Interview: James Ferraro
The web's weirdest cult hero on cyborgs, hyperconnectivity and Lana Del Rey... naturally
Words Steph Kretowicz
Imagine James Ferraro is well overdue for his interview. He is four hours late, in fact, but you decide to wait. When he arrives, he speaks in non-sequiturs, looping on and off subject like a heavily hyper-linked news piece, but you follow. His conversation is peppered with the ‘likes’, ‘you knows’ and other valley-girl incisions that have become staple speak for US slackers and bohemians, but you get it.
Meanwhile the pub you’ve been waiting in has gradually filled up with rowdy London football fans, but you ignore it. That’s because the Bronx-born autodidact — who didn’t go to college but spent his youth living between New York and LA, Leeds and Antwerp — is one of the most exciting young acts around, and just as interesting to talk to. And if he isn’t an image of the online incarnate, then his thought processes and verbal skills, not to mention his creative output, is getting pretty close to it.
“I think a lot artists and authors have commented on this weird terminator cyborg human,” says Ferraro, referring to science fiction works like JG Ballard’s Crash, which explored biology and technology as convergent forces affecting every aspect of human life in 1973, while Isaac Asimov’s 1976 novel The Bicentennial Man which delved into early cybernetic theory. “It’s like a replacement of knowledge with stuff like spell-checking; weird correction technology. That’s like the cyborg that they were predicting. I remember my grandmother being really weirded out with kids using a calculator, but for me it’s just more efficient.”
Ferraro is extrapolating on the idea that as little as 30 years ago, people would have had no idea what to make of his new record, Far Side Virtual. An album that is not only inspired by an invention that barely existed yet — the mobile phone — but the smartphone ringtones that back then would have been unimaginable.
“We’re still human, but I think if they interpreted Far Side Virtual, maybe they’d be like, ‘It’s really strange that an artist would want to make a record like this. Why doesn’t someone want something raw-er, more punk-y or human? Why would they want to just copy the sounds that come out of their cell phone?’”
Indeed, it’s even harder to imagine what such primitive humans would make of Ferraro’s other project, Bebetune$ (more recently known as #Bodyguard), or his Twitter feed at Jferraro_zip, with its cryptic track announcements along the lines of, “Blowin out dry ice smoke $$$BODYGUARD – SILICA GEL FEB 23RD — *BLU SMOKE RINGS *INHALE DRY ICE *E-CIG *TERMINATOR”.
Even Ferraro’s performance, at a gig taking place a few short hours after our interview, is so very ‘now’. A one-off show in London before taking off for Berlin’s CTM Festival the next day, the set sees Ferraro drop some bowel-moving bass lines that sound nothing like the flat-screen ringtone compositions of FSV. He doesn’t say a single word throughout, staring intently at his keyboard while a disruptive whackjob front-of-stage yells to the point of making things awkward. Finally, the afro-ed artiste pipes up with a “Thank you. That’s it.”
Yet Far Side Virtual, an album that features song titles like ‘Palm Trees, Wi-Fi And Dream Sushi’ and ‘Starbucks, Dr. Seussism, And While Your Mac Is Sleeping’ still offers some food for the soul some fear is all but lost amid the dehumanising noise of the digital era.
“There was the Dark Ages, there was the Inquisition, segregation, but the human spirit still rose out of it. This is going to sound really romantic but that’s why I embrace the now, because you have to look deeper.”
And look deep Ferraro does, as his overactive mind compares ‘transmedia’ practitioners like US video artist Ryan Trecartin to Adele, while exploring the philosophical implications of that infamous Lana Del Rey performance on Saturday Night Live.
“I feel like we should own up to the fact that this is a high point in our civilisation right now,” he says. “And I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense. It could be the way people have been marketing it, but the way I see it is that this is an amateurish singer who mirrors divas of the past, is somehow successful on YouTube and ends up on SNL because of the way the internet and older industry is coming together. So of course there are going to be things like that, where you get this unprepared diva who is failing on air.”
As a piece that’s as much high concept artwork as it is an album in the traditional sense, Far Side Virtual is very much a product of its time. Rather than shy away from the impact of technology on our lives, it seizes on the complexities of contemporary culture to make something that’s entirely unique but scarily familiar, with very little of the self-conscious cynicism you might expect.
“The nihilism that I wanted [the album] to have, I didn’t want it to be too heavy handed,” he says. “I feel like it was implied. To make the record more effective, it’s best to stay away from certain ideas because I don’t want to direct the listener in a specific way. I could add certain things to it to make it this nihilistic ‘end of culture’ record but at the same time, I don’t think I really believe that.”