It’s three minutes past midnight when I join the queue outside Boney. I’d walked the length of a mostly deserted Little Collins Street, looking for the oft-mentioned venue that I’d yet to ever attend. Upon growing near, the attire of those lining up – muted tones, dense patterns, shabby undercuts and gently weird imagery bleeding from one windbreaker, jean, sneaker, boot and cap to the next – was more of a giveaway than any particular window sign or street number. I’ve never been to a JAMES FERRARO show before now, nor met a big sample of self-proclaimed fans, so perhaps it’s odd that I can recognize the crowd at a glance. But – for better or worse – Ferraro represents more than just himself and his music; he’s a shadowy figurehead of the weirdo electronic realm, of prolific and unpredictable production, of uncanny and often jarring aesthetic approaches. Ferraro’s reputation sits at that weird crossroads of dance party and conceptual art, and the gang lining up look like the sorts of folks who’d hang out at that intersection, leaning against the traffic lights, smoking rollies and drinking can beer. Which is nothing against them. Sounds like a great place to hang, and I’d be there too except I don’t smoke and if I’m honest I’m really not cool enough. But I’m here now, and when I get to the front of the line there are still door tickets, and the guy lets me in, so that’s good enough for me.
Boney is small and bears the signs of something that’s been repurposed: decaying alcoves with stacked furniture, the faux-cavern rock surface of the right-hand wall; these don’t really feel like first-hand decorating decisions. It’s nice this way; the place feels uncontrived, pre-loved and welcoming. Up on the stage is a man with a [UK dance label] Night Slugs t-shirt, nodding intently and letting loose a steady stream of deep and heavy jams, navigating the innumerable dark corners of club music: from warped trap to throbbing post-dubstep and thick molasses house. This man goes by ASPARTAME and certainly isn’t holding back on complex, hefty, rhythmic tracks, though some of these tempos and sounds feel much more suited to thinking and feeling than moving. By contrast, AIR MAX ’97 (who appears with TOY shaved into his head and “ecstacy” inscribed on his t-shirt in black metal scrawl) seems dead set on getting the throng popping, and tailors his selection accordingly. As the smoke machine fills the room with a pale haze, we’re awash in the allure of euro techno, ‘90s R&B remixes… Girl Unit’s “Temple Keys,” Nicki Minaj’s “Boss Ass Bitch”; endless permutations of 4/4 kinetic injection. The two DJs alternate with sets of around 20 minutes at a time, ensuring that their respective vibes are regularly counterbalanced. It’s unclear whether they’re getting us “psyched up” for a pumping set from Mr. Ferraro, or trying to wear us out so that we’re not restless during his more abstract experimental meanderings. In any case, the room is moving hard; the blonde girl in the blue dress is all vibrating appendages and blurry hair, moving to the semiquaver, relentless; the nonchalant dude in the green jacket bursts into a ferocious expression session replete with genuine hip hop learnedness and receives a round of applause from those nearby. Plus, Air Max ’97 and Aspartame dance front and centre to each other’s sets, which is nothing if not heartwarming.
JAMES FERRARO slinks on stage and is there before you notice him. Once you do, you see his distinctive head of dark curls, his 70’s-style satiny green skivvy, his blank, focused expression. The set begins with a swirling collage of sounds that could more or less only emerge from Ferraro: news report babble, police radio, fretless bass ghosts, leisurely breathy vocals, the metallic shhhhhhink of a blade sliding from its sheath. Atop it all floats a sly xylophone melody, the sort of sound that straddles the surprisingly thin line between innocently pretty and penetratingly sinister; a line that Ferraro has made a fine art out of walking.
This effectively beatless patchwork soon meets an aggressive modern hip hop pattern, woody kicks, thin speedy hats and pokey snares – and within moments, the whole array has faded out to reveal only a rap a capella from Capone N Noreaga’s “Blood Money…”
The capitalist robot mantra bleeds into a tinny, undulating house groove haunted by pitched-up vocal samples, glass-smashing noises and other less decipherable foley sounds.
Soon enough, we’re in an airport – the rush of too-clean, too-quiet air through the ears, disembodied voices ringing out through grey-carpeted chambers; and then it’s the casio-synth choir, flattened and hollowed out imaginations of human voices, played by Ferraro on his controller keyboard. These sounds linger in the air like grim symbols, oblique sonic monuments to modern-day alienation and post-internet alienation. But, perhaps counterintuitively, a complex and sanguine beat will soon entwine itself around the soundscape and turn everything into a life-affirming party. The bodies in Boney shudder again into gear, the troubled and self-destructive mind forgets itself. It is as Ferraro is showing us both the disease and the cure on either side of one big, intricately carved coin.
This pattern doesn’t let up, but rather, grows more pronounced – the grooves are bigger, deepy, more danceable; the ambient interludes, the found sounds, the noise explorations, they too are more reckless and intense. Everything culminates in an irresistible house explosion with an unpredictable but deeply satisfying kick patter, buoyed by a palindromic melody. The set lasts for 50 minutes, but its immediacy is such that it feels like no time has passed. As James Ferraro lowers his head and disappears from the stage, I feel like I could enjoy another 50 minutes of the same without a moment’s regret.
The live setting might not be the best one in which to analyze Ferraro’s composition and aesthetic; tonight, everything seems sensorial – there are no words or loaded images to colour what we hear, what we feel vibrating through the room. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of allusion and simulacra in Ferraro’s sonics, and – like his contemporaries Actress and (especially) Oneohtrix Point Never – he builds a world that relies heavily on ingrained associations to create an almost nightmarish, surrealist audio language. There’s the awkward clatter and ooze of cheap ‘80s and ‘90s technology, the cloying uneasiness of half-remembered lobby sounds and advertising music. There are the recontextualized tropes of hip hop and dance music, among others, signalling a powerful mode of sampling that takes the power of the source material and channels it somewhere very different, somewhere darker and – like our own brains – frequently cryptic. Even though we’re dancing, it might just be this compelling and terrifying mirror of our own tangled, culture-soaked psyches that makes Ferraro’s set so damned gripping.
It’s late – which is the perfect time to experience James Ferraro. As he’s said of his recent album NYC, HELL 3:00 AM, the music is informed by, and best understood at, those strange and isolated hours of darkenss before dawn, where the world as we tend to know it is nowhere to be found. I walk out into that strange urban purgatory; not New York by a long shot, but nevertheless an almost-sleeping metropolis teeming with hidden secrets. I find a still-lit bar, sip wine and wait for the sunrise. I jump on the first tram, my body still humming, my eyelids sinking, as the first light warms my face.