Hynagogic State: James Ferraro and Southern California
director's cut, Frieze, 2011
by Simon Reynolds
I'm sitting on the Astroturf lawn of the Grove, a "retroscape" mall in Los Angeles, listening to Eighties covers band The Copycats deliver immaculate counterfeits of bygone MTV hits. A 19th Century trolley car clanks by, passing the Art Deco picture palace frontage that masks the state-of-art multiplex movie theater. It then heads towards to Farmer's Market, a vintage food court with clapboard stalls, hand-painted signs and an original 1941 Clock Tower. Wandering over to the ornamental pond with its animated fountain swishing and swiveling in balletic formation, I watch the out-sized fish, so shiny they resemble mini-submarines made of porcelain. As the Copycats launch into a slick version of "Billie Jean", I suddenly think: "this is like living inside a hypnagogic pop song."
Coined by The Wire's David Keenan, "hypnagogic pop" is a term for a new generation of American lo-fi musicians who channel the 1980s sounds of mainstream radio rock, New Wave MTV pop, the peppy synth-driven O/S/T's of Hollywood blockbusters, and sedative New Age. Released as limited-edition cassette and vinyl but reaching a larger audience through YouTube videos and blog- shares, hypnagogic pop shimmers with motifs and textures that flashback to the slick, expensively produced hits of artists like Hall & Oates, Alan Parsons Project, and Mirage-era Fleetwood Mac. The musical and conceptual pioneers of this movement, Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, are both based in LA, as are other rising figures like Sun Araw, LA Vampires, and Puro Instinct. Ferraro's frequent collaborator Spencer Clark lives in another sun-baked Southern California sprawl town, San Diego. Other key hypnagogues like Matrix Metals and Rangers reside elsewhere but seem somehow SoCal in spirit.
Hypnagogic is the term for a state between being awake and falling asleep, associated for some with hallucinations that are hyper-real rather than surreal (as with the classic dreams of R.E.M. deep-sleep ). Life in L.A.--the title of an Ariel Pink song, as it happens--does lend itself to a kind of "wide asleep" trance, as your gaze falls under the sway of the sheer numbing beauty of the landscape and the weather--the way a certain slant of late afternoon light makes lawns glow with an eerie incandescence. Even the less attractive aspects of this town--those strip mall vistas of brand-name blandness that seem so desolate in the non-Sun Belt zones of the United States--get softened by the bright lit blue skies (another Pink song) and by the peculiar mingling of utterly denatured built-up zones with outright wilderness.
LA is a city where the Spectacle (in the Situationist sense) and the Spectacular (in the geological sense: desert, canyons) are freakily entwined. The Hollywood Sign is the cliché version of this merger of entertainmentscape and landscape, motion pictures and the motionless picturesque. But as a recently arrived resident, I've yet to tire of the juxtaposition of, say, an In-and-Out Burger drive-thru against the near-kitsch splendor of the San Gabriel mountains. "Collage reality" is how Spencer Clark describes the effect, adding that his music is a byproduct of living in "a zone that has beaches and mountains and hills as well as skyscrapers... The weather is a big part of it too, you can always be outside. A lot of my music I see as landscape music."
Hypnagogic is a 21st Century update of psychedelia. Like its Sixties antecedent, it comes from, or looks to, the West Coast, but its primary focus is Los Angeles rather than San Francisco.
Sixties anti-urbanism (the dream of fleeing neon for unspoiled Nature) has been supplanted by an ambiguous exaltation of suburbia. Hypnagogic retains the original psychedelia's fixation on childhood but in a kind of feedback loop this lost innocence has been contaminated by pop culture: MTV one-hit-wonders and Eighties kids cartoons replace the Winnie Pooh and Alice In Wonderland references of Jefferson Airplane.
The scrambling of pop time is a culture-wide phenomenon in the West, but it feels unusually strong in L.A., where pop radio is dominated by old music: classic rock, Eighties New Wave formats, eclectic stations like Jack FM that mimic the iPod shuffle (but one owned by a fortysomething-or-older who gave up on music around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself). Driving across the city, flicking between stations (and effectively between pop periods), there's a visual analogue to what you hear in the endless interplay of different eras of commercial signage and shop front décor. In no other city have I had such an overwhelming sense of the erosion of a cultural time-code, that pulse that once synchronised the sectors of the contemporary scene (fashion, design, music, etc) and constructed a sense of epoch.
Last year James Ferraro posted a YouTube video to promote his albums Wild World and Feed Me, but which also served as preview of a full length movie he's making. "A sneak peak at Hell's hottest cable TV show", the excerpt concatenated low-budget horror sequences (Ferraro as decomposing corpse, TV dinners that come alive) with archival snippets of an animatronic-looking President Reagan and hand-held footage of Hollywood street scenes: leather-booted vamps from the Valley, businesses like Happy Nails and L.A. Tanning, gossip mags with "plastic surgery shockers" stories on the cover. In an email communiqué, Ferraro told me of future projects that would further extend his activities beyond the sonic. The most striking is a "live webcam water birth viewable online with interactive chat functions". Although the planned location is Times Square, New York, the idea was actually inspired by witnessing "a lady give birth in a Starbuck's at the Grove in Hollywood, surrounded by smart phones and digital cameras. So you see this reality will always be a part of my work."
This reality is hyper-reality. In what may be a deliberately Eighties-retro gesture, Ferraro frequently sounds like he's channeling Baudrillard, talking of wanting to be "Simulacra's paintbrush". Other Eighties totems spring to mind during his patter. Cronenburg, when Ferraro talks of getting burned out on Hollywood, recharging his batteries in more earth-toned, bohemian zones of LA like Eagle Rock, then "jumping back into the movie screen." Jeff Koons, for the overall aesthetic of kitsch sublime running through Ferraro's work and the inscrutable ingenuousness with which Ferraro delivers his lines. For instance, he says he moved to LA to become an action movie star, just like his heroes Van Damme and Stallone.
Less Eighties-bound but still part of this iconic cluster is J.G. Ballard: Ferraro echoes the late novelist when he talks of movie-stars as modern deities embodying qualities that human beings have admired since the dawn of time. High Rise and Kingdom Come spring to mind when you read the sleeve note description of "Headlines (Access Hollywood)" from 2010's Last American Hero. The song is about people who get trapped in Costco (a bulk-buy, budget-price hypermarket) and devolve into a mutant tribe whose children, "born within the settlement", grow up with "no conception of a world beyond".
Not that you can really derive this from the track, a frayed instrumental that resembles the blues if its foundational figure wasn't Robert Johnson but Harold Faltermeyer of "Axel F"/Beverly Hills Cop fame. Elsewhere in Ferraro's most SoCal-themed releases--Wild World, On Air, and the brand-new Nightdolls with Hairspray--he explores a sound that draws on Eighties rock at its most Cheez Whiz artificial: shrill, garish textures like you might at hear at a Guitar Center where some Eddie Van Halen wannabe is trying out too many pedals at once.
Wild World is punctuated by bursts of TV and radio: Michael Jackson protesting about "ugly, malicious information" smearing his name, a report on "wide-awake liposuction", messages left by members of the San Diego-based Heaven's Gate cult shortly before the mass suicide. Like a modern-day Devo, Ferraro never lets on whether he's reviling or reveling in the decadence and grotesquerie. The cover of Last American Hero is a glossy photograph of a Best Buy store, described in the sleevenotes as "the MODERN Gomorrah temple". But in his communiqué Ferraro enthuses about "the primal fantasies and fetishes, hedonistic urges, mouth watering narcissism and dreams manifested into plastic surgery in our digital age Whole Foods candy land".
Shopping malls, celebutainment, cosmetic surgery, a consumer culture oriented around bi-polar rhythms of bulimic bingeing and anorexic/aerobic purging: all this really took off in the Eighties. (And was taken to the extreme in California--for Baudrillard, America's vanguard, a sort of hyper-America). Perhaps the secret idea buried inside hypnagogic pop is that the Eighties never ended. That we're still living there, subject to that decade's endless end of History. Killing time as we wait for something (seismic, subaltern) to rupture the dream.