James Ferraro On His New Album, An Imaginary Film About The War Zone of LA Life
With Skid Row on shelves now, we caught up with Ferraro to talk PTSD, Boyz N the Hood and Wagenerian opera.
"When I first came to LA, I didn't have a car," sighs James Ferraro down the phone line from his apartment in New York. I picture him shaking his head ruefully at the folly of such a rookie error. "It offers a pretty weird take on it all."
There are few words that James Ferraro says more often than "weird." The way people react to car crashes is "weird". The relationship between music and the economy is "weird". Ferraro's own back catalogue is "weird". But most of all, Los Angeles is "weird." Especially when experienced on foot. "The sidewalks are just [populated by] homeless people," he tells me, "and the buses, the infrastructure — everyone else is in cars. It's weird because you walk around and just get a taste of this weird subterranean existence. It's crazy."
Skid Row, Ferraro's new album on Break World Records, is itself a pretty weird listening experience. A jolting, fitful mashup of FM synths, sampled news reports, and trash rock riffs, it feels like sitting in the backseat of a taxi while the driver compulsively twitches the radio dial in some apocalyptic alternative 90s where the LA Riots never ended. Beyond the windscreen, a Toyoto Prius burns and sirens blare, while inside New Jack slow jams rub up against John Carpenter drones and a general air of pre-millennial dread.
The 1992 LA riots, triggered by the acquittal of four policemen filmed beating Sacramento-born taxi driver Rodney King, loom large in the background noise of Skid Row, in the voices of TV anchormen referring to "a third day of tension and violence" and elegiac instrumentals called "1992". But as Ferraro admits to me, he was only three or four year old at the time. The references, he says, are meant as "allegories."
"I really wanted to capture LA's current history," he says, "and set the atmosphere for where the songs are coming from. So there's this bleed through of history, with OJ Simpson's trial and the Riots and all sorts of other things and they're all conflated together in this tapestry of information."
As a child, growing up in the early 90s, Ferraro would pingpong back and forth between his mum's place in New York and his dad's in LA. He would watch different trends start in one city and then gradually travel across the country to the other, sometimes two or three years later. "It was like the internet," he says, "before the internet had really evolved." In 2013 ago he released NYC Hell 3:00 AM. Now, two years later, comes its west coast counterpart, Skid Row, a twisted tribute to the other major city of his youth.
But Skid Row almost wasn't an album at all. It started life, in fact, as a set of poems called Terminator, named after the 1984 James Cameron film about a time-travelling cyborg coming to Los Angeles to kill the mother of a future resistance leader. "[With] A lot of my albums when I start conceptualising them, I picture them being stage plays or operas or films," he says.
Heavily inspired by the aesthetic of classic LA films like Dennis Hopper's Colors and John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, even as he turned those initial poems into song lyrics, Ferraro continued to approach Skid Row "as if it was a movie. I kind of see it as if, you know when you go to a movie house, there's Colors and Boyz n the Hood, and then there's Skid Row, this weird b-movie from the time that nobody really saw."
The initial inspiration for the record came from a strange experience in virtual reality. Bravemind' is a piece of immersive software used to combat post-traumatic stress in war veterans. Ferraro got to try the therapy system in the middle of tour while stopping off to visit a friend at the University of Southern California. "There's a guided therapist and they walk you through different scenarios that you would face in combat," Ferraro explains. "And you basically relive certain traumatic events in a weird virtual space."
Reliving such experiences in the 'safe space' of virtual reality is supposed, the developers claim, "to help unlock difficult emotional memories." But for Ferraro, having never lived through such experiences in the first place, "it was lifeless and really void."
Immediately after trying out the Bravemind software, Ferraro recorded and quickly released a three-track EP called War, but he says the experience coloured the whole writing process of Skid Row which also began at that time. Wandering around LA as he wrote the lyrics for the record, the streets began to feel "like a war zone. It's a psychic battlefield," he says. "Because you have different pockets of LA coming together and pushing together. It's really like, if you look at a simulation of war, like Sim City: War Edition or something."
Ferraro reached widespread acclaim in 2011 when his album Far Side Virtual was named album of the year by The Wire magazine. But the Bronx-born producer's discography lists some 40 albums and many more mixes and collaborations dating back as far as 2004. "I don't really consider myself as having 40 albums," he tells me. "My discography has become really slated with stuff that I made, literally, when I was, like, 15, of one edition. I don't really consider that an album, but there's definitely lots of artefacts out there."
Still, it's notable that after all this time, Skid Row can still lay claim to be Ferraro's first "studio" album. "This was really the first opportunity I've had, working with this label, to have resources allocated specifically for being in a studio," he says. "It's cool to be in an actual space that is just dedicated to you crafting this work. You really hone in on certain things and spend more time being focused."
A significant difference in the production process, following on from that, was the separation into different stages of what had previously always been a continuous back and forth. "Like, this is the recording, and then the mixing. Which is a different approach for me. I tend to do it all at once."
Alongside his music, Ferraro has also dabbled in the art world. Far Side Virtual, initially intended as a set of downloadable ringtones, finally became just that thanks to an online installation from New York's MoMA PS1. He recently produced another suite of ringtones —and a permanent sound installation for the elevators— at Tokyo's Museum of Contemporary Art.
He tells me he enjoys the "freedom" found in the art world, "to not be so tied to an enjoyable musicality. In a gallery or a museum," he says, "people expect to be a little more challenged." But he insists that whether he's building an installation or recording an album, the process is much the same. "It's really just about the concepts," he says, "and then instead of working it out through music, I'd just make it an actual visual object."
As we speak, he is beginning to embark on what may prove to be his most ambitious project yet. "I am working on an opera at the moment," he tells me, matter of factly. "I want it to be pretty big and impressive, like a Wagner opera or something like that. I want it to be a larger thing than I've done before." He's already at work on the story for this prospective gesamtkunstwerk and in talks with undisclosed institutions about the possibility of producing it. "If things go well, then [it should be ready] next year," he says. "But if they don't, then probably whatever album that comes out will be what I'm writing now. It just didn't reach the status of being an opera and turned into an album."
Skid Row is out now on Break World Records