Interview: Astronauts, etc. – Tape, Toro, Hypothetical Treats, and How Ten Minutes Turn into Twenty.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Anthony Ferraro, the once sole member of Berkeley CA’s Astronauts, etc. We talked about the direction of Astronauts not-so mystical but surely unnamed fall 2015 release and whether or not it would be in line with the R&B infused bedroom pop heard on previous cuts Supermelodic Pulp and Sadie. Anthony, a classically trained musician, turned potential negatives into positives as arthritis ignited his interest in popular music and reinvigorated his interest in practical computer programming. In this redirection, Ferraro provides a humble presence as the touring keyboardist with pop-funk-anythingers Toro y Moi and in the world of generative music. It was cool talking with Anthony about his upcoming project, working with Toro, and his latest creation – Hypothetical Beats. Check out the conversation below.

I wanted to talk about the upcoming release, you’ve premiered “I Know” and ” No Justice”, from what I assume to your untitled release for the fall. 

Right, It’s funny, we’ve been sort of holding off for some strategic reason announcing the actual release and I think we are probably going to announce it at the end of next month but we can allude to some collection of songs that will probably come out this year. People have just inferred (that there will be a release) by virtue of the fact that we’ve already released those two singles.

Between those two tracks, I noticed just from listening to Sadie and Supermelodic Pulp, they have a….I don’t want to say eclectic feel, but they range in production style, even the opening to “Sadie” with it’s trap style hi hats. So..as far as the new material goes, there is a distinct cohesiveness – which you may agree or disagree with

Yea, Yea. I would agree.

Although I will say they are different in presentation with “I Know” being more lighthearted and “No Justice” having a more serious tone. Does this feel and production foreshadow a more cohesive effort by you and your band, this go round?

Yea, overall I would say that those are probably indicative of the kind of world that whole collection of songs is going to be referencing – there is kind of a range of styles, over the course of all the tracks but they are all unified in the fact that we pretty much recorded everything live in the studio. Everything was recorded to tape, the old fashioned way.

Were as before, it was just you in a bedroom?

Definitely, it was just me in my bedroom or living room, for the first two EPs.

Maybe that’s why you and Chaz get a long…..haha

Haha, well yea! I mean I’ve definitely learned a lot from him, for sure. But yea I started making music in college then I started having to play live and I didn’t like doing it very much by myself so I had my fantastic friends who are great players. I just brought them in for the live show and it just kind of made since to have them on the record, too.

In a live since, was it just you and a laptop or did attempt any other instrumentation during your solo show(s)?

I only did one show by myself, which was the most abysmal experience of my life, haha. The first Astronauts show ever was at the Berkeley Art Museum, I tried to do it with just – what did I have? – I had my laptop playing my beats and then a couple of keyboards, a sampler. The memory I have of that night is just scrambling and trying to make sure I was playing everything and singing in the right notes.

Definitely nerve racking

Yea, it was terrible haha. And so it kind of traumatized me, so as soon as I got off stage I called my buddies up, whom ending up being in the band, and I was like, you guys have to play with me.

I had a similar story but I called my mom immediately after….

Haha…I almost did that, she’s definitely the next person I call – After playing together for like a year, year and a half, when it came time to put this next collection of song together I demoed everything out myself and arranged everything – then I brought them to the guys. From there, we all learned the songs together and then they put their own stamp on everything and then took it to the studio, where we recorded it live.

Collaboration, direct or indirect, is pretty inevitable when you add others to the mix – such as you involving outside people with your project and now you being involved with Toro y Moi. Has touring with Chaz and Co. influenced your writing approach and conversely do you feel that maybe you’ve influenced how Toro y Moi and Chaz function?

I would say it’s probably a one way river, right now. I get a lot more out of seeing how Chaz works, then the reverse of that – I think. I would say that joining Toro was a paradigm shift for me because I went to school for classical music. I was listening to stuff, you know? Indie stuff that I had been kind of getting into but my world was a classical one. And towards the end of college I met Chaz, when he moved out to California, and I started listening to a broader range of stuff and also stuff from decades past. So, when Supermelodic Pulp came out, the stuff I was listening to was coming out right then. I would say with Sadie I started reaching further back chronologically for reference material  and now with this new stuff I think that I’ve kind of reached back even further and I’m referencing stuff that I’m really into right now that was made in the 60’s and 70’s – when tape was the only medium available.

Ah, the pure and beautiful medium.

Yea, I love it. I love the ethic of it, I love the limitations, the sound of course. It was a totally different way of going about things. Even just listening to what Chaz listens to, he’ll sort of just off handedly mention one band or a certain keyboard player to listen to, and it kind of opened my mind a lot to other music that I hadn’t really been opened to before, for whatever reason.

I think, right now at least, there is a lot of sincere nods to older material but with modern influence. Although, nothing is really being reinvented right now. Which I really appreciate. 

It’s a lot of reference heavy, like, “lets kind of mine the depths of this sound, a little more” feel. Reaching for the tones they were getting in the 70’s or the drum machines they were using in the 80’s and let’s see what else we can do with them, which is cool. We live in a very remix heavy culture, whether it’s comic book movies or… there’s not a whole lot of original material maybe but we’re trying to figure out novel ways of kind of re-voicing things that we took one stab at, however long ago, to re-contextualize it.

I totally agree but you also dive into more modern musings. Recently, I read the Wired article that mentioned generative music auction but it didn’t go into much detail regarding your creation, Hypothetical Beats. Could you provide some insight to how it works, your motivation behind it, and the languages you used to create it – Max/MSP and Javascript? In this realm, people are usually left asking “What are you doing?” which is hard to answer due to the copy and paste nature of novice programming. 

That was kind of the best one (article) that laid things out pretty cleanly…for..

Generative music in general?

Well the auction itself. It was a good overview of what we were doing. It’s a complicated thing to talk about because it’s a very kind of… well there’s definitely something esoteric going on there, that it isn’t super accessible to everybody. I liked how that article kind of set the stage a little bit. As far as coding goes, that’s kind of like what coding is though – it’s definitely a lot of smash and grab, pull from here, pull from there and see what we can mash together. I approached that project as a complete novice in programming, I never had really done it before in earnest. Although, I was always a computer savvy kid and I kind of tried to get into the programming world in high school but I was more interested in music back then. I started off going to Berkley in hopes of being a computer science student but the music department just, kind of, lured me away. So, it was funny because I, kind of, always wanted to reconcile my interest in technology with my acoustic music and seeing how they could fit together. And that was, sort of, like a dormant desire of mine to pair the two. But then this opportunity came up when I met these super energized people, super interesting, really off the wall, subversive, like anarchistic, the most colorful people in the world – but the kind of people who just galvanize other people into doing something crazy. So I met these guys and the mentioned this auction and wondered if I would like to be involved but I had never really learned how to do that before.

So the auction was the motivation for Hypothetical Beats?

Yea! So I decided I might as well do something related to music. Then I set myself on this crash course and Toro was off for the year. So I just started doing online tutorials and eventually we (the programmers) spent a month in LA just hibernating, bouncing from house to house and honing in on our algorithms. I was able to look over their shoulders and ask them questions because they were all extremely talented at programming and could solve my problems quickly. It was just a really cool, energized environment. What I wanted to do with this algorithm was create something that would help me compose songs. I’m really interested in having harmony, like,  chord progressions generated for me – because usually when I sit down to write a song I usually come up with a chord progression then the melody, not always but typically the chord progression is ground zero. I designed the algorithm to just spit out really pretty harmonic chord progressions, that you can then decide to use or not to use. You can literally hit a button and it generates a new one and it creates a small motif of three or four repeating notes that it then kind of warps around and transforms across the keyboard, then it uses that transformation to build these larger textures. Ultimately, it starts in Javascript and then goes through Max/MSP to become midi date, which you can then feed into a keyboard or Ableton. The brain is Javascript, which is more functional, and Max/MSP is the interpreter. I mapped it to things that I thought would sound, kind of, accessible to just the casual listener so it wouldn’t just be this totally atonal work.

So it wouldn’t turn out like some of Brian Eno or Philip Glass’s less accessible works?

I mean, he (Brian Eno) was one of my main influences and Philip Glass was a big reference point in a sense of having a small motif, out of which he composes giant operas out of these tiny little component parts, which I’ve always found fascinating to me.

Do you plan on releasing anything solely algorithmic?

Eventually, yea, there’s a couple of people I would like to collaborate with, in the visual field too.

I’d like to take a step back and mention something about the accessibility statement you made earlier regarding programming with Max/MSP, Puredata, and even GEM.  If you don’t mind, of course. I somewhat respectfully disagree and find the whole community extremely accessible – maybe it’s more of a lack of knowledge base knowing that those languages are even able?

Yea, totally fine. It’s funny because people still have this boundary in their mind that in order to be a programmer you have to be a certain class of person. And one of my main interests jumping into this was to convince myself that it was something that is more accessible than just for mathematically minded. The overall idea is to eventually create something novel that people that do not necessarily have a music background can actually create music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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