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).