it was so dark and decadent and exclusive and then I walked home and wrote this poem in my phone. So a lot of the lyrics come from that. I’m taking parts from the poem and adding in new shit as I’m recording the lyrics.
STEREOGUM: “City Smells” has that really sudden moment where it cuts to a sample from the 9/11 news coverage it’s a really intense moment and I was wondering what drew you to using that in some ways.
FERRARO: Well, that’s part of the idea of the record. I was just collecting things that I felt and have seen through media and how that’s affected life on Earth. I pulled from that and it resonated with me. I got a lot of the material from a lot of old video research and news stuff — news feeds and old broadcasts from 9/11. That was an actual broadcast during the attacks and I restructured it into a sound collage type of thing. It’s weird…People don’t really talk about it — I mean, it’s in their brains but… It was weird. I was in LaGuardia last night and this weird thing exploded underneath the ground but it was a vacuum cleaner or something and a lot of these Wall Street dudes were in LaGuardia all these flights got cancelled. [Ferraro shows me photos from his phone, a man’s head obscured by his iPad, one anxiously on the phone, and most powerfully — a man in an expensive suit on the ground crying.] It’s like a physical memory now. Like I said, the song titles are a really cool way to talk about the record.
STEREOGUM:I would love to hear about some more of the song titles.
FERRARO:A lot of people don’t ask about the song titles and to me they’re really important. For instance, “Nushawn,” which is the last song. Nushawn Williams was this guy in New York in the ‘90s who started spreading the HIV virus, AIDS, on purpose to different women. He was having sex with women, purposely spreading AIDs. He’s locked up and in jail, but as a kid I remember being like, “Damn…that’s like a new type of serial killer.” That always resonated with me and went on as a memory of New York as a kid.
STEREOGUM:How about that trio of songs called “Stuck” on the record.
FERRARO:For me, the world is kind of in a giant traffic jam. Everything is jammed and I feel this immobility and claustrophobia of living here or being on the subway. It’s more of a mental stuck…I use those industrial sounds. I wasn’t trying to make it industrial, but it was a product of using the sound sources and field recordings. I feel like we’re in this giant traffic jam. Like you’ll be trapped on the train and try to escape into your phone but you get no bars and it’s just…stuck. There’s nowhere to go. You have to embrace that moment when you’re stuck with everybody. Everything’s congested — the economy, everything is oversaturated and there’s no mobility. That’s the mental space of thinking of something as global as New York or as global as the economy — sometimes it’s a weird checkmate logic. For sometime who is not an economist and trying to think about it, you get into this sort of congested rationality. Some people…like really sadistic businessmen can work in that mindset and thrive in it…
But to get back to the songs and the titles, they’re really important to the record. “Beautiful John K” is about this really famous Spanish supermodel and, to me, he’s this really amazing and beautiful symbol of narcissism and what the idea of beauty is these days — with digital, unrealistic features and shit like that. That record’s about narcissism and when it takes root and it’s something so much more powerful than actually relating to Botox or the superficial. It was also inspired by that scene in Vanilla Sky where Tom Cruise’s face is all mangled and he’s in the bathroom and I thought about him as being a supermodel that was facing this hideous fucked up thing about his face. You see people caught up in that — developing a whole language of their own. It’s even beyond what someone who doesn’t have plastic surgery can comprehend. It’s a way of communicating and once you’re getting that work done, you start to see yourself differently.
STEREOGUM:What’s the “eternal condition” for you? I know you mentioned that in the note that you wrote and it comes up in one of the songs, it’s an interesting phrase.
FERRARO:I think it’s just that traffic jam, that is an eternal condition. Purgatory, the idea of hell, and the idea of the inferno being an eternal place. Just seeing the world as a completely fixed thing…there’s no way of really breaking it. Even with the threat of global warming, you just can’t really break the system. It’s bigger than us. This being an eternal condition. That was kind of an over-arching theme felt throughout the record and what the record is supposed to be communicating.
STEREOGUM:What are your plans for the rest of the year? Are you going to be a lot of touring for it?
FERRARO:Yeah, I’m touring Europe in October and then I’ll do an American tour. After that…I actually have some gallery shows coming up that should be pretty cool which are early next year. The main thing is continually recording — I’ll keep some shit under wraps because it’s still happening, but definitely recording my next record, which I’m just beginning on now. For me, the artistic process is never over.
STEREOGUM:I heard a rumor that the Skaters may be doing something again?
FERRARO:Yeah, I mean we’re always doing things and we’ve recorded but we haven’t released anything. But the Skaters record will come out and it’ll be pretty deep and very different. We’re both really excited about that but we’ve been focusing on our own stuff right now. When that comes together, it’ll be tight. Taking everything I learned from NYC Hell and bringing that to the next thing I’ll be working on. I’m excited about the studio process and reaching a new level…I feel freer, actually. With this record, I was really honest with myself and it feels really good.
STEREOGUM:It must feel really cathartic.
FERRARO:It’s cool to just do you, you know? I think that’s what felt really good — to just make what I want to make and not think about any distractions. The first time is always the first time and the second time is always better and I’m excited to continue on in this direction.
NYC HELL 3:00 AM is out now 10/15 on Hippos In Tanks